AUSTIN, Texas — The relentless pursuit of perfection.
For Texas Longhorns senior quarterback Sam Ehlinger, one of the nation’s most accomplished quarterbacks and one of the most accomplished quarterbacks in school history, that means never being satisfied.
Not even after throwing for 426 yards and five touchdowns on 25-of-33 passing against UTEP as Texas opened its season on Sept. 12.
“To tell you the truth, I’m actually pretty disappointed,” Ehlinger said. “I left a lot of throws out there that I should’ve made and I can’t wait for the bye week to continue to get better.
Even though Ehlinger completed 75.8 percent of his passes, he was right that he did leave some plays on the field.
On a run-pass option early, Ehlinger tried to find junior wide receiver Brennan Eagles on a glance route and put it just out of the reach of Eagles.
On a pass targeting graduate transfer Tarik Black outside the red zone, Ehlinger didn’t anticipate Black coming open and threw the ball late, so by the time Black did run free, he wasn’t able to catch the pass until he was just out of bounds.
Facing a 3rd and 12 in field-goal range, Ehlinger was a little bit late anticipating redshirt sophomore wide receiver Joshua Moore coming out of his break and the pass was broken up by good coverage.
In the second quarter, Ehlinger missed Eagles again on second down in the red zone, but this time it looked like the problem was the read on the run-pass option — Ehlinger didn’t force the read player to commit into the box, so that defender was able to undercut the deep slant run by Eagles. Or perhaps Eagles just didn’t run the route deep enough.
On the next play, Ehlinger and Eagles weren’t on the same page because Eagles didn’t finish his comeback route where Ehlinger expected.
One of the bigger mistakes by Ehlinger resulted in an unfortunate injury. Redshirt freshman wide receiver Jordan Whittington is expected to miss several more weeks after suffering a meniscus injury when Ehlinger underthrew a pass into the end zone late in the second half.
There was also a miscommunication between Ehlinger and Eagles — Ehlinger expected Eagles to run a go route, but Eagles broke it off on a hitch. Early in the second quarter, Ehlinger threw another incomplete pass when Moore didn’t make the same read and broke his route inside.
So one area for improvement is Ehlinger making sure that his receivers are on the same page as him and making the same reads when they have options on their routes. Especially with Eagles, who has been a disappointment since the start of preseason camp.
Otherwise, Ehlinger said on Tuesday that he just needs to get a little bit more comfortable on the field.
“Yeah, I felt like I was kind of aiming the ball a little bit, wasn’t letting it rip,” Ehlinger said. “I missed a few throws — obviously I’m striving to play a perfect game and it’s always gonna be that way.”
New offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich knows that the quest for a perfect game is an admirable goal, one that he shares.
“There’s never been a perfect game coached or a perfect game played,” Yurcich said on Wednesday. “And so we’re just trying to always get better to correct the mistakes that we made. Not everybody’s perfect. Maybe it’s a missed throw, maybe it’s a missed read, maybe it’s timing, maybe it’s footwork.”
Even successful situations could include necessary teaching points like correcting the quarterback’s eyes or their feet. Still, there’s a delicate balance that offensive coordinators have to strike with their quarterbacks.
“There’s a point to where you can over coach guys, get them thinking too much,” Yurcich said. “They’re not feeling it out and playing intuitively, and in rhythm, and confidently.”
Yurcich believes that sometimes that best thing that a coach can do is just get out of the way, especially with someone as talented and experienced as Ehlinger. So there’s a delicate balance that a coordinator has to strike with their quarterback so they can understand when it’s time to push hard and when it’s time to back off.
Forming a strong relationship is a key element of beginning to determine how that balance plays out, necessitating an open flow of communication from coordinator to player and from player to coordinator.
That’s particularly important during games, when Yurcich, who calls plays from the booth, asks Ehlinger in between series about what the Texas quarterback was seeing on the field in order to get on the same page.
“If it was about last Saturday night’s date, I need to know that so we can focus your brain in the right space,” Yurcich said.
From there, Yurcich can make any necessary changes to his play-calling approach to ensure that both are in rhythm.
Yurcich heard a quote from a former NFL defensive coordinator that he now likes to use — “Honest football teams win.”
“We’re always trying to make sure that our players are confident. I think that’s a critical element of any performer in anything that they do, whether it be broadcast journalism, or whether it be playing a piano or playing quarterback,” Yurcich said. “You have to be confident in what you’re doing. So, correcting, but yet building confidence is that balance that you’re always looking for as a position coach or any coach.”
Given Ehlinger’s experience and the quality of quarterback coaching that he’s received dating back to high school playing for Todd Dodge at Westlake, Yurcich is right to place such a huge emphasis on the details, while getting out of the way in other important respects.
And so as good as Ehlinger was on UTEP, he’s also correct that he can get better and the two will only develop a better rapport as play caller and quarterback as the season goes along.
It’s been a long time since Texas could say anything like that and look forward to the rest of the season with that much optimism.