When Texas Longhorns football head coach Charlie Strong stepped to the podium for his weekly Monday press conference three weeks ago, he was faced with questions regarding his stagnant offense. Under the leadership of quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson and junior quarterback Tyrone Swoopes, the Texas offense struggled to move the chains and gained only 163 yards in a 38-3 drumming against Notre Dame. “We can’t go through another season with a bad offense,” Strong said at the time. “That cannot happen.”
By Corey Tatel
Two weeks later, Texas fans are excited about a new offense under the leadership of wide receivers coach Jay Norvell and redshirt freshman quarterback Jerrod Heard. Critics are raving about the explosive 20-point fourth quarter comeback that would have forced overtime against California had it not been for a shanked extra point. “I’m excited by our offense, but it’s negated by how our defense is playing,” Strong told reporters following the 45-44 loss to Cal on Sept. 19.
Excited by the offense? If Texas fans heard Strong say that after the season opener in South Bend, they would have called him crazy.
But this isn’t the same offense that we saw in South Bend. Since then, Strong has made much needed changes. Immediately following the horrendous offensive performance against Notre Dame, Strong revoked play-calling abilities from Watson and handed them over to Norvell, who decided to start Heard at quarterback over Swoopes. “What everyone wanted to see was something different. Some change,” Strong said following Heard’s first start. “[Heard] can make plays. He’s a winner.”
He certainly can make plays. In his first start against Rice, the home opener on Sept. 12, Heard ran for a team-high of 96 yards and led the Longhorns to a 42-28 victory. We didn’t see much from Norvell’s new offense that game because Texas only controlled the ball for 16 minutes, compared to Rice’s 44 minutes. But Heard showed fans glimpses of his potential that gave them reason to be excited.
He followed up that performance by breaking the Texas record for total yardage in a game with 527 against Cal. He threw for 364 yards passing and added 163 yards on the ground, including a 45-yard scamper that would have tied that game had it not been for the missed extra point. His 527 yards broke the record of 505 yards previously set by Vince Young in 2005. “I thought Jerrod was fabulous,” Norvell said after the game. “He’s grown so much in a very short time.”
In Saturday’s 30-27 loss to Oklahoma State, Heard came back down to earth and showed signs of growing pains by throwing for only 119 yards, no touchdowns and an interception while rushing for 48 yards. However, even in a subpar performance, he put the Longhorns in position to win against a ranked opponent. The game likely would have gone into overtime if it weren’t for a mishandled snap by punter Michael Dickson that put Oklahoma State in range to convert a game winning field-goal. If there’s one thing that was made clear during the last three games, it is that Texas has found its quarterback.
Heard will likely enjoy plenty of time in the spotlight in the near future, but the unsung hero of the last two weeks has been the new Longhorn play-caller. Norvell has coached for 29 years. After a year as a graduate assistant at Georgia, he completed stints as an assistant with Northern Iowa, Wisconsin, Iowa State, the Indianapolis Colts, the Oakland Raiders, Nebraska, UCLA and Oklahoma, before arriving at Texas. He’s clearly an established offensive assistant coach, but the Rice game was his first time calling plays since he served as UCLA’s offensive coordinator in 2007.
Since Norvell has taken over, Texas is playing with a faster pace, getting up to the line of scrimmage quickly and running more plays. He has found ways to get the ball into his playmakers’ hands. He called draw plays to get Heard out in space all night against both Cal and Rice. He has found ways to get explosive wide receiver Daje Johnson the ball through reverses and screens. And despite the offensive line struggles, he has ensured bell-cow, senior running back Jonathan Grey gets his touches. He even brought Swoopes back into the game against Oklahoma State in order to take advantage of the quarterback’s size in a short yardage situation that resulted in a touchdown. It has only been three weeks, but we are already seeing an improvement in play-calling under Norvell.
Coach Strong should be given an enormous amount of credit for making offensive changes this early in the season. Not many head coaches would have the guts to replace both their offensive play-caller and quarterback after just one game. It couldn’t have been an easy decision to demote Watson, who is a close friend of Strong’s and was his play-caller at Louisville. But Strong saw that changes were necessary, and he made the switch. That is a sign of a great leader.
Granted we have only seen three weeks of this new offense, and its competition has been against subpar defenses, but there is hope for the Texas offense under the leadership of Norvell and Heard. Austin has not buzzed about an offensive unit like this since 2009, when a kid by the name of McCoy led the Longhorn offense to a Big 12 title and a national championship appearance.