Tom Herman has some decisions to make. Some tough ones.
For now, they all revolve around his quarterback. Make that quarterbacks.
Because it looks clear since starter Sam Ehlinger went down that the Longhorns may need two — or more — quarterbacks to get through this season. Hey, that hasn’t held Alabama or Clemson back.
And know that freshman Cameron Rising has been taking whatever practice snaps with the first-team offense that Shane Buechele hasn’t taken in Sam Ehlinger’s absence.
The Longhorns head coach obviously would prefer to start Ehlinger against Oklahoma State on Saturday and every game after that. But the sprained right shoulder Ehlinger suffered early in the last game against Baylor presents all kinds of issues, chief among them his long-term health and Buechele’s ability to guide this team to crucial wins in Ehlinger’s absence.
Ever since Ehlinger won the quarterback battle in August, Herman has raved about the maturity and leadership and haircut and table manners of Buechele. He’s bragged on the backup as if he was his son. Of course, the backup quarterback is always more popular in this town than, say, bottled water these days, but many Texas fans might be holding their breath.
Buechele has a lot of wonderful qualities, is a model teammate and can do well in a clean pocket, but he’s slightly less mobile than the Stevie Ray Vaughan statue and would not be a threat in the zone read phase of the game.
While Herman expressed total confidence in Buechele on Monday, he also called him “an above-average quarterback.” That’s not the greatest compliment in the world. He also subtly chided the recruiting experts who had labeled Buechele “a dual-threat guy with a fantastic release.” Dual threat for Buechele means throwing short and throwing deep.
So with five regular-season games remaining, three of them on the road, Herman faces some critical challenges
1. Just how healthy is Ehlinger?
If he’s 80 percent healthy, is that enough to play him or does that risk losing him for more games? I’d start Buechele if Sam’s 80 percent.
Even if he is, does Ehlinger’s physical playing style — think enraged rhinoceros — lend itself to re-aggravating the injury and open himself up to more hits from a defense? Sam has to be Sam.
2. Would it be smarter to give Ehlinger another full week to heal and rest before the Nov. 3 home showdown with 13th-ranked West Virginia?
3. But would an above-average Shane Buechele have enough firepower to help the Longhorns get past a below-average Oklahoma State team?
4. And how big is Ehlinger’s pain tolerance and being the gamer as he is, would the sophomore be totally upfront with Herman about his shoulder?
Herman, to his credit, was very direct and straightforward on Monday. Down to the number of passes Ehlinger threw at Sunday’s practice — 10 with a Nerf ball, another 15 with a regular football, no idea how many with a tennis ball — and his scheduled 25 “full-padded” passes for Monday, Herman gets high marks for his transparency. Sam normally throws 75 to 80 in a practice, the coach said.
For now, Ehlinger is “on schedule.”
That sounds good but hardly totally reassuring. Ehlinger had been playing at a very high level since the Maryland game and is a key factor in Texas’ 6-1 record, first-place standing in the Big 12 and current No. 6 ranking in the Associated Press poll. There’s lots on the line.
Buechele managed to survive the Baylor game with a spotty performance. He hasn’t started a game since the Texas Bowl and was 10-9 as a starter in his first two seasons at Texas. I actually think he would perform much better this game having gotten two weeks of practice reps and knowing he was the guy behind center. I think he’d played with more confidence and would have enough to hold off the Cowboys.
Herman will be tracking Ehlinger’s every move, every throw, every sneeze and will be examining every aspect of his game. He’s hoping if Sam isn’t in pain and looks mechanically sound, he’ll be good to go. If not …
“So we know we have got a great one in Shane ready to go,” Herman said, “and got a ton of confidence in him as well.”
Or at least above-average confidence.