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Fresh­man Sam Eh­linger, the Longhorns’ new hope at quar­ter­back, brings sev­eral di­men­sions to of­fense

The Dallas Morning News - - Sportsday - CHUCK CARL­TON ccarl­ton@dal­las­

AUSTIN — Sam Eh­linger dreamed of be­ing the Texas quar­ter­back since he was a tod­dler flash­ing the Hook ’em Horns in both hands. Since this decade be­gan, Texas fans have longed for a quar­ter­back who can lead the pro­gram back to Big 12 con­tention.

For now, the two have come to­gether. Eh­linger is the new hope, a swashbuckling, hard-run­ning fresh­man with ex­actly three starts in col­lege headed into Satur­day’s AT&T Red River Show­down. Then again, Shane Buechele was viewed as the an­swer last year and Jer­rod Heard in 2015. And there was hope for Ty­rone Swoopes in 2014.

Texas hasn’t started the same quar­ter­back against Ok­la­homa in con­sec­u­tive years since Colt Mccoy from 200609, although Mccoy’s younger brother, Case, got the nod against OU in 2011 and ’13.

Now it ap­pears to be Eh­linger’s turn af­ter he amassed 487 yards to­tal of­fense last Satur­day in a dou­ble-over­time win over Kansas State with Buechele nurs­ing a sprained an­kle. Coach Tom Herman is treat­ing the whole no­tion

of a start­ing quar­ter­back as a state se­cret. Of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Tim Beck said Thurs­day he hasn’t yet told the team who is start­ing but praised Eh­linger

“At this point, he’s played re­ally well,” Beck said of Eh­linger. “I don’t think that Shane has played bad. Right now, Sam’s the hot name. I know all the me­dia and fans, ev­ery­body feels that he’s the guy. Our goal is to win foot­ball games with the best guy out there …

“Who­ever moves the foot­ball is go­ing to play.”

Tested through tragedy

Team­mates and coaches praise Eh­linger for a charisma, lead­er­ship and a ma­tu­rity beyond a nor­mal fresh­man, one forged by a fam­ily tragedy.

His fa­ther, Ross, an Austin at­tor­ney, died at 46 while com­pet­ing in San Fran­cisco’s Es­cape from Al­ca­traz triathlon in 2013. His death and oth­ers helped fo­cus at­ten­tion on the dan­gers of triathlons for even ex­pe­ri­enced en­durance ath­letes.

“This [Sam] is an ex­tremely ma­ture guy,” Herman said. “You don’t go through what he went through in eighth grade and all of a sud­den have to be the man of your house­hold and not ma­ture very quickly.

“He’s a bit of an old soul and re­ally, re­ally ma­ture for a guy his age and in his po­si­tion. I think that’s what has al­lowed him to step into this role maybe a lit­tle bit eas­ier than most.”

Sam Eh­linger has been made avail­able to re­porters only af­ter games and didn’t speak to the me­dia this week. But he ad­dressed the im­pact of his fa­ther to Orange­ in 2016 while tak­ing part in The Open- ing.

“It’s just like I want to make him proud and I want to do the things he wanted me to do, ex­ceed his ex­pec­ta­tions,” Eh­linger said. “I know he’s watch­ing. That’s kind of how it plays into my mo­ti­va­tion, that if he was here, what would he be mak­ing me do and how could I get bet­ter?”

Early bloomer

Eh­linger wasn’t a to­tal sur­prise to some of his new team­mates.

Af­ter his com­mit­ment to Texas, sev­eral play­ers made a scouting trip to watch Eh­linger and Austin West­lake face state power Katy in the 2016 opener. Eh­linger threw for 250 yards and ran for 64 more in a West­lake vic­tory.

“I ac­tu­ally knew ev­ery­thing about him,” line­backer Malik Jef­fer­son said. “I could tell what kind of player he was there.”

Eh­linger posted huge num­bers as a high school ju­nior but suf­fered three in­juries as a se­nior that cur­tailed his sea­son.

West­lake coach Todd Dodge, a for­mer Texas quar­ter­back who helped build the South­lake Car­roll dy­nasty, pre­dicted Eh­linger’s suc­cess on na­tional sign­ing day.

“I think he’s ab­so­lutely one of the most ver­sa­tile quar­ter­backs that I’ve ever seen at the high school level,” Dodge said. “You won’t come across a scheme where you go, ‘ He can’t do this or he can’t do that.’ He can’t throw on the run? Yeah, he can. He can’t make that throw? Yeah, he can. He can’t run the zone read? Yeah, he can.”

Jolt­ing mem­ory

As many plays as Eh­linger made with his arm and feet against Kansas State, the one that cap­tured a lot of imag­i­na­tions was a 9-yard gain.

In dou­ble-over­time, the 230-pound Eh­linger low­ered his shoul­der and ran through Kansas State safety Den­zel Goolsby with an im­pact that could reg­is­ter on the Richter scale.

“I told Sam, ‘You scare me ev­ery time you run,’” of­fen­sive line­man Pa­trick Vahe said.

Safety Bran­don Jones checked out the score­board for the re­play and said the play has showed up a few times in team film ses­sions, al­ways get­ting a big re­sponse.

“That was eye-open­ing to me,” Jones said. “When they showed it on re­play, I was, ‘ Oooooh-owww!’”

Eh­linger sheep­ishly ac­knowl­edged that the col­li­sion wasn’t the de­sired re­sult, that he should have tried to elude Goolsby for the touch­down.

Beck wasn’t com­plain­ing about the play or his quar­ter­back’s mind-set.

“Ab­so­lutely love that,” Beck said. “Tough­est guy on your team has got to be your quar­ter­back, be­cause that’s the na­ture of your foot­ball team. So when he can play like that and be a phys­i­cal player, play with a lot of juice, and go re­ally fast usu­ally the of­fense is prob­a­bly do­ing the same.”

Af­ter com­ing up short in dou­ble-over­time at South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, Eh­linger de­liv­ered in a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion against Kansas State, which out­weighed any self­crit­i­cism.

“It doesn’t get any bet­ter,” Eh­linger said af­ter­ward, “es­pe­cially to be in such a clutch mo­ment with a heated en­vi­ron­ment in an over­time game. There’s noth­ing bet­ter.”

Tim Warner/getty Im­ages

Quar­ter­back Sam Eh­linger sings The Eyes of Texas af­ter the dou­ble-over­time win against Kansas State at home. Eh­linger, a fresh­man ex­pected to start Satur­day vs. Ok­la­homa, is the Longhorns’ lat­est hope at the po­si­tion.

Eric Gay/the As­so­ci­ated Press

Texas quar­ter­back Sam Eh­linger (11) runs around Kansas State de­fen­sive back Den­zel Goolsby. His size and tough­ness make Eh­linger as much of a run­ning threat as a pass­ing threat.

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