There is no team truly capable of achieving success in football without proper chemistry. That starts with the quarterback, his leadership ability, his proactiveness, and how supportive and respectable he is as a teammate.
Former Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger may not be the most highly touted signal-caller in the 2021 NFL Draft, as he doesn’t rank up with the likes of Zach Wilson, Trevor Lawrence, or Justin Fields, but he embodies all of those things. And those traits are just as important, if not more important, than the tangibles analysts spend so much time evaluating.
Current Penn State offensive coordinator and former Texas offensive coordinator Michael Yurcich spoke to Ehlinger’s intangibles, which were on display in the midst of a highly adverse season for Texas.
“There were a lot of things that factored into the pressure and the amount of leadership we needed from Sam to display and execute and he did,” Yurcich said. “He stood up in front of the team and he more or less wore his emotions on his sleeve and talked to the team about what we needed to do to perform to the best of our abilities amidst the controversy, amidst the pandemic, there were a lot of things that happened that put a lot of weight on his shoulders and he carried it very well.”
Yurcich says things going on both on the field and off the field never threw Ehlinger off, and let’s face it, those factors would have thrown even some of the strongest of players off.
Yurcich describes the season “as if the perfect storm had come” in the worst of ways.
“He was able to function very well through it, led the conference in touchdown passes, and did a heck of a job from a statistical point of view,” Yurcich said. “There were a lot of things that happened, you have The Eyes of Texas and not many people are aware of how much controversy that created at the University of Texas the fan base, the boosters, the alumni, the current players, the media. You have airplanes with banners flying over the stadium that say “We Stand with Sam” and he was the only guy in that picture that went viral, and that had an effect on the whole outcome of the season and most of it was perception from the outside looking in.”
It wasn’t even a question to Ehlinger to take hold of the situation and step up.
“Someone had to be the catalyst there, and I’ve always considered myself to be a strong leader and a supportive teammate,” Ehlinger said. “I thought as the quarterback, being that figure, this is my responsibility.”
Despite all that went on, Yurcich says the Longhorns stayed solid within their own walls, and that Ehlinger was a huge part of the players being so bought in.
“His commitment, his communication, his bond with his teammates was exceptional,” he said. “He kept it all together with his toughness, his ability to perform and play while hurt, and all of those sorts of things. When he spoke, those guys listened.”
It’s that “bond” that guys like former Texas wide receiver Brennan Eagles will cherish for a lifetime.
“He’s not just going to talk to you about football,” Eagles said. “He’s going to talk to you about real-life situations that you might be dealing with as an individual that maybe he’s been through before. He relates to you as an individual, not just a football player.”
Ehlinger isn’t just a guy who is going to get along with his teammates within the facilities or on the field and go his own way afterward.
“You have players all over the country that might be there just for their well-being and just for practice and for football,” Eagles said. “But at the end of the day, Sam Ehlinger is someone I’m going to invite to my wedding. You always want those types of people around you, because they make you a better person from a mindset standpoint. You really need that playing this sport.”
One of the most difficult things about 2020 for the Longhorns was how close they came to finishing out with a much better look—a Big 12 Championship was much more in the cards than it seems to be at first glance.
Yurcich recalls each of the three games Texas lost by a hair vividly to the present day.
“The TCU game, we fumbled going in to take the lead with less than two minutes to go on the one-yard line,” he said. “First and goal from the one and we fumbled. Then we come back the next week and play OU in a four-overtime battle and lose that one. Then we lost the Iowa State game too, and again, that’s another close one.”
It sounds crazy to say Texas’ misfortune can be chalked up to just a few moments, but it’s essentially true.
“So we’re essentially three plays away from being a championship, playoff team,” Yurcich said. “That close. It’s very high stakes when you’re playing any major program.”
From a purely analytical standpoint, Ehlinger has made some sharp improvement this offseason in areas he was being knocked for during the season and earlier in the offseason. He’s pleased with the response he’s received lately and doesn’t lack confidence heading to the next level.
“I think I will come to a team as a well-rounded player,” Ehlinger said. “I’ve been working on that and becoming a more fluid passer. I think the feedback from my pro day was positive and that I showed everyone where I’ve improved and what I bring to the table.”
One thing Ehlinger seemed to get to work on quickly was his delivery. Yurcich says he believes Ehlinger’s reworked release gives him more action, has improved his long ball, and that he thinks Ehlinger has done a great job with flexibility and getting more loose up top overall.
“I think he tried to loosen up his delivery a little bit and elongate it to a certain extent and get more action on it,” Yurcich said. “That’s why I say his anticipation needs to increase. The release got longer, and there’s more whip to it, so now he’s got to anticipate more to make up for it.”
Yurcich praised Ehlinger for his ability to read defenses and from a protection standpoint.
“He’s very good at identifying a blitz front and being able to make the right call on what the defense is presenting and where they’re going to give problems,” Yurcich said. “He knows what’s coming. Even if he’s wrong, he’ll know to get rid of the ball, to sight adjust, whatever it may be.”
Yurcich recalls a very specific instance in which Ehlinger showed this against the Horned Frogs. It was hard for Ehlinger to see because he and the offense were in a cluster formation.
“There was a game against TCU that he redirected a protection on a critical, score zone play and we scored on it and it was a five-man protection,” Yurcich said. “Whenever you’re in a formation that’s condensed, you have a harder time trying to identify who is blitzing. So, on this particular snap, he unfolded it very well. He flipped the protection, picked it up, and we scored a touchdown.”
Yurcich says Ehlinger has too many gutsy performances to his name to list them all, though coming back from a deficit and ultimately avoiding overtime against Texas Tech comes to mind, and that his preparation reminds him of Mason Rudolph in terms of being “over the top with development and finding ways to improve.”
Ehlinger can be anything he wants to be. Maybe he’ll become tough to beat in the game of golf soon, a sport he says he’s recently picked up this offseason while he studies things related to leadership in general on top of everything else. Yurcich is willing to even go as far as to say Ehlinger could “probably be the governor of Texas one day.” Ehlinger laughed at the latter and said he’s unsure of that.
“Sam is a very high intellect guy,” Yurcich said. “He understands the world of politics, he understands business, he understands the stock market. The dude, when you talk to him, it’s kind of like you’re talking to a 50-year-old dude. He’s a very strong-willed person with tremendous vision.”
But jokes aside, Ehlinger is better for all he went through last season and all he has gone through to fine-tune his abilities as a passer.
“Having lived through that year, that will make him a better quarterback moving forward,” Yurcich said. “That was about as unique of a situation and you could face and for a guy to have that experience is invaluable to any organization, whether that be a football organization, or whether its Amazon or Google or any corporation, to have that leadership is invaluable.”