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Shane Buechele or Sam Ehlinger: Texas' QB dilemma continues

When coach Tom Herman arrived at Texas, he did so with a reputation for being a stellar tutor of quarterbacks.

The performance of Herman's previous pupils -- from the Ohio State trio of Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones to Houston's Greg Ward Jr. -- earned him that distinction. And since arriving in Austin, he has had two young quarterbacks from which to choose, something he's still in the process of more than three games into the season.

There is no clear answer right now for a question many in Austin have: Shane Buechele or Sam Ehlinger?

Here's the short answer from Herman -- for now:

"When we start practice [Tuesday], Shane will get the majority of the reps with the ones," Herman said Monday at his weekly news conference. "Sam will still get reps with the ones. And it will be business as usual. If Shane is 100 percent and having great practices, then Shane will start. But I'm not going to tell you that Shane is going to start the Iowa State game when we're 10 days away from it right now."

His most recent assessment is consistent with a common theme of Herman's comments since training camp began: a nod to Buechele, the sophomore with a year's worth of starting experience under his belt, but not a full-fledged commitment; leaving the door open for Ehlinger, a true freshman who was the state's No. 1 quarterback recruit in the 2017 signing class.

And Ehlinger's performance in the second half and overtime of Texas' 27-24 double-overtime loss at No. 4 USC made the picture even murkier than before.

The Longhorns truly have a quarterback dilemma.

Neither has produced a slam-dunk performance that suggests he deserves to be the unquestioned starter, but both have displayed to Herman and offensive coordinator Tim Beck valid evidence why they deserve playing time.

Buechele earned the job through his play in the offseason and training camp, which is why he started the Longhorns' season-opening loss to Maryland. Herman consistently preaches that how players perform in practice dictates who plays on Saturdays. And in his lone performance, Buechele completed 65 percent of his passes for 375 yards and two touchdowns, despite being sacked five times, being under consistent pressure and having virtually no running game to rely upon. Those numbers can be misleading, given the fact that Maryland boat raced Texas, but he was serviceable.

Ehlinger faced a much less-talented opponent -- San Jose State -- in his starting debut, but this past Saturday against USC was his real test. And while he often looked like a true freshman starting on the road against a top-five team, his second-half performance gave the Longhorns faithful reason for optimism, especially the 14-play, 91-yard drive that Ehlinger led in the fourth quarter to give Texas a 17-14 lead with less than a minute remaining in regulation. He played like most coaches would hope their quarterback could in such a circumstance.

"I think that's some grown-up football, right there," Herman said Monday of that drive.

In the first two quarters versus USC, Ehlinger was only 5 for 10 passing for 89 yards, with no touchdowns and an interception. In the final two quarters and overtime, he went 16-for-30 for 209 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.

"He wasn't playing really good early in that game," Herman said. "That was very evident. So he grew up a lot [as the game progressed]."

Despite the QB dilemma, quarterback isn't at the top of the list of Texas' concerns right now. Instead, the Longhorns' lack of a running game is No. 1 (running backs Chris Warren and Kyle Porter carried the ball a combined nine times for 24 yards on Saturday). And No. 1A is their offensive line depth, after Connor Williams left the USC game with a knee injury that should leave him out for a while.

"Desperation level is at an all-time high," Herman said, discussing the O-line. "We have five guys right now. Five that we feel good about putting in a game. We've got 10 days to get that number up to, hopefully, at least seven."

Addressing that issue and finding more yards for Warren and Porter are urgent matters, but figuring out the No. 1 quarterback moving forward isn't far behind. Herman seems content to dance between Buechele and Ehlinger, even though he has traditionally stuck with one quarterback in his time as a coordinator and head coach.

There's a reason for that. Herman doesn't yet believe they're "dynamic" at the position -- he said so himself in training camp -- and, again, neither has truly separated himself from the other yet.

When asked how he felt about his quarterbacks in August, two weeks before the season started, Herman said: "Good. We're not dynamic there. It's not Vince Young, it's not Braxton Miller. But we're good enough to win with."

While both Texas quarterbacks can run the football -- a necessary ability in Herman's spread offense -- Ehlinger seems the more natural runner, and the coaches seemed comfortable utilizing that skill late in the USC game, running Ehlinger twice near the goal line (once for a 9-yard gain; the other for what ended up being a fumble).

And Herman hasn't been shy in his praise of Ehlinger's intangibles, calling him an "alpha male" and "really sharp" and praising his maturity.

Buechele has experience on his side, though, and -- for the moment -- the nod as the No. 1 in practice. That could change, as Herman continues to say.

Back in July at Big 12 media days, Herman stated that he was not concerned about his quarterbacks' egos. And with just over a week until conference play begins, he’s still not.

"We've got a duty on game day to win," he said. "We don't have a duty to protect people's feelings. So if the backup gives you a better chance to win than the starter with the way that that starter is currently playing, then you have to put the backup in. If the answer is no, then what's the point of putting him in?"