Sam Ehlinger (4) rushes for an 8 yard TD during the 28-3 victory by Westlake over The Woodlands on Saturday, November 21, 2015 in Bryan. (Jerry Saulman/For American-Statesman)

The Opening: Sam Ehlinger’s strength coach keeps him — and his hips — in line

Posted July 7th, 2016

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Story highlights
  • Ehlinger, who was 14 when he began working with Vaiana at Train 4 the Game in Austin, credits her with helping to improve his flexibility and for ensuring his stays on the field.
  • Anyone who has witnessed the physical growth of Ehlinger over the past year can attest to Vaiana’s knowledge. Last summer, as he was making his way through the camp circuit and hoping to get a Texas offer, Ehlinger grew by what he said was two or three inches and 25 pounds.
  • Vaiana says what she likes most about Ehlinger is his ability to flip a switch and be “wickedly competitive.”

BEAVERTON, Ore.  —  Last month, when word came down that Texas quarterback recruit Sam Ehlinger had received an invitation to The Opening, his personal strength coach broke into celebration.

Jessica Vaiana, the architect of Ehlinger’s powerful physique, had vowed to tag along for a much deserved vacation.

“I told him, if you make it, I’ll go with you,” Vaiana said.

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Sam Ehlinger's personal strength coach, Jessiva Vaiana, watches Ehlinger throw passes during day two of The Opening on Thursday in Beaverton, Ore. (Ryan Autullo/American-Statesman)
Sam Ehlinger’s personal strength coach, Jessiva Vaiana, watches Ehlinger throw passes during day two of The Opening on Thursday in Beaverton, Ore. (Ryan Autullo/American-Statesman)

True to her word, Vaiana, a University of Texas graduate who has coached Ehlinger for almost four years, made the the trip to Nike’s world headquarters to support the Westlake senior as he battles other elite passers at the nation’s premier offseason event for high school football.

Through two days, Vaiana’s been pleased with what she’s seen from Ehlinger, who has been as sharp as any of his 11 competitors vying for Elite 11 MVP honors. His throws were on point again Thursday during routine passing drills that saw QBs trying to get comfortable with their pass-catchers before the defense arrives this weekend for a 7-on-7 tournament.

Ehlinger, who was 14 when he began working with Vaiana at Train 4 the Game in Austin, credits her with helping to improve his flexibility while ensuring that he stays on the field. The discomfort he’s been feeling in his right (throwing) shoulder this week is a minor exception to an otherwise clean bill of health.

“If I didn’t have her I would probably be breaking everywhere,” he said.

Vaiana, 32, left Denver in 2002 and enrolled at UT where she earned a bachelor’s in biology and a master’s in exercise physiology. Along the way, she interned for Todd Wright, the strength and conditioning coach for Rick Barnes’ men’s basketball program. Vaiana was on staff during Kevin Durant’s one season with the Longhorns from 2006-07.

These days, she and five other coaches at Train 4 the Game open their doors on Bee Cave Road to former Longhorns Colt McCoy, Avery Bradley, Mykkele Thompson, Emmanuel Acho, Fozzy Whittaker and Keenan Robinson. Ehlinger’s Westlake teammate, four-star linebacker Levi Jones, also stops by. Another frequent visitor is Amy Neal, the Big 12 volleyball player of the year last season with the Longhorns. Neal, of Lake Travis, plans to continue her playing career at TCU, where she’ll play sand volleyball and take graduate courses.

[brightcove_video video_id=”5026710153001″ caption=”Texas QB commit Sam Ehlinger throws passes during the second day of The Opening on Thursday in Beaverton, Ore.”]

Vaiana’s sessions with Ehlinger last anywhere from an hour to 90 minutes and focus primarily on hip movement. She wants him to move his legs to drive the ball down the field and avoid relying on his arm because “the muscles in your arm are tiny.”

Some sessions are more grueling than others, but Vaiana always holds Ehlinger accountable.

“She gets pissed when I don’t show up so that’s good,” Ehlinger said.

Anyone who has witnessed the physical growth of Ehlinger over the past year can attest to Vaiana’s knowledge. Last summer, as he was making his way through the camp circuit and hoping to get an offer from the Longhorns, Ehlinger grew by what he said was two or three inches and 25 pounds. Any questions about his size as it relates to playing NCAA Division I football were quickly dismissed.

Vaiana calls Ehlinger a “hard grower” because his body changes so rapidly it can leave him feeling fatigued. Vaiana believes Ehlinger, who’s approaching 6 feet, 2 inches and 215 pounds, will continue to grow, noting that Durant sprang up to 7 feet after he left Texas.

“It’s happened the same way every single time,” she said. “You look at him two weeks later and you’re like, ‘You’ve gotten bigger.’ ”

Vaiana says what she likes most about Ehlinger is his ability to flip a switch and be “wickedly competitive.” She also says he’s able to take a teaching moment and put it into action, which is not surprising considering Ehlinger was named the most coachable quarterback at the Elite 11 Finals last month in Los Angeles.

A year from now, Vaiana will have to come to grips with handing off Ehlinger to UT’s strength program, but to keep herself occupied she’ll be training Ehlinger’s brother, Jake, who is entering his freshman season at Westlake. A linebacker, Jake might be a touch bigger than Sam was at the same age.

“He’s a tank,” Vaiana said.

RELATED COVERAGE: What 2017 recruits will QB Sam Ehlinger press to join him at Texas?

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