David Ash watched the Orange-White spring football game from the safety of the Royal-Memorial Stadium sidelines.
Jerrod Heard took it in from the stands, like about 100 other recruits, including about 15 from the just-signed class.
Max Wittek might have been on a beach in Southern California and may not have watched it at all.
Tyrone Swoopes had no such cocoon. He turned in a very spotty, erratic performance that, coupled with the injuries and uncertainty at quarterback, left many in the estimated crowd of more than 20,000 feeling a little shaken if not downright scared for 2014.
Texas has no quarterback. At least, no proven, healthy, winning quarterback.
Oh, Ash has started 21 games and won 14 of them, but he can’t stay healthy, whether it’s concussions last fall or the broken bone in his foot most recently. Neither Charlie Strong nor anyone else can trust that Ash will be under center for 13 games next fall, which leads the new Texas coach to make the following statement.
“I don’t know how good we can be,” Strong said.
How can he?
The Longhorns are littered with top talent. Malcolm Brown’s a beast at running back. So’s the other Malcom Brown at defensive tackle. Cedric Reed is probably the best defensive end in the Big 12. Quandre Diggs is getting better and better at cornerback. And Texas has players in the offensive line and at linebacker, and safety Mykkele Thompson might have come farther than anyone else this spring.
But it’s hard to be good in college without a strong quarterback.
Mack Brown won two Big 12 titles in his 16 seasons here, one with a guy named Vince Young, another with Colt McCoy. NFL teams can win with decent quarterbacks (read: Trent Dilfer, Mark Rypien, Brad Johnson, etc.), but few college teams claim national titles with average or subpar quarterbacks. For his part, Ash has a 14-7 record but is 3-4 against ranked teams, with the wins coming against Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and in the Alamo Bowl against Oregon State.
Swoopes, who was not made available to the media, looked awful in the early going, completing just two of nine passes with an interception and a pair of sacks. He did settle down and finish with respectable numbers, including 229 yards and three touchdowns, one of them a perfect 44-yard strike to Jaxon Shipley. But he never went against the first-string defense and never truly showed the confidence or moxie necessary to play the position.
“Anybody would have been nervous in his situation,” senior center Dom Espinosa said. “I would. But he handled it well. And I really liked his attitude on the sidelines.”
But Texas needs a strong presence between the lines. Get poor quarterback play, and UT could be looking at a 7-5 year or worse.
Granted, the Longhorns figure to rely on a strong running game paced by Brown, a rehabbing Johnathan Gray, a rising Jalen Overstreet and possibly Joe Bergeron if he gets his head on straight. That would play into Strong’s and Vance Bedford’s defensive mindset and shorten games, but Texas still needs someone to do more than hand off.
Both Ash and Swoopes might lack the chops they need, but, as Strong said, “We don’t need a great player there. We need someone to come in and take control of the offense.”
Even Strong has been spoiled by the play of Teddy Bridgewater the past three seasons at Louisville.
“And I had Tim Tebow before that,” Strong said, alluding to his days as Florida’s defensive coordinator. “Those are two pretty good ones.”
Ash is capable of being a good one if he can stay on the field. Heard might be, but the incoming freshman from two-time state champion Denton Guyer is so wet behind the ears, he’d be drowning in confusion in his first year. No one really knows if Wittek’s that good either or even if he’s definitely decided to be a Longhorn for one final season if he chooses to graduate from USC and then show up in Austin, as we think he will.
However, Strong’s comment was telling when I asked if his first Texas team remains a mystery team of unknown potential, in large part because of the guy taking the snaps.
“It is a key position,” Strong said. “A team isn’t going to go until your quarterback goes. We’re going to have to be better there, whether it’s David or Tyrone or whoever it is.”
I’m not betting on whomever. Until then, Strong will coach ’em up and pray Ash recovers and stays upright. All of that makes for an unsettling offseason, but Strong, when asked to describe his mood at the end of spring workouts, said, “I don’t ever get angry. I just get mad.”
Fans will see if that’s altered by the presence of other quarterbacks in the fall, new or old.
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