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Tom Herman is known as a quarterback guy.
In his role as offensive coordinator at Ohio State, Herman prepared three different quarterbacks over the course of the 2014 season to not just play, but lead the Buckeyes to the college football mountaintop. The May before that season, Herman worked on the recruiting trail to land a commitment from Joe Burrow, who was presented to Ohio State’s then head coach Urban Meyer as “your next Alex Smith.”
Herman has coaxed good to great quarterback play during most of his Texas tenure. In the last two seasons, Sam Ehlinger passed for 6955 yards and 57 touchdowns, and completed 65 percent of his 870 pass attempts with only 15 interceptions.
Herman’s track record over the past seven years earned the popular media tag of “quarterback guru” commonly thrown around in the era of wide-open spread passing attacks. That tag has justification based upon on-field results from Herman’s protégés, and Herman has parlayed that into strong recruiting at the position for the Longhorns.
In an interview with Inside Texas conducted April 22, Herman explained what traits he looks for when searching for Longhorn quarterbacks.
“Well surprisingly, the intangibles are always first, right?” Herman said. “Competitiveness. I want a guy that wants to skunk his grandma in tiddlywinks when he plays her. A guy that hates to lose, loves to win. We want a guy that’s a leader, obviously.”
With each quarterback on the roster or high school prospect committed, Herman has a player who exemplifies the competitiveness he seeks.
The responsibility of being the face of the Texas program currently belongs to Ehlinger. His on-field exploits positioned him for that role, but the combination of his background story, decorated high school career, and confidence-bordering-on-cockiness made him a perfect fit for the job.
There’s no doubt Ehlinger loves to win, but what Herman is also looking for, that hatred of defeat, was never more obvious from Ehlinger than when he spoke after Texas’ loss to Oklahoma in the 2018 Big 12 Championship. Less than two months after defeating the Sooners and sending a message to Kyler Murray in the Cotton Bowl, Ehlinger was asked to put into words the feeling of losing the rematch with higher stakes.
“I will make it my mission to never let this team or this school feel this disappointment again,” Ehlinger said with Herman looking on.
Texas’ most recent quarterback signees, Ja’Quinden Jackson and Hudson Card, both exemplified what Herman wants intangible-wise during their struggles with injury.
Jackson, Duncanville’s hometown hero, suffered a torn ACL in the 2019 UIL 6A Division I semifinals. When his Panther team walked into AT&T Stadium for the championship game, Jackson gingerly led his teammates to the field wearing his helmet and a heavy knee brace.
If that didn’t show what Jackson meant to Duncanville, the smallest uniform detail did; every Panther had a “3” sticker on the back of his helmet – Jackson’s jersey number.
Card, a product of Lake Travis, thought his senior season was over due to a foot injury suffered mid-season before he returned in the 2019 UIL 6A Division I regional finals. Once his body allowed him to play, there was no hesitation even with his Longhorn career in front of him. Card wanted to add a seventh star onto the LT logo.
Jalen Milroe, Texas’ quarterback commit for the class of 2021, also offers the winning desire Herman seeks. Milroe has a 21-5 record as the starter at Katy’s Tompkins High School. In the four seasons prior to Milroe’s sophomore 2018, Tompkins was a woeful 5-34.
While at Texas, Herman has targeted high school quarterbacks either from traditional powerhouses or from programs reaching new heights thanks to a blue-chip quarterback. Since intangibles are first in his evaluation process, grabbing the on-field leader from top prep programs quickly allows for Herman to check the ‘hates to lose, loves to win’ box in his quarterback evaluation process even if questions remain about a prospect’s ability to go 1-0 versus grandma in tiddlywinks.
“We want a guy that doesn’t necessarily have to be extremely book smart but football smart,” Herman continued. “Football’s got to make sense to him. He’s got to make very quick decisions. Then, the obvious tangibles. First and foremost, he’s got to be able to throw the football. The ball has got to come out quick, especially in today’s RPO game. I used to think releases were like snowflakes; they’re all different, but they’re all beautiful. In today’s RPO game, you’ve got to be able to spit the ball out really, really quick. We look for that. We look for accuracy. Delivery of the football — does he throw a catchable ball? Does he throw an accurate ball? Can he make all the throws; deep, short, intermediate?”
This comes to bear with the Austin representation in the UT quarterback room. Ehlinger played for a state championship at Westlake his junior season under Todd Dodge, a coach known for his historical influence on offense in the Texas high school ranks. Injuries caused Ehlinger to miss much of his senior year that ended in the fourth round of the playoffs.
Card played for a state championship at Lake Travis his junior season under Will Stein, a coach who brought a playbook analogous to Herman’s when he made the short trip from the 40 Acres to LT. Injuries caused Card to miss much of his senior year that ended in the fifth round of the playoffs.
Both Westlake and Lake Travis did not try to hide the fact they wanted to throw the ball downfield. In full junior seasons, both Card and Ehlinger passed at least 350 times for over 3500 yards.
Herman did deviate somewhat from his evaluation in 2020 in signing Jackson to compete with Card. In his final two seasons at Duncanville, Jackson threw just 336 passes. Ehlinger, Casey Thompson, and Card all eclipsed that number in full seasons. Accuracy is a question Jackson will have to answer when healthy, but arm strength has never been an issue when it comes to making short, intermediate, and deep passes. Jackson certainly has the leadership intangibles Herman prioritizes, while also being incredibly easy to include in the run game.
In the high school ranks, Milroe can point to his best passing performance from the 2019 season as evidence he can handle the demands in Herman’s offense. Against Katy, perennially one of the best defenses in the state, Milroe went 19-for-28 for 405 yards and three scores to just one interception. He showed the toughness and competitiveness Herman desires, as many of those completions were made immediately before being hit.
Tompkins fell just short, 35-30, but Milroe’s ability to keep his team in striking distance of one of the state’s powerhouses with his arm indicates he should be able to translate his passing skills to the college game.
Herman’s quarterback room is composed mostly of players who have proven passing acumen. Exceptions possess compensatory attributes and hold similar promise to other quarterbacks, just in a slightly different form.
“Then kind of secondary is can he extend plays? Can he make plays with his feet? When I coached Braxton Miller, he was a home run hitter, if you will. If he if he got outside it was a home run. Sam Ehlinger is a singles and doubles hitter, but he can make plays with his feet. JT Barrett was the same way, and Joey Burrow was the same way. You’ve got to be able to extend plays, make plays with your feet when plays break down, but that’s way down the line compared to the intangibles, and then obviously the throwing aspect of the football.”
This quote requires less dissection his others. Any success Herman has achieved during his last three stops came via the arm and legs of his quarterback.
Miller. Barrett. Cardale Jones. Greg Ward. Sam Ehlinger. All operated Herman’s offense with varying blends of running and passing ability.
The final statement is key, “that’s way down the line compared to the intangibles and then obviously the throwing aspect of the football.”
Modern offense is grabbing as large a chunk of yardage through the air as possible, but in Herman’s case that’s not the only thing it’s about.
The verifiable stars of the NFL fit this sort of mold. Seattle’s Russell Wilson, Dallas’ Dak Prescott, Houston’s Deshaun Watson, and Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes lead prolific offenses with their arms, but can make plays with their legs both by design and on ad libs.
The same holds true in college, and Texas’ high school quarterback evaluation pattern shows Herman has sought out those who really can be a dual threat to opposing defenses for quite some time.