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Texas QB Casey Thompson: ‘It feels good for preparation to finally meet opportunity’

Backup QB steps in for injured Sam Ehlinger, leads Alamo rout and now looks toward the future as possible starter

Texas quarterback Casey Thompson looks for room to run against Colorado during Tuesday night's 55-23 Alamo Bowl win. The backup played most of the second half with the game on the line.

SAN ANTONIO — Casey Thompson has held the toughest job at Texas the past two seasons. Nobody cares about the backup quarterback — until they do.

Thompson was an all-state pick coming out of Oklahoma City. In 2018, he redshirted as Sam Ehlinger moved ahead of Shane Buechele. But the past two seasons, he has been Ehlinger’s backup, always having to be ready, always one play from being summoned.

When would his moment come? It had to be agonizing.

“That’s something that I actually think about every day, believe it or not,” Thompson said. "But I just try to put it to the back of my mind.”

Thompson’s moment arrived Tuesday in the Alamo Bowl against Colorado. Pressed into duty when Ehlinger was lost with a shoulder injury, Thompson unloaded in the second half. He threw four touchdown passes, tying Major Applewhite’s UT bowl record, and guided the 20th-ranked Longhorns to a 55-23 rout.

Whether that performance launches Thompson into the starting job permanently remains to be seen. Ehlinger might return for another senior season. Freshman Hudson Card would like to have his say in spring practice. 

As of now, assuming Ehlinger does not return, Thompson has to be considered the front-runner.

“Nobody was surprised,” Texas coach Tom Herman said. “Maybe you all were because he hasn’t played a whole lot. But we’ve seen him in practice for three years. So none of us were surprised.”

Texas quarterback Casey Thompson, thrust into emergency duty in Tuesday's Alamo Bowl against Colorado, threw 10 times and completed eight. Four were for touchdowns.

Ehlinger’s injury was something of a mystery. TV replays couldn’t find a specific play on which he might’ve been dinged up. Herman didn’t go into details and admitted he didn’t know which play it was, either. Ehlinger did not meet with reporters afterward. He spent the second half wearing a black windbreaker over a shoulder sling.

All Thompson knew was that coaches came to him at halftime and said he was in. What happened next might be the result of patience and keeping a good mindset in a sport that rewards an athlete’s play-me-now-or-I’m-leaving mentality. 

“My thought process was very positive,” he said. “I had positive self-talk, and I felt very comfortable in the moment and confident. I believe in what we can do and what I can do. I’ve been preparing for this moment since I stepped foot on campus. 

“And to me, it just felt like high school. Football is football, obviously at a higher level. But I felt prepared, and I was ready. I really trust my teammates and everyone for believing me.”

It helped that Thompson had running back Bijan Robinson at his disposal. On the first play of the second half, Robinson ripped off a 66-yard run. Then Thompson found Joshua Moore on a slant pattern in the end zone for a 13-yard score.

On Texas’ next drive, Thompson hit Cade Brewer on a crossing route for a 21-yard pickup. He capped the drive with an eye-popping 25-yard throw to Moore for another score. 

Think Thompson can’t run? On his third drive, he went straight up the middle on a quarterback keeper. He showed nice open-field wiggle and picked up 22 yards. A sack on third-and-7 led to Cameron Dicker’s 35-yard field goal.

Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger, who started his 43rd career game, was lost for the second half of Tuesday's Alamo Bowl. He spent the third and fourth quarters watching from the sideline, with his right arm in a sling.

Thompson next set up a screen pass to Robinson early in the fourth quarter. The electric freshman raced 23 yards for the score. Thompson still wasn’t done. His most memorable throw came on UT’s next drive when he unleashed a soaring 73-yard scoring pass to Kelvontay Dixon with 11 minutes, 1 second remaining.

All told, Thompson completed 8 of 10 passes for 170 yards and four touchdowns. He eventually gave way to Card when Texas was up by 25.

None of this happens if Thompson isn’t prepared, both mentally and physically. He probably went into the game figuring Ehlinger would play every snap if possible, should it be Ehlinger’s last game. 

“In our off days, I try to get in the film as much as I can,” Thompson said. “I'm always working with Sam and the coaches, just how to get any tips and any leg up on the opponent we’re playing. 

“Honestly, tonight it feels surreal, but with all the hard work and preparation that we've put in, and that I know I've put in behind closed doors, it feels good for preparation to finally meet opportunity.”

To be fair, this wasn’t Thompson’s first game action. He got mop-up duty against UTEP and Kansas State. Both of those blowout wins were well in hand when Thompson reached the huddle. Same goes for his four appearances in 2019. Those were hand it off and run the clock opportunities.

The Alamo Bowl was completely different. This was real game action against a Colorado team that, frankly, did well to hang around for as long as it did.

It’s unclear when Ehlinger will announce his intentions. Part of that timeline might be altered by his shoulder prognosis. 

The four-year starter will also have to weigh what coming back might do to his UT legacy. Ehlinger could return and win that missing Big 12 title. Or he could return and only delay Thompson’s growth with middling results.

At least now, Texas fans know there is somebody behind Ehlinger ready to go.

“As far as the offseason and Sam's future in the quarterback room, that's not up to me," Thompson said. "But we'll see what happens. I'm very excited, and it'll be interesting.

Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com or @BDavisAAS.