This story appears in the Aug. 12, 2019, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
Sam Ehlinger promises he was not planning to say those words. You know the ones. "Big words," as Tom Herman says.
Last New Year's Day, Texas beat Georgia 28–21 in the Sugar Bowl to seal its first 10-win season since 2009. Ehlinger ran for three touchdowns, completed a two-point conversion and was named MVP, and the Longhorns' defense held one of the SEC's most physical teams to a season-low 284 total yards on 4.4 yards per play. The performance seemed like validation that, after a decade of mediocrity, Texas football had turned a corner.
"We're baaaaaack," he said, holding the 'ah' for four seconds.
Ehlinger had just completed a breakout sophomore season—his first as the starting quarterback. He had 16 rushing touchdowns to break Vince Young's single-season record (14 in 2004) for a quarterback and came close to Colt McCoy's 2008 record for most touchdowns in a season. (Ehlinger had 41, four fewer than McCoy.) While standing onstage at the Superdome surrounded by his teammates, wearing an oversized SUGAR BOWL CHAMPIONSHIP T-shirt over his bulky football pads, he was feeling good. When asked how this gritty victory might propel the program forward, Ehlinger didn't hesitate to deliver his message.
Texas has always been one of those programs that's easy to hate. "Texas is back" became a meme after the Longhorns beat Notre Dame in the 2016 season opener—and then finished 5–7 for the year. Slapping that phrase across photos celebrating Texas's minor achievements (or embarrassing mistakes) was a way for haters to poke fun at the team. Over the last decade, Texas hasn't won a Big 12 title or been a serious contender for the College Football Playoff, and the team finished a season in the Top 25 only twice. The program took big steps in 2018, but Herman has his sights set beyond a mere return to relevance. "We'll never use that phrase in our program because there's a finality to it," Herman said at Big 12 media days in July. "We'll never arrive at being back."
At the same time, Herman will cut Ehlinger some slack. The coach knows how important it is to his quarterback to be not just a part of this new era of Longhorns football, but also "a main reason for it."
The face of this comeback is a 6'3", 230-pound Austin native who was indoctrinated into the ways of Longhorns fandom at an early age. Ross and Jena Ehlinger, both Texas alums, began taking their three kids to UT games when they were babies. "I'd like to say it's not brainwashing, since they love it," Jena says, laughing. "We were the people that others would be like, 'Why are their children here? What is wrong with you people? Do they know what a babysitter is?' "
As Sam got older, his love for the Longhorns grew—especially after he figured out as a two- or three-year-old to cover his ears when Texas scored, to muffle the blast from Smokey the Cannon. When the team was on the road, his family had friends come to the house for watch parties. When the game was over and everybody went to grab food or chat, Sam stayed in front of the TV, glued to the postgame analysis or flipping channels, looking for more coverage. "He carved a football and a little Bevo into the paint of my car with a rock when he was three," Jena says. "He was very proud. 'Mom! Come look what I did!' That was his art for the day."
At Westlake High, Ehlinger broke the career passing and touchdown records set by current NFL quarterbacks (and Super Bowl champions) Drew Brees and Nick Foles. He led the Chaparrals to the 6A Division I state championship game in 2015 and established himself as one of the top dual-threat prospects in the country. His first college offer came from Herman, who was then at Houston. But Ehlinger quickly committed to Texas (and coach Charlie Strong) before his junior year.
Even though the Longhorns went 24–26 during the four years Ehlinger was in high school, nothing could sway him from wanting to play at Texas. Westlake coach Todd Dodge, who played quarterback for the Longhorns in the early 1980s, remembers how often Ehlinger talked about how he couldn't wait to be part of the program and help get Texas back into championship contention. (Ehlinger was the first QB coached by Dodge in more than 30 years to go on to play for Texas.) Jena remembers people trying to talk him out of going there. "He never wavered," Jena says. "If anything, it made him more determined and added fuel."
A little negative talk meant nothing to a kid who had already faced tremendous adversity. When Ehlinger was in eighth grade, Ross, then 46, died of an apparent heart attack while competing in the swimming portion of the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon. As the oldest child, Ehlinger felt pressure to grow up in a hurry. He immediately tried to be a father figure for his brother, Jake (now a freshman walk-on linebacker at Texas), and sister, Morgen (a junior cheerleader at Westlake). And he did his best to be there for his mom, too, even though she knew he needed to grieve as well. But he was determined.
"If you ever want him to really light up, ask him about Jake or Morgen," Dodge says. "I'll tell him something Jake did [on the football field] or say I saw Morgen cheering, and he'll just light up."
When Ehlinger arrived at Texas in the spring of 2017 after graduating high school a semester early, he already exuded the kind of leadership the program was craving. "The day Sam came in, he took control," senior defensive end Malcolm Roach says. "He was a guy that was easy to follow. A guy who always spoke up. Led with confidence—even when he was doing the wrong things. Anybody who's working hard like him is easy to respect."
During his freshman season, Ehlinger did plenty of "wrong things." While splitting time with Shane Buechele—who would transfer to SMU after the 2018 season—Ehlinger threw game-clinching interceptions against Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, and he fumbled at the goal line in a 27–24 double-overtime loss to USC. He didn't have a grasp of the offense and wasn't used to the speed of the defenses he was facing. Every game was survival mode. But he was learning and growing—and always motivated by the memory of his father. He had the race number Ross used in the Alcatraz race tattooed on his rib cage in Roman numerals: MDLXVI. Jena remembers one Sunday when Sam came home after his first season. "We were halfway through dinner and Morgen looked at him and goes, 'When did you get so mature?' It was overnight."
Ehlinger was named the starter for the 2018 season opener against Maryland; he threw two fourth-quarter interceptions in the 34–29 loss.
It was only natural for self-doubt to creep in. Herman describes Ehlinger as being "shook" after that crushing defeat. But the coaches made it clear he was still the starter, which, Ehlinger says, "showed me they were real and that they really knew what I was capable of and that gave me confidence." He led Texas to six consecutive wins after that, including a thrilling 48–45 victory over No. 4 Oklahoma in the Red River Shootout, and went 10 straight games without throwing another interception.
As his national profile went up and Texas won more games, Ehlinger and his coach grew closer. They are both intense, charismatic and sarcastic—qualities that can lead them to butt heads. "Mutually respectful and mutually frustrated" is how Herman describes his relationship with Ehlinger. "We respect the heck out of each other," Herman says. "I would want that guy in my foxhole any day of the week. Whatever cliché you want to use—in a bar fight, whatever—I want that guy by my side in times of adversity."
Herman recently told a story from a game last season in which Texas had a big lead. After a scoring drive, Ehlinger hopped on the headset to make sure the coaches weren't going to take it easy.
"He's feeling himself, and he goes, 'Are we gonna keep the foot on the gas or are we gonna get all conservative again?' " Herman recalled. "I said, 'Hey, listen here. You play. I'll coach. All right?' And then we hug when it's over."
Of Herman, Jena says, "Sam loves him and respects him and trusts him implicitly. I know they talk about other things besides football—personal things. Sam trusts his judgment and advice on things. Almost like a father."
If one play could represent the Longhorns' turnaround, it would be the third-and-21 they faced on the opening series of the third quarter against Oklahoma last October. Lil'Jordan Humphrey caught a tunnel screen near the line of scrimmage. The 6'6", 225-pound wideout, who will play for the Saints in 2019, turned a 10-yard catch into a 19-yard gain when he and his linemen dragged several OU defenders down the field to set up fourth-and-two. Texas converted on a seven-yard run by Ehlinger and ultimately scored to go up by 14 points on the Sooners. "That's a culture play," Roach says, repeating what Herman said to his assistants on the headset that day.
There's no reason to believe the Longhorns' forward progress won't continue into 2019. They have a fiery, passionate and vocal leader at quarterback who knows how to deal with effusive praise as well as direct criticism. This summer he faced a bunch of the latter. Former Oklahoma and current Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, who is also from Austin and went to Westlake rival Lake Travis, took a shot at the Texas QB during an interview with a Norman, Okla. radio station. "He doesn't like me, and I hope he knows I don't like him either." A week later, Terry Bradshaw got his turn while speaking at his alma mater Louisiana Tech, which opens the season at Texas. Bradshaw ranted about the amount of five-star quarterbacks who commit to Texas and said of Ehlinger, "He ain't that good." Though he may secretively use it as motivation this season, Ehlinger believes those comments are "irrelevant."
He’s more focused on having plenty of offensive weapons at his disposal, including 6'6", 220-pound senior receiver Collin Johnson and running back Keaontay Ingram, who packed on 15 pounds of muscle and is poised for a breakout sophomore year. Questions abound about the defense, which lost eight senior starters from last year's team, but talented players from Herman's consecutive third-ranked recruiting classes will have an opportunity to prove themselves. And they’ll need to if Texas is going to legitimately compete with Oklahoma, a College Football Playoff regular, and Texas A&M, which is gaining momentum under Jimbo Fisher and won some key in-state recruiting battles in 2019.
Yes, there's plenty of (mostly positive) chatter around Texas football these days, and it's been a while since that was the case. Does this mean they are, dare we say, back? Maybe. But if anyone is going to get them all the way there, it's Sam Ehlinger.