Yet again, the Texas Longhorns are in the midst of an up and down season. And yet again, everyone seems to have a handful of various solutions on how to fix Texas football. The way I see it, there are two issues, among a vast handful of issues, that head coach Charlie Strong should prioritize over anything else. And that's 1) quarterback and 2) offensive line.
Those two issues, especially offensive line, likely won't get solved before the offseason for various reasons. But at the very least, quarterback and offensive line have to be better in 2016.
Issue #1 - Quarterback
Quarterback is the most important position in football. The quarterback touches the ball the most, conducts the offense while on the field, and is always in a position to be one of the team leaders. And since 2009, Texas has struggled to find a reliable, consistent, and productive quarterback. The sooner Texas has a sure-fire solution the sooner things will begin to trend in the right direction.
Let's take a look at the possible solutions below.
A) Jerrod Heard -- This season and for the near future, Jerrod Heard is the guy getting the opportunity to take a firm grasp of the position. At times he's done well. At other times he's struggled. But right now, he is option A and should absolutely still be option A.
When Heard has made big plays, it's generally been with his legs. And when he's struggled, it's been in passing situations. Moving forward, assessing how well Heard can make plays with his arm should be a main focus.
But when we talk about Jerrod Heard, we have to remind ourselves two important realities. 1) Before coming to Texas, many knew his passing ability would need work. And most importantly, 2) he's a redshirt freshman. And the fact that he's a redshirt freshman can't be overlooked nor forgotten.
Heard is young and he still has a lot to learn on how to play quarterback in college. Sure, he's started almost every game this season, but every game he plays in has new challenges and situations thrown his way that he's yet to see and have to deal with at this level of football, and maybe ever. So if we understand that he already had a ways to go in the passing department when he arrived on campus, then that should help us understand why it's to be expected he'll struggle in passing situations as a redshirt freshman.
Though I haven't ever felt comfortable comparing Jerrod Heard to Vince Young because those two players and situations are still worlds away from one another, I will make a general comparison between the two. Like Heard, Young was much better making plays with his legs verse his arm as a redshirt freshman.
(2003) Vince Young (RS FR)
Running: 135 Atts, 998 YDs, 11 TDs
Passing: 84 Comp, 143 Atts, 1155 YDs, 6 TDs, 7 INT, 58.7 comp %
(2015-through 8 games) Jerrod Heard (RS FR)
Running: 111 Atts, 502 YDs, 3 TDs
Passing: 66 Comp, 111 Atts, 839 YDs, 3 TD, 3 INT, 59.5 comp %
I don't want to get too caught up in numbers. Nor am I trying to say we can make the conclusion that Jerrod Heard will be as good as Young. I bring up Vince Young and his stats as a redshirt freshman because at that time, he was't a great passer. After that season, with time, he improved his passing ability well enough to where he was able to make plays with both his legs and arm. And with another offseason of work, Heard could progress his passing ability as well.
Jerrod Heard is currently option A at quarterback. He'll still likely be option A when the offseason begins. And with at least four games left to play, we still could learn quite a bit about his ability as a quarterback. Or we could see more of what we already know, which is he's a young quarterback that currently isn't comfortable in passing situations. For now, he is option A. And all we can do is watch how he does on a week-to-week basis.
B) Kai Locksley -- Looking long term, I currently list Locksley as the second option over Swoopes because Swoopes is not a long-term answer. Swoopes is a great weapon to have in the 18 Wheeler package. But in regards to finding a solution at quarterback, he already had his opportunity and we saw how that went. And he also has just one year left at Texas after this season. So Locksley is option B for now.
As a true freshman, Locksley is an intriguing and unknown option at this point. So far, he hasn't been asked to step into a game so no one has seen him play in college yet. But what we can seemingly gather about him so far is that he's a big, athletic quarterback that is capable of making plays with his legs. He is the son of Maryland offensive coordinator and current interim head coach Mike Locksley. And he's reportedly brought a great work ethic and desire to learn how to play the quarterback position during his short time at Texas.
Siimilar to Heard, questions about Locksley's arm coming out of high school were some of the main concerns during his recruitment. Until we see him play, those questions will still be there for those of us that don't get to watch practices. On the plus side, given that his dad is a Division 1 offensive coordinator, you'd like to think that he arrived to Texas with at least a decent understanding of how to prepare for and read defenses.
At the moment, Locksley is set to redshirt his freshman season, so we likely won't see him play in a live game for a while. However, when the offseason arrives, Locksley will undoubtedly be an intriguing option to keep tabs on if Heard is unable to take a firm grasp of the quarterback position.
C) Shane Buechele -- The best recruiting news Texas has had lately regarding its 2016 class is that quarterback Shane Buechele will enroll early at Texas and arrive in time for spring practices.
Obviously, Buechele is not an option for the remainder of the season since he's still in high school. Looking long term, when he arrives in January, he will be another potential solution at quarterback for the Longhorns if Jerrod Heard is not the answer.
The most interesting and different trait Buechele will bring to campus that neither Heard nor Locksley brought will be his mechanics throwing the football. Most agree that Buechele's mechanics throwing the football are already at an elite level for a senior in high school annd he's backed that opinion up with his performance in games and at camps.
In a perfect world, Buechele would be given a redshirt year like every true freshman quarterback ideally would. But as we all know, Texas is no where close to living in a perfect world. And there's a real chance that the Longhorns may not have the luxury of giving Buechele a redshirt in 2016. So though he may start as option C for Texas when he first arrives, if he can get a good enough grasp of the playbook, Buechele could be a legitimate option and solution if neither Heard nor Locksley is able to take a firm hold of the starting gig.
D) Matthew Merrick -- Honestly, I'll be curious to see where current true freshman Matthew Merrick fits into the equation. Though he hasn't been talked about much, I don't think anyone should automatically count him out in 2016 should Texas need to be looking at other options at quarterback if Heard doesn't work out.
I only know a little bit about Merrick. He has good height at 6'3. He was awarded a scholarship right before the 2015 season began when one opened up due to attrition in the 2015 recruiting class. He apparently throws the ball decently well with good touch, but he threw a ton of interceptions (28 to be exact) his last two seasons in high school. So it remains to be seen if he has the decision-making ability to make the right throws and protect the football.
For the remainder of the season, I assume it will be the "Heard and Swoopes" show at quarterback. And really, we can only go one week at a time in regards to the quarterback situation because it really is anyone's guess as to how the remainder of the season will play out.
If the 2015 season ends with some of the same questions floating around the quarterback position, Texas should at least be in a much better position this offseason than it was last offseason in finding a solution to their quarterback woes.
Issue #2 - The Offensive Line
The second issue Texas needs to improve upon that I see as equally as important is the offensive line. This is a position group that took the biggest hit of attrition when Charlie Strong took over. And it's an area of the team that has been average overall as a unit this season.
(As a reminder, the following OL left due to various reasons when Charlie Strong took over -- Rami Hammad, Desmond Harrison, Darius James, Curtis Riser, Camrhon Hughes, Kennedy Estelle.)
Finding a solution at quarterback won't have nearly as big of an impact if that quarterback doesn't get any protection. And Texas also needs good offensive line play to help run the ball more successfully.
Looking ahead, the offensive line should also be in a better position to improve this offseason than it was last offseason. The three starters set to return (current junior Kent Perkins and current freshmen Connor Williams and Patrick Vahe) are the three best linemen Texas has played of the five listed starters. The two fifth-year seniors, center Taylor Doyle and left guard Sedrick Flowers, have consistently been the Longhorns' biggest liabilities each week on the offensive line.
Before the season ends, It would be great if Texas could at least find one more lineman to step up and take hold of one of the two spots they'll need to replace once the offseason hits. At the very least, you'd like to think the offensive line can only improve during the offseason considering the two best linemen returning are true freshmen this year, and the two guys the staff will need to replace haven't set the bar all that high..
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Things are still rough for Texas right now. We are in the midst of a true, ground-up rebuild of a program that needed to be completely restored, refreshed, and rebuilt when Charlie Strong inherited it in early 2014. Among the two above issues, Strong still must address leadership deficiencies, looming assistant coaching hires, and confidence issues along with other problems that have led to the stink we've all been smelling for far too long from this program. And realistically, the program likely won't get to the level Texas fans are desperate for until Charlie Strong and his staff have another offseason, or even two, to continue to correct and improve upon these issues.
Given that the Longhorns have had good-to-great play from their young players and freshmen, Strong could finally have things trending in the right direction in 2016 if the issues at quarterback and across the offensive line are figured out sooner than later.