Before his final game for Lake Travis High School, Charlie Brewer felt colossal pressure.
The standard had been set. His older brother, Michael, had met it twice before, winning a pair of Texas high school state championships. Before that, the Cavaliers had won three. The wait for title No. 6 was longer than the community preferred, and Charlie came close as a junior, but didn’t quite close the deal.
December 17, 2016, was his last shot.
“I was like, ‘Man, I better win this one,'” Brewer, now the starting quarterback at Baylor, recalled jokingly. “If I don’t win this game, I’m not welcome back in Lake Travis.”
Lake Travis already had produced a Heisman winner, an Orange Bowl winner and another quarterback ranked second-best in the country. Winning state championships was customary.
“That’s just how it’s supposed to be,” Cleveland Browns quarterback and Lake Travis alumnus Baker Mayfield said, “and you have to live up to it.”
Fortunately for Brewer, he found the finish line. Looking back on it, he called it a “relief.” When you produce a Division I quarterback every couple years — as Lake Travis has with every starter in its program since 2004 — you learn to live with high expectations.
“Honestly, I can’t tell you why there’s been so many Division I quarterbacks,” Brewer said. “It’s kinda crazy.”
It is, but it hasn’t happened simply by chance.
As always in Texas, there is plenty of talent to go around, but who is in control and who is landing the majority of the elite prospects has been going back and forth the past few years. This class is no different.
The No. 1 overall recruit moniker brings with it extra expectations and attention, but Kayvon Thibodeaux has tried not to let it overwhelm him, instead using his position to his advantage.
In personality and on-field ability, No. 1 dual-threat quarterback and Oklahoma commit Spencer Rattler is a mix of Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, and isn’t afraid to say it.
If you follow recruiting, you’ve probably heard of Lake Travis. It was once was the home of the No. 2 quarterback prospect in the country in 2009, Garrett Gilbert. It also produced a quarterback who won an Orange Bowl at Kansas (Todd Reesing). Oh, and there’s that guy who won the Heisman Trophy (Mayfield).
All told, the last eight Lake Travis starting quarterbacks have moved on to Division I programs. Seven signed letters of intent. One, famously, walked on (Mayfield, again). Current Lake Travis starter Hudson Card, the No. 3 dual-threat quarterback recruit in the ESPN Junior 300, will make it eight straight when he signs as part of the 2020 class (he’s verbally committed to Texas).
The Cavaliers’ junior varsity quarterback, 2021 prospect Nate Yarnell, already has a scholarship offer from Houston.
But it wasn’t always that way.
When Reesing was a freshman at the school in 2002, it was a “sleepy little lake community” in suburban Austin that had virtually no gridiron success. The varsity went 1-19 combined in 2001 and 2002.
“Football was kind of a laughingstock,” he said. “No one really cared. People were much more concerned with going to the lake or listening to music or checking out what the next concert was as opposed to, ‘Where’s the football team playing this week?'”
When a new coach, Jeff Dicus, arrived in 2003, things changed. He and his offensive coordinator, Jerry Bird, installed a more wide-open spread offense. Dicus aimed to better align the middle-school programs with what the high school ran. An emphasis on 7-on-7 competition was placed. Expectations were raised.
“He kinda got the guys off the lake in the summer time and got them in the weight room and got a program going,” said former Lake Travis offensive coordinator Michael Wall, now the head coach at Willis (Texas) High.
Success wasn’t instant but there was improvement. Dicus’ first team went 3-7, which was three more wins than Lake Travis had the year prior. The team’s quarterback, Nick Bird (Jerry’s son), performed well enough to earn all-district honors and a chance to play at then-Division II Abilene Christian (the Wildcats are now FCS).
“[Nick Bird] was the catalyst that really got everything going there,” Dicus said. “He got kids out throwing and catching and we got involved with 7-on-7. … I give him a lot of credit.”
The next season, Reesing took the reins and the Cavaliers went 8-3 and won their district championship. As a senior, Reesing threw for more than 3,300 yards and 41 touchdowns as the team went 11-1, including its first 10-0 regular season. That was good enough to earn a scholarship to Kansas, where he also eventually made history, taking the Jayhawks to 12-1 season in 2007 and a BCS bowl victory.
Succeeding Reesing was going to be a considerable task for the next Lake Travis quarterback, but when Gilbert whipped up a 348-yard, four-touchdown performance in a 41-34 win over Texas City High on Sept. 2, 2006, in San Antonio’s Alamodome, it was clear: The kid was special.
“He was the best high school quarterback I’ve ever seen play,” Charlie Brewer said. “He was big. He could heave it, throw the ball a mile. He could run. He could literally do everything you want your quarterback to do. He checked off every box and every intangible.”
The coming years brought exceptional success. The Cavs went 39-4 in Gilbert’s three years as the starter, winning two state championships. The first came under Dicus, who then left for the head-coaching job in Duncanville, south of Dallas. His successor was none other than Chad Morris.
Gilbert took home every accolade under the moon. He was the 2009 Gatorade National Player of the Year, was on countless All-America teams and broke several state passing records before signing with Texas (he later transferred to SMU).
While Gilbert’s profile rose in the prep ranks, Reesing’s Kansas run was concurrent. Their simultaneous success put Lake Travis football on the map nationally.
“[The 2007 Orange Bowl] played a part in people recognizing who Lake Travis was or where it was,” Michael Brewer said. “You listen to the broadcast and they say where everybody’s from, and people went and looked up Lake Travis.”
Morris, according to Mayfield, took the program to an even higher level.
“As soon as he came in, he went 32-0,” Mayfield said. “By the time he left, we had won three state championships in a row.”
Morris was only in Austin for two seasons before going to the University of Tulsa (then later Clemson, SMU and now Arkansas), but he made his presence felt. The Cavaliers added a more up-tempo pace to their offense as well as concepts he picked up from others, including his longtime friend Gus Malzahn, an Arkansas prep coaching legend who moved into the college ranks just before Morris and is now Auburn’s head coach.
When it came to quarterback development, Morris started from the ground up. He and his staff began organizing 7-on-7 football for elementary school-aged boys, got parents involved and held three weeks’ worth of spring games annually just before youth baseball season began.
“I think to be the big man on campus at Lake Travis High School, it prepares you to play at the college level. The expectations are very high. Pressure’s on.”
“We had a plan in place, a developmental plan,” Morris said. “As crazy as this may sound, we identified who we thought was going to be our quarterback all the way down into the first grade.”
On the heels of that experiment, he also launched the Hill Country Passing Academy, a summer program that still exists today.
“It’s organized; [the quarterbacks receive] a lot of reps,” said Doug Card, Hudson’s father. “They practice the route trees, a lot of the concepts they run at the high school level.”
Meanwhile, the community around the high school was growing rapidly. When Dicus arrived in 2003, he estimated the high school had an enrollment of roughly 1,400 students. That number is now just over 3,000.
Such growth has been reflected in the football program. Dicus said there were 120 kids in the program total (including sub-varsity teams) when he started. By time he left following the 2007 season, there were well over 250. Participation has stayed steady ever since.
“There was always something going on up at the high school,” said Wall, who served as an assistant under both Dicus and current head coach Hank Carter. “If you go up there on a Saturday, not only are we bringing the high school kids in to watch the video postgame of Friday night, there’s flag football going on all over the place, all over our campus, in our turf room.”
The explosion in youth football also created heated competition.
“It was so competitive as a youth growing up that we had a kid that was in my grade, his mom took him out of school, held him back and home schooled him for a year just so he’d have a better chance to play,” Mayfield said. “And that was in middle school. So that’s the type of craziness that goes on down in Lake Travis because of the atmosphere and people wanting their kids to play.”
Wall said it wasn’t unusual for quarterbacks to transfer in and out of the program as they sought to become the next great Lake Travis signal caller.
“There were some guys who realized ‘Hey, I’m not going to beat this kid out,’ or ‘I don’t want to beat this kid out,’ and took off and chose to play somewhere else,” Wall said. “Most of the time, the kids that come in are helpful, but I’ve also seen some talented kids come in, stay for six months, and leave.”
Yarnell, a sophomore, battled with another freshman last season and the pressure was a lot to take in for his parents.
“When they have freshman quarterbacks who are neck-and-neck, they take [turns in offensive] series,” said Christina Yarnell, Nate’s mother. “If [Nate] had one incompletion, they’d switch ’em out. So every down, you’re like “Sweet Jesus, please have a completion.”
Numbers are one thing, but to have the pipeline of quarterback talent Lake Travis has had, it also takes good offensive talent surrounding them. The Cavaliers have produced numerous Division I prospects at other positions over the years, too. The latest such example is ESPN 300 receiver Garrett Wilson, the No. 15 overall prospect in the 2019 class currently committed to Ohio State.
Good timing also helps. When Gilbert was a senior, Michael Brewer, who went to Texas Tech and eventually Virginia Tech, was a sophomore. Mayfield was two years behind Brewer.
“We were very lucky,” Gilbert said. “I don’t know that there’s any science to it other than just that we were lucky that the three of us were around the same age and got to play in the same area.”
Mayfield, fittingly, wasn’t the starter when he was on the freshman team. And he wasn’t the starter during his first varsity season. An injury to then-starter Collin Lagasse, an athlete who went on to play receiver and defensive back at SMU, opened the door for Mayfield to play.
“So I stepped in and never looked back after that,” Mayfield said.
With the Cavaliers riding a streak of four consecutive rings, he knew what was expected of him.
“The expectations were state championship or bust,” Mayfield said. “So that’s how I always handled it. Playing football there and starting is a big deal.”
As a junior, Mayfield helped deliver Lake Travis a 16-0 record and a fifth consecutive state title in 2011. The team went 77-3 in that five-year stretch from Gilbert to Mayfield. Current coach Hank Carter, who played for and coached with Morris, has three rings of his own and is gunning for a fourth this season. His team, led by Card, is currently in the state semifinals.
Since Mayfield departed, the Cavaliers’ quarterback production has continued. Dominic DeLira signed with Iowa State in 2014 before eventually transferring to Texas Southern, where he started for a brief period. Brewer is the sophomore starter at Baylor after signing in 2017. His successor, Matthew Baldwin, started for only a year at Lake Travis but is now a freshman at Ohio State.
Card, a versatile athlete, is a quarterback by trade but fleet-footed enough to play other positions (he was a receiver as a sophomore and caught 69 passes for 1,137 yards and 13 touchdowns). The future Longhorn has already thrown for 49 touchdowns this season and more than 3,300 yards. And with former Texas quality control coach Will Stein now serving as Lake Travis’ offensive coordinator, Card’s getting a head start on his future team’s offensive concepts.
Yarnell, who moved into the district in middle school, is next in line. Listed at 6-foot-5, 190-pounds, he has some filling out to do, but has all the potential you’d expect from a Lake Travis quarterback.
“Yarnell is kinda in the same mold as a Matthew Baldwin,” said Wall, who evaluated Yarnell before leaving Lake Travis. “He’s a big-armed kid, very intelligent, very good leader, very cognizant of the team, the leadership and all those sorts of things and just loves the game.”
If Yarnell’s progression stays on course, he’ll likely extend the Cavaliers’ quarterback streak to 2021, a full 17 years with nine different D-I quarterbacks.
“It’s coaching,” Michael Brewer said. “We had a great coaching staff. Obviously, we didn’t have anything to compare it to. But once you get out of that and you go on to the college level and see the stuff college teams are running, the offseason programs, the in-season regimen and everything, you hear about everybody else’s high school experience, you realize just how good our coaching was in high school.'”
Texas’ passion and financial investment in prep football is well-documented and it’s why the state continuously produces NFL quarterbacks. But it also takes talent and a little luck to have the type of run the Cavaliers are having. The scoreboard matters, too.
“You want a winner,” Morris said. “You want a kid that knows how to win and comes from a winning background.”
Being the starting quarterback at Lake Travis is an accomplishment in and of itself. Take it from the school’s lone Heisman winner and No. 1 pick.
“I think to be the big man on campus at Lake Travis High School, it prepares you to play at the college level,” Mayfield said. “The expectations are very high. Pressure’s on. There’s always so many people watching those games and paying attention to what Lake Travis is doing.
“You play in big atmospheres, stadiums that are packed, I think it’s all of those things that prepare young kids to be able to play at a high level.”