Reflections on the 2019 injuries issues for Texas Longhorns tend to focus on the running back position and the secondary, but less often recall the narrowly-averted disaster at quarterback.
Following the Sugar Bowl win over Georgia in New Orleans, former starter Shane Buechele and Casey Thompson, then coming off a redshirt season, both entered the NCAA transfer portal. Cameron Rising, the other 2018 quarterback signee, announced his commitment to Utah in mid-January after entering the portal before the Sugar Bowl.
Suddenly in a position to have only two scholarship quarterbacks for the 2019 season, the coaches scrambled to convince Thompson to stay. It worked, as Thompson removed his name in time to return to Texas for the spring semester.
However, those aforementioned issues at running back led 2019 quarterback signee Rochon Johnson to change positions just before the season started, leaving the Longhorns with Thompson and then-junior Sam Ehlinger as the scholarship quarterbacks.
Fortunately for Texas, Ehlinger was able to battle through a rib injury that eventually resulted in some missed conditioning this spring, but avoided having to play Thompson in any role thing other than a mop-up duty late in games.
Understandably, Thompson didn’t show much in 2019 as a result, but he did impress guest coaches during preparation for the Alamo Bowl.
“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,” Texas head coach Tom Herman said in December.
By that point, the Longhorns had already signed two quarterbacks in the 2020 recruiting class to rebuild depth at the position — Lake Travis product Hudson Card and Duncanville’s Ja’Quinden Jackson.
With four scholarship quarterbacks now on the roster, Texas is back on more sound footing, through Herman described five as the ideal number for the position. It’s not just realistic, he admitted to Football Scoop recently, with how often quarterbacks transfer in search of playing time.
“Ideally, if you look at our best-case scenario scholarship-wise, we’d like to have five quarterbacks on scholarship in any given year,” Herman said. “That’s probably very unrealistic.”
The solution, as Herman sees it, isn’t to increase the number of takes from high school to account for expected attrition, as Texas will simply look to the junior college ranks or the graduate transfer market to fill any necessary holes.
Having better spacing in between the players helps, too — Ehlinger is a senior, Thompson is now entering his third year in the program, and Card and Jackson will both be freshmen. That’s an improvement over last year because Thompson did gain game experience, even if it was limited.
“There’s certainly some distance in the classes, Sam being a senior, Casey Thompson being a redshirt sophomore, Hudson Card and JaQuinden Jackson both coming in, who knows, one if not both redshirt,” Herman said. “We’ll figure that out. I think four on scholarship is a good number, especially when they’re spaced out evenly from a class standpoint.”
Perhaps the best way to deal with potential attrition due to a lack of playing time is to ensure that quarterback takes periodically have the versatility to move to other positions and contribute.
Based on testing results for Johnson out of high school, it’s unlikely that the staff believed that he could become a potential NFL prospect at running back, but Johnson’s quick acclimation to the position and flashes of NFL-quality skills supports that strategy.
“We signed guys that can also possibly play different positions, too,” Herman said. “It’s not a given that just because you lose a competition that you can’t add value to the team as well.
Card and Jackson both fit that mold.
Moving Card back to wide receiver, where he played as a sophomore at Lake Travis, would mean giving up on a player with a lot of arm talent — and certainly isn’t imminent — but Card was extremely productive there, catching 69 passes for 1,137 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2017. He also has Power Five-level athleticism for the position after posting a 4.03 shuttle and 37.7-inch vertical at The Opening Finals last summer.
Jackson, whose high school career ended with a partially-torn ACL in the playoffs last season, fits the mold of a jumbo athlete. Listed at 6’2, 220 pounds, Jackson is a high-level athlete for his size with a 4.61 40-yard dash at a regional camp for The Opening in 2019 and has a big arm that makes him an appealing prospect as a quarterback. His athleticism could also play well at tight end or linebacker, with some evaluators believing that his greatest upside is on defense.
So keep an eye on the recruiting decisions that Texas makes at the position in the coming years based on Herman’s comment, but for now, the real story is that the Longhorns are once again more than two injuries away from an emergency situation at the game’s most important position.