Tyrone Swoopes, the known commodity in Texas’ ongoing quarterback competition, will tweak his 5-7 career mark as a Longhorns’ starter in Saturday’s season opener at No. 11 Notre Dame.
Monday’s decision, which validated multiple hints dropped by Texas coaches throughout fall drills, means the Longhorns will have their most experienced player at the position take the season’s first snap on national television Saturday in South Bend, Ind. (6:30 p.m., KXAS/Ch. 5).
At some point, Strong said redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard also will play against the Irish. But he offered no specifics.
Instead, he weighed in heavily on the off-season evolution of Swoopes, who spent last season as a confused, overmatched emergency replacement for injured starter David Ash.
Swoopes finished with almost as many interceptions (11) as touchdown passes (13) during his 12 games at the helm, including a nightmarish finale in which Texas managed only 59 yards on 43 snaps (1.4 yards per play) in a 31-7 loss to Arkansas in the Texas Bowl.
Nine months after that disastrous performance, Strong said a more vocal, more confident and more efficient Swoopes will take the field against Notre Dame. Swoopes has done enough, in the coach’s estimation, to convince peers to follow him, which is Job One for any quarterback.
“I’m convinced he’s won over the locker room,” Strong said Monday, reflecting on the key development of fall drills. “Just the way he’s played and the leadership he’s shown. He’s won over the team. It’s going to be fun to watch.”
Frankly, it sounds like too much off-season improvement to be true. And it would be easy to dismiss Strong’s words as coaching hyperbole if not for one notable fact: a similar metamorphosis occurred last season with TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin.
At this same point last summer, Boykin won a close battle to become the Horned Frogs’ starting quarterback after throwing as many interceptions (7) as TD passes (7) for a 4-8 team in 2013.
But in the space of one off-season, Boykin morphed into the player who led TCU to a 12-1 record and a No. 3 finish in the final polls by accounting for 4,608 yards and 41 touchdowns in a breakout junior season.
Swoopes, a junior, said he draws inspiration from Boykin’s story as well as the encouraging words the TCU quarterback offered last Thanksgiving following the Horned Frogs’ 48-10 victory in Austin.
“Yeah, definitely,” Swoopes said. “After we played them last year, he walked up to me and was like, ‘Keep your head up, man. I was in the same situation as you. So just keep playing, keep learning and keep growing.’ I kind of took that to heart and have kept that in my mind. Seeing him grow from where he was to where he is now, it means a lot coming from somebody like that.”
No one is predicting Swoopes is poised to unseat Boykin, a frontrunner in the 2015 Heisman Trophy race, as the next Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year. Swoopes may not keep Heard on the bench past the second quarter in South Bend. But teammates have seen a swagger this summer from the soft-spoken Swoopes that was absent last fall.
“That comes with just knowing your stuff. I’m more of a student of the game now,” said Swoopes, who greatly increased his time spent in the film room this summer. “When you know what you’re supposed to do and what other guys are supposed to do, you can be vocal. I think that’s where I’ve grown the most.”
For a team that featured 22 freshmen on Monday’s initial depth chart of the season, including four incoming freshmen in the starting lineup (LT Connor Williams, RG Patrick Vahe, WR John Burt, LB Malik Jefferson), some veteran savvy at quarterback in a tough road environment could be a useful asset. Heard, who has yet to play in a college game, cannot offer that.
But if he mixes in five turnovers, like he did in last year’s loss to TCU, Swoopes won’t be long for the Longhorns’ lineup. One teammate with a unique perspective on that situation, safety Dylan Haines, considers the days of collecting cheap interceptions from Swoopes during practice a thing of the past.
“Last year, you saw him make so many not-smart throws,” Haines said. “Just overthrows, throws into coverage. He was just trying to make things happen. But you look at him this year, he’s so much smarter. He’s not making bad throws. When he sees something he doesn’t like, he goes to his next read and goes to his checkdowns. I think he’s much-improved as a quarterback.”
He’s done enough, for now, to open Saturday against Notre Dame. But Swoopes knows he must win, like Boykin did last year at TCU, to keep the job and have the type of turnaround season he envisions.
“People are going to think what they want to think. I can’t really control that,” Swoopes said. “All I can do is control my play on the field and I plan on being a lot better than I was in the past.”
The first test comes Saturday at Notre Dame.