As a former quarterback, longtime quarterbacks coach, and offensive coordinator, new Texas Longhorns head coach Steve Sarkisian was hired in large part to elevate a Longhorns offense that was close to elite the last two seasons, but couldn’t take the final step.
Following four years under the leadership of Sam Ehlinger, who established himself as one of the most productive quarterbacks in school history, Sarkisian will have to find Ehlinger’s replacement from a group that includes Casey Thompson, Hudson Card, and Charles Wright.
Heading into the Alamo Bowl, Card looked to have the highest upside in 2021 after arriving at Texas as a top-60 national recruit and the nation’s No. 2 dual-threat quarterback, but Thompson changed that calculus with a record-setting performance against Colorado, throwing for four touchdowns in the second half on 8-of-10 passing for 170 yards.
With a new coaching staff, however, Thompson and Card will enter spring practice with blank slates.
Last week, when Sarkisian announced the addition of nine assistant coaches, he said that he’d been able to watch some film on Thompson and Card and came away impressed with their talent level.
The true evaluations won’t start until spring practice begins in less than two months, but there are four areas that Sarkisian looks for when he evaluates quarterbacks — competitiveness, leadership, fast hands, and accuracy.
“The first is he has to be an innate competitor,” Sarkisian said during a Thursday interview with 104.9 The Horn. “If he’s not, I just think you struggle right now. I’ve been fortunate to coach some great ones who have been in a competitors over the year.”
Then comes leadership, something that Sarkisian believes should come naturally.
“I think trying to force leadership on someone is very difficult to do,” Sarkisian said. “I think we can foster it, but I think there has to be some natural leadership in there.”
Because the first layer of Sarkisian’s offense is run-pass options that often demand off-platform throws to get the ball out on time, he wants quarterbacks who have quick releases characteristic of middle infielders in baseball.
“We look for really fast hands, really quick hands,” Sarkisian said. “The game today, with all of the advantage throws in the RPOs and the Aaron Rogers-type deliveries from awkward angles, I think you need really good hands, almost like a shortstop or a second baseman.”
The fourth aspect relates to a rhetorical question that he asks his quarterbacks frequently. What is the goal when we call a pass?
“You can call it accuracy, you can call it whatever it is — the goal is to complete the pass and so we need to make sure we’re giving our guys around us the best opportunity to make plays for you at quarterback. So to do that we need to be really accurate,” Sarkisian said.
Since Thompson, Card, and Wright are all already on campus, the evaluation process for Sarkisian won’t quite look like the above checklist, which is perhaps more geared for recruiting, but it will look similar, with a focus on leadership and coachability.
“The key to the drill to me is one, I just want to make sure they’ve got good leadership skills at the start here, two, that they’re that they are coachable, right, you want to be coachable early on because clearly we’re going to teach them things that are different than what they were taught before. Not that it’s right not that it’s wrong. That’s just the way we go about it,” Sarkisian said last week.
The scheme changes demand an emphasis on coachability, forcing the quarterbacks to remain adaptable to different ways of approaching the game than under the previous staff. Only then do the other aspects of quarterback play start to enter into the equation.
“So if you’ve got good leadership qualities, you’re coachable meaning, ‘Hey, we’re gonna ask you to do something maybe a little bit different, can we get those things done, can we do transition,’ then it will work itself into the arm talent, the decision making, the accuracy, the ability to make throws under duress.”
While Sarkisian feels confident about the leadership ability of Thompson and Card, he understands that it’s going to be a process building towards the 2021 season.
“So it’s very early and it’s probably too early to say all of that, but we got a long way to go with the position.”