Brian Davis

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Eyes on Texas: Coaches can preach about it, but confidence comes only from within

Texas players built up some momentum against USC, but they must carry that feeling over against No. 17 TCU

Posted September 20th, 2018

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Story highlights
  • QB Sam Ehlinger: “Confidence is such a large factor in any sport or in any sector.”
  • Players have worked on their own skills, and thus feel better about their overall play.
  • Past Texas teams believed in themselves no matter who the opponent was on the other side.

The self-help industry is saturated with gurus and know-it-alls telling you how to build confidence. The know-it-alls in the newspaper are here to help with everything else.

Skip those quick-read books, podcasts or weekend seminars and just heed this advice. When it comes to developing a skill, nothing beats repetitive practice.

Texas offensive lineman Elijah Rodriguez is a believer. He’d never snapped a football before coming to UT and trained at guard and tackle his first two seasons. In 2016, then-offensive line coach Matt Mattox looked around and noticed the Longhorns didn’t have a competent backup for center Zach Shackelford.

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“They had me and him in January, during winter conditioning, start snapping to each other,” Rodriguez said. “So that’s when I first started snapping.”

On Saturday against 17th-ranked TCU, Rodriguez will make his third career start at center. He’s as confident as ever. If that feeling can manifest itself inside the entire locker room, the Longhorns (2-1, 0-0 Big 12) might have something brewing.

Texas offensive lineman Samuel Cosmi (52), running back Tre Watson (5) and offensive lineman Patrick Vahe (77) celebrate a 37-14 win over USC during an NCAA football game at Royal-Memorial Stadium, Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

“When I was first starting playing center, I was real nervous about messing up a snap,” Rodriguez said. “The first thing that happens in a play is the ball gets snapped. That’s arguably the most important part of the play. But I really, really worked hard to get consistent with it to the point where I felt comfortable that every time I snapped it, it’s going to be accurate in getting to the quarterback.”

Confidence ebbs and flows with every player and every coach on every sports team everywhere. It’s unmistakable which direction the tide is flowing, too. In Texas’ case, compare the second half of the Tulsa game against the second half of USC. It’s night and day.

You’ll know the Longhorns have really turned the corner when the team plays with bullet-proof confidence week in and week out, regardless of opponent.

The Horns had to feel unsure about themselves when they couldn’t score from the 1-yard line against Tulsa. Coach Tom Herman chewed his team out at halftime, and Texas played tight, uncertain football in the second half.

But Texas players were flying around, having fun against USC. The goal-line stand in the second quarter was a pivotal moment in this team’s mental development. Players knew what to do, coaches trusted their players and Brandon Jones made the game’s biggest tackle by knocking Stephen Carr out of bounds for a 2-yard loss at the 3.

Coaches can beg and plead with players to play with confidence. But nothing will happen until they do it and see it for themselves.

“We’re not a finished product,” Herman said. “We’ve got to enhance and improve it but it’s confidence — and it’s not arrogance, it’s not cockiness — that I trained so hard and am trained so well throughout the course of the week that when one or two bad things happen to me throughout the course of the game, that’s OK. It’s football.

“I have trained, and my teammates have trained, so hard that we will be able to go on to the next play and the next one and the next one,” Herman added, “and you stack up more 1-0’s versus 0-1’s and you’re going to come out on the good side of the ledger, for the most part.”

That reminds me of what Mike Leach always preached at Texas Tech. Every play is a singular object, his thinking went. You win one play and put it in a pile. You lost a play? That goes in another pile. “If you’ve got the bigger pile at the end, guess what? You win,” college football’s lovable pirate always said.

Rodriguez has confidence in his snap. Jones had confidence to read the fourth-down play and make the stop. Even quarterback Sam Ehlinger has found more confidence in himself this season.

Ehlinger said about last season: “Because everything was moving 100 miles an hour, I was more prone to leaving the pocket in certain situations where I didn’t necessarily need to.”

Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger (11) and running back Tre Watson (5) celebrate their touchdown against Tulsa with offensive lineman Elijah Rodriguez (72) during an NCAA football game at Royal-Memorial Stadium, Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

Now’s he more comfortable with his training and knows to go through his progressions. Think back to the final touchdown drive against Tulsa when Ehlinger was 7 for 7. That included three check-down passes to Tre Watson. How many times would Ehlinger have checked down last season? Once? Never? Of course, he’d tuck it and go.

In three games so far, Ehlinger has 723 passing yards with six touchdowns and a quarterback efficiency rating of 134.88. He had 1,915 passing yards, 11 touchdowns and a 124.06 rating in all of 2017.

“When you have a substantial amount of confidence in what you’re doing playing the game, you don’t think,” Ehlinger said. “When you have confidence, you don’t really hesitate. Hey, you missed a play, but you have confidence in yourself. It’s not like, ‘Man, I messed up. Oh, no. What’s everyone going to think?’

“When you have confidence, that doesn’t really matter to you,” Ehlinger continued. “You’re just going, and you play a little bit faster and a little bit smarter on top of that.”

How was Texas so good during the previous decade? Then-coach Mack Brown didn’t have to say too much on certain weeks. Players had incredible confidence.

Granted, a lot of that was because of Vince Young and Colt McCoy. But those Longhorns teams had talent, players believed in themselves and worked various foes week after week.

That’s the feeling these Longhorns should strive to reach. The opponent shouldn’t matter. It just so happens this week will be against the Horned Frogs, who have beaten the Horns five of the last six years. It’s about playing with confidence no matter who’s on the opposite side.

“Confidence is such a large factor in any sport or in any sector,” Ehlinger said. “When confidence is felt throughout an organization or a team, it excels.”

Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com.

Past Eyes on Texas columns:

Aug. 31: Three reasons not to be so high on Todd Orlando and so down on Tim Beck

Sept. 7: Calvin Anderson’s “business decision” is paying off so far

Sept. 15: On first-and-goal, why must Texas make things look so hard?

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