While Arch Manning draws the buzz, Quinn Ewers steals show at Texas spring game

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 highly anticipated recruit in recent college football history, jogged onto the field to take his first snap in front of a burnt orange crowd. Granted, 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 2023 class 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 life. He was still in high school just a few months ago. He went three-and-out in his first spring game series. Yes, his name comes with buzz and automatically adds pressure to the quarterback room at Texas, which features Quinn Ewers and Maalik Murphy. But if there’s any legitimate quarterback competition brewing ahead of the 2023 season, as all storylines indicate, it’s not for the starting spot.

“I think it’s pretty clear to say Quinn is our starting quarterback and we feel very 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 greeted in Austin with a ton of fanfare after transferring from Ohio State. He wowed the crowd in the first quarter against Alabama before an injury disrupted his flow and kept him out three games. Ewers returned for a historic 49-0 romp 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 passing yards with 15 touchdowns and six interceptions in 10 games as Texas went a disappointing 8-5, capping the season with a bowl-game loss.

“I didn’t like where I was at 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 devoted himself to his body, appearance, mindset and overall understanding of the offense. This followed an off-season 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, it’s obvious. Ewers chopped 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 throwing 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 than Georgia transfer Adonai Mitchell, who had six catches, including a beautiful one-handed touchdown grab in the second quarter. Ewers didn’t throw any ball that looked like it was in danger of being turned over and looked the part of the leader of this offense.

“And that’s not having a real game plan going into this game, you’re just kind of running plays in the spring game,” Sarkisian said. “So the fact that he’s going to be even more dialed in when we actually game plan and [are trying] to attack to get after people, I think he’s going to be a more confident player and one that I think is going to instill belief in his teammates and coaches and our entire organization that, ‘Hey, that’s our guy and he’s going to make the plays when his number is called.'”

Ewers said he’s heading into summer workouts “with the best mindset I’ve ever had going into any offseason.” His success this fall is imperative because not only would that mean the Longhorns win more games and could contend for a Big 12 title, but it also means Manning’s progression and improvement won’t have to be rushed. Same goes for Murphy, who has kind of been left out of the Texas quarterback discussion.

Murphy arrived in Austin the same time as Ewers, but hasn’t been 100% healthy. The former four-star prospect didn’t take a single snap last year and missed the first five practices this spring. Sarkisian is gradually working him back in. 

Saturday, the redshirt freshman showed off his cannon — like on the 79-yard touchdown bomb he had to freshman wide receiver Johntay Cook — and made enough zippy passes 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’s got great vision. When he pushes the ball down the field, it’s natural, not like he has to force it. Quick delivery and quick release. I also think he’s a really good leader. He always brings positive energy anytime 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’s going to digest these 15 practices [and] have another install this summer before training camp,” Sarkisian said. “It’s one thing to know the plays, it’s another to know where your primary read is, it’s another to know where your secondary reads are when the pass rush is coming. 

“And that’s a process that I think is natural.”

Sarkisian wants a competitive quarterback room. And with Ewers, Murphy and Manning, he appears to have one. But as spring ball wraps, so does the hoopla surrounding QB1.

Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of “Strong Like a Woman,” published in spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.

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