Column: Despite Herman’s wavering, Ehlinger clear answer at quarterback

Michael Shapiro

As the Longhorns prepare for their matchup with Oklahoma at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas on Saturday, head coach Tom Herman has been tight-lipped about the question on every burnt orange fan’s mind: Who will get the starting nod at quarterback against the Sooners?

“I don’t think we’re ready to make that decision until we see how healthy Shane (Buechele) is,” Herman said at his monday press conference. “It doesn’t do me any good to tell you, even if I did know, because I kind of like having the defense have to prepare for two (quarterbacks). So I doubt if you’re going to hear anything from me throughout the course of the week.”

But as cryptic as Herman wants to be regarding his quarterback situation, the decision over who he should start on Saturday afternoon has become increasingly clear over the past week. Freshman Sam Ehlinger gives the Longhorns the best chance to take down the favored Sooners, not sophomore and opening-day starter Shane Buechele. 

It’s almost unfair the way in which Buechele has ceded the starting spot five weeks into the season. After setting freshman records in passing yards and touchdowns in 12 starts last season, he’s spent much of 2017 on the mend, battling shoulder and ankle injuries suffered against Maryland in Week 1 and against Iowa State three weeks later. Buechele entered the season as the clear starter for Herman’s squad, but injuries opened the door for his competition. 

With Buechele nursing injuries, in came Ehlinger, the Westlake product and No. 4 dual-threat quarterback recruit in the country per 247sports. He looked shaky for much of Texas’ contest at then-No. 4 USC, but he did lead Texas down the field in the final minute, tying the game with a 14-play, 91-yard drive. 

Ehlinger’s success in Los Angeles could have been written off as a flash in the pan prior to last Saturday. However, Texas’ victory over Kansas State provided another display as to why Ehlinger is the right man moving forward. The numbers for the freshman were impressive (380 yards passing and two touchdowns along with 107 yards on the ground), but even more striking was the manner in which Ehlinger commanded Herman’s offensive scheme.

At 6 foot 2 inches and 230 pounds, Ehlinger is simply a more imposing force than Buechele. He’s unafraid the lower his shoulder and invite contact from opposing defenders, taking near-glee in running over a linebacker or defensive back. Regardless of whether Herman admits it, Ehlinger possesses an physicality and dynamism that Buechele does not. 

Ehlinger’s teammates have taken notice of his physical prowess as well. While Buechele has struggled to stay healthy among the litany of hits he’s taken from opposing defenders, Ehlinger by contrast has looked to dish out hits of his own. 

“Sam has no fear of anybody coming towards him,” junior offensive lineman Patrick Vahe said. “He doesn’t hesitate whatsoever when it comes to hitting another defender … So it’s pretty exciting to see our quarterback get down and dirty like that.”

It’s a shame that Buechele must now relinquish the starting spot, especially after showing such promise in 2016. But in a Tom Herman offense reliant on athleticism from the quarterback position, the choice is now clear. Ehlinger gives the Longhorns the best chance to win at the Cotton Bowl on Saturday, as well as the Big 12 title at the end of the season.