The eyes of Texas are upon the Longhorns quarterback competition this spring as fans wait nervously in hopes that the team will field much improved play when the 2015 season opens against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in four and a half months.
By most accounts, junior Tyrone Swoopes has the lead on redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard in the competition at quarterback, with one source saying two weeks ago that Swoopes has "turned the corner."
However, head coach Charlie Strong wasn't willing to go that far last week.
"You grow through the season," Strong said. "You look at last season, he started numerous games and you would expect for someone to get better from the end of the season to where we are at right now. Jerrod is doing a great job because he is going to push him but you expect both of them to be better and Swoopes is a lot better if I look at him from the end of last season to where we are right now, he's a lot better football player. How much better? That's yet to be determined."
The spring game will provide further insight into where Swoopes is with his development at this time, but for now, it's just practice reports, like this one from Inside Texas after last Monday's practice:
During Swoopes' first series of 11-on-11s, he overthrew an open receiver on a quick out. He then fumbled the shotgun snap before miscommunicating with WR Dorian Leonard, resulting in another incompletion. The point: the defense had little to do with what would have been a fourth-and-long series on gameday.
Swoopes also threw an interception to junior cornerback Bryson Echols on the next series.
And Heard performed much better on Monday than he did in the first open practice of the spring, with some important gains in his ability to create plays in the passing game:
The first play of Heard's series saw him run the Zone Read keeper for about eight yards. He followed with a 25-yard completion down the left sideline to Leonard.("Dorian is playing well and doing a lot of good things for us", Strong said). Next play, he quickly stepped-off 15 yards on a QB Draw...
Heard came back and dialed-up the play of the day. He hit WR Daje Johnson 30 yards downfield on a post pattern, and the speedster quickly finished the final 10 yards of the scoring toss. Heard followed with a quick-out to WR Jacorey Warrick, prompting shouts with WR coach Jay Norvell, "Great throw! Great spot!"
So Heard seems to be closing that gap that once existed with his only other competition for the starting spot, as he also threw three touchdown passes to walk-on wide receiver Ty Templin last Monday.
On Saturday, he also received some first-team reps during the team's second scrimmage.
"With Jerrod, he's still getting better. What you like about him is how he competes," Strong said. "You watch him today and he went out there and made some really good throws. He just needs to develop consistency. It's all about consistency with him right now and just continue to pick up the offense. He's a guy that if a play breaks down he can run away from you. But we just like for to sit in [the pocket] and make the throws to see if he can make them."
But here's the thing -- Texas doesn't need to resolve the quarterback battle this spring. It doesn't even necessarily need to resolve it in by the fall, though it's certainly not ideal to enter the season with a quarterback rotation.
What the Longhorns need is to have two quarterbacks ready to play.
In 2014, that wasn't the case with Swoopes once starter David Ash went down. And in 2013, the difference between Ash and back-up Case McCoy was significant enough that former co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite had to seriously retool the offense.
So simply having two available quarterbacks with similar skill sets who can operate the same offense with some level of efficiency would represent a major change for a program that hasn't truly had that luxury since Colt McCoy and Jevan Snead battled for the starting job in 2006, though the younger McCoy led his fair share of late comebacks.
This is about consistent improvement for both players, not necessarily which one holds the lead in the quarterback battle. Until the season actually starts, Strong and his coaches have the luxury of focusing on the process, one that actually includes competition this time around.