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With players in place, time for Horns to win

Charlie Strong has brought in two highly ranked recruiting classes, and those players will be counted on early and often. AP Photo/Eric Gay

AUSTIN -- As Charlie Strong begins his third spring at Texas, his efforts to rebuild the Longhorns' roster appear to be ahead of schedule.

When 20 freshmen arrive this summer, players Strong signed will make up more than 80 percent of Texas' 85-man scholarship roster for 2016. That ratio is significant.

The roster was in worse shape when Strong took over than most realized.

Remarkably, Texas' current spring roster features only 16 players who'd signed to play for Mack Brown and has just 14 scholarship seniors. No one has garnered All-Big 12 honors thus far.

Meanwhile, the face of the program is Malik Jefferson. The sophomore linebacker was one of 17 freshmen who played right away and gained crucial experience last season. They worked hard, too, to help Strong secure another top-10 recruiting class in February.

"I don't know if you'd say we have a young team anymore," Strong said on Monday, "because you have enough guys that've played a lot of football."

Getting here required a serious transition.

In the midst of a 1-4 start last season, there was a perceived divide between that class of confident freshmen and veteran players who felt the rookies weren't putting in enough work.

That should not be an issue for Texas in 2016. Strong's 57 underclassmen will make up the core of the roster. This is their team now. But can Strong win with them now?

The departed

From the day Strong took over until today, a total of 29 Texas players have left the program.

A dozen have transferred out, though a few did so as graduate transfers. Ten players were dismissed from the program in 2014. The other seven had to hang it up due to injuries. The number would surpass 30, too, if you count four signees who failed to qualify.

This level of attrition could be frowned upon -- you want players to graduate, after all -- but Strong isn't at fault for much with all those exits. As Texas coaches put it in 2014, the habitual rule-breakers caused their own dismissals. And losing starters like David Ash and Josh Cochran to career-ending injuries were tough blows for Strong's rebuilding efforts.

In all, 25 of the 29 departing players had signed to play for Brown. Of those who transferred or were dismissed, few have ended up in better programs or situations. Such transition is natural after a coaching change. For Texas, it was also necessary.

Brown's last 45 recruits

Looking back on Texas' recruiting classes of 2012 and 2013, it's not hard to figure out why Strong has such an underclassmen-heavy team today.

Texas' previous staff signed 45 players over Brown's final two years. Only 12 are still on the team today.

Nearly all of Texas' seniors for 2016 were supposed to come from these two classes, and there should be a lot more of them. Instead, 19 of the 45 ended up leaving the program.

Five of the 45 have become first- or second-team All-Big 12 players. Two have been selected in the NFL draft. It's possible just one (defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway) gets drafted this year.

Coaches like to say if you hit on 50 percent of a class, you did a good job. The success rate of Texas' recruiting from 2012-13, at least when it came to producing future starters, is currently closer to 40 percent.

That's not all Strong inherited, by the way. Brown had also secured a group of early commitments for 2014. Strong ended up retaining only one of those recruits: offensive guard Patrick Vahe, a freshman All-American last season. Four he passed on are currently at Texas Tech, Kansas, North Texas and Sam Houston State, and another has already left Louisiana Tech.

Strong has consistently refused to criticize or blame Brown during Texas' struggles over the last two years. But the dearth of NFL-caliber talent says plenty.

The importance of "your guys"

For context on the progress of Texas' rebuild, consider the Year 3 rosters of three recent turnarounds: Strong's work at Louisville, Nick Saban at Alabama and Art Briles at Baylor.

In 2009, Saban led the Tide to a BCS title win over Texas. By his third year in Tuscaloosa, his signees made up 72 percent of Alabama's 85-man roster. Thirteen of "his guys" were starters in the title game. The best of the bunch -- Julio Jones, Mark Ingram, Rolando McClain, Marcell Dareus -- were young Saban signees.

Briles took on the far more daunting task and got his players, those who fit his system, into the mix quickly. By 2010, he'd brought in 76 percent of his scholarship players and had moved 16 of his signees into the starting lineup.

At Louisville, Strong's third year saw an 11-2 finish and an upset of Florida in the Sugar Bowl. That roster was 78 percent Strong signees. Fifteen of the Sugar Bowl starters were his guys.

Winning 11 games or a national title doesn't seem reasonable for Texas in 2016. However, Strong has signed 42 four-star and 34 ESPN 300 players. Not having "his guys" will no longer suffice if Strong can't vastly improve on his 11-14 record in Austin.

Time to win

The roster certainly isn't the only reason Strong's first two years at Texas haven't been successful. It also won't quiet the hot seat talk entering this season.

"This is a critical year for us. This is our third year. There's a standard here, and we need to meet that standard," Strong said. "The first two years are behind us, but it's time for us to move forward now."

Moving forward means winning. It might not be now or never for these Longhorns, but the dramatic overhaul needs to show result to prove Strong's vision.

"I feel like we have the guys in place. We know this spring we still have to build at some positions, but it's all about moving it forward. I feel like now the guys really understand what you're really trying to get accomplished and they understand what the vision is."