AUSTIN, Texas -- Charlie Strong tried to play coy. Well, either that or he didn’t understand the question.
The question posed Tuesday was whether the first-year Texas coach can envision a quarterback joining this Longhorns program in the summer and competing for the starting job.
“I don’t know who that would be. You got somebody coming in for me?” Strong said before chuckling. “You got a secret guy coming here for me? We signed one in Jerrod [Heard]. He’s the only one.”
This was, of course, a veiled attempt at the question Horns fans have been chewing on for weeks and, in particular, the past five days: Is Max Wittek coming to Texas?
The Longhorns’ need for the former USC quarterback looms large now that David Ash has been lost for the spring. Right now, there’s a whole lot more interest in the three passers who won’t be playing in the Orange-White spring game this Saturday than the trio who will.
Finally recovered from the concussion-related issues that ended his 2013 season early, Ash was poised to once again take control of the Texas offense and he made a strong first impression on his new coaches.
Those efforts got put on hold when UT doctors discovered a fracture in his left foot that required surgery.
“It’s very tough because the injury for him, I don’t know how long he had it, but he said it had been bothering him,” Strong said. “He came in the other day, our trainers checked him and we were able to find out exactly what was wrong.
“You would’ve never known he had the injury with just how well he was practicing and the way he’s been carrying himself. He understands this: A team is going to come and go as its quarterback goes. He wants to be the leader.”
Strong won’t call Ash his clear-cut No. 1 quarterback, at least not publicly, and said he didn’t anticipate naming a starter this spring. That decision will come during fall camp. But Ash had learned the new scheme and terminology, and he’s led the offense before.
With Ash out, Texas is left with three passers for its Saturday scrimmage at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. Sophomore Tyrone Swoopes will run the first-team offense. Walk-on Trey Holtz and converted tight end Miles Onyegbule, who prior to this spring hadn’t played QB since 2010, will get the backup snaps.
After the news of Ash’s injury broke, Strong told Swoopes to get ready to roll. This is, for the final week of spring ball, his offense.
“I told Tyrone the key thing for you is it’s all about confidence and it’s all about you just doing everything we ask you to do and play within yourself,” Strong said. “Now that you are the quarterback, just take the field and know this: This is your team and it’s up to you to go lead.”
In his six appearances as Texas quarterback last season, Swoopes played like a freshman. With the exception of three drives in a Valero Alamo Bowl loss to Oregon, the dual-threat quarterback with tantalizing size (6-foot-4, 245 pounds) and intriguing speed wasn’t asked to do much. He was inconsistent in the mop-up minutes he did receive.
Swoopes will remain a project until he gets more comfortable throwing the ball. His legs usually did the job while he thrived in small-town Whitewright, Texas, and he still has plenty to learn about beating Big 12 defenses.
But Strong saw enough last Saturday during a spring scrimmage to be encouraged, calling his performances “outstanding.”
“I don’t know his numbers, but he had really good numbers and threw an unbelievable ball to Marcus [Johnson] down the sideline where he beat one of our defensive backs, laid it out there and it was a big throw,” Strong said. “He did a really good job and he settled in. He took it and had the confidence and just had a different air about him, and did a really good job leading the offense.”
Still, quarterback is atop the list of Strong’s biggest concerns as Texas finishes off its first round of practices. The addition of Wittek, who has taken multiple visits to Austin and is expected to decide in the near future, would alleviate some of the worry.
So would a strong summer from Heard, a two-time state champion at Denton (Texas) Guyer who arrives the first week of June. Strong said he’ll get a chance to win the job like everyone else, but first he’ll have to master his playbook.
Heard will be in the stands on Saturday afternoon, with the thousands of other Longhorns fans. They'll be watching closely for the first round of a Texas quarterback battle, but the truth is, it hasn't even begun.