I've spent several hours breaking down the spring game to see what I can learn about the players' development and the coaches' plans going into the 2013 season. I'll have more to say later, but for now I wanted to share what I've discovered about Swoopes and his much-discussed performance in the game. Before I begin, I should warn you of two things. First, if you can't handle bad news in any form, stop reading. Second, this is going to be long and detailed for those who haven't seen the game (Note: It'll be shown on ESPN U the night of April 8), so I'll bold the key stuff and provide a summary at the end.
Disclaimer: I've been around the game for a long time, but I don't know everything. There might be errors below; indeed, some of my own initial thoughts about the spring game have proved to be wrong upon further review. If I've gotten anything wrong, please bring it up so we can discuss. I am, first and foremost, a curious and passionate fan of Texas football and football in general.
Physically, Swoopes is everything we thought he was. He's big, strong, fairly elusive and relatively fast. (He's faster than he looked on TV, I suppose because there are more reference points in person. I would still estimate his 40 time is around 4.75.) He threw only two passes so there isn't much we can glean about his passing abilities except that he definitely has a powerful arm — perhaps the strongest we've seen at Texas in a while — and his mechanics have improved. I can't fairly judge his accuracy, but both of his throws were on target.
Aside from the measurables, Swoopes looked mostly comfortable. He has a "commanding presence" and he didn't seem rattled at any moment. He also made the right reads on nearly every play. He looked mostly at home running the inside zone read play.
I've seen several comparisons but haven't found one that truly fits. One person he is not is Vince Young. That idea needs to be quashed immediately. If VY was a gazelle, Swoopes is a moose. Perhaps the closest recent comparison would be JaMarcus Russell, though Russell was considerably more refined as a passer at this stage in his career. All that to say, Swoopes has a pretty high ceiling.
Moving on to specific plays, I'm first going to break down the pass plays he ran. There isn't much more to say about the zone reads except that he read them well (with one exception that's hard to pin on him), and I'll get into his runs in the next section.
Swoopes' first pass attempt came on a 1st and 17. The offense lined up in a 2x1 split shotgun set, with Joe Bergeron and Malcolm Brown flanking Swoopes in the backfield. There are two things to note about the route concept: It was very simple, and it was "mirrored" (which means the routes were reflections of one another so that the quarterback must only pick a side before the snap; he doesn't have to determine the coverage to decide which concept to look at). The concept in question was the Slant-Flat combination, where the outside receiver runs a slant and an inside receiver, in this case the running back, runs a flat route. The slot ran something downfield, probably a seam route. Swoopes decided to look to the right, probably because it was the wide side of the field. Had the protection held, he would be reading the nickelback, Quandre Diggs, and his read would have directed him to throw to Brown in the flat. But before Swoopes could even complete his drop, defensive tackle Malcolm Brown had used a swim move to get past walk-on junior left guard Drew Russo. On the other side of the line, Cedric Reed was beating sophomore right tackle Garrett Greenlea around the edge. (Both of these were common themes throughout the game.) Feeling the pressure, Swoopes drifted back and to his right. Keeping his eyes downfield, Swoopes threw a pretty accurate ball to Brown in the flat with a startling amount of zip considering he was falling away from the throw. Diggs was on Brown before he could gain any yardage, but the takeaways were that Swoopes didn't panic in the face of pressure and delivered a surprisingly good ball considering his body position.
The formation on the second pass play was the same as the first except Bergeron lined up behind Swoopes in a pistol look and the slot switched sides (again to the wide side of the field). The play itself was a double screen: Bergeron went in what I'll call a swing motion to the left (the field and two-receiver side) for a bubble screen, while Brown slipped through the right side of the line for a slow screen. The quarterback will decide which screen to throw based on the pre-snap alignment of the flat defender to the bubble-screen side; in this case it was the nickelback, Diggs. Because Diggs slid outside with Bergeron's motion, Swoopes would go with the screen to Brown. The only problem was Chris Whaley recognized the screen and grabbed hold of Brown, preventing him from getting into position. Swoopes saw this, felt pressure coming from Shiro Davis on the left side and wisely tucked the ball to run. In sum, Swoopes made the right pre-snap read, made the smart decision not to force the throw to Brown and then used his athleticism to turn a would-be disaster into a successful play.
The third pass play came on a 2nd and 18 after a failed QB Lead Draw. (Initially, I thought that play was some sort of screen, but I've watched it at least 50 times and can come to no other conclusion but that it was a QB Lead Draw that didn't get to develop because of a blitz. I'm open to other ideas.) The offense lined up with one back next to Swoopes in the gun and two receivers split to each side. This play had two things in common with Swoopes' first pass attempt: It utilized basic route concepts, and the concepts were mirrored. The concept was what's called Smash, where an outside receiver runs a short route, typically a hitch, while the inside receiver runs a corner route. Swoopes' job here is to pick a side — he chose to throw away from Diggs — and read the cornerback, in this case Carrington Byndom. If Byndom dropped to take away the corner route, Swoopes would throw the hitch; if Byndom stayed on the hitch, Swoopes would throw the corner route over Byndom's head. Byndom dropped, so Swoopes fired a strike to Marcus Johnson on the hitch route. The ball was on time and on target, and Johnson turned it into a 12-yard gain with a little work after the catch. Swoopes made the correct read and made it quickly, even if he didn't have to be Tom Brady to do so.
Swoopes' fourth called pass play was on the next play, a 3rd and 6. The formation was the same as the last play, but the concept was more complicated. To the left, the outside receiver ran a hitch while the slot simply ran a few yards downfield and starting blocking the nickel, Diggs. I won't lie and say I know exactly what the objective was, but this was probably a man-beater (i.e., designed to defeat man coverage), a sort of quick-hitting downfield screen. It's not how I would do it — and it's illegal — but to each his own. On the other side, the outside receiver ran a short square-in while the slot ran a deep out. Like the Smash concept, this is a "vertical stretch" or "hi-lo" concept meant to confuse the assignments of zone defenders. The point is this was a more complicated pass play than the others Swoopes had run. Because the camera cut off the secondary, I can't tell exactly what the coverage was, but it doesn't really matter. (If anyone has an idea, let me know. I thought maybe it was Cover 6, or Quarter-Quarter-Half, with Byndom and Turner playing the Quarters side, Phillips playing the half and Sheroid Evans in the flat.) Swoopes looked to the right and, long story short, there really wasn't anything there. (I'd blame poor route running, personally.) We can see that Johnson, the outside receiver to the left, was open on the hitch, but by this point it's too late. Sensing that the pocket was collapsing around him (Reed beat Greenlea again), Swoopes tucked and ran — probably a wise move.
Swoopes' final pass play was on 3rd and Goal from the eight-yard line. Brown lined up next to Swoopes in the shotgun. One receiver was split left and three were split right. Johnson, alone on the left, ran a man-beater: a simple out route. To the right, the offense ran a Double China-7 concept, which just means the two outside receivers ran short in-breaking routes and the third receiver ran a corner. Here's where it gets a little ugly. Based on his pre-snap read, it should have been obvious to Swoopes that the defense was in Cover 0 — meaning there's no deep safety and every receiver is covered by one defender in man coverage — which means a blitz is coming. An experienced quarterback would have called a hot route, most likely a quick slant and/or a fade on the outside. In fact, Swoopes had a great potential matchup for a fade here, with 6'4" Myles Onyegbule lined up one-on-one against 5'10" Quandre Diggs on the outside. Swoopes did not make any changes. The result was that Peter Jinkens and Jordan Hicks were in his face before he had even completed his drop. Swoopes managed to run for six yards, but as I'm about to explain, that run wasn't exactly blemish-free.
The stat that needs to be corrected immediately is Swoopes' rushing numbers. Swoopes had four carries for 26 yards, but a closer look at those plays reveals that those numbers should be considerably lower. On Swoopes' first and longest run, the double screen that the defense sniffed out, Swoopes shook off an attempted arm tackle by Shiro before racing around the left end behind a great downfield block by John Harris. This run was the best demonstration of Swoopes' top speed; he looked good. But there's one problem: Safety Josh Turner had a terrific angle on Swoopes about a yard past the line of scrimmage but clearly pulled up, thinking he would not be allowed to hit the quarterback. Swoopes ran another 20 yards after that. Now, it's possible that Turner would not have been able to drag Swoopes down, but he could have slowed him enough for the nearby defenders to get in position to force Swoopes out of bounds. This play needs to be seen as, at best, a five-yard run, not a 21-yard run.
Swoopes' second run, an eight-yard loss, was what I said above looked to be a busted QB Lead Draw. We can't really learn anything from it. His third run was a seven-yard gain and was completely legitimate. This was the play where Johnson ran the hitch on the left, Swoopes looked right and no one got open.
Swoopes' fourth run, on the surface, might be as impressive as the 21-yarder. This was the one where he shook off Jinkens and ducked under Hicks in the backfield before scrambling down the sideline to the two-yard line (where he trucked Adrian Phillips). Upon closer examination, it's almost certain that Hicks, like Turner, pulled up. He slowed down, changed his angle and reached out with his arms as though he were playing touch. When Swoopes evaded him and took off again, you can see Hicks gesturing, asking why the whistle wasn't blown. Swoopes legitimately shed Jinkens' tackle, but I see very little reason to think he could have avoided a serious tackling attempt by Hicks.
When you adjust these numbers, even giving him the benefit of the doubt on the first run and assuming he would fall forward on the last one, Swoopes had four carries for -8 yards (5, -8, 7, -12). We can't know how the drive would have ended up, but the offense likely would have faced a 3rd and 15+ before moving the chains even once — and would have been out of field goal range.
There was one thing that I found odd that needs to be brought up. Before Swoopes' drive early in the second quarter, there had not been a single called blitz. During Swoopes' drive, the offense was blitzed three times, including one of Manny Diaz's famous Fire Zone blitzes. The Fire Zone was called on the play immediately after Swoopes' 21-yard run. Later, facing a 2nd and Goal at the five-yard line, Diaz dialed up Cover 0 pressure — the entire front seven closed in on a futile attempt to run the zone read. Finally, on 3rd and Goal from the eight-yard line, Diaz called his last blitz. This time, the defensive ends engaged the tackles momentarily before peeling off and dropping straight back to "spy" Swoopes. All three linebackers blitzed, with the outside guys — Jinkens and Hicks — unblocked.
Why did Diaz decide that his first, second and third called blitzes should be against the true freshman who is fighting to be the second-string quarterback? I have two theories. The first is that Diaz was embarrassed by Swoopes' performance against his first-team defense. That would explain why the first called blitz came immediately after Swoopes' big run. It should also be noted that Swoopes' was the first drive by the second-team to reach the defense's side of the field, so perhaps Diaz was feeling pressure to keep the second-team offense off the board.
My second theory, the one the optimists will want to hold onto, is that the coaches are excited about Swoopes' potential and wanted to see how he'd handle the pressure.
Physically, Swoopes showed in the spring game that he is who we thought he was, even if he's not VY. He looked comfortable executing the zone read and carrying the ball. However, had the defense been going full speed, his rushing numbers would have been not only unimpressive, but even a bit concerning. In the passing game, he did well with very simple, mirrored concepts and made smart decisions with the football. However, he also failed to recognize obvious blitzes and didn't throw on any of the more complex pass plays. I still believe he has a high ceiling, and considering how the coaches handled him, it's possible they do, too. But based on the spring game alone — since I can't see how he looks in practice or hear him in meetings — I do not believe he is currently the second-best quarterback on the roster.