Texas’ never-ending search for a quarterback has become an anchor that’s weighing down the entire football program.
It’s become such a loathsome topic that fans, donors and even reporters are tired of asking the same questions over and over. Coach Charlie Strong probably hates giving the same answers again and again, too.
Going into Strong’s third year, there’s still no palatable answer for the Longhorns. And there may not be one after Saturday’s Orange-White spring scrimmage, either.
There were choices aplenty around these parts, so it’s not like the Horns are trudging through the quarterbacking Sahara.
Two recent Heisman Trophy winners grew up within about 100 miles from Royal-Memorial Stadium. Baylor plugs in and plays quarterbacks with ease. Lake Travis’ Baker Mayfield won the starting job at Texas Tech, transferred to Oklahoma and started again. San Antonio’s Trevor Knight left OU and was just named the starter at Texas A&M.
Seems like most schools in this region have a clear plan at the game’s most important position. Except for Texas.
“We put so much into one position, but it’s not just one position,” Strong said. “You have 11 guys out there on offense that have to play together.”
The Longhorns have two terrific running backs in D’Onta Foreman and Chris Warren III. Offensive line depth is thin, but there are two freshmen All-Americans to build around. Freshman Collin Johnson may be a dynamic threat out wide along with John Burt. New offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert’s fast-break approach is a welcome change.
“Everybody wants this to work,” guard Patrick Vahe said.
Still, the gravitational pull of the biggest unanswered question of Strong’s tenure is simply inescapable. When will this program find a championship-caliber quarterback?
Let’s lower the bar. After two losing seasons, do the Longhorns have a winning quarterback?
Gilbert said midway through spring practice that “nobody” should be considered the starter. None of the quarterbacks have been made available to the media this spring.
“What we want is for these guys to be right,” Gilbert said. “Make sure we have the right guy, and make sure the other guys understand exactly what we want to do and how we want to get it executed and they go do it at a high level.”
Seniors are supposed to be the team’s undisputed leaders. Tyrone Swoopes, who will be a senior this fall, has 30 career games on his résumé. Apparently, he still can’t win the starting job outright in his final spring. He’s thrown 17 career touchdown passes along with 12 interceptions while completing 56.3 percent of his throws.
Jerrod Heard, who will be a sophomore, went 4-6 as a starter last fall. He regressed as the season went on. In four consecutive midseason games, he averaged 56.5 yards passing. Heard suffered a shoulder injury midway through spring practice and will not play Saturday.
Freshman Shane Buechele enrolled in January specifically so he could go through spring drills. The two-time all-state pick was 15th on the American-Statesman’s Fabulous 55 recruiting list. Despite a small 6-foot, 1-inch frame, Buechele’s already made an impression.
Early in spring practice, safety Dylan Haines said he tried to jump a screen route for an easy interception. But Buechele pump-faked and turned his shoulders, forcing Haines to hesitate, and threw the pass anyway.
“That just caught me by surprise,” said Haines, who has nine career picks. “I had a hand out, but it literally whizzed right by my hand. So I applaud him for that, because that’s something not a lot of true freshmen can do.”
There is real buzz inside the football facility about Gilbert’s uptempo offense. Players said the system is easy to learn and, as Vahe said, “it’s fun.” In the two practices open to reporters, the offense snapped the ball 8-10 seconds between plays.
“It’s so fast,” Foreman said, “we’re joking with the defense and we’re telling ‘em. We’re coming and you better be ready.”
Last spring, UT players said similar things about an “uptempo offense” under former play-caller Shawn Watson. There were no real changes when the season finally arrived. Gilbert will stress running the football more than people think, though.
“If you decide to run the ball two or three times in a row, going that fast, over time, that’s probably going to drain them a lot faster than a normal ground-and-pound game would go,” Warren said.
With all the focus on the new offense, it’s easy to forget about Vance Bedford’s defense, which posted some of the worst numbers in school history last year. Asked if practicing against Gilbert’s breakneck offense would help his unit, Bedford said, “We are going to find out.”
Linebacker Malik Jefferson returns, as does the entire secondary. The real question is smack in the middle. Texas must find replacements for defensive tackles Tank Jackson and Hassan Ridgeway.
There are reinforcements coming. Six freshmen defensive linemen are scheduled to enroll this summer and be available for training camp this August.
The defense and special teams question almost pale in comparison to the quarterback situation, though.
Asked what fans will see Saturday, Williams said, “I think they’re going to see an improved team. I think we look a lot better, a lot faster. I think we’re really moving the ball against a very good defense.”
Fans certainly hope so.