The Longhorns are at a fork in the road.
They’re in search for an identity in between the year’s two seasons, non-conference and conference play. The non-conference schedule is, theoretically, in place to help a team gain confidence before conference play begins. But, in Austin, that didn’t happen.
For the first time since 2009, the locker room is not split between quarterback allegiances, and the team knows who to follow when they hit the field. The Longhorns expected quarterback David Ash to return from the injury-filled 2013 season and lead the team back to the standards and success set by the program’s storied history. Concussion symptoms came back in the season opener against North Texas, so he sat out the highly anticipated game against BYU and the primetime matchup with UCLA in Big D. Last week, Ash announced his retirement from football, and Tyrone Swoopes became the clear option at starting quarterback.
Swoopes does not have the dark shadow that haunted his predecessors at quarterback. For David Ash and Chase McCoy, the fear of being benched was always there when troubled times arose the past few seasons.
The controversy at the position began with the 2011 season when three quarterbacks traded starts and snaps. The highly recruited Garrett Gilbert held the top spot in the depth chart after starting all 12 games the previous season but was benched indefinitely early in the second game after not impressing the coaches. There wasn’t a definitive starter the rest of the season with freshman David Ash and sophomore Case McCoy splitting time.
Eventually Ash was named the starter in 2012, but a split divided in the locker room between Ash and McCoy supporters. The Longhorns had become the 2003 Rams. One quarterback would start, the other would finish. Many times they traded snaps and drives throughout a game. McCoy came in as a spark plug to energize the team in certain games, including games against Missouri and Kansas State in 2011 and Kansas in 2012.
It’s never good when the coach doesn’t trust a single quarterback to take over the reins full-time. That’s why David Ash, Case McCoy, and Garrett Gilbert never became vocal leaders in the locker room or on the field. Swoopes has free range to lead the team and develop more quickly than his predecessors. It took time, but his reign has begun. This is the new age of the Texas quarterback.
The coaches looked hesitant to give Swoopes the reins in his first career start against BYU, but he was unleashed against UCLA like the 2011 Tebow Mania. With David Ash’s career in question a week later, he shut up many critics with his performance that night and he nearly pulled off the impossible by upsetting the then 11th ranked Bruins. He looked leaps and bounds ahead of where he had been. The man behind 26 passing yards, 79 rushing yards and one touchdown last season actually looked like a Power 5 Division 1 quarterback that could succeed and develop over time.
Critics said Swoopes couldn’t be successful because he didn’t have a deep ball and relied on his running ability too much. Early on, defenses prepared him to run the ball because they weren’t confident in his ability to beat them through the air. Many bashed him when he came in against North Texas to close out the game’s final 48 seconds.
“All he’s good for is the victory formation,” fans would say. “He will never be able to lead the Longhorns to greatness.”
And that’s exactly what he did, two kneels for a loss of three yards. The following two weeks, he proved he had more in store this season. Yes, they were both losses but a lot went right and that should be recognized.
In his first start, he had the daunting task of facing the team that embarrassed the Longhorns in Provo the September before, but he wasn’t startled in the early moments. He completed his first eight passes for 75 yards, including all seven in the first quarter, and finished with 176 passing yards. His first career touchdown pass hit a diving John Harris in the final minute of the third quarter, but with all that being said, fans were still left hanging.
The conservative play-calling frustrated fans of all ages. People wanted to see what Swoopes could offer as a quarterback and what all the hype was all about. Some said the high percentage passes of less than ten yards, something he did when he was thrown in as a freshman, and the game against BYU, were to build his confidence early in his career at Texas.
But it didn’t stop there. There was plenty of disappointment to go around and students around the 40 Acres were not a happy bunch. The Horns had eight punts, five turnovers (three fumbles, a forced Swoopes’ interception and a turnover on down) and a missed field goal to go alongside the late third quarter scoring drive.
The game plan changed the following Saturday against UCLA after uproar from the vocal fan base. He was officially on his way to taking over the football program when he hit his first 11 targets, topping his individual best from the week before.
Swoopes kept the Longhorns in the game and nearly pulled it out after the defense forced a fumble with four minutes remaining. He finished the game with 196 passing yards, two touchdown passes and plenty of downfield throws.
The Longhorns open Big 12 play with an outing in Lawrence, Kansas on Saturday and he looks to improve for the second consecutive game. The team’s success relies on the shoulders of the six-foot, four-inch sophomore.