AUSTIN, Texas — Winning the Texas AP High School Football Player of the Year Award has been a useful forecast for predicting collegiate success, but not often has it led to a quarterback showdown in Austin.
When No. 12 Texas and Oklahoma State square off Saturday, the two players orchestrating the two high-powered offenses will be the focal points for fans of their respective schools and for fans of high school football in the state of Texas.
“I haven’t watched a whole lot of film on him, but from what I’ve seen on TV, like when we’re just in the hotel and they were playing a few weeks ago, (he’s) extremely explosive, athletic, fast guy,” Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger said of his counterpart, Spencer Sanders. “He’s a great quarterback from what I’ve seen and what I’ve heard.”
Ehlinger was awarded the state’s top honor in 2015 after leading Westlake to the 6A state championship game in his junior season.
Oklahoma State's Sanders took home the award in 2017, capping off a senior season in which he guided Ryan to a 5A semifinal finish.
Saturday will mark their first head-to-head matchup and their first time meeting in person. If recent trends continue, both are primed for big performances.
“It's the scariest environment imaginable,” said Texas head coach Tom Herman on the prospect of playing the Cowboys explosive offense. “They have [Chuba Hubbard] the nation's leading rusher. They've got [Tylan Wallace] an All-American wide receiver. They have a quarterback that can not only throw it to that receiver, but is a threat with his running ability, too.”
Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy was quick to sing the praises of Ehlinger as well.
“[Ehlinger is] considerably better than he has been in my opinion,” Gundy said. “He’s much more productive than he was in the past. You hear people talk about his throwing. I don’t see any issues with his throwing, I think he throws pretty good.”
The Texas AP High School Football Player of the Year Award has only been in existence for about a decade, but already, the list of winners is loaded with household names – Kyler Murray, Patrick Mahomes, Johnny Manziel and Garrett Gilbert, to name a few.
Murray, the 2014 winner, faced off with Baylor quarterback Charlie Brewer, the 2016 winner, last year in Norman. Ehlinger and Murray met last year in Dallas.
Mahomes faced former Texas running back Johnathan Gray, the 2011 award winner, in 2014 in Lubbock when both were backups.
Last year’s Ehlinger-Brewer matchup promised to be the first time two of the award-winning quarterbacks went toe-to-toe in Austin, but Ehlinger’s day was cut short as he was forced to leave with an injury.
The Ehlinger-Sanders matchup, while not a battle of two locals, has similar intrigue because both have been so highly regarded within the state for so long.
“It's a testament to him that the Sunday after last week's game [against LSU] we were like, 'Yeah, probably wasn't his best game,' and you look up and he's got 400 yards of total offense and five touchdowns,” Herman said of his star signal caller. “We have very high expectations of him, and he has that of himself.”
Gundy compared the place Ehlinger has reached to the one he hopes Sanders, a redshirt freshman, can get.
“Sometimes early in a quarterback’s career, in my opinion, the game moves really fast for them,” he said. “As they mature, it looks like where Ehlinger is right now, the game slows down for them. Spencer’s game hasn’t slowed down yet and it won’t for another 10 games. If he stays healthy and continues to improve, it should slow down for him about this time next year.”