When Texas Longhorns sophomore quarterback Tyrone Swoopes racked up 800 yards of total offense in games against Oklahoma and Iowa State in October, it looked like he might have turned a significant corner in his development.
But in the last three contests, he's come back down to earth, reverting to poor previous tendencies and suffering from major issues with accuracy, completing 37 of 79 passes (less than 47%) and seeing his contributions in the run game reduced to virtually nothing.
So now play caller Shawn Watson is attempting to go back to square one to help his signal caller.
"Yeah, Ty's basically -- I think he's seeing the rush," play caller Shawn Watson said after the game. "He didn't set his feet and make the kind of throws he was making in the first half. He's having to deal with a lot of pressure, and young quarterbacks they see a lot of pressure, they don't set their feet. It's one of the things we've got to grow him through. It's part of the process he's going through. He's got to gain confidence."
The continued lack of pocket presence remains concerning -- it was three games ago that he melted down at times on the road in Manhattan and there hasn't been enough improvement with his understanding of when to step up in the pocket and attempt to deliver throws. Late in the game against West Virginia, he suffered a major breakdown with his footwork, not stepping into passes and noticeably falling away on his critical late interception.
And he's still not utilizing his check down, something that Watson has been emphasizing with him.
Here's a 2nd and 10 play in the first quarter against West Virginia. After a run for no gain, the Longhorns went with a play-action pass to pick up a chunk of yardage. When Swoopes hits his drop and turns, he doesn't have his primary option open, so it looks like he tries to pick up senior wide receiver John Harris, who is out of the frame on the left sideline.
But right in front of him is junior running back Johnathan Gray, who has adjusted his check-down route away from a zone defender towards the bottom of the screen.
Hitting the check down in this situation picks up at least four or five yards and ensures a third-down attempt that Texas can reasonably hope to convert.
Instead, Swoopes has to step up to avoid the rush and throws a hopeful pass down the sideline but out of the reach of Harris.
Asked if his quarterback was going through his progressions, Watson said that he had one misread and that he missed junior wide receiver Marcus Johnson for a touchdown in the third quarter.
During the game, Watson always asked Swoopes what he's seeing on the field when he comes back to the sidelines after a series. But the two also spent an intense film session this week going through the entire game, with Watson questioning his quarterback in even greater depth.
"I wanted to know exactly what he was thinking, and for him to know exactly what I was thinking, exactly what I see, break it down to detail what he needed to do, and where he needs to improve his game," Watson said on Wednesday.
Yet, even as the team has improved around Swoopes to the extent that the Horns were able to beat a ranked opponent by a comfortable margin on an 11-of-29 passing night, head coach Charlie Strong is still concerned that his quarterback is trying too hard to make the big plays and isn't concerned enough about making the right plays.
"He can't act like it's all on his shoulders that we're not moving the ball on offense," Strong said. "[He can't think], "I've got to go out here and make a great play." No, you don't have to go make a great play, just play within yourself. I don't need a great play, I need a good play. Here on third down, go get a first down. I don't need a home run; I don't need you trying to go for it all. Go put the ball in the first guy's hands because they're there, they're open, just find him."
The message has clearly gotten through to Swoopes, as he echoed some of his head coach's comments minutes later in his own interview.
"I feel like at this point I'm just more of a manager, just managing things, not really trying to worry about the big plays," Swoopes said. "I'm just managing things and doing what we've got to do to produce and take pressure off our defense."
The question is whether that understanding can now translate to the field and result in some of the check downs and other simpler passes that Swoopes has been missing.
When assessing the young Texas quarterback, the perception of him has to circle back to his experience level and his expected trajectory at the school -- the ideal was always to redshirt him and have him compete for the starting job when David Ash was gone, which originally was the 2015 season and then became the 2016 season after Ash was injured last year.
Instead, Swoopes never got the redshirt season and was thrown into the mix during his second season in the program.
It's becoming apparent that Watson's last quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater, went through the growth process more quickly than Swoopes, in part because he had a deeper football background.
Remember when Swoopes showed up at the Elite 11 camp in early 2012 after he hadn't picked up a football for several months? This is a kid who didn't do the camp circuit. never had the chance to work with guys like George Whitfield beyond Elite 11, and didn't even play much 7-on-7.
He's still way behind in reps.
Watson also mentioned the development of TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin. An athlete out of West Mesquite, Boykin was able to participate in all the 7-on-7 competitions in high school and still came out as a raw prospect, even after redshirting.
As a redshirt freshman thrown into the mix, Boykin struggled in throwing 10 interceptions compared to 15 touchdown passes and got sacked 24 times. As a sophomore, he was moved to wide receiver for a time after he seemingly regressed, as his yards per attempt went down and his interception rate ballooned to nearly 4.0%.
And then this year it all changed -- his yards per attempt are at a career high, his interception rate is now a microscopic 1.1%, and he's in the Heisman mix, though he's unlikely to win.
Some of it is development and some of it is the new Air Raid offense installed in Fort Worth, which sheds light on another facet of Swoopes' lack of progress -- he's playing in an offense that demands some difficult reads.
Unfortunately for the Swoopes and the Horns, the Air Raid isn't coming to Austin to make things easier for the quarterback, but the Boykin example proves that sometimes it takes certain quarterbacks a couple years and a few hundred passes at the college level before the light switch comes on.
If it happens for the Whitewright product next season, it will be because he was able to hold off freshman Jerrod Heard during the spring and fall, as well as whatever other quarterback options the Longhorns manage to add past 2015 pledge Zach Gentry.
"In our program, the way it always will be here, we'll compete every spring, every winter, every training camp," Watson said. "There will be a job open for every position. That's the way we do it. So Ty will have to continue to work and grow himself."
At some point in the near future, there will cease to be excuses for making the same mistakes. Until then, Swoopes will continue to tantalize with flashes of his upside and frustrate with his bad habits and inconsistencies.
And anyone who thinks that they know which side of the Texas quarterback will ultimately define him is lying through their teeth.