“Trust me. Just trust me.”
At this point, the wishes of first-year Texas Longhorns head coach Steve Sarkisian should almost certainly be honored without question. As evident by his lengthy track record of developing quarterbacks into truly elite college stars and NFL prospects, Sarkisian’s reputation as a quarterback guru is well deserved. Since helping groom Matt Leinart into a Heisman winner and one of the great gunslingers to play college football, Sarkisian’s roles have allowed him to help develop three more top-10 draft picks — Mark Sanchez, Jake Locker, and Tua Tagovailoa — and most recently, help mold former three-star prospect Mac Jones into a potential first round pick.
Now, as Texas searches for Sam Ehlinger’s successor, Sarkisian’s first — and maybe most critical — task as spring football gets underway is to do with redshirt sophomore Casey Thompson and freshman Hudson Card what he’s been doing with quarterbacks for a decade and a half — develop them.
To that end, Sarkisian noted that there’s plenty of work to be done in the quarterback room as Texas replaces a four-year starter at the position, though that’s expected given that Thompson and Card are yet to start their first college game and are almost entirely unproven. But having evaluated some previous practice tape as he prepares for his first practice as the Horns head coach, Sarkisian praised what he’s initially learned of his top two quarterbacks.
“I do like the maturity of Casey. I like what he is, what he brought in the [Alamo Bowl]” Sarkisian said in February. “I like the skill set of Hudson Card. I think that he is really talented player. And you see that when you dig into the practice. So I think we’ve got two frontline guys to start the process.”
In the weeks since, the Longhorns have spent four to five weeks beginning to install the offense during offseason walk throughs and meetings. So far, Sarkisian has come away impressed by their ability to absorb and retain information.
“These guys are both very driven, very focused,” Sarkisian said on Monday. “They’ve got a high football IQ, they really study, they prepare. When we give them something on one day, they come back and have the right answers on the next day, and so those are the things off the field we can look for.”
As this toss-up battle between Thompson and Card is set to officially begin, it’s anyone’s guess as to which quarterback separates himself as the top Texas gunslinger. But at the least, we know what Sarkisian will be looking for as he evaluates his options — competitiveness, leadership, fast hands, and accuracy.
“The first is he has to be an innate competitor,” Sarkisian said during a late January interview with 104.9 The Horn. “If he’s not, I just think you struggle right now. I’ve been fortunate to coach some great ones who have been competitors over the years.”
Then comes leadership, something that Sarkisian believes should come naturally.
“I think trying to force leadership on someone is very difficult to do,” Sarkisian said. “I think we can foster it, but I think there has to be some natural leadership in there.”
So far, so good in that regard, too.
“Both are really good leaders, they like to be in front,” Sarkisian said ahead of Tuesday’s opening spring practice. “They like to take charge, which is a clear kind of trait you have to have at that position.”
Because the first layer of Sarkisian’s offense is run-pass options that often demand off-platform throws to get the ball out on time, he wants quarterbacks who have quick releases characteristic of middle infielders in baseball.
“We look for really fast hands, really quick hands,” Sarkisian said. “The game today, with all of the advantage throws in the RPOs and the Aaron Rogers-type deliveries from awkward angles, I think you need really good hands, almost like a shortstop or a second baseman.”
The fourth aspect relates to a rhetorical question that he asks his quarterbacks frequently. What is the goal when we call a pass?
“You can call it accuracy, you can call it whatever it is — the goal is to complete the pass and so we need to make sure we’re giving our guys around us the best opportunity to make plays for you at quarterback. So to do that we need to be really accurate,” Sarkisian said.
“The key to the drill to me is one, I just want to make sure they’ve got good leadership skills at the start here, two, that they’re that they are coachable, right, you want to be coachable early on because clearly we’re going to teach them things that are different than what they were taught before. Not that it’s right not that it’s wrong. That’s just the way we go about it.”
If competitiveness is the top priority on Sarkisian’s list, it’s a largely unanswered question at this stage that shouldn’t be a concern by the time this quarterback battle is complete.
What’s at stake is clear — the University of Texas needs a new quarterback. Whether it’s Thompson’s maturity, knack for preparation, and inspiring performance in the Alamo Bowl or the hype around the Card ‘s natural talent and potential to become a truly special talent, Sarkisian has two intriguing options, but nothing close to a clear-cut favorite.
In all likelihood, that isn’t going to change during spring football.
In the ideal event that injuries don’t become a factor, Thompson and Card are in for a relentless competition throughout the next five-plus months. Neither have experienced that level of competitiveness thus far in their careers, but that’s about to change, so Sarkisian will learn if his quarterbacks can check that box soon enough.
As far as the leadership aspect is concerned, that too largely remains to be seen for both Thompson and Card. On paper, it’s probably safe to assume that Thompson should have an early edge there, as Sarkisian already noted his maturity as he enters his fourth year in the program after spending the previous three learning from and developing behind Sam Ehlinger, who was routinely lauded for his leadership.
In an age of quarterbacks being thrown into the fire or falling short and finding a new home, at the very least, this opportunity to lead the Longhorns is something Thompson’s spent years preparing for.
“His preparation is always going to be there,” Ehlinger said of Thompson, per 247Sports. “He’s going to do everything that he can to be prepared for the moment.”
Reports indicate Thompson hasn’t missed a beat in that regard since his sensational Alamo Bowl performance, which is encouraging for his odds as the veteran in the quarterback competition. However, preparation aside, the reality is neither Thompson nor Card have experienced the kind of spotlight and the associated pressure that comes with leading the University of Texas as QB1.
To be sure, that job description comes with the territory when a quarterback commits to Texas, so Thompson and Card each signed up for that responsibility. But wanting that leadership role and actually fulfilling that role are simply different realities, and the latter is now at hand.
While competitiveness and leadership can’t exactly be taught — only fostered, as Sarkisian said — quick hands can be and to one extent or another and it’s something Sarkisian will likely have a hand in developing. This isn’t to say Thompson and Card don’t already own the kind of quick hands necessary to thrive in Sarkisian’s RPO offense — there just isn’t much film to provide evidence about their ability there.
Then, of course, there’s the ever-important skill of accuracy.
The most recent evidence of that here belongs to Thompson, who was on point with nearly every pass in the Alamo Bowl, completing 8-of-10 attempts for 170 yards and four touchdowns; a stat line hindered a bit by a dropped ball and a defensive pass interference on a deep strike.
“When I went in the game, I just focused on one play at a time,” Thompson said after his Alamo Bowl performance, per 247Sports. “I’ve been preparing every week and every day as if I’m going to be the starter. To me that doesn’t matter if I’m first string, second string, third string, or even my freshman year when I was redshirted. That’s how I approach every day. Going into this game, that’s how I approached it. It’s no disrespect to the other guys in the room, the quarterback room. We do a great job of pushing and competing with each other. I think it will be a very fun off-season.”
“As far as the quarterback battle, I have no say in that,” Thompson added. “I can just control what I can control. I think today I did that.”
For the burnt orange faithful, Thompson’s accuracy helped provide the optimism about his potential to prevent a significant step back at the position in Ehlinger’s absence, but it’s also clearly one of his stronger qualities, as previously noted by former Texas head coach Tom Herman
“The ball comes out really smooth, really effortless,” Herman said at Big 12 Media Days in 2019. “Very accurate. Obviously, he can run when we need him to run. For him, it’s not going to be a skill set issue ever. He can throw it and run it. Is pretty football smart. We’ve got to make it as game-like situations as we can for him, for when and if we need him.”
Of course, much of the same could be said for Card, who boasts a relatively similar skill set as a dynamic dual-threat talent with a powerful and accurate arm. In fact, while the masses eagerly anticipate what Card can become as he gears up for his first quarterback battle, Ehlinger saw Card’s potential last season and to say he was impressed would be an understatement.
“You watch Hudson throw the ball and you’re like, ‘Man!” Ehlinger said. “There were often times at practice where I was watching him throw and I’m like, ‘Gosh darn it! Why can’t I do that? Why can’t I spin it the way that he can?”
“Hudson is just a special player — there’s really no other way to put it,” Ehlinger added. “He came out of the womb spinning the football.”
On paper, the similarities between Thompson and Card are pretty significant.
They feature similar frames, powerful arms with plenty of zip and accuracy to match, the footwork to be elusive in the pocket, and when the pocket breaks down, they’re each electric when turning nothing into something with their legs.
Prior to the Alamo Bowl, the hype and intrigue about Texas’ next quarterback’s ceiling certainly favored Card, and understandably so — nearly every account, including that of Ehlinger, hints at Card’s star potential. But then Thompson stole the show, looked the part of a confident, poised, and polished passer against Colorado, quickly turning a 17-10 halftime lead into a 55-23 blowout in just two quarters.
If that performance wasn’t a flash in the pan, but rather, a sneak peak at what he can provide for the Texas offense, then Sarkisian may very well be inheriting a mature quarterback who simply needs the game experience to match his preparation — that is, if Thompson can fend Card off in this competition.
“He’s a great player as well,” Thompson said of Card, per 247Sports. “He learns fast. He’s really come along very well up to this point. I think he’s been able to push me all season. I think that’s probably what will continue to happen. Like I said, I’m looking forward to it. It will be very interesting, very fun offseason.”