He could not have been more gracious. Two days before the Longhorns' 1998 regular-season finale, Major Applewhite stood before his teammates and coaches with tears streaming down his face. He thanked Richard Walton, whose injury earlier that fall had allowed Applewhite, then a redshirt freshman, to take over the starting quarterback job, a position he didn't relinquish. "I know I've been credited with a lot of success," said the former understudy, who'd later be selected the Big 12 freshman of the year, "but I truly wish that success could have been credited to you."
This summer Applewhite is suffering from a reversal of misfortune. After tearing his left anterior cruciate ligament in last January's Cotton Bowl loss to Arkansas, the junior is in jeopardy of losing his job to his onetime understudy, sophomore Chris Simms. "I've been through a situation like this," says Applewhite, the 1999 Big 12 offensive player of the year. "I'm not looking at who's here or who's coming in."
Coach Mack Brown has delayed anointing a starter, which has only intensified the debate over the fiercest quarterback duel in the nation. Applewhite insists that his knee is healed, but longtime Longhorns watchers and even some Texas coaches remain unconvinced—or are too lovestruck with Simms to be convinced. The 6'5", 210-pound Simms has four inches on Applewhite, not to mention a rifle arm and regal bloodlines. (His father is former New York Giants star Phil Simms.) Says one Texas assistant, "Both guys can make big plays with their head and their arm, but Chris can also make big plays with his feet. He's such a quick learner and he brings so many intangibles."
Simms was brilliant during the spring, connecting on 16 of 21 passes and four touchdowns in one scrimmage while a healing Applewhite sat. "Chris came 100 miles," says Brown. "It's impossible to ask any freshman to do well at quarterback, but he gained a lot of confidence running the team in the spring."
Whoever runs the team will be under intense scrutiny. With depth on both sides of the ball and a recruiting class that rivals any in the country, national-title fever has returned to the Forty Acres. "We're on the verge of being the Texas Longhorns of the past," says senior running back Hodges Mitchell, one of only two players to have 1,300 rushing yards and 300 receiving yards in '99. "We've been taking baby steps the last few years, but now we're ready to show we can compete with the best."