Great honor comes to those who have great opportunity.
In Heisman talk, the likes of Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields will get thrown around like Josh Gordon between drug suspensions. But there’s one man from the Big 12 that cannot be left out of the conversation, and he’s not from Oklahoma. I’m talking about none other than Texas’ Sam Ehlinger.
Ehlinger, a former four-star dual-threat and true senior has made strides towards being in the upper echelon of quarterbacks nationally and even the best to play at Texas. While everybody has been fawning over Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Joe Burrow Ehlinger has been steadily improving in a competitive Big 12. So the question remains, why not him?
Ehlinger has been a model of improvement since his freshman year, raising his completion percentage eight percent over the past two seasons, seven of which came in his sophomore season. Along with the increased accuracy came his passing yardage, surpassing 3600 yards last year, a 400-yard increase from his first full year as a starter. So, while his numbers have not yet reached the Heisman level a mobile quarterback like him (663 rushing yards in 2019) can turn the corner with a strong offseason.
He’ll need to put the work in this spring and early summer to get the job done, a timeframe that appears to be in jeopardy as our country continues to battle the Coronavirus. Ehlinger needs to get work in with his young group of skill players, including a few players who couldn’t stay in the backfield last season due to injuries.
However, such a disjointed offseason and potentially preseason shouldn’t be able to stop Ehlinger from cementing his legacy as a starter in the Big 12. In the conference notorious for secondaries who can make Brook Lopez look like Usain Bolt if lined up outside, Ehlinger is only 2000 yards away from ranking inside the top 10 in passing yards since 1996, further adding to his prestige come voting time.
When it comes down to it, the preseason work only prepares these men for what really matters in a Heisman trophy run, seizing the opportunities that they receive. For example, look at Joe Burrow. The 2019 runaway Heisman Trophy winner was clearly the statistical favorite with 5671 passing yards and a 10:1 touchdown to interception ratio. However he followed a very similar path to the trophy as many others, coming up big in high-level games against prestigious competition as well as rivals. Look at Burrow and LSU’s second game at Ehlinger’s No. 9 Texas team. In this game Burrow threw for 471 yards and four touchdowns to beat the Longhorns 45-38, besting Ehlinger’s 401 yards. Then we see him again in his bout in Tuscaloosa, No. 3 Alabama. It was in this primetime shootout he held his own completing 79% of his throws for 393 yards and the win.
We saw this trend with Kyler Murray at Oklahoma in 2018 as well. Murray finished the Red River Showdown against Texas with 396 total yards and four touchdowns, albeit losing the game by three. Later down the road he showed up big again in the regular season finale at West Virginia with 478 total yards and four total touchdowns. Then look at Baker Mayfield the year prior who threw for 386 yards at No. 2 Ohio State and then again giving us 598 passing yards and 6 total touchdowns to beat No. 11 Oklahoma State in the 2017 edition of the Bedlam series.
That’s the secret to the Heisman. Recognition. Each of these men that are hallowed thanks in part to this trophy made the big play in the big moments when the lights were on. Not only were each of their teams successful with three CFP appearances and a National Championship in their Heisman years but they played at their best when facing their top competition. They saved their best for the games that mattered the most. Having great games against Savannah State (RIP) is fine but when you’re winning the games that improve your teams ranking and putting up numbers when you have most of the voter’s attention is what matters. That’s how they got it done.
Ehlinger has yet to step up and perform consistently in these situations, or at least to the level where he could push his team to big wins in a program that consistently underperforms its means. Look closer at his 2019 season and not just his previously discussed loss to LSU but also his performances against Oklahoma and at Baylor where in both cases the defenses stymied Ehlinger resulting in a total of 410 yards and zero touchdowns in two of the biggest games of the year. If you change that number to somewhere around the 750’s or even the high 600’s and five touchdowns and you’re talking about not only Ehlinger, but Texas in an entirely different light.
His senior year brings a myriad of opportunities to prove he’s worth being the first Heisman award winner from Texas in 22 years, putting him among Hall of Famer Earl Campbell and record breaker Ricky Williams. Ehlinger and the Longhorns play three ranked matchups next season according to the latest Preseason FPI Ranking, all of which being away from Austin. Texas will first head down to Baton Rouge on September 12 to face the national champion LSU Tigers (No. 12) before the Red River Showdown in Dallas against Oklahoma (No. 3) on October 10 and finally a trip to Oklahoma State (No. 17) on November 27.
Ehlinger cannot afford to slip up in these games as well as a potential Conference Championship or his dreams hearing the words, “Heisman Trophy winner” after his name will never materialize and neither will a College Football Playoff appearance for the No. 7 Longhorns. He cannot afford to shy away from the moment. Three years ago Tom Herman gave him the keys to this nice sports car the boosters put together and so far Ehlinger has gone nowhere with it. He’s got to go out on the town, show that bad boy off a little bit because chances are he won’t get another shot at this. It’s now or never.
Now let me be clear. I am not saying that Ehlinger should be the favorite in 2020. In fact, coming off a strong sophomore year Ohio State’s Justin Fields would be my pick. But if the voters aren’t impressed with the numbers coming out of Ohio State like in the past, and Trevor Lawrence gets off to a slow start again at Clemson then the ball will be in Sam’s court.