A team is only as good as its front line, a wave of experienced starters ready to supply leadership in the offseason and in the locker room, while providing the difference between winning and losing close games. But a program is only as strong as the next men up, the players who will be called upon after those front-line the year that those experienced players leave.
One-by-one, we'll take a look at each position on the Texas team. But here's the thing: we're only looking at players who are sophomores or younger. Because while we all know — or at least have a pretty good idea — of what somebody like a David Ash or a Mike Davis is capable of, that doesn't help to decide if the Longhorns are in a good long-term position at either quarterback or wide receiver, with Davis set to graduate after this season, and Ash leaving the year after. And while many expect Texas to be a tough team in 2013 and 2014, not many (any?) have touched on where the Longhorns will be the year after that.
So, without further ado, here are the quarterbacks.
Connor Brewer and Jalen Overstreet are the elder statesmen of Texas's quarterback crop after David Ash and Case McCoy leave in the next two years. But there seems to be more excitement about the two youngest players in the Longhorn family — 2013 signee and early enrollee Tyrone Swoopes and 2014 commitment Jerrod Heard.
A U.S. Army All-American, Swoopes has all of the tangible tools that people look for in quarterbacks. He's huge — 6-foot-4, and Texas coach Mack Brown said his weight was up around 250 pounds — has a powerful arm and quick feet. He's a tremendous broken-field runner, somebody with the stop-start ability, vision and the quickness to explode through any creases he finds.
The issue with Swoopes, at least at this point, is simply that of development as a passer. He didn't have the receivers, nor the overall offensive help to execute a college-style passing attack in high school, so most of his chances to execute that kind of attack came in camp settings. He was hit-and-miss in those situations, but typically improved the longer he was there. Case in point: the Thursday practice before the Army game, when Swoopes was the best PASSING quarterback in attendance, showing patience, checking through his reads and throwing with accuracy and decisiveness. He was actually a bit ahead of where the staff projected him coming in, and he's exciting because of not just his tools, but his ability to learn quickly.
Still, many feel the perfect fit for the new Longhorn offense — one that will not only take advantage of an up-tempo feel, but also a bit more of a spread look — is still in high school. That quarterback is Jerrod Heard, the no-doubt No. 1 quarterback in the state for 2014. At Denton Guyer, Heard competes in a complex, but balanced offense that also produced Oklahoma State quarterback J.W. Walsh. And Heard thrived in that offense as a sophomore and junior, completing 60.3 percent of his passes — despite averaging a robust 15.4 yards per completion, showing that he's throwing the ball down the field — for 45 touchdowns to 17 interceptions.
But as a junior, he also showed the ability to be a high-level running threat, bursting for 2,138 yards and 35 touchdowns on the ground in helping Guyer win the Class 4A-I Texas State Championship. Heard doesn't quite have Swoopes's elite physical tools — he isn't as big or as powerful, and he lacks Swoopes's arm strength — but Heard is more accurate and polished as a thrower, and has run a similar-type system to what the Longhorns will expect.
That means that when Ash graduates following 2014, many expect Heard to give Swoopes all he can handle, and potentially beat him out, for the starting quarterback job.
Looking at the last four quarterbacks the Longhorns have offered — Overstreet in 2012, Swoopes in 2013, Heard in 2014 and now JW Ketchum in 2015 — shows a remarkable shift from the desire for accurate pocket passers to more of a mobile, run-first type player. Indeed, some of the above players are more athlete than quarterback at this point. And while the shift makes sense — there's nothing more difficult to defend in college football than a mobile quarterback, especially one operating at a breakneck pace in a spread offense — it also creates a sense of question about the purpose of Connor Brewer.
Brewer was an ideal fit for Bryan Harsin's offense, which could be perfectly executed by a quarterback without an elite arm or lightning-quick feet. Harsin had that kind of player in Kellen Moore, the winningest quarterback in FBS history, somebody who shredded defenses with his intelligence and accuracy. And Brewer, while not a physical specimen, certainly has those traits. He's smart, reads defenses well and delivers the ball on-time. That all makes him valuable, but if Texas shifts to more of a zone-read, or quarterback run-based offense, where does that leave him?
That's not to say that he doesn't have a place. Teams always need to throw the ball. And even if Brewer doesn't win the starting job, he can serve as that change-of-pace backup if the Longhorns need to go to more of a pass-first look to rebound. Sometimes, as Case McCoy has shown the last two years, just bringing in a slightly different quarterback late can provide a spark, and Brewer can be that guy.
To me, the person with the more unstable future is Overstreet. Not known as a passer coming out of high school, Scout.com actually had him rated as a safety. And despite Texas coach Mack Brown stating on 2012 National Signing Day that Overstreet was a better passer than he showed because of an injury, his rawness as a thrower was apparent in the three open practices this spring. Swoopes often received criticism for not being a polished product, but he looked further along in the spring — just months after finishing his high school career — than Overstreet did after a year in the program. Could Overstreet be headed for a position change? Don't be shocked if that happens.
Still, it's hard not to like what Texas has done at quarterback. The Longhorns were at their best with mobile quarterbacks spreading out opposing teams in Vince Young and Colt McCoy, and with the addition of more mobile guys and a much faster tempo, it could mean a return to some of the more explosive offenses Texas has had in the past.
Grade — B+
You'd like to give Texas an 'A' here, but while there's plenty of talent there, and versatile talent when you consider the difference between guys like Brewer, Swoopes and Heard. But Texas doesn't have a proven player among them yet, which means that what we're talking about is still just potential. Still, in a weak in-state quarterback class in 2012, Texas went out-of-state to grab the highly recruited Brewer, then landed arguably the state's top signal callers in 2013 (Swoopes) and 2014 (Heard). And that's reason to be excited for the future.