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Who will be the next Texas QB? Coach Steve Sarkisian playing it close to the burnt-orange vest

Sarkisian on Thompson and Card: “I didn't come in with an expectation of one way or another.’

Texas quarterback Casey Thompson looks for a receiver during his breakout second half of the Alamo Bowl win over Colorado last season. He and Hudson Card are battling for the starting position now that Sam Ehlinger has moved on.

Nine practices in this spring, Texas' quarterback position is still wide open. Neither Casey Thompson nor Hudson Card appears to have the upper hand.

Maybe that’s by coaching staff design. Perhaps the battle is that close.

Steve Sarkisian shouldn’t be in any rush.

“Well, I didn’t come in with expectations. I came in with a clean slate. So I don't know,” Sarkisian said after Tuesday’s practice. “I don't think they've surprised me in anything, because anything that they've done well, I've accepted them for doing it. Any areas where maybe they've struggled some, I just felt like OK, this is an area for us to work on.

“So I didn't come in with an expectation of one way or another.”

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First-year Texas coaches have had uneven results at quarterback. In 2014, Charlie Strong put all his chips on David Ash, who had a history of concussions. Ash didn’t make it past the season opener, and the Horns went 6-7.

Tom Herman went with Shane Buechele to open the 2017 campaign. Texas lost to Maryland, and it changed the entire dynamic of Herman’s first season. He switched to Sam Ehlinger the second game against Tulsa, and the quarterbacks ended up rotating all the way through a 7-6 season.

Sarkisian has a significant leg up than did his two predecessors. Thompson and Card have solid high school credentials. It’s just neither one has gotten significant playing time yet at UT.

Let’s say one starts the season opener and doesn’t perform well. Sarkisian could switch to the other and it would be accepted. Texas fans have come a long way and have seen a lot of mediocrity since the Major Applewhite-Chris Simms saga.

Thompson and Card have a better supporting cast, too. Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson are two dynamic running backs. There are plenty of choices at wideout, and the offensive line should be solid. Neither quarterback should be running for their lives out there.

Texas quarterback Hudson Card, a highly-regarded high school recruit out of nearby Lake Travis,  appeared in only two games last season as a freshman and attempted only three passes. But he's trying to inherit the starting job this spring.

“Clearly, they’re both very athletic, young men,” Sarkisian said. “They throw the ball well. I think they’ve got a good grasp of what we’re trying to do. Now, it’s just getting into the flow of letting things happen naturally and not playing quite as robotic. That comes with reps and getting into different situations and scenarios.

“But I think all in all, I’m pleased with where we’re at at that position.”

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The Longhorns don’t need a dynamic, once-in-a-generation star at quarterback, if Sarkisian’s offensive history is any indication. Those who aren’t gifted runners or dazzling playmakers get labeled “game managers” now in football.

“Our quarterback last year (at Alabama) got labeled a game manager and threw almost 50 touchdowns and led us to a national championship,” Sarkisian said. “So I guess he was a pretty good game manager.

“I think a quarterback’s responsibility is to manage the game, to control the tempo of the offense, to direct the action,” Sarkisian added. “Their responsibility is to execute the calls as we see fit. If we’re calling a lot of shot plays down the field, then that requires them to drive the ball down the field. If we’re running the football and doing some things to control the tempo of the game, then that’s his responsibility.”

More:All gas, no brakes, one possible broken foot on Texas’ first day of spring practice

Finally, Sarkisian said, “So to me, good quarterbacks are game managers, but they also have the ability to be aggressive when called upon to do so.”

Receivers learning, too: Sarkisian will highlight individual players, but he generally likes to comment on position groups. But he did call attention to receivers Joshua Moore, Marcus Washington and Kelvontay Dixon on Tuesday.

Sarkisian said all three have good speed and can create explosive plays but wants to see more consistency. 

“I think we get in trouble at receiver right now, we’re starting to think a little bit too much,” the coach said. “It’s because we’re uncertain of what to do. And like I just got done talking to the players, if you don’t know what to do in our offense, it’s hard to play.”

The previous coaching staff believed in rotating receivers in games, which diluted the numbers. Moore is the team’s leading receiver in yardage terms; he had 472 yards on 30 catches last season. Washington had just four catches for 56 yards. Dixon had three catches for 76 yards. 

Transfer portal: Sarkisian, like other coaches, is grappling with how to view players in the NCAA transfer portal. Players transfer for a host of reasons — a lack of playing time, falling out of love with their current coaching staff or school or just wanting to be closer to home.

Most coaches prefer to recruit high school players and coach them up. Still, Sarkisian acknowledged that the transfer portal can have benefits.

“I really equate it to free agency and college football, to where if you’ve got a need on your roster, that you can go find it in the portal and fill that need, whether it’s for a depth standpoint or a front-line player,” he said. “I really believe for us, if we do go into the portal to find the player, it's really to try to fill a need on our roster.”

The transfer portal is no panacea. Texas had success in recent years plugging holes with running back Tre Watson and offensive tackle Calvin Anderson. Others have become role players.

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