Head coach Charlie Strong and offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert claimed that the Texas Longhorns wanted to end the quarterback competition early in fall camp, but with 12 practices already in the books and Strong adopting an increasingly secretive public stance, there’s plenty of room to wonder what’s going on between senior Tyrone Swoopes and freshman Shane Buechele.
Prior to starting practice at the beginning of August, it looked like the job was Buechele’s in all but name before a report from Orangebloods late last week held that Swoopes was actually ahead in the race.
On Tuesday, senior safety Dylan Haines provided some perspective on what’s really going down in the Bubble as rain continues to soak Austin.
“You see a lot of great things from Tyrone, he's still improving as a player coming into his senior year, still getting better, still noticing things from a DB's perspective, things that you would notice, not making mistakes, making throws, making check downs when he should,” Haines said.
“And then you look at Shane, just a young kid, you'd expect from a true freshman to see a lot of mistakes and you just don't.”
Known as a raw prospect when he arrived in Austin in 2013, Swoopes didn’t receive the redshirt season that he needed and then largely floundered for two years in dysfunctional offenses.
Even during the Orange and White game this game, the Whitewright product wasn’t consistent with his accuracy or decisive in his reads, ultimately running plays two seconds more slowly than Buechele on average.
But perhaps it was unfair to Swoopes to assume that he would go through the summer and remain the same player as he acclimated to the new offense — after all, the physical tools have always been there and he’s capable of flashes that draw an observer back in.
Check the cannon of an arm on that hitch to new wide receiver Jerrod Heard on Monday.
And maybe being a freshman is taking a bit of a toll on Buechele in terms of his consistency. Practice videos have shown several interceptions thrown by the prospective starter, including one by Haines during the scrimmage on Saturday and another by sophomore linebacker Malik Jefferson last week.
With Buechele’s recent loss in ping pong, it’s clear that the feel-good vibes of the Summer of Shane have given way to... something different.
Maybe it’s fear of disappointment once again with the season opener looming?
Regardless of the emotions involved given the fraught nature of the longterm struggles for Texas at the quarterback position, the brief looks at the team and information filtered through sources with their own agendas make it difficult to discern what’s going on behind the scenes.
As expected, Haines wasn’t willing to offer anything too revealing.
“So both of them are working really hard, both of them have a lot of strengths, but they also have some weaknesses so it'll be interesting to see how it plays out,” he said.
Given the hype surrounding Buechele for months now, it’s not especially easy to identify any glaring faults with his game other than a possible continued adjustment to the speed of the game and going against a talented group of defenders.
There is his height as a possibility, too, which impacted his interception by Jefferson because inside pressure caused him to drift and release the pass late, but he’s mostly overcome that throughout his career and so have a handful of other notable, highly-successful quarterbacks.
The good news with Buechele is that Haines notices the thing that still stands out about the freshman quarterback — his ability to put the proper weight on the football.
“I think it’s his touch on the ball,” Haines said. “He’s always had a good arm and always been a smart player. Now the touch he’s putting on the ball, putting it in the right space. When receivers are covered well, being able to put it in the spot where only the receiver can get it.”
Of course, Buechele put a little too much touch on the pass intended for freshman wide receiver Devin Duvernay that Haines intercepted in the scrimmage, it’s just that there is enough evidence elsewhere to back up the senior safety to make him believable.
As the overall competition goes, maybe it’s more about what Swoopes is doing than what Buechele is or is not doing, a possibility that seemed remote at the start of camp but is worthy of consideration now. Haines does make a compelling case for his fellow senior, who seemed to find himself as a short-yardage runner in the 18-Wheeler package last season and managed to do enough to beat Baylor in the season finale as the starter.
“He's just kept that same mentality that he's had, which is just to go out and be the best player he can be,” Haines said. “He doesn't really worry about what Shane's doing, what any of the other quarterbacks are doing or let anything get to him, or the fact that the reps are being split between the two. He just works to improve his game.”
There’s no question that Swoopes has always been rather workmanlike — it was something that endeared him to former play caller Shawn Watson and also sparked the criticism that he didn’t have the alpha personality needed to lead a formerly powerful program back to contention.
So the attitude described by Haines is not a surprise.
What is more surprising is the claim from Haines that Swoopes is reducing his mistakes in practice.
“He's gotten a lot smarter as well,” said the senior safety. “You saw him playing the last few years that he made some throws that he shouldn't have made and he's eliminating those. They're getting less and less often, so you have to admire that from a guy like him. He's not going to give up. He's definitely still pushing for that starting job.”
Since Swoopes missed out on so many reps in high school by not playing 7-on-7 much during the summer and focusing on basketball and track more than football during the rest of the offseason, maybe there was more growth potential left for the big quarterback than anyone outside the program guessed leaving the spring.
Maybe the competition is truly close right now.
Maybe the competition is a good thing because it serves notice to the entire team that everyone is open.
Maybe it’s all offseason rhetoric and Swoopes will once again struggle if he gets the chance as the starter against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
Maybe Buechele will win the job after all and Swoopes will merely reprise his effective role as the bludgeon to complement powerful running backs D’Onta Foreman and Chris Warren.
At the moment, patience is probably a virtue with Strong now seemingly unwilling to name a starter before the opener — the ultimate calculus still remains that Strong will favor the younger player over the older player and using Swoopes in the 18-Wheeler makes the most sense for the senior and for the team.