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Insider: If called on to replace Carson Wentz, Sam Ehlinger will stick to what makes him unique

Nate Atkins
Indianapolis Star

For his first 16 weeks in the NFL, Sam Ehlinger has had the same practice routine: When the Colts first-team offense is on the field, he's lined up somewhere behind Carson Wentz.

He takes the mental reps that Wentz does. He knows the play call and what the first read is, so from the hike to the drop back, everything is the same. But when it comes time to plant and throw, the sixth-round rookie from Texas takes the football that's in his hands and lets his mind and heart decide what's next.

The act is something beyond mimicry. It is, perhaps, how a quarterback learns to be a backup for the first time in a while.

"In training camp, I was kind of just trying to stay afloat: figure out the plays, figure out what the heck I’m supposed to be doing on each play," Ehlinger said. "Now that I’m comfortable in the offense, I’ve been around, I see how a practice schedule flows, I’m really able to understand the offense but also be what a quarterback is supposed to be."

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Ehlinger is trying to learn Frank Reich's offense alongside Carson Wentz, a quarterback who has run it in three seasons between two teams. But he's also trying to become his own style of quarterback. He knows a time will come when he has to be on the field and Wentz won't be there to follow.

That time could be Sunday. Wentz is currently recovering from COVID-19, a virus he isn't vaccinated for, with hopes to make it back before the Colts play the Raiders.

Indianapolis Colts rookie quarterback Sam Ehlinger could make his first career start Sunday against the Las Vegas Raiders if starter Carson Wentz can't make it back from COVID-19 symptoms in time.

At Wednesday's practice, Ehlinger was under center with the first-team offense for the first time this season. Wentz was quarantined in his home. So Ehlinger just continued what he'd been doing all year behind him, knowing now it could count for something this week.

The Colts have explored other options at quarterbacks, guys who have been there and done some more. They called Philip Rivers, last year's starter and eight-time Pro Bowler, who is enjoying retirement in California. They have sixth-year veteran Brett Hundley on the roster, and he started nine games for an injured Aaron Rodgers four years ago.

But they've named Ehlinger the fill-in quarterback for this week. If it happens, it'll be a challenge for a rookie who has yet to attempt a pass in the NFL. But they've watched him take those mental reps and diagnose them for 16 weeks, and in small pieces, they've reminded them of why they wanted him in the first place.

"He’s got that ‘it’ factor. I mean, everyone who has ever been around the guy says it," Reich said. "Sometimes you say that (when) somebody flashes here or there. Sam has been flashing in these moments his whole life. He’s come up big in moments like this time after time again.

"So, he has those innate characteristics and qualities, that really I think he’s built for something like this.”

Part of Ehlinger's process has been understanding what he is and isn't in relation to Wentz in this offense. They are two inches apart in height, and they were drafted five rounds apart for a reason.

Sam Ehlinger started 43 games at the University of Texas, where he threw 94 touchdowns to 27 interceptions.

That snapshot has also been an advantage for the coaches, who have a former NFL quarterback as a head coach and play caller in Reich and a former Canadian Football League quarterback as offensive coordinator in Marcus Brady.

"He doesn’t have as big of an arm as Carson," Brady said of Ehlinger. "He’s going to run around a little bit more than Carson."

If needed, Ehlinger will rely on the experience he does have from 43 starts in the Big 12 Conference at Texas. He'll also lean on what's around him. He has Pro Bowlers up front in left guard Quenton Nelson and center Ryan Kelly, both due back this week. He has a 6-foot-4 receiver in Michael Pittman on one side. And he has the NFL's leading rusher in Jonathan Taylor behind him.

The players he's pretended to play with each day in practice can help make the moment small.

"There's certainly a lot worse positions to step into as a backup quarterback," Ehlinger said.

"I’ve had a lot of crazy life events thrown at me in times where I have to step up. I’m so thankful for those opportunities because it has prepared me for moments like this."

Contact Indianapolis Colts insider Nate Atkins at natkins@indystar.com. Follow him on Twitter @NateAtkins_.