A quarterback gets called into the coach’s office. It happens to high school athletes all the time. This call was different. Tom Herman, newly named as Texas’ head coach, was on one end of the phone. Westlake quarterback and Longhorns recruit Sam Ehlinger was on the other end.
“It was a good first conversation,” Ehlinger recalled. “It was a day or two after he accepted the job. He knew I was local, so he asked me to come up to his office and talk. We got to know each other. As the quarterback and leader of the class, it was a nice talk and it made me confident in the direction he’d take the program. The future is big.”
It wasn’t the first time the two had crossed paths. While he was still at Houston, Herman and UH offensive coordinator Major Applewhite offered Ehlinger during the quarterback’s ascent into the recruiting spotlight.
But Ehlinger was never going to Houston. Herman knew that.
The two needed to bond, so they talked about a common interest: Football.
“He told me to look at the offenses he ran at Ohio State and with Greg Ward at Houston,” Ehlinger said. “He wants a dual-threat quarterback that can attack defenses with his running ability. He thinks that is a perfect fit for what I do. Something different needed to happen and what Herman brings to the program will be good.”
Change is never easy. Recruits are told to commit to the school, not the coach. But in a business built on relationships as much as it’s built on collisions, that’s easier said than done. Charlie Strong had built a relationship with Ehlinger, offering him a scholarship to Texas before Ehlinger’s junior season. He was supposed to be Strong’s next quarterback. Instead, he’ll end up never playing a snap for the coach to whom he committed.
“I know football, especially college football, is a business. You have to win to stay around,” Ehlinger said. “I’ll always respect coach Strong and I’ll always remember what he did for me. He gave me the opportunity to play for the University of Texas, and that is a lifelong dream for me. He’s a great man, but something different had to happen.”
But the coaching change at his future college wasn’t the only obstacle Ehlinger faced as a senior. A nearly perfect junior season that saw Westlake make it to the Class 6A championship game was followed by an injury-plagued senior year. He missed most of the season with injuries and the Chaparrals failed to make it back to the state title game that they were one overtime away from winning in 2015.
As a junior, Ehlinger piled up 3,833 passing yards, 1,419 rushing yards and 71 touchdowns. A torn meniscus against Katy, a broken right thumb a month later and a wrist injury in the playoffs against Laredo United a week before a rematch with Lake Travis kept Ehlinger’s senior totals to 907 yards of total offense and three touchdowns in five starts.
“Coach (Todd) Dodge helped me a lot as a senior,” he said. “I could either look at it as good or bad. I chose to use it for good and use my ability to accomplish something. It helped me become a better leader off the field. It was tough, but it gave me a different perspective on football. I basically became a coach and helped the younger quarterbacks.”
I will officially be a Longhorn in one week!??? pic.twitter.com/B3AxRK1xKo
— Sam Ehlinger (@sehlinger3) January 7, 2017
Most seniors are cruising through their final semester, looking forward to spring break and starting to plan for prom. Not Ehlinger. After a senior season spent battling injuries and spending more time in a role as coach than player, he’s enrolled at his new school. Classes at Texas begin on Tuesday, and Ehlinger said he’s ready for the challenge on and off the field.
“I’m looking forward to realizing a moment I’ve dreamed about for a long time,” he said. “It’s a dream come true to attend Texas and become a student-athlete at a place with so much success and tradition. I’m ready for the competition. Shane (Buechele) is a great quarterback and a great person. There is no one I’d rather compete with. Competition will improve everyone, and the goal is for Texas to have the best quarterback possible to start the season.”
Expect Texas’ quarterback competition to be monitored to the point of state secrets. Buechele was the top-rated pro-style quarterback in Texas for 2016, ranking just behind Jalen Hurts as the top quarterback prospect in the state. The four-star ended up setting freshman records as a passer. Buechele passes for 2,958 yards and 21 touchdowns in the air-raid offense.
Ehlinger won’t have game experience. He might hold a schematic advantage because of his feet. Herman has surrounded himself with dual-threat quarterbacks most of his career. Ehlinger is the top-ranked quarterback in the state in 2017 and No. 105 nationally. Buechele was ranked No. 190 in 2016.