As the No. 20 Texas Longhorns spend the first half of practices in preparation for the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio against the No. 12 Washington Huskies, the focus on fundamentals and techniques is generally considered the most useful to young backups who might not receive as many beneficial reps during the season. Like freshman quarterback Maalik Murphy as he moves into the backup role.
But the starter, redshirt freshman Quinn Ewers, needs those reps as much as any of the other young players after limping to the finish line of his first regular season as a starter. Following a three-interception performance against Oklahoma State in Stillwater, Ewers never recovered the form he showed in a spectacular performance against Oklahoma in the Red River Shutout.
So after Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian made the massive miscalculation in the high-profile showdown against TCU expecting Ewers to hit deep shots against man coverage despite his accuracy issues in that area, Ewers received a set of training wheels for the final regular season games against Kansas and Baylor during which he attempted 37 combined passes while Texas ran the ball 105 times for 635 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Ewers admitted that he allowed his footwork to get lazy in the passing game and the running game late in the season, instead relying on his natural talent to carry him through. For the first time in his football career, however, that didn’t happen, forcing a return to fundamentals and, one hopes, a greater devotion to the playbook.
A specific area of focus for Ewers should be the timing of his throws. At times, Ewers threw late because he would hitch multiple times after hitting the back of his drop. At other times, he threw without a hitch after hitting the back of his drop, disrupting the timing of plays and causing accuracy issues.
So the footwork issues for Ewers this season weren’t just about throwing off platform for no reason — he was inconsistent with syncing his footwork with the ideal timing of plays.
For a player who missed a significant number of reps due to injury as a junior and his decision to re-classify to the 2021 class to enroll at Ohio State last year, the bowl practices will serve as a massively important opportunity for Ewers and the entire passing game to grow.
“I know we can be better in obviously the passing game and there’s a lot of layers to the passing game,” Sarkisian said in late November after the win over Baylor. “I thought there were some things there where Quinn was throwing it good and we didn’t protect very good. There’s been other games we’ve protected great and we haven’t thrown the ball very good. There’s been other games we’ve done those two things and we haven’t caught the ball very good. So inevitably the passing game, like the running game, it takes all 11 and it takes precision and execution. That’s an area where I know we’re gonna we’re going to spend a lot of time on and cleaning that up.”
Regardless of whether a young wide receiver like redshirt freshman Casey Cain or steps up to allow Sarkisian to use more 11 personnel — the departure of jumbo tight end Andrej Karic to the NCAA transfer portal should force Sarkisian to be less conservative in his personnel packages — Ewers also needs to show growth connecting with sophomore wide receiver Xavier Worthy in bowl practices and in the actual game.
In that regard, the Alamo Bowl may serve as something of an audition by Ewers to gain Worthy’s trust — the star pass catcher opted against entering the transfer portal this month despite his obvious frustration late in the season after going the final three games without a touchdown reception, but there will still be plenty of time to do so during the offseason if Ewers doesn’t prove he can connect with the speedy Worthy.
Crucially, Ewers and Worthy need to get on the same page on post routes about where Ewers is going to put the ball and Worthy’s landmarks for aiming his route out of his break, as the two failed to connect on those plays at all this season.
With Sarkisian set to open the quarterback competition during the offseason following the arrival of Arch Manning next month, Ewers needs to use the Alamo Bowl as a springboard into the offseason, demonstrating his growth as a more refined quarterback, showing a rejuvenated level of confidence, and making an on-field pitch to Worthy about why he should stay on the Forty Acres for a third season.