AUSTIN, Tx — On the heels of a 10-win season, culminating in a 28-21 Sugar Bowl victory over SEC power Georgia, the vibe throughout the first week of spring practice has been notably upbeat and very energetic.
And perhaps no one embodies that positive strut like junior signal-caller Sam Ehlinger. After a truly historic sophomore campaign where he accounted for 41 total touchdowns (25 in the air, 16 on the ground), only four behind Colt McCoy’s 45 during 2008 for the most single-season scores in school history. He also threw for almost 3,300 yards, at 65% efficiency with only five interceptions, and added 482 yards rushing.
Since last year, Ehlinger has been one of the leaders of the Texas program. But now he walks into the quarterback room as the elder statesman. It’s a role Ehlinger relishes as all eyes will be on the 6-foot-3, 235-pounder to see what he has in store for 2019.
Is this your team?: It’s our team. I’m a part. I’d like to consider myself as a leader. It’s not any individual’s team. It’s a group of leaders. I believe I am a part of that group to bring everybody together and be one team.
How is it different in the QB room? Without Shane to bounce things off of, what’s it like? Is it different?: It’s definitely different. Obviously Shane was a tremendous teammate, had a ton of experience, and helped me out a ton. He shared all his knowledge. Now I’m the oldest in the room. It’s weird. The oldest in the room always breaks down the group after meeting, or any time after practice. Now I’m the oldest, so it’s definitely a different vibe. Now, I understand I have to do what Shane did in order to help all the younger guys, make sure they’re on the right path, share my experiences, and share my knowledge to help them out.
Approach change without a competition?: No. Obviously, there was more of a competitive one-on-one type competition last year and the year before between me and Shane in everything we did. That hasn’t changed in any sort of way. I’m always competing to be the best version of myself. Whether that be having an older guy that I’m trying to beat out or have multiple young guys who are trying to beat me out, I think Coach Herman makes it very evident that no spot is solidified. I keep the mindset I want to be the best version of myself. In order to do that, I have to work harder than I did last year.
Okafor, what have you seen from him now that he’s got this opportunity?: He’s done an excellent job the first two practices of coming in and using his incredible body for an o-lineman. He’s got long arms, a short torso, he’s strong, and he’s done a great job so far of being physical. Obviously we haven’t had pads on, but he’s done a great job in pass protection and using his experiences and what he’s learned over the years and translating them to the field.
Do you sense he knows he has an opportunity: I would hope so. I think there’s a lot of guys in that offensive line unit that they have the opportunity to go out and do the best to their abilities and try to see the field. I would sense that every single guy in that unit is working hard to be that guy.
What did you see that you liked from last year, what do you want to improve: I think there were a lot of positives, but I’m more critical of myself and the areas I can improve regardless of how many games we win. I think my standard of quarterbacking is giving my team an opportunity to win. There’s a lot of things that go into that. On first down, we want to accomplish four yards, whether that’s me getting us in the right play. Second down, we want to get half. Third down, we obviously want to complete the first down. I criticized myself in that manner; putting my team in the right position to win on every play. Understanding my game and understanding what we have to do to win is something I analyze. I think there’s a lot of things I’ll be working on this offseason.
On Bru McCoy and Jordan Whittington: They’re just elite athletes. It’s very evident that they’ve been blessed with very, very good athletic ability. It shows. I’m real proud of the way they’ve come in and adopted the culture. They’ve done a great job of that. They’re continuing to work hard and show what they’ve got.
With Collin and Devin out, you can throw to some other WRs that didn’t run with the ones. Nice to build that rapport with guys you might not normally see?: Absolutely. Obviously, I’d love to have those guys out there so we can continue to build our chemistry. I’d say at this point our chemistry is fine for right now, being in the spring. I think spring is the time to develop. Being able to have the younger guys come in and learn the offense, know the ins and outs of where I’m trying to put the ball, where they need to be in certain situations, and what I’m seeing. Then for me, adapting to their speeds and their sizes. You’ve got to know your personnel on every throw. To be able to have the younger guys come in and be able to get this opportunity while Collin and Devin are getting themselves better, I’m really enjoying it.
Is it like lobbing it in the post with Epps?: I thought that was how it was going to be. He has done a tremendous job of not just being that tall basketball player-type receiver. He’s done a great job so far of playing the position of receiver and having great routes, whether that be a fade ball or whether that be a slant. Obviously, it does help that he’s so long and tall and he can go get it. He’s done a really good job of developing his other routes as well.
On Tope and Kerstetter: Tope obviously is an incredible athlete. Look at his build and how strong he is. He has tremendous offensive lineman traits as well. He’s doing a much better job of translating those onto the field and playing with a nastiness about him, going out and hitting people. I’m excited to put the pads on to see what he’s going to do in that regard. Kerstetter, obviously he has a little bit more experience than Tope. He’s been doing a really good job of continuing to pass-pro. It’s the main thing we’ve been doing right now because we don’t have pads on. The run game is kind of pointless because you can’t tackle. They’re both doing an excellent job. I’m excited for their development.
Looking to see what young linemen or players break out?: Absolutely. I know what it’s like to move from your freshman year to your sophomore year just with experience and speed of the game. I’m really excited for guys offensively and defensively to move into their second year with the experience they got last year, maybe some guys that didn’t have the experience.
Standing out from that group?: Offensively? I’m really, really impressed with what Brennan Eagles is doing. He’s increased his knowledge of the playbook. He’s doing a good job of just running and going and getting the football. I’m also looking forward to what Keaontay Ingram is going to do going into year two understanding the offense.
On Casey Thompson and Roschon Johnson?: Casey is doing an excellent job. Year two for him. He’s doing a good job. Now he understands the playbook. He’s going against our defense, and our defense has a ton of looks. He’s doing a good job of sitting in the pocket, delivering, operating the offense, and continuing to improve on all the things that a college quarterback has to do. Roschon has been an incredibly impressive. He is one of the hardest working guys I’ve seen in these first couple of weeks and since he’s been here throughout the offseason. He’s done an excellent job of standing in the pocket. I know he’s a dual-threat guy, but he’s been really good so far of sitting in the pocket, delivering the ball in tight spaces, and things like that. I’m really impressed with him. I look forward to how he’s going to develop and how I can help him.
On Josh Moore: I’m really excited for Josh. He’s playing the slot position, which is where LJ was last year. There’s some adjusting I need to do with the personnel in that regard. He’s not as tall and as big, but he’s an extremely fast guy. He runs really, really good routes. He has great hands. I’m really excited. He just doesn’t get tired. He’s really fast. A lot of times, he’s matched up on nickels and safeties, which is a great matchup. It’s different than what LJ was. LJ was a throw it up, give it to him back should. Now Josh, he’s going to run by the dude. There’s some adjusting to do there, but he’s doing an incredible job so far. He’s an extreme talent. I’m really excited for him.
Coaching consistency: Absolutely. There’s obviously variations that coaching staffs put in every year to change up the weaknesses and try to strengthen every facet of the offense. To have the consistency is so helpful for everybody. Young guys who have been yere a year who struggle with the playbook, now (have) the consistency of running the same routes over and over and having the same plays. It’s incredible because now guys can really use their talents and take their game to the next elevel because it’s not trying to understand the offense and learn the offense. Because of the consistency, they can now excel a little bit with their athletic ability and with their knowledge.
More explosive plays, how’s that happening?: There’s obviously multiple challenges in creating plays over 50 yards. A lot of what we did.. where was the ball placed for the last touchdown we scored against West Virginia? 48? Close, obviously. That’s the biggest thing I think was evident last year. You look at guys like Collin and LJ. Big targets. Big guys. Obviously they have incredible speed, but we werent’ saying last eyar we’re going to use their speed on this play to try and get the ball downfield and make a big play. It was he’s bigger and he’s better, give him a chance to catch the ball. A lot of times that breaks his momentum moving forward. He catches the ball, comes back down, and gets tackled where he catches it. The one guy that got really close was Devin Duvernay and obviously he has the speed. You have to have that breakaway speed. You have to take advantage of in-breaking routes to be able to bust that. I think there’s things we’re going to be doing in the offense that will utilize the speed and create more opporutities for breakoff plays. We have some guys that can run, and we’re still going to throw those jump ball type plays. We could have more opportunity to have breakaway plays like that.