Now 20 games into the Tom Herman era, the Texas Longhorns haven’t run a single quarterback sneak.
Still, the team practices it every Thursday, just in case the Horns need to pick up a few inches in a critical situation.
For the first seven weeks of the season, junior quarterback Shane Buechele, relegated to a backup role thanks to the rise of sophomore Sam Ehlinger, has taken his mental reps in those situations. He’s always 15 yards behind the play. He’s crouched down and doesn’t have a center in front of him — it’s just a mental rep on air.
Against the Baylor Bears on Saturday at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, the Horns didn’t need to call a quarterback sneak, but Herman and his offensive staff did have to call on Buechele to take over at quarterback when Ehlinger suffered an AC sprain on the first drive and did not return.
Buechele responded — it wasn’t always pretty, but he played well enough for Texas to come away with a 23-17 win to move to 6-1 and 4-0 in Big 12 play for the first time since 2013.
“I have told you guys, and I want to tell the world: Shane Buechele is the most engaged; he’s the most prepared; he’s the most positive coaching backup quarterback I’ve ever been around in my life and I’ve been around some really good ones, really, really good ones,” Herman said after the game.
Hyperbole? Perhaps, but Herman is the same coach whose star truly rose when he won the national championship as the Ohio State offensive coordinator with his third-string quarterback, Cardale Jones.
The guy who didn’t go to college to play school.
In Buechele’s first appearance this season, the former starter was understandably a little bit rusty when he came onto the field. A little anxious, even.
“Here’s a guy, he literally has not taken a snap in the football game the entire season. So for him to be anxious was definitely expected,” Herman said.
It showed quickly — Texas took a delay of game penalty before Buechele could even get off his first play. His first throw, targeting junior wide receiver Collin Johnson, was high and only went for three yards, but the massive catch radius of the emerging star resulted in a completion. The second pass went incomplete, forcing a field-goal attempt.
So the next drive featured four straight runs by graduate transfer Tre Watson before another pass went incomplete. When Johnson drew a pass interference penalty, it seemed to settle Buechele down a bit, as he then connected with his close friend with an 18-yard gain over the middle.
Two-of-four passing for 19 yards is hardly an impressive stat line for a possession, but it was enough to get into field-goal range for freshman kicker Cameron Dicker, who hit from 35 yards to narrow the deficit to 7-6.
Two completions on the next drive only resulted in eight yards, with three straight incompletions forcing a punt.
A long throw down the sideline targeting freshman wide receiver Brennan Eagles resulted in an incompletion when Texas got the ball back again and a 12-yard loss on a sack ended the drive.
When a facemask penalty on a 13-yard run by freshman Keaontay Ingram put the ball into the shot zone on the next possession, Buechele flashed back to the best moments of his freshman season, hitting Johnson down the right sideline for a 44-yard touchdown.
Texas was back in business, and took advantage of Ingram’s entrance into the game with another touchdown drive. Buechele once again struggled to connect with two incompletions, but he hit Johnson for a 14-yard gain on 3rd and 5. An illegal touching penalty added 15 more yards before junior wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey finished the drive with a three-yard touchdown run.
At halftime, with the Horns holding a 23-10 lead, Herman had a message for his junior quarterback.
“You’ve started and won football games for this university. Everybody believes in you. You need to believe in yourself the way that I believe in you, because I do.”
Herman also told Buechele that he wasn’t going to dial back the passing game, though the Horns did avoid some of the typical read option plays to reduce the odds of another injury.
Unfortunately, the result on the second Texas possession of the second half was an interception on a post route intended for junior wide receiver Devin Duvernay, reprising a similar situation in the second quarter that resulted in an apparent interception ruled incomplete on the field and confirmed on replay.
Still, Buechele hit the big touchdown to Johnson and scrambled for a 12-yard gain to set up the field goal on his first possession. He flipped protections against the constant Baylor blitzes on third downs and came up with some key completions in those situations to extend drives and shorten the game.
“We’re not going to change because you’re in here,” Herman told Buechele. “If Sam is 1A, you’re 1B, and we feel confident that you can execute the game plan.”
Perhaps Ehlinger can return for the Oklahoma State game. If so, expect Buechele to be 15 yards behind the first-team offense on Thursdays, crouched down on air without a center, and still taking those mental reps for a potential quarterback sneak.
After all, Texas might need that play, just like it needed a prepared, engaged, and positive Buechele on Saturday.