On January 2, Texas Longhorns quarterback Casey Thompson had just finished giving a speech to kids at a football camp with his father, former Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Charles Thompson, when he got the news.
Hours after Tom Herman was fired by Texas, the school announced the hire of Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian.
“At first I was surprised and I was shocked,” Thompson said on Thursday during a Zoom call with reporters. “I didn’t see it coming, but I was excited.”
Thompson quickly kicked into gear, texting Texas athletics director Chris Del Conte to get Sarkisian’s phone number so he could reach out and start building a relationship with his new head coach.
“After I got his phone number I immediately started bugging him about the playbook and how can I learn and where can I watch film, and I started watching Alabama film from the day he got hired,” Thompson said.
That Saturday, as Sarkisian split his time between helping Alabama prepare for the national championship and making plans to take over in Austin, Thompson began the process of consuming film from Sarkisian’s time in Tuscaloosa and even before. He watched 2018 game film and 2019 game film with Tua Tagovailoa leading the Alabama offense and then 2020 game film with Mac Jones at quarterback.
Even in the midst of the final week of spring practice, the work continued for Thompson on Wednesday as he watched the Alabama versus Georgia game from the 2020 season, a 41-24 win for the Crimson Tide that featured Jones going 24-for-32 passing for 417 yards, four touchdowns, and one interception.
Thompson’s daily focus on preparation is the most defining feature of a career that has now spanned three years at Texas as the Oklahoma product waited for his opportunity to compete for the starting job.
“I’m hungry and I want to get better, I believe in what we can do as a team and I believe in what I can do and like I said, I’m just trying to be the best player that I can be moving forward and go from good to great and I think Sark will be obviously a big piece in helping me get to that level.”
After arriving on the Forty Acres, Sarkisian and his coaching staff didn’t waste any time challenging their new players with an installation process that Thompson said included everything there is to run in football. For some players, it’s been a difficult transition as they’ve tried to absorb all the new schemes and terminology in a short period of time, but Thompson wasn’t phased by it.
“Football is football and I love the game and everything that comes with it,” Thompson said. “Studying plays and film study and all that stuff comes naturally for me and I actually enjoy doing that in my free time — it’s my hobby.”
As the team has gone through that installation process over the first 14 practices of spring football, Thompson has come away impressed not only with Sarkisian’s renowned play-calling ability, but also the way his new head coach has adjusted to the Texas players.
“My favorite part about the offense is that it’s very creative, it’s very diverse. Coach Sark is very natural and is very gifted at his play-calling abilities and he’s really good at learning the players’ strengths and weaknesses,” Thompson said. “As far as quarterback and running back and receiver, he’s able to put the players in the best position to be successful.”
On Saturday, the Orange-White game marks Thompson’s first opportunity to make a public impression under the new coaching staff after a remarkably efficient performance in the Alamo Bowl against Colorado when starter Sam Ehlinger left the game with an injury.
Thompson took advantage, going 8-for-10 passing for 170 yards and four touchdowns in the first extended playing time of his college career. After the game, Thompson went through mixed emotions about his performance — he felt a sense of relief after finally getting a chance to translate his preparation to the field, but he was also frustrated with his two incompletions for about a month.
As he’s worked on letting that frustration go and moving on to a new year, he’s also let go of his old number at Texas, moving on to a number that may be new for him on the Forty Acres, but is familiar to him as a football player.
When Thompson arrived in Austin in 2018 after wearing No. 11 from little league to middle school to high school to his recruiting visits to Texas, Ehlinger had already worn the number as a freshman, forging a new identity with it after wearing No. 4 in high school at Austin Westlake. So every time Thompson offered to pay Ehlinger to switch numbers, Ehlinger declined — just like Thompson had to wait behind Ehlinger for years for his opportunity at playing time, he had to wait for the chance to get his old number back.
“So 11 to me just feels like me — it’s a comfort thing,” Thompson said. “The number means something to me and I have my reasons for why I wear it.”
Getting his old jersey number back is a big chapter for Thompson in his Texas career a little more than two years after he entered the NCAA transfer portal before deciding to return when Shane Buechele and Cameron Rising both decided to leave for other opportunities.
“Obviously, the competitor in me wanted to play right away as a freshman or a sophomore, but now looking back I think my maturity is really what helped me stay here,” Thompson said. “I think I’ve embraced a new chapter in my life and a new role and that kind of was another factor that led to my decision of switching back to No. 11 is getting back to my old self and my old ways of being able to just play my game, and to start a new year, start a new chapter. I just wanted to go back to the old me.”
Now the question is whether the maturity and experience that Thompson gained as Ehlinger’s backup will help him hold off talented redshirt freshman Hudson Card in the quarterback competition.
Thompson pointed out that quarterback competitions usually last into preseason camp, as the competition between Jones and five-star freshman Bryce Young did last year at Alabama when head coach Nick Saban waited until the Monday of game week to announce Jones as the winner, but Thompson isn’t focused on that.
“I think that I can just control what I control and focus on being the best player on and off the field that I can be — I think it’s up to coach to decide when to name a starter.”