Ehlinger’s numbers are up across the board, but the improvement of his accuracy is one of the most notable developments in 2018 — he’s completing nearly seven percent more of his passes and is consistently hitting small windows in a way that he rarely did as a freshman.
When evaluating quarterbacks, there’s often a perception that accuracy is an inherent trait, purely the result of fine motor skills that some quarterbacks possess and some do not. And while that’s true, to an extent, accuracy is still the result of a combination of movements tied together to produce velocity and placement. Mechanics.
Starting with the base and moving up through the hips and then into the upper body, throwing a football is a complex movement that requires each part of the body to operate in a coordinated manner. That’s the sequencing element of mechanics.
Refining those movements to more consistently operate in the manner most conducive to producing strong, accurate throws is the essence of quarterback development and Ehlinger has improved notably in several areas.
“I think Sam has done a really good job of compacting his base. Big guys tend to overstride when they throw, which causes them to be erratic,” head coach Tom Herman said on Monday. “He’s compacted his base and his lower body throwing motion, and the thing that he’s done on a continual basis, he still has some bad habits here and there, but he’s holding the ball high, which is allowing him to get the ball out quicker.”
On Wednesday, I asked offensive coordinator Tim Beck about Ehlinger’s mechanics:
I asked Tim Beck about Sam Ehlinger's mechanics tonight and I thought his response was really interesting. Grabbed the video since his demonstration of mechanics was a big part of his response. #HookEm pic.twitter.com/SCqncllggQ— Wescott Eberts (@SBN_Wescott) November 15, 2018
So the emphasis on keeping the ball higher has helped Ehlinger shorten what is often an elongated release that also plays a role in his tendency to overstride. By compacting Ehlinger’s base and his delivery, he can get more power on his throws and those throws go where they’re supposed to go more often instead of sailing when he overstrides.
As a true sophomore, Ehlinger isn’t a finished product, as he does still have a tendency to let his hands drop, which elongates his delivery and can impact the timing of his foot strike and weight transfer.
Herman and Beck are still working with Ehlinger to counter the muscle memory of those bad habits.
“One year to 15 years or whatever,” Beck said when I asked him where Ehlinger is right now in that process. “Because when a guy picks up a ball and he throws it the first time, that’s probably gonna be his motion, whatever that was at two years old.
“Seriously, that’s what a lot of them do and then you have to re-teach, so we constantly have verbal cues or little things that we say to make sure he knows, this is where you need to be.”
In Ehlinger’s case, his development suffered as a result of a series of injuries he suffered as a senior in high school that produced a deterioration of his mechanical proficiency.
“My senior year of high school, there were months of time that I literally couldn’t pick up a football just because of injury,” Ehlinger said on Tuesday. “So the first time I was really back into it, back throwing a ball, it was the spring of my freshman year when I early enrolled.”
As Ehlinger worked to get back to where he had been mechanically as a junior, he was also learning a new offense and adjusting to college. Then he got thrown into the mix when Shane Buechele got injured in the season opener and had to focus on a lot of higher-level issues like understanding the gameplan instead of having time to hone his mechanics as a backup.
This offseason, Ehlinger wasn’t recovering from any injuries and could spend time elevating his mechanics instead of trying to put his throwing motion back together again.
“There were a lot of things that I did to focus on that and tighten everything back up,” Ehlinger said. “When I got injured, if you have like a toy, all the pieces kind of fell everywhere just because I’m not working out, I can’t do anything, I’m trying to heal. Right when I got here, I quickly tried to glue all the pieces back together, and I think that this offseason, I finally had the time to kind of fine-tune those parts and get them back into place.”
The results of that work have been evident. And the exciting thing about Ehlinger’s future is that there is still growth potential left to tap into as he becomes even more consistent with his mechanics.