The plan was always the plan and Maalik Murphy was never at the center of it.
Sure, Texas Longhorns head coach Steve Sarkisian targeted Murphy as the quarterback take in the 2022 recruiting class after arriving on the Forty Acres, but it was everything that happened afterwards that frequently tested the patience and loyalty of the talented passer.
Less than six weeks after Sarkisian was hired at Texas, Murphy committed to the Longhorns over 30 other offers from some of the top programs nationally.
Then the tests of Murphy’s loyalty started coming as the recruiting cycle began to wind down.
Texas decided to pursue another quarterback in the class during the fall of 2021, extending an offer to top-50 national product Devin Brown, a standout at Corner Canyon in Utah.
Murphy remained firm and Brown ended up committing to and signing with Ohio State.
Following an up-and-down season by Casey Thompson impacted by injury, Sarkisian and his staff made Quinn Ewers a priority target when he entered the transfer portal following a semester at Ohio State.
Murphy remained firm even with other programs expressing interest in the days before the early signing period, signing with the Longhorns even as Ewers committed and immediately became the future at the quarterback position for Texas.
Months later, after Murphy enrolled early in Austin and battled through the rehabilitation process from the ankle injury that ended his high school career in the state championship game, one of the most high-profile recruitments of the modern era ended with 2023’s No. 1 prospect Arch Manning pledging to Texas.
Suddenly, the succession plan was clear at a position with high turnover across college football, especially among elite talents — Ewers would start for two years and play well enough to fulfill his potential as a first-round pick and then Manning would take over.
It was a plan with little margin for error and little room for Murphy, who was expected to compete for the starting job against Manning in 2024 before pursuing playing time elsewhere.
Still, Murphy remained firm, even after a strong performance in the Orange-White game reportedly led to contact from Power Five programs offering a more clear path towards playing time, eventually narrowly winning the backup role over Manning during preseason camp.
And now, with Saturday’s injury to Ewers that could keep him out for weeks, it was Murphy who replaced Ewers against the Cougars and is poised to do the same this weekend against another set of Cougars at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.
“We’ll go through the week and Arch and Maalik will both get a ton of reps. If the game was being played today, Malik would start the game. Again, Arch will be ready to go, and like I said before, I have a ton of confidence in Arch. I think it was a couple of weeks ago he had a fantastic practice and so I’m really encouraged by that,” said Sarkisian during his Monday press conference.
“I think Coach (AJ) Milwee has done a great job with both those guys and so we’re fortunate, not every school is as fortunate as we are to have the quarterback room that we have and the connectivity that room has. I think a lot can be said for Quinn and his leadership in that room, I think a lot can be said for Charles Wright and his experience and knowledge base of our scheme, and the dialogue that those guys have in that room. I think they’re always trying to lift each other up and help one another, so hopefully we can reap the benefits of that this week.”
Listed at 6’5, 238 pounds, Murphy is an imposing presence, as illustrated by his viral tweet over the summer with the rest of the quarterback room.
A pure pocket passer, as Sarkisian prefers, Murphy is known for his immense arm strength.
“Maalik’s a natural passer when he throws the ball — he throws a very beautiful, beautiful ball and I think there’s not a throw that he can’t make,” said Sarkisian.
Compared to Ewers and Manning, Murphy has the most outgoing and dynamic personality in the quarterback room. In fact, it’s impossible to talk about Murphy and what makes him special without mentioning his charisma.
“I think he’s got really good leadership qualities. I think the guys like playing with Maalik and that’s a positive as a quarterback. Inevitably as a quarterback, you’re only as good as the guys around you and and when guys play good around you, that makes your job a lot easier, and I think that that’s extremely helpful.”
Unlike Manning, who arrived during the spring as an early enrollee, Murphy also has some experience in Sarkisian’s system after arriving in January 2022.
“I think the third piece is his understanding of what we’re doing,” said Sarkisian. “He’s got a great feel for the game, he’s got a good feel for passing the ball and can make all the throws, but I think he understands what we do and why we do it and that’s another added bonus.”
Since Murphy has appeared in only two games with four completions in eight pass attempts, the longest live look at his throwing ability came in the Orange-White game during which Murphy stole the headlines by going 9-of-13 passing for 165 yards and a touchdown, a 79-yard bomb to freshman wide receiver Johntay Cook.
Every Maalik Murphy throw from the spring game pic.twitter.com/mtcNE7x13W— Nash (@NashTalksTexas) October 23, 2023
The performance showcased some of the attributes that helped Murphy rank as the No. 197 prospect and the No. 9 quarterback in the 2022 recruiting class, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings.
On the throw to Cook and the previous pass attempt, another shot play dropped by freshman wide receiver DeAndre Moore Jr., Murphy flashed his ability to drive the ball downfield with accuracy.
On a comeback to Moore, Murphy displayed the arm strength on intermediate throws that can allow him to hit small windows.
Several throws to running backs in the flat or on rail routes, as well as a dropped crossing route by Moore, provided promising signs that Murphy can change speeds and throw more catchable passes in situations that demand him to throttle down from his max velocity.
Notable as well was the tempo of Murphy’s passes — not the velocity, but the fact that the majority of his attempts came out on time and in rhythm, a measure of his decisiveness and comfort level in Sarkisian’s offense.
And a throw on 4th and 5 showed that Murphy can stand tall in the pocket, go through multiple reads, and make off-platform throws with velocity when he doesn’t have time to reset his feet.
But there were also several throws in the red zone, including a glance route run-pass option that is a staple play for Sarkisian, when Murphy thew passes with high velocity that his targets struggled to catch, an issue that has shown up on several throws this season.
Murphy’s skill set will ensure that the majority of the offense is available on Saturday against BYU — assuming that he starts as expected — but the challenge this week for Sarkisian is determining what Murphy does the best at this point in his development and finding simple plays for him to make like his only completion against Houston, a screen pass to senior wide receiver Jordan Whittington.
“I think one thing with quarterbacks early on in their career, sometimes let the easy things be easy, right? And there’s plenty of things that we do that are very quarterback-friendly and allowing those things to be easy for a young quarterback is critical because there’s going to be plenty of tough plays that they’re going to have to make,” said Sarkisian.
This week, it’s less about concepts and more about the ability to execute.
“It’s not always about the idea of the play and putting it on a whiteboard because there’s a lot of plays that look good, but what do they do well and then how do we ensure, okay, here’s the concepts that we think they run really well? They don’t have to run the whole playbook. They need to run what they run really well. And then how do we devise a plan that incorporates what they do well, with the personnel formation, motions, shifts, run game, to tie it all together? And so that’s kind of how you do it. I think it’s important that they get confidence early is always helpful, but never know how a game is gonna go,” said Sarkisian.
With limited game film on Murphy and opponents frequently playing defenses they hadn’t previously put on tape, Murphy’s ability to adapt during the game in concert with adjustments made by Sarkisian will play a significant role in determining how much success the Longhorns offense has against the Cougars.
“We try to prepare our players for the multitude of things that can and or should happen and try to put them in the best position. But naturally, BYU is going to do things that aren’t on tape and you have to adapt at that point,” said Sarkisian.
“In adapting, sometimes it’s when we can get them on the sidelines and adapt much better. Sometimes you have to adapt in play, post snap, right? The coverages may be different than they’ve been playing, the pressures are a little different, the matchups are different, and so that ability to adapt and not just rely on practice — as much as I love practice and practice is huge — adaptability in game to some of the newness that comes at you I think is critical.”
Fortunately for Murphy and Sarkisian, the season has already provided a high level of familiarity.
“I’ve got seven straight weeks of information from Maalik of the plays that he feels comfortable with and so now as we start to devise a plan, I don’t always necessarily have to wait until Friday to ask him what he wants because the majority of the things that are in this plan I already know he feels really comfortable with,” said Sarkisian.
Now it’s up to Murphy to capitalize on an opportunity the plan held that he would never receive at Texas.