AUSTIN, Texas — The hardest part is not licking his fingers.
For Texas Longhorns senior quarterback Sam Ehlinger, none of the precautions taken to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus are as difficult as stopping the habit of licking his fingers between each play on the practice field.
“I think that everything in our lives has had to change a little bit, especially for me as much as I lick my fingers,” Ehlinger told the media in a Zoom call on Tuesday. “I’m trying to cut that out — it’s really tough for me, because it is a habit, but I think that there’s a lot of different things, little things like that, that I’m conscious of now that I wasn’t in December.”
After going weeks without any new positive tests on the football team, Ehlinger is also conscious of all the protocols and procedures put in place by the athletic department that go beyond NCAA guidelines, including using the Campus Health Project, an Austin-based testing lab, to increase capacity and turnaround times, in addition to other support services.
Two players, senior running back Daniel Young and senior defensive end Marqez Bimage, have opted out of the season, but Ehlinger said that the rest of the team feels confident in their safety while out on the practice field or in the football facilities.
“The real mood to be completely honest with you is that Texas is taking the best care of us and has every single detail thought out to protect us from the virus that we feel comfortable being here,” Ehlinger said. “And we feel more comfortable being here than if we were at home. Talking with players from other schools, we feel that the University of Texas is the gold standard for controlling [our environment] and protecting players.”
Based on the outcomes so far, the result is a safe environment for the players, but as other outbreaks around the country illustrate, the mass-spreading events tend to happen at parties when people aren’t wearing masks or social distancing. So Texas head coach Tom Herman and his staff continue to emphasize discipline away from football.
The message from Herman?
“The most mature, responsible team will be the one that has a chance to compete this year,” Ehlinger said.
Having a senior team leader like Ehlinger helps — he’s been telling his teammates that all those fun things about college life will be there in January if the Longhorns can get through the season.
The result is a day-to-day focus on controlling what each coach and each player can control. In fact, Ehlinger hasn’t even set any big-picture goals for this season — he’s just trying to stay healthy and keep improving under new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich, who didn’t have spring practice to install his new attack.
Now in pads once again, Texas held its first scrimmage of preseason camp in Saturday, an affair marked by some sloppiness from an offense that had too many pre-snap and procedural penalties.
With the move to more four-down fronts in Chris Ash’s new defense, Ehlinger said he’s had to address one of his only glaring deficiencies — his willingness to stay in the pocket and move within it instead of taking off and running.
“I’m really, really happy with with how those guys have taken control of their defense and had ownership and being the best they can be,” Ehlinger said. “I think they’re doing a really good job.”
The first player Ehlinger mentioned that he likes to watch is freshman defensive end Alfred Collins, the late recruiting coup for the Longhorns who has received significant praise from Herman in the last several weeks
Despite the sloppiness and the more potent pass rush, the offense is progressing, with Yurcich’s up-tempo approach allowing him to start building a rhythm with Ehlinger.
“He’s a great play caller and in the few live settings that we’ve had where we’re actually moving the ball, I really just get in a great rhythm with him calling plays because he seems to call it really well and it flows really well,” Ehlinger said.
As Texas attempts to replace the production of Devin Duvernay, who turned in one of the all-time seasons for a wide receiver in school history, Ehilnger expects a by-committee approach.
“Well, I think that it’s going to be pretty spread out and I think that a lot of guys have a chance to make a big impact in production this year with the way that this offense spreads the ball around,” Ehlinger said. “And then obviously you know the talent that we have in the running back room and the experience up front. That’s a great combination for a really solid running game, so I think that, I mean, honestly everywhere has a chance to pick that production up.”
Indeed, the running back room has come a long way under Herman and position coach Stan Drayton. When they arrived in Austin in 2017, injuries, youth, and ineffectiveness hamstrung the position — Ehlinger led the team in rushing with 381 yards despite only playing in nine games.
Had 2020 signee Bijan Robinson, the nation’s No. 1 running back, enrolled that fall, he would have started preseason camp as the prohibitive favorite to earn the starting job. Now, Robinson is trying to compete for playing time against two more established players in junior Keontay Ingram and sophomore Roschon Johnson. In 2019 the two combined for 87.6 percent of the entire team’s rushing production two years earlier.
So there’s an uphill battle for Robinson to earn playing time, but just like Robinson has already impressed his head coach, he’s also impressed his quarterback.
“Sometimes I’m just like,’ I just want to watch him,’” Ehlinger said. “I just want to watch him run. It’s just really, really fun to watch.”
In front of those running backs, the Horns are working to integrate senior Derek Kerstetter at the center position, replacing four-year starter Zach Shackelford. Kerstetter has played at right tackle and right guard in his career.
“What a selfless guy — great team player,” Ehlinger said. “He’s made it a mission to pick up all the little, intricate details that it takes to play center and he’s done a great job with that.”
Next to Kerstetter, the surprising development is redshirt freshman Isaiah Hookfin’s ascension early in preseason camp. The Sugar Land Dulles product is taking reps at right guard and right tackle, according to Herman, and is now the apparent leader in the competition to take over the guard spot vacated by Parker Braun.
“He’s an extremely athletic young guy who comes in every single day with a great attitude, great work ethic, so he’s been doing a really good job,” Ehlinger said.
The leader of the offense, of course, is Ehlinger, who was asked on Tuesday about whether he needs to win a Big 12 championship to cement his legacy at Texas.
“I think that’s that’s up for you to determine. I know for myself, my mission at the University of Texas is to leave the program better than it was when I got here,” Ehlinger said. “And that’s kind of my mindset with everything that I do in life and so if i think that that’s my main mission, and if I feel that in December or whenever the season ends, if I’m leaving and the program is better than I’ve been than it was when I first got here, three and a half years ago, then I would say that that was a success in my mind.”