Charlie Strong inherits a Texas team with no surefire answer at quarterback: a two-way competition this spring that will turn into a three-way competition this fall and has the potential to become a four-way competition at any point in between.
Allow me to explain.
Senior David Ash was the starter in 2012 and when healthy in 2013. But even though he is medically cleared and has been playing in spring practice, concussion issues have put his career in jeopardy, and his production has been up and down his whole time in Austin regardless of health concerns.
Rising sophomore Tyrone Swoopes will compete for the job in spring practice, while incoming freshman Jerrod Heard will join the fray this fall. Meanwhile, rumors of former USC quarterback Max Wittek—a graduate student who would be eligible to play in 2014—being added to the mix have further muddled an already-jumbled situation, giving Strong, his coaches, his players and his new fanbase a headache by mid-March.
What we do know is that Strong and his staff have a rosy record of building quarterbacks. Along with new QB coach Shawn Watson, Strong helped develop Teddy Bridgewater from a 4-star recruit into one of the best college passers of his generation and the potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft.
Though he coached defense and specialized in linebackers at Florida from 2003-2009, Strong was also, technically, the assistant head coach on teams that developed Tim Tebow and Chris Leak into high-level FBS starters and eventual national champions.
But can he work the same magic with any of these Texas guys?
New offensive coordinator Joe Wickline will call the plays next season, but Strong announced Wednesday that Watson will have the "final voice" on offense, according to Max Olson of ESPN Dallas.
That means we should expect to see more Louisville than Oklahoma State, although it's sure to be a relative (and interesting) mix.
In terms of playing style and progress made thus far, Swoopes and Heard stand the best chance of fitting Strong and Watson's offensive system—at least to the extent that one could become the next Bridgewater.
However, that doesn't mean either has to start this season. Even though Bridgewater started by Week 3 as a true freshman in 2011, Strong's first year in 2010 featured stopgap options like Adam Froman and Justin Burke under center. Ash could be another one of those.
From what I can glean, though, many Longhorn fans prefer either Swoopes or Heard to come in and earn the job—not as an indictment of Ash, necessarily, but more as a symbolic gesture from Strong.
As the start of a brand new era.
Swoopes is a better physical specimen whose passing ability gives some people pause—and differentiates him from Bridgewater—while Heard is the more complete prospect but might not have the age or experience to handle a high-pressure environment such as Austin.
For a young kid, however, Heard does not lack for confidence. Speaking with Bruce Feldman of CBS Sports, he said the QB job is open and that he thinks he can come in and take it:
[My goals] are whatever the coaches want me to do. Of course, I feel like I can play. Like coach said, it is up to me, but it's also how the situation goes.
The (QB) job is an open situation, especially with the new coaching staff and a new system coming in. It's an open job, so I'm going to try and get in, get my opportunity and take over.
After leading Guyer High School in Denton, Texas to consecutive Class 4A state titles in 2012 and 2013, Heard finished the cycle as the No. 2 dual-threat quarterback and No. 72 overall prospect in America, per the 247Sports composite.
One year prior, Swoopes was a 4-star recruit and the No. 193 overall player on the composite. He was also classified as an athlete instead of a quarterback, though much of that can be attributed to his burly, 6'4'' frame—which it hardly seems right to count against him.
Also not right is to hold Swoopes' form in the Alamo Bowl loss to Oregon against him. The deck there was not stacked in his favor. However, it would be remiss to not at least mention his ugly, 1-for-6 passing performance after being subbed in for Case McCoy.
Spring practice and the start of a new system will help, but Swoopes, in a small sample, looked more than a year away from contributing.
Wasn’t ready. Still isn’t. RT @DanWolken: I can see why Mack was hesitant to play Tyrone Swoopes this year.— Allen Kenney (@BlatantHomerism) December 31, 2013
Swoopes and Heard are both young and have the physical tools working in their favor. Not many first-year staffs are afforded such promising weapons—especially with a veteran starter in Ash and potentially even Wittek around to help ween them.
Still, Longhorns fans are wise to proceed with cautious optimism. Or perhaps with bullish pessimism. With regard to Swoops' and Heard's respective futures, both paradoxes will do.
To say either is for sure another Bridgewater would be to engage in sensationalism. It would dismiss how hard it is to play quarterback, how many blue-chip prospects have failed, how uniquely gifted Bridgewater was.
But to say neither is another Bridgewater would be myopic, because, honestly, why shouldn't they be?
Who out there is in a better situation?
In matters like this, I think it's best to defer to the resume of the coaches.
When Kevin Sumlin first started at Texas A&M, it would have been reasonable to ask if his roster had another Case Keenum. At the time, "absolutely not" would have been the sane, prudent answer. Keenum is an NCAA record-holder. Another guy that good doesn't just pop up.
Of course, what Sumlin had was even better than another Keenum. He had the first and only Johnny Manziel. Now he has another full group of talented prospects and is facing the same old questions. Something tells me he'll get the same old answer.
Who Will Start the Most Games For UT in 2014?
I feel the same way about the situation at Texas.
Strong and Watson have proven what they can do with a college passer, and their system is conducive to success. When you throw high-pedigree, talented and versatile prospects like Swoopes and Heard into that situation, good things tend to happen.
Does Texas have another Bridgewater on its roster? Who can say for sure.
If pressed, my gut would tell me yes—yes it does.
I just couldn't tell you which guy it is.
Follow Brian Leigh: @BLeighDAT