In both seasons with the Texas Longhorns, redshirt sophomore quarterback Quinn Ewers has gone down with shoulder injuries, suffering different damage in each shoulder, ultimately missing five total games in 2022 and 2023.
The last time the Longhorns played in the postseason with a chance to win the national championship against the Crimson Tide in 2010, star quarterback Colt McCoy went down on the fifth play from scrimmage for Texas and was unable to continue, thrusting freshman Garrett Gilbert into a spotlight for which he was demonstrably not prepared in committing five turnovers, including a fumble inside the Alabama 20-yard line down 24-21 and two of his four interceptions coming on the final two possessions.
So the inescapable reality is that Texas freshman Arch Manning is one play away from leading the Longhorns in the College Football Playoffs with redshirt freshman Maalik Murphy entrance into the NCAA transfer portal earlier this month, the type of difficult decision made by the consummate teammate thanks to the time crunch created by the intersection of the football postseason calendar and the academic calendar.
“For all of our guys that had to go on the portal prior to us playing in the College Football Playoffs, I think it sucks, I hate it for them,” said Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian. “They put in a lot of a lot of hard work, I mean these guys since January have been busting their tails with our team whether it’s winter conditioning, spring practice, summer workouts, fall training camp, all season long, whatever their role was whether they were a part-time player, a scout-team player a backup, they still committed a lot to this program and for them not to have the ability to see that through, I hate that for them.”
Murphy unquestionably played a key role in the Longhorns making the playoffs for the first time. On the road against Houston, the California gunslinger only needed to throw one pass. And a 35-6 win over BYU at home came easily enough despite two ugly turnovers by Murphy. But the high points in Murphy throwing for 248 yards and a touchdown against Kansas State — while hitting the lows of two more turnovers — were enough to position the defense for the season-defining, four-play goal-line stand in overtime.
Even with the struggles of Gilbert almost 14 years ago and the growing pains for Murphy, the Texas coaches and players are at least saying the right things publicly about Manning’s fitness to stand in for Ewers if necessary.
“Arch is the backup for this game. He’s more than capable of playing really good football for us,” said Sarkisian. “I think the opportunity that he had to play here against Tech showed what he’s capable of.”
In the fourth quarter of what became a 57-7 win over the Red Raiders in the regular-season finale, the crowd at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium buzzed as Manning made his first appearance fo the Longhorns, a highly-anticipated debut for the nation’s No. 1 prospect in the 2023 recruiting class and the heir of football’s royal quarterback family.
Manning’s athleticism was on full display early with scrambles of five yards and 12 yards on his first two dropbacks before eventually connecting on his third pass attempt, a 17-yard completion to freshman wide receiver Johntay Cook. On a 13-play, 91-yard drive to notch the final touchdown for Texas, Manning found junior wide receiver Casey Cain for 13 yards on a 4th and 5.
In a less impactful appearance in Arlington, it was Manning who took the final snap in victory formation to win the Big 12 Championship game.
With Manning on campus for nearly a year now after enrolling early last January, Sarkisian doesn’t see him as a first-year player any more.
“I joked with him to the other day, it’s like, ‘You’re not really a freshman any more — this is your sophomore year now, okay, and so what would it look like going into your sophomore year in preparing you to play?’ That’s that’s what we’re doing,” said Sarkisian.
Going against Manning in practice over that time, Texas senior safety Jerrin Thompson has seen the young quarterback adjust to the speed of college football in recognizing how defenses disguise coverages.
Work ethic certainly has never been a problem for Manning. If his father, Cooper, didn’t see to it, his grandfather Archie and his uncles Peyton and Eli certainly did.
“Arch has always been head down first and work team first,” said Thompson on Thursday. “He’s never cared about having a starting role or anything.”
Working as the third-team quarterback until Murphy’s departure, Manning has put an emphasis on his mental reps, according to his official visit host and close friend, redshirt sophomore safety Michael Taaffe.
“He’s very intentional with his work — when Quinn’s up or when Malik was up, he’s standing over there and it’s this, this, this I’m gonna go here, when it’s this coverage, I’m gonna go here when it’s that coverage and kind of mimicking what the other quarterbacks do and you asking a bunch of questions,” said Taaffe. “He’s really understanding his role of being a redshirt freshman, knowing that your potential is very much not reached yet.”