Texas quarterback Shane Buechele (16) prepares for a spring NCAA college football game, Saturday, April 16, 2016, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Football

Shane Buechele offers poise and promise — but also freshman question marks

Posted August 2nd, 2016

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Story highlights
  • If Buechele’s the guy, it will be a historical aberration in Austin; since 1893, a freshman QB has started only 19 games at Texas,
  • The hope is that when the preseason get underway this Saturday, Buechele will win the job on merit and not as a default choice.
  • Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury, who knows all about starting freshmen quarterbacks, is a big fan of Buechele's.

It took Charlie Strong all of last preseason before finally getting around to announce Tyrone Swoopes as his starting quarterback the Monday of Notre Dame week. Yet anyone with even modest reasoning skills knew long before of Strong’s choice.

Glorifying Swoopes every time he stepped to a microphone, the Texas coach merely gave cursory compliments to the other contenders, offering up something to the effect of “Oh, and Jerrod’s doing well, too.” It was a competition in name only. From Day One, Swoopes was the guy. Jerrod Heard was not.

Strong is back to his old habits this summer, only this time his praise is not directed at Swoopes, but at Shane Buechele, the program’s shiny new toy who is the front-runner to take the first snap against Notre Dame on Sept. 4.

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Any external doubts about Buechele’s candidacy that still lingered following his sharp performance in the spring game evaporated two weeks ago when Strong, in describing his true freshman at Big 12 media days, used words like “presence” and “gym rat.” Buechele, who has been on campus since January, “gets it,” Strong said.

So entering a pivotal third season in which he’ll probably need a winning record to stay employed, most signs point to Strong preferring a fresh-faced rookie to mainstays who logged the bulk of starts in five- (Heard, 2015) and six-win seasons (Swoopes, 2014). Yet it’s easy to see why, especially after the spring game, when Heard was nursing a shoulder injury while the poised and accurate Buechele outdueled Swoopes, who — and this is not a compliment — too closely resembled the Swoopes of the past two years.

Texas quarterback Shane Buechele (16) scrambles for yards during a spring NCAA college football game, Saturday, April 16, 2016, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Texas quarterback Shane Buechele (16) scrambles for yards during a spring NCAA college football game, Saturday, April 16, 2016, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

One could argue this is the scariest Texas’ quarterback situation has been to open a season under Strong. In 2014, David Ash provided a veteran calm before he went down in the opener with a career-ending concussion. In 2015, Strong was taken at his word when he insisted Swoopes had made significant improvements and was ready to take ownership of the offense. But after the 38-3 debacle in South Bend, Strong went back on his word, benched Swoopes for Heard, and rendered meaningless every positive thing he’d said previously about Swoopes.

Given those past failures, Strong seems to be trending toward the unknown in Buechele, who dominates his teammates in ping-pong and pool but has yet to play in a college game, let alone a practice, where he’s live bait to the defense. The hope is that when the preseason get underway this Saturday, Buechele will win the job on merit and not as a default choice due to the shortcomings of Swoopes and Heard, and to a lesser extent, redshirt freshmen Kai Locksley and Matthew Merrick.

Strong says he’d like to announce a starting quarterback early in camp, yet then again he made similar comments a year ago and then proceeded to burn through all 15 preseason practices before stating the obvious and picking Swoopes.

Still, if Buechele’s the guy, it will be a historical aberration in Austin. Of the 1,271 games Texas has played since 1893, only 19 have begun with a true freshman behind center. And the results are decidedly average — 10 wins, nine losses — which is the sort of batting average Strong needs to avoid in order to stick around beyond this season and enjoy the fruits of his recent recruiting successes.

If past proves to be prologue and Buechele is the starter, the Longhorns can expect so-so results before taking off and winning big next season. In 1944, Bobby Layne started every game on a 5-4 team. A year later, he spent the first half of the season serving in the military before returning and finishing off a 10-1 campaign with a Southwest Conference title. In 1976, Texas went 5-5-1 overall and 2-2 in games started by Mark McBath. The next year, McBath got hurt, and Randy McEachern stepped in and guided the Horns through an unbeaten regular season.

RELATED COVERAGE: Golden: What former Texas quarterback compares to ‘Boo Jr.?’

More recently, Ash went 3-2 as a true freshman in 2011 and Chris Simms lost his only start in 1999.

Thus it’s no wonder Las Vegas oddsmakers have tepid expectations for Texas, setting the over/under for Longhorns wins at 6.5, a figure that also reflects concerns about a defense that surrendered 452 yards per game in 2015 and is without an experienced pass rusher on the line.

Yet summertime optimists will point to teams who’ve won big with true freshmen passers, a list that begins with Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway, who in 1985 replaced an injured Troy Aikman and won eight straight games to become the first and only true freshman quarterback to start for a team that won the national championship. Though falling short of Holieway’s rookie accomplishments, Nebraska’s Tommy Frazier (5-2 in 1992) and OU’s Cale Gundy (8-3 in 1990) also wasted little time acquitting themselves as college ready.

For what it’s worth, Gundy’s boss these days, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, told reporters in Dallas last month that Buechele is “an excellent player” with “all the positive qualities he needs.”

Texas's defense sacks quarterback Patrick Mahomes II of Texas Tech during the first half at Royal Memorial Stadium on Thursday, November 26, 2015. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Texas’s defense sacks quarterback Patrick Mahomes II of Texas Tech during the first half at Royal Memorial Stadium on Thursday, November 26, 2015. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Perhaps no Big 12 coach has more authority to speak about true freshmen quarterbacks than Texas Tech’s Kliff Kingsbury, who used two of them, Baker Mayfield and Davis Webb, in 2013, and then another the following year with Patrick Mahomes. Additionally, Kingsbury mentored rookie David Piland as Houston’s quarterbacks coach in 2010.

And Kingsbury is a big fan of Buechele’s.

“Love his mentality,” Kingsbury said. “If anyone can do it, he’ll be a guy who can step in and play, but it’s still a tall task. They have to make their mistakes. They have to learn, they have to grow. You just have to know that going in. It’s not always going to be pretty, but it’ll usually pay dividends in the end.”

RELATED COVERAGE: Orange-White game called at halftime; Shane Buechele was the big winner

Editor’s note: The original version of this story was changed to reflect Mark McBath’s reason for losing the starting job in 1977.

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