Texas Strong. Texas Smart. Yeah, I know I’m like a week and 10,000 comments late, but I had to say it.
After THE LONGEST TEAM MEETING IN THE HISTORY OF EVER on last Thursday night, Shaka Smart decided to leave Virginia Commonwealth to be the Texas Longhorns basketball coach. He comes to Austin on a 7-year deal worth $3 million annually with six years guaranteed and the seventh partially guaranteed. Not sure what, exactly, partially guaranteed means, but no one asked me what I thought. And no one should. Back to that team meeting.
Thursday night it was breaking all over the place that Steve Patterson was in Richmond to meet with Smart and then, as the evening wore on, it was announced that a team meeting was called at VCU. That meeting was supposed to start at 8 pm EST. Only it didn’t start at 8. I think it started at 9. At the earliest. As reporters waited outside and tweeted out non-updates to the Twittersphere, Texas fans waited. Stories came out that he was “in the bag.” Stories came out that he was not leaving. No one knew. One thing was sure in that hour: Shaka Smart was not doing anything before he spoke to every one of his players, personnel and staff in person. While it was a long wait for the Texas fans, it was absolutely the right thing for him to do. Other coaches don’t do that. Some leave notes for the team in their lockers on off-days, and others sneak out the back door at dinner with recruits. There is no rule that says a coach has to talk to his players and team before he leaves; but it’s the right thing to do. You hear coaches that leave in the cover of night say things like, “there was no time” or “it was moving too fast.” Shaka Smart made time and slowed it down because it was the right thing to do. And Steve Patterson understood it was important, too, and gave him the space and time to do so. A classy move by Smart and a great decision by Patterson to let him do so. The result was a disappointed but cordial fan base at VCU that offered nothing but well wishes and thanks to Smart for all he did. Texas got the right guy, both on and off the court.
It was a home run hire for Patterson and one he absolutely needed to nail. Texas targeted only one person for the job, and that was Shaka Smart. It was far from a slam dunk as Smart had turned down Marquette, Maryland and UCLA in recent years, and obviously the success and focus of those programs have a much higher basketball profile than Texas. While Texas was looking into Smart, Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall was reportedly very, very interested in Texas. He led the Shockers to the 2013 Final Four, an undefeated regular season in 2014 and a Sweet 16 berth this season that included a resounding win over Kansas. He didn’t even get an email from Texas. If the Horns had missed on Smart and Marshall moved elsewhere, the press would have been brutal. (It already was in Oregon.) Mack Brown’s departure was messy, and while Patterson got his guy with Charlie Strong, another messy incident would look terrible. Basketball is what Steve Patterson does, and he absolutely nailed it. Whew.
So who is Shaka Smart? He’s a 37-year old (turns 38 on Thursday) Madison, Wisconsin native, an All-Conference point guard at Kenyon College (in Ohio) and the all-time assist leader at both his college and his high school (Oregon High School in Madison). After graduation he jumped right in to the coaching game, getting an assistant job at California University in Pennsylvania. He moved on to Akron, then Clemson and Florida, where he was an assistant coach at the same time Charlie Strong was there. He took the VCU job in 2009. He took VCU to the CBI Championship (that third tier tourney that Texas made two years ago and lost to Houston), going 27-10. He took the Rams to 2 straight Colonial Athletic Championship games. After sliding into the play-in game in 2011, Smart shocked the world and took the Rams to the Final Four. It was pretty amazing, going from a play-in game before the Dance started to getting to the Final Four, beating top seed Kansas to get there. VCU lost to National Runner-Up Butler, but the run to get there was historic. In 2013, Smart became the second youngest active coach to win 100 games in his career. As mentioned earlier, he turned down numerous brand names before deciding to come to Texas. So what was it about Texas?
I can’t answer for someone I don’t know, but I can answer if it were me in his shoes. First things first, it’s a huge pay day. He’s more than doubled his salary and there isn’t any one of us that wouldn’t do the same. Secondly, his staff will be well compensated. A big drawback to the UCLA job is the Bruins are notoriously cheap. Facilities are also a big draw. Texas doesn’t have theirs yet, but Smart will be on the ground floor of creating a brand new house that will cater to fans, players and recruits. And throw in all that Austin and the University of Texas have to offer — the city, the Longhorn Network, 60k on campus, a rabid fan base and media attention — under “facilities” as well. And looking at the product on the court, the state of Texas has a lot of talent, talent that is playing at Kentucky, Kansas, SMU, Duke, etc. No doubt a lot of those guys wanted to leave to see the world, but how many would rather play at a high level and live close enough that it doesn’t require airline tickets for your family to attend games? Lastly, and this might be just me, but the fact that a large chunk of the fan has football fever for ¾ of the year is highly attractive. The daily grind of the media and second-guessing of every second of practice, games and recruiting and all points in between just isn’t as relentless in Austin as it is in a lot of other places. I think he saw a sleeping giant that has the resources to be great, abundant talent, a name brand in the college sports world with a huge marketing/media footprint and the ability to fly under the radar a bit more as he builds his program.
His style of play is similar to Rick Barnes in some ways, ironically enough. Smart calls his defense “Havoc” and it sets everything else up. He wants smothering pressure that will force turnovers and lead to transition baskets. Where he differs significantly from Rick Barnes is that he doesn’t hold them hostage on the offensive end. If a guy is open for a three-pointer, he should take it. Assuming the clock isn’t a factor, it’s unlikely that a Texas player will be penalized (sitting on the bench after getting pulled) for a quick shot by Shaka Smart like they were under Rick Barnes. Like Barnes’ system, there are a lot of ball screens to get shooters open, but players are allowed to take open shots when they are there. He’s a charismatic guy, but ultra-competitive. He’s quick to smile and teach, but he doesn’t seem like a guy that will peel the paint off the walls for every mistake. His players at VCU loved him (at least one was in tears leaving the meeting) and these Texas guys will, too. He’s reached out to the former players, inviting them all back. He doesn’t have 17 years in the state like Rick Barnes did, so he needs to meet everyone and let them see what he’s about and what he can do. It was a smart move … See what I did there? I’ll stop. He’s also already extending scholarship offers, the first coming the morning after he got the job.
This is exactly what Texas needed: a dynamic coach that will guide Texas into a new era of basketball. Welcome to town, Coach. Props to you, Marc — you called this thing WAAAAYYY back.
The problem with practicing so hard is the injuries that can mount up. And they are mounting. Two knee injuries (Sheroid Evans, Jermaine Roberts) have sidelined a pair of potential starters at cornerback. Evans can’t catch a break. After a knee injury in 2013 that cost him all of 2014 to rehab, he was really coming on and was the starting corner opposite Duke Thomas. Now he’s on the shelf for at least the spring and possibly longer. Another guy fighting for a starting spot, Roberts, was helped off the field during the Saturday scrimmage with his knee injury. No word on timetables for return and I doubt we hear anything unless surgery is required. Also, senior-to-be linebacker Dalton Santos suffered a pretty nasty ankle injury that Chip Brown said on the radio Monday morning was “Dom Espinosa-like.” If you remember, that was nasty and career-ending. That’s two potential starters down and we still have over a week until the pads come off. Stay healthy, fellas.
My plan was to break down each unit in advance of spring practice, but that’s obviously not going to happen with the spring game a little over a week away. We will break them all down, but much of it will be post-spring game, and we will talk a bit more about the summer for each unit and what’s coming up. What else are we going to talk about, baseball? I kid, I kid. Sort of. Let’s jump in here right at the top with what everyone wants to know: the quarterbacks.
Spring Break Down — The Quarterbacks
The Candidates: Tyrone Swoopes, Jerrod Heard
Incoming: Kai Locksley
I know a lot of you wanted Jerrod Heard to come in this spring and Cardale Jones the quarterback job, but that’s not going to happen for two reasons: first, Cardale Jones will probably never happen again. If you watched a movie about a national title run and the third team quarterback came in to win the last 3 ½ games — those games being the second half against the hated arch rival replacing the Heisman candidate after he got hurt, the conference championship game, the national semifinal and the national championship game — and hhe won all three— you’d assume it was Water Boy 2: Electric Boogaloo or something equally as ridiculous. It was unprecedented. There was no precedent! And with the success of Johnny whathisface and Jameis Winston, everyone assumes the next redshirt freshman quarterback is the savior. But it’s happened three times (sophomore Jones included) in all of the years of football. It’s just not something that had ever happened before this decade, and to expect/demand it is just unrealistic. Second, Tyrone Swoopes is still here and he isn’t giving anything to anyone.
Before we get into what’s what, let’s take a look at the things that have changed. With the turning of the calendar to 2015, the offense also turned the page and made the switch to the spread. The infusion of two new coaches, wide outs coach Jay Norvell and tight ends coach Jeff Traylor, bring spread game experience to their new positions. Of the holdovers, offensive line coach Joe Wickline was a master at coordinating the running game from the spread at Oklahoma State and Shawn Watson made Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez into a spread sensation in 2010. This staff is now on the same page as far as philosophy and identity: it’s going to be up-tempo, spread-them-out and attack their weaknesses, both on the ground and through the air. Last year the plan was to be a power running team, but with the loss of three starters up front and the play-action quarterback that could take advantage of the power running game, the offense stalled. You can’t really install a new philosophy and offense during the season, so Texas had to make due. Now they are making strides to change it and everyone seems to be on the right page. That’s only going to benefit the quarterback, whoever it is.
And it will benefit the offensive line. They struggled to open holes last year in the power scheme. The good news is they won’t have to do that as much, as the spread attack does just that, spreads the defense out from sideline to sideline, and the ol won’t be asked to overpower as much as cut off pursuit angles and penetration. That isn’t an easy job by any means, but it’s much easier to teach a guy pursuit angles and technique then to teach him to be older, stronger and bigger. This offensive line will be better due to the scheme and their experience, and that alone would make the quarterback better. Say, who is the quarterback this spring?
Right now it’s Tyrone Swoopes. That’s not what many of you want to hear, but it’s the truth. He’s gotten bigger, he’s gotten stronger and he’s gotten smarter. He has a rocket for an arm and, ironically is the same sort of quarterback in style and size as Ohio State’s Cardale Jones. I’m not calling him Cardale Jones, I’m just saying their game is similar. Likewise, JT Barrett, that Heisman candidate Jones replaced against Michigan, is more like Jerrod Heard in that they are smaller than their counterpart, don’t have that rifle throwing the ball and excel at running. Again, not saying they’re the same player, they just have similar strengths. So far in spring ball, Swoopes has been more consistent, thrown the ball better and made better decisions with the ball.
Swoopes has been put through the ringer since his arrival at Texas. He was ignored and forgotten in his freshman year until the bowl game. On the 2013 season, he threw 13 passes and rushed the ball 20 times, many of which were knees taken at the end of games. He was in no way prepared to play in 2014. And unlike those redshirt freshmen star qbs of the last few years who get all the scout team snaps their first year, Swoopes was the backup to Case McCoy, which meant he didn’t get the practice reps for either the starting team or the scout team. He was expected to get more reps in 2014 after David Ash was cleared, but in game one it fell apart. Now Texas was dealing with what was essentially a brand new starter with no reps in the current scheme. And there was no way with all the other injuries and dismissals they were going to burn Jerrod Heard’s redshirt last fall. Swoopes was forced into action and struggled. The offense didn’t really fit his skill set and his inexperience showed with some key turnovers at the wrong time. Poor line play, poor wide out play and terrible special teams didn’t help, either. The result was everyone clamoring for something new. Anything new. And new was Jerrod Heard.
Heard was Kyler Murray a year before Kyler Murray. A superstar talent that was the player of the year, he won two state titles and could glide with the ball in his hands, was a proven winner from a big time program and just needed time to adjust to the speed of the game in college. It was only a matter of time until he took over for Swoopes … Only problem is, no one told Swoopes. He’s improved his body and his mind, bulking up and to 250-255 pounds, and while Heard is ripped, he’s still smallish at 190 pounds or so. Heard needs more weight to withstand the hits of an entire season, whereas Swoopes is ready to go right now. Mentally Swoopes now has an entire year under his belt, and the importance of that cannot be overstated. He’s seen the good and the bad and has film to look at and learn from. He also will have less to do at the line of scrimmage, as it will be “check with me” when he gets there, meaning he looks to the sideline for the play once the formation is set and the defense lines up. This takes a lot of pressure off the qb as he gets the play from the sideline, depending on the defense. You can’t overthink things in football, you need to react and go. This offense will limit the reads the qb needs to make, meaning less thinking and more reacting and going. That’s a good thing.
Jerrod Heard is the tailor-made quarterback for the spread, but right now Tyrone Swoopes is the leader. He’s more consistent throwing the ball and makes better decisions with the ball — even with “check with me,” a qb needs to progress through his routes and make the correct throw — and has the arm to make all the throws on the field. Heard will make some terrific plays, but then will struggle with accuracy or with decisions. It’s coming and he’ll get there, but so far he hasn’t leapt over Tyrone Swoopes. Nothing is set in stone. There is still a full week of spring ball and three-plus months of off-season/summer work and the staff is going to give each player opportunities to separate himself. It’s Swoopes right now, but early in the week Jerrod Heard had his best practice of the year and the hope is the consistency light comes on. His ability to run makes him lethal in this offense, but if he can’t throw it consistently Texas becomes one-dimensional, and that’s a fatal flaw. Swoopes isn’t the runner that Heard is, but he’s shown he’s more comfortable and willing to run in the spread than he was last year, which means he’s dangerous for defenses as well.
Expect to see Tyrone Swoopes as the starter in the spring game and the starter headed into summer camp barring something extraordinary. And “something extraordinary” could be Jerrod Heard in the next week, or over the summer, or freshman Kai Locksley.
Back next week with the backs and receivers and (hopefully) some good baseball news.