AUSTIN, Texas — When Texas Longhorns head coach Tom Herman talks about health at the tight end position, he likes to knock on wood to preserve the current streak of good luck there. When he talks about his team’s upside, he likes to use a lot of qualifiers.
When sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger was asked on Tuesday during a media availability whether he hopes or knows that the offense will be better this season, he was adamant in his response — no qualifications necessary.
“I 100-percent know,” Ehlinger said. When pressed to explain why, the Austin Westlake product pointed to the team’s experience.
“It’s Year Two — we’re not trying to figure out what we’re doing on every play,” Ehlinger said. “We know what we’re doing and now it’s fine tuning the parts of the offense to make it excel even more.”
As the offense works to develop an identity for the first time under Herman and offensive coordinator Tim Beck, the players themselves are developing their own identities.
“I think Year Two, you understand who you are and what you’re trying to do offensively,” Ehlinger said. “So at that point, you can be a quarterback and attack the defense and understand where you’re trying to hurt them and what hurts defenses instead of just trying to figure yourself out.”
One of the questions surrounding Ehlinger as he tries to establish an identity as a player who can take care of the football and make smart decisions late in games is whether he can improve in those areas because the game has slowed down for him.
There wasn’t a single moment in which things clicked into place for Ehlinger, but he did say that the game does feel slower to him now, a crucial development to ensure that he doesn’t make as many costly mistakes. And it could also help him substantially as he seeks to get the ball out of his hand in rhythm and on time more consistently instead of hesitating in that key moment. An improved ability to pick up on defensive tips will help, too, even if it’s just in a practice setting.
After all, the challenge of going against Todd Orlando’s defense is significant enough that head coach Tom Herman decided to slow down Orlando’s install during the spring. Last year, Herman believes, the offense got overwhelmed at times when going against Orlando’s variety of blitzes, resulting in slowed development.
Ehlinger calls it a “Star Wars defense” with players coming from every angle.
So it wasn’t a surprise to hear that during Saturday’s scrimmage, the first of fall camp, the defense won the day after forcing multiple turnovers. In the midst of that challenging situation, there was an important takeaway from it for Ehlinger.
“I saw an offense that responded,” Ehlinger said. Instead of seeing offensive players hang their head or begin pressing, as was so common last season, the unit responded and bounced back after the slow start.
“We actually played better in the second half of the scrimmage and it was really good to see our offense kind of have an identity of taking it one play at a time instead of letting what happened in the past influence us in the future.”
The improved mental toughness described by Ehlinger fits in with what junior quarterback Shane Buechele called a different overall demeanor for the offense in this camp. Buechele said that it’s been fun to watch as the offensive line has brought more energy and the skill position players have been making dynamic plays.
After a season during which the Longhorns struggled to run the football, executing inside zone and other base running plays will serve as the foundation for the offense. And Herman also believe that the Horns are better there.
“I expect to see us run the ball better for a variety of reasons, whether that be us as coaches coaching it better, focusing on schemes that maybe fit our talent level, the development of our offensive line and our tailbacks, the health of our tight ends, and the fact that we have tight ends now, and hopefully the development of the pass game,” Herman said.
Herman called plays in the Texas Bowl against Missouri, sparking a discussion about play calling that has now spanned the entire offseason and trickled into talk about preseason camp. But no matter who sends the plays in from the sideline, the two quarterbacks will play an important role on the field.
The installation of the base offense wasn’t the difficult part last season — the difficulties came with the added layers of complexity, like checks at the line of scrimmage and directions to slide the protection. Now that Ehlinger and Buechele are more comfortable in the system, the quarterbacks can take more control at the line of scrimmage to make those decisions.
The hope is that the Horns more consistently end up with advantages over the defense as a result of checks made at the line of scrimmage. Buechele noted that his communication with the offensive line and the communication of the offensive line with him have both improved.
“I just think the biggest thing is we’re coaching football,” Herman said at the start of preseason camp. “We’re coaching individual drills. We’re coaching schemes. We’re coaching techniques and fundamentals, where that was almost a secondary thought, as to ball security and effort, physicality, not turning down hits or shying away from things.”
While Ehlinger was willing to make a make a strong statement about the offense improving, he wasn’t as willing to say that this team has Big 12 championship potential. Instead he just echoed the excitement of his head coach.
“I don’t want to set any predictions or anything like that, but I’m really excited about what this team can do and will do, the love that we have for each other, and the fire to be great is very prevalent.”