“I hope we all feel a lot better about that quarterback room, right?”
The message from Texas Longhorns head coach Tom Herman to fans and media following Saturday’s Orange-White game not only represented strong praise for his players, but also attempted to set an inarguable narrative heading into the offseason.
“Two veteran quarterbacks, I thought looked really good, and you guys got a glimpse of what we’ve seen after the first 14 practices in those young guys,” Herman said. “So I’m excited about the future of that position.”
Herman believes that Texas got better at quarterback this spring. Early on, he didn’t want to offer much about the position, notably declining to share his opinion at the end of one press conference. Then, he increasingly began to offer more praise as practice progressed.
Without a doubt, having four scholarship quarterbacks with the additions of early enrollees Casey Thompson and Cameron Rising is a luxury that Herman and offensive coordinator Tim Beck didn’t have last season.
The play of Thompson and Rising late in the scrimmage was also heartening after a string of departures and failed players at the position — from Tyrone Swoopes to Jerrod Heard to Kai Locksley to Matthew Merrick, recent Longhorns history at quarterback is littered with disappointment, attrition, and position changes.
And while the clear goal is to avoid having to play either freshman this season, both players looked competent after earning praise from the coaching staff throughout spring practice.
“I thought the two young quarterbacks were nervous that first drive,” Herman said. “I think Cameron is one that sticks out. Kind of sticks up in the pocket and had Porter out in the flat by himself and threw a duck to him. But as you see them get more comfortable, they make really good throws.”
Rising finished 6-of-9 passing for 52 yards, mostly establishing his comfort level on shorter passes. The biggest play came on a 32-yard pass down the seam to wide receiver Jordan Pouncey when the linebacker failed to carry Pouncey vertically and safety Brandon Jones arrived late. The pass was on time and into the correct window, showing off the arm strength by Rising that made him such an appealing recruit out of California.
“Everybody saw Casey’s athleticism, but I also hope they saw that Cameron’s not a stiff either,” Herman said. “He can move around, too.”
At 6’1 and 235 pounds, Rising is already listed as the heaviest quarterback back on the roster. Though he wasn’t credited with any rushing yards, he did look mobile and capable with the ball in his hands. Like Ehlinger, he’ll probably be at his best running up the middle in the read option game and other called quarterback runs that seek to even up the numbers for the offense.
Ranked as the No. 460 player nationally out of Oklahoma by 247Sports, Thompson wasn’t regarded as a high-level passer out of high school despite a massively productive career. Playing with starting wide receivers like Jerrod Heard and Collin Johnson in the fourth quarter, Thompson took advantage of his opportunity late in the game.
On a rollout, Thompson flashed some arm talent by hitting Heard for 26 yards against John Bonney. The next play featured the 6’0, 190-pounder looking left, then coming back to Johnson on a go route against cornerback Kobe Boyce, with safety BJ Foster arriving over the top. Thompson put the ball in a perfect spot and Johnson went up and pulled it in despite excellent coverage from Boyce. The throw to Johnson was one of the most impressive throws of the entire Orange-White game.
Thompson finished 5-of-9 passing for 88 yards and nearly threw a touchdown pass to Johnson that was broken up by Boyce. He also forced a throw on a two-point conversion that was intercepted by Jarmarquis Durst.
In addition to showing some excellent touch in the passing game, Thompson was predictably effective as a scrambler — he solidified his standing as the most dynamic runner among the quarterbacks with a 21-yard run.
Ehlinger was able to strike a balance between taking positive steps protecting the football and taking calculated risks. Late in the first half, Ehlinger went for a touchdown targeting Pouncey in tight coverage and nearly fit the ball in. Commentator Rod Gilmore didn’t like the decision, but Herman revealed in the post-game press conference the mentality he’d instilled in his passers.
“At quarterback, when you hold the ball in this game, you have the hopes and dreams, goals, aspirations, everything of your teammates, of your loved ones in your hands,” Herman said. “When you think about it that way, you tend to be a lot more cautious with it. Now that being said, from day one of spring ball, I told the QBs, experiment, rip it in there, man. Try to fit it in tight windows, because I want you to have that confidence when you do.”
As happy as Herman was publicly with the development of Ehlinger and Shane Buechele, Ehlinger’s performance was a mixed bag in terms of fitting the ball into tight windows. Two passes stood out — a target of Devin Duvernay in the end zone that was broken up by his twin brother, Donovan, and a target of Reese Leitao well down the seam that was overthrown. Combined with a pass intended for an open Lil’Jordan Humphrey that was broken up by Kris Boyd and Ehlinger missed some opportunities.
However, he also hit Duvernay on a well-thrown pass that went for a big gain. And he also showed some chemistry with Humphrey, who caught seven passes for 100 yards in the first half.
So there’s still some room for improvement this fall as Ehlinger transitions from the aggressiveness of spring to fall, when Herman will shift the focus back to protecting the football.
“Both those quarterbacks, I think we’ve got them so well trained that you almost have to continue to prod them,” Herman said. “Like, ‘Hey, man’ — you watch on film, ‘Why didn’t you try to rip that one in there?’ Well, ‘Coach, I saw that.’ ‘Well, next time, if that comes up again, try to rip that in there,’ in the spring. In the fall, we’ll work on being a lot smarter and more cautious with the ball.”
As with Ehlinger, there was good and bad with Buechele. His longest throw of the ball came on a well-placed ball to Jerrod Heard that allowed Heard to get down without taking a big hit from the arriving safety. In a flash back to last year’s Orange-White game, Buechele threw a ball to Collin Johnson that beat tight coverage and featured a big-time play by Johnson to bring the ball in.
However, if Ehlinger’s issue was ball placement, Buechele flat-out missed John Burt twice. Both times, Burt was running free behind the defense and could have scored touchdowns. Both times, Buechele overthrew him. After the scrimmage, Herman was willing to explain away those mistakes.
“Missed a couple of those deep balls,” he said. “We hadn’t been, and I think that’s probably, as I was thinking about why that happened, probably the conclusion is two things. Quarterbacks probably got a lot of adrenaline going tonight, and they were pretty excited to play.
“We practiced three days in a row now, so I think our skill guys probably were a step maybe slower than what they were at the beginning of spring ball when we were hitting a lot of those deep shots.”
So it’s probably not worth getting too caught up in the negatives from the performances of the veteran quarterbacks, especially Buechele, who has shown the ability to make those throws. In an ideal world, Ehlinger would have hit a couple more passes, but for a guy who is still just a little more than a year out of high school, he has made some steps forward.
The bottom line is that, much like the entire program overall, the quarterback position is in a better spot now than it was last spring.
Now all four players have a chance to get better on their own over the next three months as they organize 7-on-7 competition and passing sessions.