Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger (11) throws against Rice in the second half of an NCAA college football game at NRG Stadium in Houston, Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019. [Stephen Spillman for Statesman]

Football

Whys of Texas: By giving him veto power, Texas coaches bring Sam Ehlinger fully into the game plan

Junior quarterback on pace to throw for 4,000 yards, 47 TDs, which would shatter any and all previous Texas records

Posted September 18th, 2019

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The season’s first month has truly revealed how much Texas’ Sam Ehlinger has improved as a quarterback. And he’s now revealing how much the coaches trust him on the field and in the film room.

The statistics indicate the obvious. In three games, the junior from Westlake has completed 73.2 percent of his passes for 956 yards with 11 touchdowns and no interceptions. With that pace, Ehlinger could become the first UT quarterback to throw for 4,000 yards in a 13-game season. That also puts him on pace for about 47 touchdowns, which would obliterate Colt McCoy’s single-season record of 34 in 2008.

A few weeks ago, offensive coordinator Tim Beck said the challenge with Ehlinger has been “constantly refining his game.”

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“And that’s in understanding things, where we want to go with the ball, his ball placement, his stride,” Beck said. “Just little things here and there, whatever it is.”

On Tuesday, Ehlinger revealed just how much he’s gotten involved in structuring the game plan. This is a crystal-clear, tell-tale sign of how much the coaching staff trusts him and values his input.

“I think that’s something that has helped me be so comfortable with the offense at this point,” Ehlinger said. “Because the night before the game, we’ll have our call sheets and I’ll go through and will take out every play that I don’t like. And so that makes me so comfortable knowing that I’m going to be out on the field and I’m going to be running plays that I’m extremely comfortable with.”

Ehlinger said he’s getting enough practice repetitions that he knows where to go with the football and what’s expected on each play. That, in turn, correlates to making better, sharper in-game adjustments.

It’s why LSU coach Ed Orgeron said, simply put, “We couldn’t stop ’em.” There was no doubt in Orgeron’s mind that if Texas got the ball one more time, the Tigers would be in real trouble. LSU wound up winning a one-possession game.

“If coach wants to run a certain play versus a certain look, because of what they’re giving us in that game,” Ehlinger said, “he’ll ask me first and say, ‘Are you good with that? What do you think about this? What are you seeing? What do you want to run?’ So, I think it’s been great to have that kind of open slate conversation back and forth just so I can be really comfortable.”

Texas Longhorns quarterback Sam Ehlinger (11) warms up before completing against Rice Owls during an NCAA football game at NRG Stadium in Houston Texas on Saturday, September 14, 2019. [RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

What exactly constitutes a play Ehlinger doesn’t want to run?

“There are so many different variables that go into it,” Ehlinger said. “Maybe I don’t like the protection, I’m not comfortable with what we’re doing up front. Or, I’m not comfortable with how long the route concept takes to develop. Or, what I see on film and what I think is going to work opposed to really what’s going on and what I’m feeling and practice. Or, type of throws that I like.

“I mean, there are so many variables that go into it,” he added. “There have been plays that have been taken off for multiple different reasons.”

This is high-level thinking, Texas fans. And it’s a responsibility that few quarterbacks have been given this decade, possibly none since McCoy left campus after the 2009 season.

And to think, Ehlinger hasn’t even started Big 12 play as a junior yet.

On to this week’s (sometimes salty) mailbag …

As a subscriber, I politely decline your generous offer to help you write your column for free. — Ron

OK, this was not a 1-0 start. We do love all subscribers, though.

Texas running back Keaontay Ingram (26) scores a touchdown past Rice cornerback Andrew Bird (15) in the first half of an NCAA college football game at NRG Stadium in Houston, Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019. [Stephen Spillman for Statesman]

Until Texas can line up and run the ball successfully WITH A RUNNING BACK on 4th and 2, can Texas really be considered in the CFP discussion? — @ZipDoDaDay

Zip does not appear to be a fan of moving a quarterback — oh, I don’t know, someone like Roschon Johnson, for example —  to the running back position at a critical time of need.

Remember, the only reason Johnson was moved was because of mass-scale injuries. Jordan Whittington (sports hernia), Daniel Young (high ankle sprain) and Kirk Johnson (shoulder) and Derrian Brown (head) were all sidelined for one reason or another.

Whittington was the only one of those four to make it to the season opener, and then he aggravated an injury that bothered him in high school. So that left only Keaontay Ingram as UT’s lone scholarship running back.

Quite frankly, I think Johnson has been terrific as the backup. He pops off the screen, at least to my eyes. He’s averaging 4.7 yards per carry and reeled in a 25-yard touchdown catch on a wheel route against Rice. But I’d tap the brakes on saying that he’s better than Ingram, who has been a running back essentially his whole football life.

To answer your question directly, it’s still too early to gauge whether Texas can or will get back into the CFP mix with this current crop of running backs — Ingram, Johnson and now Young, who was cleared to return last Wednesday. Let’s circle back to the CFP issue after the Oklahoma game.

When is a realistic return for Jordan Whittington? I’m not convinced with Keaontay and Roschon is serviceable so far, but Whitt potentially brings another dimension. — Chad

When UT coach Tom Herman first announced Whittington’s diagnosis on Sept. 2, he said the freshman would probably miss six weeks. Whittington was headed to Philadelphia to see renowned surgeon Dr. William Meyers, the same guy the pros use.

Texas running back Jordan Whittington (21) runs against Louisiana Tech on Aug. 31, 2019 in Austin. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Now the question becomes what to make of Whittington’s return. Seems to me UT trainers and the Whittington family are headed toward a critical fork in the road — try and return this season or take the redshirt and get ready for 2020. Frankly, there’s a strong case for both.

Six weeks down the road, that puts Whittington’s return on track for the Kansas game, perhaps, on Oct. 19. Or maybe TCU on Oct. 26.

If Whittington rushes his recovery, could he get hurt again and not be that effective down the stretch? What if Texas is angling for a Big 12 title or shooting for the CFP? That changes everyone’s thinking. Or would it be better to get totally healthy and come back next season fully loaded?

Whittington is a hell of an athlete, to be sure. But you’ve got to think long-term in these decisions.

Although still early, which player’s development (or lack thereof) has been the biggest surprise this year? — Greg

My biggest surprise player so far has to be Devin Duvernay. The move to slot has worked wonders. Duvernay said the coaches asked him to change positions at the start of preseason practice. My, oh my, how it’s worked out. Duvernay has gone from supporting cast member to a full-fledged star. He’s got a team-high 27 catches for 269 yards and three touchdowns, and one highlight-reel smash of LSU’s Grant Delpit.

Texas receiver Devin Duvernay (6) catches a touchdown past LSU linebacker Patrick Queen (8) at Royal-Memorial Stadium on Sept. 7, 2019. [Stephen Spillman for Statesman]

On the other side of the ledger, I thought the young corners — heck, the entire secondary — would be better than what we’ve seen. Jalen Green and Kobe Boyce have been so up and down. That’s to be expected just given the position. But to be fair, the coaches said the strength of the defense was the speed in the front seven. The cornerback question was a question from day one.

After three non-conference games, Texas has the worst pass defense in the Big 12, allowing 330 yards per game. LSU’s Joe Burrow played a big role in that. But now, the defense ranks 10th out of 10 overall, too, thanks to the passing numbers.

Despite a good defensive performance in Houston, should we be sold on the CBs yet? Also, what’s holding Anthony Cook back from starting? Has always been more talented than Boyce. — Michael

Boyce had a room-service, pick-six opportunity against Rice and couldn’t haul it in. This was after he was out there waving his arms celebrating an incomplete pass against LSU only to see it completed and go for a big gain. Burrow went after Green, too. So it’s not all one cornerback’s fault.

My Twitter timeline blew up last week when I posted Todd Orlando’s comments about starting Green and Boyce against Rice. Orlando wanted them to get another game under their belt and get more confidence.

LSU running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire (22) stiff arms Texas defensive back Kobe Boyce (38) during an NCAA football game on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, in Austin, Texas. [NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

As for the starting lineup, all I can tell you is what Herman and Orlando keep saying. Starting jobs are earned in practice. Trust me, the coaches are putting who they feel are the best players on the field at each position.

Why isn’t Brennan Eagles starting over John Burt? Burt is hardly targeted and Eagles seems to be Ehlinger’s go-to deep threat and much more of a weapon. — Caleb

Burt is a senior, and Eagles is a sophomore. Sometimes you have to wait your turn, if being on the field for the game’s first play is the end-all, be-all thing. This offensive staff doesn’t really look at it that way, though. To them, the first play is just the first play. Everybody rotates, and position coaches decide who goes into the game and when.

That said, I’ve got Eagles with 14 targets in three games compared to Burt’s four. Eagles has nine catches for 203 yards and three touchdowns. Burt has one catch for 18 yards.

National champs in how many years? — Daniel

Um, how about January 2020? Heck, I don’t know. I have thought this team was probably one year away from really going for it all. If the Horns had beaten the Tigers, that timetable would have been sped up expeditiously.

With Jalen Hurts dominating at OU, do you see us beating them at the Red River Showdown and/or the Big 12 championship? Do we even get to the championship? — Odie

It’s been hard to ignore what the Sooners are doing, hasn’t it? Hurts has thrown for 880 yards with nine touchdowns so far. But he’s also the Big 12’s second-best rusher with 124.3 yards per game. Hurts’ passing and rushing has made for a killer combo so far for the 3-0 Sooners.

Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts runs in for a touchdown during the first half of the team’s NCAA college football game against UCLA on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019, in Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

I’m sticking with my preseason predictions. Texas and OU will reach the Big 12 championship game, and the loser in the Cotton Bowl will be the winner in Arlington. I really do not see one team winning both games should these two rivals meet every year like they did in 2018.

If the Texas defense holds up, what will be the biggest reason why? — Maff

For this defense to work, the Horns must keep getting pressure via the blitz. Joseph Ossai and Jeffery McCulloch must continue to play lights-out football. But it shouldn’t be all on their shoulders. This defensive front must generate its own pass rush. The secondary simply cannot get ravaged all season like it has thus far.

All that said, Oklahoma had an awful defense last year and won the Big 12. Coach Lincoln Riley was asked at Big 12 media days if defense even matters in this league, and he stiffened, not liking the question. But it’s somewhat true.

Herman and Orlando have too much pride to let the Texas defense give up chunks of yardage like that. Think about it. In the Big 12, you don’t need to be the ’85 Bears. Just be average or above-average on defense, score a bunch of points and you’ll be competitive every week.

The Texas D was torched by LSU. They will likely be lit up by Okie Lite. Is there nothing that can be changed to remedy this? — Tuxedo Yoda

Man, you guys are really worked up about this defense, huh? I understand. Oklahoma State is bringing the nation’s leading rusher (Chuba Hubbard, 521 yards, seven touchdowns) and the nation’s leading receiver (Tylan Wallace, 390 yards, six touchdowns) to Austin this weekend.

Oklahoma State receiver Tylan Wallace (2) makes a catch over Tulsa’s Brandon Johnson (8) last week. (Ian Maule/Tulsa World)

Quarterback Spencer Sanders, a redshirt freshman from Denton Ryan, ranks 14th nationally with a 181.8 pass efficiency rating.

“It’s a little different from last year, obviously with the type of skill players they that they do have,” UT safety Brandon Jones said. “But I think they’re really explosive and it’s going to be a good test for us as a defense.”

Here are some fun stats for the Cowboys. So far, coach Mike Gundy’s crew has five offensive plays that went 60 yards or more. That leads the nation. The Pokes have scored on their opening drive nine of the last 12 games.

Oh, and Gundy’s teams are 18-6 in the last 24 games decided by 10 points or less. Oh, and the Cowboys have a five-game winning streak over Texas in Austin. Oh, and OSU is 7-2 against Texas since 2010.

Think that about covers it. As of this writing, the Horns are six-point favorites.

Exactly how cold can we set the A/C this week? Can we get it down to 55 for the Mullet? — Peyton: King of the Texans

I thought Gundy had a perfect response when asked about the visiting team’s locker room at DKR this week.

“I don’t know. Somebody sent me that a week ago,” Gundy told reporters on Monday. “They have a nice facility. We’ve never had problems with air. Chris Del Conte, the athletic director, is a pretty squared away guy. I can’t imagine he would ever do that. But I would say they’ll probably have air conditioning in there.”

Head Coach Mike Gundy of the Oklahoma State Cowboys adjust his glasses before the game against the Boise State Broncos at Boone Pickens Stadium on September 15, 2018 in Stillwater, Oklahoma. The Cowboys defeated the Broncos 44-21. (Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images)

Should Oklahoma State bring extra fans just to be sure? “No,” Gundy said. “We don’t have room on the truck.”

You never heard about the visiting team’s locker room air conditioner being a problem before LSU came to town. You likely won’t hear about it being a problem now that the Tigers have gone home, either.

Why does Coach get snippy when asked questions by Statesman staff? — dacortrigtht

Um, that’s sort of the media’s job to hold them accountable, right? For what it’s worth, I can tell you after two decades of dealing with coaches, they see right through those who fawn all over them.

Do you expect some razzle-dazzle soon? Save it for OU? Halfback pass, for sure. — Slammalamma

I’m all for saving stuff for the Cotton Bowl. But when I think of razzle-dazzle the last two-plus years under Herman, certain moments stand out for incredible design and execution. I think of the Cade Brewer touchdown catch in overtime at USC in 2017. There was a drive lasting 7 minutes, 35 seconds to close out a win at Iowa State that year, too.

What stands out to me from 2018? Probably those back-to-back deep balls against OU on the first drive to get the Horns going. Obviously, you have to include the guts of going for the win at Texas Tech with a 50-50 jump ball to Lil’Jordan Humphrey and letting him make a play.

Texas tight end Cade Brewer (80) pulls the ball in for a score against USC in the first overtime their 2017 game in Los Angeles. (Ricardo B. Brazziell/American-Statesman)

And I still think the biggest moment of the year was calling Ehlinger’s number on the goal line against Georgia and punching it in on fourth-and-goal.

I do understand the question, but Herman is a gambler at his core. I’m fine with calculated gambles at the right time with well-excited plays over trickery.

Have a question for the Whys of Texas mailbag? Email Brian Davis at bdavis@statesman.com or drop a line on Twitter (@BDavisAAS).

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