On a sunny day at the Cotton Bowl, Texas Longhorns quarterback Quinn Ewers looked like a potential top-10 pick in the 2024 NFL Draft. On a windy day in Stillwater, Ewers looked like a redshirt freshman ill-equipped to deal with adverse weather conditions and a hostile road environment.
In between, there were other flashes of brilliance and other indications of his inexperience and lack of playing time over the previous two seasons while playing in an offense under head coach Steve Sarkisian clearly built to maximize the running game and cover up some significant deficiencies at the wide receiver position.
Entering spring practice, which begins next Monday, Ewers is once again competing for the starting job, this time against healthy redshirt freshman Maalik Murphy and incoming true freshman Arch Manning, the nation’s consensus No. 1 prospect and, like Ewers, one of the most important additions to the Longhorns program in the modern era of recruiting.
With Hudson Card transferring to Purdue, Texas will open the spring with four scholarship quarterbacks.
Last year, Ewers arrived as a re-classified freshman following a brief stint at Ohio State, necessitating a spring spent building relationships with his teammates and learning Sarkisian’s offense while competing with the more experienced Card.
The growing pains during the fall were real for Ewers, especially after the heady moments like his first quarter against Alabama and the blowout victory over Oklahoma after his return from the shoulder injury sustained against the Crimson Tide. Interceptions were only really a problem in the loss to Oklahoma State — the three picks accounted for half his season total — but playing with efficiency was as Ewers finished the season completing only 58.1 percent of his passes and never truly developing a rhythm with wide receiver Xavier Worthy, his only deep threat.
Ewers admitted before the Alamo Bowl that the success in the Red River Showdown made him think he had it all figured out. The subsequent weeks revealed the incredible room — and need — for growth.
“I’ve said this all along, I think the past couple weeks he’s probably thrown the ball and we’ve executed the passing game better than we have for the last couple months, quite frankly, and that’s encouraging because I think that a lot of that is his buy-in, his want-to, his commitment to it,” Sarkisian said. “Not that he wasn’t committed before, but there’s another level of commitment that you go to as a player.”
During the offseason, which now includes cutting his famous mullet, Ewers is trying to become a more vocal leader while refining the work and study habits necessary to improve his mechanics and ability to read defenses in addition to expanding his knowledge of the playbook.
“For me, I think I need to fill more of a vocal role on this team, be more of a vocal leader instead of just leading by what I do on and off the field,” Ewers said after the Alamo Bowl loss. “I think that’s the main thing for me, honestly. I need to maybe mature in that area a little bit more.”
Throughout one of the most high-profile recruitments in modern recruiting history, Manning showcased his maturity in a process heavily aided by his family, which leveraged its experience at the highest levels of the game to protect Manning as much as possible.
Manning signed with Texas as the nation’s consensus No. 1 prospect despite the outsized scrutiny afforded to his performance as a senior and without the benefit of participating in the camps, combines, and all-star games that so often influence evaluations.
With refined mechanics, downfield touch, and the functional athleticism to move in the pocket and make plays moving left or right, or even scrambling at times, Manning showcased a skill set more advanced than his peers to make up for a lack of elite arm strength or high-level competition.
Manning committed to and signed with Texas with the understanding that he would most likely redshirt. Sarkisian made it known publicly that the quarterback competition is open this offseason, but it will be difficult for Manning to overcome the more experienced Ewers, especially with the likely growth from the older quarterback this spring.
The tallest of the four quarterbacks with the strongest arm, Murphy is also known as a charismatic presence around his teammates. So he remains an intriguing prospect after ranking as the No. 179 prospect and the No. 12 quarterback in the 2022 recruiting class, according to the 247Sports Composite.
But Murphy’s development last year was set back by an ankle injury that ended his high school career and another injury during preseason camp. By the end of the season, Sarkisian was happy with Murphy’s progress and there’s a solid chance that Murphy can maintain the backup role through spring practice, but it’s difficult to assess his development before seeing him throw in a live environment in the Orange-White game for the first time since arriving at Texas.
Nearly pushed into the starting role against UTSA last season after Ewers and Card suffered injuries the previous week, the Austin High product never had to appear in that game against the Roadrunners and is now fully buried on the depth chart with Manning’s arrival.
The Texas quarterback room is arguably the most talented in school history and without many equals across the modern era of college football considering the extraordinarily lofty rankings of Ewers and Manning. But it’s still more about potential than production, and the passing game overall is a key point of emphasis for the program this offseason, Sarkisian noted in San Antonio.
“We’ve got to improve that area of our team, like a lot of areas, but that’s going to be one in particular because that should be a real asset of ours. We should be a dynamic passing football team, and we’re close to being one, but we just can’t have the missed ops when they present themselves,” Sarkisian said.