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What Texas QB Casey Thompson learned from his Orange-White game pick six

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Missing the wheel route on a post/wheel combination was unusual for Thompson, who hit the wheel during Wednesday’s practice for a touchdown and is now more willing to take the check-down when available.

NCAA Football: Texas Spring Game Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

Coming out of Casey Thompson’s sensational Alamo Bowl performance in relief of Sam Ehlinger, the Texas Longhorns junior headed into April’s Orange-White game still having plenty to prove to new head coach Steve Sarkisian.

In the early stages of Thompson’s first public battle with redshirt freshman Hudson Card, his competition for the starting quarterback job, Thompson got off to a solid start before making a critical mistake in the red zone late in the first half.

The play caller for the Orange team dialed up a play to try to score a touchdown in the final moments and behind the chains, a play Thompson had run well in practice previously.

This is a post/wheel route combo to the field here by the Longhorns, with Jordan Whittington running the wheel route from the slot and Joshua Moore running the post route from the outside. Based on the pre-snap alignment and cornerback D’Shawn Jamison taking two big vertical steps before the snap with his eyes on Thompson, the Texas quarterback knows he’s going to get a soft zone coverage here.

He’d seen it in practice before from defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski and he’d always been able to beat Jamison on the route — 100-percent of the time, Thompson said on Wednesday, offering that Jamison would back him up on that.

Whittington takes his third step outside, then takes two steps square towards the sideline, — he even opens up his left hip back to the quarterback to sell the route and flips them quickly to gets upfield on the wheel route.

With the two-deep look from the Texas safeties, it’s going take a badly-blown assignment for Thompson to find Moore on the post route right into that safety — the post is a clear-out route meant to spring the wheel. And on this particular play, Jamison no longer abandons his zone responsibilities as he did previously in practice, something position coach Terry Joseph was surely on Jamison about in the film room.

Thompson has three good choices on this play. He can try to hit Whittington quickly out of the break to the back shoulder, as he had before. Because Thompson has solid protection, he can also wait and let Whittington try to beat Jamison to the pylon or into the side of the end zone. The third option, and one that Sarkisian would like Thompson to take instead of putting the ball at risk, is to hit the running back on the check-down route.

Right after Thompson releases the ball, the running back has seven yards of vertical space to the nearest defender. The linebackers are in good position to close that space quickly and make the tackle, but even a modest gain of three to five yards is valuable real estate in the red zone. And for sure avoids catastrophe barring a fumble by the running back.

Instead, Thompson makes a decision much worse than his three better choices and Jamison finally forced the Texas quarterback to pay the price on the 92-yard touchdown.

The junior is plenty hard on himself, don’t worry — back in the spring, he said it took about a month for him to get over the two incompletions in the Alamo Bowl. Getting over the pick six took a few weeks as well, but for Thompson it’s about having the same per-play focus and short memory that cornerbacks like Jamison need.

“Every play, every rep is different, each play is its individual opportunity, so you can’t live on the last play or think about the future play,” Thompson said.

Those considerations are for between plays and between series, in the film room following practices and games.

On Wednesday, Thompson had another opportunity on the post/wheel combo, hitting the wheel route for a touchdown.

“I know another opportunity is going to come on that wheel route and I’ll make the best of it and if it’s not there, now I know I can learn to find my check down and throw it to the running back,” he said.

Lesson learned. Opportunity taken. Touchdown, Casey Thompson.