Notebook: Texas preps for awaiting Notre Dame mystique

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Charlie Strong wanted his players to see Notre Dame Stadium … before they see Notre Dame Stadium.

On Monday, Strong — the second-year Texas head coach and a former assistant at Notre Dame — revealed at his weekly press conference that the Longhorns will opt not to participate in a walkthrough inside the Stadium on Friday, due to conflicting class schedules and the distracting atmosphere on Notre Dame’s campus on the eve of a big game.

But Strong also wanted to make it perfectly clear to his players that that’s exactly what Saturday night’s season opener is: a big game. And to hammer the point home, during each team meeting throughout the past week he has taken time to show video clips displaying the rich tradition of both Texas and Notre Dame — and exactly the kind of atmosphere they’ll step into Saturday.

“That’s why I took them back and wanted to show them those clips last week, each and every day, where we talked about the Heisman winners here and the Heisman winners there, where we talked about the number of victories, talked about the big-time victories, talked about the national championships,” Strong said. “But I just wanted to take them back so they could realize what they’re stepping into and how big this game is.

“A lot of times when you’re young you don’t realize how big it is until you step on the field, and I didn’t want, when they hit the field, for all of that to hit them. I told them, ‘It’s going to be special. It’s under the lights, Saturday night in South Bend.’”

Strong, who was the defensive line coach at Notre Dame from 1995 to 1998, knows exactly how special a home game inside Notre Dame Stadium can be.

And on Saturday, he anticipates a similar feeling, albeit a different view.

"When I was there, we never had an opportunity to play under the lights,” Strong said. “I had some really great years there. It's an unbelievable place, a great place. There's a lot of tradition, just like here at the University of Texas. There's a lot of passionate fans, so it's exciting to go back there.

“To play there, it's going to be a little different looking across the field (from the opposite sideline)."

Youth movement

Texas is an undeniably young team heading into its season opener, with a whopping 15 freshman appearing in the two-deep of the updated depth chart.

Nowhere is that youth more apparent — and perhaps, more worrisome for the Longhorns — than on the offensive line.

Two true freshmen, left tackle Connor Williams and right guard Patrick Vahe, are set to start in their first career games Saturday. And while both were highly-touted recruits (four-star rankings by Rivals), that doesn’t mean they’ll be adequately prepared for an aggressive Irish pass rush.

“When you’re going on the road and you’re playing in the environment that we’re playing in, with those two freshman linemen, it’s a concern,” Strong said. “You just don’t know how quickly it’s going to click for them. If I’m a defensive coach and I see two freshman linemen, I’m going to blitz every snap and see if they can block you.

“But we just have to be ready, to make sure that we can balance our offense and make sure we don’t allow them to put the pressure on those two guys.”

Maybe easier said than done given second-year Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s reputation for creating exotic pressures.

But at Texas, Strong said, there are no excuses — even for a freshman.

“I always say this: When you’re at the University of Texas, this is what you sign on for. You sign on to play in big games, and this is a big game for us,” Strong said. “If you’re talented enough and you can get on the field, let’s put them on the field. That’s what we’ve done. This is a freshman group that work really hard, and they want to play.”

And they will play, plenty. Besides Williams and Vahe, wide receiver John Burt, middle linebacker Malik Jefferson, weakside linebacker Edwin Freeman, cornerback John Bonney and punter Michael Dickson are all slated to start as freshmen Saturday.

Quarterback tandem

Tyrone Swoopes is the starter, but does that mean he’s “the guy”?

That’s the question heading into Saturday, as Strong announced that Swoopes will start at quarterback but redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard will also play in the season opener.

“Tyrone has played well,” Strong said. “You look at least season, and he went out and competed. Jerrod knows exactly where he is, and he knows that he’s going to play. When you know you’re going to play, you’re going to go out and compete each and every day.”

In his first season as the starter, Swoopes — a 6-foot-4, 244-pound junior — passed for 2,409 yards with 13 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in 2014, completing 58.3 percent of his passes. He also rushed for 262 yards and four scores. But in the Longhorns’ Texas Bowl loss against Arkansas, Swoopes completed just 13 of 25 passes for 57 yards and an interception in a losing effort.

Strong confirmed that there’s a plan for when Heard will appear on Saturday, though he failed to elaborate.

“You have two quarterbacks that have worked really hard, that have competed, that have pushed one another,” Strong said. “So we’re just really excited about going out and watching those two guys compete.”

Impressions of Zaire

Notre Dame junior quarterback Malik Zaire may not have much of a collegiate resume with just one career start to his name, but Strong has been impressed by what he’s seen.

"He's a runner that can beat you with his feet and he can throw the ball very well,” Strong said. “He's very impressive when he throws the deep ball, so we just know that we're going to have to be able to tackle him and cover those wide receivers."

In seven career games, Zaire — a 6-foot, 222-pound junior — has thrown for 266 yards and a touchdown and run for 187 yards and two more scores.

No more mystique?

Strong acknowledged that while Notre Dame is still a national program, it may not be as divisive as when he served as an assistant coach there from 1995 to 1998.

“There was a mystique about it,” Strong said of Notre Dame. “But if you think about it, at that time they had won a lot of games and they were the only team that had an NBC contract. So they were really the only team that everyone had a chance to watch every Saturday. So that’s why a lot of people were so jealous and hated Notre Dame. ‘How could they have their own TV contract?’

“Now, with the way it is, it’s really changed, and college athletics has changed. That mystique, I’m not saying it’s worn off, but everybody has something about them (that makes their program special).”

mvorel@ndinsider.com | 574-235-6428 | Twitter: @mikevorel

Texas head coach Charlie Strong speaks during a news conference at the NCAA college football team's media day Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015, in Austin, Texas. (Shelby Tauber/Austin American-Statesman, Statesman.com)