“I don’t know.”
In the aftermath of the Texas Bowl victory over the Missouri Tigers, Texas Longhorns head coach Tom Herman was blunt in his assessment of a quarterback competition that will resume once again when spring practice begins in March.
“They both played pretty well tonight,” Herman said of sophomore Shane Buechele and freshman Sam Ehlinger. “I was excited. That will be a good battle headed into the offseason. Neither of them has played so poorly that you can’t fathom them being the starter, but neither of them has played well enough to where you’re ready to anoint them. So they’re going to go compete. We’ll see who makes the most progress here in the next nine months.”
However, despite the ambivalence of Herman, it was clear that Ehlinger turned in the superior performance.
The Austin Westlake product was efficient through the air in hitting 11-of-15 passes for 112 yards and a seven-yard touchdown pass to junior wide receiver John Burt.
The pinpoint touchdown pass to Burt rolling left capped an efficient four-play, 55-yard drive highlighted by a 42-yard pass to freshman running back Daniel Young.
Here's the John Burt toe-tap TD. One of his best plays of the season. pic.twitter.com/tMtBLT2YxG— Ezra Siegel (@SiegelEzra) December 28, 2017
Ehlinger’s most impressive plays was one of his last, when he led the way on senior wide receiver Armanti Foreman’s touchdown run with a block near the goal line.
TOUCHDOWN TEXAS: Armanti Foreman puts the final nail in Missouri’s coffin. #Hookem pic.twitter.com/jpmiUVwDQE— Hookem Football (@hornsfootball) December 28, 2017
The block illustrated the type of juice that Ehlinger brings to the offense — his teammates rally around him because of it and there’s just a different feeling when he’s in the game.
You mess with Sam you get the L! https://t.co/Z8FQffu3P3— kris boyd™ (@kris23db) December 28, 2017
If asked about it privately, it doesn’t seem like a stretch to suggest that the players would choose Ehlinger over Buechele. The coaching staff certainly trended in that direction in the rare moments when both players were healthy late in the season.
Most importantly for Ehlinger, he was able to avoid the types of disastrous turnovers that characterized so many of his worst moments as a true freshman. Conservative play calling in the second half surely helped, but it’s fair to say that Ehlinger took a significant step forward on Wednesday evening after what happened against Texas Tech.
As for Buechele, offensive coordinator Tim Beck called out his poor pocket presence heading into the game and the sophomore was improved in that area for the most part.
Unfortunately, Buechele’s accuracy didn’t make the trip to Houston, as he completed only 6-of-14 passes for 55 yards in the Texas Bowl. Several passes were well off the mark and he also left several others short of his intended target. Past the first drive, which was aided significantly by Missouri penalties, Buechele wasn’t able to consistently move the offense.
And he also got hurt again, suffering a groin strain that kept him out for most of the second half. After missing time with shoulder and ankle injuries this season, the latest setback for Buechele illustrated just how unlikely it is for him to make it through a full college football season without missing time.
So even though Herman wasn’t willing to give either quarterback the edge in the game’s immediate aftermath, Ehlinger has the most upside and seems like the choice of the coaches and players. After playing winning football against Missouri, that’s enough to give him the slight edge with the offseason looming.