On August 29, Casey Thompson actually took a day off. Well, mostly.
Surely one of the most prepared quarterbacks in the country thanks to his diligent film study, the Texas Longhorns junior quarterback was dealing with some massively disappointing news — after spending his first three years on the Forty Acres backing up Sam Ehlinger, Thompson had just lost the starting job to redshirt freshman Hudson Card the day before.
“The day that I found out that I was not going to be this name the starter, obviously, I took that with a grain of salt,” Thompson said last week. “I said, ‘I’m gonna let this hurt and I’m gonna let this motivate me.’”
So Thompson called his family and then turned his phone off. When the Oklahoma product isn’t completely focused on football — rare moments, indeed — he likes to watch movies, preferably titles like “Inception” and “The Revenant” with his favorite actor, Leonardo DiCaprio.
But even as Thompson tried to give himself some space to mentally process the setback after a close competition throughout preseason camp, he watched a couple football games and did what he always does — he watched some film.
Then he got back to work in earnest on Monday with an eye on taking advantage of his next opportunity.
“I just woke up and I went back to work and I said, no matter what happens, I’m gonna be ready to play and I’m gonna take this thing over when the opportunity presents itself and so that was my thought process and kind of my mindset going through it,” Thompson said.
He’d come too far and waited too long just to quit when the starting job was so close. That’s partly why he turned his phone off that day — to make sure that all those voices telling him what they thought he should do didn’t distract him from refocusing on the task at hand.
“If I’m not going to get named week one and it’s not going to be given to me, then I have to go take it myself and I have to show my teammates that I’m just gonna continue to work hard and be the best I can be every day,” Thompson said.
Card was impressive in the season opener against Louisiana, then crumbled under pressure in the hostile environment of Fayetteville. Meanwhile, Thompson did exactly what he promised to do — he took advantage of his opportunities, playing with efficiency late against the Ragin’ Cajuns and then providing some of the only positive moments in the route by the Razorbacks as he led two late touchdown drives.
As Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian considered the burgeoning quarterback controversy after returning to Austin, it was impossible to ignore that the Horns simply moved the ball with Thompson at quarterback. Over his last three appearances, he’d led scoring drives on nine of his 10 possessions, totaling 55 points.
So during his Monday press conference following the Arkansas disaster, Sarkisian revealed that Thompson would start against Rice, his first start since he was at Newcastle in November 2017.
“The results are the results,” Sarkisian of Thompson on Thursday. “When he’s played, the ball’s moved down the field and we’ve scored points.”
Just like Thompson wasn’t ready to quit after he initially lost the job, he wasn’t ready to change his thorough preparation regime. On Sunday and Monday, he watched full game clips of Rice. On Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, he watched third down and red-zone cutups. On Friday, on the bus going to the hotel in Austin, Thompson went through the game sheet and his tips and reminders.
If anything, he spent a little more time on treatment, watched a little more film, and spent a little bit more time with his wide receivers. A Texas graduate, taking two online classes means that Thompson can almost totally commit himself to playing quarterback.
Still, he admitted that all of his preparation couldn’t calm some of the nerves he felt before the game.
“This was different, I actually got nervous for the first time yesterday. I hadn’t been nervous since my first start in high school — I started varsity as a freshman at Southmoore High School in Moore, Oklahoma and this was my first start in college,” Thompson said after the Rice game.
“So naturally I got a little bit nervous, even on the bus ride. I never get nervous when I go in the game, but once I went out for warmups and I got warm and got loose and just seeing the ball come off my hand, seeing everybody run around and the smiles on everyone’s faces, when that first drive started, we got that first snap and I wasn’t nervous any more.”
With the nerves subsided, Thompson continued where he left off against Arkansas, leading a nine-play, 69-yard touchdown drive to open the game. The second drive produced a setback with his first college interception as he was hit trying to deliver a deep ball to freshman wide receiver Xavier Worthy, but Thompson bounced back and led touchdown drives on the next six Texas possessions.
Thompson finished 15-for-18 passing for 164 yards and two touchdowns. With the running game producing three touchdowns of more than 60 yards, Thompson simply had to make the right decisions in the pocket, and while he wasn’t able to provide much more juice on shot plays than Card did, there were some positive signs, like a 17-yard back-shoulder throw to Worthy for a touchdown.
“It’s just the consistency,” Thompson said last week. “I think sustaining a level of consistency is a thing I told you guys before — that’s what playing quarterback is all about and so it doesn’t matter if I get five plays or if I get 50 plays.”
On Monday, Sarkisian said that Thompson will start against as Big 12 play opens at home against Texas Tech, with a continued desire to get Card in the game, albeit with the understanding that game flow will dictate that decision.
And now there’s more evidence to support the idea that Thompson is just a gamer who performs better under the bright lights than he does in practice. Sarkisian likes to see a trajectory at quarterback where their level of play increases as they move from throwing routes on air to one-on-ones to seven-on-seven to full team periods and then to the games.
“I think Casey is a classic example of, I think his level of play continues to rise based on the arena that he’s in and that’s a really cool quality to have because we don’t play quarterback in T-shirt and shorts, you know, it’s still a physical game,” Sarkisian said on Monday.
“You still have to deal with the pressures of playing the position — I think the best quarterbacks embrace that pressure and kind of flourish in it and I think that he’s got something about him that kind of feels comfortable in that arena of a real game. Sometimes that’s hard to tell until guys actually get in the game and have to play and he’s done a nice job of that so far, so hopefully we can continue to build on that.”
Thompson’s preparation paid off with the back-shoulder throw to Worthy. The Texas quarterback hadn’t delivered that particular ball to Worthy in practice, but he had gotten in extra work after practice and watched film with Worthy. So when it was there against Rice, Thompson made the right throw and Worthy finished the play with his first college touchdown.
“Casey is a grinder, he’s a worker,” Sarkisian said. “I think inevitably hard work pays off, right? And I think that all the extra little things that he does in preparation, whether it’s physical or mental, help him perform to the level of which he’s trying to perform to whether it’s knowledge of where to go with a ball on a secondary read or whether to take advantage of a one-on-one opportunity in the red area or getting us to the right play or the right protection, I think all those things add up when you put in the work.”
The preparation even produces some moments capable of creating real belief from Thompson’s teammates, even if he’s just handing the ball off. Before the 62-yard touchdown run by sophomore running back Bijan Robinson late in the second quarter against Rice, Thompson predicted Robinson would score. All Robinson had to do was take advantage of the hole produced on inside zone, make a key cut in the open field, and then admit that Thompson was right.
“Casey is the type that he’ll be like. ‘We’re about to get 20 yards on this, watch.’ And then we’re going to get more than 20 yards,” Robinson said. “So just seeing how he studies and what he studies in defenses and how confident he is, it’s pretty cool to be next to him.”