Texas' Casey Thompson has a new coach, new number and, he hopes, new role as starter
Card, the local product, isn’t giving up, either; ‘Lake Travis prepared me for a lot of situations like this, and I’m grateful for that’
If one Zoom call means anything, Casey Thompson talks like the starter while Hudson Card feels like the backup.
Of course, the Texas quarterback battle won’t be decided on back-to-back media interviews in April. It’s a long, grueling marathon to the 2021 season opener for both Thompson, a junior with two years as Sam Ehlinger’s backup, and Card, a dynamite passer now in his second season.
Neither quarterback knows when or how Texas coach Steve Sarkisian will make his decision. But both have a good opportunity to show fans what they can do during Saturday’s Orange-White spring game.
“You know, I actually sat for three years, and I got limited playing time and action,” Thompson said Thursday, “and it pushed me to become a better player every day.”
The Oklahoma City product redshirted in 2018 and appeared in seven games the last two seasons. He lit up Colorado in the second half of the Alamo Bowl last December with four touchdown drives all going at least 75 yards in five plays or less.
“I said this right after the Alamo Bowl, I’m hungry and I want to get better,” Thompson said. “I believe in what we can do as a team, and I believe in what I can do. And like I said, I’m just trying to be the best player I can be moving forward and go from good to great.”
Thompson said Sarkisian will “be a big piece in helping me get to that level.” The new coach said Thompson and Card would rotate with the first-team unit throughout the spring. But offensive lineman Denzel Okafor accidentally told reporters that Thompson was getting more time with the first team lately.
Thompson also said he reached out directly to Sarkisian as soon as the new coach was hired and started consuming all the Alabama game tape he could find.
“As far as competition goes, and I guess holding off a younger guy, I think that like I said, I’m embracing the competition,” Thompson added. “It’s only going to push me and make me a better player.”
Thompson is someone who remembers the actual day he first met Vince Young. “On my first visit here to Texas — Feb. 25, 2017 — I came to junior day,” Thompson said. The two spoke for almost 30 minutes, he recalled, and now the two have regular communication.
As for when Sarkisian might name a starter, Thompson said, “That’s obviously a tough question for me to answer. I think that I can just control what I can control and focus on being the best player on and off the field that I can be.”
There’s an enormous amount of local interest in Card’s progression at UT since rising to prominence at Lake Travis. He was rated the nation’s third-best dual threat quarterback prospect and played in the 2020 Under Armour All-American game.
In February, Ehlinger said Card “came out of the womb spinning the football.”
“Often times in practice, I was watching him throw and I’m like, ‘Gosh darn it. Why can’t I do that? Why can’t I spin it the way he can?’” Ehlinger said.
For his part, Card can’t let the outside chatter over the position battle become a distraction.
“I try to kind of block it off and just focus on each and every day,” Card said Thursday in his first interview at Texas. “Lake Travis prepared me for a lot of situations like this, and I’m grateful for that.”
Asked how he could grow as a player, Card said, “I would say just being more vocal is something that I’ve been working on this year and taking initiative. I feel like I’ve improved in that way, but there’s still lots of room to grow.”
No position at Texas is more pressure-packed than the starting quarterback. Thompson had a front-row seat to watch Ehlinger lead Texas to the 2018 Big 12 championship game, the Sugar Bowl and multiple Texas-Oklahoma games.
Thompson was always one play away from going into the game, theoretically. Fortunately for all involved, Ehlinger was incredibly durable. But the Longhorns also played in so many close games, Thompson couldn’t get in.
Ehlinger’s body gave way at halftime of the Alamo Bowl. Thompson started the second half and went wild. “I’m trying to leave the Alamo Bowl in the past,” Thompson said. “I was mad about my two incompletions for about a month.”
Still, Thompson learned a lot from Ehlinger, mostly about how to carry yourself like a starter.
“Sam does a great job of leading by example,” Thompson said. “And so what I took from Sam is his work ethic and his leadership. I think his leadership and his toughness really stood out, how he was always prepared for meetings and just being early and being on time. Sam was a great example of that.”
Thompson is also now wearing jersey No. 11, Ehlinger’s old number. It’s not out of honor, though.
“I actually wore No. 11 mostly my whole life until I got to college,” Thompson said. It’s the same number he wore in high school, middle school and “Little League as well.”
“When I committed to Texas, I took my recruiting pictures in 11,” Thompson said. “And I thought Sam was going to switch from 11 to No. 4, like he wore at Westlake. And so we kind of had a deal. I even offered to pay him money to switch multiple times throughout his career, but he just wouldn’t do it.”
Ehlinger told Thompson that once he wore No. 11 as a freshman at UT, that was his new identity.
“Before the bowl game, I told him that I was going to switch as well,” Thompson said. “So he’s cool with it. There’s no problems with it. And I don’t think I really need his permission because he was already aware of the situation, so that’s what happened.”
Like any confident athlete, Thompson had second thoughts this would all work out. Thompson put his name into the transfer portal after the 2018 season along with fellow freshman Cam Rising. Thompson stayed at UT; Rising left for Utah.
“I think in life, you get rewarded if you go through adversity,” Thompson said. “I think I went through some adversity the first few years here on campus.” Part of that adversity was leaving Oklahoma City for Austin, he said.
“I’m glad that I waited my turn and I’m glad that I didn’t play right away,” Thompson said. “Obviously, the competitor in me wanted to play right away as a freshman or a sophomore. But now looking back, I think my maturity is really what helped me stay here. And I think I've embraced a new chapter in my life and a new role.”
A new role, a new coaching staff and new jersey number, too.
“I just wanted to go back to the old me, per se,” Thompson said. “So my decision to stay, I think it is going to pay off in the end.”