Charlie Strong marched into Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana, a year ago with high expectations. He took Texas to a bowl game in his first season as head coach, and Longhorn nation anticipated an upward trend in year two.
But the fans didn’t get what they wanted. The Fighting Irish clobbered Texas in the season opener, winning by five touchdowns, 38-3.
Strong’s team finished the season 5–7, missing a bowl game and putting more pressure on the third-year head coach to produce results in 2016. He said this year’s matchup with the No. 10 Fighting Irish will be just as challenging.
“They beat us pretty handily up there in South Bend last season,” Strong said. “Defensively, their front four … [will] probably be the most physical front four that we’ll face all season long.”
Texas totaled 60 yards on 29 carries against last year’s Notre Dame front four. The Longhorn passing game accounted for just 103 yards on 23 attempts. Strong said this year’s team is on another level.
“We’re not that team anymore, that’s not us,” Strong said. “We’re a totally different team than we were last season. I feel like that we’ve taken those steps to become a better football team.”
Strong said the team’s overall attitude has changed for the better. He doesn’t have to pressure players to get through their workouts anymore — they do it on their own. On top of that, Strong said his team is bigger and faster.
Two players that embody those characteristics are the top two running backs on the depth chart, junior D’Onta Foreman and sophomore Chris Warren. Foreman checks in at 249 pounds and Warren weighs in 252.
The two combined for nine yards on six carries against Notre Dame last season. But both Foreman and Warren broke out later in the year and finished with averages of 7.17 and 6.82 yards per carry, respectively.
“I feel like we started going in a good direction last season, but this season I really feel like we’re going to have some power running the ball,” Foreman said. “And I feel like with the change of pace and the backs that we have, we’ll be able to be really effective running the ball.”
Offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert will lean heavily on the two backs with his starting quarterback yet to be named. Still, he said both senior Tyrone Swoopes and freshman Shane Buechele have come a long way in the new offense and are capable of performing well Sunday night.
Either quarterback will have a variety of weapons on the receiving end. Strong said sophomore receiver John Burt has impressed as a deep threat, while redshirt sophomore receiver Jerrod Heard and freshman receiver Donovan Duvernay have made strides with their intermediate routes.
“We got some guys that can run, we got some guys that can spread the field vertically,” Gilbert said. “You can’t forget about those backs as well. We’ve got some guys you can spread the wealth around.”
The pieces are in place, but Strong needs them to come together to avoid losing to Notre Dame in back-to-back season openers. His offensive coordinator thinks Texas will be just fine at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium on Sunday night at 6:30 p.m.
“We’ll roll out there with our guys and prepare an excited football team that will be very motivated,” Gilbert said. “From the sideline, we’ll just call it, and they’ll ball it.”