Hudson Card. Quinn Ewers.
For the second straight year, the Texas Longhorns went through spring practice and summer conditioning with a competition at the quarterback position, a battle with the import to significantly define a crucial second season for head coach Steve Sarkisian as the Longhorns attempt to bounce back from the disappointment of a 5-7 opening campaign featuring a six-game losing streak.
In 2021, Sarkisian waited until after the conclusion of preseason camp to name the starter in the battle between Card and Casey Thompson, ultimately choosing Card to start the opener against Louisiana-Lafayette while maintaining that both quarterbacks would receive playing time.
This year, competition may not last as long.
“No, we haven’t made a decision yet, but I don’t think it’ll take quite as long as maybe last fall took us,” Sarkisian said on Thursday at Big 12 Media Days in Arlington.
Sarkisian considers quarterback the most important position in sports, hardly an arguable stance, and it’s a position that he’s spent considerable time and effort over his first 20 or so months on the Forty Acres attempting to build into a position of strength.
“I think the more quality players you can have in that room for the healthy competition, to push one another, to prepare themselves for their future, but also the short-term future of playing a season is vitally important,” Sarkisian said.
Sarkisian arrived too late to bring in his own quarterback in the 2021 recruiting class, but quickly narrowed his focus in the 2022 cycle to tall, strong-armed California product Maalik Murphy. In mid-February, Murphy pledged to the Longhorns and remained steady throughout the process, even as Sarkisian looked to add more talent to the room late in the cycle.
After re-classifying to the 2021 and enrolling at Ohio State during preseason camp, one-time Texas commit Quinn Ewers entered the NCAA transfer portal in early December and picked the Longhorns less than two weeks later, filling the position room with talent and setting up a competition between Ewers and Card during the spring and summer.
“We have a unique luxury of having Hudson Card, Quinn Ewers, Maalik Murphy — those guys are all quality players,” Sarkisian said. “The beauty of the summer is we’ve been around these guys all summer long and been able to be on the field with them with skill development to see some of the growth that they could make from spring ball into summer.”
At AT&T Stadium, Sarkisian declined to indicate which quarterback might have an advantage, the expected preseason response from any head coach with an open competition at the position.
“I’ve been really impressed with both these guys in Hudson and Quinn and the work that they’ve done to prepare themselves. And I think they’ve earned a lot of respect from their teammates, which is the most important thing, but they’ve definitely got the respect of myself, Coach [AJ] Milwee, our entire coaching staff, and I think we’re going to be in good hands.”
In an appearance on ESPNU, Sarkisian framed it as a healthy battle between the two players.
“They work hard and work well together,” Sarkisian said. “They love competing with one another. But they love pushing the other guy and pumping the other guy up when his opportunities come. Quinn and Hudson are in a great battle right now.”
Card has the experience advantage as a third-year player who enrolled early in 2020 and spent last season learning Sarkisian’s offense.
“His confidence level is really high. I’m excited for him,” Sarkisian said.
Ewers has generational arm talent and maintained his ranking as the nation’s top prospect even after his re-classification.
“Quinn is a very talented young man, extremely coachable, great teammate,” Sarkisian said.
The talent and coachability have helped Ewers make strides since the start of spring football.
“Every day of spring ball was new to him, but he’s a very coachable guy. We’ve done a lot of scheme implementation and a lot of things that may have been an issue for him in the spring are better now. We’ve got to take to the grass in fall camp, but he wants to be coached hard, he’s putting in the work, and you can see it, because his play is improving,” Sarkisian said.
As Ewers has adjusted to the new program and the new offense, he’s had junior running back Bijan Robinson to help guide him on a day-to-day basis, asking about school and life outside of football to put an emphasis on Ewers becoming a well-rounded person.
“I just tell him, there’s no expectations, there’s no pressure, this is what you have to do, you don’t have to worry about other outside noise and who thinks of you as anything, just go out there and do what you do,” Robinson said in an appearance on ESPNU.
No matter which quarterback Sarkisian names the starter for the season opener, a resolution to the battle during preseason camp is hardly the end of the competition. A poor performance last season on the road in Fayetteville resulted in Card’s benching against Rice, and Casey Thompson took control of the job until his thumb injury severely impacted his throwing ability against Iowa State. In the final games of the season, Card saw more action until he suffered an ankle injury in Morgantown.
Whether injuries or ineffectiveness ultimately force Sarkisian to make changes during the season, the Texas head coach does anticipate another season needing two quarterbacks.
“Like any football season goes, very rarely do you just go through one entire season with one quarterback having to make a play to be a championship-caliber team,” Sarkisian said. “Somewhere in there that other guy has to show up and make a play for you or win a game for you unexpectedly, and I think that we’ve got two very capable young men at that position.”
But what’s the best timetable for making the decision and which quarterback would that timetable favor?
To answer the second question first, declining to wait until game week to make a decision heavily favors Ewers, the more talented but less experienced quarterback who would more greatly benefit from receiving heavy first-team reps over the finals weeks of practice prior to the opener. So the timetable that makes the most sense is as always as reasonable, perhaps a week or so after the Longhorns moved into practice with full pads — some time in mid-August shortly after the first scrimmage.
Naming Ewers the starter has the added benefit of allowing him those crucial first-team reps against Louisiana-Monroe, the weakest team on the 2022 schedule, while keeping Card in reserve for the Alabama game, where his experience and steadiness could be effective replacing Ewers if the redshirt freshman struggles with some combination of accuracy and decision making.
But it’s been clear since Ewers committed in December that getting him starting reps as soon as possible is in the best short-term and long-term interests of the Texas program.