[pullquote-left]UP teen lands with UT after sport switch[/pullquote-left]
Thousands of kids in this state dream of someday playing football for the University of Texas. Matthew Merrick was not one of them.
The University Park resident grew up with aspirations of one day playing in the NBA, not the NFL. He relied on his strong arm more for 3-pointers than six-pointers.
Since third grade, Merrick played for the Texas Titans, a national powerhouse summer basketball organization that has produced Los Angeles Lakers forward Julius Randle and other future stars. He was on a path similar to those of his teammates.
Then came Merrick’s sophomore year at Cistercian, when he beat out an incumbent two-year starter for the quarterback job and led the Hawks to the SPC football playoffs. Suddenly, the focus shifted from the hardwood to the gridiron.
“I didn’t realize I was that talented at the time,” said Merrick, who sat out most of his freshman season after suffering a concussion. “I just enjoyed playing.”
A year later, Merrick reluctantly decided to give up basketball, both for his school and the Titans, in order to focus on his future in football.
“Everything was progressing in the direction for him to be a Division I quarterback, but he was playing basketball all the time,” said Cistercian head coach Steve McCarthy. “Two days after the season ended, he started bouncing a basketball and didn’t pick up a football again until August.”
However, after his junior season, Merrick began working with Kevin Murray, a former Texas A&M standout who operates the Air 14 Quarterback Academy. He attended some national camps, improved his throwing velocity by about 10 mph (as three of his receivers with broken fingers can attest), and bulked up his 6-foot-3 frame from about 185 to 202 pounds.
“I really started getting recruited when people came and saw me throw live,” said Merrick, who has attended Cistercian since fifth grade. “It was risky of me to quit basketball and just pursue football. It definitely paid off.”
Word started getting around among major college programs, who swarmed to practices and games at the small Catholic school in Irving that had just one Division I player in the previous 23 years. Besides Merrick, they were there to watch standout teammates Dare Odenyingbo (who signed with Vanderbilt in February) and offensive lineman Nick Skalak (who signed with Missouri).
“Matthew was kind of later on the scene and had to jump through some hoops to get noticed,” McCarthy said. “Most of the schools who wanted him had already offered somebody else.”
Then Merrick became the all-time leader in passing yards and total yards for the Hawks after a big senior season that saw him throw for 2,404 yards and 33 touchdowns. He had eight scoring passes in a win over Houston St. John’s, and five in the second half against Plano John Paul II.
That attracted the interest of the coaching staff at Texas, and particularly renowned quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson, who helped develop current Minnesota Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater while he was an assistant at Louisville. The Longhorns made an offer in November for Merrick to join the program as a grayshirt recruit.
His grayshirt offer from Texas means that Merrick’s scholarship won’t begin until January and that the upcoming season won’t count against his college eligibility. But there’s still a chance that he could be upgraded to a full scholarship before this fall if one opens up.
Merrick is so confident that Texas provides the right fit that he turned down full scholarship offers from other major programs — Florida and Wake Forest among them — for a non-guaranteed spot with the Longhorns. He’ll enroll and begin taking classes this fall.
“I saw some more value with UT, whether it’s starting now or starting in January,” Merrick said. “It gives me six more months to mature, which is a good thing.”
Merrick said playing basketball helped him develop quick feet and hand-eye coordination that have benefited his development as a quarterback. McCarthy said it contributed to his mental toughness as well.
“He played at such a high level at such a young age,” McCarthy said. “He’s a very level-headed kid with a very even-keeled mentality. Competition doesn’t faze him at all.”