It seems like it's been a storyline for national pundits every fall -- who will be the Texas Longhorns quarterback? Since Colt McCoy departed the 40 Acres in 2010, the Longhorns have wandered in a quarterback desert, constantly looking for the next big star with no avail. Whether it was Garrett Gilbert's inability to put it all together, David Ash's head injuries, or Case McCoy's lackluster physical tools, the Longhorns have not found an answer. Now with their sixth offensive coordinator since 2010, Charlie Strong and Sterlin Gilbert will try to find the man in 2016.
The Longhorns return two quarterbacks who started games last season, Tyrone Swoopes and Jerrod Heard, but both failed to secure starting spot because of their inconsistent play and turnover problems. The Longhorns also return redshirt freshmen Kai Locksley and Matthew Merrick, who will try to crawl into the mix at the start of fall camp.
With no returning players at the quarterback position dazzling anyone, fans and coaches alike have immediately put the pressure on early enrollee Shane Buechele to carry the load. A consensus four-star prospect from Arlington Lamar, Buechele impressed everyone with his poise, arm strength, and accuracy in the spring, including a 299-yard, two-touchdown effort in the Orange and White Game. The coaching staff maintains it will wait to name a starter in Gilbert's high-octane offense, but Buechele looks like the early leader in the clubhouse.
Shane Buechele, Fr, HS
Tyrone Swoopes, Sr, 2L
Jerrod Heard, So, 1L
Kai Locksley, Fr, RS
Matthew Merrick, Fr, RS
When asked before the Orange and White game if Shane Buechele would see the field in 2016, Charlie Strong sent waves throughout the media and Longhorn message boards with three simple words -- "Oh God, yes."
For Texas coaches and fans, the question is when, not if, Buechele will step on the field in 2016. Perhaps it is a little disconcerting handing the starting job to a true freshman, but Buechele stands as the best option for Charlie Strong to have success in 2016.
I maintain this belief for several reasons. One, Buechele already displayed more fundamental football intelligence than either Tyrone Swoopes or Jerrod Heard. Watching Buechele, any observer can see the grasp he has on the game. He showed he not only has the physical skills to throw any ball, but also the understanding of where to locate the ball to keep it away from defenders and give the receiver a chance to make a play. Buechele excelled in the Orange and White game, throwing with extreme precision, particularly on screens, curl patterns, and deep routes along the sidelines.
What impressed me more about his performance was not what he did, but what he didn't do. Buechele did not throw an interception in the Orange and White game and never forced any passes into bad spots. He has a remarkable understanding for a true freshman of when to throw the ball away or when to tuck it and run, a trait that Heard and Swoopes struggle with. Most importantly, Buechele already has great command of Gilbert's offense. In the spring game, Buechele made quick reads and ran the offense with complete control. Take for example, a point Wescott made in his post spring write up on Buechele:
In 64 plays, Buechele averaged only 11.1 seconds between snaps. By contrast, senior quarterback, Tyrone Swoopes took an average of 13 seconds between his 46 plays.
If that stat has any indication, Buechele already has the upper hand on commanding the offense.
Yes, starting Buechele will have its bumps and bruises. According to ESPN.com, only thirteen true freshman quarterbacks on Power Five teams in the past five years have finished in the top 100 in quarterback efficiency by the end of the season. That stat is alarming, no doubt, but the fact remains Buechele stands tall in a grim quarterback situation. Handing Buechele the staring position will be like handing your sixteen-year-old son keys to a new car -- you know there are going to be scratches and dents along the way, but with time, you know it's for the best.
The other quarterback vying for the starting job will be senior Tyrone Swoopes. Seemingly left out to dry during the middle of the 2015 season, Jay Norvell revitalized Swoopes' career with the infamous 18 Wheeler package that helped Swoopes score 12 rushing touchdowns in 2015. After Jerrod Heard succumbed to injury, Norvell handed the keys to the offense back to Swoopes where he had flashes of great play, but mostly fizzled during the back half of the season. To be honest, that seems to be the story for Swoopes' career in Austin.
In his four seasons, Swoopes has shown glimpses of true potential, but generally fails to live up to the lofty expectations built for him. Some of his struggles have been in part due to coaching changes, offensive schemes that haven't utilized him properly, and personnel changes, but excuses don't go a long way for the quarterback position at the University of Texas.
During the spring, fans heard the same song, different verse about Tyrone Swoopes quarterback play. We heard everything from "new offense, new Swoopes" to "Swoopes will be the quarterback we waited for," but unfortunately he largely underwhelmed everyone with his performance in the Orange and White game. During the spring-ending scrimmage, Swoopes went 4-16 for 71 yards and two interceptions.
Just watched spring game again. Buechele was making throws before the receiver broke. Swoopes was still slow in the same throw.— Mike (@MBHORNSFAN) April 19, 2016
The stats for Swoopes were poor, but more importantly, Buechele's performance overshadowed him. Fans knew it, coaches knew it, and Swoopes knew it, too. Swoopes got some bad breaks in the game, including a deflected interception and dropped passes, but everyone knew Swoopes needed to show something in the Orange andWhite game, and he simply did not.
It's unfortunate because Swoopes is a player worth of respect. He's an excellent athlete and a great guy who's willing to give up anything for the team, but the 2016 Longhorns can't risk starting a guy whose career has been a cycle of inconsistent plays and turnovers. While I hope the best for Swoopes, I think letting him be the back up and running the 18 Wheeler package will best serve the Longhorns in 2016.
Just feels like Tyrone Swoopes is losing the starting job right before our eyes. But again, this is only the spring game— Cody Daniel (@CodyDanielHoops) April 16, 2016
After Buechele and Swoopes is sophomore Jerrod Heard. Following a game against the California Golden Bears, Heard seemed to be the next great Longhorns quarterback. In that game, Heard set the single-game total offense record for a Longhorn with 527 yards. Heard led the Longhorns to some great moments in 2015, including an upset win against rival Oklahoma, but also quarterbacked a team that lost to TCU, 50-7, and was shutout by Iowa State, 24-0. As the year progressed, Heard looked lost at the quarterback position and failed to progress. He struggled with taking sacks, inaccurate throws down field, and commanding the Longhorns offense.
There's no denying Heard is an elite athlete with the ball in his hands, but it may not be at the quarterback position. With Buechele's play rising and highly-rated 2017 prospect Sam Ehlinger in the fold, Heard could struggle to see the field at quarterback. Rumors circulated earlier this spring about Heard transitioning to wide receiver, and I believe that would be the best for him.
It seems his days at quarterback are numbered, but maybe he could fill a Braxton Miller-type role for the Longhorns. Heard is an excellent football player, but his poor development at quarterback and Buechele's early maturation may lead him to explore other options on the field. That being said, the Longhorns need to find a place for him because he is one of the most explosive players on the roster.
Last but not least are the two odd men out -- Kai Locksley and Matthew Merrick. Both Locksley and Merrick have talent, but coaches seem to believe that neither of them provides the answer at quarterback for the Longhorns.
Practice reports throughout spring practice said Locksley struggled in Gilbert's new offense. Locksley notably showed discontent with the the coaching staff when he didn't receive playing time in the spring game by tweeting after the game was over. Like Heard, I don't believe Locksley's future will be at quarterback for the Longhorns, so a position change or transfer may loom. Locksley was a former Under Armour All-American and shined at receiver during the game, so maybe his future also lies out wide.
Merrick sat out most of spring practice with a back injury, which prevented him from getting meaningful reps in Gilbert's offense. With little sample size, it's hard to say how he'll fit in the new offense, but he probably isn't the long-term answer at quarterback.
In today's world of college football, teams travel as far as the quarterback can take them. For the Longhorns to have any hope of achieving a successful season, someone needs to step up. To me, the only way the Longhorns can compete in every game this season will be with Shane Buechele at the helm.