Vince Young never had a day like that in the Cotton Bowl. Neither did Colt McCoy.
In fact, no Texas Longhorns quarterback has ever been as prolific as sophomore Sam Ehlinger has been through two games in the Red River Showdown — the lifetime Longhorn holds the top two spots in the Texas record books for total offense against the Oklahoma Sooners with 388 yards last season and 394 yards on Saturday.
As a result of those 394 yards of total offense and five touchdowns, Ehlinger earned recognition on Sunday as the Walter Camp Offensive Player of the Week. No other Longhorns player has secured that honor on either side of the ball since linebacker Malik Jefferson did in 2015. Numerous other awards recognized Ehlinger’s play throughout the early part of the week.
“You know, our team really believes in him right now and there is a psychology to that, certainly,” head coach Tom Herman said on Monday. “And I think us coaches and his teammates really, really believe in him and his abilities right now. Certainly not a finished product. There’s a reason we grade film. There’s a reason there were a lot of things, plays that he wishes he had back, even in a game where he scored 48 points and accounted for five touchdowns.”
And afford Heisman Trophy-winner Matt Leinart whatever credibility feels legitimate, but also understand that his perspective is about as objective as it gets:
Most importantly, Ehlinger didn’t commit a single turnover against Oklahoma, the fourth straight game without a giveaway, compared to two costly turnovers by his counterpart Kyler Murray, who entered the Cotton Bowl with only two interceptions on the season.
Ehlinger has now gone 163 consecutive passes without an interception since his costly mistake late against Maryland, surpassing the school record of 156 set by Major Applewhite.
Consider that — after Ehlinger’s true freshman season, and the start to his sophomore season, were both defined by his crucial mistakes, often late in games, the Austin Westlake product has protected the football better in terms of avoiding interceptions than any other quarterback in school history.
As head coach Tom Herman would say, no one has ever played a perfect game of football and that commentary still applies to Ehlinger. However, Ehlinger is notably improved in multiple aspects of his game over last season. He’s standing in the pocket more comfortably, stepping up to make throws, not putting the ball at risk, and getting the Longhorns into the right plays at the line of scrimmage when necessary.
So when it comes to discussions about his areas for improvement, like connecting more consistently with junior wide receiver Devin Duvernay overall and specifically on deep throws like post routes, the dissections of his mechanics and timing come in regards to an upside as a passer that continues to show a ceiling high enough to achieve the ambitions of the Texas program.
As a redshirt sophomore, Vince Young hadn’t yet convinced the burnt orange and white faithful that he had what it takes to win consistently at that level. There was certainly a high level of ascension for Young in the 2004 season, but he still finished with 12 touchdowns and 11 interceptions through the air. In a 28-20 win over Missouri, Young completed 3-of-9 passes for 19 yards and two interceptions. He was the team’s leading receiver with a 48-yard catch on a trick play by Ramonce Taylor. In fact, Taylor was the team’s leading passer in that game, despite 19 total attempts by Young and Chance Mock.
Colt McCoy struggled as a redshirt sophomore, too, in part due to an offensive line that lost the remaining contributors from the national championship team. Regardless of what happened in front of McCoy, though, he was still responsible for throwing 12 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, with a completion percentage that stands as almost identical to Ehlinger’s completion percentage after six games.
It’s worth noting, as well, that McCoy didn’t truly come into his own as a runner in terms of overall confidence and making the right reads on option plays until the Nebraska game that season, when everything seemed to click for him.
Ehlinger is already well ahead of Young in terms of grasping the offense and making good decisions and in a similar place in terms of accuracy as McCoy was in 2007, while ahead of him as a runner.
To be clear, none of this suggests that Ehlinger has the ultimate upside of Colt McCoy in terms of accuracy or Young in terms of transcendence, game-breaking ability. The point is that the evolution of a quarterback defines programs in terms of evaluations and development, especially for a program like Texas that has missed on so many quarterbacks.
Anything can happen moving forward, but right now, in the midst of a five-game winning streak, the only reasonable assessment is that former play caller Shawn Watson made an incredible evaluation of Ehlinger during the summer of 2016. And that Herman and his staff have helped Ehlinger develop into a quarterback capable of outshining a legitimate Heisman candidate in a rivalry game on a neutral field.
And so while it’s impossible to say what would have happened with David Ash had he continued on the trajectory established during the 2012 season, the best effort by a Texas quarterback since 2009, it is entirely possible and even reasonable to argue that Ehlinger is on a similar trajectory with higher upside as a runner.
Ehlinger’s running ability, especially his Tim Tebow-esque efforts in short yardage, allow the Longhorns to go for it in fourth-and-short situations with confidence.
“I think it just works well within our offense,” Ehlinger said after the game. “In those certain situations, in short yardage, they’re going to man guys up to load the box, so when we have an extra running back as a blocker, it helps everything out a ton. Schematically, it works out, and I think the guys trust in me to go get that one yard, and I trust in myself, as well.”
The 72 yards rushing by Ehlinger were a season high, while his three touchdowns were a career high. In the context of the offense, however, it’s not as much about the total rushing yardage as when Ehlinger gain those yards. He’s picked up first downs on both of his fourth-down attempts this season and converted on 8-of-12 opportunities on third down when facing one to three yards to move the chains.
Last week, offensive line coach Herb Hand said that running the football is the most effective way to score in the red zone, which hasn’t always been easy for Texas over the last two seasons. So the running ability of Ehlinger provides an extra dimension to the offense by allowing the running back to serve as a blocker.
Of the 13 touchdowns scored by Texas in 21 red-zone trips this season, Ehlinger has scored six with his legs, often running right behind redshirt freshman Sam Cosmi. On Saturday, senior tight end Andrew Beck also proved extremely effective in those situations.
In the 10-on-11 match ups offered by the quarterback running game, Ehlinger and the Longhorns are becoming extremely difficult to deny.
Known as a natural leader, Ehlinger impressed head coach Tom Herman with his maturity as soon as they met.
“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 when Ehlinger signed in February of 2017. “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.”
Indeed, losing his father to a heart attack while competing in the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon in late 2013 forced Ehlinger to grow up more quickly than many of his peers. Now he’s playing for something larger than himself:
Ehlinger playing for his father isn’t a new development — he’s been doing that for years now. The new developments have come in regards to how he’s been treated by his head coach this season and how he’s activated and maintained the aggressiveness that allows him to play at a high level.
The Golden Hat belongs to Texas. This t-shirt can belong to you. The victory will live forever.
Following the Maryland game, Herman supported his quarterback publicly and privately despite the fact that Ehlinger threw two interceptions in the fourth quarter and wasn’t particularly sharp with his accuracy or decision-making throughout the contest.
“You don’t need to look over your shoulder,” Herman told Ehlinger. “I’ll tell you when you do, but we believe in you. You didn’t lose the Maryland game for your team. You didn’t. That was coaches, players, offense, defense, special teams, we all lost that game.”
Herman wanted to avoid the quarterback situation last season, when injuries played a large role in Ehlinger and Shane Buechele trading places as the starting quarterback seemingly from to game. And he believes that showing confidence in the starting quarterback allows them to play better.
“We made the decision for him to be our starting quarterback, and we made that decision for a lot of different reasons and one game, one quarter in a game was not going to deter us from that decision.”
The response from Ehlinger on the field has been tremendously positive — his only turnover over those five games came against Tulsa. He helped lead drives to seal games against Tulsa and Kansas State, as well as the final drive against Oklahoma that led to freshman kicker Cameron Dicker’s game-winning field goal.
The confidence and aggressiveness that Ehlinger displayed on that final drive and throughout the game in the Cotton Bowl surely benefited from the second conversation between the two, which occurred late last week.
“You’re really good when you’re confident,” Herman told his starting quarterback. “You’re really good when you are aggressive. You are really good when you — we like to say, ‘grip it and rip it’ just friggin’ rip the ball, man, but when you try to aim, you try to think, you try to over-diagnose, you play hesitant.
“So we had a long conversation about just because this is Oklahoma doesn’t mean we need to get conservative and play not to lose. We need to get aggressive. I didn’t say reckless, I didn’t say silly, I said aggressive and confident. It was a really good conversation and one I’m glad we had.”
Most of all, it paid off.
Interestingly enough, Ehlinger now largely has at least a solid command of the offense, from checks at the line of scrimmage to understanding coverages to identifying and reacting to blitzes. So he’s focused on his mechanics in practice, according to Herman, instead of worrying about all the bigger-picture concerns that run through the heads of quarterbacks.
“You can see him improving even throughout the season mechanically, which is a credit to him and Coach [Tim] Beck,” Herman said on Thursday. “They’re doing a really good job of not letting that part of his game slide. He’s got a long ways to go, but his ceiling is pretty high.”