Predictably, the calls for a change and the speculation about a quarterback change started firing fast and furiously when the Texas Longhorns struggled in the first quarter against the Maryland Terrapins on Saturday.
Beyond constant calls to replace the offensive coordinator, there’s been no more popular refrain in the Longhorns fan base in recent seasons than the strident desire to change quarterbacks at the first hint of trouble.
Thing is, head coach Tom Herman declared sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger the starter two weeks ago for a reason, and he intends on sticking with the Austin Westlake product despite two fourth-quarter interceptions that reprised the worst moments of Ehlinger’s freshman season.
“I don’t think now’s the time to do that, I really don’t,” Herman said on Monday when asked about playing junior Shane Buechele.
“You start, you’re going to wind up in the same situation that you were in last year. We made a decision.”
Last season, neither quarterback started more than three games in a row due to injuries, contributing to an offense that was seemingly in constant disarray. So Herman clearly feels that having some continuity at that position, which has been rare in recent years, is a major benefit for the program.
Herman described the possibility of pulling a quarterback at the first sign of any trouble as “riding a roller coaster” before saying that “we’ve got a tremendous amount of confidence in [Ehlinger].”
The sophomore certainly got off to a slow start, completing only two of his first seven passes, though one of those throws went for a 39-yard touchdown to junior wide receiver Devin Duvernay, who made a spectacular diving play on the football.
“I thought the deep ball touchdown to Devin was an unbelievable catch, but it’s also one that we have told Sam, you know, launch that son of a gun, because that dude is really fast out there, and he did, and Devin went and tracked it down,” Herman said.
The finish was poor, too, as Ehlinger was hit on his arm to force an interception in the fourth quarter and then threw another interception on 3rd and 10 in Maryland territory to effectively end the game.
“We told him, while we watched video yesterday, that, yeah, on third down, you don’t need to take that chance,” Herman said. “Throw it away. Give us a chance on fourth down.”
Though fans like to focus on the big mistakes, Herman’s job is to evaluate the entirety of every performance. From that perspective, the Longhorns head coach said that he was pleased with how Ehlinger played other than that key mistake with the game on the line.
Of course, that’s a narrative that is much easier to swallow if Ehlinger hadn’t consistently made those same type of mistakes late in games last season, including a goal-line fumble against USC in overtime, an interception in overtime against Oklahoma State, and two interceptions in the fourth quarter against Texas Tech.
However, it’s also easy for a big mistake and an unfortunate interception caused by contact on release to impact that actual evaluation of Ehlinger’s play, which objectively improved in multiple ways compared to last season.
Last week, senior defensive end Breckyn Hager said that he often became frustrated in practice last season when Ehlinger would depart the pocket to take off and run. So a major point of emphasis during the offseason was stepping up in the pocket and remaining calm through his progressions. Ehlinger did that on Saturday, especially in the second quarter when the offense finally found a rhythm.
Last season, for instance, Ehlinger was sacked once for every 25 pass attempts, but only took one sack in 39 pass attempts against Maryland. While that’s a small sample size, the eye test and Herman’s statements currently support the belief that Ehlinger made strides with his pocket presence during the offseason.
“I think that was maybe the most noticeable improvement in his game,” Herman said. “You know, he had one or two that you probably say, he might have got out of there before it was time. But I thought he stood in there.”
As a true freshman who arrived on campus last January before starting for the first time against San Jose State in the second game of the 2017 season, Ehlinger also struggled to command the offense to the extent that he was comfortable making pre-snap reads and checking into the right plays.
Junior wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey led the team with six catches for 82 yards and Herman said that many of them were a result of Ehlinger’s decisions at the line of scrimmage based on leverage.
One play was four verticals against a single high safety, but since it came in a tempo situation, Ehlinger wasn’t able to get the same type of pre-snap read afforded by a slower pace. While that type of coverage typically dictates a throw outside, Ehlinger was able to make a back-shoulder throw to Humphrey down the seam. Not exactly by the playbook, but it worked, indicating a high level of confidence and a strong rapport with Humphrey.
Several big plays made by junior wide receiver Collin Johnson were a result of Ehlinger identifying man coverage and putting the ball in the right place. On a 22-yard touchdown pass to Johnson, for instance, Ehlinger used his eyes to hold the safety in the middle of the field to give Johnson enough time and room to create just the separation necessary to haul in the touchdown pass through contact.
Those improvements were largely lost on the fan base because of the disappointing loss, but weren’t lost on the coaching staff. So, in the proper context, the decision by Herman and his staff to stay with Ehlinger against Tulsa this weekend wasn’t likely a difficult one.
“Certainly Sam didn’t play perfect, but nobody did, and his errors weren’t egregious enough to merit just dumping him on the depth chart.”