Texas' offensive shakeup will be Charlie Strong's most important move

Longhorns change play-calling duties following lopsided loss

ESPN Big 12 Reporter Max Olson explains why Texas changed its offensive play calling so quickly.

AUSTIN, Texas -- Charlie Strong and Joe Wickline came into this profession together as Florida grad assistants more than 30 years ago. Strong's finest moments and biggest wins as a head coach all happened with Shawn Watson running his offense.

When he took over at Texas last year, Strong convinced Watson and Wickline to come help him face his greatest challenge yet. He picked two men he trusts as coaches and as friends. He picked loyalty.

So there was nothing easy about what Strong had to do Tuesday. After 14 games together and several rough days of deliberating, Strong reached the difficult conclusion that demoting co-offensive coordinators Watson and Wickline was necessary to get Texas back on track.

"It's always tough because you have to set aside your friendship," Strong said. "You have to do what's best for the program and what's best for the university."

Strong's decision Tuesday to move on from the Watson-Wickline offense and put receivers coach Jay Norvell in charge of calling plays was his most important decision yet as Texas' head coach. He's hoping he has found the turning point for this rebuild.

The timing is poor. The risk is substantial. But at least Strong knows what he's doing, because he has done this before.

In 2011, he faced nearly the same dilemma. Louisville's offense was nowhere close to meeting his expectations. The Cardinals were 2-2 after losses to FIU and Marshall and scoring 18.7 points per game (105th in FBS). Strong was frustrated by a punchless running game. A quarterback battle had to get resolved, too.

And so, in October 2011, Strong revoked Mike Sanford's play-calling privileges and handed the keys to Watson. Sanford quit a week later. By the end of that month the Cardinals were rolling. The young, Teddy Bridgewater-led squad won five of its last six regular-season games.

And then the program truly took off. Strong went 27-7 at Louisville with Watson as his playcaller. Had Strong not been willing to make that difficult in-season change, he might not be at Texas today.

But here he was Tuesday night, explaining his latest shakeup in a tone both somber and resolute. Strong says he hasn't had a chance to sleep. He looked weary. But he knows he's not wrong.

In Texas' past three games -- blowout losses to TCU, Arkansas and Notre Dame -- this offense was outscored 117-20 and outgained by more than 730 yards. Texas failed to gain positive yards on 47 percent of its plays. No first downs on 65 percent of its drives. Three-and-outs on more than half of them. They ran 165 plays yet spent only one in the red zone.

Those aren't just quarterback problems. Those are systemic issues.

But it's not about the three-game slide, really. For Strong, this came down to the fact Watson and Wickline had eight months to redesign and rebrand their offense as a more up-tempo spread. They had eight months to figure Notre Dame out. After all that time and all of his players' effort, this offense was still going the wrong direction.

"It's about fixing the problem," Strong said. "You either accept the problem or you divorce yourself from it and let it go. I couldn't let it go."

The challenge today is this: When Louisville demoted its offensive coordinator in 2011, the college football world shrugged. When the head coach at Texas changes his playcaller after one game, people start talking hot seat.

FIU and Marshall aren't next up on the schedule. Texas doesn't get to clinch a bowl bid by beating UConn or USF. The competition, the stage and the stakes are totally different. His players recognize that, too.

"We're trying to get the program moving as quickly as possible before any other changes come," Texas receiver Daje Johnson said. "We understand the pressure on the offense and the whole team."

Fair or not, Strong's gamble will evoke comparisons to the panic move his predecessor Mack Brown made two years ago, firing Manny Diaz after a blowout road loss at BYU two games into the season. That was the beginning of the end for Mack.

That doesn't have to be the case for Strong. He has pulled this off before. He got this job by doing things his way, and what went down Tuesday was the way this had to go.

"We have to move this program forward," Strong said. "We can't take a step backward."