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Texas QB Sam Ehlinger thought about returning, but instead will start preparing for NFL Draft

A Longhorn since birth, Ehlinger leaves UT with a 27-16 record as a starter and second-most TDs in school history

Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger celebrates after scoring a touchdown against Oklahoma in the Longhorns' 2018 Red River Showdown victory at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. It was one of the top wins in his Longhorns career; Ehlinger, a senior, is leaving UT  and will enter the NFL draft.

Sam Ehlinger lived his dream at Texas. The toddler that grew up flashing the “Hook ’em” hand sign eventually brought thousands to their feet while scoring touchdowns at Royal-Memorial Stadium.

Now, Ehlinger is moving on. 

Ehlinger, statistically the second-best quarterback in Texas history, announced he will leave the school and pursue the NFL. It’s the logical move for an orangeblood that will forever hold a unique place in fans’ hearts and UT lore.

The NCAA gave every player another year of eligibility because of the pandemic, and Ehlinger toyed with the idea of coming back for a fifth season. He sidestepped every question about his future in recent weeks, saying he wanted to “enjoy every last minute” of the 2020 season. 

As great as it may sound in concept, few inside the UT football program truly thought Ehlinger was coming back. 

Ehlinger suffered a shoulder injury that sidelined him for the second half of Tuesday’s Alamo Bowl. He spent the rest of the game on headsets listening to coaches and supporting backup Casey Thompson, who threw four touchdowns in a reserve role.

Ehlinger finished his UT career with a 27-16 record as a four-year starter. He had 11,436 career passing yards, 94 touchdowns and 923 completions. All three figures rank second in UT history behind Colt McCoy. 

His résumé also includes a 1-4 record against rival Oklahoma. Ehlinger also became the first four-year starter in UT history to leave without winning at least one conference title.

Asked after the Alamo Bowl what Ehlinger meant to the program, Texas coach Tom Herman said, “I don’t have words. He’s a fierce competitor. He loves this university. He bleeds burnt orange. 

“I hate that he couldn’t finish the game,” Herman added. “But we wouldn’t be here without him and to know that he was the leader behind this senior class, being the winningest senior class since Colt McCoy, is truly remarkable.”

Sam Ehlinger finished his Texas career with a 27-16 record as a four-year starter at quarterback. He ranks behind only Colt McCoy in career passing yards, completions and touchdowns.

Ehlinger signed with UT in 2017 as the program was transitioning from Charlie Strong to Herman. But it wouldn’t have mattered who the Longhorns hired as head coach. Ehlinger was coming to Texas no matter what.

In high school, Ehlinger played for Texas ex Todd Dodge at Westlake and became the school’s all-time leader in passing yards (7,491) and touchdowns (89). Dodge became something of a father figure to Ehlinger, who lost his own father in 2013. Austin attorney Ross Ehlinger drowned while participating in the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon in the San Francisco Bay. Sam was 14 at the time.

The Ehlingers had season tickets near the 30-yard line on the east side of Royal-Memorial Stadium. When it came time for Sam to pick a school, he tried to play it cool but just couldn’t help himself. It’s still somewhat surprising that Ehlinger didn’t commit on the spot when Strong offered a scholarship.

“I do remember (Sam) calling me to say he was committing,” Jena Ehlinger, Sam’s mom, told the American-Statesman in 2018. “I was like, ‘OK.’ Chill bumps. Go for it. This is going to be awesome.”

Ehlinger wound up battling incumbent Shane Buechele for the job as a freshman in 2017. His first start came in the second game against San Jose State, but Ehlinger’s breakout came the next week at USC. 

With steel nerves, Ehlinger threw for 298 yards and two touchdowns inside The Coliseum in a rematch of the 2005 national championship game. Two plays still stand out. He threw a beautiful ball to an outstretched Collin Johnson for a 47-yard gain down the sideline. He also found another freshman, Cade Brewer, for a three-yard score in overtime. Texas wound up losing 27-24 in double OT.

Still, Ehlinger was on his way. He finished the year 2-4 as a starter but threw 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions. 

When the 2018 season began, Ehlinger was firmly entrenched as the starter. He led Texas to its first 10-win season since 2009. The run was capped by a thrilling upset win over No. 6 Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. Ehlinger famously stood on the post-game award stage and, too caught up in the moment, shouted “We’re ba-a-a-ck!” 

He caught so much grief over it, Ehlinger later joked that he wished he could take it ba-a-a-ck.

Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger celebrates after the Longhorns' 28-21 Sugar Bowl win over sixth-ranked Georgia at the end of the 2018 season.

Ehlinger’s junior season would be his best statistically. He threw for 3,663 yards and 32 touchdowns under the guidance of offensive coordinator Tim Beck, who is now at North Carolina State. In leading Texas to an 8-5 season, Ehlinger had a career-high .652 completion percentage.

This season, Ehlinger had to shoulder a heavy load. The pandemic brought its own challenges, and the locker room had an internal rift when social justice issues rose to the forefront over the summer. 

Ehlinger walked with several Black teammates to the State Capitol after the death of George Floyd. He also became the unlikely face of the controversy surrounding “The Eyes of Texas” school song. 

Several teammates pushed for UT to address the song’s perceived racist origins, and some band members even refused to play it. The team started leaving the field early after the final horn, ending a decades-long tradition of staying on the field for the post-game singing of “The Eyes.” 

Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger walks down Bevo Boulevard with teammates ahead of the 2019 LSU game. When almost every other captain opted out at the end of this season, Ehlinger remained. “I'm just looking forward to finishing off the season enjoying the university and enjoying the teammates that I've really grown up with, and developed with, and I look forward to playing in the last few games with them for them and enjoying them,” he said.

After the Oklahoma game, Ehlinger stood on the field virtually by himself, faced UT fans in the north end zone and held up his “Hook ’em” hand sign while fans sang anyway. Photos of Ehlinger out there by himself created a huge public-relations disaster for UT, but fans’ impressions of Ehlinger were cemented — he was indeed a Longhorn.

Once Texas was eliminated from Big 12 title contention this season, players began opting out to start preparing for the NFL draft. Ehlinger acted as if that thought never crossed his mind.

“I'm just looking forward to finishing off the season enjoying the university and enjoying the teammates that I've really grown up with, and developed with, and I look forward to playing in the last few games with them for them and enjoying them,” he said.

He did just that, leading Texas to a blowout win against Kansas State and a 17-10 halftime lead over Colorado. While Ehlinger may not have played in the Alamo Bowl until the final whistle, his legacy at Texas was already secure.

“I don’t know what the future holds for him, but I know that I’m thankful for him being on our team, my team, each and every day,” Herman said afterward. “What he means to us is indescribable.”

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