Brian Davis

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Eyes on Texas: Ball placement a key reason why Texas QB Sam Ehlinger eliminating mistakes

Once known for his interceptions, Ehlinger now holds the school record for consecutive pass attempts without one

Posted November 1st, 2018

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Each week, Sam Ehlinger goes back and rewatches last year’s game against that week’s opponent. One particular play against West Virginia last season probably makes him cringe.

Facing first-and-goal at the WVU 5, linebacker Dylan Tonkery came through on a blitz and took down the Texas quarterback for an easy sack. But Ehlinger, for reasons he didn’t know then and certainly can’t recall now, threw the ball up for grabs in desperation.

It’s hard to read lips, but slow-motion replays seem to show UT coach Tom Herman yelling, “Noooooo!”

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Kenny Robinson, with his gift-wrapped interception at the 6, raced the other way for a 94-yard touchdown. It was a mistake that epitomized Ehlinger’s freshman season.

“Just one of those plays where I should have ate it,” Ehlinger said this week.

Told that he’s not doing stuff like that anymore, Ehlinger smiled and said, “I try not to. It’s not a good thing to do.”

Better fish some debris out of Lady Bird Lake to knock on. Ehlinger’s progression this season coincides with the program’s ascension into the Big 12 title hunt.

Well, the former is responsible for the latter. The quarterback who was 2-4 as a starter last season is now 8-6 overall and climbing. Ehlinger played last weekend against Oklahoma State supposedly with a sore shoulder, the after-effects of an injury against Baylor on Oct. 13. It didn’t seem to matter.

He arguably made two of the best throws of his career in Stillwater. His 39-yard pass to Andrew Beck down to the OSU 2-yard line was sensational. It was a throw of a marksman. Beck was running in full stride, OSU’s Jarrick Bernard couldn’t get it and the Longhorns were in business.

Texas tight end Andrew Beck (47) secures a catch in front of Oklahoma State safety Jarrick Bernard (24) in last week’s game in Stillwater. The 39-yard completion set up a short UT touchdown. [NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

The second was a 22-yard strike to running back Keaontay Ingram on a wheel route. Same thing as before. Ingram caught it over his shoulder and scored, and there wasn’t anything the Pokes could do to stop it.

Seems as if ball placement has been Ehlinger’s biggest area of growth. Maybe that goes hand-in-hand with decision-making and read progression. And yes, he knows when to draw that six-shooter and when to keep it holstered.

But think about Collin Johnson’s go-up-and-get-it catches, Lil’Jordan Humphrey’s grabs in open space and Devin Duvernay’s catches. For the most part, they are all receiving the football in windows that allow them to collect themselves, make a football move and do something with it. He’s completing 63.5 percent of his passes.

Texas running back Keaontay Ingram (26) catches a touchdown pass in front of Oklahoma State linebacker Justin Phillips (19) in their game last week. The Cowboys won 38-35. [NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]
“I think it’s just being more comfortable in the pocket and being more comfortable with the offense and understanding where the ball needs to go in certain situations,” Ehlinger said. “I feel as if I don’t have to force as many throws because I know where the open guy is going to be, and I understand where the open spots are on the defense.”

Remember all those crazy game-changing picks Ehlinger threw last year against Oklahoma State and Texas Tech? What about those two late interceptions against Maryland in the season opener in hurry-up mode? He hasn’t thrown an interception since.

Ehlinger has now attempted 210 passes without an interception, a school record. Major Applewhite held the previous mark with 156 straight pass attempts in 1999.

Ehlinger should move into the top 10 in career passing yards Saturday against No. 13 West Virginia (6-1, 4-1 Big 12). He’s got 3,732 career yards, which currently ranks 11th. Shea Morenz is 10th with 3,774 yards from 1993-94.

Only nine quarterbacks in Texas history have passed for more than 4,000 career yards. Ehlinger should join that list this season in only his second year. It should be noted that one of those is Shane Buechele, currently Ehlinger’s backup, with 4,547.

Imagine that, two quarterbacks on the same roster with more than 4,000 career passing yards. At Texas? Crazy.

The offense is playing well enough to win every game left. The defense needs to bounce back against the Mountaineers. Coach Tom Herman is right when he says, “Our best is good enough.”

Ehlinger’s best may be still yet to come.

“When we play to our standards and prepare like we should, it’s really hard to stop us,” Ehlinger said. “But we also understand when we don’t play our best, we’re capable of losing just as easily.”

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

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