Three starts into his career, it would be unfair to label Jerrod Heard a great college quarterback. It is, in a sense, unfair that Texas is asking him to play quarterback at all—starting under center in a power conference is not a fair ask for any redshirt freshman; Jameis Winston and Johnny Manziel are anomalies, not some new baseline for strong-armed 19-year-olds.
Fairness, however, isn't in abundant supply at Texas, where Charlie Strong's hold on his job—he was handed the controls after the previous captain threw his hands up and popped the ejector seat—has become increasingly tenuous. Heard is Strong's—and Texas'—first great hope at regaining the program's altitude. If it's too soon to expect an uptick in the win column, unearthing the first above-average Longhorn quarterback since Colt McCoy at least ought to earn Strong a third season at the best coaching gig in the sport. And so, unfortunate though it may be, Heard now bears the burden of being the most important player in college football.
So far, he's carrying the weight with aplomb. Already, Heard seems to possess many of the qualities that Longhorn fans dreamed on five years' worth of failed predecessors. He is the dynamic athlete that recently benched Ty Swoopes was supposed to be, and has a real claim on the purported moxie of Case McCoy and presumed downfield throwing ability of David Ash. His Week 3 performance against Cal—364 yards passing on 64.5 percent passing and 163 yards rushing with three touchdowns, including a should've-been-game-tying, 45-yard touchdown run with under two minutes to play (the kicker missed the extra point)—recalled Vince Young at his apex.
But, still, this is a redshirt freshman, and he is as jagged and unfinished as any kid his age. We're still awaiting Heard's first touchdown pass against a school that isn't Rice, and his TD:INT ratio presently stands at an even 2:2. The same improvised genius Heard displayed against Cal led to him taking seven sacks on Saturday against Oklahoma State; his eagerness to make an incredible play often undermines his willingness to execute a simple one. And, that Cal game notwithstanding, the Longhorn offense still sputters with him at the controls: Texas only managed 277 and 290 yards against the Owls and Cowboys, respectively.
So, no, this will not be a smooth ascent to stardom, presuming Heard ascends there at all. But Strong will demand nothing less, because Mack Brown left him no other recourse. Tomes have been dedicated to Brown's bungled quarterback recruiting; the results have been exactly what you'd expect from a program that only offered Manziel a scholarship to play safety and barely gave Winston or Andrew Luck the time of day. Brown's mismanagement is even more evident in the underdevelopment of presumed can't-miss stars such as running back Johnathan Gray and a slew of busted offensive linemen, to say nothing about the total dearth of recruiting at positions like tight end.
When Strong opened the season with 24 true or redshirt freshmen on his depth chart, it wasn't just on account of wiping the roster clean of Brown's problem children; it was because there were only a handful of upperclassmen worth building around. For instance, last year's top returning receiver, Marcus Johnson, has all of two catches in 2015. The player who supplanted him, 5'9'' slot man Daje Johnson, somehow registered negative seven receiving yards last year. Earlier this month, an NFL personnel man actually used the phrase, "Vince Lombardi couldn't do anything with the guys they have on offense."
It takes an astounding degree of apathy to let things fall apart this badly at Texas, of all places. ESPN named it the best coaching job in America this past offseason because, as an unnamed Big 12 coach put it, "What more could you want?" There is a legion of boosters, bottomless historical cache, endless in-state recruiting opportunities, a rollicking college town, and even the superfluous television network to broadcast its propaganda. It seems not just perfect, but idiot-proof.
It's not, of course, and that reality only becomes more obvious the further Brown slinks from Sixth Street. But perception rules in Austin, just as it does everywhere else. No matter how much of his reputation he owes to Vince Young, Mack Brown is the head coach who brought a national championship back to Texas, and no matter Teddy Bridgewater's debt to him, Charlie Strong is the head coach who is currently 7-10 at Texas. The other other marquee hires from last offseason—Steve Sarkisian at USC, James Franklin at Penn State, Chris Petersen at Washington—are all treading water, or worse. But none of them replaced a campus legend, nor are they already bereft of their safety net in the athletic director's office, the way Strong is after Texas finally deposed the sour, misanthropic Steve Patterson earlier this month. Given the program's current state of decay, Strong should be canonized if he can restore order inside of four years. Instead, people are wondering whether he'll be the first head coach at a powerhouse school ever to be fired after two.
Strong's best chance of survival comes by way of his recruits. Already, true freshman Malik Jefferson looks the part of a future NFL first-round pick at middle linebacker, while the rangy cornerback tandem of Holton Hill and Kris Boyd are the heirs apparent to the Longhorns' self-proclaimed, but generally deserved "Defensive Back U" mantle. On offense, 5'8'' slot man Ryan Newsome is dynamite in a fun-sized wrapper, and 6'2'' Tallahassee native John Burt is averaging 26 yards per catch and already looks the part of a frontline receiver.
But most of all, Strong will lean on Heard, who has begun to elevate those disparate cogs into a dangerous, cohesive whole. There is every chance he'd be off to a 3-0 start were it not for late-game special teams gaffes in each of the past two weeks, and the prognosis in Austin would be markedly rosier if the team wasn't staring down back-to-back match-ups with TCU and Oklahoma, and the possibility of a 1-5 record. Drop both those games, and the Longhorns stand a very real chance of missing a bowl game for just the second time since 1997. If that happens, the noise will get louder and the Best Job In College Football will once again be rumored to be Nick Saban's or Chip Kelly's (or someone else's) for the taking. Reverberations would be felt throughout the sport.
Or, maybe they won't be. Maybe Jerrod Heard upends the Frogs or the Sooners, Strong is finally seen as worthy of his post, and a reordering of the college football universe will be postponed. Maybe he doesn't, but continued growth sets the stage for a 2016 rebound, when Heard and those 23 teammates will only be sophomores. Dream bigger, and maybe Heard becomes so good that a half-decade's worth of waiting for an heir to Young and McCoy proves worth it. Or maybe the player we saw against Oklahoma State is the genuine article, and this all falls apart in within a matter of weeks, and the program is right back spinning its tires in the mud.
The last outcome seems the least plausible, which should reassure Texas fans. But with so little in place around Heard, the spectrum of potential outcomes is immense. All anyone can do for the time being is speculate. But, for the first time in a long time, there's a quarterback in Austin worth considering at all. That makes the dreaming that much easier.