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Texas has more of a developmental imperative than a QB competition

Officially, spring practice on the Forty Acres will feature an open competition between Quinn Ewers and Arch Manning. But that’s not the most important storyline to follow.

NCAA Football: Texas Christian at Texas Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

The exact moment when Texas Longhorns head coach Steve Sarkisian made clear his commitment to Quinn Ewers as the immediate future of the quarterback position in his program is difficult to discern precisely.

Perhaps it was when Sarkisian opted against benching Ewers during a 19-of-39 passing performance with three interceptions in last October’s 41-34 loss to Oklahoma State in Stillwater. “I never considered pulling him,” Sarkisian said after the game, despite strong play from backup Hudson Card when Ewers injured his shoulder in the season’s second game.

Perhaps it was when Sarkisian remained resolute in bombing the ball downfield in November’s home loss to TCU in which Ewers finished 17-of-39 passing with an interception. Again, Sarkisian declined to make a change at the position. “It wasn’t all on Quinn,” the Texas head coach said. “Everybody took turns tonight. We were just off.”

Perhaps it was when Sarkisian finally acknowledged the need to adjust the offense to the realities of running out a struggling redshirt freshman quarterback in the final two regular-season games, during which Ewers attempted 21 passes in the blowout win over Kansas in Lawrence and 16 attempts in the home victory against Baylor.

Regardless of the exact moment, Sarkisian’s actions spoke loudly, especially compared to the quick hook he used on Card in 2021 — named the starter before the season opener, Card only lasted two games until Casey Thompson replaced him with the first team and never got another chance despite Thompson struggling for much of the season with a thumb injury sustained in the Cotton Bowl.

Even before the regular-season finale, Sarkisian was explicit about opening up the quarterback competition during the offseason.

“So like every year we’ll go into the offseason and wipe the slate clean and let these guys compete and battle and see what it looks like, because that’s what makes us better and ultimately, when other guys are working at their craft that should motivate us to want to continue to improve our game,” Sarkisian said.

“And that would be no different than any other position — we have to give everybody those opportunities or we’re not living up to the idea that we’re a developmental program and if you don’t give guys the opportunity to develop and then show what they’re capable of, then I’m speaking out of both sides of my mouth and that’s not right. I always trying to be upfront and honest with our guys and so competition is at the forefront of our program to go along with the development, and so that position is no different.”

But the framing here is important — this is standard coach speak about competition also worth viewing as a message to Ewers about his need for improvement, a realization that came about naturally for a young quarterback who admitted before the Alamo Bowl that he thought he had everything figured out after the blowout of Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl before reality rudely intervened.

Some of the growth for Ewers is happening naturally as he goes through his second offseason in the program.

“He was essentially a true freshman this time last year for us,” Sarkisian said. “There was a lot on his mind. It’s like when the gears are moving, but there’s no WD-40 in there as those gears were grinding. It felt that way for him pretty much all year long.

“I’m watching him break the team down. I’m watching him do those things, which is positive. And I think what he’s done, he’s serving for Arch of, ‘Hey, this is what it looks like and this is how to go about your business.’”

For all the accolades Arch Manning has already received as a result of his consensus No. 1 ranking and his famous last name, a key factor in the quarterback competition is that he’s in the same position Ewers was a year ago, except without the benefit of spending a semester in college before enrolling at Texas.

“It’s like anything — there’s growing pains. We make a big deal out of the guy losing his ID twice the first couple of weeks of school. He’s a freshman in college. But he does take it serious and he wants to be really good,” Sarkisian said.

“And the beauty of it is one of the guys he’s competing with is taking it really serious and wants to be really good. And that competition should ultimately drive the best out of both of them.”

With a 13-12 record over two seasons, Sarkisian enters his third year on the Forty Acres with high expectations thanks to a peaking roster bolstered by two strong recruiting classes and facing a conference in which last season’s top teams suffered major losses. But another season with a first-year starter and the accompanied growing pains won’t allow the Longhorns to meet expectations — the 2023 Texas team will go as far as Ewers can take it.

“I think, naturally, the quarterback’s development and confidence affects everybody else,” Sarkisian said. “Hopefully, we see that progression with Quinn.”

In 2021, Sarkisian handed Card the first starts of his career before Thompson received his first starts. The same was true of Ewers in 2022 and the passing game struggled — the redshirt freshman finished seventh in the Big 12 in completion percentage and fifth in passer rating, leaving improvement in the passing game one of the key points of emphasis for Sarkisian this offseason.

“We need to be more efficient throwing the football, whether that’s the deep ball, whether that’s the intermediate balls,” Sarkisian said. “I think that’s a direct reflection of our third-down numbers, were not as good as we would like. Our red numbers were not as good as we would like. So we have to definitely sharpen up the passing game.”

Sarkisian certainly understands how much a quarterback can improve from their first season to their second season. He went through it himself as a player. Twice.

“My first year at junior college, when I went back to playing, we were 2-8 and I was contemplating, ‘Do I still want to do this sport?’” Sarkisian said. “My second year, I was Player of the Year and an All-American, got a chance to go to BYU. I went to BYU, my first year there we were a 7-4 team, didn’t go to a bowl game for the first time [since 1977]. The next year, I’m an All-American, we finish fifth in the country and win the Cotton Bowl.”

For Manning, his first practice on Monday featured the ups and downs typical of a talented freshman quarterback.

“There’s some plays for sure that he would love to have back,” Sarkisian said. “And there’s some other plays that he made I think everybody was like, ‘Wow, that was a heck of a play.’

“Quinn has an entire year of a head start, but I don’t want to hold Arch back,” Sarkisian added. “I want to see how far he can take this thing and what it can look like.”

With Manning facing the same learning curve as Ewers last year, it would be shocking for him to overtake the older player on the depth chart — Ewers simply has too much talent and a deeper understanding of what it takes to succeed at a high level in college.

So the competition to some extent has a virtually foregone conclusion. What really matters over the next several months is whether Ewers can take the next step in his development and whether Manning or redshirt freshman Maalik Murphy, who is still battling the ankle injury he suffered in high school, can progress enough to become a capable backup in case of emergency.

Because despite the public rhetoric from Sarkisian, the choice of using Ewers in 2023 as a bridge to Manning for the ascension the program needs to make under its third-year head coach was already made months ago.