As a prelude to what will almost certainly be yet another offseason of speculation and debate about the Texas Longhorns quarterback position, sophomore Shane Buechele and Sam Ehlinger were splitting reps evenly at the start of bowl practice.
Head coach Tom Herman said on Sunday that he hasn’t talked much with his coaching staff about the ongoing battle, but did say that preparation for the Texas Bowl will be beneficial for both.
“The good thing is, with these bowl practices, you can put these guys in some really game-like, some scrimmage situations and see how they do,” Herman said. “We'll keep evaluating them and we'll make a decision, as to the direction we are headed, after a couple of weeks.”
So don’t expect much any information to trickle out about which quarterback will start the game against Missouri until around Christmas, if at all.
Ehlinger started the final game against Texas Tech, with Buechele playing just one series a week after starting against West Virginia, but only playing for two series. When both quarterbacks are healthy, Herman seems to prefer Ehlinger.
One notable reason is because the freshman is much better at avoiding sacks — he took only 10 after attempting 260 passes during the regular season. Buechele was sacked 22 times while throwing the ball 199 times. As a result, Buechele’s sack rate was 10 percent, roughly three times higher than Ehlinger, who was sacked on 3.7 percent of his drop backs, according to data compiled by Ian Boyd of Inside Texas.
Ehlinger was also much more successful as a scrambler, running 29 times for 208 yards and one touchdown in those situations. The smaller Buechele, who struggles with his pocket presence and isn’t much of an open-field runner, scrambled 16 times for 83 yards, a full two yards per carry lower than Ehlinger.
However, that doesn’t mean that Ehlinger always made the correct decisions about when to leave the pocket — especially late in the season, he tended to vacate early and cut off half the field, leading to a number of passes thrown out of bounds.
And Ehlinger was responsible for multiple late losses and a near West Virginia comeback by making poor decisions with the football late in games. He fumbled near the goal line in overtime against USC, threw an interception in overtime against Oklahoma, the pick six in Morgantown, and made the costly decision against Texas Tech that turned the game in favor of the Red Raiders.
Were those simply freshman mistakes? Was Ehlinger pressing too much as a result of the injuries to the offensive line and lack of playmakers around him?
The forgiving take argues that he’s a true freshman who didn’t play much as a senior due to injury. He was pressing just like everyone else around him. Even offensive coordinator Tim Beck admitted to wanting to call the perfect play too often this year.
A look at the top quarterbacks in the country supports that assertion — other than Georgia’s Jake Fromm, who plays with an experienced left side of the line and two of the nation’s best senior running backs, the highest-rated freshman passer is Virginia Tech’s Josh Jackson at No. 47 nationally. Jackson redshirted last season.
The highest-rated true freshman passer other than Fromm was James Blackman of Florida State, who threw 15 touchdowns compared to 11 interceptions and ranked No. 69.
Those statistics provide a perspective on just how difficult it is to play the position in college as a true freshman, much less doing so in the circumstances faced by Ehlinger.
As a passer, Ehlinger showed that he has to develop his accuracy on touch passes like fades and back-shoulder throws. More importantly, the Westlake product and lifetime Longhorn has to understand when to take a sack — his situational awareness was crucially lacking this season.
Given the need for that type of situational growth, it’s still impossible to say whether Ehlinger has what it takes to become the long-term solution for the Longhorns at quarterback. A persistent trend at the position, to say the least.
Buechele, on the other hand, hasn’t inspired much more confidence. Coming into the season, one of the biggest questions was whether he could still healthy. Determining the answer to that question only took one game — he suffered a bruised throwing shoulder against Maryland and sat out the next two contests. His arm strength didn’t seem to recover until late in the season, after he had already suffered an ankle injury upon his return that limited him for several weeks.
Without a star running back, a healthy offensive line, and an offense devoted to throwing go routes repeatedly, Buechele’s best attribute — his downfield touch — was rarely a factor this season.
Over at Orangebloods, Anwar Richardson argued on Sunday that Buechele should start the bowl game, but the more tepid and much more obvious take is that Texas should play the quarterback who practices the best leading up to the game.
Another consideration is Buechele’s future — if Herman and Beck make it clear to him that Ehlinger will receive more opportunities moving forward, he would likely transfer during the offseason.
Starting Ehlinger in the Texas Bowl and not giving Buechele an opportunity to play could precipitate that decision at the start of the offseason so Buechele could participate in spring practice at his eventual destination. Losing the job during the spring could result in the same choice in April.
Since the ‘Horns don’t have any experienced back-up quarterbacks on scholarship, keeping Buechele around for next season is a key consideration for Herman and Beck. This season made clear that Ehlinger’s hard-nosed running style makes him more susceptible to injuries — having an experienced junior behind him would be a significant advantage for Texas compared to the alternative.
In regards to the Texas Bowl, Herman and Beck must once again balance the need for competition with tailoring the game plan for the skills of each quarterback. Ehlinger can run draw plays better than Buechele, while the older passer has an advantage on run-pass options. Ehlinger doesn’t have the touch of Buechele, but has a better arm that can reach more parts of the field, especially after Buechele has taken some hits during the season.
The coaches have largely denied that the offense looks significantly different for each quarterback, but the skill sets of the two players increasingly appear divergent, with significant implications for the overall scheme. With Ehlinger and Buechele rotating in and out the whole season, the need to constantly adjust has put a tremendous pressure on the staff, especially after all the injuries.
At the least, finding some stability moving forward will be key so that the staff can more effectively tailor the offense for the quarterback that wins the job.
Right now, the bet here is on Ehlinger because he can make off-schedule plays and provide more juice in the running game, but keeping Buechele in the program at least through spring practice is more important than giving the younger player more opportunities in a relatively low-stakes bowl game.
The norm now for Texas football is for tremendous uncertainty surrounding the game’s most important position.
But hey, at least there will be plenty of discussions about the Longhorn quarterbacks during the interminable offseason?