How Sam Ehlinger dragged Texas football back from the depths to national relevance

AUSTIN – During Sam Ehlinger’s first few months on campus at Texas, Longhorn superfan Matthew McConaughey stopped by the facility. Ehlinger, an early enrollee from Austin Westlake High School, stood up and introduced himself to the movie star.

“I’m Sam Ehlinger,” he said.

“I know who you are!” McConaughey shot back. “Lance told me to say hello.”

That would be Lance Armstrong, who is as much of an Austin institution as the food trucks on Rainey Street. It didn’t take long for the quarterback known as Johnny Longhorn to ascend to that level of Austin A-list recognition.

Sam Ehlinger was watching in his pajamas when Vince Young slalomed through the USC defense to deliver the school its last national title in 2005. And he was in the stands with his Longhorn-devout family at the Rose Bowl the last time Texas played for the national title in 2010.

Since that night, Texas has spent nearly a decade wandering the college football wilderness, bogged down by administrative dysfunction, an overmatched coaching hire and systemic arrogance that allowed the program to fade to mediocrity. How far did it slide? Consider that Oklahoma, Kansas State, Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma State have all won Big 12 titles since Texas’ last one in 2009.

But that near decade of dysfunction appears to be rounding to a close in Austin, and Ehlinger has emerged as the most fitting face of this Texas renaissance.

“He has a keen awareness of his place in Texas history,” Texas coach Tom Herman said. “To go from three losing seasons to bring us to a point where we are nationally relevant, I think that resonates with him more than any other kid that could have played that position.”

Ehlinger is the poster child for a new era at Texas, one that finally transcends the tired trope of whether the Longhorns are really back. This week, Texas finds itself at the center of the college football universe, a place many in Austin have long considered the program’s birthright.

No. 6 LSU plays at the No. 9 Longhorns, and it marks the highest-profile non-conference clash in Austin since Ohio State visited for a No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown in 2006. While there are myriad reasons for the optimism in Austin – from the modernization of the program under Herman to the precipitous recruiting uptick to aggressive leadership under athletic director Chris Del Conte – there’s a simple commonality linking Texas to its last eras of championship contention.

Texas Longhorns QB Sam Ehlinger and his brother, Jake Ehlinger, run onto the field before the game against the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs on Saturday. (Getty)

Texas finally has a star quarterback, as Ehlinger opened this season with four touchdowns against Louisiana Tech, a year after finishing with 25 touchdown passes and just five interceptions. Last season’s Sugar Bowl victory over Georgia put Sam on the same plane as Vince (Young) and Colt (McCoy), the last two quarterbacks recognizable by just their first names in Austin. His ascent hasn’t been linear, as he’s endured personal tragedy, football struggle and navigated the unrelenting spotlight of one of the sport’s marquee positions.

“The platform with being the Texas quarterback, it's just unbelievable and I'm blessed and honored to represent that role,” Ehlinger told Yahoo Sports. “I'm trying to be as good as Colt was at that, but it’s very tough because he was perfect. … I know no one is perfect, but he seemed to be perfect.”

After leading Texas to a regular-season victory over Oklahoma, a Big 12 title game appearance and the Sugar Bowl victory, Ehlinger couldn’t resist an attempt to exorcise the decade of demons. He famously went viral in the postgame interview by declaring, “Longhorn Nation, We’re BAAAAAAAAAAAAACK!

In just his junior season, Ehlinger has the chance to become Texas’ Tim Tebow, a dual-threat battering ram with a potential full three-year starting window to live out his childhood dream.

“Sometimes he needs to be reminded that we haven’t accomplished everything that we are setting out to accomplish,” Herman said, speaking generally about Ehlinger’s exuberance. “But you’d always rather have to yank on the leash than kick on the butt.”

The rise of Sam Ehlinger

Tom Herman prefaces one of his early observations about Sam Ehlinger with a qualifier.

“This is going to sound weird,” Herman said with a chuckle. “He's got a presence to him where, if you're sitting down with your back to the door, and he walks through the door, you turn around. You just know he's there. It sounds hokey, but you just do.”

These days, Ehlinger’s presence can be felt everywhere in the Longhorn program and around college football. Herman saw potential in their first meeting, soon after he got the job, as he found Ehlinger already beyond his years. “It felt more like a meeting with a fifth-year graduate transfer than a 17-year-old,” Herman said.

That first meeting came after the firing of Charlie Strong, whom Ehlinger committed to out of high school. Both of Ehlinger’s parents graduated from Texas and he committed to the program amid its backslide under Strong.

Playing during his true freshman season, he struggled behind a porous line and adjusting to a campus where everyone recognized him. The lowlight came when Ehlinger threw a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions in a collapse against Texas Tech to end the regular season in 2017. Herman benched Ehlinger for the start of the Texas Bowl, and delivered him the news this way: “It wouldn't be fair to you to put you out there knowing that you probably thought that you had to play perfectly.”

Shane Buechele got hurt early in the first quarter against Missouri, making way for the start of Ehlinger’s ascent. Ehlinger finished that game 11-for-15 in a 33-16 victory, and the momentum hasn’t slowed.

Ehlinger’s jump from surprise Texas Bowl hero to the quarterback screaming bold proclamations at the Sugar Bowl a year later can be tied to many things. There was an uptick in talent around him, a deep core of receivers and a massively improved offensive line. He credits the continuity and deft touch of quarterback coach and offensive coordinator Tim Beck, who received the brunt of the blame for Texas’ offensive issues in 2017.

“If there is a quarterback that improved more than Sam Ehlinger from 2017 to 2018, then you'll have to prove it to me,” Herman said. “Because I don't think there is one. What those two guys have been able to do together to be able to improve his game, I've never seen it.”

Ehlinger calls Beck’s impact “incredible” on his development, as the continuity and trust has allowed them to continue to build. Last season, Ehlinger went 308 consecutive passes without an interception, as much a credit to his mental aptitude for the position as his physical progress.

This season’s progress includes a noticeable refinement of Ehlinger’s throwing motion, which is discernibly shorter in wind-up and step, making for a quicker delivery. The swagger remains, as Beck sums up that with a story from the fourth quarter of the Sugar Bowl last year.

Beck brought up a play call and Herman said, “Sam doesn’t want to run that. He said to give him the ball and he’s going to score.” While it took until fourth down, Ehlinger did score. “He’s gifted in terms of his drive and intellect and his will,” Beck said. “He has an ‘it’ factor.”

Texas Longhorns QB Sam Ehlinger (11) and head coach Tom Herman look on during the Texas spring game. (USAT)

Tragedy and triumph

It’s impossible to tell the story of Ehlinger’s rise without weaving in the family tragedy that indelibly shaped his life. When Ehlinger was 14, his father, Ross, died while participating in a triathlon.

The moment changed Sam’s life forever. It altered his perspective and, ultimately, gave him an uncommon maturity that’s helped him navigate the stage he’s ascended to.

“I think the early maturing with my family situation prepared me for the criticism, prepared me for adverse situations down the road,” Ehlinger said. “Ultimately I knew I had gone through something that really couldn't be worse.”

Ehlinger said that he tries his best to stay in the moment and not think about his dad during big games.

“I think when I'm done playing, I'll look back and think about how cool that would be,” he said. “But right now, I'm so focused on what's next. Obviously, there is some emotions when I'm with my mom or my family, but I try not to dive too deep into that because I have a lot more challenges ahead of me."

One of the biggest challenges of Ehlinger’s career comes on Saturday. The local kid has already vaulted himself into the conversation with Texas legends. To seal his spot there, he knows that championships have to follow. But as Ehlinger’s junior season enters the searing spotlight, he’s already helped push Texas onto a new plane. And there’s a chance to fly higher.

“It’s almost silly, right?” Herman said. “How many kids dream of playing a specific position for the team they grew up rooting for? To go from the famous baby picture where he’s hooking them in a Texas onesie to be the face of our program is, I’m sure, even for him a bit surreal.”

That face will appear on Saturday night on the biggest stage of college football. And he no longer needs an introduction, even to Matthew McConaughey.

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