The impending decision of USC Trojans graduate transfer quarterback Max Wittek and possibility of further concussions once again sidetracking or ending the career of prospective Texas Longhorns starter David Ash is resulting in an air of uncertainty around the position as spring practice moves forward.
So even though the previous coaching staff knew that Ash was going to be the starter last spring, the first time there had been such a great degree of stability at quarterback since the spring of 2009, there are once again a number of moving pieces that will impact not only how the starting job plays out, but the entire depth chart at the most important position on the field.
Here are the questions currently facing the Texas quarterback position, in order of importance:
- Will Ash remain healthy through the spring and return to the form that he showed before his concussion?
- Will it be Texas, Hawai'i, or Louisville for Wittek?
- Can Tyrone Swoopes continue to grow mechanically to increase his accuracy and place himself in position to win the back-up job, even if Wittek chooses the Horns?
- Is Miles Onyegbule just another body at the position valuable to meet ideal numbers in the spring?
- Is there any chance that 2014 signee Jerrod Heard doesn't redshirt?
- David Ash handily ends any discussion of him being the starter next fall with a strong spring and makes a junior year leap that doesn't match the best quarterbacks in Big 12 history, but is enough to make him a top-10 quarterback in adjusted QBR in 2014, all while maintaining his health.
- The Horns add Wittek, who never seriously considered any other schools after Texas was the first to contact him and Austin and the program won his heart on his visit.
- Despite a spring that shows evidence of improvement in accuracy and an ability to grasp the system installed by Shawn Watson and Joe Wickline, Swoopes has the opportunity develop during the redshirt season he should have had last year.
- Jerrod Heard redshirts.
- This scenario would probably result in a position change back to tight end for Onyegbule or a decision not to play football his senior season, as taking away snaps from Swoopes or Heard wouldn't make sense for the program's future.
Scenario 1 -- Wittek opts for Hawai'i or Louisville
Assuming that Onyegbule doesn't provide any potential to see the field, missing out on Wittek may not be probable if the consistent reports over the last six or seven weeks are true, but it's still a possibility that he watches spring practice at Texas and the other schools he is considering and decides that one of his other options presents a better opportunity to start, a serious danger that the Horns have seemingly overcome to his point.
Resulting scenario -- One of Swoopes or Heard redshirts
The most likely scenario here is that the extra development through the spring for Swoopes and the fact that Heard likely won't receive as many reps at Swoopes in the summer or fall allows the sophomore to win the back-up role.
Then, the question becomes how much to play Swoopes. With only one game on the non-conference schedule against a lower-tier opponent with BYU and UCLA as the other two games before entering Big 12 play against Kansas in Lawrence, Swoopes may only be able to see mop-up time against North Texas and possibly Kansas.
Does the staff create packages for him at that point to make sure that he doesn't waste another season of eligibility?
Less likely is Heard coming in and beating out Swoopes based on the latter's work during the summer and in fall camp.
Scenario 2 -- Wittek opts for Texas
The ideal scenario could prove true here, with everything falling into place.
Resulting scenario 1 -- Wittek and Swoopes battle for the back-up job
The most important moving pieces if Wittek picks the Horns are the positioning of Wittek and Swoopes, assuming that the worst-case scenario doesn't happen with Ash and he wins the starting job handily this spring and is never challenged by Wittek.
If Wittek wins the back-up job is there any reason to get Swoopes on the field in a run package? A few coaches have managed such situations well, as Bill Snyder and his staff ended up doing with Daniel Sams at Kansas State last season, but there were some rocky learning moments, like the game against Texas, where the Wildcat brain trust hadn't quite figured the balance out yet.
And playing Swoopes would make even less sense for the Horns with a healthy and effective David Ash.
Resulting Scenario 2 -- Ash falters or is hurt
There's an outside chance this could happen, with Ash failing to regain his previous levels of play or suffering another concussion at some point between now and the end of the 2014 season and the light suddenly coming on for Wittek after his experiences at USC.
In that unlikely case, the rest of the ideal scenario could play out.
The other possibility here, perhaps even more unlikely, is that Swoopes ends up beating out Wittek for the starting role.
Resulting scenario 3 -- Swoopes tanks this springs and changes positions
This scenario would have to depend on horrific play from Swoopes in practice that indicates he has no future at the quarterback position. Given the brief flashes of promise that he showed last fall and the ability to learn quickly in pressure situations during the Elite 11 process, Swoopes looks like someone who can remain at the position long term.
If Wittek doesn't end up picking Texas, it's hard to see Swoopes changing positions with Onyegbule's position change making four quarterbacks this fall, the ideal number for a coaching staff.
Resulting scenario 4 -- Heard doesn't end up redshirting
Perhaps the least likely of all is something that would indicate worst-case scenarios with all three of the quarterbacks in front of him. It's hard to see this happening.
Clearly, the most important and pressing variable here assuming nothing disastrous happens with Ash in the lead-up to fall camp and throughout the season is what decision Wittek makes, which has a profound impact on what happens with Swoopes -- there's a reason why the easiest dichotomy of scenarios revolves around Wittek.
In either scenario regarding Wittek, the usage of Swoopes comes under question once again, assuming that Heard doesn't somehow manage to pass him with limited opportunities.
One thing seems clear, however -- if Swoopes doesn't redshirt this season, for whatever reason, and doesn't see playing time in anything more than mop-up duty against North Texas, it's going to take a concerned effort by the coaching staff to get him on the field and not repeat the mistakes of the previous regime, as the upside possessed by Swoopes at Texas would be severely diminished by another wasted season of eligibility.
Since it is hard to get back-up quarterbacks on the field, that's why a redshirt situation for Swoopes is ideal if Wittek joins the program.
All of this discussion also puts into perspective how much could go wrong for Texas this fall at quarterback and could result in the offensive brain trust installing a relatively conservative offense similar to what the Longhorns ran last fall that would place an emphasis on the running game and a few shots downfield to create big plays in the passing game.
Such a decision would inherently limit the upside of the team as much as it would decrease risk, resulting in another limited offense that isn't especially aesthetically pleasing.
As a result, coaches and fans will be spending the spring hoping for something closely approximating the ideal scenario laid out above.