A surge of energy flashed through the 84,000 Texas Longhorns fans at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium on Saturday night against the Rice Owls when redshirt freshman quarterback Jerrod Heard trotted out onto the field with the first-team offense.
Three plays later, on a 3rd and 11 no less, Heard gave the program the spark it so badly needed when he pulled the ball down and took off on a 53-yard burst down the field that altered everything, according to new play caller Jay Norvell.
"When he broke the pocket on that first drive... he changed our whole team."
The speed and electricity on the play was something unseen from a quarterback at DKR since the glory days of Vince Young. Colt McCoy had some big runs, but not that kind of speed.
In going 4-of-7 for 120 yards and two touchdowns along with 10 carries for 96 yards, Heard took control of the quarterback position in one fell swoop and provided the team some rare confidence in the future at quarterback.
It's a word that seems to come up all the time with Heard, the two-time state champion in high school who at times willed Denton Guyer to victory -- willed is truly the proper adjective when a player weighing about 185 pounds soaking wet breaks four tackles for a huge touchdown on the biggest stage in Texas high school football.
Heard has it for a reason. Not simply a steward of a high-powered offense, he was the engine that made things go at Denton Guyer, throwing for more than 6,500 yards and 67 touchdowns during his three years as the starter and rushing for almost 5,000 yards and 67 more touchdowns for good measure. As a US Army All-American and The Opening alum, Heard earned his ranking as the consensus No. 79 player nationally and 247Sports' No. 1 dual-threat quarterback.
Oh yeah, and there's that verified 4.59 speed in the 40-yard dash, too.
"The thing about Jerrod is he has so much confidence," said Strong. "He always has had it. A lot of things just don't really bother him."
The Texas staff didn't think he was ready last season, opting to redshirt him instead of giving him a chance on the field. Frustration resulted, and Heard didn't always apply himself in the film room or on the practice field. But he still felt he could make plays.
"I definitely think that," said Heard. "But, you know, like I said, it's a process."
Unfortunately for Heard, that process didn't translate to him being able to convince former play caller Shawn Watson that he was ready play, even recently. During fall camp Watson described Heard as where junior quarterback Tyrone Swoopes was last season. But at no time during any practices available to the media during the spring or during fall camp did Heard take snaps with the first-team offense.
Did he even get a chance under Watson? USA TODAY Sports' Dan Wolken trashed Swoopes' demeanor during fall camp, having not needed much time to identify the "alpha dog," in his telling of it. Seems like Wolken was right.
Part of the problem for the Texas staff was that Heard's personality and skill set make him difficult to evaluate in the practice setting.
"Sometimes you can get the wrong impression with him because you may look at him and think that he's not really focused or locked in, really doesn't care, when he does," Strong said. "That's just who he is. His whole personality is like that. Even with the guys he hangs around, their personality is like that."
After Swoopes showed little to no improvement in the opener in South Bend, Strong made the move away from Watson and handed the play-calling duties to wide receivers coach Jay Norvell. Where Watson seemed tied to Swoopes, getting emotional enough about the former starter to nearly shed tears at one fall camp media availability, Norvell quickly made a calculated decision upon which his professional future hinged.
"We decided it was time," Norvell said on Tuesday. "We needed to go find out."
When the lights came on and it was finally Heard's time, he told Strong, "All right coach, we're going to go get this. Watch me go out there and get these boys."
Then he backed it up, needing only three plays to do so.
"It's almost like, 'Okay, the lights are brighter, so I'm going to go shine. Everybody's going to watch me shine,' " said Strong.
Brendan Maloney (USA TODAY Sports)
Though Heard's skill set doesn't alwasy translate to practice success, his personality extremely similar to that of Young -- it's all about staying loose. Learning to effectively deal with Young's personality ultimately defined the greatest moments of Mack Brown's tenure at Texas -- when the former head coach allowed Young to just be himself, to listen to music and to dance before games, Young's confidence took off and he carried the entire program wtih him to the greatest heights seen at Texas in 35 years.
"That just comes from a mental state," Heard said. "That's how I get in my zone. Before the games I'm probably going to be dancing hard, doing a whole bunch of stuff. That's how I feel, like, calm when I go back out on the field. If I get too tensed up, I'm not having fun with it."
Before games in high school, Heard described himself as the goofiest kid around. Just ask his former teammates. Or even his current teammates, like freshman linebacker Malik Jefferson.
Hey Malik, is Jerrod one of the goofiest people around?
Wait, is he always like that, though?
"He's goofy all the time," Jefferson said. "If you ever listen to his laugh, y'all never catch it, but he has the funniest laugh ever. Makes me laugh. He has the eyes that are really low. Really funny guy."
What does he bring to the team?
"Swagger, I think. We need that sense of humility. We need to have fun when we're on the field. I think he brings that attitude. He wants to go out there and win. Of course, he wants to have fun while winning. So that's most important."
The players said the right things about Swoopes, even toeing the company line that Swoopes won the team during fall camp. But with Heard, there's a different tone. The superlatives start to pour out.
"Jerrod is goofy," said senior running back Johnathan Gray. "He's a goofy quarterback, but serious when needed. He brings a lot of energy to the team, a lot of excitement, a lot of maturity, a lot of knowledge. Just a great guy to be around. That's what the team needs, especially from a quarterback."
So what gives Heard even more confidence? Those opportunities to run with the football, especially early on his career when he's still working through some understandable nerves early in the game.
"He's a guy that can beat you with his legs," Strong said. "You can open up the quarterback game, the run game with him, the power game, all those things that will help Jerrod. It gives him more confidence."
Not only that, but the threat of a run forces defenses to react. For Rice, that meant dropping the boundary safety down into the box, leaving freshman wide receiver John Burt with one-on-one coverage outside. Coming out in the second half on Saturday, Norvell took advantage by dialing up a play-action pass that resulted in a 69-yard touchdown and rare third-quarter score.
Such is the impact of a true running quarterback who is improving enough as a passer to be able to drive the ball 50 yards down field. Beyond Heard's physical skills improving to make those critical throws he didn't make during the spring or even that often in high school, learning the intricacies of college defenses further buoyed the former Denton Guyer star.
"Just having that confidence in all areas now," Heard said. "Knowing the opposite defense, knowing from the fronts, the coverage, knowing where to place the ball. It gives you a different confidence of coming out on the field and just executing."
Having that understanding comes as a bonus. After all, if worst comes to worst, Heard can just take off. Turns out that still works for him.
"Once he's off and running, there's not a lot of guys are going to catch him," Strong said. "In the open field, he'll make a guy miss. They're going to have to run him down."
And good luck with that.
There's a reason why Heard has all that confidence.
Brendan Maloney (USA TODAY Sports)