A report from Orangebloods on the 2016 Texas QB battle has sent the Longhorn Interwebz into a state of higgledy-piggledy* in advance of Saturday’s first full team scrimmage. The report cited a source (presumably on the coaching staff) who characterized Swoopes as being “way ahead” in his battle with Shane Buechele for the starting job. That assessment flies in the face of most other insider reports and practice assessment (ours included) that have Swoopes even at best and possibly falling behind. Nonetheless, the report was delivered with such adamance (despite the OB staffs’ assertions that it was decidedly not their opinion) that it caused a major outcry on what can charitably be described as a fraught topic for the Longhorn faithful.
While everyone admires the big man’s commitment to the team and re-invention of himself as an elite short-yardage hammer in the 18 Wheeler, the words “Starting Quarterback Tyrone Swoopes” generate roughly the same feeling in the average Longhorn fan as the numbers “666” generate for the average Fundamentalist. Is it time to give the ol’
a whack, or should we all just
Well, let’s take a look at the scenarios.
Could Swoopes have taken some real steps forward?
Tyrone has battled a myriad of issues when under center against upper echelon defenses, but many of them have been exacerbated when he’s asked to make multiple post-snap reads and when he’s forced to operate behind the chains. Gilbert’s offense tends to make things easier on the QB by spreading the defense out to limit their ability to disguise, and more often than not the read takes place before the ball is ever snapped. Add in a high degree of run-pass optionality on most plays that targets a single defender to make him wrong and you’ve got an antidote for the brain lock-inducing quick reads that were endemic to Shawn Watson’s West Coast O. The Longhorn ground game also figures to be light years ahead of what we saw during much of 2014, particularly if Swoopes himself is adding teeth to plays like Zone and Power Read, meaning that he’s likely to face far fewer instances of defenses pinning their ears back on 3rd and eight.
Will a system of simplified reads act as a panacea for Swoopes?
Swoopes’ biggest problem in live-fire situations is his tendency to turtle against pressure - both that coming from unblocked defenders and that which tends to rain down when 100,000 fans are giving you the side-eye from the stands. Deer-meets-headlights moments against the pass rush and the tendency to turf simple hitches and airmail open post routes are born of mental, not mechanical, issues and we’ve got a good season and a half’s worth of evidence that those are likely to crop up in spades when the lights get bright. While the system may have imbued Swoopes with the confidence to conquer those issues for good and all, it’s simply impossible to trust that he’s done so until you see him in true game action.
Could Swoopes be a better fit for the 5333?
If Swoopes was taking the field as a redshirt sophomore in his third year in the system, very possibly. The 5333 can mitigate some of his weaknesses while featuring his primary strength - an arm that compares favorably with the middle tier of NFL QBs when it comes to pure grip-it-and-rip-it zip. Spotty downfield accuracy might always be a hindrance, but you don’t have to bat 1.000 on home run balls to light up the scoreboard. It’s also an offense that can survive without a running QB but that thrives when your signal caller can further tilt the numbers in your favor by presenting an extra run threat against already-stretched defensive box numbers. And while Swoopes lacks the lateral quicks to scare defenses while keeping the ball around the edge, he’s a devastating Power Read runner and can handle all the punishment that a two-way role can dish out on QBs in this offense.
But he’s taking the field as an underdeveloped and frequently shell-shocked senior, and it’s tough to imagine that his areas of critical failure can be completely mitigated at this stage of the game. He’s simply too slow in reading and firing on chain-moving underneath routes, too hit or miss on downfield stuff and too reactive to the pass rush - likely because he lacks confidence in his short-area quicks to escape oncoming rushers.
Buechele has to face the head-swimming chaos that besets any true freshman starter, but in the times we’ve seen him he’s shown a degree of poise, accuracy and quick processing to survive situations that can be Kryptonite for Swoopes. And despite lacking Swoopes’ cannon, he’s likely the better option to help the Longhorns make hay down the field. As we detailed in Thinking Texas Football, while Buechele’s arm isn’t elite it’s got plenty of mustard when he’s making on-time throws to receivers up the sideline 35-45 yards past the line of scrimmage. That kind of throw (as opposed to a Matt Stafford 65-yard laser cannon shot) puts more of an onus on his outside receivers to win and present a clean target earlier in their route, but if they’re up to the task then Buechele has plenty of pop to make defenses pay for single coverage.
Could Shane be struggling enough to cause major concern?
Reports have been mixed in this area, but plenty of trusted observers have seen Beuchele make calm, strong and accurate throws on the majority of his reps. There have been concerns about his ability to deal with unblocked middle pressure, but you know who else struggles with unblocked middle pressure? Tom Brady. And just about every other QB known to man who doesn’t make a living breaking the pocket and freelancing.
Buechele-as-icy-veined-gunslinger is a fun image, but it’ll be true with a lot more frequency as a junior than it will be when he takes the field against Notre Dame. He will face pressure, he will miss throws and very possibly hand the ball over in the face of that pressure. And he’ll continue to learn and adapt and get better, and hopefully see less pressure as his OL rounds into form. Even though he’s apparently been a little to prone to force balls over the middle rather than look for a dump off or eat a sack in scrimmage work, it’s hard to conclude that he has inherent pressure problems that won’t get fixed with reps. If Swoopes had a steely-calm rep in the face of similar pressure then we’d be having a different conversation...but he doesn’t, and he’s got a long way to go and a (really) short time to get there.
Could someone on the staff be attempting mind games?
If we’re talking about an elaborate maskirovka for Notre Dame, probably not.
Playing media games isn’t really Charlie’s style, and it’s hard to imagine that the Domers’ prep for September 4th is going to be significantly impacted by rumors flying on August 12th. Notre Dame figures to prepare for a decently-executed version of the 5333 alongside work against the 18-Wheeler look, and they’ll likely plan to bring a ton of middle heat against whoever lines up under center. How Texas handles that pressure will tell the story of the game, but the idea that we’re currently trying to gull ND DC Brian VanGorder into prepping for the wrong guy right now probably doesn’t hold water.
If we’re talking about comments floated to keep both QBs’ noses to the grindstone and make it clear that nothing has been settled at this point in camp...maybe.
The Bottom Line
If Swoopes and Buechele are both looking outright dreadful and terrifying the staff, that’s a bad thing - but despite up and down moments in practice, there’s no real reason to believe that’s the case. If Swoopes has taken enough real steps forward to push Buechele and force a true competition, that’s a good thing - Swoopes will take significant snaps this season even if everything goes to plan
Right now we can make educated guesses based on the evidence that’s been set before us to date, but we’re unlikely to know anything substantive about the state of the QB competition until after Saturday’s first full-team scrimmage. Strong has stated that he’d prefer to get a starter named quickly and allocate reps accordingly, so it’s possible that we’ll get an announcement sometime on Monday that clears things up. If it’s still too close to call, we may go through another week of worry and let the second scrimmage on August 20 serve as the final arbiter.
Who’s going to take the first snap against Notre Dame? Who knows? But right now we’d expect Buechele to take the majority of the snaps in that game and throughout the season. And while we reserve the right to (Discount) double check that assumption if we get evidence to the contrary, for right now I figure we should let Aaron Rodgers win the day.
Enjoy your Friday, folks, and Hook ‘Em.
*Copyright Berke Breathed, exemplary Longhorn and creator of Opus and Bill the Cat