‘The hay is never in the barn’: Sam Ehlinger confronts doubters, NFL questions head-on in draft prep
FORT WORTH — The question came among the slew that NFL draft prospects inevitably receive, this time from one of the league’s 32 general managers.
“He was asking me why his head coach was telling the GM to go get me,” Sam Ehlinger told USA Today last Thursday from the APEC gym where he has trained for the NFL draft.
Why, the general manager asked the Longhorns quarterback, did the head coach so appreciate Ehlinger’s style of play?
“I think it’s the combination of emotion and intelligence,” Ehlinger said he told the general manager. “From truly being an emotional leader and being an operator of the offense, and then also having the football intelligence to be able to understand defenses and understand your offense at a high level.”
The GM quipped: “Did you script that?”
Ehlinger promised he didn’t.
After 43 starts for Texas the last four seasons, the former Westlake star is a prospect about whom league evaluators simultaneously know much and yet have plenty to predict.
It’s a paradox that befits a 22-year-old who transitions with almost uncanny fluidity from a smile reminding coaches of the cartoon strip “Calvin and Hobbes” to a glare that signals intense immersion into the task at hand.
“He has that Opie Taylor Boy Scout look,” Ehlinger’s personal quarterbacks coach Jeff Christensen told USA Today. “But inside, he’s a vicious, vicious competitor.”
That competitor in Ehlinger makes it clear: He desires and believes he is capable of becoming an eventual NFL starter. But he’s realistic about the ground he’ll likely be expected to cover before attaining that goal.
Which leads Ehlinger back to a family-favorite “control what you can control” mantra, a work ethic teammates study to mirror and a relentlessness that warrants fellow Longhorn NFL prospects labeling him as the physically and mentally toughest member of their college team.
“I love his competitiveness,” said ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay, who projects Ehlinger as a “late-round, probably Day 3” selection. “He can run, he’s got great pocket presence, he’s physical, he’s tough. He takes care of the football.
“But what he’s got to do is get with someone who can actually help improve his consistency with his deep-ball accuracy and his overall accuracy as a quarterback.”
'That's what people missed on Dak'
It’s 9:47 a.m. on a Wednesday in Fort Worth, and Ehlinger is cramming in just a few more throws under Christensen’s guidance in an empty indoor football arena down the street from APEC.
“Shuffle. Shuffle. Close your eyes,” Christensen directs before issuing a chorus of “yes, yes, yes” when Ehlinger’s closed-eye throw hits his receiver just as accurately as his visible heave had.
Ehlinger’s goals in these sessions are multifaceted: He aims to quicken his release and tighten his mechanics, to increase his spin rate and velocity while also rhythmically incorporating clean footwork. In the week before he learns his draft fate, Ehlinger meets Christensen alternately at this indoor arena and the sprawling outdoor field of nearby All Saints’ Episcopal School, the backdrop shifting but technical recommendations consistent.
“Do you have nephews or nieces yet? Rocking the baby,” Christensen compares the need to release tension in one session. “Go babysit. Get the rhythm with the ball.”
Christensen asks repeatedly how the motion feels for his budding quarterback, pleased when Ehlinger reports he’s “still pretty damn tight” after a series of accurate intermediate throws. "That means," Christensen responds, "your wrist and fingers are operating at a high level.”
Following the lead of Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, Ehlinger is working position fundamentals with Christensen and body mechanics with performance coaches from the Fort Worth APEC gym. There, more than a month after Ehlinger’s pro day has passed, he joins NFL players including former Longhorn teammates for sessions to bolster speed and strength as well as agility, flexibility and recovery.
“It’s like I went from majoring in business in school to kind of majoring in my body and what it takes to be successful at the next level,” said Ehlinger, who graduated from Texas in December. “The way I’m able to move and utilize different angles and optimize the biomechanics of my body using the strength to my advantage. ...Letting my body work for me instead of working against my body.”
Bobby Stroupe, APEC’s founder whose NFL clientele includes Mahomes, has overseen what he deems Ehlinger's transformation from physically preparing like a fullback to physically preparing like a quarterback.
Stroupe points to Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott as an ideal model for Ehlinger’s postcollege development.
“If he continues to improve at this rate, what will he be in 12 months and in 36 months?” Stroupe told USA Today. “That’s what people missed on Dak: They did not say, ‘Wow, he’s had substantial improvement.’ They just acted like, ‘This is who the guy is going to be in perpetuity.’”
Stroupe is careful to emphasize he’s not suggesting Ehlinger’s current capabilities equate to those of Prescott. But “his eval is on par with Dak’s (entering the draft),” Stroupe says. “What’s interesting is I’ve talked to a handful of teams that agree as well.”
Ehlinger isn’t Prescott — Prescott’s collegiate stats were more efficient by air and ground — but the Cowboys QB exemplifies how a dual-threat, still-developing passer would marry high intellect, elite leadership and coachability with physical tools needing further development.
Ehlinger aimed to show his intellectual growth trajectory as he methodically studied the Dolphins’ offense at the Senior Bowl to master protections and route concepts, including more checks and kills than he had handled in college. He aimed to display that physiological development the week of his pro day, when his vertical jump hit 36 1/2 inches in addition to Stroupe posting video of Ehlinger sailing each a 77-yard deep ball and 58-mph dart.
“You’ve got to answer the questions,” Stroupe said. “My job is go find the (expletive)-talking and prove to them that they’re wrong so the kid can move on with his eval.”
It’s a fine line between resolving immediate issues and prioritizing long-term development, a balance Ehlinger and those around him are careful to strike. Stroupe and his colleagues innovate drills to target both, including their Friday quarterback session during which Ehlinger was tasked with running, skipping and laterally shuffling around the center of a basketball court awaiting a clap from one of four receivers flanking each corner of the court. The more adeptly he can nail the receiver while askew and in motion, the better.
“To improve the neurological and physiological components,” Stroupe says, “that help quarterbacks solve problems on the field.”
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'Humble and hungry'
While at Texas, Ehlinger was tasked with solving — or at least confronting — a host of problems off the field. In 2020 alone, he was navigating the global pandemic, racial unrest that prompted questions on both society and school traditions, a coach on the hot seat and coordinator changes. Ehlinger, who turned 22 last September, set the tone first with his actions. He spearheaded a pandemic relief GoFundMe that provided more than 150,000 meals, and he produced a raw video in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
“I’ve had some of the most important deep conversations I’ve had with him,” former Texas safety Caden Sterns said of the quarterback who learned vulnerability and strength quicker than he intended after his father, Ross, died suddenly in 2013 during a San Francisco triathlon. Sam was 14.
“He’s that guy who’s going to be vocal and speak when nobody wants to,” receiver Brennan Eagles added. “At the end of the day, Sam’s going to be the type of person I can invite to my wedding.”
Ehlinger knows intangibles alone don’t win NFL jobs or draft spots in a league in which 10 to 15 quarterbacks have been drafted each year since 2016. But those close to him look to his leadership as a trait that will further stabilize whatever roster he joins, his football intelligence an asset in any quarterback room he contributes to. His 27 wins fell far short of his championship goals at Texas but “being able to lead the program through such adverse times,” he says, “we didn’t sink completely like we could have.”
Add in a résumé with more than 11,000 passing yards and 1,500 rushing yards, just the second such one in Power Five college football history, and Ehlinger is confident he’ll also leave his next organization better than he finds it.
Doubt him? He welcomes it.
"When people are hating or talking trash, if they think that it’s actually hurting anybody, it’s actually helping me,” Ehlinger said. “So I appreciate them more than they know. … Tweeting or commenting, some hater messaging me — that’s not hurting me in any sort of way from being driven.
“That’s actually helping me and giving me more motivation. So I appreciate the haters.”
He’ll carry that fuel into the next set of dropbacks with Christensen, the next sled he pushes at APEC and the next so-long-his-face-turns-red plank that performance coaches assign.
Ehlinger’s high school coach Todd Dodge, who led Westlake last season to a defense of the Texas high school state championship, thinks back to how Ehlinger embraced his last transition to the next level.
“He’s stayed as humble and hungry as any human being I’ve ever been around in that position,” Dodge told USA Today. “You know the old deal, ‘The hay’s in the barn’? Sam’s never one of those. The hay is never in the barn.
“He’s always got something to work on.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.