In the story that is Tom Herman’s first season leading the Longhorn football program, Saturday’s win over San Jose State served several important purposes including letting a true freshman quarterback earn valuable experience and earning Herman’s first victory as head coach at UT. That first experience for Ehlinger means that this week’s matchup against the top five USC Trojans will not be his first taste of college football if called on to play or start.
For the first time this season, the depth chart listed the starting quarterback with an “OR” between Ehlinger and sophomore Shane Buechele’s name. Buechele was held out of the previous game with a shoulder injury. As a result, Texas had to use two quarterbacks; Ehlinger and junior Jerrod Heard, who functioned mostly as a runner in his snaps behind center.
Buechele’s health will play a major role in who trots out at quarterback against the USC Trojans on Saturday.
“Nothing new with Shane other than he’s getting better every day,” Herman said Monday. “We weren’t going to try to test him yesterday or today, so I think tomorrow will be a big benchmark knowing that we practice tomorrow afternoon. Every day he’s getting better. Every day is a new day. Is he better today than he was yesterday? Yes. Hopefully, he will be tomorrow and will be able to go.”
Buechele likely would have remained the starting quarterback if he were ready to play against SJSU. Since he could not go, Ehlinger received the start and helped bring the Longhorns to a 56-0 victory.
Not only has the “OR” designation been added to the depth chart, but Herman’s own language has changed. After the Maryland game, Herman called Buechele the starting quarterback and said he would play against SJSU if it was not detrimental to the team. Now?
“If Shane’s healthy, he’s got to go prove that he’s also competent in practice,” Herman said. “That’s just like any other week. I think if Shane can throw tomorrow and is fully cleared tomorrow, then he’s going to go with the ones. He’s got to obviously have a really good practice to make sure he stays with the ones on Wednesday.”
So if Buechele is not ready to go by Saturday, that means Texas will have two quarterbacks with slightly limited playbooks at their disposal.
Herman said Ehlinger will be prepared to take on the Trojans, but admitted him and offensive coordinator Tim Beck will have to “condense” the playbook for Ehlinger. He talked about a time during game planning last week where they were trying prepare Ehlinger like he was something other than a true freshman.
“Tim and I looked at each other and said ‘we can’t do that to Sam. We can’t,’” Herman said. “We’re going to do this; we’re going to try like heck to make sure we’re right and we’re going to give him very small bites of the offense so that he can get good at them and perfect them. That’s just always been our philosophy on inexperienced quarterbacks.”
To make up for those smaller bites, Herman has an experienced yet functionally limited option in Jerrod Heard. Heard ran for two scores against SJSU, but threw the ball twice for -5 yards.
Herman likes what Heard offers at quarterback, even admitting Heard would get practice reps behind center if Buechele was healthy. He also noted that Heard brings some skills to the offense other wildcat quarterbacks can’t.
“He played quarterback here at a very high level for a couple of years,” Herman said. “I think that dimension of it is a lot different than most that jog a running back or a wide receiver back there. This is a guy that’s played college quarterback for a couple of years. If you want to put a bunch of human beings in the box to stop the run, he’s capable of throwing it over your head.”
In talking about Heard, Herman made sure to say that they were optimistic that Buechele’s recovery time would be short. However, if things were to go in a different direction for the sophomore, Heard could be called upon to take up a larger role.
“Now if this thing drags on for a couple of weeks, I think that’s when you’ve got to say ‘okay big boy, let’s give you, instead of a package, you’re going to learn how to play quarterback,’” Herman said. “Two very different things. Memorizing a couple plays versus knowing the entire offense and executing it, and managing the game.”
While Texas may have three different question marks at quarterback, USC has one definitive answer in redshirt sophomore Sam Darnold.
Herman acknowledged the difficult challenge he had ahead in facing the Rose Bowl champion quarterback, saying “the things that impress me are the things that concern me.”
“I recruited him a little bit when I was at Ohio State,” Herman said. “His high school is right down the road from where my mom lives. Really football smart guy. Can make every throw in the book, really can, from all different kinds of arm angles. I think when you see him and you see his stature, you think ‘oh this guy can’t run.’ The guy can run. He’s pretty elusive.”
USC has talent outside of the quarterback position as well, including a Texan in running back Ronald Jones.
“Playing a team like USC, or really anybody left on our schedule, you’re not going to be able to mask some of those fundamental and technique errors with just effort and talent like we were on Saturday,” Herman said. “The guys see that. They’re hungry. They want to keep getting better. They like the feeling of improvement. I think they’re proud, too, but they also know that we’ve got to go into a hostile environment to play one of the best teams in the country that’s playing really, really well right now.”
Playing a team thought to outmatch his own is nothing new to Herman. Rather, it’s something that is thought to be a strength of the third-year head coach.
In his two seasons at Houston, Herman was 6-0 against top 25 teams, including a 3-0 record against top 10 teams. Herman is heading into this Saturday’s game against the No. 4 team in the nation once again as the underdog.
“They’ve been doing this a while at Southern Cal,” Herman said. “We haven’t. Great season last year. Quarterback as good as there is in the country. Skill position players all over the place that are as good as there is in the country. Coaching staff and a scheme that’s as good as there is in the country. I would say they’re definitely the favorite.”
For Herman, there was no fairy dust to break out before winning those games. Rather, he attributed it to his team’s dedication to each other.
“They believed in the fact that we were going to be the best trained team on the field that Saturday and the team that played with the greatest purpose, which was the true unabashed love for the guy next to you and your coaches,” Herman said. “That was real.”