AUSTIN—Deep into overtime against Kansas State, Texas freshman quarterback Sam Ehlinger burst into the middle of the line and veered right. A Wildcats defender in his sight, Ehlinger lowered his shoulder, threw a forearm and smashed through the tackler for an extra five yards.
In one crushing blow on a drive to the winning touchdown, Ehlinger sent a message to the Big 12: These Longhorns are tougher than Texas teams of recent past and the young quarterback with the big muscles and thick neck is leading the way.
"That kid's a hard-nose baller," Texas wide receiver Collin Johnson said.
No. 12 Oklahoma most certainly took notice. The Sooners (4-1, 1-1 Big 12) and Longhorns (3-2, 2-0) meet Saturday in their annual rivalry game at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.
While Longhorns coach Tom Herman refuses to say publicly who will start at quarterback, all signs point to Ehlinger taking over the offense from sophomore Shane Buechele, who has missed two games this season with nagging injuries. Ehlinger is 2-1 as a starter with 900 yards passing and five touchdowns and 212 yards rushing. His 487 total yards against Kansas State rank third in school history.
An Austin native, Ehlinger grew up in the shadow of the Texas campus. A popular photo making the rounds on social media is of a toddler Ehlinger in denim overalls and flashing the "Hook'em Horns" signal with both hands.
Ehlinger's father, Ross, died while competing in a triathlon in San Francisco in 2013 when Sam was in eighth grade. The two had spent their fall Saturdays going to or watching Longhorns games.
"He taught me that determination and consistency and hard work, and working hard every day is what he instilled into my morals," Ehlinger told 247sports.com in 2016 . Texas said it would not make Ehlinger available to speak with reporters this week ahead of the Oklahoma game.
Although Ehlinger initially committed to the Longhorns under former coach Charlie Strong, he stuck with Texas in order to be close to home even after Strong was fired. He enrolled in January in order to participate in spring drills.
"From the day I met him, this is an extremely mature guy. You don't go through what he went through all of a sudden have to be the man of your household, and not mature very quickly," Herman said earlier this season. "He's a bit of an old soul. I think that's what has allowed him to step into this role maybe a little bit easier than most."
The Texas-Oklahoma game, with the stadium split down the middle with between fans in burnt orange and those in crimson and cream, can be a pressure cooker for young quarterbacks who get caught up in the emotion and the non-stop momentum swings. Some crumble, others thrive, as Texas knows all too well.
The Cotton Bowl was the site of some of Chris Simms' toughest losses. Colt McCoy had some of his biggest wins there. McCoy won his debut against the Sooners in 2006 and beamed his boyish, toothy grin that Texas and Sooners fans would see for three more years.
Herman insisted Monday he won't designate a starter until he sees how well Buechele can practice on a sore ankle.
But he also said Ehlinger's inexperience wouldn't be a concern.
"Non-factor. He started in the Coliseum against the No. 4 team (Southern California) in the country," Herman said.
The Longhorns lost that one 27-24 in double overtime. Ehlinger had three turnovers, including a critical fumble in the second overtime, but also drove his team 90 yards to the go-ahead touchdown with 45 seconds left. As his passing improves, it's Ehlinger's legs that have kept drives alive time and again.
"I told Sam, I was like, 'You scare me every time you run,'" Texas offensive lineman Patrick Vahe said. "Because he doesn't hesitate whatsoever when it comes to hitting another defender."