It's not often that a school president flies to another school to lure in an offensive coordinator, but it's even more rare that an offensive coordinator at Tulsa would turn down the same position at Texas.
So on the surface, it may seem weird that Texas president Greg Fenves would fly to Tulsa with coach Charlie Strong to lure in offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert. But after Gilbert reportedly initially turned the job down, desperate times call for desperate measures. These are certainly desperate times for the Texas football program, having gone 11-14 two years into the Charlie Strong era.
The knocks on Gilbert are obvious. He has never been an offensive coordinator at a major conference school, and he didn't call plays at Tulsa. One of Texas' biggest issues last year was that it couldn't find a good play-caller, so there is rightfully some concern in Austin. However, Gilbert's hire follows a precedent set by two of the Longhorns' Big 12 foes who have dominated since Strong took over.
Gilbert is probably not a coordinator Strong would have ever considered hiring if things were going well.
Gilbert is a disciple of Art Briles and Dino Babers, and Strong, a defensive-minded coach, has never run such a spread-happy offense in six years as a head coach, or in 28 years as an assistant. Strong's offenses have usually been pro-style focused, with some spread influence. But in the past two seasons, two defensive-minded Big 12 head coaches without heavy spread experience took similar jumps with enormous success.
After two straight middling Big 12 seasons, due mostly to a struggling offense, TCU coach Gary Patterson took the air raid jump in 2014, hiring Doug Meacham (Houston) and Sonny Cumbie (Texas Tech) as co-offensive coordinators. The very next year, the TCU offense helped lead the Horned Frogs to a No. 6 ranking in the final College Football Playoff poll and a 42-3 win over Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl. In 2015, despite a number of injuries, TCU went 10-2 and has established a spot as a Big 12 power. Strong initially wanted to imitate TCU entirely by hiring Cumbie, but Cumbie declined the offer.
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Oklahoma made a similar move, with immediate success.
After an 8-5 season in 2014, coach Bob Stoops hired ECU offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley to bring the air raid back to Norman with transfer quarterback Baker Mayfield. Oklahoma is now in the College Football Playoff, the 32-year-old Riley won the Broyles Award as the nation's best assistant coach and Mayfield finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting.
|Stat||TCU 2013||TCU 2014||Oklahoma 2014||Oklahoma 2015|
|Yards per play||5.03||6.68||6.41||6.95|
|Plays per game||68.5||79.8||72.5||78|
|Points per game||25.1||46.5||36.4||45.8|
TCU clearly made a bigger jump than Oklahoma did, but the Sooners' rise led them to the Playoff.
Texas needs a jump somewhere between what the Horned Frogs and Sooners saw. And while it's tough to draw statistical comparisons between Texas and Tulsa this year — different conferences, different talent levels, etc. — the one thing we can be sure of is that the Longhorns' style is going to change significantly. Tulsa ran almost 20 more plays per game this season than Texas.
|Stat||Texas 2015||Tulsa 2015|
|Yards per play||5.7||6.03|
|Plays per game||65.1||83.3|
|Points per game||26.4||35.9|
While personnel is always a question with such a dramatic change in offensive philosophy, TCU and Oklahoma provide possible blueprints to success. TCU's offensive change helped Boykin improve, while Oklahoma had success with a new quarterback.
|Stat||Trevone Boykin 2013||Trevone Boykin 2014||Trevor Knight 2014||Baker Mayfield 2015|
|Yards per attempt||6.8||7.9||7.3||9.6|
|Rushing yards per attempt||2.98||4.68||4.99||3.21|
Texas seems to have the tools to make this work.
Presumed starter Jerrod Heard already averages 7.8 yards per attempt, and he's already a capable runner and improviser. And behind Heard and Tyrone Swoopes, the Texas passing game was actually the 22nd-most explosive in the country last season. Heard will have an impressive group of young skill players around him, including freshman wide receiver John Burt, who led the Longhorns in receiving yards this year, and sophomore running back D'Onta Foreman, who led the team in rushing yards and averaged a ridiculous 7.2 yards per carry.
Heard still has a lot to clean up, particularly in his decision making on his passes and in taking sacks. However, he's just a freshman, and the game will slow down. He'll ideally be dealing with much more fatigued defenses next year, with the Longhorns running so many more plays.
Texas has the tools to make a jump next season, and with an Briles attack in place maybe Charlie Strong will finally have an offense worthy of his defense in Austin. With the talent available on the roster, it's worth a shot.