Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Quinn Ewers injury: Outlook for Texas with Maalik Murphy likely to start at QB as ‘Horns remain in title hunt

Texas will roll with Maalik Murphy as its starting quarterback while Quinn Ewers is sidelined with an injury to his throwing shoulder, at least for the foreseeable future. With coach Steve Sarkisian strongly indicating that Murphy will start over Arch Manning vs. BYU, the Longhorns will apparently move forward with an über-talented but largely untested player instead of an über-talented but completely untested one. 

Sometimes the overlooked name in the Longhorns’ star-studded quarterback room, Murphy has excellent size and arm strength that, along with an additional year in Sarkisian’s offense, made him a clear No. 2 in the pecking order as the 2023 season approached. 

Murphy’s game experience is understandably slim, however. He redshirted in 2022, buried behind Ewers and Hudson Card, and has appeared in four games this season. His longest career completion of 17 yards came in season-opening mop-up duty against Rice, which also marked the only other game in which he’s thrown more than one pass (he was 1 of 2 for 7 yards in emergency duty against Houston). 

Of course, a team’s entire game plan changes when a quarterback goes down. Texas put a renewed focus on the run game vs. the Cougars with 53 yards and the deciding touchdown in the fourth quarter of the 31-24 win. 

Murphy’s quality in a full, competitive game setting is a complete mystery. There are some things we can look back on, though, to get a feel for how Murphy should perform for the Longhorns. 

Standout spring game

Murphy generated considerable offseason hype with a stellar showing in Texas’ spring game. He finished second among all passers, and just behind Ewers, with 165 yards and a touchdown. On display was the arm strength that made him a renowned high school product. With an atypical 6-foot-5 and 238-pound frame, Murphy generated some serious velocity on his throws. 

A lot of young quarterbacks can zip the ball but struggle with touch, leading to overthrows on deep bombs. That may not be the case with Murphy. In the longest completion of Texas’ spring game, he hit freshman wide receiver Johntay Cook for a 79-yard touchdown. 

Murphy didn’t even really step into the throw, which covered 42 air yards, but still fit it into a rather tight window with the defensive back trailing by just a couple yards. If that ball was underthrown, it would have given the defender time to catch up and make a play. 

He also showed accuracy and touch on intermediate throws. A throw to DeAndre Moore Jr. on a crossing route floated between two defenders and — most importantly — hit the receiver in stride, allowing him to turn the corner and get a few extra yards. 

Murphy should have had his second touchdown pass a few plays later, but it was dropped in the end zone. He didn’t make any notable mistakes, either, which is another promising sign for a young quarterback with limited reps. 

Outlook with Murphy

Texas is right in the thick of the Big 12 championship race, and to some degree the College Football Playoff picture, so Ewers’ injury is untimely. Still, the Longhorns remain favorites to make it back to the Big 12 Championship Game, where a rematch with Oklahoma feels inevitable. If Texas wins out in the regular season and gets revenge on the Sooners, it will unquestionably be among the teams in discussion for a playoff spot. 

That’s a lot of pressure to put on Murphy in Ewers’ absence. Look for Sarkisian and this staff to try to take some weight off his shoulders. The Longhorns have a strong run game, paced by the Big 12’s third-leading rusher in Jonathon Brooks. BYU is the right opponent for Texas to concoct a winning game plan with Murphy in his first career start. 

The Cougars rank ninth in the Big 12 in run defense, allowing 150.3 yards per game. Opponents are averaging 4.1 yards per carry against BYU. Brooks will get a lot of opportunities, and freshman CJ Baxter should have fresh legs after logging just 13 carries over the last two games. 

Keeping the focus on the run game should give Murphy some easy passing looks against stacked boxes and open the potential for big plays as he gains more confidence. Murphy is capable of guiding Texas through a rather winnable Big 12 slate until Ewers returns. He just needs the Longhorns to play some complementary football in return. 

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