Those Texas fans hoping for a quarterback to create separation this spring are surely disappointed headed into the long summer before the Longhorns take the field again at DKR to battle Rice this fall, with co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin calling the unit a "work in progress," while head coach Mack Brown declared the job still open.
Rumors abounded throughout spring practice in the absence of open practices, putting virtually every quarterback ahead of the others at certain times, but Garrett Gilbert, Case McCoy, Connor Wood, and David Ash all did little to gain a foothold as the eventual starter after mostly uneven performances at the annual Orange-White scrimmage on Sunday.
As the incumbent, Gilbert has the best chance of eventually winning the job, though the new offense keeps him from being as far ahead of the curve as he would have been had Greg Davis retained his job. However, the 2011 version of Garrett Gilbert looked scarily similar to the 2010 version that led the Big 12 in interceptions.
Gilbert left a potential touchdown pass to Mike Davis short, allowing Quandre Diggs to make a play on the ball, then severely unthrew a tight end on a flag route that was picked off by redshirt freshman safety Bryant Jackson, staring down the receiver throughout his route, a problem that plagued Gilbert throughout his sophomore season.
It wasn't only that Gilbert stared down his target, tight end Ahmard Howard, but that Howard was well-covered in the first place, which Gilbert either didn't notice or he simply decided to embrace his inner Brett Favre and try to fit the pass into the small/non-existent window.
Another play just before the end of half was equally disappointing. Gilbert completed a pass to John Harris inside the five yardline with time ticking down and spiked the ball to stop the clock. A strong sequence.
Then, on a play-action pass, Gilbert held the ball too long and took a sack, moving the Longhorns back and effectively ending any chance for a touchdown.
The ball had to come out on time. Thrown away, at worst. Instead, Gilbert made the type of play that resulted in Texas being one of the worst red-zone teams in the country by essentially guaranteeing a field goal following the loss of yardage on the sack. Third and goal from past the ten isn't going to be a better down and distance yardage in the Harsinwhite offense than it was under Greg Davis.
Gilbert did orchestrate two touchdown drives in response to his interception, but the major concern is that Gilbert still hasn't returned to his spring practice form of last year, when he looked confident in the pocket and was able to deliver passes downfield on target, even making some seriously NFL-caliber throws at the open practice. If Greg Davis was to blame for his regression last year, the culprit for the 8-15 performance on Sunday is entirely Gilbert himself.
Case McCoy was the second quarterback to see the field for Texas and was undeniably the most effective Texas quarterback on the day, throwing for the only touchdown pass of the scrimmage on an 11-yard strike to walk-on receiver Patrick McNamara, leading two touchdown drives overall, and completing nine of 11 passes for 124 yards.
In fact, McCoy's performance was strong enough for the Associated Press to call his role in the game a starring one and opine that he shined on the day. On the surface, that might seem like the case looking at some of the pure numbers, but watching McCoy play results in a slightly different analysis.
After a year in the Texas strength program, McCoy has gained strength but is clearly the weakest of the quarterbacks, showing up in marginal, at best, arm strength. His only pass downfield got caught up in the wind, forcing Darius White to make a strong play coming back a football that only traveled about 30 yards in the air. McCoy still looks like he has trouble driving the ball downfield and also attempted several passes off his back foot, not exactly the recipe to take advantage of whatever arm strength he has.
So while McCoy may have had the most impressive stat line of the day and made an excellent throw down the seam to Mike Davis for a big game, it's clear that he's not a strong fit in a Harsinwhite offense that emphasizes throwing the ball downfield and, as a result, he has little upside unless he can miraculously develop better arm strength. Still, after the scrimmage Harsin commented that sustaining drives is the bottom line and McCoy did that, hence the relatively glowing stories about McCoy emanating from media outlets on Sunday.
Connor Wood was the third quarterback into the game and, like McCoy, his numbers don't tell the whole story about how well he played. However, if McCoy's numbers overstated how well he played, perhaps Wood's numbers understated his performance.
The redshirt freshman only completed eight of 14 passes, but he also showed off the strongest arm and some mobility, both moving outside the pocket to make throws and stepping up into the pocket to scramble for positive gains. On one play, Wood scrambled right and unleashed a 60-yard rocket downfield into the wind that Darius White could have made a play on had the sophomore receiver gone after the ball at full stride.
At other times, Wood confidently delivered the ball with accuracy and velocity on intermediate throws, though he did miss an open White down the field on a touch pass -- his accuracy on those longer throws needs some improvement.
Finally, early enrollee David Ash had little opportunity to shine, playing not only with the second-team offensive line, but with a group of receivers that included walk ons and Brock Fitzhenry, indistinguishable physically from that . It's unfortunate for Ash that he didn't get more repetitions, given that he has impressed onlookers throughout the spring with his accuracy and ability to spin the football.
The Belton product may be trailing in the quarterback competition at this point, but if the buzz around him is any indication, he has a bright future in the program.
Overall, the play on the day prompted Mack Brown to declare the job open through fall camp and note that "nobody is ready to take over at this point." Brown also thought that the difficulty of learning the offense may have been a factor on Sunday and declined to specify which quarterbacks played well, saying that he wanted to watch the film first.
Harsin echoed the Texas head coach, but did say, as Brown has throughout the spring, that the coaching staff is emphasizing eliminating turnovers, an area in which Gilbert earne the only failing grade.
The lack of a starting quarterback heading into an important summer is concerning. Organizing the summer workouts requires leadership and buy-in from the rest of the players, something that was clearly missing last summer with Garrett Gilbert. What happens this summer with the quarterbacks all jockeying with each other for position? How can a quarterback take over a legitimate leadership role without being the starter?
Work in the film room learning the offense may be a major part of the equation, as both Brown and Harsin emphasized. In fact, Brown sounded disappointed the quarterbacks as a group struggled getting the offense into the base formations used on Sunday.
In the film session discussing the game, the focus for Harsin will be in controlling down and distance -- making quick decisions, protecting the football, picking up yardage on scrambles or by extending plays/checking down, the same things offensive coordinators are pursuing this spring.
Each quarterback must not only show a mastery of the offense this summer, but must also address deficiencies.
For Gilbert, it's about returning to the confident prepster form that made him such a highly-touted recruit and protecting the football better. It's about recovering his footwork, developing his leadership, burying the unsettled 2010 version of himself that made so many bad decisions.
For McCoy, it's about consistently perfecting his footwork and increasing his strength to counter his deficiency in natural arm strength. It's about giving himself the best chance to allow that moxie, that ability to deliver throws from unorthodox angles, those intangibles that made his brother so successful at Texas.
For Wood, it's about increased accuracy, particularly on deep throws. About sustaining a consistency that matches his physical skills, a combination that could easily win the starting job. Of the three quarterbacks with experience in the program, Wood has the strongest arm and may even have the best ability to make plays with his feet.
For Ash, it's about continuing to adjust to the speed of the game and learning the offense -- all of the physical tools are there for him.
What's clear is that there are still a litany of concerns moving forward at the quarterback system and that the first year of the Harsinwhite offense will hinge primarily on whether one of the four candidates can emerge to command the offense, protect the football, and show an ability to make the type of explosive, downfield plays on which close games often hinge.
What's clear is that the litany of concerns means predicting any type of success for this football team requires a higher level of quarterback play than any of the four showed on Sunday.
And that makes for an unsettling summer.