What happens when Sam Ehlinger leaves the Texas Longhorns after the 2020 season?
In the aftermath of the Austin product’s decision to remain on the Forty Acres for one last year, there hasn’t been a lot of time spent looking towards the future of the quarterback position. After all, that’s a topic that will receive more than its fair share of attention a year from now.
But it is the offseason, so it’s worth checking in on the development of sophomore Casey Thompson.
With two quarterbacks signed in the 2020 class — Hudson Card of Lake Travis and Ja’Quinden Jackson of Duncanville — there’s a segment of the fan base that has already moved on to the next best thing. The new shiny objects in the quarterback room. That’s what happens when recruits are still a blank canvas as it relates to their future collegiate career.
Even though Thompson is something of a blank slate still, too, he’s now lost some of his luster while remaining mostly out of sight as Ehlinger’s backup last season.
Based on what head coach Tom Herman said during preparation for the Alamo Bowl, however, Thompson is playing well behind the scenes.
“We had some guest coaches that were at our practice yesterday and I had one kind of nudge me and say ‘Hey, that backup you guys got is pretty dang good.’ And I said, ‘Yeah he’s really, really talented’ and, you know, when he gets his shot there’s no doubt in any of our minds that he’s got the skill set to be a championship-level quarterback here,” Herman said in December.
High praise from those guest coaches, surely, but worth putting into context with Thompson’s trajectory and what he’s shown publicly.
Thompson received playing time in five games in 2019, an important storyline during a preseason camp during which Thompson became the only scholarship quarterback behind Sam Ehlinger when freshman Roschon Johnson moved to running back.
The fact that Thompson redshirted during his freshman season made those reps all the more significant — the 6’1, 195-pounder received the chance to get those first game situations out of the way after spending 2018 as the scout team quarterback.
Thanks to Ehlinger’s health — he played in every game after leaving two games in the 2018 season due to injuries — Thompson was never forced into action during any high-leverage moments, so it’s difficult to make much from what Thompson did on the field.
He was reasonably accurate in completing 8-of-12 passes for 84 yards, including a 37-yard catch and run by Kennedy Lewis, but didn’t attempt a pass in his last three appearances. On 10 carries, Thompson gained 22 yards with two runs of nine yards and a run of eight yards.
Unsurprisingly, there wasn’t much to take from those late-game situations with Texas simply trying to run out the clock.
So what has Thompson shown Herman in practice?
“The ball comes out really smooth, really effortless,” Herman said at Big 12 Media Days last year. “Very accurate. Obviously, he can run when we need him to run. For him, it’s not going to be a skill set issue ever. He can throw it and run it. Is pretty football smart. We’ve got to make it as game-like situations as we can for him, for when and if we need him.”
During the Orange-White game last season, Thompson did flash his dynamic running ability with a touchdown and 62 yards before the non-contact sacks called during the scrimmage. He showed that he could make defenders miss and has the speed to create big plays on called runs or when scrambling out of the pocket — he looked like a much better and more twitched up athlete than the guy who posted a 31.2-inch vertical in high school.
As a passer, Thompson didn’t receive any help from a young group of wide receivers paired with him who dropped passes or weren’t on the same page with how they ran their routes. However, Thompson did showcase his ability to throw the ball with touch down the sidelines despite dealing with strong winds.
And so while Texas won’t enter next season with an experienced backup like Shane Buechele in 2018, there are reasons to feel better about the situation this year — two talented freshmen pushing Thompson, his performance in last year’s Orange-White game, getting him on the field in 2019, and the praise that Herman received from the visiting coaches.
Thompson is still largely unproven, but he’s now entering his third season in the program after exploring his transfer portal options last year and returning. At the least, his year of experience will make him a more solid backup option to Ehlinger as the upcoming Orange-White game provides better insight into where his trajectory leads him in the upcoming weeks.