How Charlie Strong and Texas can steal National Signing Day

Can Texas deliver on fan expectations this recruiting season?

Brendan Maloney/Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

For much of the Mack Brown era, Texas was the nation’s most boring power program on Signing Day. The ‘Horns racked up top-five classes near-annually, but Brown and his staff often wrapped up their commitments nine months earlier. They sat back and watched other schools sweat out the press-conference cap shows.

Texas’ first full recruiting cycle under Charlie Strong is proving far more suspenseful. Whether that’s a good thing will depend on how well Strong and his staff close between now and Feb. 4 — in particular, whether a certain quarterback decides to enroll in Austin or College Station.

The ‘Horns currently sit at No. 12 nationally in Scout.com’s team rankings. That’s respectable, but if recruiting season ended today, it’d be largely disappointing. Whenever a new coach takes over at a marquee program, he cleans up in his first full class. See Urban Meyer’s No. 1-rated Ohio State class in 2013 or Jimbo Fisher’s No. 1 class at Florida State in 2011.

Both those coaches wound up winning national championships shortly thereafter. Like those two, Strong, formerly Louisville’s head coach and Meyer’s Florida defensive coordinator before that, has a reputation as a strong recruiter.

The good news for Texas, though, is that number could soar dramatically by next Wednesday. Even at this late date, Strong’s program remains in the hunt for four five-star prospects — more than all but two schools, Alabama and FSU, have committed in their entire class to this point. Another five-star, Malik Jefferson, the nation’s No. 1 linebacker, has already enrolled at Texas.

“They’re not going to finish as high as [No. 1] Alabama or [No. 2] Georgia, but they have a chance to get in the top three,” Scout.com national analyst Jamie Newberg said of the ‘Horns. “There’s just a ton of momentum behind the program right now.”

Whether Texas finishes fifth, seventh or 11th would be largely symbolic. But with Strong coming off a bumpy 6-7 debut season and attempting to reenergize a fan base that won’t tolerate a long rebuilding process, the pending decisions of a handful of teenagers could do wonders for his program’s perception. Especially given whom Texas is competing with for several players — in-state nemesis Texas A&M.

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Priority No. 1 is dual-threat quarterback Kyler Murray (Allen, Texas), who has a Texas A&M legacy (his father, Kevin, played quarterback for the Aggies in the mid’-‘80s) and has been committed to the Aggies since last April (update: Murray re-affirmed his pledge to A&M late Thursday night). Murray sent shockwaves through the recruiting world when he showed up in Austin on an unofficial visit last week. Unbeknownst to most outsiders, Texas had continued pursuing him, and it’s now believed to be a true two-team race. Oregon has also emerged as an outside possibility.

Strong is also trying to land two of Kevin Sumlin’s former commits — receiver DaMarkus Lodge (Cedar Hill), who’s also considering Ole Miss, and defensive tackle Daylon Mack (Gladewater), now choosing between the ‘Horns, Aggies and TCU. UCLA is the primary competitor for Texas’ other five-star target, running back Soso Jamabo (Plano).

All four visited Texas within the past week, though the surprise drop-ins from Murray and Lodge (and the accompanying jersey pictures they tweeted) galvanized a rivalry that’s only grown nastier since the two schools stopped playing each other.  

“It’s nuts,” said Chip Brown of HornsDigest.com. “[Murray’s recruitment] is now the State Farm Lone Star Showdown, or whatever they were calling it.”

Murray’s renewed interest in the ‘Horns became all the more important late last week when new Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh stole away four-star quarterback Zach Gentry (Eldorado, New Mexico), a Texas commit since last May. Even if the ‘Horns land all their other targets, failing to sign a highly rated quarterback this year would be seen as a huge disappointment — especially given the program’s recent past.

It’s now been six years since Colt McCoy played his last game in a ‘Horns uniform, and Texas is still searching for a worthy heir at the sport’s most important position. It’s a maddening dilemma given the wealth of talented quarterbacks the Lone Star State produces annually. A dozen Texas natives started at quarterback in the NFL this season, of which only McCoy played at UT. And Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett followed Texas natives Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M), Robert Griffin III (Baylor) and Andrew Luck (Stanford) before him as a top-five Heisman finisher in 2014.

Meanwhile, at Texas, sophomore Tyrone Swoopes finished 90th nationally in pass efficiency in 2014. Few view Swoopes as the ’Horns’ long-term answer at quarterback, yet he and touted freshman Jerrod Heard, who redshirted last season, are Texas’ lone returning scholarship QBs. Its only current commit, three-star Matthew Merrick, is expected to grayshirt and enroll in 2016.

In addition to Murray, Texas is pursuing Florida State commit Kai Locksley, who took an official visit to Austin last weekend. ‘Horns fans will rest a little easier if the Baltimore native, a top-25 quarterback nationally, joins the fold. But landing Murray, who’s rated behind only UCLA’s Josh Rosen, Alabama’s Blake Barnett and Baylor’s Jarrett Stidham, could be a game-changer.

“It would not surprise me if [Murray] signs with Texas, if he’s their [Week 1] starter at Notre Dame next year,” said Newberg. “All their eggs are in Kyler’s basket. He’s all of a sudden become a huge recruit.”

The situation could parallel that of Strong’s first season at Louisville in 2010. The Cardinals went just 6-6 in the regular season before winning the Beef ‘O’Brady’s Bowl, but that didn’t keep the coach from stealing Miami-bred star Teddy Bridgewater away from the Hurricanes’ class. Bridgewater went on to star for a pair of Louisville teams that went a combined 23-3 before becoming a first-round draft pick.

“[Murray] could be their Teddy Bridgewater,” said Newberg.

If Murray sticks with the Aggies but the ‘Horns land most of their other high-profile targets, it will still be a very good class. But if Locksley resists, too, Texas may become desperate to land a graduate transfer quarterback this offseason.

That’s how drastically the ‘Horns’ fortunes could swing over the next week. Which makes this a far different Signing Day buildup than their fans are accustomed to.

“[Texas fans] are nervous,” said Brown. “They’re so beaten down. Every time they’ve gotten their hopes up since ‘09, they’ve had the piano fall. They haven’t had the big recruiting excitement experience in a long time.”

Strong’s finalized class could prove well worth the suspense.

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.