On Tuesday, the Texas Longhorns will take to the practice fields for the first time under new head coach Tom Herman as the quarterback competition between incumbent sophomore Shane Buechele and early enrollee Sam Ehlinger gets its official start.
Just don’t expect any resolution by the Orange-White game on April 15 or in its immediate aftermath, according to Herman.
“Yeah, there will not be a starting quarterback named after spring ball,” the Texas head coach said on Monday. “We’ll have an idea and we’ll have that conversation with those kids, too, on where they kind of stand, but I think it’s important that they at least have the ability to go win the job in training camp and really win the job over the course of the summer in terms of leading their teammates.”
By five to seven days into preseason camp, Herman wants to name a starter and give that player time to prepare as such before the season begins against Maryland on September 2.
One of the reasons that Herman doesn’t see the competition resolving itself by the end of spring is that 12 days in pads doesn’t provide a long enough evaluation period, especially since the coaches on focused on installing Tim Beck’s offense.
Herman detailed the list of traits that he’s looking for in a quarterback and it’s quite lengthy.
“Competitive. Leader. Football-smart. I’ve seen a lot of guys that are average students that are brilliant on the football field, so not necessarily — you don’t have to be a 4.0 GPA to be football smart. I think you’ve got to be a guy that your teammates gravitate towards, that you make better. You make your teammates around you better through your play and your actions.”
Both Buechele and Ehlinger seem to possess all of those traits, especially football intelligence, but go about their business in slightly different ways. Last offseason, players gravitated toward Buechele because he was a gym rat, always around the football facilities, and always competing.
Whether it was those infamous games of ping pong, basketball, or pool, Longhorns players found it hard to defeat the young quarterback in anything.
While Buechele prefers to generally keep a low profile on Twitter and in recruiting, Ehlinger is vocal on the social media platform and was highly visible during the recent junior day, working hard to build relationships with members of the 2018 class.
Ehlinger also has a rare maturity for his age and a presence that Herman noted on National Signing Day.
“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.”
So the Westlake product has already checked off a number of boxes for Herman, but will still have to translate those intangibles to tangible results on the practice field.
“And then specific to the position, really making great decisions, making them consistently, and then accuracy of ball placement and the speed at which you can translate decision to “ball out of my hand” is important, too. There’s a lot that goes into it. A lot.”
For Buechele, accuracy was a strength of his game throughout much of the season, especially early on with his deep ball. However, his thumb injury, rib injury, and the breakdown of his offensive line in pass protection too often late in the season resulted in a spike in his interception rate.
In fact, Buechele threw five of his 11 interceptions in the last three games, with three coming in the disastrous loss against Kansas. Ultimately, the Arlington Lamar product ended up with an interception rate of 2.8 percent, which was not awful, but was certainly not where Herman will expect him to be this spring with his decision making.
Since Ehlinger hasn’t even attempted a pass in pads yet in college, it’s difficult to know how his decision making will translate from high school — that’s why the quarterback position is arguably the hardest to evaluate in all of sports.
But his breakout junior season does provide some perspective, as Ehlinger, interestingly enough, attempted 391 passes, the exact same number that Buechele attempted last year at Texas. In throwing 50 touchdown passes, Ehlinger threw only five interceptions at a rate of 1.3 percent, an elite number even for a high school quarterback.
Given the similarities off the field and the track records of success on the field, the competition between Buechele and Ehlinger should be an intense one that will make for some heightened drama on April 15 and beyond.