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Texas’ QB quandary: Should the Longhorns start Shane Buechele or Sam Ehlinger at USC?

Posted September 11th, 2017

Quarterback controversies are, by definition, controversial. Any fan who remembers the Chris Simms vs. Major Applewhite storm knows how unhealthy and damaging it can be.

There are similar clouds forming on the horizon for Texas coach Tom Herman.

Sophomore Shane Buechele remains UT’s starter for now, even after sitting out against San Jose State to rest a bruised throwing shoulder. Freshman Sam Ehlinger threw for 222 yards and ran for 48 more in a 56-0 rout.

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Meanwhile, junior Jerrod Heard also racked up 39 rushing yards via a package of wildcat plays.

So who should Herman start against fourth-ranked USC?

“Nothing new with Shane, other than he’s getting better every day,” Herman said Monday. “We certainly weren’t going to try to test him (Sunday) or today, so I think (Tuesday) will be a big benchmark, knowing that we practice tomorrow afternoon.

“Is he better today than he was yesterday? Yes,” the coach added. “Hopefully he will be tomorrow and be able to go.”

The correct answer is subjective, of course. It’s also an issue that’s far bigger than one non-conference game in September. No coach likes to rotate quarterbacks through an entire season. The coaching staff likes to design game plans around one player’s strengths and weaknesses. By rotating players, you introduce more variables.

Buechele has thrown for more than 3,300 career yards in 13 games, but he’s 5-8 as a starter. Ehlinger is merely 1-0 as Saturday was his lone collegiate appearance thus far. Heard proved himself a dynamic runner in 2015, but defensive coordinators figured out he was a one-dimensional threat by midseason.

By Heard’s own admission Saturday night, “I’m a running back who can throw a little bit.” Asked Monday if Heard could be the starter, Herman called it “a little bit premature” but wouldn’t rule it out completely.

“I would envision that you’ll see Jerrod in most every game behind center at some point,” Herman said. “If you want to put a bunch of human beings in the box to stop the run, then he’s capable of throwing it over your head.”

Former coach Charlie Strong started then-junior Tyrone Swoopes at Notre Dame to open the 2015 season. He had serious reservations about it, though. Strong’s gut told him to play Heard, then a redshirt freshman. The Irish clobbered Swoopes, and the next day, offensive coordinator Shawn Watson was demoted.

Heard started the next week against Rice and produced a school-record 527 total yards against Cal.

Herman is giving Buechele every chance imaginable to get healthy and get back on the practice field this week. “If Shane’s healthy, he’s got to prove that he’s also confident in practice,” Herman said.

But Herman clearly loves Ehlinger’s grit. The Westlake product is a true dyed-in-the-wool Longhorns fan. After all, how many recruits tweet out photos of themselves holding up the “Hook ’em” hand sign as a baby?

sam-ehlinger-texas
Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger (11) evades San Jose State safety Ethan Aguayo (31) during the first half of last Saturday’s 56-0 win. Ehlinger, though, was playing because regular starter Shane Buechele was nursing a bruised throwing shoulder. It’s unknkown who’ll start this week at USC. (Nick Wagner/American-Statesman)

“From the day I met him, this is an extremely mature guy,” Herman said. “He’s a bit of an old soul and really, really mature for a guy his age in his position. I think that’s what has allowed him to step into this role a little bit easier than most.”

None of that matters on game day, though. Texas will face a quarterback many consider the leading Heisman Trophy contender. Sam Darnold has completed 75 percent of his passes for 605 yards and thrown for four touchdowns in USC’s first two games.

“Uh, the things that impress me are the things that concern me since we’re playing against him,” Herman said.

So far, the Longhorns have an uneven running attack. Chris Warren III ran for 31 yards against Maryland but 166 against San Jose State. After pumping up the offensive line during the preseason, Herman called it “above average” last week.

The defense got a much-needed psychological boost by shutting out the Spartans. “I thought our guys played much more free with much less hesitation,” Herman said. “Don’t evaluate, don’t tiptoe. Just go.”

The kicking game is still bad. Kicker Josh Rowland is 0 for 3 and had one blocked and returned for a touchdown. Kickoffs and punts have been muffed in both games.

Herman said these high-profile matchups are great for fans. “It makes scheduling, especially in a time when we’re trying to rebuild this thing from three straight losing seasons, makes things maybe a little more difficult to play,” he said.

These games are far more difficult when there are real questions about the most important position on the field.

Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com.

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