A quarterback competition is always the defining storyline for any team and the 2015 Texas Longhorns are no exception with an ongoing battle that could conceivably last through fall camp.
Since a primetime road game against Notre Dame looms in the opener and head coach Charlie Strong would prefer not to start a redshirt freshman quarterback, much of the upside this fall will come down to whether or not junior quarterback Tyrone Swoopes can win the starting job during the summer or early in camp and then hold it down for the entire season.
While redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard has demonstrable upside he flashed in a strong Orange-White game performance, often against the first-team defense, the Denton Guyer product is still a relatively blank canvas on which fans can paint their greatest hopes and dreams. Since he's yet to throw a collegiate pass, the burnt orange faithful haven't watched him struggle wtih his accuracy or throw an interception or melt down behind a struggling offensive line.
To be sure, none of those hypothetical scenarios provide guarantees of what will happen if Heard does win the job as the quarterback most ready to lead the second edition of Charlie Strong's Longhorns, but there also aren't any guarantees that he will become the instant savior some envision.
And, according to the latest report, Heard isn't yet taking control of the team during offseason workouts -- even though he closed the gap on Swoopes during the spring, where's that necessary next step that Colt McCoy made in becoming a leader through 2006 summer conditioning?
With that in mind, here are six reasons why Swoopes will improve in 2015.
1. The offensive line was a big part of his 2014 struggles
Remember one of the best soundbites from Strong about Swoopes this spring? Not the time that he couldn't remember his first name -- the time that he said even Teddy Bridgewater would have struggled behind the 2014 Texas offensive line.
The 2013 Louisville group started the season with 64 starts, an average number that resulted in average placement among the most experienced lines in the country, but had some future NFL prospects and played a significant role in Bridgewater finishing No. 5 nationally in passer rating.
From the Texas standpoint, is it really worth spending any more time talking about the 2014 group? There's little new territory to cover there, but at least let senior offensive guard Sedrick Flowers take a little responsibility and describe what he saw from Swoopes last year.
"He's a great quarterback," Flowers said in an appearance on the Longhorn Network. "If he has time to sit back there and do what he can do, he'll pick apart a defense or he'll use his legs to get out there and make a play. Last season, we played nowhere near the level we should have played and he'd get hurried or get sacked, so we just messed it up completely for him. He didn't have a chance to do what he could do."
Capable of "great things" when the offenisve line holds up, Flowers believes that Swoopes can play at a high level because he's seen it in practice and even in games when the protection is there for him.
And Flowers also said that the offensive line is 10 times better than it was in 2014.
2. The interceptions mostly came in blowouts
When things went poorly for Swoopes and the offensive line, overall play and demeanor deteriorated quickly. In fact, of his 11 interceptions on the season, six of them came when losing by 15 or more points -- he was more likely to make a bad decision during blowouts than during close games. When the Horns were tied with an opponent or holding a lead, he only threw two interceptions.
Sure, completely melting down then things go poorly is not the trait of a high-level quarterback, but there were plenty of traits that caused the 2014 team to lose so many games in such disastrous fashion. Swoopes also went a stretch of throwing 77 passes without an interception and another during which he attempted 104 passes without an interception.
3. He's more comfortable at tempo
The changes instituted by the offensive brain trust this spring were primarily designed to better feature the talents of both quarterbacks on the roster and the comfort level that Swoopes showed when running a hurry-up, no-huddle version of the 2014 offense helped determine the eventual destination.
Remember the Oklahoma game last year? Swoopes helped lead the furious fourth-quarter comeback by having a heavy hand in two late touchdowns on the way to throwing for 334 yards on the Cotton Bowl's huge stage. He did it by playing with his intuition instead of overthinking every play when huddling and moving slowly to the line of scrimmage.
"Like I said, I feel like last year, I was thinking too much," he said after the Orange-White game. "And going out here [this year] and just going fast and not thinking and just reacting to everything I see, it's helped me out a lot."
4. The offense is more simple and has fewer checks
Whether it was before the play or after the play, Swoopes often went to the line of scrimmage last season with a variety of checks to make, placing a signifcant mental burden on a young player who threw only 13 passes in low-leverage situations as a freshman in 2014.
To put it simply, the offense wasn't simple enough for him to play with a high level of confidence and a low level of thinking, but that isn't the case any more.
"I see an offense now that gives him an opportunity to really show his skills, and where you're taking it now, and they are where the coaches are making the checks for him, and whether it's Tyrone or Jerrod, it's going to be made," Strong said during the spring. "A lot of calls are going to be made from the sideline, so they don't have to make a lot of reads. Just get the ball out of your hands and get it in the playmaker's hands."
So with a reduced number of West Coast passing staples that require the quarterback and wide receiver to make reads after the snap, Swoopes will instead check box defenders to determine if he should throw a tagged route like a hitch when dictated by the number of defenders or read a defender on a run-pass option play.
5. He's still young
As a junior, Swoopes is now entering his final two seasons of college, but it's worth remembering that he only threw 13 passes in a wasted freshman season that did little to nothing for his actual on-field development. As a sophomore, he played in an offense designed for a much more seasoned quarterback in David Ash.
If the Whitewright product comes out early and struggles, it will be hard to justify continuing to give him opportunities without providing Heard the chance to take over the job. However, it's also reasonable to expect that Swoopes will make a leap.
In true developmental years, his competition in high school and lack of offseason reps puts him closer to most redshirt freshmen, even though he's entering his junior season. Because of that, the reps gained during the summer and fall camp could spark a steeper learning curve than for most players of his age.
It's time to start producing more consistently and if he doesn't, he'll start entering the realm of players with unfulfilled potential instead of unactualized potential. However, Swoopes hasn't yet closed in on that moment due to a number of circumstances.
6. His best moments were really good
The late drives against Oklahoma. The fourth-down throw against UCLA. The game-winning drive against Iowa State.
When Swoopes was on, his arm strength and ability to throw on the run served him extremely well in compiling the most total offense in Red River Showdown history, even with his long run negated. Speaking of that running ability, in gaining more than 50 yards on the ground against Iowa State to go with his more than 300 passing yards, he became the only quarterback in Texas history to accomplish that feat in consecutive games.
Get lost in the abysmal nature of the TCU and Arkansas games? The 10 best throws from Swoopes last season are truly heartening moving forward:
Strong called him "a lot better football player" this spring than he was against Arkansas. Neither Strong nor anyone else knows just how much better Swoopes will be in 2015, but there are plenty of factors to suggest 2015 improvements despite the fits and starts in his development.