In 2003, new Texas Longhorns head coach Steve Sarkisian was entering his third year as the quarterbacks coach for the USC Trojans when he was involved in the most difficult quarterback decision of his career — deciding between sophomore Matt Leinart and junior Matt Cassel as the replacement for Carson Palmer.
The Heisman Trophy winner as the Trojans finished fourth in the AP Poll after thrashing Iowa in the Orange Bowl, Palmer had been sensational in 2002, totaling nearly 4,000 passing yards, throwing 33 touchdowns to only 10 interceptions, and doing it all with efficiency, completing 63.2 percent of his passes.
Fortunately, Sarkisian’s critical 2003 decision was so difficult because both talented quarterbacks made it difficult.
Leinart narrowly won the job and never relinquished it, going 37-2 as a starter and helping the Trojans to a split national championship in 2003, and outright national championship in 2004, with Vince Young’s heroics denying USC the following year.
Sarkisian only coached Leinart in 2003 before departing for the Oakland Raiders in 2004 and then returning to Los Angeles in 2005 to serve in his previous role. But at no point did it ever appear that Sarkisian made the wrong decision — although given Cassel’s 14-year career that included a Pro Bowl appearance, a bad decision might not have been possible.
As Texas practiced for the fifth time in preseason camp on Wednesday, Sarkisian is in the midst of overseeing a more difficult quarterback decision than faced in his previous seven seasons as a head coach. In a matter of days, as preseason camp wraps up, he’ll make the choice between junior Casey Thompson, the unexpected Alamo Bowl star, and redshirt freshman Hudson Card, who “came out of the womb spinning the football,” according to former standout Sam Ehlinger.
“Like I said, I had a feeling this would happen — both Casey and Hudson, neither of them are making it easy,” Sarkisian said on Sunday. “They’re both playing well, they’re both improving, they’re both trying to do the things we’re asking them to do, and that’s what I hoped for. I wanted them to make it hard on us and they’re doing just that.”
Through the start of preseason, the game has started to slow down for both quarterbacks, Sarkisian said. Not that they were frequently rushed back in March and April, but there’s clearly a higher comfort level from both, as expected with the time they’ve had to learn the offense.
“I think they’re seeing the value in getting completions and then taking their shots when they present themselves and not trying to figure it out in the middle of the play — they’re trusting their preparation to anticipate those shot plays when they’re there,” Sarkisian said.
Those shot plays are integral to any offense. In Sarkisian’s offense, which creates wide receivers open on every play, in the estimation of junior wide receiver Joshua Moore, the quarterback’s ability to take advantage of those opportunities could mean the difference between a successful season and a disappointing season.
But the shot plays are only part of the picture. Sarkisian sees defenses as less like a book than something more flowing and ever changing, dictating which throws are available.
“We don’t just force the issue — we really tried to read coverages, read defenses, and get our indicators and things like that,” Sarkisian said.
If that means taking a check down because the wide receivers somehow didn’t create separation, a frequent problem for Texas in recent years, taking the check down isn’t just the smart play for the quarterback, those passes have the opportunity to get dangerous playmakers like Bijan Robinson and Keilan Robinson the ball in space.
So far, so good there, too.
“The game has slowed down and they’re letting the easy things be easy and that’s that’s one of the key components in the system,” Sarkisian said.
If the winner of the quarterback battle can translate their practice success to games this fall, they won’t have to play as well as Leinart for Sarkisian’s second-hardest quarterback decision to end up as the right one, once again.