Strong's defense-first recipe will test Big 12

August, 26, 2014
Aug 26
11:00
AM ET
AUSTIN, Texas -- We're all a bunch of suckers.

We fell for a powerful form of distraction during the first eight months of Charlie Strong's debut year at Texas: The misdirection.

We got fixated on changes, some real and many inconsequential: Strong's media savvy, his muscles, the throwing of horns, the bus ban, the deposed smoothie bar, the gadgets, the breakfast club, the Moncrief four, the helmet decals, the roped-off logo, the dorms. You know, the low-hanging fruit.

Reporters, fans, critics, everybody. We fell for it because it was easy, and because Texas hadn't seen this kind of different in 16 years. And in the process, during this excruciatingly long offseason, it seems we overlooked a question that matters now: How will this Longhorn team line up and play? What's the mission and identity on offense and defense?

[+] EnlargeCharlie Strong
Erich Schlegel/Getty ImagesCharlie Strong wants to build Texas into a winner based on on old-school beliefs about running the ball, defense and power.
Basically, we took our eye off the ball.

What seems clear, upon some deeper digging, is Strong intends to bring his own style of ball to the Big 12, one with a complementary vision for both sides of the ball. And no, this has nothing to do with the offseason buzzwords like "toughness."

This is about the chess match that's about to begin, the one where we find out if what Strong has planned can change the Big 12, or if the Big 12 will force him to change.

Strong has played coy on this topic. The idea that he might have the element of surprise on his side seems, at least to him, dubious.

"Football is football. It's still about fundamentals and technique and that's what it comes down to," Strong said. "Everyone thinks it's about scheme. When you have players, scheme looks really good. It doesn't matter. If our kids go out and do what we ask them to do, you always have a chance."

What Texas players will be asked to do could resemble what Stanford, Alabama, Michigan State, LSU and even Big 12 foe Kansas State have come to master. Those programs are winning on old-school beliefs about running the ball, defense and power.

Texas players say the offensive philosophy is build on a downhill run game. The tag team of a potentially elite inside runner (Malcolm Brown) and a true all-purpose back (Johnathan Gray) must win the day. Run the ball, run the clock, run the pace. And then quarterback David Ash must capitalize when he sees a stacked box.

"It's very multiple. You probably hear that about our offense a lot, but it's multiple," Ash said. "We're going to do every tempo you can out of a huddle and every tempo you can out of a no-huddle. We're going to try to keep teams off-balance."

Joe Wickline coordinates the run game. Shawn Watson oversees the passing. They'll share the playcalling duties in some fashion, with Watson having final say. And recent history says this offense, for all of its fast-paced ideals, should fall in lockstep with Strong's defensive vision.

Louisville's offense wasn't just No. 2 in time of possession nationally last year. The Cards had 17 scoring drives extend 5-plus minutes (second-most in FBS only to K-State) and 21 exceed 10-plus plays. This was, on average, a two-plays-per-minute offense, one of the comparatively slowest in the country, and it won 12 games.

Watson's offense kept Strong's defense off the field. The Louisville D played 779 snaps in 2013. Texas' defense played the same number of games and finished at 966. The rest of the Big 12 averaged 937.

When you're playing 200 fewer snaps on defense, you get fresh and physical players. You get to attack. And Strong has never been afraid to do that. Defensive coordinator Vance Bedford recalls one game at Florida when Strong called six straight zero blitzes, rushing everyone who wasn't locked in one-on-one coverage.

"It worked six straight times," Bedford said proudly.

Bedford has been studying Big 12 film since the day he took the job. He knows the rest of the conference has been watching Louisville and Florida film.

"People are gonna know what we're gonna do," Bedford said. "Coach Strong came back from a Big 12 Conference thing (this summer) and they said, ‘What you guys did at Louisville, you can't do that here.' They're exactly right. I totally agree with what they're saying."

And then Bedford grinned and kept going, each line more facetious than the last.

"So what we're going to do: We're going to rush three, drop eight. Rush two, drop nine. Sit back, keep the inside in front and we'll have a chance. We're not going to pressure anybody, anytime, anywhere. We're just going to slow ‘em down.

"I'm not full of it. I'm telling the truth. Listen to me, all of you out there," he said, turning his gaze to a bank of TV cameras. "We're going to play it safe. No pressure. We don't want any quarterbacks hurt."

And while that last sentiment rings especially true of Texas, Bedford is merely offering a friendly warning. He knows that in Malcom Brown, Cedric Reed, Quandre Diggs, Jordan Hicks and several others, he and Strong have the weapons they need to pair with an offense that understands its duty.

While we were obsessed with everything else this offseason, Strong and his staff were quietly busy preparing a plan and a roster for what promises to be a fascinating four-month battle. Against North Texas on Saturday, finally, Texas gets to line up and play.

Max Olson | email

Big 12 reporter

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