Casey Thompson grasps at the torch

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The backup quarterback is always one play away from entering the game, and that play stays at the front of Texas quarterback Casey Thompson’s mind.

“That’s something I actually think about every day, believe it or not,” Thompson said after a 55-23 win over Colorado in the Alamo Bowl.

It’s not exactly clear when the one play that made Sam Ehlinger unavailable for the second half of the Alamo Bowl occurred, but it arrived for the first time in Thompson’s tenure as Texas’ No. 2 quarterback. Tom Herman and the UT coaching staff had to hand the keys to Thompson in order to win what was a one score game.

Thompson led an offensive surge. Along with a standout performance from running back Bijan Robinson, Thompson led the Longhorn offense to 31 points in less than 20 minutes of game time, completing 8-of-10 passes for 170 yards and four touchdowns.

Should Ehlinger decide not to use the extra year of eligibility afforded to him by the NCAA, Thompson’s performance was a strong first move in what will be Texas’ first quarterback competition since 2018.

The snaps Thompson received prior to Tuesday in his Texas career were during blowout Longhorn victories. His 139 career passing yards and two passing touchdowns always took place after Ehlinger led Texas to a comfortable lead.

When Herman called on Thompson for meaningful snaps, there was little to no concern despite the lack of game experience. The coaches knew what they had in Thompson from what they had seen on the Denius Fields for the past three years.

“I mean, nobody was surprised,” Herman said. “Maybe all of you were because he hasn’t played a whole lot, but we’ve seen him in practice for three years. None of us were surprised.”

Thompson said he listened to the coaches’ discussion of the game plan and halftime adjustments in the locker room, thinking he might have to take over. When the coaches told him he was QB1, there was no storybook, cinematic moment. Herman simply told him, “do you.”

The moment didn’t overwhelm Thompson in the slightest.

“Once I had heard the word at halftime that I most likely needed to be ready to go in, my thought process was very positive,” Thompson said. “I had a positive self-talk and I felt very comfortable in the moment and confident.”

He felt like he did while setting offensive records in Oklahoma at Southmoore and Newcastle High Schools, and that his preparation since he arrived in Austin in 2018 readied him for the moment.

“Football is football,” Thompson said. “Obviously, (we’re) at a higher level, but I felt prepared and I was ready. I really trust my teammates and everyone for believing in me.”

Thompson looked prepared when he entered the game. His first throw was a 13-yard touchdown to Joshua Moore. His next pass was a deep post to Marcus Washington that was thrown well but fell incomplete. He completed one more pass to Moore before offering a glimpse of what Texas coaches had seen during so many Longhorn practices.

The shuffle, the reset, and the throw away from coverage may not have shocked the coaches, but it wowed Longhorn fans unfamiliar with Thompson’s game. Three plays later, he and Moore connected for six points again.

Thompson added a third touchdown pass to Robinson early in the third, but he may have saved his best for his final pass of the evening: a strike to Kelvontay Dixon in stride for a 73-yard score.

From there, Hudson Card took most of the remaining snaps at quarterback. Should Ehlinger move on from Texas, Card will contend with Thompson in the battle to become Texas’ 2021 quarterback. But Thompson undoubtedly gave himself a strong first step ahead of the turn of the calendar.

Thompson deflected questions about a potential battle post-game, saying he doesn’t have much of a say in that outside of what he can control. No matter what role Thompson holds next year as a Longhorn, he plans to approach each day practicing, competing, and playing the same as he has in his previous years.

“I’ve been preparing every week and every day as if I’m going to be the starter,” Thompson said. “To me, it doesn’t matter if I’m first string, second string, third string, or even my freshman year when I redshirted. That’s how I approach every day and going into this game that’s how I approached it.”

If the torch is to be passed from Ehlinger, Thompson is in a good position to take hold of it following Tuesday’s performance.