While most of the buzz around spring practice for the Longhorns this year centers around the new coaching staff and developing drinking games for how many times Mack Brown uses the words "excitement" and "energy" during interview, there's also a pretty significant position battle taking place on the 40 Acres.
Yes, that would be the quarterback position. You know, the position Colt McCoy and Vince Young played at Texas. No pressure there.
The competition may be open, but even when there isn't a depth chart, someone still has to take the first snap in practice and start out with the ones. In response to that conundrum, the coaching staff developed what it calls "a pecking order." So there ya go -- Garrett Gilbert, Connor Wood, Case McCoy, and David Ash aren't fighting to be the starting quarterback at the University of Texas, they're fighting to become the top chicken in the courtyard.
Remember, it's a pecking order. Don't call it a depth chart, because the only similarity is that both are methods of listing the top chicken to the bottom pansy little chicklet. Who will be the ruler of the roost?
All snark aside, the installation of the Harsinwhite offense is new to all the quarterbacks, a fact that changes the priorities for the coaching staff this spring, according to Harsin:
All four of those guys right now, they are learning, they are preparing, and that is the one thing we are looking for right now. They are in there studying film. They’re answering questions in the film room, and they are applying it on the field. It is not perfect right now. It is a new system, but they’re out there working. They are coming to practice prepared, and we’re just looking to build off that.
As expected, there's officially little or no separation in the competition for the starting job. In all actuality, there probably isn't. Right now, the coaches are throwing as much as they can at all the players and exploring all the different combinations:
We’re just trying to put them in different groups and different scenarios. That is just the main thing right now, to get them in all different scenarios, with different groups, in different situations, and that is what we are trying to look at right now.
Of course, all this isn't to say that Garrett Gilbert doesn't have an inherent advantage in having already logged a full season's worth of live plays:
I’ve always felt like a quarterback who has snaps under his belt is going to be more confident than a quarterback who doesn’t. I think (Gilbert) has done a great job being comfortable out there on the field. Not necessarily confident, but just comfortable.
In his interview with Pete Thamel, Mack Brown mentioned that the "pecking order" verbiage came from Harsin and was based on playing time, putting Gilbert at the front and McCoy second. No surprise then that Gilbert is at the front of the pecking order -- as the former starter, it doesn't really make sense any other way, right?
The Longhorns scrimmage in practice on Thursday and the rest of spring practice and the spring game will help further develop a pecking order that might even result in a depth chart at some point after spring break. Even if the real separation won't happen until the fall, that first depth chart is growing to create some serious attention.
There's a tough balance the coaches will have to walk between giving the team the certainty of having a defined leader at the position during the all-important summer 7-on-7 workouts. Texas won't be able to develop true leadership at the position until there's a starter in place. Ideally, Gilbert would probably distance himself solidly from the other three quarterbacks by the end of the spring.
Whether that happens is a completely open question at this point.
Oddly enough, there hasn't been a ton of buzz about Gilbert, who needs to show some improved footwork. Consistently throwing a spiral might be nice, too, but that's a lesser consideration to making better decisions. It sounds like there's been some improvement -- not hard to believe since he basically regressed during the season.
Both McCoy and Wood have struggled with inconsistency. For Wood, it's been an issue of accuracy with the football that deserts him at times and shines at others. In terms of pure arm strength, Wood probably has the edge over David Ash.
McCoy, on the other hand, still has some problems spinning the football. His usefulness in the new Harsinwhite offense may be severely limited if he can't push the ball down field with enough accuracy and drive to beat deep safeties. Still a major question mark with him.
As for Ash, there's almost as much buzz around the early enrollee as there is any of the other quarterbacks. In part it might be because he's the newest entity -- look at the shiny new quarterback! The argument against that take is that nearly every media member who has seen Ash throw has mentioned the tight spiral that Ash throws, a thing of beauty after a year of Gilbert throwing pass after wobbly pass. The buzz is legit.
If the lack of consistency from Wood and McCoy isn't surprising, neither is the buzz around Ash's accuracy and ability to throw such a pretty pass. Winning the starting job is almost certainly out of the question for him, but it looks like he has a better-than-expected chance of being the back-up. At this point, if Wood is all physical tools and McCoy is all accuracy and moxie, then Ash is an inexperienced but appealing combination of prototypical size and strong feel for the position.
Call it a slight edge for Gilbert given his game reps, but when the separation does happen, in part it will be because the starter fulfills the four qualities stressed by Harsin:
There are four things that we talked about, and this is just quarterback play in general. One is toughness. Two is preparation. Number three is decision-making, and four is accuracy. And so we have been really trying to talk about those preparation habits. We’ve been talking about the decision-making process while we are out there on the field, and then we have been working on the fundamentals to try to get better with our accuracy. The toughness part will come when you get into the scrimmages, when you get into those game situations where those guys will stay in the pocket and move around, or they will throw the ball away when they are supposed to and that is the only play.
The toughness will start to enter into the equation during the scrimmages and at the spring game, but is truly something that only comes through game repetitions, something the Longhorns don't exactly have a bunch of before naming a starting quarterback.