Texas entered the 2016 season looking for answers at quarterback and was also breaking in a new offensive play caller in Sterlin Gilbert, who came over from Tulsa during the offseason following Shawn Watson getting demoted and let go. The Texas offensive side of the ball has been looking for a steady and consistent hand at the quarterback position since Colt McCoy graduated and went to the NFL, but they have struggled to find that guy as the position has been a revolving door.
At a place like Texas, it is incredibly rare for a true freshman quarterback (or redshirt freshman) to come in and win the starting job outright, but that is just what Shane Buechele did after arriving on campus in the spring. In a situation like this, it would be ideal for a young quarterback to get to cut his teeth on an easy out of conference schedule, but Buechele wasn’t afforded this luxury, as his first start was against Notre Dame in prime time on a Sunday night in Austin, Texas. How did Buechele handle the first game jitters? He accounted for 313 total yards, three total touchdowns, and most importantly Texas picked up the win over the Fighting Irish.
Since the upset of Notre Dame to open the season, Buechele has gone on to throw for 1,204 yards through five games and that includes a touchdown to interception ratio of 11 to four. While the Longhorns are in the middle of a three game losing streak and have struggled to get over the hump after starting 2-0, it is hard to fault an offense that is averaging 41 points per game. On top of Buechele jump starting the offense at the quarterback position, the Texas offense has had a running back clear the 100 yard mark every game except for one in 2016, and the run game features a workhorse back in D’Onta Foreman. Dating back to 2015, Foreman has cleared the 100 yard mark in the last six games he has played in, and now with sophomore running back Chris Warren out for an extended period of time, Foreman will be relied upon even more as the feature back.
For Texas fans, the offense has been a breath of fresh air in 2016, as the 2015 Texas offense struggled to pass for 11 touchdowns between Tyrone Swoopes and Jerrod Heard. Swoopes now backs up Buechele and is featured in the “18 Wheeler” package that utilizes his size in the quarterback run game in between the tackles and Heard has made a position switch to receiver where he has dazzled in flashes and shown big play potential. This trio is an interesting bunch and each brings something different to the table as a player, and it is clear that Sterlin Gilbert is trying to utilize each one in the most effective way possible, so that they have a role to embrace.
As productive as Buechele has been for his classification, we have seen the growing pains that come with being a freshman quarterback. His lone interception against Oklahoma came because he held the ball too long despite his man being open sooner in the play and that allowed the defensive back to make a play on the ball. This timing issue and lack anticipation is something that Buechele has been struggling with most of the season and is something he will have to improve upon going forward if he wants to take his game to the next level. Until then, you can expect that he will be victimized by some savvy defenders or miss some throws that were there and he has to make.
While there is a ton of underclassmen logging a lot of snaps on the Texas offense that has not hindered them from being productive so far this season. The Longhorn offense is averaging 499 yards per game, which places them 20th in the country and that is with several underclassmen offensive lineman (including a freshman center), a true freshman quarterback, and several underclassmen wide receivers. Even with the youth and in one of the offense’s top playmakers in John Burt having a rough start to his sophomore campaign, there is still a lot of promising talent at the skill position. With the way this unit is performing, I expect them to continue to get better as the season goes on, though one of the main factors to watch will be D’Onta Foreman’s health as he will have to be called upon much more down the home stretch. So far Sterlin Gilbert is earning his paycheck as offensive coordinator in Austin, but both he and his unit are far from a finished product five games into 2016.