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How Texas QB Sam Ehlinger can improve as a junior

The Austin Westlake product had a tremendous sophomore season, but still has areas of growth for 2019.

Allstate Sugar Bowl - Texas v Georgia Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

When Texas Longhorns quarterback Sam Ehlinger hugged head coach Tom Herman on the field of the Superdome after a Sugar Bowl victory over the Georgia Bulldogs, it was after once again out-playing one of the nation’s top quarterbacks. And just before declaring that Texas is back.

The performance, highlighted by three rushing touchdowns and efficient aerial efforts, capped a sophomore season that broke school and conference records as Ehlinger cemented his position as Texas QB1.

Ehlinger finished the 2018 campaign with a 146.83 quarterback rating after completing 275-of-425 pass attempts (64.7%) and throwing for 3,292 yards and 25 touchdowns. Following some accuracy issues as a freshman, the Austin Westlake product improved his completion percentage by 7.2 points and his yards per attempt from 7.0 to 7.7.

Two interceptions in the season opener at Maryland magnified leftover concerns from 2017, but Ehlinger went more than two months and 10 consecutive games without throwing an interception following his sophomore debut. In the process, he shattered Geno Smith’s Big 12 record (273) for most consecutive passes thrown without throwing an interception. Ehlinger’s streak ended at 308 straight passes in the first half against Kansas.

His 5-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio was good for second best in the Big 12 behind Kyler Murray at 6-to-1. Overall, Ehlinger’s interception rate dropped from 2.5 as a freshman to 1.2.

Those three rushing touchdowns against Georgia in the Sugar Bowl helped Ehlinger set the single-season rushing touchdown record (17) for a quarterback after breaking Vince Young’s mark (15).

His ability as a power run threat added another dimension to offensive coordinator Tim Beck’s offense, as Ehlinger was effective near the goal line all season long — 16-of-33 red-zone touchdowns for the Horns were a result of his runs.

After establishing himself as one of the best quarterbacks in program history, Ehlinger now faces the question of just how much more upside he can tap into in an effort to continue elevating his game and the program by extension.

Herman discussed where his quarterback improved mechanically last season, areas that Ehlinger can continue to refine this offseason.

“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,” Herman said in mid-November. “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.”

Back in November, Beck provided some further perspective on Ehlinger’s mechanics.

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. Compacting the base and his delivery allows Ehlinger to get more power on his throws, which in turn go where they’re supposed to go more often instead of sailing when he overstrides.

As a true sophomore, Ehlinger wasn’t a finished product, as he maintained the tendency to let his hands drop, which elongated his delivery and impacted 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, a process that may not end during his Longhorns career.

“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.”

So the offseason will continue to feature the Texas coaches working with Ehlinger on consistently maintaining that compact base, keeping the ball high, and not dropping his elbow so that his delivery remains short.

As Ehlinger does that more frequently, he’ll be able to get the ball out faster and with more velocity to hit small windows in the passing game. And that will be necessary, because the loss of Lil’Jordan Humphrey will only increase the need for such pinpoint accuracy.

Off-platform throws like those made quickly in the run-pass option game will almost certainly be a point of emphasis, as well — Ehlinger improved on those throws throughout the season, both in terms of decision making and placement, but can still get better in both areas.

Other passes like screens, hitches and crossing routes, the underneath throws, require Ehlinger to deliver with a precision allowing receivers to consistently catch the ball in stride and get up field or make defenders miss. When Herman talks about increasing explosive plays on those short throws, Ehlinger has a significant responsibility in terms of throwing the right ball to the right spot, something he improved upon throughout his sophomore season.

Beyond pure mechanics, Ehlinger must also get better at connecting with his speedy wide receivers on post routes. In 2018, those issues manifested as difficulties hitting Devin Duvernay, especially early against Kansas State, a pass that Beck characterized as a “bad ball.”

Co-offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Herb Hand was philosophical when asked by Burnt Orange Nation about that missed throw.

“When we come out and have some plays in mind that we want to open up the game with, sure, you’d like to hit those, and you take those shots on downs where it makes sense,” offensive line coach Herb Hand told me after that game.

“When we miss a shot play, we tell our guys before the game, ‘Hey, we’re going to throw the ball down the field; we’re going to press them vertically.’ We’re not going to be able to hit them all.”

However, those plays are designed during the week to use formations and specific play calls to take advantage of vulnerable personnel and coverages that defensive coordinators could quickly tweak during games — Texas won in Manhattan by a narrow margin and never had another opportunity like the one Ehlinger missed in targeting Duvernay.

As Beck explained, it is a tough throw.

“You know, the angle, it’s kind of weird,” Beck told BON. “The quarterback sees the big picture, right? So he can see the backside safety or the backside corner, how far I need to throw him across the field, how far I don’t.”

The receiver, on the other hand, just sees the defender on top of him. He’s trying to win inside at all costs. Winning outside is a recipe for an interception.

The quarterback is trying to throw the ball into an open area to allow the wide receiver to go get it, but sometimes a backside safety might cause that throw to come out at a higher angle. If the defender flattens out the wide receiver, the angle of the throw has to flatten out in response.

It’s a difficult throw that requires the quarterback to anticipate it quickly and get the ball out on time — the alternatives are risking a sack or taking a sack by holding it too long. On Ehlinger’s throw against Kansas State, he didn’t throw in rhythm or put the right trajectory on the ball to allow Duvernay the opportunity to run under it.

“That’s why they’re called shot plays,” Beck said. “Sometimes you hit them, sometimes you don’t, but we keep working on those areas. We’re probably better throwing the verticals — the seams, the gos — because of the angles. I think our quarterbacks are extremely accurate on those deep balls and our guys have been extremely good going up and getting them. But that’s an area where we continue to try to work.”

While all of that is true — post routes do often involve quick post-snap reads after holding a safety and are difficult throws, the reality is that if Ehlinger wants to maximize the 2019 offense, he’ll need to more consistently judge that throw and deliver it more accurately.

The fact that multiple potential deep threats like Bru McCoy, Jordan Whittington, and Jake Smith are joining or have joined the program only increases the need to take advantage of that speed, although whether McCoy will be eligible this season is still an unknown. Overall, however, the point still stands.

It may be the case that improved confidence resulting from moving past the avoidance phase of his development will help Ehlinger keep from erring on the side of throwing that ball too long.

With Humphrey off to the NFL, along with his 1,000 receiving yards and his 25 catches for first downs on 49 such conversions, Ehlinger must improve on his ability to go through progressions on third down while improving or merely establishing a rapport and comfort level with the other receivers.

The additions of elite talents like Whittington and Smith should help in that regard, as well as the potential eligibility of McCoy, who is currently enrolled at Texas while pursuing a transfer waiver.

The challenge is that none of those receivers have the height of Humphrey, whose length and basketball skills combined to make him a lethal jump-ball threat in the slot. His big body also helped screen defenders on passes thrown on his numbers.

In general, Humphrey and Collin Johnson provided Ehlinger with big security blankets on third downs, so it’s not unreasonable to suggest that the Texas quarterback has room for growth in terms of going through his progressions after the snap. At times last season, Ehlinger was content to wait for one of those two receivers to beat coverage or just throw them open.

Clearly, that was a winning proposition, as both players had huge years and Ehlinger didn’t consistently endanger the football by making those throws, but he could find more big plays this season by not locking onto those decisions before the snap.

The improved explosiveness at wide receiver means that each of those opportunities have the potential to go for more yards.

As a runner, Ehlinger has become an elite short-yardage threat, prompting TCU head coach Gary Patterson to acknowledge that running ability last September.

“He’s a running back playing quarterback. He beats you with his feet. He’s won a lot of ballgames because of taking off, running draws, powers, quarterback stretches, all of those kind of things,” Patterson said.

“We didn’t play him a year ago, so you’ve got to be ready. He’s the X-factor in their offense.”

The concern for Ehlinger and the coaching staff heading into his junior season is whether he can stay healthy serving as a de facto running back on so many plays. Ehlinger certainly doesn’t turn down many opportunities for a collision.

Still, wondering about whether Ehlinger can avoid enough of those hits to stay on the field for a full season stands in stark contrast to the narrative coming out of his freshman season and every other offseason since Colt McCoy, with the exception of one.

In 2012, David Ash showed signs that he could become an elite quarterback before concussion issues derailed his career. Even so, Ash never quite displayed the same upside that Ehlinger demonstrated last season — the local product enters 2019 with a chance to further secure his legacy as one of the three best quarterbacks in modern school history.

Given that Ehlinger still isn’t a finished product, it’s heartening to consider how much better he can become if he even approximates the trajectory from his freshman to sophomore seasons.

Call it a consideration worthy of confetti.

NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Georgia vs Texas Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports