AUSTIN, Texas — On his way off the field last Saturday night, Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers stopped before the tunnel at the south end of DKR-Texas Memorial Stadium.
Someone handed Ewers what looked like a disposable camera, and he smiled as he snapped a selfie. His long-awaited Texas debut — delayed and diverted by name, image and likeness rules/opportunities, and a strange 3½ months at Ohio State — was, at last, behind him.
Ewers started his college clock with a performance that featured a highlight-reel throw, an ill-advised throw, a few overthrows and plenty of smart, sensible throws to his talented teammates. Texas handled an overmatched Louisiana-Monroe team 52-10, and Ewers passed for 225 yards — more than Colt McCoy or Sam Ehlinger had in their first starts for Texas — with two touchdowns and an interception.
More importantly, coach Steve Sarkisian and his teammates finally saw how Ewers handled a game situation, mindful of the challenge that awaits Saturday when No. 1 Alabama visits.
“When I was running out of the tunnel, I took a couple glances at the crowd, just to see what it was like,” Ewers said. “Sark said, ‘Experience it, because it’s all going to be over soon. It’s over in a blink of an eye.'”
Now that Ewers is on the field, there’s urgency for him to establish himself as Texas’ QB1. His offseason competition with Hudson Card was close, by all accounts, and some coaches expressed surprise to ESPN when Texas announced Ewers had won the job. The Texas coaches are pleased with Ewers’ progress, and potential struggles against Alabama likely won’t put his status in jeopardy. But Arch Manning — ESPN’s No. 2 overall player in the Class of 2023 — will arrive soon, so Ewers needs to maximize the head start he has on the next transcendent quarterback recruit.
Here’s a closer look at Ewers’ Texas debut, his progress and areas to upgrade, as well as four other quarterbacks — Clemson’s DJ Uiagalelei, Iowa’s Spencer Petras, Oregon’s Bo Nix and Cincinnati’s Ben Bryant — who need to deliver coming out of Week 1.
Quinn Ewers, Texas
Week 1: 225 pass yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT, 66.7% completions, 72.4 QBR
Urgency status: Likely has rest of 2022 season to establish himself
A lot has happened to Ewers in the past two years, but it’s important to remember his college career was supposed to begin last week, in a Texas uniform, probably as the Longhorns’ opening-game starter.
His Longhorns debut came 751 days after he initially committed to play for Texas and then-coach Tom Herman. ESPN’s top-rated prospect in the 2022 class would later decommit, commit to Ohio State, skip his high school senior season because the state of Texas didn’t allow high school players to profit off of their NIL, join Ohio State weeks before kickoff last fall and not attempt a pass before entering the transfer portal in December and returning to Texas. The highly public odyssey made Ewers a known figure around college football even though he hadn’t accomplished anything yet.
His time at Ohio State, while financially fruitful, didn’t do much for his on-field development. The Buckeyes’ quarterback depth chart had been set when Ewers arrived, and the team understandably wasn’t going to give many opportunities to a high school senior who only arrived on campus in mid-August.
“The situation wasn’t set up for him to succeed there,” a Texas source close to Ewers told ESPN.
At Texas, Ewers had a full offseason to prepare under Sarkisian and quarterbacks coach A.J. Milwee, a promising assistant who also was instrumental in Texas landing the highly sought-after Manning. Arm talent has never been an issue with Ewers. He can make any throw, from any arm slot. In warm-ups last Saturday, he tossed several nice spirals with his left hand.
The bigger areas of growth involved learning a college offense and becoming a leader.
He’s a bit reserved off the field, and he had not been a prominent player since the 2020 season at Southlake Carroll High School. Even after Texas named him the starter, some coaches who knew Ewers wondered if he had taken the leadership steps needed to succeed at a program like Texas. Sarkisian saw a change in the young quarterback days before the opener.
“You can feel his presence — he’s getting more comfortable,” Sarkisian said. “It’s tough when you’re a first-year starter and you’re barking at [seniors] Christian Jones and Roschon [Johnson] to do something, or what the call is, or motivating guys. He is totally out of his shell now.”
Ewers was surprised he didn’t feel nervous before his debut, noting he got more worked up before high school games. His first pass was broken up, and ULM intercepted the second. But Ewers settled into a rhythm, finding tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders for a 19-yard score and completing eight consecutive passes.
“I was extremely impressed with his poise and composure,” ULM defensive coordinator Vic Koenning told ESPN. “We tried to give him about as many different looks as our guys could mentally handle, and he did a good job of going through the reads and then, if he couldn’t find it, got it to somebody.”
Added Ewers: “Definitely getting to third and fourth reads, I’m glad I was ready for that.”
Koenning, in his first season as ULM’s coordinator, inherited a defense that struggled mightily against deep passes last season. His goal was to take away Texas’ downfield game as much as possible. Koenning estimated Texas called at least 12 deep passes.
“He went through his progressions,” Koenning said. “He came back down to the routes that were open, because you can’t cover everything when they’re running guys vertical. A couple times, he scrambled out, found the open guy. Field corners, field flats we tried to take away, but we knew they would high-low us [with receivers]. I didn’t walk away saying, ‘Well, I don’t know if I can throw the deep ball.’ It was not that.”
Koenning, in his 18th season as an FBS defensive coordinator, said Texas used more formations, motions and pre-snap shifts than he had ever seen before. On the interception, which Koenning called “kind of a broken play,” Texas went to an empty backfield, a look ULM had repeatedly practiced defending. ULM didn’t make all of the necessary adjustments, and Ewers missed an open receiver in the middle of the field, instead trying to make a play that wasn’t there.
Ewers’ arm strength stood out to Koenning, even though the quarterback didn’t have a great night on downfield passes. His best throw came with 10 minutes left in the third quarter, when he scooted up in the pocket and threw off one foot, finding Sanders between two ULM defenders for 25 yards.
“We had a sandwich [coverage] and he got it in there, I couldn’t even believe he chose that one,” Koenning said. “He probably has a good feel for [Sanders] on the seam. The thing that he did the best was he just didn’t ever seem like he was out of place or discombobulated or rattled or struggling with anything.”
Added Sanders: “Seeing the replay, I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ I was like, ‘Quinn, that was a dime, bro.’ He was like, ‘I told you, bro, I’m putting it where it needs to be every single time.'”
Ewers connected just twice with Worthy, a first-team All-Big 12 selection, and said the overthrows “will get fixed this week, for sure.” His synergy with Sanders, meanwhile, jumped out in the opener. Sanders, ESPN’s No. 13 overall player in the 2021 class, played primarily on special teams last fall and did not record a catch, but he led Texas in both receptions (six) and yards (81) against ULM.
“He’s just a big body, big target, easy guy to throw to,” Ewers said. “Big hands. He’s going to catch a lot.”
Sarkisian hoped for a smoother start for Ewers, jokingly saying, “So much for my opening script.” But the coach liked Ewers to go through an adverse moment and stabilize, as others surely will follow against Alabama this week and in the Big 12, a league increasingly embracing stout defenses.
Koenning noted Texas’ passing game is built around routes 10 to 12 yards downfield near the hash marks, and then a “high-low” element on the outside, where two receivers isolate a defender, one going beyond him and one underneath. Last season, Texas struggled against defenses such as Arkansas and Iowa State, which could effectively use three down linemen and a multitude of players to stop intermediate routes.
The challenge for Ewers against Alabama, Koenning said, is making quick decisions against a defense more capable of single-covering Texas’ top players, and generating more pocket pressure. Screens and checkdowns likely will be there for Ewers, but not as easy as they were in the opener.
“He probably wasn’t real stressed about us,” Koenning said. “We’ll see how he is this coming Saturday.”
Ewers’ play against Alabama will spark reactions, but he will be afforded more time to settle in at Texas. Card didn’t do much against ULM, completing four passes for 25 yards and being sacked twice. Ewers spoke about his desire to have the “full experience” of leading the offense, which Sarkisian is content to provide.
“You can’t expect him to ride this bike and do it with training wheels on,” Sarkisian said. “I’ve got to let him go.”
Ewers should be able to ride as QB1 for a while, although Card’s experience is a factor if the freshman has extended struggles. Ideally for Texas, Ewers locks down the role through 2023, before turning things over to Manning.
DJ Uiagalelei, Clemson
Week 1: 209 pass yards, 1 TD, 0 INT, 59.4% completions, 28 rush yards, 1 rush TD, 39.4 QBR
Urgency status: Two weeks to keep improving before key stretch (Wake Forest, NC State)
Uiagalelei did some good things in Monday’s opener against Georgia Tech, and generally showed improvement after a rough 2021 season. He reached 200 pass yards after doing so just four times last fall. He was very good on third down, completing 5 of 7 passes for 73 yards and a touchdown. He avoided an interception, after throwing at least one in six of Clemson’s final seven games last season.
Clemson’s offense exhibited some of the same trouble signs as its 2021 predecessor. But the bigger issues seem to be with an offensive line that hasn’t been elite for years and a wide receiver group that used to be elite but has declined. DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins aren’t catching passes for the Tigers. Neither are Cornell Powell and Amari Rodgers, who helped Uiagalelei set unrealistic expectations with a 439-yard passing performance in 2020 at Notre Dame.
The problem for Uiagalelei is he didn’t look exceptional against Georgia Tech, a 3-9 team last season with a coach on the hot seat. Plus, heralded freshman backup Cade Klubnik directed a crisp fourth-quarter touchdown drive, albeit against backups with the game well out of reach. For now, Uiagalelei has the full support of the coaching staff, as offensive coordinator Brandon Streeter told reporters, “It’s very important to understand our program is built around earning it, and there is no question in my mind, no matter what you all think, DJ has earned the right to be the guy.”
Uiagalelei must strengthen his position the next two weeks against Furman and Louisiana Tech, games in which Klubnik also should see time. If not, his spot could be tenuous as Clemson resumes ACC play with Wake Forest, the defending Atlantic Division champ, and NC State, a popular preseason pick to win the league.
Spencer Petras, Iowa
Week 1: 109 pass yards, 0 TD, 1 INT, 44% completions, 1.1 QBR
Urgency status: Improvement in Week 2 likely needed despite coach loyalty
The angst around Petras at Iowa isn’t new. Even last year, when Iowa won its first Big Ten West Division title since 2015, Petras was viewed as more hindrance than help. He threw nearly as many interceptions (nine) as touchdown passes (10), and completed only 57.3% of his attempts. Iowa went to backup Alex Padilla at times, and Padilla started several games down the stretch after Petras injured his throwing shoulder.
The two competed during the offseason — freshman Joe Labas was a fringe candidate — but Petras emerged definitively as the starter for the third straight year. His play continued to resonate with coach Kirk Ferentz, who last week said of Petras, “He’s further ahead and gives us a better chance to be successful. … Spencer has continued to climb.”
Then, last Saturday happened. Iowa beat FCS South Dakota State 7-3 behind two safeties and a field goal. Petras completed only 11 of 25 attempts, averaged 4.4 yards per completion and finished with an unfathomable QBR of 1.1, the lowest for a Power 5 starting quarterback in a win since 2013. Iowa’s offense posted an expected points added of minus-27.9, the worst for an FBS team since 2015, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
“He’s been holding them back for years,” a Big Ten assistant said of Petras. “Wasting that defense.”
“Crazy!” a Big Ten coach added of Iowa’s insistence to stick with Petras.
Iowa’s defense has been exceptional, and it allowed only six first downs and 120 yards to South Dakota State. The Hawkeyes’ special teams are arguably even better, highlighted by Tory Taylor, the brilliant Australian punter who inspired the ever-prescient “Punting Is Winning” T-shirts. But there is a concrete ceiling for teams that can’t rely on their quarterbacks for moderate production.
Ferentz continued to support Petras after the opener, noting that Iowa’s issues on offense went beyond him. The Hawkeyes were without starting running back Gavin Williams and several wide receivers.
“They were missing two key pieces on offense,” a Big Ten coach said. “They’ll be fine.”
Petras’ stock within the program has always been high, but he needs to improve this week against Iowa State. He delivered one of his best throws as a Hawkeye in last year’s game, a 26-yard touchdown missile to Charlie Jones. But he still finished with only 106 pass yards as Iowa again used defense and special teams to defeat its rival.
Iowa has won six straight over ISU, so there’s pressure on Petras to deliver and keep the streak going. If he can’t, Iowa will need to turn to Padilla at some point, if only for a change of pace.
Bo Nix, Oregon
Week 1: 173 pass yards, 0 TD, 2 INTs, 56.8% completions, 37 rush yards, 58.9 QBR
Urgency status: Performance against BYU in two weeks will be telling
In hindsight, Nix would have benefited from facing any other opponent than Georgia for his Oregon debut. He has tried to move beyond his time at Auburn, both good and bad, and start fresh in Eugene. But his struggles against the Bulldogs, especially interceptions in Georgia territory on consecutive first-half possessions, created a vibe of “Same ol’ Bo.”
To be clear, Oregon’s problems in its season-opening 49-3 loss to the defending national champions went far beyond Nix. Coach Dan Lanning has a lot to fix with a defense that hemorrhaged 9.2 yards per play. Oregon’s offense actually moved the ball decently at times, recording only one three-and-out. But the big-play ability Oregon hoped with Nix at the helm didn’t materialize, as the unit had only one play longer than 20 yards and never reached the end zone. Nix spread the ball around to nine different players, but Oregon is still looking for stars to develop in its receiver group.
“We just didn’t finish drives,” Lanning said. “You get down to the red area, you have to go score touchdowns, not kick for field goals. We had a couple of chances down there that we didn’t capitalize. Bo is going to go evaluate himself. We have other quarterbacks on our team that obviously can compete as well, but Bo is our quarterback.”
After transferring in, Nix competed with Ty Thompson and Jay Butterfield for the starting job, which Nix won fairly definitively. He can use this week’s game against FCS Eastern Washington to steady himself. But a Week 3 home showdown against No. 21 BYU could be pivotal for Nix. If he struggles, Oregon might want to see what it has with younger players such as Thompson, ESPN’s No. 67 overall recruit in the 2021 class. Thompson and Butterfield didn’t see the field at all against Georgia, but they should get their chances this week.
Although Nix has another year of eligibility after this fall, Oregon likely needs to figure out its plan for Thompson. Nix’s play against BYU could determine the team’s course of action.
Ben Bryant, Cincinnati
Week 1: 325 pass yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT, 60.5% completions, 56.6 QBR
Urgency status: Next five games to solidify spot before critical road stretch
Bryant, who began his career at Cincinnati before starting for Eastern Michigan in 2021, returned and claimed the Bearcats QB1 job over last year’s backup, Evan Prater. He drew a difficult first assignment in Arkansas, which lost a lot on defense from 2021 but returned linebacker Bumper Pool, safety Jalen Catalon and veteran play-caller Barry Odom.
After an interception on his first drive and a scoreless first half for Cincinnati, Bryant settled in nicely, leading three consecutive scoring drives in the third quarter and a 75-yard touchdown drive in the fourth. His downfield passing game improved as the game went along, and he spread the ball around as six Cincinnati players recorded three or more receptions.
If Bryant builds on his second-half performance during the next five contests — Cincinnati faces Kennesaw State, Miami (Ohio), Indiana, South Florida and Tulsa — he should carry the offense through AAC plays. But any significant slip-ups could open the door for Prater, an ESPN 300 recruit in 2020 who has been waiting his turn and should see some field time these next few weeks.
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