Max Olson of The Athletic recently tried to answer one of the questions hanging over Big 12 media days last week: How did Texas Longhorns quarterback Sam Ehlinger get so many haters?
I don’t know if there’s a good answer to this question because I don’t know that Ehlinger truly has a critical mass of critics. Terry Bradshaw and former Oklahoma Sooners QB Baker Mayfield dogged him this offseason. Yet, Big 12 media picked him as the league’s preseason offensive player of the year, as did college football guru Phil Steele and other major publications. (For the record, I chose Ehlinger as a preseason all-conference player.) That sounds like a hell of a lot of respect.
You will undoubtedly find some Ehlinger detractors around the internet who claim he’s really just a fullback playing QB, a la the old criticisms of Tim Tebow when he was quarterbacking the Florida Gators. Maybe so, but that doesn’t mean much if the Texas offense is clicking with Ehlinger on the sticks. Last season showed just how effective the marriage of Ehlinger’s game and Texas coach Tom Herman’s offensive expertise can be.
*Note: S&P+, FEI and FPI all reflect national ranking; passing efficiency stats are for Ehlinger alone.
Ehlinger was at the center of a sledgehammer offense that ranked fifth in the nation in FEI’s Ball Control Rate, which measures the percentage of drives that last four or more plays. The chart above illustrates the Longhorns’ improvement on offense from 2017 to 2018 according to the major efficiency metrics. Not coincidentally, Ehlinger’s passing got better as well.
Herman took an unconventional path to boost his team’s offensive proficiency. Even though they frequently played at a quick tempo, the Longhorns chewed up yardage with consistent gains on the ground and a throwing game centered on short and intermediate routes. The Longhorns balanced interior run plays, such as inside zone, with a horizontal passing game to stress defenses and take advantage when opponents got out-of-kilter. The game plan also called for judicious shots down the field, primarily targeting mammoth receivers Collin Johnson and Lil’Jordan Humphrey.
In the process, UT set up easy opportunities to turn third and fourth downs into firsts — the team’s third-down conversion rate climbed from 38.05% in 2017 to 46.38%. The Horns also converted 12 of 15 attempts on fourth down in 2018.
Ehlinger’s legs proved key in enabling Texas to keep the chains moving. He carried the ball on 23 of UT’s 44 rushing attempts on third down with three or fewer yards to go – 16 went for first downs, and he scored twice.
Meanwhile, Ehlinger showed that he could deftly orchestrate a passing game that Herman tailored with throws playing to his QB’s strengths – slants, screens, swing passes, et cetera. Ehlinger completed 64.7% of his passes, up from 57.5% as a freshman. He also cut down dramatically on throwing interceptions, slicing his ratio of interceptions-to-pass attempts from roughly one out of every 39 throws to one per 88 attempts. That played a part in Texas limiting its share of drives that ended in turnovers to 7% for the season, the ninth-best mark in the country.
On the flip side, the Texas offense was so methodical in ‘18 that you’d think Herman had the players running stairs the next day if they broke off big plays. Two teams went the entire year without a play that covered 50 yards or longer: Texas and Central Michigan. The Longhorns had just six plays all season that gained at least 40 yards. When all was said and done, UT ranked 111th nationally in IsoPPP+, an opponent-adjusted measure of explosiveness.
Texas’ running game didn’t have much pop, but there’s no denying that UT’s West Coast-ish approach to throwing the ball also depressed the offense’s ability to snap off big gains. Of the eight Big 12 quarterbacks who appeared in at least 10 games last year, only two produced fewer yards per completion.
Ehlinger completed his fair share of deep balls last year, so it’s not as though he’s completely incapable of going long. He took advantage of one-on-one matchups on the sidelines often enough. For example, he found Johnson on enough fade routes versus OU in the Big 12 title game to produce 177 yards on eight catches, with a couple pass interference penalties to boot.
However, we can safely assume there’s a reason why he wasn’t trying to pass downfield more often. The scattershot results when he did throw long would seem to explain why.
That raises an important question for Ehlinger and Herman in the ‘19 season — what if defenses force them out of their offensive comfort zone?
Humphrey feels like a major loss right now. Maybe UT has another big receiver waiting in the wings who can match Humphrey’s physicality, which made him so dangerous with a full head of steam catching balls from Ehlinger.
If UT’s horizontal passing attack drops off this season, that will put more pressure on Ehlinger to hit on deeper throws. He would be doing so minus one his best downfield targets from ‘18 in Humphrey. That won’t work unless Ehlinger can refine his aerial skills even more.
And frankly, that sums up the misgivings about Ehlinger. He’s a good quarterback, especially given what Texas needs him to be. For the Horns to enjoy the kind of season they’re hoping for, however, Ehlinger will need to grow into an even better player this year.