Coming into the 2018 college football season, University of Texas quarterback Shane Buechele was the most experienced returning quarterback in the Big 12. In 2016, Buechele had broken the Texas freshman passing records held by NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Bobby Layne. However, after the 2016 season, Texas fired head coach Charlie Strong and replaced him with University of Houston coach Tom Herman.
Herman is a respected offensive mind with a system that likes to feature a strong quarterback run game. His prized recruit that offseason was record-setting Austin Westlake quarterback Sam Ehlinger. Ehlinger, a 235-pound battering ram of a quarterback, fits the Herman mold much better than the slightly-built 200-pound Buechele. Buechele, however, is clearly the better passer — with a stronger, more accurate arm. Ehlinger’s greatest weakness is accuracy, as many of his awry throws are beyond even the incredible talents of supersized wide receivers Collin Johnson and Lil’ Jordan Humphrey to catch.
Having two great quarterbacks is a good problem to have, but as one noted football coach once said, “If you have two quarterbacks, you have no quarterbacks.” The writing was on the wall for Buechele the day that Ehlinger stepped on campus. Sure enough, when Buechele suffered a shoulder injury in the first game of the 2017 season — and Ehlinger came on to nearly lead an upset over heavily-favored USC the next week — the die was cast.
Both quarterbacks played in 2017, and both struggled with injuries. Heading into 2018, Herman informed Buechele that Ehlinger would be the starting Texas quarterback. Buechele, to his credit, did not immediately seek a transfer — as Clemson’s Kelly Bryant has notably done. Nor did he pout. Buechele, the son of former Texas Rangers third baseman Steve Buechele, would compete to win his job back, knowing that he was one play away from being back on the field. Until then, he was a good teammate who put on the headset and served as a uniformed tutor to Ehlinger, cheering on his replacement from the sidelines.
While Ehlinger continued to slam his body into opposing defenses while leading Texas to a 6-1 record and a Top 10 ranking, Buechele kept his head in the game. His moment came this past weekend in the first quarter of the Baylor game. During Texas’ first series, Ehlinger suffered a Grade 1 sprain to the AC joint in his shoulder, as reported by The Spun.
Buechele was notably rusty in his first game action in over a year. To make matters worse, Herman and the rest of the offensive staff suddenly decided to become extremely conservative with their offensive play-calling. Herman’s decisions are understandable to some degree. For one, with Ehlinger out, the next quarterbacks on the depth chart are true freshmen Cameron Rising and Casey Thompson. While they could surprise if pressed into action, the more likely scenario — should Buechele also be injured — would be a disaster. So Herman elected to eschew the quarterback run game in an effort to keep Buechele from getting hurt. Secondly, Baylor defensive philosophy is predicated on speed and athleticism over size and strength. Baylor takes safeties and turns them into outside linebackers, and takes linebackers and converts them into quick, athletic, pass-rushing ends. The trade-off is that they can be steamrolled by power running teams like Texas if they don’t quickly shoot the gaps. So, Herman chose to try to pound the ball straight into the teeth of the Baylor defense — wearing them down.
The problem for Texas was that it didn’t work. Texas plays a spread concept — with either one or no backs in the backfield — and Baylor was consistently able to get into the gaps and stop the running game at the line of scrimmage. This despite only playing seven in the box, often with a straight Cover 2 or a Cover 2 Man look in the secondary. A two-deep zone can be effective because it takes away the easy throws, forcing a quarterback to make the difficult play. To beat the defense, a quarterback has to hit a pass deep down the sideline before a safety can get to the receiver, or get the safeties spread apart and hit a pass over a deep-dropping linebacker down the middle.
With the Texas running game getting stopped at the line — and Buechele being forced to hurl deep pass after deep pass or resort to throwing short at or behind the line of scrimmage and hoping a receiver could make a play — the Texas coaching staff refused to adjust. Had Ehlinger been in the game, Texas would have forced Baylor to bring an extra defender to the line of scrimmage to account for the read option game, which would in turn have caused them to abandon the Cover 2 coverage that had been so effective. The Texas offense would have hummed along as it had in recent weeks. Yet Herman was afraid to make these adjustments on Saturday with Buechele in the game, no doubt because he was terrified at the prospect of Buechele being hurt and having to play the rest of the season with a true freshman at quarterback.
Some have suggested that Buechele cannot run the read option. This is unlikely given his past performance. While Ehlinger is certainly larger and can take more punishment, Buechele is the same size and of a similar profile as Texas great Colt McCoy, who hardly missed a beat running Texas’ read option game after Vince Young left for the NFL. Additionally, Buechele ran a verified 4.68 in the 40-yard dash, with a 4.31 in the 20-yard shuttle run. Ehlinger, by comparison, ran a 4.63 in the 40 and a 4.32 in the shuttle prior to gaining 15 pounds. So Shane Buechele is just as fast and just as quick as Sam Ehlinger. His football mind and field awareness — especially considering that he has one more year of experience — is at least as sharp as Ehlinger’s.
In fact, Ehlinger has only two clear advantages over Buechele — he is bigger, and he is Tom Herman’s recruit. Ehlinger is well on his way to becoming an iconic Texas quarterback in the mold of James Street and others. He has tremendous leadership skills, is tough as nails, and has overcome heartbreaking personal struggles to achieve his dream of becoming the quarterback for the University of Texas.
Texas has an off week, which will give Ehlinger an opportunity to heal before the team plays Oklahoma State in two weeks. If Ehlinger is unable to go or re-injures himself, Herman will have to turn to Buechele again. If Herman again plays conservatively — and does not allow Buechele to run the Texas offense to the best of his ability — it is likely to derail a promising season, for no reason other than fear.