Late to the Game: Reading the Spring Game Tea Leaves


Assistant editor Chris O’Connell isn’t from Texas; he’s from New Jersey. That’s OK though—he’s here now. But without growing up in a place that cherishes college sports the way many parts of the South—and especially Texas—do, Chris has taken it upon himself to learn more about all aspects of college athletics in a series we like to call Late to the Game.

Was the Orange and White Scrimmage any good this past Saturday? Did we learn anything? I don’t know. I didn’t go this year, but … probably?

I was on assignment for another Alcalde story but I wanted to be there pretending to know the words to the second verse of “The Eyes of Texas” for the thousandth time. I also missed the pageantry that generally outshines all at this annual event: the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man-esque inflatable Hook ’Em.

Does this game matter? And by matter, I mean, is the intrasquad scrimmage ever an indicator of anything real to come, or just a nice show for the folks who miss football (all of us)? Let’s start with the obvious—this year’s quarterback battle. In Charlie Strong’s first spring press conference last month, he told the press that Jerrod Heard and Tyrone Swoopes would take equal reps with the first team.

“Don’t ever think because a guy started last season that he can’t be unseated as a starter,” Strong said, presumably music to the ears of Swoopes’ detractors, of which there are numerous after a dismal 6-7 season in 2014.

At Saturday’s Orange and White Scrimmage, redshirt freshman quarterback Jerrod Heard completed 20 of 29 passes. Incumbent starter Swoopes accidentally mashed a little boy in the face with an errant pass. And Strong wore a white mock turtleneck.

The first two events lend credence to the notion that Heard is ready to take over for Swoopes, who struggled to stay consistent down the stretch last season. The third is business as usual, but the wearer of said mock turtleneck is the one who decides if he’ll toss the keys to the burnt-orange bus to a quarterback with no in-game experience against Notre Dame on September 5. That’s a long drive to South Bend if you haven’t even made a trip to Waco or Fort Worth.

Though Strong said he “wouldn’t be afraid” to start Heard against the Fighting Irish to kick off the 2015 season, he’d prefer not to.

“The thing about it is,” the second-year coach said after the Orange and White Scrimmage, “I hope I don’t have to go into that game to start a redshirt freshman.”

Well then. It would seem that regardless of what happened last weekend, Swoopes is a lock to start the season, barring injury or a major slump in practice, and Heard is there to push him to greatness. It’s exactly like the Oscar-nominated film Whiplash. Neither of these guys are Gene Krupa right now, but perhaps one has the raw skill of a pre-Cream Ginger Baker, and the relentless competition for the starting spot will bring that out. This is not to compare J.K. Simmons’ brutal instructor to Coach Strong, by any means. Terence Fletcher is more like Bobby Knight. But like all football talk in the spring, this is mere speculation. Whiplash, right? No? Sorry, I just realized that I’m probably the only sports fan who paid money to see an art-house movie about a jazz drumming prodigy.

I had to turn to an old friend, Stuart Reilly, BA ’01, for “historical data,” on false hope at the spring game. You might remember our friend from such Late to the Game columns as this one and this one. He had two words for me: “John Chiles.” He also sent me this video, titled “John Chiles Sweet TD Run During UT Spring Game 2007.” Stuart always comes through.

In an immediate post-Vince world, this (probably) flip phone-recorded scramble must have looked, well, sweet to all in attendance.

“All I thought was, ‘This dude is the next Vince Young,’ Reilly says. “I should have realized that Vince never got touched in a real game, much less a spring game.”

Very true. It’s difficult to tell which version of which unit is on the field for each big play, because it’s April, and we still don’t know exactly who is starting on the defensive side of the ball save for a few guys. Reilly continues:

“So many QBs in the spring game scramble after a DE slows down, since they can’t sack them. The QB goes on to a nice run, and you’re like, ‘Would the defense have gotten to him, though?’ Yes. The answer is always yes.”

I did some digging on this John Chiles, as I had never heard of him. Heck, I was still watching Mike Teel hand off to Ray Rice at Rutgers back then. Was Chiles stuck, as it were, behind Colt McCoy, languishing as a backup? If so, why didn’t he replace an injured McCoy in the 2010 BCS National Championship Game against Alabama instead of—gasp—Garrett Gilbert?

According to Wikipedia—a phrase which is coincidentally going to be etched on my tombstone—two years after this performance, Chiles was converted to a wide receiver for the 2009 Spring Game. A member of the track and basketball teams, Chiles is now a member of the Chicago Bears after a stint in the Arena Football League and the CFL, also as a wide receiver.

The Orange and White Scrimmage, then, is a merely a fun diversion, an excuse to pile into DKR in April, but it does matter. It’s an oasis in the wasteland following the end of basketball season, filling the football-sized hole in our lives. It acts as a catalyst for the Hot Takes Machine, fueled by wild conjecture and dubiously sourced rumors. It enables us to discuss football some more. Which is great.

Illustration by Melissa Reese.


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