Freshman Sam Ehlinger, the Longhorns’ new hope at quarterback, brings several dimensions to offense
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 Orangebloods.com 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?”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.