The Texas Longhorns are roughly two thirds through spring practice as the Orange-White game looms less than two weeks away. On Tuesday, new coach Steve Sarkisian met with reporters via Zoom and shared some of his most extensive comments to date about the quarterback situation that features junior Casey Thompson and redshirt freshman Hudson Card competing for the starting job.
On Saturday, the Longhorns went through the first scrimmage under Sarkisian and his coaching staff, providing one of the first big chances to evaluate their development.
Like everyone else on the team, Thompson specifically and Card by extension are still trying to fully acclimate to the new offensive scheme, so there’s still a level of uncertainty from rep to rep that can manifest itself in the players thinking too much.
“We’re a new system right now, we’ve got a new scheme, so he’s learning and thinking too, and that’s the part we’ve got to do a really good job with as coaches is trying to minimize some of the thinking that’s taking place, not only with the quarterbacks but at every position,” Sarkisian said of Thompson on Saturday.
On Tuesday, Sarkisian expanded on that point by explaining how that overthinking becomes apparent on the field, even though it’s something that won’t be concerning unless it persists into preseason camp and then bleeds into actual games this fall.
“Now it’s just getting into the flow of letting things happen naturally and not playing quite as robotic,” Sarkisian said. “That comes with reps and and getting into different situations and scenarios, but I’m pleased with where we’re at with that position.”
The difficulties in operating with a level of comfort through the first scrimmage and the other nine spring practices have likely contributed to the biggest issue that the quarterbacks faced during Saturday’s 100-play scrimmage — not getting the ball out on time and in rhythm.
“I think the biggest thing that we’ve got to improve on offensively, part of which falls on the quarterback, is just too many sacks right now,” Sarkisian said. “Our pocket presence and awareness needs to improve, which is pretty natural in your first scrimmage.”
Some quick whistles — quarterbacks aren’t live for contact during practices or scrimmages — and a better-than-expected pass rush from super senior Jacoby Jones and graduate transfer Ray Thornton off the edge contributed to those struggles in the scrimmage as well.
Sarkisian also noted the need for receivers who are flashing in practice, like junior Joshua Moore, junior Marcus Washington, and redshirt freshman Kelvontay Dixon, to show more consistency with their mental understanding of the new offense.
Despite those negatives, there were also some significant positives from the first scrimmage that provide context for why Sarkisian is happy with how the quarterbacks have developed.
“I thought for the most part we threw the ball pretty accurately today, missed a couple throws here and there, but I thought both of them moved the ball pretty well, especially when they were operating with the first offense that both of the guys stepped in, had good command, moved the ball, created some explosive plays,” Sarkisian said after the scrimmage.
Throwing the ball accurately is one of the first traits that Sarkisian looks for in quarterbacks, a skill that includes important facets like understanding the right touch and velocity to employ for specific throws. No matter how much talent a quarterback has, Sarkisian believes that there is an innate element to those aspects of throwing the football that he and his staff might be able to enhance, but are to a large extent inelastic when it comes to development, even if the quarterback has significant arm talent.
In the last decade or so, Texas has recruited multiple quarterbacks like that, including Connor Wood and Tyrone Swoopes. Jerrod Head’s accuracy always suffered because he simply didn’t have the ability to spin the football consistency, a mechanical defect he was never able to fix before moving to wide receiver.
The good news for the outlook at the position this year is that Sarkisian believes both Thompson and Card are accurate.
“We’re fortunate both guys pretty much have that natural trait to them,” Sarkisian said.
Sarkisian was also asked about what he wants from his quarterbacks — does he prefer a so-called game manager or a quarterback who is more aggressive making plays down the field?
Unsurprisingly, Sarkisian wants aspects of both characteristics and cited the play of Alabama quarterback Mac Jones last season, a guy who sometimes gets the game manager label even though he was a consensus top-400 recruit out of high school in Florida and was able to create explosive passing plays.
“Our quarterback last year got labeled a game manager and threw almost 50 touchdowns and led us to a national championship, so he I guess he was a pretty good game manager,” Sarkisian replied.
Sarkisian does believe that a quarterback needs to excel in aspects of game management like controlling the tempo, but if he’s calling shot plays, then the quarterback needs to be able to drive the ball down the field.
“To me, good quarterbacks are game managers, but they also have the ability to be aggressive when when called upon to do so,” Sarkisian said.
Over the years, the Texas head coach has evolved his schemes from the pro-style, play-action based approach that he used to USC under Pete Carroll to the zone-read based offense he kept when he inherited Jake Locker at Washington, then to the implementation of run-pass options when Keith Price took over for Locker in Seattle.
In the end, however, Sarkisian’s job is still to find ways to put whatever type of talent he has in positions to succeed.
“My approach is always to try to put our guys in the best position to be successful. The style of the game has shifted some and so the style of player maybe has shifted some, but the end result is that we’re trying to find guys that make really good decisions with the ball, can carry the football, can move the team, can take advantage of the opportunities when they’re there, and come to practice every day with a really good mindset to be one of the leaders on our football team.”
Through nine practices, despite the clear room for improvement from both Thompson and Card, Sarkisian believes that he has two options who fit that mold.