“I’ve always had dreams of going to Texas.”
For Sam Ehlinger, a dream 11 years in the making is now reality — the prized prospect is officially a member of the Texas Longhorns after signing his financial aid agreement last month, and within a mere matter of days, he’ll begin roaming the Forty Acres as an early enrollee.
But long before becoming the latest great gunslinger to emerge out of Westlake and the headliner of Texas’ 2017 class, Ehlinger was a young boy nestled in the living room of his Austin home watching in awe as Vince Young glided across the goal line to secure the 2005 National Championship.
“From that moment on, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I love this,’” Ehlinger told Burnt Orange Nation.
Just a Pop Warner passer during those days, Ehlinger was still yet to realize his potential to be in the same position as the Longhorns quarterbacks he grew up idolizing.
”Freshman year going into sophomore year is when I kind of realized that I have something special and I need to capitalize on it,” Ehlinger said.
Less than two years removed from the tragic death of his father, Ross, which Ehlinger says has “been something that’s always driven me to be better and to be great for him,” Ehlinger did, indeed, capitalize on the special something he was beginning to see in himself.
Just a 15-year-old sophomore, Ehlinger was gifted the keys to Westlake’s high-powered offense and utilized his arm and legs to the tune of 3,022 yards and 33 total touchdowns. It was a mere hint of what the future held, though the glaringly-apparent talent already led to an offer and subsequent commitment to Texas months before what became an astonishing junior campaign.
Ehlinger entered his second season as Westlake’s field general as a Longhorn-to-be and proceeded to explode onto the national scene behind what can only be deemed as video game-esque numbers. En route to a Class 6A, Division I state title appearance, Ehlinger racked up 3,833 yards and 50 scores through the air and another 1,360 yards and 20 touchdowns with his legs.
Ehlinger’s otherworldly effort didn’t go without significant praise — he became the first junior ever to be named Texas Associated Press Player of the Year, while also being crowned as the MaxPreps National Junior of the Year.
Recruiting services hardly reflected Ehlinger’s statement season, though, which superseded a near handful of more highly-touted quarterback prospects within the state in regards to passing yards per game (239.6) and total yards per game (324.6) — Ehlinger was the only 300-yard performer among the bunch in the average game.
He didn’t concern himself with positional rankings, though, telling BON, “I don't look too far into that.” Rather, Ehlinger’s offseason consisted of showcasing his passing prowess as an Elite 11 finalist. He was named most coachable among the prolific quarterbacks in attendance.
Entering his senior season, Ehlinger craved a Texas state title before departing to the flagship university just miles from his childhood home. However, his final campaign at Westlake didn’t go quite as anticipated.
In a season-opening 32-29 victory over a powerhouse Katy program, Ehlinger tore the medial meniscus in his left knee and the lateral meniscus in his right knee in the second quarter, yet flashed his trademark toughness by remaining on the field for the duration of the game.
Ehlinger went on to see action in just five games during his final stint at Westlake before concluding his career with over 9,000 yards of total offense and 113 collective scores with his arm and feet despite battling through a thumb injury and then a wrist injury that ended his high school career.
“I learned so many leadership qualities and just different stuff off the field that you really don’t think about when you’re playing,” Ehlinger said of his time sidelined with injuries. “Obviously, it wasn’t the way that I would like for it to go [getting hurt] but you live and you learn.”
An accomplished prep period now in his rearview, Ehlinger’s focus has shifted towards football on the Forty Acres and life in college; something he admits is a big transition.
”It’s definitely a big step,” Ehlinger said of the almost immediate transition from high school graduation to student-athlete at The University of Texas. “Life hits everyone at some point. It’s a big transition — not living with my family and growing up. But I’ve always kind of been independent since my dad died. I’ve had the independent feeling before so it’s not as big for me.”
Similar to Jarrett Allen, the headliner of Shaka Smart’s 2016 class, the Austin native does enjoy the luxury of getting to further his education and career right in his own backyard, which obviously lightens the load of the many pressures he’ll encounter as the future face of the program.
Ehlinger’s trek from his high school stomping grounds to the college program he dreamed of suiting up for throughout his youth is separated by a mere 7.7 miles, prompting him to joke that, “If I forget toothbrush or something, I can run home and be back in 30 minutes.”
Make no mistake about it, though — the demands will be in present and placed under a burnt orange microscope from the moment he joins the Horns already on campus.
Namely, the projected quarterback battle looming between returning starter and record-setting freshman Shane Buechele, and Ehlinger. It’s a challenge the 18-year-old foresaw on the horizon and is approaching what quite likely becomes a highly-publicized and infinitely-analyzed competition throughout the spring and summer with respect with his usual competitive nature and confidence.
“I think Shane is a great quarterback,” Ehlinger said of Buechele. “He has that great arm and he fit Coach Gilbert’s offense really, really well. I would love the chance to compete against him. He’s a great guy and a great quarterback and competition is always good. Either way, we’re going to make each other better and at the end of the day, the best quarterback is going to play and the best quarterback needs to play. I hope that I get better and he gets better and may the best man win.”
Take your pick as to which of the two may emerge as the best man, whether it be 2016’s fan-favorite in Buechele or Ehlinger, the local standout, who is arguably a better fit in Herman’s offensive scheme.
But to that end, just ask Herman himself, whose message to the dual-threat gunslinger upon meeting him was, as Ehlinger told BON, “My ability in his offense is going to create something so much bigger than I’ve ever dreamed of.”
Dreams of orchestrating a prolific Texas offense considered, as talented of a prospect and as ideal of a fit as Ehlinger may be in Herman’s system, the strikingly-mature early enrollee is keenly aware of the aspects of his game he’ll need to improve upon should he emerge as the starting field general for Texas in 2017.
“In Coach Herman’s offense, my speed can always get better,” Ehlinger said of his areas of focus this offseason. “The accuracy aspect of my passing game. Everything overall, from accuracy to footwork speed and quickness.”
And so a quarterback battle between the proven starter and baby-faced better fit will go down just a handful of months distant from Ehlinger’s shortened senior season. The eyes of the nation will be upon Texas with a new head coach and a more experienced team now boasting some maturity in addition to talent.
Yeah — there’s pressure.
But in the most Herman-esque response imaginable, Ehlinger reiterated that he doesn’t feel the pressure of what being a quarterback at The University of Texas entails.
“I think pressure is only applied when there’s a lack of preparation and for me, I don’t ever feel really pressured because I always feel I’m prepared,” Ehlinger said. “I’m going to do the best to my ability and when I get the chance; there’s no negative thoughts in my brain.”
If you ask Ehlinger, he’ll largely credit Westlake head coach Todd Dodge for instilling his knack for preparation throughout the previous three years, which goes hand-in-hand with Herman’s mantra at Texas.
“Coach Dodge,” Ehlinger said of who’s had the biggest impact on the player he is today. “He’s seen a lot and he’s seen great players, great teams and he knows what it takes. He’s one of the best high school coaches in the nation. To be able to be in his offense from day one is probably the best thing that’s happened to me.”
If his illustrious high school career under Dodge proves to be of any indication, Ehlinger may one day be one of the best things to happen to Texas football. With him in it, Ehlinger envisions the future of Texas football once again replicating “the pride and winning tradition” that’s helped establish it as one of the nation’s premier programs, and he doesn’t think that reality is too far off.
“I don’t think Texas is missing anything,” Ehliger said of what the Horns need before they can return to prominence. “Right now, all the parts are there, we just needed more experience and that’s what we have now. I think anybody can see and look at the amount of young player that are maturing, and in the offseason program that Coach Herman’s going to imply, it’s pretty common sense to know that this team is full of winners and the amount of potential that’s on that team that’s brought out by great coaches is going to be brought out by Coach Herman.”
On a day in which the burnt orange nation reflects upon the moment Vince Young transformed a 4th and 5 into the first Texas national championship since 1970, Ehlinger’s hope is that when his career in Austin concludes three or four or five years from now, he has a similar legacy.
“I just want to be remembered as the national championship quarterback.”