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Notre Dame Football 2015 Off-Season Preview: Texas Longhorns

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Read about the progress Texas has made in the second year of Charlie Strong.

Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

TEXAS LONGHORNS

2014 Record: 6-7

F/+ Rank: 53

Wins: North Texas, Kansas, Iowa State, Texas Tech, West Virginia, Oklahoma State

Losses: BYU, UCLA, Baylor, Oklahoma, Kansas State, TCU, Arkansas

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Season Recap

Charlie Strong spent his first season in Austin completely cleaning house and rebuilding from top to bottom. A horrid offensive performance from North Texas (3 completions, 94 total yards) led to an easy season opening victory but was followed up by an embarrassing loss to BYU for the second year in a row. After an injury to Brett Hundley, a win over UCLA teased the Longhorn faithful, but it was not meant to be. A slow suffocation of Kansas got Texas back to 2-2 heading into October.

The Baylor offense was MIA but the Bears still won comfortably against Texas--followed up by a Red River Shootout loss to drop to 2-4. Texas showed some life though winning 4 of 5 beginning with a late field goal win over Iowa State. A shutout loss on the road at K-State preceded comfy wins over Texas Tech, West Virginia, and Oklahoma State.

The Horns were drilled in the regular season finale by TCU, still qualified for a bowl game at 6-6, and only mustered 59 total yards in a 31-7 loss to Arkansas.

Series: 8-2-0 Notre Dame

It's been 19 years since the second of the two-game 1995-96 home-and-home wrapped up the last meeting between the schools. Those are the only matchups since a trio of Cotton Bowls pitted ND and Texas against each other from 1969 to 1977.

The trips to Austin in 1913 and 1915 that began the series were among the first handful of games that buoyed Notre Dame's confidence to play a national schedule. The last 7 meetings between the Irish and Horns have featured each team ranked in the AP Poll. Unless something drastic happens it's doubtful Texas opens the season ranked for 2015.

Coach Resume: Charlie Strong (6-7, 2nd Year, 43-23 Overall)

Strong enters only his sixth season as a head coach and wasn't able to keep the momentum going after a sensational two-year run (23-3) that finished his time at Louisville.

It'll be interesting to see Strong's rebuilding effort at Texas unfold and how much patience there will be among the Longhorn faithful. His resume is very top heavy with those 2012-13 seasons in Louisville but his experience as an assistant coach is as deep and diverse as anyone in the country. The 10 Cardinal players recently taken in the NFL Draft has Texas fans pretty excited about Strong's eye for talent.

Returning Starters: 11 Total (6 Offense, 5 Defense)

With a whole slew of suspensions, dismissals, retirements, and injuries there is a major roster overhaul currently underway in Austin.

Linemen Situation: Decent

A bunch of veterans are back from an offensive line that gave up 28 sacks (t-71st nationally) and struggled running the ball at 3.77 YPC (93rd nationally). Left tackle Marcus Hitchins, left guard Sedrick Flowers, and center Taylor Doyle are all 5th-year seniors coming back as the primary starters. Junior right guard Kent Perkins holds down the other guard spot after making every start last year--including three at right tackle.

The right edge is the big question mark after 5 different players made at least one start there last year. Redshirt junior Camrhon Hughes made 5 starts last year but fell out of favor this spring, while the highly touted redshirt sophomore Darius James (2 starts) is currently away from the team rehabbing a knee injury and focusing on academics. After spring true freshman early enrollee Connor Williams was working with the first team with JUCO transfer Tristan Nickelson working as the backup.

DT Malcom Brown (consensus All-American, 13 TFL, 6.5 sacks, 32nd overall pick to the Patriots) and DE Cedric Reed (second team All-Big 12, 9 TFL, 5.5 sacks) are big losses on the defensive line but several other contributors return.

Redshirt sophomore Naashon Hughes (7 starts, 3.5 TFL), senior Shiro Davis (4 starts, 3.5 sacks), and redshirt junior Caleb Bluiett (2 starts, 6.5 TFL) add some experience off the edge. Bluiett is recovering from ACL surgery in January and may not be ready for the Notre Dame game. Big things are expected from redshirt freshman Derick Roberson but he missed spring with a shoulder injury.

Redshirt junior Hassan Ridgeway (10 starts, 9.5 TFL) returns at tackle, as does 5th-year senior Desmond Jackson (16 career starts) who is rehabilitating from a lisfranc injury suffered early in 2014. Redshirt junior Paul Boyette (3.5 TFL) adds depth and so will sophomore Poona Ford who is expected to excel this fall.

Returning Quarterback: Yes

Redshirt junior David Ash started 12 games back in 2012 but a concussion cut short his 2013 campaign after 3 games. Last season, another concussion forced his retirement after just one game.

Rising junior Tyrone Swoopes would go on to start the final 12 games of the season for the Longhorns.

Biggest Problem for 2015: Quarterback Play

This has been the big off-season topic for the Horns as Tyrone Swoopes comes off a lackluster sophomore campaign. He's big (6-4, 243) with decent athleticism for his size and a strong arm. However, Swoopes struggled with accuracy (58.3%), threw only 13 touchdowns to 11 interceptions, and his 6.3 yards per attempt was second-to-last in the Big 12 among quarterbacks who averaged at least 15 attempts per game.

In a wide open offensive league finishing last among Big 12 teams with 199.9 passing yards per game is not good.

Rising redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard (6-1, 199) was a highly decorated recruit out of Guyer High School where he won 2 state titles as an upperclassman in addition to totaling 11,461 yards and 134 touchdowns over his final 3 seasons. What's more, Heard rushed for 4,299 yards and 62 scores on the ground over his last two seasons--offering a significant boost for Texas as a runner.

Heard and Swoopes battled during the spring with the latter incumbent starter still holding a slight edge. Most expect Swoopes to start against Notre Dame with Heard likely to see some action and possibly take over the starting role at some point in 2015.

Biggest Strength for 2015: Defensive Line

The Horns eschew a Sam linebacker most of the time and typically run their defense from a 4-2-5 which is more suited to the style of play in the Big 12. They are returning 3 starters in the secondary but lose a couple quality veterans (corner Quandre Diggs was drafted 200th overall to the Lions & safety Mykkele Thompson was drafted 144th overall to the Giants), plus 5th year senior corner Sheroid Evans will miss his second straight season following knee surgery.

True, the losses of Malcolm Brown and Cedric Reed hurt up front, however, those are the only two major losses and a roster full of depth and promise returns for 2015. Additionally, defensive line coach Brick Haley is one of the best in the business and should have this unit playing well in fall.

Offensive Scheme: Multiple Spread

Texas runs a whole variety of stuff under the control of Shawn Watson and Joe Wickline including Pistol, two-back sets, under center working often with play-action, two tight end sets, option read, and spreading teams out with four receiver sets.

Strong initially began implementing more pro-style schemes but once transfer hopeful Max Wittek wasn't able to graduate on time from USC and David Ash was lost for the season the staff has been leaning back towards more spread concepts with mobile quarterbacks.

4 Players to Remember

RB Johnathan Gray, Sr.- Former 5-star and Composite No. 1 running back in the 2012 class. Solid career so far with 2,118 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns at 4.65 yards per carry. Ascends to the starting position in 2015.

WR Marcus Johnson, Sr.- The only receiver returning with at least 20 catches last fall--he made 27 with 1 touchdown.

LB Malik Jefferson, Fr.- The Texas Jaylon Smith. A 5-star early enrollee who ran a 4.39 in the 40 at The Opening while weighing 225 pounds. Possible day one starter.

S Dylan Haines, RS Jr.- Former walk-on who earned a scholarship prior to the '14 season. Started the last 12 games for the Horns. Finished 3rd on the team in tackles (74) and broke up 6 passes and intercepted 4 passes.

Special Teams: 2/4

Placekicker Nick Rose and his hair will be back for their senior season in 2015. He made 14 of his 21 field goal attempts with 44 of 61 kickoff attempts resulting in touchback. Both William Russ and Michael Davidson held punter duties last year and will need to be replaced.

Jaxon Shipley returned 20 punts last fall and has graduated. Seven different players returned kickoffs last year and all of those athletes return to Austin.

Uniforms: 9/10

swoopes

John Reiger, USA Today Sports

Nowadays everyone and their mother has adopted the all-white uniform, aka the whiteout, aka the stormtrooper. But in most ways no one does it quite like Texas. This will be a Top 10, possibly even a Top 5, uniform matchup and just like the last time Texas visited South Bend it will look easy on the eyes.

What's To Like About the Matchup?

Texas is in the middle of a rebuilding phase. They have a quarterback controversy brewing. Their top two wideouts and top running back are gone. The offensive line has been noted as soft and overrated. The top two linebackers--and overall tackle leaders--have moved on which includes 84th overall Eagles pick Jordan Hicks. The Horns haven't beaten a team on the road that was ranked at kickoff since defeating Nebraska 20-13 in 2010.

What's Not To Like About the Matchup?

First power conference opener in 5 years. Pound for pound maybe the most difficult opener in close to a decade. Texas has the talent. Strong could engineer a quicker-than-believed turn around. The Horns have all off-season to prepare. There's more pressure on Notre Dame to win at home and under the lights. Heard could be a wildcard and will be difficult to prepare for without film.

Opponent Power Ranking Based on Irish Schedule: 4th Toughest

The latest line for this game has Notre Dame favored by 12.5 points.

Since Brian Kelly took over in 2010 the Irish have won a game by that many points against a power conference opponent 15 times out of 50 attempts, or 30% of the time. At home, Notre Dame has won by 13 or more points against a P5 team only 4 times out of 23 tries: Utah 2010, Michigan State 2011, Wake Forest 2012, and Michigan 2014.

Smart money bet is to take Texas to cover.

I tend to think this game will be tougher than most and putting as the 4th toughest is no joke. Texas was actually pretty decent on defense last year. They gave up 41 to BYU, 31 to OU, 45 against Iowa State, 48 to TCU, and 31 to Arkansas. That's not good but in their other 7 games they only surrendered 16.2 points per game. Plus, they were 8th nationally giving up only 4.68 yards per play and ranked 21st in FEI defense and 20th in S&P defense.

What's clear was that the offense wasn't giving the defense any help.

Texas' 21.4 points per game was second worst in the conference only to the Chuck Weis Experiment in Lawrence. The Horns 4.92 yards per play was 110th in the country and FEI offense finished at 108th, although the S&P was more kind at 65th.

Replacing 6 starters on defense won't be easy but it could be off-set by another year in Strong's system. Even with a step back on defense this offense just has to improve. There's nowhere to go but up for Texas' standards.

Notre Dame has a top-heavy schedule and to me it's either Texas or Stanford as the 4th toughest opponent. Most say playing Texas later in the season would be less ideal as the Horns likely improve in year two under Strong. Yet, I really think their ceiling is higher than the Cardinal who lost more on defense, and the Horns quarterback situation scares me a little more for a one game situation whereas we know what we're getting with Kevin Hogan.