The last two seasons have not been pretty for the Texas Longhorns, but there is a sense in Austin that things are beginning to turn before the start of Charlie Strong’s third season.
“The message is just to believe,” Strong told NBC 5's Pat Doney Friday in Dallas. “Believe in yourself and believe in your teammates. It’s all about hard work at the end of the day and being consistent, and I love the way our attitude is right now.”
The attitude is partially based on Strong now having a roster filled with players who want to be there. His first two seasons, players were leaving UT almost daily, unwilling to deliver on the high standards Strong requires of his players.
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“Even with the guys that are seniors-to-be, they’ve really bought in as well, because they want to go in the right way,” Strong said.
One of the players trying to make sure that happens is junior linebacker Malik Jefferson (Mesquite Poteet High School), who is on The Butkus Award preseason watch list.
“I know expectations are going to be high for him,” Strong said. “There is not a magazine out there that hasn’t put him on first-team, second-team, or whatever it may be in the preseason. But I need his leadership and I need him to play at the level he can play at to get everyone else to take a step up also and come play with him.”
On the other side of the ball, much discussion is about the quarterback position, where true freshman Shane Beuchele (Arlington Lamar High School) is the favorite to win the starting job. That decision will be a crucial one for Texas this season. But I wanted to speak to Strong about the running game. Texas hasn’t had a 1,000-yard rusher the last eight seasons. That could change this year, with Longhorns’ new offensive coordinator, Sterlin Gilbert, runs a spread offense that focuses on the ground game (591 rushing attempts to 492 pass attempts), and two big returners at tailback.
“Any time you look at your running game, you want to be physical,” Strong said. “That sets the tone for the whole game. You look at Chris Warren and what he’s done (470 yards rushing, 4 TDs in ’15), D’Onta Foreman and what he’s done (681 yards rushing, 5 TDs in ’15), you have two big backs who played a lot last year. You’d love for those two guys to continue on the pace they’re at. But they also need to get better.”
And Strong will need them and the rest of the Longhorns to be better right away. Texas does not have a chance to warm-up against lesser competition, instead opening the season at home against Notre Dame on Sept. 4.
“You love it, just because it’s Notre Dame,” Strong said. “Last year, we went up there and didn’t play well at all. Now we get them at home. They’re coming to Austin. And I expect our team to play a lot better than they played last season. You want that matchup. People are always talking about, why start with Notre Dame? Because that’s what you come to the University of Texas for, to go out and play those types of games.”