“This league never gets any easier.”
Texas Longhorns defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s comment in late November reflected the week-by-week challenge of facing some of the nation’s best quarterbacks.
Including non-conference play and the Texas Bowl, the Longhorns faced four of the top six quarterbacks nationally in passer rating (though Will Grier was hurt early in the West Virginia game). And USC Trojans star Sam Darnold, who opted to depart early for the NFL in January, thereby saving Texas from facing him in Austin early next season.
In fact, five of the Big 12 conference’s top six quarterbacks in passing yards per game either graduated or transferred, leaving an opportunity for Orlando’s defense to take advantaged of less experienced passers in 2018.
Here’s what Texas is likely to face next season compared to 2017.
September 1 — at Maryland (FedEx Field)
2017 quarterback: Tyrell Pigrome torched Texas in his season debut, connecting on 9-of-12 passes for 175 yards and two touchdowns, along with 11 carries for 64 yards and a rushing score. However, Pigrome was lost for the season when he tore his ACL in the third quarter.
2018 quarterback: Pigrome is the early favorite to resume his starting role when he finishes his rehabilitation, but could face a stiff challenge from his highly-rated replacement Kasim Hill. Like Pigrome, Hill also suffered an ACL tear in September.
Both quarterbacks lost a significant number of key game reps this season, so while either could once again pose a threat to the Texas defense, neither projects as a high-level quarterback next season.
September 8 — Tulsa
2017 quarterbacks: Sophomore Chad President and redshirt freshman Luke Skipper traded playing time in a passing offense that struggled all season, ultimately finishing No. 124 nationally in passing S&P+. The two quarterbacks combined to throw six touchdowns against six interceptions.
2018 quarterbacks: A one-time Texas target at wide receiver, President is the dual threat of the two, having run for 429 yards and nine touchdowns, but struggled with his accuracy. Skipper is the pocket passer who was slightly more accurate and able to create bigger plays. After a redshirt season, former Boerne Champion standout Davis Brin could also compete for the job.
September 15 — USC
2017 quarterback: The mid-September performance by Darnold against Texas was a microcosm of a season that is surely leaving some scouts rather disappointed. On one hand, he threw for three touchdowns on the day and nearly amassed 400 yards passing, but he also threw two interceptions and failed to complete 60 percent of his passes.
2018 quarterback: The big news for the Trojans is that the nation’s No. 2 quarterback, JT Daniels, reclassified from the 2019 class to the 2018 class. He’ll compete for the starting job next fall with Matt Fink, a dual threat who played sparingly this season, and the nation’s No. 4 pro-style quarterback in 2017, Jack Sears.
There will be plenty of options for head coach Clay Helton next fall, but Texas should benefit from facing a young quarterback with limited experience, not to mention the departures of skill-position talent like running back Ronald Jones II and wide receiver Deontay Burnett.
September 22 — TCU
2017 quarterback: The Kenny Hill Experience is over in Fort Worth after an up-and-down career that included an oddly tame performance against Texas. Hill didn’t account for a single touchdown in that game, but didn’t turn the ball over, either. Instead, he completed his passes at a high rate and hurt the Longhorns at times with his scrambling ability.
2018 quarterback: Shawn Robinson will almost certainly take control of the starting position next season after playing against Texas Tech as a true freshman. One of the nation’s top dual-threat quarterbacks in the 2017 class, Robinson is an exceptional athlete with tremendous arm strength, but he struggled with his accuracy during his high school career and only completed 6-of-17 attempts against the Red Raiders.
As in the USC game, Orlando and his defense will have an opportunity to face a young quarterback still trying to grow into the position, especially if Robinson somehow loses the job to incoming freshman Justin Rogers.
September 29 — at Kansas State
2017 quarterbacks: Senior Jesse Ertz put on an unusual performance against Texas before leaving with an injury — he had no success on the ground, but was proficient through the air in creating big plays against a defense that was still in the habit of giving them up regularly. Then back-up quarterback Alex Delton came in the game and ran for nearly 80 yards and two touchdowns in the double-overtime victory for the ‘Horns.
2018 quarterback: With Ertz gone to graduation, Delton and freshman Skylar Thompson will compete for playing time during the spring. Delton was erratic at times as a passer, but is a dynamic athlete, as evidenced by his running success against Texas, so he’s probably the favorite to win the job.
The bigger news for Kansas State is that with the exception of wide receiver Byron Pringle, who turned pro, the entire offense returns — the experience of the Wildcats will make them dangerous regardless of which quarterback ends up as the starter.
October 6 — vs. Oklahoma (Dallas)
2017 quarterback: Texas was able to force Mayfield’s first interception of the season, but allowed 302 yards passing to the eventual Heisman Trophy winner. Big plays were a major issue for the Longhorns in the game, as Mayfield averaged 11.2 yards per attempt. Though some of those plays were simply a result of excellent throws by Mayfield, there were also a number of coverage busts that hurt Texas.
2018 quarterback: One-time Longhorns quarterback target Kyler Murray is expected to step into the starting role after sitting out the 2016 season following his transfer from Texas A&M and serving as Mayfield’s back up in 2017.
While with the Aggies, Murray struggled with his decision making in throwing seven touchdowns and five interceptions in 2015, but was extremely efficient in his limited opportunities last season, completing 18-of-21 passes for 359 yards and three touchdowns. Many of those completions resulted in big plays — Murray averaged 17.1 yards per attempt.
However, with starting left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and starting tight end Mark Andrews off to the NFL, Murray won’t have quite the same supporting cast that made Mayfield so effective. And it’s still unclear whether Murray has grown out of the deficiencies that kept him from succeeding at Texas A&M.
It does seem fair to guess that Murray will have trouble performing at the same level as Mayfield, who secured his legacy as one of the most productive quarterbacks in the history of college football.
October 13 — Baylor
2017 quarterbacks: Zach Smith started the game for the Bears and promptly threw and interception that Longhorns safety DeShon Elliott returned for a touchdown. When freshman Charlie Brewer got his chance, things didn’t go much better — Brewer didn’t throw any interceptions, but also failed to produce much offensively.
2018 quarterback: With Smith transferring to Tulsa and Anu Solomon done with football, Brewer is the odds-on favorite to assume the full-time starting role next season. Dangerous when improvising to throw or pass, Brewer showed plenty of promise during his first season in Waco and is likely to emerge as one of the Big 12’s best quarterbacks in 2018.
October 27 — at Oklahoma State
2017 quarterback: In holding the Cowboys to 10 points in regulation and 13 points overall, the Longhorns were able to limit star quarterback Mason Rudolph as much as any defense in 2017. In fact, Texas was the only team to keep Rudolph from throwing at least two touchdown passes.
2018 quarterback: If Oklahoma State decides to opt for another big, pro-style quarterback, senior Taylor Cornelius could earn the job after attempting 10 passes in 2017. However, if the Pokes want a more dynamic runner, incoming freshman Spencer Sanders could become the biggest threat in the ground game for Oklahoma State since Zac Robinson.
November 3 — West Virginia
2017 quarterback: Will Grier’s junior season ended when he dislocated a finger on his throwing hand early in the game against Texas. His back up, Chris Chugunov, wasn’t able to make much of a positive impact, as he fumbled the ball twice, losing one during a critical moment in the game.
2018 quarterback: When Grier and top target David Stills V opted to return for their senior seasons, the outlook improved significantly for West Virginia. In fact, Grier should be the best quarterback that the ‘Horns face in 2018 and, depending on how less proven passers like Murray develop, it may not be particularly close.
November 10 — at Texas Tech
2017 quarterbacks: Kliff Kingsbury made the surprising decision to start junior college transfer McClane Carter in the regular season finale in Austin and the move didn’t particularly pay off. When benched senior Nic Shimonek entered the game, however, the dynamic changed — after two fourth-quarter touchdown passes, the Red Raiders pulled off the comeback victory.
2018 quarterbacks: The main quarterback battle should be between Carter and sophomore Jett Duffey during the spring. Carter didn’t exactly impress in his four appearances in 2017, hitting only 50 percent of his passes and throwing two interceptions against two touchdowns. So Duffey will have a chance to win the job by providing better dual-threat ability than Carter — Duffey ran for more than 3,600 yards and 47 touchdowns at Mansfield Lake Ridge.
Without some significant improvement from Carter or a breakout year from Duffey, Texas Tech will experience a drop in productivity at quarterback compared to what Shimonek and Patrick Mahomes accomplished in recent years.
November 17 — Iowa State
2017 quarterbacks: The Longhorns managed to catch the Cyclones at the perfect time — early in conference play and before Jacob Park’s departure from the program, which elevated senior walk-on Kyle Kempt to the starting role. Park was awful against Texas, while Kempt was excellent in leading upsets of Oklahoma and TCU.
2018 quarterbacks: The fate of the quarterback position in 2018 hinges largely on the status of Kempt, who petitioned the NCAA for an extra season of eligibility. If Kempt is not able to return to Ames, sophomore Zeb Noland is next in line. As a redshirt freshman, he attempted 66 passes and threw two touchdowns and one interception.
However, no matter what happens with Kempt, Iowa State will have to replace three of its top four receivers, including star Allen Lazard, so the passing game will almost certainly take a step backwards.
November 24 — at Kansas
2017 quarterback: Carter Stanley threw three touchdown passes against Texas — his career high — marking the second straight season that he gave the Longhorns more trouble than expected. Mostly, though, Stanley struggled as a sophomore, throwing only one touchdown pass the rest of the season and finishing with seven interceptions.
2018 quarterbacks: Stanley will once again compete with part-time 2017 starter Peyton Bender, who threw for more than 300 yards in each of the non-conference games last season. Like Stanley, Bender mostly failed to distinguish himself and the lack of talent surrounding both quarterbacks doesn’t bode well for significant improvement in 2018.
All told, the Texas schedule in 2018 featured departed quarterbacks who threw for 488 career passing touchdowns — including Kyle Kempt — a remarkable gamut that stressed the Longhorns pass defense and forced defensive coordinator Todd Orlando to employ six defensive backs for the second half of the season.
In 2018, Orlando will be able to scheme against at least six offenses that lost the primary signal caller from last season. And that isn’t even mentioning the skill position talent that is off to the NFL, a list that includes two of the conference’s top five running backs and five of the top nine wide receivers.
The talent drain from the Big 12 and USC represents a tremendous opportunity for head coach Tom Herman in his second year — the league never really got any easier for Orlando last season, but in 2018, it will get significantly easier.
Gone are playmakers like defensive tackle Poona Ford, linebacker Malik Jefferson, safety DeShon Elliott, and cornerback Holton Hill. Still, the rest of the defense that held Missouri quarterback Drew Lock to 269 yards and one touchdown returns.
With a full year of experience in Orlando’s scheme, the nation’s No. 6 defense in FEI has a chance to take another leap forward by feasting on a slate of largely inexperienced quarterbacks.
If that happens, the pressure on the offense will decrease and the odds of seriously contending for the Big 12 for the first time since 2013 escalate considerably.