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While playing through pain, Sam Ehlinger has emerged as a special QB

The sophomore is putting together a historic season, even while battling a shoulder sprain over the last two games.

West Virginia v Texas Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

A little more than three weeks ago, Texas Longhorns sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger suffered a Grade 1 AC sprain of his right shoulder and left the game against the Baylor Bears, sparking a dramatic bye week full of updates about his status.

Ehlinger returned against Oklahoma State in Stillwater and continued his ascension into the ranks of the nation’s best quarterbacks by going 22-of-42 passing for 283 yards and two touchdowns against the Cowboys and then out-producing star Mountaineers quarterback Will Grier last weekend. In that narrow loss, Ehlinger went 25-of-36 passing for 354 yards and three touchdowns.

Oh yeah, and he also ran for a combined 99 yards on 22 carries and three touchdowns over those two games.

What shoulder injury?

On Monday, however, Herman said that Ehlinger is still playing through pain that shoulder, which is not fully healed.

So there may be continued risk there that the starting quarterback could take a hit on it that causes more damage to that joint, which could impact his level of play. However, the on-field results indicate that the medical staff is managing his pain well and the injury isn’t significantly impacting his on-field performance.

So, with three quarters of the season now complete, it’s worth taking another look at how far Ehlinger has come since throwing two interceptions in the fourth quarter against Maryland and even since he threw two fourth-quarter interceptions against Texas Tech to end the 2017 regular season.

After facing questions all offseason about his ability to avoid game-changing mistakes, Ehlinger has gone 248 consecutive passes without throwing an interception, destroying the previous school record of 156 set by Major Applewhite and positioning himself to overtake Big 12 record-holder Geno Smith, who went 273 passes without an interception in 2012.

His interception rate of 0.7 percent is a massive improvement over his 2.5 percent interception rate last season. Only two quarterbacks have attempted more than 150 passes this season with fewer interceptions — Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Mason Fine of North Texas.

Other than the two interceptions during the Maryland game and a fumble against Tulsa, Ehlinger hasn’t committed a single turnover all season, a streak that now stands at seven games.

“It’s a (testament) to how well the coaches are doing in preparing me week in and week out for what defenses I’m going to see and getting the ball out on time with specific pass concepts,” he said on Tuesday. “It’s something that we all knew I was capable of, just with the game slowing down, creating more experience, and being more comfortable with the offense.”

However, Ehlinger hasn’t just avoided making mistakes, he’s made plays. A lot of them:

In other words, his efforts this year have been historic.

Compared to last season, he’s improved across the board — no surprise for a former true freshman quarterback who is now a much more experienced sophomore.

Not only has the Austin native cleaned up the turnover issues that arguably cost the Longhorns multiple games in 2017, his completion percentage is up 6.7 percentage points, he’s averaging 0.66 more yards per attempt, his passer rating has improved more than 20 points, and he’s already thrown five more touchdowns than last season.

Last season, Ehlinger only converted 2-of-6 fourth-down passing attempts through the air and gained first downs on less than one third of his third-down passing attempts. This season, he’s converted 4-of-5 passes on fourth down and 41.4 percent of his third-down passing attempts into first downs. On third down, his passer rating is nearly 30 points better this season while he converts at a 30-percent higher rate.

In the fourth quarter, the sophomore has improved his passer rating to nearly the same degree, all while throwing four touchdowns this season compared to only two last season. In 2017, Ehlinger threw three interceptions in the fourth quarter or overtime, more than he’s thrown this entire season.

On the ground, he’s become a lethal red-zone threat, increasing his production from two touchdowns to nine touchdowns this season. So Ehlinger has scored nine of the 20 red-zone touchdowns this season on the ground by himself as the quarterback running game has become a crucial aspect of the offense.

To sustain drives and get to the red zone, Ehlinger has helped the third-down offense with his legs in short-yardage situation — on third and short last season, he only converted 5-of-11 attempts, but this season he’s picked up the first down on 10-of-14 attempts.

Those are the statistical gains, which are incredibly substantial. In terms of Ehlinger’s skills, Herman pointed to a few different areas of improvement on Monday.

“I think the biggest thing where you’ve seen the growth of Sam is, one, he trusts the offense. He is throwing the ball on time now more than I’ve ever seen him, so he’s trusting himself, he’s trusting the receivers, he’s trusting the O-line. He has a lot of trust right now.”

Take the 48-yard touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Devin Duvernay to take a seven-point lead late against West Virginia last weekend. On the play-action pass in the shot zone, Ehlinger hit the apex of his drop and immediately threw the football, which hit Duvernay in stride for the huge score.

And though it didn’t stand up, it marked a significant development, as Ehlinger has experienced difficulties hitting those shot plays to Duvernay this season. Everyone surely recalls the missed post route early against Kansas State — “a bad ball,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck admitted recently. On that play, Ehlinger did not get the ball out on time and in rhythm. It made a difference.

The trust that Ehlinger has in the offense, his reads, and his teammates has allowed him to stay in the pocket longer. As a freshman, he would often take off, in part because his offensive line struggled so much in pass protection. Now he’s comfortable climbing the pocket

Of course, scrambling is still a part of Ehlinger’s game, but now he’s scrambling for different reasons.

“He’s aggressive. He’s not worried about making mistakes. Nobody has played a perfect game yet. He’s being really aggressive. I think when you do trust yourself, you trust the offense, your knowledge of the offense, he’s seeing the game really well right now, too.”

On the second drive, Ehlinger showed off his ability to see the game. Texas ran a crossing route for junior wide receiver Collin Johnson with a wheel route to freshman running back Keaontay Ingram to the boundary, which cleared out the defender on that side.

When Ehlinger checked his reads to the field and didn’t have a throw to make, he immediately tucked the ball and ran, picking up 13 yards to set up a touchdown for plays later.

Confident. Decisive. Aggressive.

Attributes that largely define Ehlinger’s play through much of his sophomore season

Several images stand out, too — smiling and dancing on the field just before running for a touchdown on that second drive against West Virginia. Telling his teammates that he thought they were going to pull out the win in Stillwater heading in to the fourth quarter.

While there were still leadership questions about Colt McCoy into his redshirt junior season, Ehlinger is already ahead of that curve. The impact on his teammates is intangible, but his impact as a much-improved quarterback is entirely tangible, as the numbers indicate.

“Just a lot of factors contributing to his development,” Herman said. “We’re excited that he is playing that well for us.”

Texas fans are excited that there’s finally another record-setting quarterback behind center for the Longhorns. It’s been a long time, making Ehlinger’s ascension so much sweeter.

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