As the Longhorns prepare for Thursday’s matchup with Iowa State, one question lingers over head coach Tom Herman and his offensive coaching staff: Who’s going to get the starting nod at quarterback?
Standing in one corner of the quarterback battle is true freshman Sam Ehlinger, who took the reigns for the Longhorns in their Sept. 16 loss to now No. 5 USC.The Westlake High School product looked shaky for much of the first half against the Trojans. He failed to get on the same page as sophomore center Zach Shackelford while finding himself flushed from the pocket on a bevy of snaps.
Despite the first-half mishaps, Ehlinger’s natural talent rose as the game continued, culminating in a 14-play, 91-yard touchdown drive to take the lead with 45 seconds remaining. The Longhorns ultimately fell in double overtime, but Ehlinger’s poise and moxie under pressure endeared him to the burnt orange faithful.
Ehlinger’s late-game heroics created a true quarterback controversy. Many have called for the freshman to replace opening-day starter Shane Buechele, who led the Longhorns in all 12 contests in 2016. But Herman wasn’t ready to cede the starting role to Ehlinger on Monday following Texas’ loss, telling the media, “When we start practice Tuesday, (Buechele) will get the majority of the reps... If Shane is 100 percent and having great practices, then Shane will start.”
Buechele brings experience to Texas’ offense as a sophomore, while Ehlinger adds a dose of dynamism, especially in the running game. So who should start at quarterback? It’s a murky question, and one that may not resolve itself within the first few games of Big 12 play.
But one thing is sure regarding Texas’ quarterback carousel: whoever Herman opts to go with on Thursday night, he needs to stick with as the game goes on. As the old adage goes, if you have two quarterbacks, you have zero quarterbacks.
Herman experimented with multiple quarterbacks against the Trojans, opting to rotate in wide receiver/emergency quarterback Jerrod Heard for quarterback run packages numerous times during the contests. But the change-of-pace formations didn’t result in any big gains for the Longhorns. Instead, entering Heard at quarterback took Ehlinger out of his rhythm.
Take Texas’ first series of the fourth quarter. Trailing the Trojans 14-10 with 12:47 left in regulation, Ehlinger started the Longhorn drive with a 17-yard completion to sophomore wide receiver Collin Johnson. The play marked Texas’ fourth gain of 15 or more yards on the night, adding a burst to the Longhorn offense that had remained stagnant for most of the evening.
But instead of capitalizing on the gain and allowing Ehlinger to continue, Herman opted to put in Heard for a quarterback draw. The junior was swallowed up after a four-yard gain, and three plays later, junior punter Michael Dickson trotted onto the field to cede possession to the Trojans. Yet another drive was squandered after pulling Ehlinger for one play.
Heard is likely to shift back to wide receiver for Thursday’s contest, but the principle still applies regarding the battle between Buechele and Ehlinger. Young quarterbacks need to find a rhythm to succeed, with the most success coming following a big play or string of completions.
Subbing Buechele out for Ehlinger (or vice versa) will only squash that rhythm, and draw the Longhorn offense to a halt. Regardless of which quarterback Herman starts Thursday, he must be prepared to leave him in the game for the duration of the contest. Sharing reps in practice is healthy, but doing so during a game is a recipe for disaster.