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AUSTIN, Texas – A wave of Texas fans on the west side of Darrell K Royal Memorial Stadium slowly stood and cheered in unison. Arch Manning, the most anticipated recruit in recent college football history, ran onto the field to take his first snap in front of a burnt orange crowd. Sure, this was the Orange-White spring game, but the anticipation and excitement for the freshman quarterback was real.
Manning has a big arm, good size and a famous last name. His uncles are Peyton and Eli. He was the No. 1 overall recruit in the class of 2023 according to 247Sports and reportedly has a NIL valuation of $3.8 million, the highest of any current college athlete.
Here’s the thing, though: Manning just completed the first 15 college football practices of his career. I was still in high school just a few months ago. He went three-and-out in his first series of spring games. Yes, his name comes with rumors and automatically adds pressure to Texas’ quarterback room, which features Quinn Ewers and Maalik Murphy. But if there is any legitimate quarterback competition before the 2023 season, as all the stories indicate, it’s not for the starting spot.
“I think it’s pretty clear to say that Quinn is our starting quarterback and we feel really good about that,” Texas coach Steve Sarkisian said Saturday afternoon.
At this time last year, Ewers was also a former No. 1 recruit who was welcomed to Austin with plenty of fanfare after transferring from Ohio State. He wowed the crowd in the first quarter against Alabama before an injury interrupted his flow and kept him out for three games. Ewers returned for a historic 49-0 over rival Oklahoma, but his performances the rest of the season were up and down as he struggled with footwork and accuracy.
Ultimately, Ewers had 2,177 yards passing with 15 touchdowns and six interceptions in 10 games as Texas went a disappointing 8-5, ending the season with a bowl loss.
“I didn’t like where I was last year,” Ewers said. “Something had to change if I wanted to end up where I want to be in the future.”
“I let most of the fans down, and I don’t want to be in that situation this year,” he added later.
What has changed since then? In January, Ewers addressed his body, appearance, mindset and overall understanding of the offense. That followed an offseason conversation with Sarkisian where they discussed his strengths, weaknesses and areas the quarterback needed to work on.
“And I think it shows,” Sarkisian said.
Physically, obviously. Ewers cut off his famous mullet and trimmed his grizzled beard. He looks leaner and has more muscle definition. On the field Saturday, he was confident and comfortable. Ewers played nearly every snap for the first-team offense and completed 16 of 23 passes for 195 yards and a touchdown. Sarkisian called him “efficient,” which was evident when he threw deep balls, like the 46-yarder to Xavier Worthy that set up the first touchdown of the day. He found six different receivers, but none more so than Georgia transfer Adonai Mitchell, who had six catches, including a beautiful one-handed touchdown catch in the second quarter. Ewers didn’t throw a ball that looked like he was in danger of turning over and looked like the leader of this offense.
“And that’s not having a real game plan in this game, you’re just making plays in the spring game,” Sarkisian said. “So the fact that it’s going to be even more marked when we actually game plan and [are trying] to attack to chase people, I think he’s going to be a more confident player and I think he’s going to instill a belief in his teammates and coaches and our whole organization that, ‘Hey, this is our guy and he’s going to make the play when it’s called your number.”
Ewers said he’ll head into summer workouts “with the best mindset I’ve had in any offseason.” His success this fall is imperative because not only would it mean the Longhorns will win more games and potentially compete for a Big 12 title, but it also means Manning’s progression and improvement won’t have to be rushed. The same goes for Murphy, who has been left out of the Texas quarterback discussion.
Murphy arrived in Austin at the same time as Ewers, but he hasn’t been 100 percent healthy. The former four-star prospect didn’t take a single snap last year and missed the first five practices this spring. Sarkisian is slowly working him back.
On Saturday, the redshirt freshman showed off his cannon, like on the 79-yard touchdown bomb he had with freshman wide receiver Johntay Cook , and threw enough pass rushes to raise some eyebrows . He completed 9-of-13 passes for 165 yards and a touchdown while splitting reps with Manning, who went 5-of-13 for 30 yards.
“He has a natural ability to pass the football,” Sarkisian said. “He has great vision. When he pushes the ball down the field, it’s natural, not like he has to force it. Quick delivery and quick throw. I also think he’s a very good leader. He always brings positive energy every time he takes the field .
“… I think the sky’s the limit for this guy.”
As for Manning? He and Ewers were among the last Longhorns to leave the field Saturday after taking pictures and chatting with fans. While the hype train is still rolling, growing pains are expected as he acclimates to college football and life.
“I think for Arch, he will digest those 15 practices [and] do another install this summer before training camp,” Sarkisian said. “It’s one thing to know the plays, it’s another to know where the primary read is, it’s another to know where the secondary reads are when the pass rush is achieved.
“And that’s a process that I think is natural.”
Sarkisian wants a competitive quarterback room. And with Ewers, Murphy and Manning, it looks like he has one. But as the spring ball gets tangled up, so does the huddle surrounding QB1.
Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of “Strong Like a Woman,” published in the spring of 2022 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.
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