Whatever happens with the starting quarterback situation, Texas Longhorns head coach Tom Herman expects to continue using junior wide receiver Jerrod Heard, the converted wide receiver, in the Wildcat package that was so effective against the San Jose State Spartans.
“I think it's important that whenever Shane gets healthy, fully healthy, I would envision you'll see Jerrod in most every game behind center at some point,” Herman said.
For now, Heard is the third-string quarterback behind freshman Sam Ehlinger and providing a valuable boost in short-yardage situations, in addition to a change of pace that affords Texas more favorable numbers in the running game.
Heard carried the ball once in the season-opening loss to Maryland, but played a much larger role with sophomore Shane Buechele out with a bruised throwing shoulder against San Jose State.
On eight carries, Heard gained a relatively modest 38 yards, but also scored two touchdowns and threw the ball twice to ensure that the Trojans know he’s a threat in that capacity.
“He played quarterback here at a very high level for a couple of years,” Herman said. “So I think that dimension of it is a lot different than most that jog a running back or a wide receiver back there. This is a guy that's played college quarterback for a couple years. So if you want to put a bunch of human beings in the box to stop the run, he's capable of throwing it over your head.”
The first throw was to freshman running back Toneil Carter sprinting to the field side behind two blockers, but was stopped for a five-yard loss. However, if defenses start to check on that play, which Texas threatened with Chris Warren III on Heard’s second run, the ‘Horns could have one of the two receivers to that side fake a block and leak out for a route.
Heard’s pass to Carter wasn’t spun particularly well and illustrated the difference in the arm talent between Heard and previous Herman quarterbacks like Greg Ward Jr., but Heard did have some occasional success as a starter throwing the ball down field.
That’s exactly what he attempted with his second pass. After picking up a 3rd and 1, Heard stayed in the game with the ball near midfield early in the second half as the staff looked for a big play.
On a play-action pass, Heard targeted senior wide receiver Lorenzo Joe on a go route, but left the ball several yards inside. The San Jose State defensive back played the throw with good inside leverage and Joe wasn’t able to muscle his way to the football.
Still, the point of the pass wasn’t necessarily to complete a low-percentage throw for a touchdown — it was to warn future opponents that stacking the box has potential consequences.
The ball was a little bit late coming out against San Jose State, but Heard did hit a few deep throws in his previous career as a quarterback, including a 69-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver John Burt against Rice within his first 10 career attempts.
Expect Texas to put in some reps this week to ensure that Heard’s timing is better on a throw like that against USC.
In the running game, Texas has a couple of different looks for Heard’s Wildcat package — it ran man/gap plays like Power to good positive effect and scored Heard’s first touchdown using outside zone with running back Kyle Porter as a lead blocker.
Heard’s second touchdown came on Power with Porter as a lead blocker.
Both Porter and Warren acquitted themselves in that role, with Porter’s attention to detail and strength and Warren’s pure size aiding those efforts.
One of Heard’s longer runs came on an inverted veer play with Carter, so adding the option element is a consideration for the future. However, defenses should probably recognize by this point that when Carter enters the game for Texas, he’s likely the perimeter threat with a run or a pass and not a lead blocker.
San Jose State was able to stop several plays by winning individual battles up front and advanced scouting will further prepare USC for the package, so the question is whether Texas can execute plays that the defense knows might be coming or add enough counters or new plays to slow them down.
The hope for Herman is that either one of those possibilities could produce a big play, rather than merely keep the chains moving — Heard was close to breaking the read option play with Carter for a long gain, but the deep safety was able to come up to make the stop.
If Buechele doesn’t recover quickly going forward, Herman said that Heard would have to start learning how to play quarterback in the offense instead of running a package of plays, but the training staff is still optimistic about a quick recovery. So Heard won’t likely have much installed as a passer beyond what the staff thinks is necessary to provide those necessary counters this weekend.
Regardless of how that plays out in the future, the immediate concern is the boost that Heard can provide in the running game and the big-play potential he has in the passing game because of his experience as a quarterback
Considering that the USC defense is loaded with blue-chip players in the secondary, but has allowed 5.9 yards per carry to Western Michigan and Stanford this season, the best hope is probably on the ground.