AUSTIN, Texas -- When Texas quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson walked off the practice field with Jerrod Heard last Wednesday, the teacher offered the student some of his strongest praise to date.
The single most important thing that’s happened to this football team is your improvement.
That proclamation -- which Watson proudly relayed to reporters the next day -- comes after strong showings in scrimmages and practices that lead Watson and Charlie Strong to believe the light bulb is flickering on for the redshirt freshman. He’s starting to figure it out. And he’s catching up to Tyrone Swoopes.
“Jerrod has taken just tremendous steps here in the last week or so and he's really closed the gap,” Strong said.
Heard’s Texas spring game debut on Saturday was more of a small, positive step than some grand introduction. He hit 20-of-29 passes for 177 yards and gained 33 yards on the ground (excluding sacks) while spending most of his day directing the No. 2 offense.
He had his moments. Some well-timed throws, a few timely scrambles. He threw an interception and took five sacks. Heard was right where he should be, making plays and mistakes like most freshmen would.
What does that mean for Swoopes? Nothing yet. Strong tried to quell any talk of a quarterback controversy right after the scrimmage. The incumbent is still the incumbent. The progress of two weeks does not outweigh the production of 12 starts.
But in the scrimmages and practices we couldn’t see, Heard sped up in this race in a manner that’s inspiring confidence -- enough so that Watson now claims landing a transfer quarterback this summer is no longer a must.
The way Heard describes it, everything is starting to click. The game hasn’t slowed down as much as he’d like yet, but he’s learning. He says he’s trying to play with an edge.
“I just kept pushing,” he said. “I really wanted to keep growing as a good quarterback and use my talent more.”
More time in the film room. More attention to the playbook. Heard is just trying to do more. Because he didn’t enroll early in 2014, the freshman was a few steps behind. Watson senses Heard is right on schedule now as he wraps up his first year on campus. Swoopes can tell, too.
“I think he's just learned the offense and calmed down,” Swoopes said. “Sometimes we saw him out there getting antsy and just kind of making decisions, but now he's learning the offense and knows where to go with the ball.”
He’s making gains as a passer, but Heard’s quick feet might be what set him apart in this race. His first trip to the end zone Saturday came when he eluded defensive end Shiro Davis on third-and-5 and took off untouched for a 12-yard touchdown dash. Later, on fourth-and-6, he infuriated defensive coordinator Vance Bedford by scrambling right to beat a blitz and pick up 7.
“Ty will run over you and hurt you,” Watson said. “Jerrod will take it to the house.”
But there’s a whole lot more to this job. Among the biggest questions Heard has to answer over the next four months: Is he prepared to lead? Can Strong entrust this offense to a second-year quarterback who has never played a college snap?
“I really do have to have the team’s confidence in me,” Heard said. “My job is to show them that when it’s my time and my number is called, I have to be ready to lead those guys on.”
That just might start with a trip to Notre Dame in September. Heard says he loves playing on a big stage. That doesn’t mean he’s ready to. But plenty can change over the course of the summer and fall camp. These last few weeks were a revelation, but how Heard responds now is more important.
“I have no fear at all of playing a redshirt freshman,” Strong said. “If he earns it and he ends up becoming the starter, I’m good with it. Because I know that he is good enough and he can get the job done.”