Charlie Strong insists this year is going to be different.
Heading into his third season as the Longhorns head coach, Strong understands the skepticism surrounding the newest iteration of Texas football. But he says the upcoming season won’t be more of the same on the 40 Acres. Rather, 2016 will be a turning point for a program that has faltered in recent years.
“We know what the expectations are and what the standard is, and we haven’t lived up to it,” Strong said. “But I’m so excited knowing what we have right now. Our players have really done a great job showing what it’s all about to take ownership of the program.”
The doubts surrounding Texas aren’t without reason. Despite a successful 2016 recruiting cycle that saw the Longhorns finish No. 7 in the 247Sports composite, the results on the field have been far from anything resembling a top-10 roster.
Strong is just 11–14 in two seasons at Texas, with a fair share of embarrassing losses to his name. There are the upset wins over Oklahoma and Baylor, but also blowouts at the hands of TCU, Notre Dame and a 3-9 Iowa State squad.
Despite the struggles that have plagued the Longhorns since 2014, the burnt orange enter 2016 with a bevy of confidence. Four seniors attended Big 12 Media Days on July 19, and all echoed the same sentiment: Big things are coming to Austin in what many deem a make-or-break year for Strong.
Much of the optimism stems from a change in the team’s culture. As Texas assembled two recruiting classes following the departure of former head coach Mack Brown, the roster is now shaped by Strong’s vision, not that of his predecessor.
“The first year [Strong] came in, a lot of guys only knew life under Mack Brown,” senior safety Dylan Haines said. “A lot of guys didn’t buy what he was bringing to the program yet. It’s just kind of been a process of believing in what he’s doing and the system he’s bringing.”
The program’s transformation has taken longer than many had hoped. Strong’s entrance into the program signaled a changing of the guard for the Longhorns, leaving Brown's laid-back style behind.
However, that was not without consequence. Ten players were dismissed from the program in 2014 after Strong took over, while an additional 12 transferred. And while Strong praised Texas’ revamped culture, a lack of talent resulted in back-to-back middling seasons.
But the cupboards are now restocked. Strong has proved to be an adept recruiter, reshaping the roster with two high-quality classes . Of the 22 projected starters heading into Texas’ opening night matchup with Notre Dame, 14 are underclassmen.
“I look at the last two years of what we’ve done in our recruiting and really you look at Malik [Jefferson], [John] Bonney, Connor Williams, you look at three All-Americans last season and our two freshmen corners, we had a lot of freshmen play last year,” Strong said. “Our team is coming together ... and guys are beginning to believe in one another.”
Texas’ offseason bravado has been heard before, with previous claims of a righted-ship going unfounded throughout the season. But the Longhorns don’t seem worried. This year, they claim, is different.
“We’re coming to that turning point,” Haines said. “We understand that what coach Strong is doing is putting us in the best place to succeed. That hasn’t been reflected in the wins and losses, but it’s coming.”