The term battle is defined as “a fight or struggle tenaciously to achieve or resist something.”
Like clockwork, March in Austin now — as it has for the past half decade — comes accompanied with an endlessly discussed and microscopically analyzed talk of a quarterback battle for the Texas Longhorns. Such sentiments were certainly an overstatement throughout prior offseasons, considering the term hardly applied to what was essentially the previous regimes rubbing sticks together and hoping something sparked.
With incumbent sophomore starter Shane Buechele and highly-touted early enrollee Sam Ehlinger in the fold, though, the current competition taking place under first-year head coach Tom Herman is nothing short of iron sharpening iron — a true quarterback battle.
Don’t expect this burnt orange battle to cease at any point in the foreseeable future, either.
Just let Tom Herman tell it: “There will not be a starting quarterback named after spring ball.”
Buechele is far from the fresh-faced fan favorite who flashed glimmers of hope nearly a year ago during an impressive Orange-White game display. Now entering his second spring on the Forty Acres, Buechele’s a 12-game starter and a frequent early presence in the Longhorns records books.
No Longhorn freshman — true or redshirt — has ever compiled as many yards through the air in their debut campaign as Buechele did in 2016 with 2,958, which was also good for the seventh-highest single season total in Texas history, regardless of class. More to that end, Buechele’s introductory effort also wrapped up with a true freshman passing touchdown record (21). The Arlington native eclipsing 2,000 yards through the air in eight games also marked the second-fastest effort in school history, trailing just Major Applewhite, who did so in seven games in 1999.
Buechele’s feats weren’t only impressive considering the recent standards on the Forty Acres, either.
While the ‘Horns have recently missed on one elite quarterback after another — many of whom wanted to play at Texas — there’s evidence to suggest Buechele is one of, if not the nation’s premier true sophomore gunslinger.
Along with earning his place as Texas’ all-time freshman passing leader with 2,958 yards, Buechele’s 2016 contributions topped the nation among all true freshmen. Only Florida State’s Deondre Francois (3,350) and USC’s Sam Darnold (3,086) passed for more yards as freshmen, and each did so with a redshirt tag. Francois and Darnold will enter the 2017 season as Heisman candidates — one of the favorites in regards to Darnold — and Buechele is worthy of mention in that same conversation. Additionally, the only freshmen to pass for more scores than Buechele last season were Darnold (33) and Alabama’s true freshman Jalen Hurts (23).
Toss aside lingering injuries down the stretch, an offense that relied heavily upon the top running back in the nation — one that spent upwards of 40 more minutes on the sideline than opposing offenses — and Buechele may have headlined each freshman passing category.
Though some of the hype began to falter down the stretch as losses mounted and Buechele’s productivity declined with his health, the proof was in the passing — Buechele appears to be well on his way to becoming one of the more productive quarterbacks in Texas’ storied history.
A winter conditioning program later, the sitting starter has adequately addressed one of his few long-term concerns, bulking up from 191 pounds to 205 pounds with several months still remaining before his sophomore season. Considering his gym rat reputation, the on-field areas of improvement are seemingly a matter of reps and experience.
More from Texas QB Shane Buechele pic.twitter.com/gRVkb00c7K— Anwar Richardson (@AnwarRichardson) March 10, 2017
Not to mention, competing with and attempting to outlast a quarterback that’s in the exact same situation as Buechele was last season — and one that stepped on the Forty Acres with no shortage of praise and promise — is only going to bolster Buechele throughout the spring, summer, and on into fall camp.
Buechele agrees to that end.
“No,” Buechele said during Longhorn Network’s National Signing Day show when asked if a quarterback can be successful and not thrive on competition. “Competition is key to make you better. If you don’t have someone behind you pushing you in the back, just trying to take your spot, I don’t believe you can get any better.”
For better or worse, the sophomore is getting exactly what he wanted with Ehlinger vying for a true freshman starting role in his hometown.
In very few situations would a quarterback that displayed as much talent and upside as Buechele did as a true freshman be forced to fight for his job the following offseason, much less to another talent that could easily be gearing up for his high school prom, but it’s reality at Texas.
This isn’t due to shortcomings on Buechele’s end, but far more concerning what Ehlinger has going in his favor — he’s widely considered the better fit in Herman’s system, is already a superior athlete, and as Herman said, Ehlinger is an “alpha male.”
“He walks in the room, and it's like, ‘Whoa, Sam's here.’” Herman raved on National Signing Day. “I mean, he's a competitor. I just love that about quarterbacks.”
Junior offensive tackle Connor Williams echoed such sentiments were echoed following a spring practice session.
“As a freshman, I didn’t walk around with my chest sticking out, but he seems to do it in the locker room and stuff,” Williams said of Ehlinger. “He’s impressive. You can tell he has some confidence to him.”
While that all sounds fine and well for someone insistent on a case for Ehlinger as the deserving starter, putting such praiseworthy traits into action on a level far greater than what Ehlinger experienced in high school and doing so in hopes of emerging over a record-setting returning starter is far easier said than done.
As Jeff Howe of Horns247 noted ($) regarding the quarterback battle throughout spring practice, “you could tell one was on the practice field at this level for the first time.”
Obviously, Howe wasn’t referring to arguably the nation’s top 2016 true freshman quarterback.
But as Herman noted, the quarterback battle isn’t going to be determined within the next few weeks.
“We’ll have an idea and we’ll have that conversation with those kids, too, on where they kind of stand [after spring practice],” Herman said. “But I think it’s important that they at least have the ability to go win the job in training camp and really win the job over the course of the summer in terms of leading their teammates.”
This isn’t simply coach-speak from Herman.
Ehlinger can, in fact, win this job and trot onto the field against Maryland in September as the starting quarterback.
Of course, the odds aren’t exactly in Ehlinger’s favor, largely due to Buechele’s standout freshman season that drew modest comparisons to Longhorn legend Colt McCoy, but make no mistake about it — Ehlinger will challenge Buechele far more fiercely than Tyrone Swoopes was able to do as a senior.
While the competition is obviously superior to what Ehlinger dominated at Austin Westlake, if he can manage to overtake 2016’s darling by the time training camp rolls around, there’s reason to believe that Texas’ offense can thrive in year one under Ehlinger. The Austin native’s senior season was shortened considerably due to various injuries, but Ehlinger’s otherworldly junior campaign tells us all we need to know about what he can be when clicking on all cylinders.
In 16 games, en route to a Texas Class 6A state title appearance, Ehlinger put up nothing short of video game-esque numbers, compiling 3,833 yards and 50 scores through the air and another 1,360 yards and 20 touchdowns with his legs. More impressively, Ehlinger threw just five interceptions in 391 attempts as a junior, making for a 1.3 percent interception rate; an elite effort by all measures.
Ehlinger was rewarded with honors as MaxPreps National Junior of the Year, while also becoming the first junior to ever be named as the Texas Associated Press Player of the Year.
So, yeah, Buechele is exceptionally talented, but the same can be said of Ehlinger.
Bearing in mind his alpha-dog personality and what he accomplished prior to enrolling early at Texas, it’s no wonder Ehlinger is embracing this quarterback battle with confidence and competitiveness.
“I think Shane is a great quarterback,” Ehlinger told Burnt Orange Nation 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.”
As if that’s not enough, Ehlinger went as far as to say if Andrew Luck were a Longhorn, he’d push him in competition, as well.
“I think if Andrew Luck went to UT I would compete with him to make him better,” Ehlinger said. “I want to do anything to compete and competing is the best thing possible for anyone to get better. So competition is always good and that’s what I want to have.”
For both, Buechele and Ehlinger, the competition they’re now face-to-face with is likely the greatest they’ve ever faced. While Ehlinger is tasked with potentially overtaking an experienced record-setter, Buechele must avoid the same fate he benefited from last offseason when he emerged as the starter over a more experienced option, a chore that’s made more difficult by Ehlinger being a few steps ahead of where Buechele was at this point last year.
Fortunately for each, the blueprint to starting for Herman’s Longhorns has been made plain as day.
“I think you’ve got to be a guy that your teammates gravitate towards, that you make better,” Herman said of what he needs to see from his starting quarterback. “You make your teammates around you better through your play and your actions. And then specific to the position, really making great decisions, making them consistently, and then accuracy of ball placement and the speed at which you can translate decision to ball out of my hand is important, too. There’s a lot that goes into it. A lot.”
More to that end, new offensive coordinator Tim Beck brings along his own set of similar, but separate demands.
Five-and-a-half months from now, when Herman and Beck’s checklists are complete, one of these two are going to lead the first team offense onto the field to debut the Tom Herman era. This leaves one considerably talented quarterback in line to watch from the sidelines with a headset and a clipboard.
At first glance, it’s an unsettling and unfortunate reality for a pair of fan favorites, but it’s certainly an amazing thing for the burnt orange nation.
This isn’t Case McCoy versus David Ash in 2012, Jerrod Heard versus Swoopes in 2015, or even Buechele versus Swoopes last offseason. No, after years of mediocrity and unsavory options, whichever quarterback survives what’s sure to be a relentless pursuit for progress for the next half a year will be ready to lead a new era of football on the Forty Acres.
That’s the result of a true quarterback battle,when iron sharpens iron.