Inside the Gameplan: Playing QB at Texas

Jerrod Heard. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Jerrod Heard. (Will Gallagher/IT)

If you follow the decline and malaise of Texas Longhorns football over the last several years you’ll find a common theme in every season and in every disaster, the quarterback. The No. 1 spot on the Texas QB depth chart has become almost mythical for the way it destroys everyone who reaches that spot.

The state of Texas produces more top-tier high school quarterbacks than any other region in the country, yet Texas hasn’t enjoyed great QB play since Colt McCoy graduated. How can this be?

The easy answer is to say that Texas just keeps picking the wrong ones, but that’s a lame prima facie argument that usually just serves to rip coaches or players in order to anoint new ones. It also fails to acknowledge two enormous contextual factors regarding the University of Texas and the young men that have played quarterback there.

The first is that playing QB for Texas is arguably the most demanding job in sports. It’s the flagship university in the nation’s biggest football-crazed state and qualifications for this key job include that the player is likely to be no older than 23 and often much younger.

The Texas QB has to regularly face peers that the Longhorns passed over in direct competition and have his successes and failures regularly stacked up to theirs. Additionally, unlike the NFL, the players aren’t protected by a powerful and united organization looking to offer them positive press and they aren’t professionals backed by an army of employees.

The expectations are enormous, the school is the probably the second most scrutinized football team in the state (behind the Cowboys), and the most scrutinized within the rapidly growing central Texas, so the media and fan pressure is intense.

Let’s all just make sure we acknowledge those factors when we discuss these QBs and how they’re developing, huh?

The second major contextual factor is that Texas hasn’t enjoyed good QB development or coaching since Greg Davis left, save for the two Harsin years which produced a single QB that his successor immediately ruined the following season.

All of this may be a reason why Texas hasn’t historically been known for QB play save for in the 2000-09 window when the Mack Brown/Greg Davis combo served to set up an unprecedented run of greatness from the position.

Let’s take a look at how the developing the position has gone for Texas during this 6-year (and counting) wandering through the wilderness. When you see how poorly Texas has positioned its quarterbacks, it becomes unsurprising that so many of them have been totally beaten down by the job.

Replacing Colt

Mack had a very obvious plan for replacing Colt McCoy and that was to hand the reigns over to local 5-star prospect, Garrett Gilbert of Lake Travis.

It’s easy to look back now and explain carefully why Gilbert “was never going to be great” but you have to ignore a brilliant high school run, the fact that he nearly overcame a mega-deficit and took down the first Saban championship Tide team before WR drops and pass protection sunk him, and the fact that he’s currently on an NFL roster. Hell, he even has a Super Bowl ring.

I’ve got a simpler solution for what went wrong for Gilbert at Texas: the pressures of the job + poor coaching crushed him.

Gilbert operated a Chad Morris spread at Lake Travis and did it very well. They were an up-tempo spread team ahead of their time and they were somewhat balanced with the run and pass but largely built around Gilbert.

Garrett GilbertAfter Garrett was thrust into the spotlight against Saban in his freshman year without a redshirt, because Mack had no other plan at QB, he was then victimized by Mack’s cycle of depression and ineffectiveness in the wake of that defeat.

After a year of being derided as a finesse team and losing to a downhill-running squad, Mack decided to make Texas more of a power-run oriented team with more double TE sets and under-center orientation for Gilbert’s first season.This shift came in spite of the fact that Texas didn’t have any great skill players on offense nor a particularly good OL so attempting to line up and impose their will on anyone was not the safe bet that Mack had grown accustomed to.

The disastrous results over the course of the 2010 season broke Gilbert and the following year Harsin was unable to get him back on track with what basically amounted to a more effective system for accomplishing what 2010 had already revealed wasn’t a great fit for Gilbert’s skills.

The disaster of 2010 also forced Mack to push out one of his most trusted and reliable resources, Greg Davis. Say what you want about that guy but he consistently prepared and set up his QBs for success in every year at Texas save for maybe 2003 and 2010.

Harsin and the spark of hope

Next up was David Ash. You can pretend like Case McCoy was a serious contender for the QB job if you like, I think it’s more than obvious that Harsin and Major both used Case only to the extent they needed to.

Ash’s 2012 season was the closest Texas has come to having great QB play of the sort it enjoyed in the Greg Davis era:

GP  UT QBs

The Harsin offense was about running the football, attacking the DBs with run-support responsibilities, and setting up the QB for easy reads and play-action shots that would break a defense.

It was a great fit for Ash, who had the arm strength to push the ball downfield and outside of the hash marks and who was also accurate throwing screens and quick passes in positions where his WRs could turn upfield and do work.

But of course, Harsin didn’t care for coaching in the deteriorating world of Mack Brown-Texas football and left for the Arkansas State job. So he left, leaving Ash in the hands of Major Applewhite.

The fitting conclusion to Mack’s tenure…Case McCoy

Applewhite took over and he proceeded to immediately rectify the two years of solid QB development under Harsin by adopting a variety of spread offense that relied on having the upright-running David Ash take carries up the middle of the field.

He was concussed during a 16-carry game against BYU, brought back into action after a week off, and then got seven carries before halftime against Kansas State the following week. The results were the “aggravating of his concussion,” by which you can reasonably understand that he got another one, and what was basically the end of his career.

Case McCoy took over and drove the Mack-bus into the ground despite being surrounded by quality players. The staff looked to get Tyrone Swoopes going with a few worthless series of garbage time football with the understanding that he might very well have to take over in 2013.

Swoopes really needed a redshirt, but the recruiting and management of the position hadn’t left the staff that option. Mack went down and Charlie Strong assumed control of the Texas circus.

Shawn Watson

Because of the nature of in-state talent and the Big 12, for Texas to harness the vast resources available to the program, particularly the exceptional local talent, and win championships requires that the program have strong vision on offense and effective QB development.

Charlie Strong actually thought he had this with Shawn Watson, who had groomed Teddy Bridgewater for greatness at Louisville and thought he was inheriting a few raw talents and a ready-made upperclassman in Ash.

When it turned out Ash was unable to play, major problems arose due to the fact that Watson knows only one way to develop QBs and produce offense and it was not/is not the way to get the most out of Swoopes or Heard.

Contrasted with fellow collegiate West Coast guru Greg Davis, who installed the same, efficient two-man concepts for all of his QBs and simply changed up the formations and peripheral tactics to help each one make the most of the basic offense, Watson really struggled to get his QBs up to speed in his system.

He installed a ton of concepts and formations looking for ways to allow the passing game to attack opponents, while ignoring the fact that his 6-foot-4, 250-pound QB was a veritable bowling ball when set up to simply run downhill on opponents.

Swoopes should have been in something like the 18-wheeler package, or in concepts borrowed from Kansas State, from the very beginning. To his credit, Major actually had him on a sensible track. But under Watson, a kid who ran a simple option offense at a tiny high school was asked to deal with the pressures of being a Texas QB while operating a system that failed to allow him to make the most of his strongest skills and failed to make the game simple.

There’s also the question of whether Swoopes ever had the right mindset to survive the pressures of being a Texas QB but there’s no doubt that his coaches put him in positions where he was doomed to fail on the biggest possible stages.

Now we can’t even throw a bubble screen

Obviously the Notre Dame game made it clear that Swoopes was in the rubbish heap with Gilbert and Ash as the QBs who didn’t have “it.”

What is “it?” Apparently “it” is the necessary support system to grow and thrive as the QB of the Texas Longhorns in the face of intense media pressure and scrutiny. None of Texas’ signal-callers have had “it.”

That left Texas with redshirt freshman Heard, a sensational athlete with a questionable arm that wouldn’t allow him to unseat Swoopes in practice. When Watson was demoted after the Notre Dame game, Norvell was essentially put in charge of building an offense around Heard that could make Texas competitive again. It looked as though he had done it…

But of course, against Iowa State it was revealed that Norvell had failed, and now a kid with tremendous confidence born of winning back-to-back state championships at the 4A level is deteriorating into a broken warrior who can’t execute a bubble screen to win a game. Let’s pause to savor the irony of the fact that Greg Davis was regularly ripped for running so many bubble screens…okay, moving on.

I imagine some fans will now insist that what Texas needs is the back-to-back 5A state champion (4A champions can’t hack it!), or the lowly underdog who may have never won in high school but is certain to thrive at Texas, or whatever.

In reality UT faces a major question on the surface going into 2016, which is whether Heard can be developed into a QB that can execute the passing game at the needed level to open up space for his legs. The bigger question under the surface is whether Texas can re-shape the program next offseason so that whoever lines up behind the center for the Longhorns is set up to handle the job.

Moving forward?

I think it’s reasonable to conclude the following two things:

One, Texas’ best path to becoming an elite program involves getting great play at QB and being the destination for the state’s top prospects at that position.

Two, developing QBs at Texas is particularly difficult and requires a coach with real expertise for doing so.

Texas is going to have five different QBs on the roster in 2016. Whatever Texas does, it’s essential that they develop all of these players as none of them are anywhere near good enough right now, and it’s essential that they run a system that sets them up for success.

Tyrone Swoopes. (Justin Wells/IT)

Tyrone Swoopes. (Justin Wells/IT)

Behind the S&C coach, the QB coach at Texas is probably the most important hire the head coach makes. Charlie thought he’d done a good job here with Watson but it’s clear that the original and 2nd iteration Strong offensive staffs could not set up these kids for consistent success.

If Charlie gets one more chance at making this right, which he probably will, he has to make sure that he gets a QB coach with the necessary authority within the new staff makeup to find out which of these kids gives Texas the best chance to win and then puts them in situations to grow and develop without making panicked, short-sighted decisions.

That means that if Texas gives Strong 2016, they also need to be willing to live with a 7-5 or 8-4 type season and focus more on whether the Longhorns are finally back in the business of grooming championship QBs again or whether they are still floundering.

Championships are an irrelevant goal until Texas gets this right.