AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — To see the progress by No.19 Texas, look no further than quarterback Sam Ehlinger.
The Longhorns (4-1, 2-0) finally look like a Big 12 contender again and the sophomore quarterback is quietly putting together the kind of season that can earn a place in the school record book. He wins games, too.
While No. 7 Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray is putting the sizzle into a re-energized Sooners-Longhorns rivalry, it’s been Ehlinger’s steady, mistake-free play that has Texas off to its best start in years.
“He’s more confident in himself and more confident that other people have confidence in him,” senior defensive end Charles Omenihu said. “I think that was a big thing for him, just understanding everybody is behind him and we believe he can lead this team.”
Ehlinger spent his freshman season on the run behind an offensive line that couldn’t protect him; he had a tendency to tuck the ball and take off at the first sing of pressure. He was the Longhorns’ leading rusher last season with 381 yards. Thick and muscular at 6-foot-3, 235 pounds, Ehlinger’s bullish running style led to some head-rattling collisions, both for defenders and himself. He had to sit out a game last season because of a concussion.
It’s his growth as a passer than has helped the Longhorns take a big leap forward.
Ehlinger has thrown for at least 200 yards and a touchdown in the first five games, becoming just the fourth Texas quarterback to do that and the first in a decade. His decision-making his become sharper as he checks down through his reads to find outlet receivers who pick up key first downs.
He’s also cleaned up mistakes that cost Texas dearly last season. After four turnovers in the first two games — including two in the fourth quarter of a season-opening loss at Maryland — he has none over the last three. His current streak of 128 pass attempts without an interception is third-best in school history.
“He’s real good in the pocket. He’s really the passion of their time right now … the heartbeat of their offense,” Oklahoma linebacker Kenneth Murray said. “I like what I see from him on tape.”
Ehlinger is still running. It’s just that Texas is more selective in calling his number. Ehlinger averages 2.8 yards but has produced big first downs when the Longhorns needed them.
Two came late in the final drive to kill the game in last week’s 19-14 win at Kansas State , the Longhorns’ first win in Manhattan, Kansas, since 2002 and the kind of game Texas likely would have given away in recent years. With all momentum behind Kansas State in the fourth quarter, Texas got the ball with 6:20 to play. Ehlinger threw for a first down, ran for two more and Texas chewed the clock until time ran out.
“I think in gotta-have-it run situations, I think that’s where he shows up probably the most right now,” coach Tom Herman said. “Third-and-short, goal line, trying to end the game, run the clock out, when everybody in the stadium pretty much knows you’re going to run the football.”
Next up is the Texas-Oklahoma rivalry game on Saturday, a 3½-hour pressure cooker that can rattle the savviest of players. Played at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas amid the Texas State Fair, the game takes on a carnival atmosphere with fans evenly split down the middle of the 92,000-seat stadium.
Ehlinger was just the third true freshman Texas quarterback to start against the Sooners last year. He passed for 278 yards and a touchdown and ran for a score against the Sooners. He also got shaken up on a hard hit in the fourth quarter and threw the ball away with a game-killing mistake when it appeared he didn’t realize it was fourth down on Texas’ final drive.
“I’m a completely different player from last year,” Ehlinger said. “I think a year ago I thought I understood and thought I was well prepared … but the year of experience and (knowing) what to expect, has made all the difference.”