By Corey Tatel
Texas head coach Charlie Strong wrapped up his first year-long recruiting effort at Texas earlier this month, and the finished product certainly exceeded expectations.
According to ESPN.com, Strong has captured the ninth best recruiting class in the country, ranked ahead of any other school in the Big 12. Although Strong struck out on recruiting major targets like Kyler Murray and Soso Jamabo on signing day, the class still consists of one five-star recruit and 14 four-star recruits, an impressive haul. “We were able to meet our needs,” Strong said in his press conference at the conclusion of signing day on Feb. 4. “Our guys did a great job of selling this program.”
Here is a look at the next generation of Texas Longhorn Football.
This position is the reason that Texas’s recruiting class is ranked in the Top 10. Charlie Strong captured one of the best linebacking corps in the nation by signing five-star recruit Malik Jefferson and four-star recruit Anthony Wheeler. Each will have the chance to compete for big minutes next season, but more importantly, both Jefferson and Wheeler are prophesied to be cornerstones of the Longhorn Defense for the next four years.
Malik Jefferson, 6-foot-3, 220 lbs. Mesquite, Texas
In his high school career, Jefferson tallied 283 tackles, 30 sacks,12 forced fumbles, eight fumble recoveries and 16 blocked kicks, according to wffa.com. Jefferson was chosen as the recipient for the 2014 Butkus Award, which is awarded to the nation’s top high school linebacker. Rivals ranked Jefferson as the top outside linebacker in his class, the No. 28 overall player in the 2015 class and the No. 2 recruit in the state of Texas. “Any time you’re in a recruiting process, there’s got to be a marquee player. When he got on board, it got us jump started,” Strong says of Jefferson.
Jefferson committed to Texas on Dec. 19, choosing the Longhorns over Texas A&M and LSU. The signing came as surprise to much of the country because of Jefferson’s close relationship with multiple A&M commits. Michael Jefferson Sr., Jefferson’s father, has told reporters repeatedly that his son chose Texas because of how much he wanted to play for Charlie Strong. However, when asked about his commitment, Jefferson had a different answer. “Shock the world, you know, you just got to think different,” Jefferson says. “You’ve got to take what your heart gives you, and you’ve got to run with it.”
Jefferson is a relentless pass rusher. He has elite quickness, both downhill and laterally, which allows him to fly all over the field, as displayed by his 4.38 40 time and his 4.19 shuffle time. In the highlight video below, he has a remarkably wide tackling radius, which allows him to wrap up and bring down ball carriers even if he is not in the correct position to do so. He was used primarily as a pass rusher in high school and will be expected to play more in coverage at Texas. Jefferson is expected to not only compete for a starting spot next season, but may fit right into the vacancy at outside linebacker created by the departure of Jordan Hicks. He graduated high school a semester early and is already enrolled at UT and going through spring practices with the team.
Anthony Wheeler, 6-foot-2, 225 lbs. Dallas, Texas
Less than a month later, the Longhorns signed another elite linebacker to pair with Jefferson in Wheeler. Rivals ranks Wheeler as the No. 4 inside-linebacker in the country, the No. 10 player in the state of Texas, and the No. 76 overall player in the nation. Wheeler played his high school football at perennial powerhouse Skyline High School in Dallas, where he earned the honor of playing in the Under Armour All-American Game his senior year. Immediately following that game, Wheeler committed to Texas over Red River rival Oklahoma. “I sat down with my family and talked about how comfortable I felt with the coaches and how comfortable I felt with the school,” Wheeler says. “I felt like that’s where I needed to be.”
Wheeler is one of the most physically imposing linebackers in the 2015 recruiting class. He is strong, with a fully developed frame and an NFL body. He’s best when he’s attacking downhill and wrapping up ball-carriers. It is unclear which linebacker position he will hold on the Texas defense because he lined up all over the field in high school. What we do know is that Wheeler is expected to compete for playing time and possibly a starting spot in the fall.
The process of finding a quarterback got chaotic for Texas near the end of the recruiting period. Back in May, Texas locked up four-star, pro-style quarterback from New Mexico, Zach Gentry. But in the weeks leading up to signing day, A&M commit and top quarterback in the class, Kyler Murray, visited Austin, and rumors arose that he might be headed to UT. In the end, Murray remained in College Station and Gentry wound up flipping his commitment from Texas to Michigan. “You know what, they’re changing offenses at Texas, and I wasn’t totally comfortable with that,” Gentry told the press in New Mexico.
Kai Locksley, 6-foot-4, 190 lbs. Baltimore, Maryland
On Feb. 2, Coach Strong and his staff confirmed they were more interested in a dual-threat quarterback by signing four star recruit Kai Locksley from Baltimore. Locksley had previously committed to Florida State but opted to switch to Texas at the last minute because of the close bond he had developed with Strong. Rivals ranks Locksley as the the No. 13 quarterback in the nation and the No. 6 player in the state of Maryland. He played his high school football at Gilmore School where he passed for 915 yards and five touchdowns and rushed for 1,050 yards and 17 touchdowns his senior year.
At six-foot-four, Locksley has elite speed and incredible vision when running the football, which makes him a great fit for a zone-read offense. He also has remarkable arm strength. However, he is a raw passer in the sense that he is inconsistent with his mechanics and his accuracy. Both deficiencies are to be expected, since his junior year of high school was his first full season as a quarterback. The quarterback competition for next season is expected to be mainly between last season’s starter, Tyrone Swoopes, and redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard, although Locksley will be given a chance to show what he can do. He may not see the field much his freshman year, but if he can continue to develop, his potential is limitless in future seasons.
Coach Strong managed to make multiple splashes at the skill positions by locking up a four-star running back, a four-star tight end and a plethora of wide-receivers.
Chris Warren, 6-foot-2, 230 lbs. Rockwall, Texas
Running back Chris Warren chose the Longhorns over the Washington Huskies on National Signing Day, but it was far from a no-brainer. On Feb. 4, students and media gathered in Rockwall High School auditorium to watch Warren announce his decision. Warren proceeded to pull a coin out of his pocket and flip it. When the coin landed on heads, he announced that he would be attending UT, but multiple people claim to have seen University of Washington apparel laying off to the side. Warren’s high school coach claims that the coin flip was all for show, but Warren insists that it was for real. “This morning, I thought I wanted to go to Washington,” Warren said after his announcement. “I just wasn’t sure, so I brought a quarter with me, flipped it and it landed Texas. So I’m going to Texas.”
Regardless of how the decision was made, Texas gained the No. 15 running back in the nation and the No. 22 player in Texas, according to Rivals. Warren ran for 3,379 yards in his time at Rockwall and scored 51 total touchdowns. At about 230 pounds, Warren is a power back whose best quality is his ability to break tackles. He has a nose for the end zone and is already a willing blocker, an unusual trait for young running backs. If he wants to be an every down back for Texas, he will have to improve his ball security in the open field. Warren will most likely play behind returner Johnathan Gray in his freshman season but could be used situationally as a short yardage or goal line back.
Devonaire Clarington, 6-foot-6, 230 lbs. Miami, Florida
Texas also signed the No. 9 tight end in the nation, Devonaire Clarington, according to Rivals. Clarington played tight end, wide receiver and defensive end at Westminster Christian School in Miami, but will begin his college career at tight end for Texas. At 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds, Clarington is a tight end in a wide-receiver’s body. He is great at working his way down the field and winning jump balls against much smaller defensive backs, which makes him a great red-zone option. If he is going to be an elite tight end in the NCAA, he will need to improve his ability to get open in the short-yardage passing game and his blocking ability. Clarington projects to compete with sophomores Andrew Beck and Blake Whiteley for playing time this season.
At the wide-receiver position, Texas wrapped up a diverse group. According to Rivals, Texas landed the No. 11 wide receiver in the country with John Burt, the No. 25 receiver with DeAndre McNeal, and the No. 47 receiver with Ryan Newsome. The Longhorns also landed the No. two prep school receiver in the country in Gilbert Johnson. Burt, out of Tallahassee, Florida, stands at 6-foot-3 and has a skill set similar to John Harris, who led Texas in receiving last season. He can go up and win jump balls and should make for another great red-zone target. Because Harris was a senior last year, Burt will have a chance to fill his role if he can continue to improve. McNeal has the highest ceiling of the 2015 receivers signed by the Horns. At 6-foot-2, he has an uncanny ability to make defenders miss in the open field and break highlight reel plays. Newsome also has a knack for exploding in the open field and will likely be a big factor in the kick return game next season. Because there are so many wide receivers already on the Texas roster, it’s hard to predict how much the incoming receivers will play until they start practice later this spring.
Very few people expected Strong to lock up a Top 10 recruiting after his first season at Texas, yet he did. He’ll now look to the future and try to build an even stronger class in 2016. “With the group of guys that we just signed, they are going to sell the program for us so we are able to get the next top players in this state," Strong says.