AUSTIN, Texas -- After all the faxes, hashtags, dabs, DMs and dust settled, Charlie Strong had himself the No. 10 recruiting class in the country and a burgeoning reputation as a closer. Few programs won national signing day quite like Texas.
So now the question becomes this: How much closer is Texas getting to regaining its powerhouse status? Or, as one reporter asked Wednesday, does Texas now have enough talent to win the Big 12?
“I knew that question was coming,” Strong said. “Let’s see what we’ve got. We’ll put it together and see what we’ve got.”
How they managed to get this 24-man class featuring 12 ESPN 300 recruits and turn a 5-7 season and no bowl game into a fireworks display on signing day takes a lot more than convincing kids to #believe.
Strong and his staff were strategically on point with this group in ways that weren’t always obvious over the course of 2015. By not pressing their targets for early commitments and not giving up on kids who did make those pledges, Texas coaches were able to build year-long relationships before cranking up the heat during in-home and official visits in the final month.
“I just try to tell them, ‘Hey, listen, I don’t need a commitment right now. You go ahead and visit wherever you want to. We’re still gonna be here. We’re still gonna recruit you hard,’” Strong said.
Top signing day gets Brandon Jones, Jeffrey McCulloch and Jordan Elliott all cited the family vibe they fell for at Texas and the admiration they developed over time for Strong. And when it came time for their official visits to Austin, Texas converted relationships into results.
But it wasn’t just coaches. If this wasn’t clear before, it’s obvious now: The youth movement going on inside Texas’ locker room helped yield this remarkable haul.
Strong witnessed a level of player recruiting like he’d never seen before. Go back to January 15. Texas brought in 19 official visitors on the same weekend its early enrollees moved to campus. Most coaches might not bring that many kids into town on the most important recruiting weekend of the year, because one-on-one time is of the utmost importance.
Strong didn’t have to call on his freshmen to host those visits. They volunteered. They hung around from start to finish, answering questions and building bonds. Malik Jefferson, Charles Omenihu, DeShon Elliott, Kris Boyd, Patrick Vahe and their buddies took over.
“The best salesmen were our players,” Strong said.
Added recruiting coordinator Brian Jean-Mary: “We give Malik a lot of credit, because I know he is the unofficial mayor of Austin, but I could mention 10 guys that did an unbelievable job.”
The pitch from those freshmen wasn’t all that different from the one that hooked them a year earlier: If you come to Texas and come prepared, you’re going to play right away.
“Most kids, when they see five wins -- especially at a place like this -- they see opportunity,” Jean-Mary said.
Texas signed 24 players on Wednesday, and 18 of them were on campus that weekend. In fact, the Longhorns only ended up using 32 of their permitted 56 official visits. By the time things got serious in December and January, they knew exactly who they needed.
Now that all those guys are on board and convinced Texas will be chasing titles in the near future, you do have to wonder when it's all going to come together.
Add up the 2015 signees on Texas’ roster, all those freshmen who just signed, and you get a grand total of 50 scholarship players.
How those 50 players develop and produce – how many of them start, how many of them shine, how many of them leave – will probably determine whether the Strong era at Texas is a successful one.
Those 50 signees are Strong’s best asset, his best defense. They buy him time and patience. Texas’ best players in 2016 are going to be sophomores, and everyone knows it. That Strong’s boss, athletic director Mike Perrin, showed up to the coaching staff’s war room Wednesday morning to celebrate these recruiting victories tells you he gets it, too.
But as Strong proudly told stories of his recruiting victories and bonds on Wednesday afternoon, he remembered to pause and acknowledge what must come next.
The Longhorns won just enough games to win all these elite recruits. Now they need more.
“We know how important winning is,” Strong said. “We know we have to win some football games.”