In recent history, the phrases “Texas Longhorns spring practice” and “quarterback competition” have been synonymous.
With four talented scholarship quarterbacks on campus, the spring of 2018 is no different.
After Shane Buechele injured his shoulder in the 2017 season-opener against Maryland, he and Sam Ehlinger began trading both starts and series, continuing all the way through the Texas Bowl. After Buechele left the game due to injury, it seemed as if Ehlinger had a shot to solidify his spot as the guy in the backfield.
However, the Texas offense managed just nine points through the rest of the contest and Ehlinger finished with 112 yards and a first-quarter touchdown. Buechele finished the season with a 5-2 record as a starter, compared to Ehlinger’s 2-4, but in two of the games Buechele started, Ehlinger was the one who finished the game, whether due to performance or injury.
Looking at the season on the whole, Ehlinger statistically stood above Buechele, finishing with 1,915 passing yards and 11 touchdowns, combined with his team-leading 381 rushing yards. The instability along the offensive line played to Ehlinger’s strengths — the ability to move in the pocket and escape pressure. His creativity in the backfield and desire to make a play at any cost proved to be a blessing and a curse, most notably a curse against USC, Oklahoma State, and Texas Tech, all games ultimately decided largely by Ehlinger turnovers. But, with another spring practice under his belt, many of those poor decisions could become a thing of the past.
Ehlinger also brings things to the position that you cannot teach — a magnetic personality, vocal leadership, a deep competitive streak, and a chip on his shoulder more fitting to an undersized boxer.
With these intangibles and his deep reservoir of talent, it’s easy to see why the coaching staff seems eager to hand the reins over to the second-year quarterback from Austin Westlake.
Buechele appeared to be more accurate than his freshman counterpart on many occasions, but struggled when protection breakdowns forced him to reset in the pocket. Looking to his freshman campaign, however, shows a different story for the rising junior. In 2016 Buechele looked to be the next great Texas quarterback at times and etched his name in the Longhorns’ record books.
His 2,958 yards is the seventh-highest single-season total in school history and put him at No. 14 in career passing yards after just one season. He reached the 2,000-yard mark faster than all but one quarterback — Major Applewhite in 1999 — and passed for 200 yards on 10 occasions in the season — sitting behind just Applewhite and Colt McCoy.
This production was aided by another record-setting performance — D’Onta Foreman’s Doak Walker Award-winning junior campaign. In all eleven games Foreman played, he eclipsed the 100-yard mark, averaging 184 yards per game in the process. With a running game that opponents feared and an offensive line that kept the pocket more clean, Buechele was able to pick apart one-on-one coverages and use the play-action passing game to put together an all-time performance.
Buechele and Ehlinger aren’t the only signal callers in camp, as early enrollees Cameron Rising and Casey Thompson are also on campus for the spring. The coaching staff brought these two in for spring practice for a particular reason — to push the older players and allow the rising tide to raise all the ships.
Head coach Tom Herman often describes his program a “meritocracy,” and even said in his signing day press conference that “as long as we have quarterbacks they will all compete.” Meaning if Rising or Thompson outshines either of the tenured quarterbacks, expect their name to appear higher on the depth chart.
Rising, the more highly rated of the pair, was an early-cycle commit to the Oklahoma Sooners before flipping his pledge to Texas in April of 2017. In spite of two injury-shortened seasons as a junior and a senior, Rising finished with 6,200 yards and 69 touchdowns for Newbury Park (Calif.) High School.
He’s best-known as a pocket passer with a rocket arm — a 42.5-foot power throw rated him as the strongest arm in the 2018 class. However, his highlight reels show his ability to execute a zone read, pull off a competent bootleg, and move the pocket when necessary.
More fitting of the dual-threat label, Thompson may be the most prototypical of the bunch when it comes to the systems with which the coaching staff is most comfortable.
Thompson put up massive numbers and made a name for himself as a three-year starter at Southmoore High School in Oklahoma before transferring to Newcastle High School for his final season. Thompson amassed 9,829 yards and 107 touchdowns through the air, while adding 3011 yards and 47 touchdowns on the ground, enough to set the Oklahoma state record for total yards in a career.
His abilities as a true dual threat in the backfield seem to align with what Herman likes from his quarterbacks. Since 2012, Tom Herman quarterbacks — Greg Ward Jr, J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller — combined for 4,909 rushing yards, including 1,000-yard seasons from Ward and Miller.
Heading into 2018 with four talented quarterbacks seems like a foreign concept to Texas fans, but this puts the Longhorns in a unique position. Even though Rising or Thompson are not expected to claim the starting spot, having four scholarship quarterbacks in the room will help make all four better and give Texas something it hasn’t had in the recent past — depth.
Buechele has shown what he can do when defenses have to respect the run, as they did in 2016, so if Texas can get figure out the offensive line, Buechele may have an edge heading into camp. However, the Texas coaching staff seems bound and determined to give Ehlinger his fair share of chances, so look for the Austin native to get his chances as well.
So the same way they have since Colt McCoy departed, Texas once again needs to figure out who will be its signal caller.