Oklahoma might not sympathize with the Longhorns’ early-season predicament at quarterback.
But Texas’ Red River neighbor can certainly empathize.
Five years ago, the Sooners were coming off a national title appearance and Big 12 championship, and entered their opener with expectations of defending their crown. But two quarters in against BYU, Sam Bradford’s throwing arm was in a sling. Before long, Oklahoma’s season was, too.
Against the same opponent, Texas will attempt to overcome the loss of quarterback David Ash, who is out indefinitely after concussion-related symptoms resurfaced following the first hit he took against North Texas. Ash might not be anywhere near the Heisman quarterback Bradford was. But Ash is almost as important to the Longhorns as Bradford was to the Sooners.
When it comes to Texas’ new starting quarterback, Tyrone Swoopes, who has completed only five passes in his career, Oklahoma’s 2009 season can offer no message of optimism. With inexperienced freshman Landry Jones behind center, the Sooners scuffled, quickly tumbling out of the Big 12 title race despite featuring one of the toughest defenses of the Bob Stoops era.
Another part of Oklahoma’s quarterbacking past, however, does convey an audacity of hope for the Longhorns.
In the summer of 2006, the Sooners endured their darkest days in the Stoops regime. Budding star Rhett Bomar had been receiving payment for work he wasn’t doing at a Norman car dealership. Stoops boldly booted his starting quarterback off the roster, which boldly sent Oklahoma’s offense into turmoil.
Minus Bomar, all that was left in Stoops’ official quarterback cupboard was junior college transfer Joey Halzle and a skinny incoming freshman named Sam Bradford, who, like Jerrod Heard now in Austin, wasn’t ready yet for big-time college football. The Sooners had only one other recourse: swing wide receiver Paul Thompson back to his original position of quarterback.
“It was a shock,” Thompson said. “To me. To our team.”
But the Sooners soon would overcome that shock. And after a rocky start that included a controversial onside kick call in a loss at Oregon, followed by a 28-10 loss to the Longhorns, Thompson guided Oklahoma to seven consecutive wins and another Big 12 championship.
“The situation really became a rallying cry for us,” Thompson said. “The guys had confidence in me.”
There are some distinct differences between Thompson and Swoopes.
Thompson was a senior who had already earned the respect and trust of his teammates. Even though he had been moved to receiver before the offseason, Thompson had more experience in games as a quarterback than Swoopes. And Thompson had the entire preseason to get snaps with the first-team offense; Swoopes only has the week.
“I had that rapport with the team,” Thompson said. “I was a guy who had played in some games. The team trusted me. They were comfortable with me. I don’t know or not if that’s the case or not at Texas.”
But Thompson, who grew up near Austin, does see similarities with this Texas team. Those Sooners had a veteran team elsewhere, including a powerful rushing attack and a talented front seven defensively. These Longhorns likewise have perhaps the Big 12’s best one-two punch at running back in Johnathan Gray and Malcolm Brown. Texas also has the pieces up front defensively to dominate in the trenches.
“The slack can’t be just picked up by the quarterback position,” Thompson said. “It’s a collective effort. They have to alter the playbook, too, to suit [Swoopes’] strengths and put him in positions to have confidence. It might be short dinks and dunks early on. But the bottom line is, the rest of the team has to rally around whoever is in there. And everyone has to step up their game a little bit to compensate.”
Thompson didn’t the set the league on fire in 2006. He finished seventh in the league in passing and completed only 61 percent of his passes. But he limited mistakes, managed the game and gave the rest of the team confidence they could still win without Bomar.
The same onus will be on Swoopes, who doesn’t have to set the Big 12 on fire, either, but has in Thompson, a past model for success.
“[Swoopes] can’t be scared; he has to show confidence, and at least fake it until he [gets] it,” Thompson said. “The schedule is tough and the wheels could come off. But if he doesn’t hurt the team, and gets some confidence. … Things could end up all right there.”