Texas Longhorns head coach Tom Herman hasn’t watched any film of incumbent starting quarterback Shane Buechele, but he’s already in love with early enrollee Sam Ehlinger, the local product who burst onto the scene with a monster junior season.
There are two reasons for that, and neither one them had anything to do with the incredible film of Ehlinger scoring 70 touchdowns as a junior or winning the Gatorade National Player of the Year award, though Herman did call all of that “big-time stuff.”
Instead, Herman fell in love with Ehlinger because of his intangibles.
“One is what he's been through in his life, and the fact that he's had to mature at a young age and grow up really fast,” Herman said. “He's transitioned or translated that maturity into this really dynamic leadership quality he has. He's an alpha male. He walks in the room, and it's like, ‘Whoa, Sam's here.’ I mean, he's a competitor. I just love that about quarterbacks.”
The primary catalyst for that maturation was the tragic loss of his father, Ross, during an Escape From Alcatraz triathlon.
Even in the immediate aftermath, an on-camera interview with ESPN that an onlooker recently described as “raw and uncommonly mature” demonstrated Ehlinger’s unique ability to put his loss into perspective.
"Definitely there are times when I know Jake's looking, I know that Morgen is watching, and I just have to pull it together, and it's not that bad knowing that I'm kind of replacing him, but there is also no replacement," he told T.J. Quinn.
"I mean, it's not a normal-day thing for a 14-year-old, so it's pretty tough ... sometimes I know how to react and sometimes I don't."
For Ehlinger, the feelings on personality are rather mutual with his head coach, as he told a local sports reporter in December.
“I just knew that he was a football mastermind and from the moment I stepped in the room, there’s a presence of people that are great when you step in the room with them, and that’s exactly what I felt with him,” Ehlinger said.
He also let Herman pronounce his name wrong for two months — it’s EL-in-gurr — the young Texas quarterback simply never corrected him and Herman didn’t realize that his pronunciation was off until he heard Ehlinger introduce himself to someone else.
Pressed about it, the response from the nation’s No. 4 dual-threat quarterback was typical.
“Coach, everybody kind of makes that mistake, and I didn't want to upset you.”
The other aspect that Herman noticed about his first quarterback signee at Texas was the toughness and selflessness that he demonstrated towards his team during his injury-plagued senior season.
“The kid was committed to the University of Texas, tears his meniscus in week one of his senior year,” Herman said. “Probably a lot of players would have said, that's it. I'm shutting it down. I'm going to rehab and get ready for my college career. I'm an early enrollee, and I'm done. Guys, good luck. I'll be there cheering you on from the sidelines.
“Not Sam. He said, Get me back on the field as fast as you can. Do whatever surgery to get me on the field. Four weeks later he's on the field, he plays two games, he breaks his thumb. Surely we're nine games into the season or eight games into the season. Just going to shut it down, right? Go get ready to compete for the job at Texas.
“Not Sam Ehlinger. He probably comes back too soon on that hand. But he does come back, he ends up playing for two playoff games and winds up breaking his hand.
“So you put that into perspective. Yeah, everybody says, injury-laden senior year. It didn't have to be. The guy could have said I'm going to Texas after that first one. He could have just said, I'm out, and he didn't. That tells me a lot about, one, how much does the kid love football, and, two, how great of a teammate is he that he was willing to continue to put himself back out there even though he knew he had this opportunity at Texas waiting for him.”
And that opportunity is the chance to compete with Buechele for the starting job, something that Herman hopes will happen since the team doesn’t consider anyone a starter. Not Buechele, not Malik Jefferson — no one.
Now listed at 6’2 and 219 pounds, Ehlinger has better size and a more sturdy build than Buechele, which arguably makes him a better fit in Herman’s offense.
Back in early January, the new Longhorns head coach said that he believes that Buechele can run enough to be effective. However, given that the sophomore only had two runs of 14 or more yards on the season and two touchdowns, he doesn’t seem to have the upside of Ehlinger in that area.
Ehlinger also has a remarkable talent to put the ball into small windows on post routes in the deep middle of the field, whereas Buechele typically did his best work on deep passes down the sideline.
The ability to use arm strength, accuracy, and anticipation to beat good coverage is a talent that Ehlinger should be able to translate effectively to the next level — his interception rate in high school was 1.7 percent, a number that is close to elite for a college quarterback.
He also has pocket presence that could also translate to college better than that of Buechele, who experienced significant issues as a freshman in that area by repeatedly demonstrating self-sacking behaviors.
Perhaps Ehlinger will have those same problems in college, too, but there is reason to believe, based on watching his film, that he has better instincts in that regard. Those instincts at times translated into his trademark jump passes, which he said he never practices, but just tend to show up on the field in certain moments.
So don’t be surprised if this is a close competition, if not one that Ehlinger wins outright at some point between now and early September.
Quarterback competitions don’t always go as amicably as the contest between Buechele and the departed Tyrone Swoopes last season and that should once again be the case with Buechele and Ehlinger, who have similar personalities.
“I think Shane is a great quarterback,” Ehlinger said of Buechele in an interview with Burnt Orange Nation. “He has that great arm and he fit Coach Gilbert’s offense really, really well. I would love the chance to compete against him. He’s a great guy and a great quarterback and competition is always good. Either way, we’re going to make each other better and at the end of the day, the best quarterback is going to play and the best quarterback needs to play. I hope that I get better and he gets better and may the best man win.”
That’s a politic answer as polished and media-savvy as an NFL quarterback with many years of experience talking to the media.
Such is Ehlinger’s maturity.
Combine that with his toughness and his football skills. The result is a head coach who already loves those attributes and a bright future looming at the University of Texas.