In the eight years since the final game of quarterback Colt McCoy’s illustrious college career, a 37–21 loss to Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game, Texas has become college football’s preeminent paper tiger, defined by its preseason hype instead of its on-field success. The post-McCoy era in Austin has featured three coaches and just four winning seasons, but there’s a familiar intoxicating promise about 2018, with the Longhorns sitting No. 23 in the preseason AP poll and fans believing that for the first time in a long time, this year really is different.
In his first year in charge of a program that had languished in the first part of 2010s under Mack Brown and Charlie Strong, head coach Tom Herman did lead Texas to a bowl victory, but late-game collapses against Texas Tech and Oklahoma State left the Longhorns closer to the Big 12’s cellar than its peak at season’s end.
The infrastructure is in place for Herman to turn the tide in 2018, having brought in the nation’s No. 3 recruiting class (according to the 247Sports composite ratings) to bolster an already-impressive defense and reeled in coveted Rice graduate transfer Calvin Anderson to shore up the offensive line. But as usual, Texas’s success will hinge on its quarterback play.
Before assessing whether sophomore Sam Ehlinger, who won the starting job this month, is up to the task of leading Texas out of irrelevance, it’s worth remembering the quarterbacks who have tried and failed to do just that since McCoy graduated. Starting with the 2010 season, the Longhorns have trotted out seven signal callers in eight seasons, with just one (David Ash) topping 20 starts and none starting more than eight games in multiple years.
The constant change hasn’t been caused by a continual swell of incoming talent, either. Texas is just 53–48 over the past eight years, trotting out a younger brother (Case McCoy) and two future wide receiver converts (Tyrone Swoopes and Jerrod Heard) in an attempt to effectively replace Colt McCoy. David Ash’s run of relative stability in 2011 and ’12 was promising, but it ended after a string of concussions, while Garrett Gilbert went from the nation’s top QB recruit in ’09 to tossing 10 touchdowns and 17 picks in his lone season as a starter. It’s no wonder why Oklahoma, with extended starting tenures for first Landry Jones and then Baker Mayfield this decade, has largely dominated the conference.
Ehlinger beat out junior Shane Buechele for the starting spot in fall practice after the two split time last season. Could he be the one to rescue Texas from its string of quarterback disappointments?
Let’s start with the reasons for optimism. At 6'2" and 230 pounds, Ehlinger looks the part of the quarterbacks Herman tutored as Ohio State’s offensive coordinator and QB coach: big, physical and certainly unafraid of contact. Ehlinger proved to be Texas’s most effective rushing threat last year, and while much of that can be attributed to the Longhorns’ abysmal backfield, he was a force to be reckoned with both in short yardage and outside the pocket. His 22-carry, 106-yard performance against Oklahoma last season nearly lifted Texas to victory in the Red River Showdown, while the rest of the Longhorns’ rushers combined for 29 yards on 17 attempts.
Ehlinger isn’t cut from the same cloth as a player like Swoopes, who did damage on the ground in both 2014 and ’15 but never proved he had the complete set of skills from the pocket the Longhorns needed. Last year Ehlinger proved his arm could be a difference-maker, fitting the ball into tight windows and giving rangy wideouts Collin Johnson and Lil’Jordan Humphrey opportunities in single coverage.
Down 14–10 in the fourth quarter on the road at USC, Ehlinger engineered a 14-play, 91-yard touchdown drive that gave the Longhorns a lead with under a minute to play. His flashed his full arsenal on the drive, connecting on a deep ball to Johnson and threading a strike to Armanti Foreman on the run for the go-ahead score. The latter play featured Ehlinger at his best: escaping pressure, rolling right and firing with accuracy. Outgunned and often running for his life in the Coliseum, Ehlinger looked more like a polished veteran than a freshman in the Longhorns’ 27–24 double-overtime loss.
If Ehlinger had replicated his USC performance throughout the 2017 campaign, there would be boundless optimism in Austin as Week 1 arrives. But as brightly as Ehlinger shined in his best moments, his lows tanked Texas in multiple contests, giving away games with backbreaking turnovers. The youngster tossed perhaps the season’s worst interception in overtime against Oklahoma State, then ruined the Longhorns’ chances at a winning regular-season record by tossing two fourth-quarter picks in the finale against Texas Tech. Those turnovers kept Ehlinger from seizing the starting role, pushing the battle into this summer.
Ehlinger also has to prove he can hold up over the long haul. His physicality did fuel the Longhorns’ ground game, but it also led to a rash of unnecessary hits, including multiple to the head. Ehlinger spent the week following the Oklahoma State game in concussion protocol, and probably should have done the same after he took a nasty hit in Dallas against the Sooners. Having seen Ash’s career end due to head injuries in the recent past, fans will be holding their breath if Ehlinger takes as much of a beating as he did in 2017.
Herman’s announcement gives Texas a defined Week 1 starter for the first time since 2014. With a vote of confidence from the head coach in hand, Ehlinger won’t have time to ease into the season.
The Longhorns open against Maryland at FedEx Field in Landover, then face USC, TCU and Oklahoma before the season’s midpoint. Another disappointing season will turn up the heat on Herman and possibly erode the program’s confidence in Ehlinger—Buechele or freshman Cameron Rising could get a turn under center before season’s end.
The pieces are there for Ehlinger to raise Texas above its recent run of mediocrity. There’s top-end talent at receiver and depth at running back, plus a retooled line that is strong on the left side. With many of the Big 12’s preseason contenders dealing with quarterback uncertainty, the Longhorns are presented with their best chance to compete for the conference title in nearly a decade. It will be up to Ehlinger to make that a reality, or else fall by the wayside as Texas continues its search for an answer at quarterback.