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Gameplan: Quarterback recruiting narratives

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It was almost too easy to predict the future of the Texas football program back in 2015. Charlie Strong was only one year into his time as the head coach but things had gotten off to an inauspicious start. Starting quarterback David Ash had medically retired due to concussions after quickly incurring a new one against North Texas and Tyrone Swoopes had thrown for 2409 yards at 6.3 ypa with 13 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, and a number of fumbles.

The Texas offense in 2014 was a horrifying mess and the implication of Swoopes getting the nod all year was freshman Jerrod Heard wasn’t ready to do much better, a concern confirmed the following season. The 2015 Texas recruiting class offered no hope on the horizon either. The Longhorns began the cycle with a commitment from 4-star, New Mexico athlete Zach Gentry, who ended up decommitting and heading to Michigan where his 6-foot-8 frame was predictably relocated to tight end, the position he plays to this day in the NFL. Then they flirted with Kyler Murray only to land on a class of Kai Locksley and Matthew Merrick.

Meanwhile Tom Herman was fresh off a National Championship with Ohio State and signed on at Houston where Greg Ward Jr. was waiting to propel a quarterback-run heavy offense. The 2015 season in Texas was notable for Houston winning the AAC Championship and then Westlake High School coming as close as it gets to winning a State Championship behind power-running quarterback and lifetime Texas fan Sam Ehlinger. The stars all seemed aligned.

Seven years later Texas is in year one with the post-Tom Herman head coach, Steve Sarkisian, an offensive guru looking to put together a winning program with quarterback play. He’s facing a number of decisions with his quarterback room which will define the identity of the program and make for easy narratives to sell or doom him as the long awaited right answer for Texas’ head coaching job.

Sark’s present day situation at Texas

The Tom Herman offense never really quite came together as expected and it’s easy to point to consecutive short-yardage stops by Iowa State, in Austin, on Texas’ best quarterback runs in the fourth quarter in 2020 as the moment where everything came crashing all the way down.

However, Tom Herman’s oft-stated vision for the program was actually to stand out in the Big 12 by playing championship defense. This is arguably where Herman’s program truly failed.

While the Texas offense had some notable failures in big games during the Herman era, the vision for the program was to be a hard-nosed team which could grind out wins by protecting the ball and playing defense. The defensive side of the equation was never at a championship level save for year one when the offense wasn’t any good.

One of the most popular narratives, which isn’t inaccurate, was Herman never came through on offense or quite maximized a player in Sam Ehlinger who seemed tailor-made for his style. However, the defensive leak in the program was the source for much of the water flooding the engine compartment.

Sark’s plan for winning at Texas is different. I’m quite confident he’s already surpassed Herman in terms of hiring top notch defensive assistants by poaching Pete Kwiatkowski from Washington, but #AllGasNoBrakes presents a different narrative for how they intend to do things in Austin under this staff. The goal is to blow away opponents with offense and Sark’s recipe for doing so has always involved explosive plays in the passing game and a philosophy built around finding ways to score rather than ways to control the ball.

Sark needs to nail these initial quarterback decisions both in the here and now with the battle between Casey Thompson and Hudson Card as well as in recruiting the 2022 class and subsequent years. There are dozens of factors which will play into Sark’s success at Texas but the easiest narratives which will likely define the program’s identity and his success or failure will center around quarterback play.

Let’s start with the present day decision of who to play at quarterback in 2021.

There are ways to develop the offense in order to tailor it for either Casey Thompson or Hudson Card. To get the most of Thompson the better path would be to include a fair amount of zone-read from the wide zone schemes and mix in plenty of your typical wide zone play-action which gets the quarterback rolling out away from the blocking action. Thompson has shown some knack for the RPO game but he looks most comfortable getting out on the move where he can use the threat of his legs or the checkdown.

Card is a more natural fit for the wider world of the Sark/Flood playbook. He has better pocket footwork and mechanics to spray the ball around in different RPOs, a stronger arm for pushing the ball down the field, and better footwork and reading skills for progression passing.

Sark’s challenge will be to determine whether running an offense geared around Thompson’s strengths will give the team more upside or if he should go ahead and inaugurate the Hudson Card era. If Thompson keeps throwing interceptions in practice akin to the one he threw in the spring game it’ll be an easy decision, but otherwise these are tricky waters. The modern era also presents the challenging and unfair likelihood of Casey Thompson losing the battle in the fall only to transfer within eyesight to a school like Houston and tear up the AAC in an offense with more zone-option. It didn’t ultimately matter but Herman’s case for retention could have been further sunk had Shane Buechele and the SMU Mustangs put together a stronger 2020 season with another win over bedeviling TCU and an AAC title. As it was, the juxtaposition between Buechele’s SMU success and Texas’ in 2019 and 2020 was already a touch embarrassing.

Head coaches in today’s world are expected to win immediately. You can either win “your way” by remaking the roster with the transfer portal or you need to be excellent at adjusting “your way” for the talent on hand. It’s awfully risky to go the Matt Rhule route of tearing down and starting over in hopes of a year three breakout season, particularly at a place like Texas.

The situation in Austin is pretty solid for Sark anyways and at quarterback is comparable to what Tom Herman found when he arrived. Herman had a talented second-year quarterback who wasn’t an ideal fit for his system, a talented freshman early enrollee who was an ideal fit, and then a better collection of offensive talent along both the line and skill positions than was truly apparent until 2018.

Sark inherits a talented third-year quarterback who isn’t an ideal fit for his system, a talented redshirt freshman who is an ideal fit, and then an even better collection of offensive talent along both the line and skill positions than was truly apparent until late in 2020. He also inherited a different situation in terms of how you can use the transfer portal to change the roster. There should be immediate returns on Texas’ investment in Sark in the form of winning seasons at least on par with a typical Herman year.

Sark’s future at quarterback

In the 2022 class, Sark is immediately confronting the big question which tends to define head coaches at the University of Texas. Who to recruit at quarterback and how to successfully recruit him?

First, there are a couple of things Sark can do which would make the quarterback class of 2022 for Texas a lot less impactful in shaping future narratives around his tenure in Austin. The first is to start winning games immediately with the existing roster and to go win a Big 12 Championship or even National Championship before a 2022 quarterback commit would even have a chance to take the helm and stomp on the gas pedal.

The second is to nail a few key non-quarterback offensive recruitments in the 2022 cycle and there are five or six which really stand out.

Hardly anyone knew who Mac Jones was until he was lead blocking for the Alabama field goal kicker on the ill-fated trick play the Tide ran in the 2018 National Championship game against Clemson. After he took over for an injured Tua Tagovailoa at the end of 2020 he was a more well known but still heavily doubted passer. Then he torched the college football world in 2020 and sent a shudder down the spine of NFL fans everywhere when he was drafted by the New England Patriots.

Mac Jones is and was more talented than given credit for, but he was also playing behind first round left tackle Alex Leatherwood, future draft pick right tackle Evan Neal, and throwing down the field to blazing fast weapons like Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith on lethal play-action and RPO concepts. The Tide were huge and athletic along the line and then small but insanely fast on the perimeter, essentially embracing the Art Briles philosophy of offense but with some pro-style concepts and future pro players (pro-style Briles).

The Longhorns have a chance to add the following players on offense in the 2022 class which would give them a chance to match Alabama’s formula for devastating offense.

Kelvin Banks: A .9857 rated prototypical left tackle recruit from Houston and just an overpowering athlete overall.
Devon Campbell: A .9939 rated player from Arlington who’s typically projected to guard due to lack of height. I’m not ready to cement his fate inside because he’s also an overwhelming athlete but whether he’s playing guard or tackle it’ll be a struggle for him to not be highly impactful.
Neto Umeozulu: An Allen kid rated .9335 and also projected inside, again I’m hesitant to say an athlete of this caliber has to be considered an interior guy simply because he isn’t 6-5.
Kam Dewberry: Rated .9571 and coming out of the Houston area (Atascocita), Dewberry is another big, freakish athlete who could end up at tackle.
Evan Stewart: Hailing from Frisco and rated .9842 with a 100m time of 10.58 and obvious utility running by defenders in RPO and play-action schemes.
Brenen Thompson: A kid from the panhandle with a .9628 rating who has run a 10.38 100m.

Sark is in on all of these prospects, they’re all from Texas, and they’re all overpowering athletes at key positions for executing the “pro-style Briles” system on offense. At minimum Texas needs to land one of those receivers and two of the offensive linemen. Success there would help them to start stacking up the sorts of athletes who make it easy to simply out-execute opponents recruiting from a different pool.

You can find elite athletes who aren’t in the elite rankings in recruiting, Sam Cosmi and Charles Omenihu stand out from the previous regime, but the major advantage of being the University of Texas is having a chance to stockpile a large collection of the state’s best athletes. The championship formula for the head coach is to hire and lead a staff which can get a rich share of the state’s obvious, prized athletes but then also to choose amongst multiple good options and figure out how to maximize their abilities.

Thus far in Sark’s time, he hasn’t quite followed the script at the quarterback position. Texas’ 2021 class was wrecked by staff transitions and Sarkisian bolstered it by adding preferred walk-on Cole Lourde from Southern California. The 2022 class was always going to be defined by the decision of generational talent Quinn Ewers, rated a perfect 1.000 by the 247 composite score, who decommitted from Tom Herman and Texas not long after the Red River Shootout.

Sark has worked to flip Ewers back to Texas from Ohio State but there are a few complicating factors beyond Ewers’ having to choose against the Ryan Day Buckeyes, who’ve already demonstrated the ability to load up on offensive linemen and receivers with freakish, NFL athleticism.

The lesser concern is the timelines and the bigger concern is Arch Manning, the heir to a rich, southern, and SEC-heavy lineage of quarterbacks. He’s the son of Cooper Manning, who was perhaps the most athletic of the original Archie Manning’s three sons (Peyton, Eli) and a talented wide receiver who was diagnosed with spinal stenosis before his freshman year of college and gave up the game.

The Arch Manning currently has a .9990 rating on the 247 composite score and is one of the top ranked players in the 2023 class. He’s a generational talent in his own right but he’s not a Texas kid or traditional Longhorn like Ewers and instead has his own brand and legacy he’s carrying.

Does this matter? Potentially.

Signing Manning vs Ewers would go a long ways toward shaping the narratives around the Sark program and it’s hard to foresee and discern all the ways narratives and stories end up shaping what happens on the field. Certainly if Sark misses on Ewers while gunning for Manning and then misses on both and his additions to the quarterback fold are Cole Lourde and Maalik Murphy, you’ll have a ready made narrative to explain any later failures to win big at Texas in years three and on.

Mack Brown used to get caught up in these narratives, usually to his own detriment. He had a near-disaster chasing his own Louisianan quarterback talent in Ryan Perriloux to replace Vince Young and was bailed out when a 3-star West Texas kid named Colt McCoy ended up being one of the most dominant athletes in program history. After Colt, Mack would botch subsequent quarterback recruitments, initiating a long trek through the wilderness. Herman got Texas closer to the promised land and now Sarkisian is inheriting the responsibility to push through like Joshua and finally cross the Jordan river.

The Arch Manning and Quinn Ewers recruitments have major potential to write the story of Sark’s time in Austin. Just keep in mind, sometimes it’s not so much about the quarterback as the overall plan. Herman had the quarterback but missed on the greater execution and with effective recruiting across the offense, Sark will give himself tremendous leeway to make it work with a number of different quarterback talents.

History major, football theorist.