AUSTIN — After Texas Longhorns quarterback Quinn Ewers connected with wide receiver Xavier Worthy for a 46-yard gain against the Alabama Crimson Tide — just before Ewers was knocked out of the game with a shoulder injury — the talented passer struggled to hit deep shots for the remainder of the 2022 season.
The inability to top the top off of defenses severely limited an offense that ended the regular season unbalanced and heavily dependent on the run game, leading Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian to prioritize downfield passing in the month between the Alamo Bowl and Saturday’s season opener.
In the much-anticipated 2023 debut for Ewers after an offseason built around a narrative of improvement in numerous facets of his game, the overall performance was respectable — in three quarters, Ewers was 19-of-30 passing for 260 yards and three touchdowns and zero interceptions, in addition to a short rushing touchdown.
But the continued inability to hit deep shots, this time an overmatched Rice defense, was a top of conversation with Sarkisian, Ewers, and the wide receivers in the post-game availabilities after Ewers missed all six passes over 20 yards. In fact, the two longest passing plays — a 44-yard touchdown by junior tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders and a 37-yard touchdown by junior running back Jonathon Brooks — were a seam pass and a misdirection screen.
Every 25+ air yard attempt from Quinn Ewers, not just the nit picked ones that support a certain argument pic.twitter.com/Zeib0iXsMZ— Nash (@NashTalksTexas) September 3, 2023
Worthy agreed with Sarkisian’s assessment that Ewers and the Longhorn are on the verge of executing the downfield passing game, a critical component of the Texas offense quarterbacks under Sarkisian have struggled to unlock since his arrival on the Forty Acres in early 2021.
“We’re getting closer,” Sarkisian said. “It’s gonna feel good when we do hit them and we have to do it because we have to be able to make people defend all three layers of the field — the line of scrimmage, then that intermediate throw, and then that deep throw, we have to make them defend that. Obviously, I’m aware that people want to defend the deep ball against us and I think that’s why we see some of those intermediate things open.”
Sarkisian believes that the seam pass to Sanders and an explosive play by senior wide receiver Jordan Whittington were created by the attempts to stretch the field vertically.
For Ewers, the emphasis during the offseason was trusting his wide receivers to make plays on the ball. For the most part, the Texas quarterback accomplished that goal with underthrows to Worthy and junior wide receiver AD Mitchell that came close to creating defensive pass interference penalties, particularly on the throw to Mitchell.
“They feel better when we hit them or at least get a pass interference and I thought we might have got a PI on one,” Sarkisian said.
On another throw, however, an out and up to Worthy in the first quarter in which the speedy wideout broke open, Ewers didn’t give Worthy a chance to make a play on the ball when it drifted onto the sideline.
“Obviously can’t complete a ball when it’s thrown out of bounds, so that’s got to be fixed,” Ewers said.
More disappointing were signs that Ewers hasn’t completely overcome his tendency for sloppy footwork, from how he hitches at the top of his drop to coming off the ground on deep-ball deliveries to the occasional tendency for balls to sail on him thanks to his preferred low arm slot.
Ewers was willing, though, to accept the underthrown passes.
“I’m not mad at the throws I think I gave my receivers chances to go up and get the ball, but that’s what has been my focus the past this past offseason, trying not to be so perfect and end up overthrowing those guys. I think it’s it’s good that I’m just giving those guys a chance,” Ewers said.
That’s one important step forward for Ewers as a quarterback and if last season was any indication, Sarkisian believes enough in the need to stretch the field with shot plays that he’ll stay aggressive with it even
“We’ve got to continue to stay creative as a staff and then we’ve got to continue instill belief in Quinn and the receivers that those shots are there and we’re going to make those plays,” Sarkisian said.