Texas’ football season ended over a month ago, but the offseason can be a time for both reflection and for looking forward to next fall. This piece will be the first of several deep dives into the performances of some of the key players from 2019. Each player will have a variety of criteria to look at. For example, the season goals for a sophomore linebacker such as Joseph Ossai are different from a freshman wide receiver such as Jake Smith.
The current face of Texas football is rising senior quarterback Sam Ehlinger. Heading into 2019, there were national expectations for Ehlinger to break out after his Sugar Bowl proclamation of the Horns’ long-awaited return to the elites of college football. His face was one of four to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated before the 2019 season began. On top of that, 2018 Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray and Will Grier were bound for the NFL, leaving a void for top dog among Big 12 quarterbacks.
In March 2019, months before fall camp, the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook had him tied for the ninth-best odds to capture the Heisman Trophy. Ehlinger’s first season proved he belonged on the field. His second proved he could will Texas over top opponents. Season three would mean building toward a championship and solidifying himself as one of the nation’s best quarterbacks.
In his junior campaign, Ehlinger improved on all of his passing stats. Yards, touchdowns, completion percentage and passer rating all improved from the year before. His 32 touchdown passes were the most by a Texas quarterback in 11 years. Ehlinger led the Horns and helped the offense rank in the top 20 nationally in points and yards per game.
Ehlinger also runs the ball well. While his number of rushing touchdowns dropped off, Ehlinger picked up over four yards per carry and increased his total rushing yards from the prior year by nearly 200 yards.
Ehlinger finished No. 11 in passing yards and No. 13 in rushing yards among quarterbacks. Considering he was asked to both pass and run in a balanced offense in which rush attempts and passing attempts are nearly equal, those rankings are impressive. Washington State senior Anthony Gordon finished with nearly 2,000 more passing yards than Ehlinger, but their yards per attempt were the same. Gordon just happened to be in an offense that threw the ball more than anyone else.
Ehlinger threw twice as many interceptions in his junior year than in his sophomore year. In the game at TCU, Ehlinger threw for four interceptions, which was only one less than his total for the entire 2018 season. Fortunately for Texas fans, the reasons for those interceptions are fixable.
Two of Ehlinger’s turnovers came on heaves down the field late in the game against both West Virginia and Baylor. On both plays, the pocket was clean with room to move around or find another receiver. Instead he tried to make “the big play” only to throw into double coverage.
Most of his other picks came against zone coverage. On a lot of these plays, Ehlinger never looked away from where he wanted to throw the ball. The defense was able to figure out which receiver the pass was going to and get the interception. Ehlinger likely read the defense and decided before the snap what he wanted to do.
One positive takeaway from Ehlinger’s interceptions is that only one took place in the red zone. Texas finished No. 13 in the country in red zone percentage thanks in large part to Ehlinger taking care of the football in scoring position.
Ehlinger should be praised for his performance in 2019. He distinguished himself as one of the top passers in the country while maintaining his status as a runner. Ehlinger opted to get an evaluation by the NFL draft advisory committee after his junior year but will return to Texas for the 2020 season. He knows better than anyone where he can improve. Whether or not Texas is “back,” Ehlinger is here now, and that’s something Texas fans can be excited about.