After missing the last three games with a clavicle sprain, it seems that Texas Longhorns quarterback Quinn Ewers is healthy.
“We’re healthier than we’ve ever been since the start of the season,” head coach Steve Sarkisian said of his quarterback room on Monday.
With that said, Ewers is set to slide back into his starting role, right? Theoretically, yes, but it might not be that simple.
By the time Texas takes the field at the Cotton Bowl on Saturday, nearly a month will have passed since Ewers went down in the first quarter of Texas’ 20-19 loss to No. 1 Alabama. During those two drives against the Tide, the freshman looked nothing short of sensational, picking Alabama’s secondary apart while completing 9-of-12 attempts for 134 yards amid two scoring drives.
But in Ewers’ absence since then, junior Hudson Card has filled in respectably, helping guide Texas to a 2-1 record — 2-2 if you want to include his three quarters against Alabama — and has displayed notable improvement from game to game.
And now, just as Ewers is getting healthy and set to return, Card is fresh off of the best performance of his career in a 38-20 win over West Virginia, in which he completed 21-of-27 attempts for 303 yards — all career highs.
So, that leads to the question worth its weight in gold — well, at least a golden hat.
In what’s typically the biggest game of the year for the Longhorns and Sooners, played in front of one of the most hostile environments in college football, do you toss Ewers back onto the game field for the first time in a month, or ride the hot hand and count on Card?
“My philosophy is pretty simple: Play the guy that I think gives us the best chance to be successful, whether he’s the starter or the backup, hot hand, not,” Sark said. “Whoever I think is going to give us the best chance to be successful and put us in position to win the ballgame, that’s who we’ll play.”
You could make a case for and against both Ewers and Card.
For the freshman, his natural arm talent is quite simply superior to that of Card. It’s why he won the starting job over the junior in the first place, and we saw some flashes of the “generation talent” tag that’s been attached to him in short order against Alabama of all teams. And beyond the talent, that moment wasn’t too big for him in just his second start — in fact, he seemed to relish in it.
If that’s a sign of what Ewers is made of, you absolutely want him behind center in the biggest games in the biggest environments, like the one Texas will be in on Saturday.
But is Ewers truly healthy enough for that? Beyond that, is he mentally ready to step back behind center for the first time in the Cotton Bowl, of all possible times to return? Maybe most importantly, though he’s spent time practicing, those aren’t the same as game reps. So in a game often decided by a single score where one mistake can be the difference, will he be able to shake off any rust this week and resemble the version of himself we last the last time out?
If Ewers checks those boxes, he’s a pretty obvious answer.
Meanwhile, as noted, Card’s improved each week, led Texas to two wins, and played winning football in the loss to Texas Tech. Simply put, Texas can absolutely win games with him behind center, and for a program that won just five games last season, every one of those matter.
But on the other hand, the reality remains that the offensive playbook can’t be fully utilized the way it could with Ewers, who can make some of the throws Card struggles with. And though he’s playing tough, winning football, Card’s had more than a few missed opportunities and close calls on less-than-stellar throws — not seeing wide open receivers, completing passes that could have been touchdowns with better ball placement, and finding some luck with defenders not coming down with it, as was the case on Xavier Worthy’s tipped-ball touchdown.
So, just as the risk of Ewers’ being a bit rusty and costing Texas exists, so too does Texas leaving points on the field if Card struggles to put the ball in the perfect place.
With Saturday’s loser set to fall to 3-3 and all of the negative noise that would come with that, the implications of this decision could extend far beyond the Red River Showdown.
If Ewers is hurried back just because of the opponent and happens to go down again, you almost immediately lower your ceiling, even if only by a win or two. If Card starts and helps lead Texas to another win, the prospect of sitting the increasingly hot hand on the heels of a Red River win would then be much easier said than done, and Card could remain as QB1.
At this point, it’s probably a matter of hours before Sark is going to have to decide on his starting quarterback for Saturday, and it would be putting it lightly to say it’s a decision he has to get right.