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Charlie Strong's Future Hinges on Texas' Doomed Quarterback Position

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When Texas walked off the Rose Bowl field on Jan. 7, 2010, at least one thing seemed certain: Whatever else the future held, the Longhorns were set at quarterback. True, they’d just lost one of the biggest games in school history, a 37–21 thumping at the hands of Alabama with the national championship on the line, after losing their face-of-the-program quarterback, Colt McCoy, to a freak shoulder injury on the game’s first series.

In relief, Garrett Gilbert acquitted himself well enough in the worst possible situation — a true freshman backup thrust into emergency duty, against the nation’s best defense, in the BCS title game — to reinforce the five-star hype that had greeted him out of high school. He was the starting quarterback at Texas, after all, a position that had produced two Heisman finalists and three NFL Draft picks in the preceding decade. The immediate future, like the past, could not have been brighter.

In retrospect, of course, that paragraph reads like the prologue to a horror film, one that begins with the casting of a curse and whose ending remains very much in doubt. It’s a jinx that, so far, has spanned six years, five starting QBs, three full recruiting cycles, two head coaches, and an increasingly doomed succession of play-callers, all of whom have toiled in the shadow of a single, persistent question: Why can’t Texas — Texas, of all places, the most high-profile, well-heeled program in the most talent-rich, football-obsessed state in America — find a keeper at the most important position?

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The ongoing void behind center was arguably the dominant theme of Charlie Strong’s first two years as head coach, the first back-to-back losing campaigns in Austin since 1988–89. Entering a make-or-break season in Year 3, it looms as persistently as ever. The clubhouse leader entering spring practice, senior Tyrone Swoopes, started only two games in 2015 and has shown little consistency outside of a niche role in the Wildcat. Redshirt sophomore Jerrod Heard fell out of favor at the end of last season and lost ground in the spring after suffering an injury to his throwing shoulder. No other candidate has taken a collegiate snap — though true freshman Shane Buechele was very impressive in spring practice.

There’s yet another new offensive coordinator, Sterlin Gilbert, poached from Tulsa to revive an attack that ranked eighth in the Big 12 last year in both total and scoring offense and finished with fewer than 100 passing yards in four of its last seven games.

At its best, last season’s offense was able to pound out a decent living on the ground with considerable contributions from either Swoopes or Heard: 313 yards rushing in an October upset over Oklahoma; 274 in a win over Kansas State; 286 in a wild, high-scoring loss to Cal; 403 in a Thanksgiving-night shootout with Texas Tech. With the exception of the Cal game, however, where Heard lit up one of the nation’s most porous secondaries for 364 yards passing, the Longhorns were almost hopelessly one-dimensional.

Since 2009, according to the 247Sports Composite recruiting rankings, 26 high school quarterback prospects from the state of Texas have earned a consensus four- or five-star grade, and the Longhorns have landed a four-star signal-caller in every year of that span except 2011 and 2015. (The only incoming QB in the ’11 class, David Ash, was a three-star prospect who barely missed the cut for four-star status.) Garrett Gilbert, a hometown product from the Austin suburbs (and no relation to Sterlin), was rated as the No. 3 quarterback in the 2009 class and the No. 14 player overall. Connor Wood arrived from Houston the following summer as the nation’s No. 4 pro-style quarterback; ditto Connor Brewer, an out-of-state target from Arizona, who enrolled early with virtually identical ratings in 2012. Swoopes followed in 2013, accompanied by headlines that touted the 6'4", 240-pound North Texas product as the Next Vince Young. In the wake of Mack Brown’s ouster as head coach, Strong’s first recruiting class in 2014 was headlined by Heard, the No. 2 dual-threat prospect in the nation and the highest-rated quarterback to sign with UT since Gilbert five years earlier.

Collectively, the high expectations that defined that group have only served to highlight their inability to meet them. Gilbert was responsible for 17 interceptions in 2010, lost the starting job just two games into 2011, and transferred to SMU for his final two years of eligibility. Both Wood (in 2010) and Brewer (2012) redshirted as true freshmen and transferred out without taking meaningful snaps. Ash showed some initial promise, playing significantly as a true freshman before leading UT to a 9–4 finish in 2012, but he missed almost all of 2013 with a concussion and was forced to give up football after taking another shot to the head in the 2014 opener. Swoopes struggled through the rest of the ’14 campaign in Ash’s place, turning in a 5–7 mark as a starter, before yielding to Heard following an opening-night disaster at Notre Dame in 2015. Heard struggled to lock down the job after good initial returns, and by year’s end the pendulum had swung back to Swoopes.

Along with McCoy’s less celebrated younger brother, Case, the quarterbacks in that span have combined to go 41–35; remove the 15–7 mark under Ash, and that collective mark dips below .500.

The failure of Texas quarterbacks to launch is even more frustrating relative to the competition: In the same time frame, every other Power 5 school in the state has fielded at least one elite, program-defining star behind center, any or all of whom could have conceivably been lured to Austin under different circumstances. Under Brown, the Longhorns famously failed to land Robert Griffin III (Copperas Cove) and declined to offer Johnny Manziel (Kerrville), settling on Ash instead. They spurned J.T. Barrett (Wichita Falls) in favor of Swoopes, only to watch Barrett finish fifth in Heisman voting in 2014 after leading Ohio State to the College Football Playoff. They overlooked Bryce Petty (Midlothian) and Trevone Boykin (Dallas), who went on to smash records at Baylor and TCU, respectively. Baker Mayfield, who attended the same Austin-area high school as Gilbert, came in fourth in the 2015 Heisman tally after jump-starting Oklahoma’s run to the Big 12 title and a playoff spot. Besides Barrett and Mayfield, Houston’s Greg Ward (Tyler) is considered a viable Heisman candidate this fall after leading the Cougars to a rare top-10 finish last year as a junior; Baylor’s Seth Russell (Garland) and Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes II (Whitehouse) are on the short list as well, at the controls of two of the most statistically gonzo passing attacks in the nation.

Meanwhile, as its fortunes on the field have declined, the longstanding assumption that Texas will have its pick of the top in-state talent has all but evaporated. Under Strong, the Longhorns were afterthoughts in the recruitment of a pair of five-star quarterbacks in the class of 2015, Jarrett Stidham (Stephensville) and Kyler Murray (Allen), who spurned UT for Baylor and Texas A&M, respectively. (Murray subsequently transferred to Oklahoma after his freshman campaign at A&M.) Strong also lost a commitment from a four-star QB in the same class, New Mexico native Zach Gentry, who flipped his pledge to Michigan when Texas intensified its pursuit of Murray just before Signing Day. This year, the top-rated Texas quarterback in the 2016 crop, Jalen Hurts (Channelview), signed with Alabama.

After a while, it’s tempting to come to think of the malaise as having less to do with the specific personnel than the environment itself; the quarterback situation in Austin is a hopeless revolving door. The volatility of the offensive coaching staff hasn’t helped that perception. Gilbert, an “Air Raid” disciple with just two years of FBS experience, is Texas’s seventh offensive coordinator since 2012 (his predecessors on that list all held the title of “co-coordinator”), and by now his promise to enliven the offense behind a more up-tempo, spread-friendly philosophy is a familiar refrain. One way or another, Texas has been promising to speed up, spread out, establish a consistent identity, and get its ostensible playmakers more involved for the better part of a decade. At any speed, though, after six years of diminishing returns, it’s increasingly difficult to gauge what that identity is, or who those playmakers might be.

If a breakthrough is in the cards in 2016, it might come from an unexpected face. After his strong showing in the spring, many close to the program believe that Buechele will start for the Longhorns in Week 1 when Notre Dame rolls into town.

With the hot seat at full boil, however, Strong better hope that Buechele is ready to handle the role of QB1 at the University of Texas. He’s already invested two years in Swoopes and Heard in the hope that one of them would pay off, so it’s a bit of a gamble to hand things over to a true freshman. 

Given how far removed the Longhorns are from national relevance, it’s understandable that fans need some reason, any reason, to go on believing. But when it comes to the Next Big Thing behind center, they’ll believe it when they see it.

– By Matt Hinton