Coming out of the Summer of Shane and into fall camp, even though the starting quarterback job looked there for the taking for Texas Longhorns freshman Shane Buechele, it also seemed like there was no way that he could live up to his nearly mythic hype on the field.
To understand just how high the standards were for the early enrollee, it’s worth remembering exactly what happened — first he starred in the Orange and White game in throwing for 299 yards and two touchdowns in one half.
Not only were those two touchdowns passes a perfect back-shoulder throw to Armanti Foreman and a dead-in-stride bomb to John Burt, he also ran the offense faster than senior Tyrone Swoopes, getting plays off roughly two seconds more quickly.
Head coach Charlie Strong told the story about how Buechele and freshman wide receiver Collin Johnson hit him up late on a Friday night to let them into the football facilities because the lights went off at Clark Field.
Media Days brought the revelation that "there’s nothing he can’t do," according to tight end Caleb Bluiett, referring to the already-legendary prowess of Buechele in any sport he played, including ping pong.
He can even dribble a football on top of everything else.
As fall camp started, a sports book wasn’t even willing to put odds on Buechele earning the starting job after being told in no uncertain terms that it was his for the taking.
The ping-pong battles between Buechele and aspirants to his title as the best on the team became infamous when sophomore Fox end Breckyn Hager interrupted one of Strong’s on-camera interviews to let him know that he finally beat Buechele.
All the talk about ping pong and the new games in the players’ lounge got to the point that it began to irritate beat writers.
As with Buechele, the team’s claims of improved chemistry needed to stand up on the field.
However, hearing that Buechele hadn’t run away with the job had the effect of somehow reducing the stratospheric expectations, especially when considering the possibility that Swoopes could start after seeing some mortality from Buechele in poor throws that led to interceptions in practice
The fact that Strong decided to continue the quarterback battle until just before the season opener only fueled the concern that perhaps the Summer of Shane would give way to the typical struggles of a true freshman quarterback, especially one running an offense that was new to the entire team.
On Friday evening before the season opener, news started circulating among players that Buechele would be the guy, but it wasn’t until Saturday evening when Strong officially made the announcement.
With Buechele standing to Strong, the Texas head coach called his mother, Nancy.
"Hey, listen, I think that the decision is final. I'm going to go with your son," Strong said.
"I think she’s crying," Strong told his newly-anointed starting quarterback.
"Oh God, I knew she would," Buechele replied.
"Well let me say this, you better not let her down," Strong said.
Thing is, Buechele didn’t prepare to let her down. He prepared by always being around the football facilities, by earning the respect of his teammates with his work ethic and competitiveness greatness. With his perfect touch passes in practice, a skill that senior safety Dylan Haines said matured during fall camp.
He also had some assistance from Swoopes, the veteran who had been through more lows and coordinators and play callers than ups in Austin.
"Listen, I'm behind you," Swoopes told Buechele. "Anything that happens, I'm going to be there for you. Anytime we need to have a conversation, you just call because I'm going to be on the sidelines and I'm going to be there to help you."
the wily vet looking to go out on top— Ulysses S. Cocksman (@USCocksman) September 5, 2016
the rookie with an arm of gold
the buddy action drama we never new we needed pic.twitter.com/xuBtjpFaPS
Preparing to play for the first time in front of more than 100,000 people at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium and 10 million more on prime time national television, Buechele admitted to his head coach that he was probably going to be nervous in the first few moments.
Fortunately, he’d prepared for that, too, gotten some good advice, and a familiar number.
He’d begged Strong to let him wear his favorite No. 7 jersey after going through the spring and fall camp in an unfamiliar No. 16.
"We’ll see, we’ll see," Strong had always told him.
Then, just before game time, Strong presented Buechele with that old No. 7 and five other teammates with those coveted numbers in the single digits.
The aforementioned preparation and good advice? Well, those are stories fitting with the elevated themes surrounding Buechele, too.
That other Summer of Shane moment that happened was working with Texas quarterback legend Colt McCoy during the summer. So when McCoy wrote his "Dear Longhorns" letter to the team before the Notre Dame game drawing on his own experiences in those moments, his concluding words seemed tailor-made for the kid perceived as the program’s quarterback savior.
"Before kickoff on Sunday, find a quiet place on the sideline," McCoy wrote in the Players’ Tribune. "Take a knee and look around the stadium. Breathe in the air and appreciate the atmosphere. And take a moment to collect your thoughts, say a little prayer and remember how blessed you are to be playing the greatest game on earth at the greatest school on earth.
"Then get on your feet, strap on your helmet and go show those boys how we play ball in Texas."
It’s easy to imagine Buechele doing exactly that as he looked up at the largest crowd in the storied history of Longhorns football.
For the freshman quarterback following in the footsteps of so many greats, it was all about getting settled down and past those initial nerves.
"Well, you're going to turn around and hand that ball off anyways," Strong told him. "You're not going to throw it deep, okay. So we don't have to worry about it."
Buechele handed the ball off twice to junior running back D’Onta Foreman, then got into the rhythm of his first college start by hitting sophomore wide receiver John Burt with a short hitch that the budding track star turned into a 13-yard gain.
Two third-down completions helped extend the drive before Buechele made his first iconic throw for Texas. Staring down an 0-11 record for Texas under Strong when the opponent scores first and a 7-0 deficit that had always meant defeat in the past, Buechele concluded his first drive with an unbelievable throw to Armanti Foreman for a 19-yard touchdown.
And so with those brief-lived nerves behind him, Buechele officially ushered in the changing of the seasons — an ultimately seamless if more dramatic than anticipated transition from the Summer of Shane to the Fall of Shane.
Or something else rather more poetic than that. Call it what you will.
The drive went 75 yards and took 11 plays, but only took 2:38 off the clock, an average of one play every 16.2 seconds, which doesn’t even account for when the officials start the play clock.
The two following possessions resulted in three and outs, then gave way to a sustained drive in the 18-Wheeler package. Buechele came in for a clutch throw to junior wide receiver Jake Oliver for a third-down conversion and 21-yard gain, then hit another third-down pass to Oliver to get down to the goal line.
Eleven seconds after that play, Buechele took a quarterback sneak the final yard for the touchdown and a 14-7 lead.
On the next touchdown drive, the big play came on a 68-yard pass from Buechele to former quarterback Jerrod Heard, the sophomore who selflessly made the transition during fall camp of his own accord.
The pass seemed to simply drift into Heard’s hands at full speed. Touch.
With a 21-14 lead coming out of halftime, the ‘Horns had a chance to extend the lead. On first down, Foreman ran for three yards. On second down, Buechele showed his trust in Burt by bombing a 72-yard touchdown pass to the speedster who had dropped a previous perfect offering from Buechele.
As during fall camp, Buechele later showed the dangers of inside pressure because of his height, as a heavy rush from Notre Dame forced a high throw intended for senior wide receiver Jacorey Warrick that was intercepted and returned deep in Texas territory.
All of the a sudden, Notre Dame scored three plays later to cut what was once a 17-point lead to a single field goal.
A Notre Dame touchdown took the lead as the Texas offense stumbled through much of the late third quarter and most of the fourth quarter — the 13 plays on the next four drives accounted for only 16 total yards.
With the game on the line and the looming possibility that the ‘Horns might not get the ball back again in starting a key possession with 5:14 on the game clock, Buechele stepped onto the field in a high-pressure situation the likes of which no Longhorns had experienced since McCoy stood behind center.
According to Strong, the coaches didn’t want Buechele running much in the game with Swoopes available, though the standout freshman did take off for 11 yards on the first play of that defining fourth-quarter drive.
Twelve seconds later, Buechele hit Burt for a five-yard gain. Twenty-two seconds later, Buechele hit Warrick for a 15-yard gain. Seventeen seconds later, Buechele hit Foreman for a seven-yard gain.
The Buechele onslaught finally gave way after four plays, 31 yards, and 72 seconds elapsed when Foreman took a handoff for six yards and a first down.
An incomplete pass led to Foreman finishing the drive with a five-yard carry and a sensational 19-yard touchdown to take the lead with 3:29 remaining.
In overtime, Buechele played a relatively minor role in giving way to the 18-Wheeler Show, but did manage a 20-yard completion to Warrick to start the first extra period, setting Swoopes up to shine after a three-yard run of his own.
With all concern about Buechele carrying the football evaporated, the freshman gained another four yards in the second possession before once again giving way.
Longhorns fans may recall the rest — a 10-yard run down to the Notre Dame 6-yard line to set up the final outstretched dive into the end zone.
Then Buechele did something out of character, ending up in the massive end-zone dog pile that followed, neglecting his father’s keen advice after a career of coaching and playing baseball.
"My dad always told me not to get in the middle of dog piles but I couldn't help it," Buechele said. "We were all in. There were four quarters, overtime and playing hard as a team. It was awesome we came out with the win."
Buechele eventually emerged unscathed. His head coach emerged unsurprised that his freshman quarterback played with so much poise.
"You knew (Buechele) could handle it. You knew the stage wouldn't be too big," he said.
Hyperbole seems dangerous, but no other true freshman quarterback in Texas history had even started an opener in 72 years, much less throwing for 280 yards and two touchdowns with another score on the ground and leading his team to the program’s most signature win in years.
"I didn’t even see a true freshman out there tonight to be honest with you," Swoopes said. "I saw a veteran quarterback. That’s how I look at it. He really stood in the pocket. He had some really good runs tonight and I’m proud of him. I told him many of times tonight how proud of him I was."
After the game, Strong reflected on how the first chapter of Shane Buechele’s Longhorns game-day legacy officially started.
"Then once he got settled down, he just, you know like sometimes there's a player that comes through that's a special player, and he's one of those players."
After all the outsized hype and the unreal expectations, Buechele lived up to it all game. Just one game, but what a game.