One nightmare trip to Fayetteville and a substantial serving of humble pie in the form of a 40–21 Week 2 loss to Arkansas was all the motivation Texas coach Steve Sarkisian needed to make a change at the game’s most important position.
In order to give his offense a spark, the answer the first-year Longhorns coach was looking for actually predated him on the Forty Acres, having roamed the Texas sideline as a backup for three seasons.
When redshirt junior quarterback Casey Thompson took over for freshman Hudson Card in the next game against Rice, it marked the first time Thompson served as a starting quarterback since November 2017—when he was a high school senior. Nevertheless, Thompson has played like a seasoned veteran since taking the reins of the Texas offense, guiding the Longhorns to 53.33 points per game and wins against Rice, Texas Tech and TCU. His season quarterback rating of 85.3 is the fifth-best in the nation and leads the Big 12, and since he came on in relief for injured quarterback Sam Ehlinger in last year’s Alamo Bowl, he has led Texas to a score on 30 of 38 drives.
Thompson’s dazzling on-field performance is even more impressive when examining the adversity he has fought in four seasons at Texas. The 6′ 1″ athlete from Oklahoma City came into the Longhorns’ program in 2018 with fellow four-star quarterback recruit Cameron Rising, but both players took a backseat to a two-man competition with two current NFL players in Ehlinger and Shane Buechele. After the season, both Buechele and Rising transferred to greener pastures as Ehlinger took a stranglehold on the starting role. But Thompson chose to stay at Texas for another two years as Ehlinger’s primary backup before what he hoped would be his first chance to start in ’21.
With the firing of Tom Herman and the introduction of Sarkisian this past January, however, every position became an open competition, especially at quarterback. Once Sarkisian gave Card the starting spot ahead of the team’s first game against Louisiana, Thompson had to make a choice: He could either give up on his chances to play for Texas and transfer, or he could continue to fight for the lead role and run the risk of sitting on the bench for the remainder of his eligibility.
“My mindset was, ‘If I’m not going to get named [the starter] Week 1 and it’s not going to be given to me, I have to go take it myself,’ ” Thompson said on Sept 14. “I have to show my teammates I’m going to continue to work hard and be the best I can be every day.”
Thompson’s journey to earning a starting position by waiting multiple years and biding his time as an attentive backup was admirable, but in today’s college football landscape it is considered archaic. Now more than ever before, high-profile quarterbacks are transferring between Division I programs due to the emergence of the transfer portal and the new immediate eligibility rule that prevents athletes from having to sit out a year after switching schools.
Coming out of Newcastle (Newcastle, Okla.) High School, Thompson was one of the top-30 quarterback recruits in the class of 2018. A whopping 17 of those 30 gunslingers ended up transferring schools to compete elsewhere for a starting position compared to just seven quarterbacks who earned a starting spot within their first two years of eligibility and remained with their programs. Only four of those prospects, including Thompson, remained at their original school despite not getting a starting position for three full years.
“I think in Casey’s example, he chose to come to the University of Texas; he wanted to be a Longhorn,” Sarkisian said Sunday. “Through the adversity, through being a backup, through not being named the starter, through that perseverance, I think he was able to get through that because this was his choice to want to come here.”
Now, after three years watching the Red River Rivalry from the Cotton Bowl sidelines, Thompson gets his first opportunity to lead the Longhorns against No. 6 Oklahoma this Saturday. Texas fans grew accustomed to rallying behind Ehlinger, a local kid from Austin Westlake and well-documented Texas fan since birth, against their hated rivals, but now will need to get used to the fact that Thompson actually hails from Sooner Country.
“I remember, even in high school when I was getting recruited, some of my teachers and best friends were like, ‘If you go to that school [Texas], I’ll never root for you, never cheer for you,’ ” Thompson said Monday. “Naturally, I imagine there would be people from home, probably from my hometown, even my own high school that may not root for me. But I’m really not worried about people who are hating. I’m trying to focus on this team and the people who care about me and love and support me.”
Thompson knows that legends are born in games of this weekend’s caliber. For better or worse, Texas and Oklahoma quarterbacks’ legacies can be exalted or dinged based on their performances in the Red River Rivalry. The players who have suited up as the starting QB for both sides make up an elite fraternity, with the presence of Vince Young, Sam Bradford, Colt McCoy, Baker Mayfield and plenty more felt inside the Cotton Bowl.
“It’s a dream come true for me to just be a part of that tradition of great quarterbacks that have been able to play and start in this game,” Thompson said. “There have been a lot of great players that have made their name in this game, and I’m looking to do the same this week.”
In fact, one of those players is Thompson’s own father, Charles, who served as a Sooners’ quarterback in 1987 and ’88. In addition to winning a Big Eight conference title as a redshirt freshman and earning All-Big Eight Conference first-team honors as a sophomore, Charles led Oklahoma to two victories over Texas.
In 1987, Charles relieved an injured Jamelle Holieway and finished with 114 yards on just eight carries to give the Sooners a 44–9 victory. A year later, Charles again played a key role in a 28–13 win over the Longhorns.
While Casey diverted from his father’s path when he chose Texas over Oklahoma, he still learns a lot from his father’s experience in big-game situations and even studies his old game film from time to time.
“Growing up I watched pretty much all of my dad’s games he started in,” Thompson said. “And then sometimes when I get bored in the offseason, I’ll just turn on a full game and watch him from start to finish. I literally write down stuff or take videos and send it to him like, ‘Hey, you missed this throw or you missed this read.’ ”
By statistical measures, Thompson is coming into this weekend following the worst start of his young career against TCU, completing only 12 of 22 passes for 142 yards with one touchdown and one ill-advised throw into triple coverage that resulted in a pick. The stats, however, don’t show the valuable experience Thompson gained in a hostile environment at Amon G. Carter Stadium and the guts he displayed in bouncing back with a 32-yard touchdown strike on a run-pass-option in the fourth quarter. While Thompson’s first two starts were blowout victories, he showed against the Horned Frogs that he has the ability to keep his composure in tight games.
“I don’t think he got rattled,” Sarkisian said following the win. “We dropped a few balls today, and all those kinds of things, you don’t hit a couple deep balls, you have a couple drops—that can get you rattled. I don’t think Casey ever got rattled; I think he hung in there. It was a grind-it-out game.”
The long wait is finally over for Thompson, and now he has a chance to etch his name into Longhorn lore while simultaneously crushing the spirits of the state he hails from. The first challenge was earning the starting job, but now he’s ready for the next one: beating Oklahoma.
“I really don’t think that I’ll be nervous or anxious or uptight,” Thompson said Monday. “I’m excited to play; I wish we could go play today if we could.”
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