As head coach Tom Herman and the Texas Longhorns prepare for the first full-pads practice on Tuesday, one of the largest questions surrounding the program continues to involve the quarterback position. Specifically, which quarterback will earn the starting job and will that quarterback elevate their level of play enough to help Texas compete for a Big 12 title for the first time since 2013?
When practice started on Friday, it was sophomore Sam Ehlinger who took the first reps with the first-team offense.
“He’s earned that because obviously just going all the way back to the winter where Shane was hurt, rehabbing,” Herman said on Thursday. “Spring was pretty neck-and-neck. They both had great summers. Then the next time the ones go out, Shane will take that first rep with the ones. That rotation will be there.”
After Ehlinger, junior Shane Buechele has spent some time with the ones through the first three practices. On Friday, freshman Cameron Rising also worked briefly with the first team, though Herman later clarified that Rising and fellow freshman Casey Thompson are competing for the third-strong role while splitting some reps with the twos.
Last season, Buechele started seven games, with Ehlinger starting the other six. Injuries for both players contributed to the revolving door.
Buechele injured his shoulder against Maryland in the season opener, then missed the final two non-conference games. He returned to start against Iowa State, but suffered a sprained ankle against the Cyclones that caused him to miss the next three games.
Following the Oklahoma State game, Ehlinger was diagnosed with a concussion that kept him from playing for three games.
With both players finally healthy again for the critical road game against West Virginia, Buechele got the start, but only managed nine plays over the first two series. After Ehlinger led the team to a 91-yard touchdown drive, he stayed in the game and helped the Longhorns secure bowl eligibility.
That earned Ehlinger the start against Texas Tech as the only two scholarship quarterbacks on the roster. Buechele appeared for the third series, but only attempted two passes before Ehlinger finished the game. Not so well, either, as it turned out — Ehlinger threw two costly interceptions in the fourth quarter that resulted in an embarrassing home loss to end the regular season.
In the Texas Bowl, Buechele once again got the start, but suffered an injury that required offseason surgery. So once again he gave way to Ehlinger, who appeared to take a lead in the quarterback competition that he maintained through the spring and summer into preseason camp.
All told, neither player started more than three games in a row last season, which raises the other critical question surrounding the position. Can the winner of the starting quarterback job, whether it’s Ehlinger or Buechele, stay healthy for the entire season?
With Ehlinger, the concern is that his running style could make him susceptible to injury, particularly another concussion. After all, the most iconic moment for the Austin Westlake product during his freshman season was the play against Kansas State when he lowered his shoulder and trucked Denzel Goolsby.
During the breakout session at Big 12 Media Days, Herman sounded resigned to the reality of Ehlinger’s running style, comparing him to players like Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, and JT Barrett.
“You try to educate them, but when it’s in your DNA, it’s very hard,” Herman said. “Are you going to see him slide? Probably not. Are you going to see him step out of bounds rather than lower the shoulder on a guy? I hope so, but I don’t ever think you’re going to see him just slide. I mean, I can tell him to, but I don’t know that that’s going to happen. We talk about it, but it’s easier said than done.”
Perhaps the appeal of a higher power will cause Ehlinger to rethink how many hits he takes this season — the appeal of his mother.
“That’s coming from everyone, my mom especially,” Ehlinger said last week. “Please slide.”
Now listed at 6’2 and 230 pounds, Ehlinger said that he’s been watching film of NFL quarterbacks and how they work to avoid direct hits.
The smaller, more slight Buechele has more significant injury concerns after spending most of his first two seasons banged up. As a freshman, he didn’t have to sit out multiple like he did as a sophomore, but an injury to his ribs suffered against Cal and a sprained thumb on his throwing hand clearly impacted his play.
Now healthy following offseason surgery, Buechele stated the obvious on Thursday.
“Right now, my body feels unbelievable,” he said. “This is the best it’s ever felt, and now I just gotta keep it like that.”
Improved offensive play in the running game and in pass protection will be critical for Buechele. In Sterlin Gilbert’s simple veer-and-shoot system in 2016, Buechele benefitted tremendously from the presence of Doak Walker Award-winning running back D’Onta Foreman, which allowed for highly-effective play-action passes.
When tasked with learning a more complex system behind an offensive line decimated by injuries that struggled to block for running backs who struggled to gain extra yardage, Buechele struggled. In particular, his sack rate was much higher than that of Ehlinger. Some of that was bad luck because he was the only healthy quarterback against TCU, which sacked him seven times.
What seems clear, however, is that Buechele needs to improve his pocket presence and receive some help from the linemen and running backs in order to take advantage of his downfield accuracy and touch — the best attributes that he possesses as a quarterback.
For Ehlinger, the theme all offseason has been about making better decisions, especially late in games. Against Missouri, he managed to avoid committing any costly turnovers, an important aspect of a game that was largely won by the defense and managed by the offense.
He believes that the lessons learned last season and development over the offseason will make all the difference.
“I honestly think it’s just experience,” Ehlinger said. “Playing against Southlake Carroll in my first road game, I was 15. Playing against USC in my first road game, I was 18. That’s going against people who are three to four years older than you. A whole year in the system and a whole year in the game changes everything tremendously from a mentality as well as how you play the game.”
In high school, the jump that Ehlinger made from his first year as a starter to his second season was massive. His INT rate dropped from 2.2 percent to 1.3 percent, an elite number at any level, as his yards per attempt increased from 8.5 to 9.8. Meanwhile, he combined to throw and run for 70 touchdowns as a junior after posting 33 as a sophomore.
With the increase in Ehlinger’s level of competition, expecting improvement on that scale as a sophomore probably isn’t reasonable, but history does suggest that the young quarterback has the capability to improve as he matures physically and mentally.
As a leader, the tools are already in place for Ehlinger, as Herman noted as soon as he met Ehlinger in December of 2016.
“Being a leader means that you make others around you a leader and you make others around you better,” Ehlinger said. “It’s not a particular way to approach it or thing to say. It’s an aura about you. It’s the way that you walk, the way that you talk, the way that you blink. I think it’s something you’re born with.”
Ehlinger, it seems, was born with it.
With preseason camp underway, the on-field competition is now ratcheting up once again. Last week, Herman spoke about the timetable for naming a starter.
“When would we like to announce? I think when it becomes obvious,” Herman said. “I think the sooner the better, for sure. But as I’ve said before, coaches really don’t make that decision. The players themselves make that decision when they separate themselves.”
For years, that separation has been difficult to come by as the position wallowed in mediocrity since the departure of Colt McCoy in 2009. The only real spark came in 2012, when David Ash ranked No. 20 in passer rating after throwing for 2,699 yards and 19 touchdowns before his career was derailed by head injuries.
Perhaps this will be the year that changes. Or perhaps preseason camp in 2019 will feature this same conversation all over again, as it has for years.
“I would say it’s both of our jobs to lose,” Ehlinger said. “We’re going to go into it with a winning mentality like we always have. I don’t think anything has changed. Let the best man win.”