Six years later, Texas still waiting on QB1

AUSTIN, Texas -- Shawn Watson's one duty when he arrived at Texas in January was exceedingly simple in concept: Get the quarterback room right.

As he likes to put it: "When that room is right, the whole team is right."

But nothing is ever simple at a behemoth like Texas. What Watson inherited when he agreed to join Charlie Strong in Austin was easily the most mismanaged position group in college football.

That problem dates all the way back to Jan. 7, 2010, back to the moment Colt McCoy got popped by Alabama's Marcell Dareus and was knocked out of the biggest game of his life. The Longhorns have been tumbling down a perilous path ever since.

They went into their BCS title game showdown with Alabama having won 36 of their previous 40 games. Mack Brown, poised to win his second national title that night, knows the game wouldn't have been close had McCoy played four quarters.

And from the moment McCoy went down to today, Texas is 36-29 and 23-21 in Big 12 games. Of all the potential outcomes after that heartbreak in the Rose Bowl, the Horns have lived out perhaps the darkest timeline. (Meanwhile, down in Tuscaloosa, the Tide have rolled to a 59-9 record since.)

"The quarterback position has got to win," Strong said. "They have to win the team."

The finger pointing often gets directed toward Brown, but no one person or decision was responsible for Texas' five-year struggles at QB. It's not difficult, though, to spot the origin: Garrett Gilbert's failed stint at UT set many of the Horns' issues in motion.

Brown and his Texas staff did make one critical mistake before then: they passed on Andrew Luck and didn't take a quarterback in the 2008 class. Luck enjoyed his junior day visit to Texas in the spring of 2007 and had interest. He was never offered.

The savior was supposed to be Gilbert, ESPN's No. 2-ranked QB recruit in the 2009 class. His stint as starter lasted 14 games. He lost half of those games and threw for 300 yards just once. The potential golden boy, the lone silver lining of the Alabama loss, was empty on confidence by the time Texas fans booed him off the field two games into his junior season.

What followed has been nothing short of tumultuous. Texas' four starting quarterbacks since 2010 -- Gilbert, David Ash, Case McCoy and Tyrone Swoopes -- have combined for 98 touchdowns and 84 turnovers in the past five years.

Their TD-to-INT passing rate during that five-year span ranks fourth-worst among all Power 5 offenses and No. 108 nationally. And in Big 12 play since 2010, Texas has ranked ahead of only Iowa State and Kansas when it comes to scoring, yards per play, yards per attempt and QBR. The TD-to-INT rate in those conference games has been brutal: 51 scores, 59 picks.

The truth is, at Texas, it should never get that bad.

While Colt McCoy's successors struggled, some rather highly publicized misses on the recruiting trail piled up:

  • Texas never offered Johnny Manziel a scholarship. A source involved in that recruitment says concerns about Manziel's character were the chief issue, but then-assistant Duane Akina pushed hard to convince the staff the longtime Texas fan was worth an offer. A year later, former UT defensive coordinator Will Muschamp declared the Texas staff had considered Manziel a future safety.

  • The high school coach of Jameis Winston says his calls to Texas went unreturned. Winston only seriously considered Florida State, Alabama and Stanford, at least publicly, but Texas was his dream school and he told former Texas receiver Cayleb Jones he wanted to be a Longhorn after they became friends at the Under Armour All-American Game in 2012.

  • J.T. Barrett still hasn't forgiven Texas for passing on him. He was ready to commit in 2012 if offered, but the staff went with Swoopes. In the locker room after Ohio State's national title win in January, Barrett was asked if the Longhorns made a mistake on him. "Shoot, you can tell 'em that," he said. "I don't need to tell 'em that. They saw the film. Talk to Mack Brown."

  • Texas also failed to find a junior college quarterback after the 2012 season to bolster the competition for Ash and McCoy, though the staff did briefly go after future Auburn star Nick Marshall. He received an offer and Brown even made an in-home visit before deciding to back off.

Making these misses harder to stomach is the fact three of Texas' quarterback signees since 2010 haven't panned out. Connor Wood transferred to Colorado after one year. Connor Brewer left for Arizona after one year and is now at Virginia. Jalen Overstreet moved to running back, was kicked off the team by Strong and is now at Sam Houston State.

So when Watson arrived last offseason, he had just two scholarship QBs to work with: Ash and Swoopes. And their room had a revolving door: Watson was the program's fourth quarterbacks coach in five years.

Then another disaster hit. Ash took a hit to the head against North Texas that later triggered concussion-like symptoms and forced him to retire from football.

Swoopes certainly wasn't planning to be a 12-game starter last season, but he had no choice. Jerrod Heard, another touted freshman hailed by fans as the next Longhorns savior, didn't enroll early and was nowhere near prepared to play in 2014.

So Swoopes, who didn't get to redshirt and was used sparingly in 2013, was thrown into the fire behind the worst offensive line in the Big 12. There were encouraging highs and rough lows along the way. He's publicly timid, but Swoopes has earned his teammates' respect this offseason and remains the clear favorite to start against Notre Dame next Saturday. After an offseason of being doubted, he's hungry.

"I think Tyrone has kind of got a chip on his shoulder," Strong said, "because he wants to prove to everybody that he can play quarterback."

Nobody is more invested in him than Watson, who got emotional in an interview this month when discussing Swoopes' persistence. He passionately says he's looking for character, for a "servant for the team," for someone who gets out of their own way and doesn't care about stats and operates with efficiency as the point guard. And he lovingly calls Swoopes and Heard his students.

But Texas is going to need a lot more than two students to get its future at the position fixed. That's why Watson had to take risks in Year 1. He targeted USC transfer Max Wittek, who committed to the staff but then failed to graduate on time to transfer. He quietly made a push -- and nearly a successful one -- for several months to land Texas A&M signee Kyler Murray, a decision that upset commit Zach Gentry and prompted him to sign with Michigan.

Those moves sent a clear message: the staff knew their quarterback situation needed a boost in a big way.

"Without competition, that room is not going to be the heart of the team," Watson said. "It's got to be the heart of the team."

So in a year and a half, Watson has brought in freshmen Kai Locksley and Matthew Merrick. He has landed a commitment from ESPN 300 and Elite 11 standout Shane Buechele, whose game might best be compared to Colt McCoy. Watson has a 2017 pledge, too, from rising junior Sam Ehlinger.

"I feel a lot better about where we're at today than a year ago," Watson said.

When Buechele enrolls in January, Texas should have five scholarship quarterbacks going into the spring. Which one of them ends up being The Future? Impossible to say right now. But they better not be afraid to compete.

Texas' QB room is nowhere near right. And it won't be until the Longhorns get the right guy sitting in the front row.