AUSTIN, Texas -- The doubts about Tyrone Swoopes ever since his high school days at tiny Whitewright (Texas) High School weren’t unreasonable.
Swoopes was raw. Special tools. High ceiling. Reaching it would require extensive work and time.
What a difference six starts can make. The Texas quarterback’s personal ascent in the past two months has occurred at a pace nobody could’ve predicted. In the process, the Longhorns discovered a quarterback who has defied all expectations.
“It's just so fun to watch the development of Tyrone and how he's getting better and better week by week,” coach Charlie Strong said. “Our offense is going to go as our quarterback goes.”
One year ago this week, Swoopes made his post-midnight debut in the final minutes of a blowout at TCU. That impromptu appearance serves as a reminder now that, once David Ash went down, Swoopes was never going to be afforded the luxury of time or patience. And the initial results warranted concern.
Last fall, Swoopes was barely trusted to pass the ball in his mop-up minutes. This year, after an erratic spring game performance, Strong wondered like everyone else whether Swoopes’ future was at quarterback. On Aug. 30, the head coach wasn’t sure his young quarterback would’ve been prepared to replace Ash against North Texas in the opener.
“You look at it, and good thing that [Ash] was able to complete that game,” Strong said, “because if we had thrown Tyrone in there in like the third or fourth quarter, would he be playing with the confidence he's playing with right now? And, actually, would he have been ready to go play and go into the game?”
All of those steps in this process raised valid questions. They also created myths: Swoopes has a big arm but no confidence, can’t read defenses, is only comfortable running, is too quiet and not leader-like and is generally years away from being a quality Big 12 starting quarterback.
He’s dispelled most of those notions in the past few weeks while exceeding even the most reasonable expectations. In this process of accelerated in-season development, he’s proven things not only to his doubters, but also to himself.
“Sometimes when you hear those kinds of things, you kind of second-guess yourself,” Swoopes said last week. “I’ve gone out there and showed myself that I really can do what the coaches think I can do and believe I can do.”
The turning point, his peers say, came against Oklahoma on Oct. 11 and the two touchdowns drives he led from down 31-13. His fourth-quarter heroics against Iowa State – a 39-yard bomb to Jaxon Shipley followed by a 29-yard dime to John Harris, all in the final 30 seconds, to set up the winning field goal -- showed off how far he’d come: The big arm, the newfound precision, the confidence to take deep shots with time ticking, the never-in-doubt mentality.
“In my eyes,” Harris said, “there’s no turning back for him.”
As Swoopes continues to figure out how good he can be, coaches are unpacking new wrinkles for Texas’ offense. Co-offensive coordinator Joe Wickline installed read-option principles from his Oklahoma State playbook, which Swoopes used to rush for 100 yards (excluding sacks) against ISU.
And yet, it’s his passing proficiency that’s more startling. He averaged 183.5 passing yards in his first four starts. Now he’s put up back-to-back 300-yard performances.
“When people see us play, they want instant success,” Swoopes said. “I knew that wasn’t going to happen, that wasn’t going to be the case. I knew it was going to take a little bit for us to get going as a unit. I feel like these last couple games, we’ve gotten a lot better. We’re going to a good place.”
The simplification process is over, and Texas has an offense unlike any it foresaw in preseason. The pass game now sets up the run. With a patchwork offensive line and inconsistent run game, Texas had no choice but to highlight its first-time starter. Everything now runs through Swoopes.
Shawn Watson has said he sees his pupil more as a freshman than a true sophomore, at least in this teaching process. But after weeks of molding and teaching and baby steps, he asked Swoopes to take the big step against Oklahoma.
“I said, ‘Dude, here's the deal: I see it in practice,’” Watson said last week. “‘Every day, I see it in practice. I see you doing this. Now stop thinking in a game -- play, react, see and react, see and react. Trust yourself.’”
He’s earned the Longhorns’ trust, too. Teammates aren’t ready to call Swoopes fast or a dual-theat yet -- “I’m going to say 1 ½ threat,” Malcolm Brown joked Monday -- but they can see how fast Swoopes has grown up.
“Every week that he plays better, our expectations get higher,” Harris said. “He can be that guy here. I don't understand why people doubt him.”
That could be the most improbable development of Swoopes’ rise, and the greatest compliment he can be paid: After four seasons of instability, Texas might’ve finally found its QB to build around for the next few years.
“There's never been any doubt in our minds,” Watson said. “There's been nothing but conviction that he's our guy. That's our starting quarterback. He's the guy [who] we need to develop.”