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Texas Football 2016 Offense Off-Season Preview: Horns Need Progress Now

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Texas opens with Notre Dame again this year and they'll be looking for a better effort and outcome compared to last year's debacle in South Bend.

Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

The Texas offense was varying degrees of a mess before Charlie Strong took over the program back in 2014. As he heads into this 3rd season leading the Longhorns things still look underwhelming for Strong and a bunch of new assistant coaches.

Starters Returning: 7/11

Key Losses: RB Johnathan Gray, WR Daje Johnson, WR Marcus Johnson, LG Sedrick Flowers, C Taylor Doyle,

Key Returnees: QB Tyrone Swoopes, QB Jerrod Heard, D'Onta Foreman, RB Chris Warren, WR John Burt, WR Armanti Foreman, TE Andrew Beck, LT Connor Williams, RG Patrick Vahe, RT Kent Perkins

FEI Offense Rank: 110th

S&P Offense Rank: 75th

S&P Rush Rank: 37th

S&P Pass Rank: 114th

PPG: 26.4

Turnovers: 14 (6 interceptions)

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Sterlin Swoop(e)s Into Austin

Strong's initial coaching staff in Austin featured Shawn Watson coming with him from his time at Louisville as well as bringing in Joe Wickline from Oklahoma State. Watson shared the OC duties with Wickline while the latter also coached the offensive line.

That initial 2014 season was a mess and into 2015 neither coach made it past the opener at Notre Dame. Both were demoted as receivers coach Jay Norvell (poached from Oklahoma after 2014) took over the play-calling. That didn't work, either.

Even while being surrounded by generous defenses in the Big 12 the Horns were held under 10 points in 4 games and reached a low point in a shutout at Iowa State. The passing game, utterly weak and ineffective, only managed 9 touchdowns all season long. Shortly after the New Year began Norvell got out of dodge and took a job with Arizona State. Both Watson (Indiana) and Wickline (West Virginia) were also let go.

New offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert has rode into town promising things will be different this year. "No, really this time!" Charlie Strong (possibly) exclaimed when Texas fans looked over their glasses at him like Whoopi Goldberg.

Gilbert is a disciple of the Art Briles offensive tree via a few years in Texas high school football and especially under the tutelage of Dino Babers where Gilbert was the OC at Eastern Illinois (2012-13) and Bowling Green (2014). Yes, this means two teams on the Irish schedule will be *trying* to implement the Baylor-style offense in year one as Babers is the new head coach at Syracuse.

Gilbert was the successful OC at Tulsa last year, and in addition to bringing O-line coach Matt Mattox with him, he's promised a completely clean slate for everyone on the Texas roster.

Jerrod vs. Tyrone Part II

Gilbert has refused to look at any tape of Texas which likely gives the towering, senior Tyrone Swoopes a leg up in the quarterback competition this spring. Swoopes played a lot of football last year but was benched after the Notre Dame game giving way to (then) rising redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard.

Neither has proven to be an effective passer. Swoopes--the tight end masquerading as a quarterback--protected the ball well (1 INT on 93 attempts) but that reluctance is part of the problem as he carried an abysmal 5.8 yards per attempt to go with an atrocious 50.5% completion percentage. Heard was much more explosive (7.6 YPA) but his accuracy at 57.9% needs work as does his 5 TD/5 INT ratio.

Both are good runners. Swoopes' lumbering athleticism gave Texas 12 touchdowns and a very healthy 451 yards on just 74 carries. Heard is faster and more elusive but his 556 yards came on 139 carries and he's had problems staying healthy on a much smaller (6-2, 195) frame.

Fall camp should sort this competition out as it looks like Swoopes is option 1A for now and Heard 1B, especially after the latter injured his throwing shoulder on March 29th and is sitting out the rest of spring practice.

A couple of redshirt freshmen don't appear to be the answer as early enrollee freshman Shane Buechele has jumped both Kai Locksley (may be moved to receiver) and Matthew Merrick (out for spring with a back injury). There's some excitement that Buechele could win the job in the fall after taking significant reps this spring but I'll believe that when I see it.

It's normal to feel that a new recruit can come save the offense but starting a reasonably athletic 6-1, 191 pound true freshman at night against Notre Dame would be quite shocking.

You Shall Not Pass

It's difficult for Texas fans to get excited about the offense with such poor throwing abilities from their quarterbacks. It also doesn't help that their rebuild on the offensive line is still ongoing and is likely to feature two true sophomores (Williams & Vahe) with a true freshman Zach Shackelford on track to start at center.

Technically, the Horns lose 10-game starter and former 5-star Johnathan Gray at running back but he was largely ineffective as a senior. Gray mustered just 3.98 yards per carry and only one game of at least 100 yards before relinquishing the starting job late in the season.

Notre Dame can expect to see heavy doses of junior D'Onta Foreman and sophomore Chris Warren in the backfield. Gilbert plans on increasing the tempo with his play-calling and all indications are that the game plan will be revolving around the running attack led by these two tailbacks and whichever quarterback wins the job.

D'Onta Foreman

Foreman rumbles against the Mountaineers last year.

Both running backs are big and showed a lot of promise last year. Foreman, standing 6-0 and 241 pounds, really came on strong with 7.17 yards per carry on the season and 304 rushing yards in his last 2 games before missing the final 2 contests with an injury. Warren is an absurd 6-2 and 255 pounds and is coming off 6.62 yards per carry as a true freshman.

Neither Foreman or Warren did much against Notre Dame last year combining for 9 yards on 6 carries but don't expect that same performance in 2015.

Outlook

Best-case scenario for the Horns is that Gilbert works immediate wonders, the run game remains strong or better, one quarterback grabs the reigns, and Texas can throw the ball with average productivity.

Worst-case scenario the offense has a hard time picking up the new offense, the quarterback competition turns ugly, and there's little to no improvement from last year.

I'm not sure there's a ton of hope for Texas' offense in 2016. Many people like to bring up their track record on the offensive line--no 1st round NFL draft picks since 2003 and no selections overall since 2009--and right now they still have much work to do up front. There are only 3 players on the line who with .900+ Composite recruiting scores, for example. For a program like Texas that's horribly underachieving and forces quick coaching and developing on young players.

That line also gave up 32 sacks last year, although some of that can be blamed on poor quarterback decision making. Overall, Texas has some nice pieces in certain spots on offense but they are still so unproven on the line and at quarterback. They have a lot of room for improvement yet without several pieces coming together a below-average ceiling looks most likely.