Young players to see greater role in conference play

Michael Shapiro

Charlie Strong hasn’t been resistant to change throughout his time in Austin. 

Since taking the reins as the Longhorns’ head coach in 2014, Strong has played three quarterbacks and cycled through three offensive coordinators, constantly searching for the right formula to bring Texas back to national prominence. 

That mindset has invaded No. 22 Texas’ depth chart in 2016. Of the Longhorns’ 22 offensive and defensive starters against California in week three, 12 were underclassmen. 

“Because you’re the University of Texas, you’re going to be able to get good classes,” Strong said. “We’re talented enough now where it’s all about us getting them coached up and putting them in a position where they can be successful.”

Texas’ reliance on youngsters has come mainly from necessity. The Longhorns looked devoid of talent at the beginning of Strong’s tenure, especially on offense. In the final three years of former head coach Mack Brown’s tenure, the burnt orange failed to net even one All-Big 12 First Team selection on offense. 

With three recruiting classes under his belt, Strong has now turned the tide on offense. The Longhorns feature a variety of underclassmen, including their leading receiver and second-leading rusher. 

And don’t forget the quarterback. Freshman Shane Buechele has impressed players and coaches alike through three games, tossing seven touchdowns while throwing for over 700 yards.

But perhaps more impressive than his stats has been the Arlington native’s demeanor. Buechele commands the Longhorn huddle with the poise of a senior, acting well beyond his years as Texas’ signal caller. 

“He’s a great, self-driven leader,” sophomore left tackle Connor Williams said. “He wants to get better every day, he’s always in the facility whenever I’m there.”

While Texas’ offense has found significant success with its underclassmen, the youth movement hasn’t fared as well on the other side of the ball. 

The Longhorns gave up 47 points in week one against Notre Dame and 50 to California in week three. They have consistently been burned by big plays, most notably through the air. 

With Texas struggling to stop opposing offenses, Strong hinted at increased playing time for the team’s freshman during conference play. Young defensive backs will likely see the field more frequently, as Texas’ secondary has struggled to defend the deep ball. 

Freshman defensive back Brandon Jones looks primed to see increased playing time during Big 12 play. The Nacogdoches product is already making a name for himself, blocking punts in both the Longhorns’ 41-7 victory over UTEP and their 50-43 loss to California. 

Jones is a sparkplug for Texas, one with the athleticism and speed to change the game with a single play. He ranked as the nation’s No. 1 safety and No. 40 overall recruit in 2016, according to the 247Sports composite ranking. Aside from wide receiver and Baylor transfer Devin Duvernay, Jones was the top player in Texas’ 2016 recruiting class.

“When [Jones] goes out on field, he’s going to give you 110 percent of whatever he’s got,” senior safety Dylan Haines said. “What we’re looking for is people to go out there and make plays … [Jones] is definitely going to have a spot on this team.”

Texas still has a litany of adjustments to make if it wants to win the conference for the first time since 2009 — Strong said the Big 12 championship is still the team’s goal. 

And the pieces are there in Austin; Strong has the talent at his disposal to win the Big 12. Now it’s a matter of unleashing his young players and letting them make an impact.