Sam Ehlinger, one year later.
Bigger. Stronger. Faster?
But is he smarter?
As the USC Trojans roll into the 512 this week, the roles have been reversed. This time, Ehlinger is now the grizzled old veteran of eight career starts while USC freshman JT Daniels will be making just his third in front of a road crowd at Royal-Memorial Stadium that will approach 100,000 if the weather holds up.
Here’s the question we all want answered: Will Ehlinger play cleanly, as he did in last week’s 28-21 win over Tulsa, and not revert to the turnover-prone Ehlinger we witnessed at the end of the season-opening loss to Maryland?
This time last year, the 18-year-old Texas quarterback walked into venerable Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and went toe-to-toe in his second career start with eventual No. 3 overall NFL draft pick Sam Darnold on an electric evening of tackle football.
And for a span of seconds late in the fourth quarter, it appeared Texas would pull off the upset over the fourth-ranked Trojans. Ehlinger’s touchdown pass to Armanti Foreman with 45 seconds remaining ignited a wild celebration on the sideline, including actor Matthew McConaughey, who had his arm around receiver Reggie Hemphill-Mapps.
“It was a great feeling just knowing he could take that leadership in his hands,” defensive tackle Chris Nelson said this week of Ehlinger. “Nothing’s too big. It was just showing us on the sideline that he could really do this.”
Tight end Andrew Beck was injured that day, but remembers Ehlinger’s performance as if it were yesterday.
“I’ve always, from the first snap he took in a game, had a lot of faith in him and that’s a credit to him and that’s a credit to the coaches because they prepared him to play in the game,” Beck said. “If they didn’t think he was ready and didn’t think he was capable, they wouldn’t have put him in the game.”
By now, you all know about Darnold’s magical comeback drive that led to the tying field goal, Ehlinger’s second-overtime fumble on the goal line and Chase McGrath’s field goal to give the Trojans a 27-24 win.
“I knew that they had Sam Darnold on the sideline with enough time to go down and kick a field goal,” Ehlinger said this week.“I wasn’t content yet. I wasn’t done with the game whereas if it was the last play of the game, I would have been very excited.
“It was still a great experience and really really cool to see the excitement of our sidelines and our fans and my teammates, but I knew the game was not over. They had a first-round draft pick back there who had been making things happen all night.”
Ehlinger completed 21 of 40 passes for 298 yards and a pair of touchdowns and left Cali that night as the Longhorns’ unquestioned starter.
“I think you always have to tame a guy like Sam a little bit,” head coach Tom Herman said. “He gets pretty lathered up on game days, and so again, that’s a good thing. But using previous mistakes as motivation? I don’t see that in him; I think he wants to beat USC to beat USC. He doesn’t want to beat them to exact any kind of revenge or atone for any kind of sins or anything like that. I think he wants to beat them just because he wants to go 1-0 this week.”
Ehlinger rode a rollercoaster of a freshman season and battled inconsistency and some ill-timed turnovers that played a large role in several losses, most notably Big 12 games against Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. I asked him if he’s ever replayed the USC fumble in his mind in the year since.
“I didn’t watch it more than once, just like every other play,” he said.
Ehlinger has matured in the pocket, no longer an automatic runner when the first progression isn’t there. But a gunslinger’s mentality never dies. The biggest storyline on Saturday — outside of all the nostalgia that will always accompany Texas and USC whenever they meet — will be if Ehlinger takes a large step forward in his evolution as Texas’ quarterback. He did a commendable job of operating the offense against Tulsa, but Saturday will be his biggest test of the season to date; the Trojans bring a swarming defense that held Stanford to 17 points last week, albeit in a 14-point loss.
Still, the Longhorns are poised to put together four good quarters of football for the first time this season and beat the Trojans. That can’t happen unless Ehlinger becomes the Sam Darnold in this QB matchup.
“Obviously it’s a big game, but it’s also just another game on our schedule,” Ehlinger said when asked about the significance of playing the Trojans.
He’s sounding more and more like a seasoned veteran every day.