A week of gut-wrenching tension and difficult decisions finally gave way to a long, loud laugh in the Texas locker room.
Longhorns coach Charlie Strong was asked if quarterback Jerrod Heard, who played the role of Energizer Bunny for a stagnant offense in Saturday night’s 42-28 victory over Rice, would return to the starting lineup for this week’s contest against California.
Between chuckles, Strong tried to paint a verbal picture of an ongoing “quarterback battle” in Austin but finally conceded the obvious.
“What everyone wanted is to see something different,” Strong said after Heard led the Longhorns to more points in the first quarter against Rice (21) than Texas had scored in its previous three games dating back to last season (20).
“We need to play with some energy and we need to have some passion out there. When your quarterback has juice, then your team is going to have juice. And he has a lot of it. So the team feeds off of him because they know he’s going to bring it.”
Expect Heard, a redshirt freshman from Denton Guyer, to continue bringing it for Texas (1-1) for as long as teammates are willing to follow.
And they sounded excited Saturday night about following the upbeat Heard instead of laid-back teammate Tyrone Swoopes, the quarterback who was benched against Rice on the same night that quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson turned over the headset to wide receivers coach Jay Norvell, the team’s new play-caller.
Heard offered leadership intangibles, as well as play-making skills with his feet (10 carries, 96 yards) and arm (TD strikes of 32 and 69 yards) that produced a 295.4 quarterback rating in his first college start. Teammates noticed the difference.
“He played with confidence. He was poised. He didn’t really get too riled up about pressure,” receiver Daje Johnson said. “For his first start, I think he did really good. I think he handled himself well.”
Strong said Heard brings a “championship mentality” to the position that has been lacking. Heard, who led teams to consecutive state titles at Denton Guyer (2012, 2013) before being redshirted last season, smiled and agreed.
“Definitely. You always have faith in yourself,” Heard said. “It’s also a process. I’m just trying to amp my game up and understand football more, understand defense more at the college level. And then maybe win two [championships] in college.”
Although Heard believes he could have contributed last season if given the chance, he did not dispute Strong’s assertion that Texas coaches probably could not have coaxed Saturday’s bottom-line production out of him last season because Heard has shown a greater appetite for off-field preparations this year.
Heard said he’s finally reached a point where, “It’s just like in high school when you get comfortable and everything slows down. So that’s pretty much it.”
A huge part of Heard’s comfort level, from all indications, came from Norvell’s decision to thin the game plan and focus on plays tailored to the strengths of a dual-threat playmaker. Watson, whose background is in a West Coast scheme, did not do that in last week’s 38-3 loss to Notre Dame.
“The most important thing is that our kids have to play with confidence and confidence comes from knowing what to do,” Norvell said in explaining his game-day tweaks to the Texas playbook. “We have to be mindful of that as coaches and make sure that we are not running schemes just to run schemes. We have to run schemes that our kids are confident in and can execute to get first downs.”
Toward that end, Norvell said the Longhorns’ playbook will be even thinner for Saturday’s matchup against California in Austin (6:30 p.m., KDFW/Ch. 4).
He seeks crisper execution after Texas finished with more points (42) than offensive snaps (38) against Rice. Although Texas averaged 7.3 yards per play against the Owls, Norvell knows that producing just 277 yards will not keep the team competitive in the high-octane Big 12.
“Let’s not fool ourselves. We are going to play some great offensive teams and they are going to score a lot of points,” Norvell said. “We have to build on what we did and find more ways to get chunks of yardage. We are still not running the ball the way we need to.”
The lone exception? Heard, who averaged 9.6 yards per carry against Rice and is the team’s leading rusher (12 carries, 84 yards) through two games. With Heard at the helm, Johnson said Texas can begin silencing naysayers among its own fan base and outsiders.
“I’ve felt a lot of negativity,” Johnson said, singling out one analyst who surmised that “a Chicago high school team could beat us” following the Notre Dame loss. “The whole team picks up a lot of confidence from this, not just the offense.”
What’s next? Heard predicts more pleasant surprises.
“We needed that spark to get us going,” Heard said. “We have a great team this year. I truly believe that. We have play-makers all around that are ready and hungry. We just needed that spark and I’m excited to see what’s next.”
The lone certainty: As the Longhorns’ new starting quarterback, he’ll have an up-close-and-personal perspective for whatever follows.
104,213 Texas A&M fans who watched the Aggies christen new-and-improved Kyle Field during a 56-23 rout of Ball State. The total exceeded the stadium’s listed capacity of 102,733.
Big 12 playoff hopes: Oklahoma’s comeback victory in overtime at then-No. 23 Tennessee boosts the CFP chances of the Sooners and any Big 12 team that might defeat them while winning a league title. The league’s collective resume matters, especially with no Big 12 championship game.
Notre Dame playoff hopes: The Irish lost QB Malik Zaire to a season-ending ankle injury against Virginia one week after RB Tarean Folston suffered a season-ending knee injury against Texas. Notre Dame is 2-0 but that’s two huge personnel losses to absorb for a CFP playoff candidate.
Key game this week
No. 15 Ole Miss at No. 2 Alabama: The red-hot Rebels, averaging 74.5 points per game, face a big-time defense Saturday.
No. 14 Georgia Tech at No. 8 Notre Dame: The Yellow Jackets get a Saturday showcase to validate themselves as ACC and CFP contenders.
SMU at No. 3 TCU: The Horned Frogs get their final nonconference tuneup in Saturday’s Iron Skillet matchup against improved SMU.
If the college football season ended today, here’s a projected playoff bracket based on games played thus far (including playoff seeds):
Semifinal: Ohio State (No. 1) vs. Michigan State (No. 4)
Semifinal: Alabama (No. 2) vs. TCU (No. 3)