It was a sight that Texas Longhorns fans likely won’t ever see again.
Checking out of the backfield, tight end Cade Brewer caught the check down from quarterback Sam Ehlinger, turned upfield, and hurdled the first Oklahoma Sooners defender in his way.
The play only went for five yards on 3rd and 14, but it flashed the athleticism on that Cotton Bowl field in 2017 that prompted head coach Tom Herman to offer Brewer shortly after arriving at Texas the year before.
It was also a play that Herman and his coaching staff don’t like — hurdling defenders is not in alignment with program imperatives like ball security, no matter whether Brewer finished with two hands on the football. The ball just naturally comes away from the body when attempting to jump over another athletic human being.
A monster senior season that included 16 touchdowns for the Cavaliers had earned an offer from the local Longhorns, prompting Brewer to flip his pledge from SMU. Pressed into duty as a true freshman after playing wide receiver at Lake Travis, Brewer was put into a difficult position shortly after arriving on the Forty Acres during the summer of 2017.
The problem was that he just wasn’t physically prepared to play such a demanding position months after Texas — probably generously — listed him at 210 pounds when he signed in February.
“He’s undersized right now. If we had to play a game tomorrow, he would not be physically ready,” Herman said on National Signing Day.
When prospective starter Andrew Beck suffered a season-ending injury in preseason camp, backup Garrett Gray suffered a significant knee injury in the second game, and graduate transfer Kendall Harris wasn’t fully acclimated after arriving in August, Brewer was quickly thrust into action. Physically ready or not.
His first catch? A touchdown catch in overtime at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Not a bad introduction to the college football world, right?
Brewer gave a game effort as an overmatched true freshman blocker and ultimately caught nine passes for 80 yards and two touchdowns in 2017 before suffering a season-ending knee injury during practice in November.
So while Brewer was able to build his upper body strength during his first offseason at Texas, he missed bowl practices and spring practice. When preseason camp began last fall with a healthy Beck, Brewer was about eight months removed from surgery on his torn ACL.
With the coaching staff leaning heavily on Beck, Brewer saw most of his action on offense — and his only two catches — during the first two games of the season.
Now that Beck is preparing for a shot at the NFL and Brewer is a junior, the local product has a chance to step into the role that the former linebacker played so ably during his senior season.
In fact, Beck turned in one of the best dual-threat seasons for a Texas tight end since David Thomas — he was a better blocker than pass catchers like Jermichael Finley and more athletic than DJ Grant and Blaine Irby coming off of knee injuries. A better receiver than Geoff Swaim.
All told, Beck recorded 28 catches for 281 yards and two touchdowns while consistently opening up holes and providing running lanes as a blocker.
As a result, the standards are high for Brewer, the latest potential impact player at a position long defined by injuries and position changes. Beck was recruited as a linebacker. One-time defensive ends Caleb Bluiett and Quincy Vasser both played the position at Texas. Brewer was a high school wide receiver recruited as a tight end, a move that never worked out for a handful of recruits during the Mack Brown era.
What sets Brewer apart from other wide receivers-turned-tight ends at Texas is his diverse skill set as a pass catcher — when he signed, he wasn’t just a tall guy with athleticism and a projectable frame. Though he certainly possessed the latter two traits.
On National Signing Day, Herman commended Brewer’s ball skills, which were excellent for a receiver of his size. Good feet helped Brewer run strong routes in high school, as well as make plays after the catch. He showed the ability to high point the football and control it with strong hands or secure throws delivered outside of his frame. His body control allowed him to twist when necessary to make difficult catches. He even had a run of over 80 yards as a senior after lining up in the backfield and taking a handoff.
Remember how athletic Cade Brewer was when he signed with the #Longhorns two years ago? As a senior at Lake Travis, the Texas TE had a run of more than 80 yards after lining up as a RB and taking a handoff. #HookEm pic.twitter.com/WeJnp0zoR3— Wescott Eberts (@SBN_Wescott) February 21, 2019
In terms of potential, Brewer has a chance to become a matchup problem for opposing defenses because of his route-running ability and ball skills.
However, since Brewer didn’t really see any significant playing time at tight end after he regained full health last season, it’s difficult to tell how much of that athleticism and movement ability Brewer has maintained after the knee injury and weight gain, officially listed by the school as 40 pounds since signing, as of the 2018 roster.
Brewer remains confident in his ability, for sure.
How much has Brewer developed as a blocker? He tried and was adequate as a freshman, but has he improved enough since that knee injury to approximate Beck’s effective, workmanlike contributions? Those are definitely the easier questions to answer than those regarding his athleticism and agility.
Fortunately for those seeking preliminary answers regarding Brewer, the Orange-White game will provide some perspective on where Brewer is physically as a pass catcher and as a blocker.
Both areas are critical, as Herman demands a lot of his tight ends.
“We think that position is probably as hard — or maybe complex is the right word — as the quarterback in this offense,” Herman said. “We need an extremely versatile guy that can split out on the slot, put his hand on the ground, block a defensive end, and one that can motion in the back field and become a fullback or H-back of sorts.”
If Brewer can do all of those things, including maximizing his receiving ability to provide a greater threat in the passing game than Beck did, for all of his success, then the Longhorns offense would receive a significant boost in 2019. Not necessarily compared to last season, when Beck was so good, but compared to historical production at Texas since Finley departed early.