A year ago, when the Texas Longhorns were set to enter preseason camp, wide receiver Jerrod Heard was the emergency quarterback and only two injuries away from perhaps having to step in as the starter.
When Shane Buechele suffered a shoulder injury during the opener and an ankle injury later in the season, it pushed true freshman Sam Ehlinger into the starting lineup. But Ehlinger missed time, too, sitting out nearly three games as a result of a concussion suffered against Oklahoma.
For most games during the 2018 season, the coaching staff didn’t get to make choices about the starting quarterback — there was only one healthy player on scholarship.
Now head coach Tom Herman will enter his second season with two quarterbacks experienced in his offense and two freshmen quarterbacks who spent the spring on campus.
Given how things played out in 2017, Herman is understandably excited about the new-found depth and improvement from Buechele and Ehlinger.
“I tell you what, it beats having a quarterback room with two scholarship players going through the entire season and for much of the season one of those being injured and out of the game,” Herman said at Big 12 Media Days. “So really one scholarship quarterback the entire season. To have that depth in that room and the depth be as young as it is, just really excited about where that room is headed.”
For yet another offseason, one of the biggest questions surrounding the entire program is which quarterback will earn the starting job this season. Ehlinger played most of the bowl game after Buechele suffered another injury and took most of the first-team reps during the spring. The competition between those two players will likely decide who becomes the starter and Herman hopes to have some resolution by the last week of August.
“I would like to have it made a week early,” Herman said. “If it doesn’t, that’s okay. We’ll figure it out. We’re going to do what’s best for the team. If neither one of those guys separates themselves, again, maybe a guy like Cameron Rising or Casey Thompson comes in the mix because you just can’t keep them off the field. We’ll figure it out.
“There’s no timetable. There’s not deadline. There’s no any of that.”
In Frisco, Herman continued to echo his spring praise for the two early enrollees, Cameron Rising and Casey Thompson.
“I’m telling you, those two young quarterbacks, those two freshmen are going to give those guys a run for their money as well,” Herman said. “They came in, they should have been seniors in high school and they came in, they did not look out of place.”
Rising arguably has the best arm on the roster and completed 6-of-9 passes in the Orange-White game for 57 yards, including a 32-yard strike to Jordan Pouncey. Thompson is the best athlete among the quarterbacks and flashed with a 21-yard run in the spring-ending scrimmage.
Both players also have a more diverse skill set than the classifications of Rising as a pro-style quarterback and Thompson as a dual-threat quarterback would indicate.
“Cameron Rising can throw a lot better and move around better than people think and to be honest with you, Casey Thompson can throw the ball quite a bit better than people think,” Herman said.
Unfortunately, there won’t be a public scrimmage during preseason camp to assess how much Rising and Thompson have developed since the spring, but Herman did provide some insight into the areas of focus for Ehlinger and Buechele during the offseason.
After posting a rather miserable completion percentage last year of 57.5 percent, Ehlinger focused on tightening up his release. According to Herman, the wrist injury that Ehlinger suffered as a senior took some time to fully heal. While it was still healing, Ehlinger developed some bad habits that perhaps contributed to his inaccuracy as a freshman.
“He worked his tail off and he made some throws this spring that I hadn’t seen him make in the year that we have been around him,” Herman said.
More consistent precision with Ehlinger’s accuracy didn’t always show up in the spring game, in part because the anticipation wasn’t always there — at times, the sophomore still showed too much hesitation, a lack of ideal timing.
Still, Herman did say in a local radio interview on Wednesday that Ehlinger has improved in that area.
For Buechele, the focus has remained on his leadership, with Herman spending a portion of that radio discussing leadership at the line of scrimmage. Instead of simply running the called play, Herman and offensive coordinator Tim Beck want Buechele to make pre-snap assessments of the defense and have the understanding and confidence to get the offense into a better play.
“For Shane, it was to take charge of the offense, to be a vocal leader and to not just be a passive participant in each play but to be the, as I tell him, you’re not the third-string violinist, you are a conductor of the orchestra and he really improved in that area.”
So can the Longhorns receive quarterback play that is either league average or slightly above average for the Big 12 Conference?
That question remains unanswered and will largely influence how well Texas plays this season.
The good news, perhaps lost in the constant anxiety surrounding the position for the eighth straight offseason, is that Buechele and Ehlinger should both be better and if they aren’t, one of the two freshmen quarterbacks could emerge as a legitimate option at some point in 2018.
And Heard can focus on refining his skills at wide receiver without having to take reps at quarterback.