Texas backup quarterback Jerrod Heard goes through practice in August as quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson talks to him. RALPH BARRERA/ AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Football

Texas’ offensive hopes fall on Shawn Watson, his quarterbacks

Posted August 28th, 2015

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Story highlights
  • Watson held back tears earlier this month when talking about Swoopes.
  • Will Watson stick with Swoopes even if the offense sputters early this season?

Shawn Watson told reporters earlier this month that he’s had to “forget everything that I knew for 34 years” in order to implement Texas’ new spread offense. It’s presumed he held on to the good stuff.

Like when Watson sat through Ray Dempsey’s class on becoming a college football coach at Southern Illinois in the early 1980s. The final project was to design an offensive playbook.

Probably smart to remember those days spent in Weeb Eubank’s basement, too. Watson, then an assistant at Miami (Ohio), befriended his neighbor, the legendary New York Jets coach. The two spent hours watching film of Johnny Unitas doing quarterback drills.

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And don’t forget the moment in the hallway with quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Someone with a cell phone caught Watson hugging Bridgewater and holding back tears after Louisville beat Rutgers to win the 2012 Big East title.

“That was so awesome. I’m so proud of you,” Watson tells Bridgewater on the YouTube clip. “Oh, man, it was awesome. So awesome.”

Texas’ offense last season was, to steal a phrase, not so awesome. That means the emotional Watson will be in the spotlight all season long as the quarterbacks coach and “one final voice” calling plays.

If things progress, it’ll be Watson, not head coach Charlie Strong, who gets kudos. If it all goes south, well, Watson is in the final year of his two-year guaranteed contract.

Horns247 publisher Bobby Burton is already predicting Watson will get fired mid-season. For that to happen, things must go horribly awry with quarterback Tyrone Swoopes, who appears to have a clear edge over Jerrod Heard heading into next week’s season opener at Notre Dame.

It’s hard to imagine Strong jettisoning Watson unless Texas suffers a thermonuclear meltdown. Strong may not even be the Texas coach without the 55-year-old from Carbondale, Ill., a small town about two hours from St. Louis.

Remember that once Strong got the UT job, he called Watson and basically ordered him to leave Louisville. What would be Watson’s title and job functions at Texas? At the time, Strong probably figured, “Who cares?!” They’d sort all that out later, sources told the American-Statesman in January 2014.

Watson became the quarterbacks coach, and Joe Wickline was named offensive coordinator. Just who exactly is calling plays is at the center of Wickline’s lawsuit with his former employer, Oklahoma State. Strong has said Watson is the “one final voice.”

Texas's Assistant Head Coach for Offense/Quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson watches Jerrod Heard during spring practice on Wednesday, March 25, 2015. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Texas’s Assistant Head Coach for Offense/Quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson watches Jerrod Heard during spring practice on Wednesday, March 25, 2015. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Watson turned Bridgewater into a Big East star and NFL first-round draft pick. Now it appears Swoopes is his next project. The way Watson talks about Swoopes as a person, you’d think they share a father-son type of relationship. Most college coaches aren’t like that. They typically maintain some distance, thus making it easier to bench one guy for another.

When asked about Swoopes in mid-August, Watson held back tears. “Honestly, no disrespect to anybody. I want to do it for him,” the coach said.

“When you get a kid who comes in your program, the best way to put it is you share that kid’s dream,” Watson said. “It’s my job to be the best coach for him and for them, for all of them.”

Watson said he’s asked Swoopes, Heard and even freshmen Kai Locksley and Matthew Merrick what they want their careers to look like and how they’d like to get there. That opens up “a pretty good conversation,” Watson said.

“It always requires tough coaching, and tough coaching isn’t yelling and screaming. It’s not that,” he said. “Tough coaching is holding them to a high standard of play. so with that, it opens up a major line of communication.”

It’s still unclear how Watson plans on using Swoopes and Heard. He claims the Longhorns will run the same offense no matter who’s in the game. That seems hard to fathom considering they have different skill sets. The taller Swoopes (6-4) has a cannon for an arm; the speedy Heard (6-2) is dynamic in the open field.

Defensive coordinator Vance Bedford said he’s impressed with Swoopes’ improvement. “I see a different guy.”

And Heard? “When he starts running around, you just shake your head,” Bedford said.

So let’s assume Swoopes has improved over last year’s shaky performances. The junior has 12 career starts and should benefit from a stronger offensive line. Several freshmen receivers have turned heads this month. Swoopes excelled last season when Texas went to a faster pace, something Watson promises to do more this year.

What happens the first time Swoopes gets hit in the mouth? Big hits rattled him last year, and Swoopes admitted he got nervous at times. Can even the best quarterbacks coach imaginable fix that?

“That’s the question. Will he get lit up?” Strong said. “But can we mix it up enough on offense where we can help him, too?”

Heard is practically begging for a chance to show what he can do. “When Charlie calls my number, I just have to be ready to put the ball in the end zone,” Heard said earlier this month.

Shawn Watson LHN
Fans didn’t know what to think when Texas quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson had an angry reaction in the final seconds against Iowa State. (Longhorn Network)

In three practices open to reporters in early August, Swoopes looked more poised in the pocket and had better accuracy than Heard. Locksley also had remarkable presence and threw decent balls. Don’t sleep on him.

Will Watson pull Swoopes off the field this September if the offense sputters? Would he give Heard a bigger chance than a random possession each half if Swoopes is playing well?

How the quarterbacks play, respond and get managed will be a recurring story line all season. Thus, it falls to Watson.

“I think Tyrone has kind of got a chip on his shoulder because he wants to prove to everybody that he can play quarterback,” Strong said. “But Shawn is doing an amazing job with both of those players.”

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