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January 5, 2014

A Strong Recruiting Presence

With Texas' hiring of Charlie Strong now official, the immediate focus for the new UT head coach and his yet-to-be-named group of assistants will be to hit the recruiting trail as the Longhorns try to put a bow on their 2014 recruiting class.

Texas currently sits at 23 commitments, most of whom had said after Mack Brown's resignation on December 14 that they would remain committed until they found out who UT's next head coach would be.


Strong, who comes to Texas after a highly-successful four-year stint at Louisville, will be formally introduced to the Longhorn fan base at a press conference on Monday at 11 a.m. Word of his hiring began to trickle out on Friday night, giving Texas' commitments and recruiting targets the weekend to digest the news before deciding how they'll proceed.

Perhaps UT's most crucial commitment, Rivals100 quarterback Jerrod Heard, said after playing in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl that he's excited about the hire and Texas fans need not worry. Heard first heard about the news on Saturday morning from fellow Texas commitment Trey Lealaimatafao, and Heard is excited to see what Strong can do at Texas.

"I was surprised. I was like, 'Well I knew we were going to get a good coach and we did.' He's a great guy," Heard said. "(Texas) definitely got a good coach. How he turned Louisville around into one of the top schools, he's a great recruiter, got some good guys in and I think that's what he's going to do at Texas. It's heading to the right track."

Not that he'll need it, but Strong will have an easy sales pitch when he gets a chance to sit down with Heard. His quarterback at Louisville, Teddy Bridgewater, is projected by some to be the top pick in this year's NFL Draft. Heard is well-aware of Bridgewater's success at Louisville.

"That's one of the guys I look up to. Knowing coach Strong and his staff turned Louisville around and opened up the game like that is awesome," Heard said.

Texas fans faced some anxious moments on Saturday afternoon when Army Bowl TV broadcasters mentioned that Heard had opened up his recruitment and even had some fallback options he was considering. Heard said those comments were taking out of context and he remains solidly committed to Texas.

"I didn't say as if I'm going to go look. I said it as if I didn't like (the coach), I would have to look at a change. But coach Strong is a great coach and I'm 100 (percent) with Texas," Heard said. "I think he can turn Texas around and I'm going to stay there. I'm going to sign with UT."

Strong is regarded as a defensive-minded coach who doesn't mind running an aggressive offensive attack. He should be able to generate some immediate recruiting momentum due to the style of play he coaches, his straightforward recruiting practices and the success he's had on the field at both Louisville and Florida (in his four years with the Cardinals, Strong won three bowl games. Prior to his arrival, Louisville had won just just six bowl games in the program's 100-year history. At Florida, he was part of two national championships as defensive coordinator under Urban Meyer).

People inside the UT football offices said on Sunday they expect Strong to help give Texas an immediate boost in recruiting momentum.

"We're very excited about coach Strong," said one person in the Texas football program. "He's known as a great recruiter and role model to young men."

CardinalSports.com Managing Editor Howie Lindsey expects Strong to enjoy recruiting success, but he said it's Strong's ability to identify talent that really stands out.

"I think the biggest thing that's always clear with Charlie, he couldn't care less about star rankings. He wants toughness. He wants great football players. He looks for athleticism," Lindsey said. "If a guy is not rated at all, that doesn't matter to him.

"He has connections in the state of Florida from his time there and all throughout the South. He knows high school coaches everywhere and he trusts their opinions a lot. I think it'll take a little time to build that up in Texas, but he will quickly define talent."

Strong has big shoes to fill in replacing Mack Brown, who built Texas up to one of the nation's top football programs during his 16 years in Austin. Brown was regarded as one of college football's top recruiters, including a tremendous ability to win over recruits, parents and high school coaches with a father-figure personality and by selling Texas' family atmosphere. Strong takes a more direct approach.

"He's a tremendous closer. He surrounds himself with an entire staff who can recruit, especially on the defensive side. He's going to look at recruiters at every position coach, but he goes in and closes the deal," Lindsey said.

"I have never heard of a coach doing this, but when he got to Louisville, a bunch of recruits said when Strong went into their home, they really liked Louisville. But he would go in and say 'This is what you're going to do. You're going to look at other options, take visits, visit us on this date and then take a week to think it over and commit to Louisville.' It was amazing how many of them said 'All right, that's what I'm going to do.'"

The immediate reaction from most of the Texas recruiting targets is one of relief that there's been some closure to the UT coaching search, but also of wanting to wait to meet Strong and the rest of the Longhorn staff before making any final decisions.

Lealaimatafao, who still considers himself committed to Texas despite having taken trips to UCLA and Arizona State and having an upcoming trip to Oregon, said he's basically back to square one.

"I feel the same. I don't really know him too well. We'll just have to re-start this recruiting process," Lealaimatafao said. "It's (a) soft (commitment) but I'll have to talk to (Strong) first before I do anything."

Other Texas commitments, including wide receivers Emanuel Porter and Lorenzo Joe, have indicated they'd like to meet Strong before making any final decisions. Joe was UT's first commitment of the 2014 class and most expect him to stay with Texas, but he wants to get a feel of what the Texas offense will look like moving forward.

"I'm glad we finally have a coach. Now I want to see what his plans are for the offense," Joe said.

Porter was a one-time TCU commitment who switched his pledge to the Longhorns in the summer. In December, Porter took an official visit to TCU, essentially re-opening his recruitment. Should Strong decide to retain wide receivers coach Darrell Wyatt, look for Porter to stick with his UT pledge. If there's a complete shake-up of the Texas offensive staff, Porter said it's too early to make any definitive statements on what he'd do.

"It's a great decision for Texas (to hire Strong) and I'm looking forward to seeing what his plans are," Porter said.

With 23 pledges, there isn't a lot of room for movement with Texas in the 2014 class. Lindsey doesn't expect Strong to target current Louisville commitments, but he said he wouldn't be surprised to see Texas make a run at one or two of the uncommitted players Strong was recruiting for the Cardinals.

"My guess is he probably wouldn't pursue guys already committed to Louisville. But there are a couple guys I'd keep an eye on. (Poona) Ford, a defensive tackle out of South Carolina and Isaiah Ford (wide receiver from Florida), no relation, are both really good players. (Isaiah Ford) is a guy who said he's committed to Louisville for now and he's a guy the staff really, really liked. I think he's a tremendous prospect and way underrated."

"There are some uncommitted guys he was recruiting, like a T.J. Harrell, too. I could see that being the kind of guy he'd go after."

One of Strong's immediate tasks will be to land commitments from a couple of the Longhorns' uncommitted targets, should he decide to continue to recruit them. Arlington Bowie safety Edwin Freeman has Texas tied atop his list with Texas A&M, and he said last week at the Under Armour All-America Game that he'd wait to see who Texas hired before making a commitment. Arizona Western Community College tight end Blake Whiteley is still considering Texas and Arkansas, and he's curious to hear what kind of offense Strong plans to run at Texas. Whiteley is looking for a place that will give him a chance to affect the game as a blocker and a receiver.

"I do think coach Strong is a great coach. However for me as both a blocking and a pass catching tight end, I still need to hear what kind of offensive philosophy and coordinator he is going to choose," Whiteley said. "For other positions it won't matter as much, but for me having caught over 70 passes in my senior high school year it really does."

The biggest impact of Strong's arrival to Austin could wind up being felt in the 2015 recruiting class. The Longhorns are already off to a terrific start with that group with nine early commitments, but Texas has been battling to halt the momentum that other programs have built up over the last couple years, including an increased recruiting presence from in-state rival Texas A&M.

Several top 2015 prospects expressed excitement and optimism about the news of Strong's hire.

"I think that's a great pick. I've been wondering who they would get," said Sulphur Springs standout Larry Pryor, the nation's third-ranked safety prospect. "I've been worried about who it was going to be but it looks like they got a good one and I need to visit really soon."

Stephenville quarterback Jarrett Stidham, arguably the top QB in the state for the 2015 class, said he'd like to meet Strong before deciding how the hire will impact his recruitment, but he's interested to see what kind of product Strong can build in Austin.

"He's a great coach and it'll be interesting to see what he can do at UT," Stidham said.

Cameron Townsend, the nation's eighth-ranked outside linebacker prospect, is impressed by the work Strong turned in at Louisville.

"I don't know much about him, but seeing the things he did at Louisville makes me think he can make Texas a national championship contender again," Townsend said. "But of course, I'd have to meet him and see how he felt about me as a player before I go saying that I could play for him."

One of the top overall players in the state for 2015, Daylon Mack, was a one-time UT lean before committing to Texas A&M in October. The Rivals100 member remains committed to the Aggies but admits he'll be keeping an eye on the Longhorns.

"I think he is a good move for Texas and he is a good recruiter and defensive guy, and that's what Texas needs help on," Mack said. "I'll be looking at UT a little more. You can't just ignore a new coach that comes into Texas but as of now I'm still locked in to A&M."

They say recruiting is the lifeblood of any college football program. UT has enjoyed tremendous recruiting success over the past two decades and The University of Texas basically sells itself when the product on the field is performing at a high level. If Strong can enjoy success at Texas similar to what he did at Louisville, he'll have a chance to rebuild Texas back into a national power. Those who have been around Strong the last four years expect him to do just that.

"He has been around the game for so long, has recruited for so long, he knows all the tricks," Lindsey said. "He knows all the ins and outs of how to get a kid to visit and how to land a kid."


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