Texas Longhorns

As questions swirl about him, Charlie Strong takes over Texas defense

Texas head coach Charlie Strong walks along the sideline during an NCAA college football game against Oklahoma State in Stillwater, Okla., Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016. Oklahoma State won 49-31. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

During his weekly news conference carried live on the Longhorn Network, Texas coach Charlie Strong was answering one of the dozens of questions about his defenseless team. In describing what he tells is secondary, Strong explained tackling angles this way:

“If he’s even, he’s leavin’.”

Strong needs to be better than .500 or he’s likely leaving at the end of the season. He officially announced and confirmed Sunday night’s reports that he was taking over responsibilities as defensive coordinator, with Vance Bedford moving to work with the secondary along with current secondary coach Clay Jennings. (Apply the “deck chairs-Titanic” analogies if you wish.)

“The way we’ve played on defense is unacceptable,” said Strong, who was defensive coordinator at Florida for two national championship teams.

“We’re not tackling well and we’re not getting any turnovers. It’s not making a big change in scheme, sometimes they need to hear a different voice. They hear my voice in front of the team, but maybe the defense can get a shot of energy from my voice.”

Texas is playing Oklahoma in Dallas Saturday. Red River Rivalry. Big deal. Huge win for Strong last season. During his 35 minutes of taking questions, Strong was energized and animated, but the status of his defense, assistants and his future dominated the line of questioning.

A high-ranking Texas official said Sunday night that Strong is “very close” to losing his job at the end of the season. One national writer points out that this “leak” is meant to send a signal to Houston coach Tom Herman to not make any rash job decisions.

Strong’s message to his players about the off-field job security talk: “We’re 2-2 it’s like with anything else, we’ve got eight games left. Let me handle everything else. Doesn’t matter to me anymore. We’re in a similar position. You guys handle the business on the field and we’ll get you coached up.”

For Texas and Strong, the scenario is similar to last season. The Longhorns were 1-4 and taking on the 10th-ranked and undefeated Sooners. To the surprise of many, UT pulled the 24-17 upset.

The Longhorns go into the Red River Rivalry as an underdog for the 10th consecutive season, and Texas is continuing to make the wrong kind of history. Saturday’s 49-31 loss was UT’s first loss in Stillwater since 1997, and Texas has surrendered 45 points or more in three of its first four games for the first time in school history.

Even a coach with a national championship and (for now) unquestioned job security has to answer about his team’s 94th-ranked defense.

For Orangebloods, finally having an offense that fits in the Big 12 is frustrating when the defense is suddenly Sun Belt quality.

Five new players were in the starting lineup for Texas Saturday, because the Longhorns made lineup changes during their bye week. The newcomers’ talent didn’t overcome their inexperience. By one report, Texas missed 21 tackles in the first half. The Cowboys averaged 7.8 yards per play and their six touchdowns (which included a 1-yard run) averaged 30.5 yards.

“Oklahoma State had three third downs on the first drive and we couldn’t get off the field,” Strong said. “Everybody is sitting around waiting for something to happen. They scored on a touchdown pass right before the pass. We had five guys around him … the ball was in the air forever and I’m think we’re gonna intercept.

“We’re pressing so hard. One bad play leads to another bad play. It’s a bunch of young guys but that’s not an excuse. When you’re dealing with young players, they’re afraid to make mistakes.”

Strong and his players believe the Longhorns are as talented as any team in the country. The coach’s message was Monday that there are eight games remaining and “we can still make some noise.”

“As players we need to take responsibility, tackle, get off the field on third down,” sophomore defensive end linebacker Breckyn Hager said. “I have confidence in coach Strong. He and coach Bedford were always on the same page. I’m excited to see coach Strong’s eyes on this. Very confident, very excited to see what he cooks up. He’s going to emphasize being aggressive and attacking.”

Sophomore linebacker Malik Jefferson, who has yet to become a defensive force, was asked if Longhorns are dangerous when they’re backed up against a wall?

“Yeah … that makes sense,” Jefferson said with a smile. “You’ve got horns, so, you can defend yourself.”

Horns, tackling, schemes, Strong now calling the shots … somehow the Texas defense needs to weaponize itself.

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