AUSTIN, Texas – You have to make it happen.
That, Charlie Strong says, was the cleaned-up gist of his animated speech to Tyrone Swoopes before the second quarter against TCU began.
Toward the end of his quick 12-second lecture, Strong pointed a finger right at the Texas quarterback’s chest just to ensure the message was delivered.
“I just told him he has to play,” Strong said after the 48-10 loss. “You can't turn the football over. You can't get down on yourself. It's all about his demeanor.”
Swoopes, flustered after turning the ball over twice and goofing up the last play of the first quarter, couldn’t manage to shake whatever ailed him against the Frogs. Strong’s message got through, but didn’t sway the outcome: four interceptions including a pick-6, four sacks, a fumble returned for a TD, a Thanksgiving-night meltdown.
A month later, Swoopes’ rocky first year as the Longhorns’ starter reaches a finale that will further define how his 2014 is remembered and perhaps how 2015 is resolved. Like the rest of his 11 starts, Swoopes’ showing against Arkansas on Monday night in the Advocare V100 Texas Bowl is sure to get overanalyzed for months to come.
The sophomore, thrown into an unexpected starting role with unfair expectations when David Ash went down, calls what he has endured an “up-and-down experience.” The peaks required patience. The valleys required thick skin.
“You definitely have to have that, playing quarterback at a big school like this,” Swoopes said this month.
Strong and co-offensive coordinator Shawn Watson never publicly wavered this fall when it came to their faith in Swoopes. They had no other option, of course, but Swoopes never burned them either. He had tough days in losses to Baylor and Kansas State, but never so tough that a benching was considered. Not until the TCU game.
“I know that game wasn’t me,” Swoopes said.
His performance against the Horned Frogs left frustrated fans wondering whether Swoopes is the long-term answer and offered confirmation to table-pounding critics that he’s not the one meant to lead Texas back to championship-level football.
Granted, we’re talking about a second-year player taking on a top-six team, but the setback did seem significant. How is Swoopes going to respond? He knows all the right things to say about what comes next.
“Keep my head up, learn from it, put it behind me, don’t let it get to me too much, use it as motivation,” he said.
Senior receiver John Harris senses Swoopes gets too down on himself when things aren’t going his way, which was evident against TCU. But the go-to receiver also has witnessed growth at every step of the season and expects even more now.
“I think it’s good for him to learn this way,” Harris said.
So much of Swoopes’ play hinges on his confidence. On his best days – road showings against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State stand out – he went out and proved as much to himself as anyone else. Watson treats Swoopes like a freshman because he had so little meaningful experience and so much to learn.
Against Arkansas and its top-25 defense, we might learn just how resilient Swoopes can be. But win or lose, he will have to fight for his job next year.
Strong and Watson have repeatedly said they crave competition at the QB spot. The situation they have right now – a sophomore starting, true freshman Jerrod Heard learning slowly and redshirting, walk-ons Logan Vinklarek and Trey Holtz the only real backup options – won’t cut it.
Competition, they hope, is the best path to pushing Swoopes this offseason. The incumbent must be made uncomfortable by peers capable of challenging him. Whether that’s coming from Heard, ESPN 300 commit Zach Gentry or some other arm remains unclear.
For now, all that’s certain is Monday’s bowl game is another test that can propel Swoopes into the offseason and beyond in ways nobody can foresee.
“He’ll be fine,” Strong said. “The thing about it, he just needs to play well this next one. He’s just got to move on and just get better, and he’ll get better, and it will happen for him.”
But only Swoopes can make it happen.