Last weekend, Sam Ehlinger and Kellen Mond put on their respective college uniforms—well, at least the helmets—for one final time. The two quarterbacks were in Mobile, Alabama, for the Reese’s Senior Bowl, which is both an all-star game and an audition for the NFL.
Mond started both halves (with time off in between) for the “American” squad, completing 13 of 25 passes for 173 yards and two touchdowns. Ehlinger started for the “National” team, but only played in the first quarter, going 4 of 10 for 42 yards and one touchdown. The National team led 13–0 at the half, and they fended off a strong showing from the American to win, 27–24. Mond was still named MVP for his stellar performance, which included passing for 141 yards in the third quarter.
Needless to say, this was no substitute for a Texas–Texas A&M game. And neither is comparing the two quarterbacks. But the two native Texans—Mond came to A&M from San Antonio’s Ronald Reagan High School (as well as one year at the IMG Academy in Florida), while Ehlinger only had to travel a few miles from Austin’s Westlake High to UT—wound up having similar careers. And what else are we supposed to do while waiting for spring practice, watch college basketball? Here’s how the Aggies QB and the Longhorns QB measure up, with analytical assistance from Burnt Orange Nation’s Wescott Eberts, Rush Roberts of Good Bull Hunting, and San Antonio Express-News sports columnist Mike Finger.
When you’re a four-year starting quarterback, even with some ups and downs, you’re gonna pile up some numbers.
Mond is the Aggies’ all-time leader in total offense (11,269 yards), passing yards (9,661), passing touchdowns (71), and completions (801), while his 93 total touchdowns are tied with those of Johnny Manziel. Of course, the artist formerly known as Johnny Football played for only two seasons, so you’ll find him behind both Mond and Jerrod Johnson in most career categories, while owning all the single-season records.
Ehlinger did more than Mond, accumulating 13,339 yards of total offense (the twentieth-most in NCAA history), 11,436 passing yards, 94 passing touchdowns, 923 completions, and 127 total touchdowns. In the UT record book, that puts him at only number two in all those categories, trailing fellow four-year starter Colt McCoy. Ehlinger also gets the edge in career quarterback rating (145 to 132) and completion percentage (62.5 percent to 59 percent), though Mond improved more over his four seasons.
“The numbers don’t lie, and in this case they favor Ehlinger by a pretty significant margin,” says Burnt Orange Nation’s Eberts.
Finger, of the Express-News, suggests considering the players’ accomplishments in context. “Both were the right quarterback for their era at their school,” he says. “Sam came to UT at a time when it needed somebody to carry an offense and show some swagger, and even if he was all-or-nothing at times, that was fine. It seems like Jimbo was looking for something closer to quiet consistency, especially this last year, and Kellen was perfect in that regard.”
If all had gone exactly well for Ehlinger, he would have left UT before his senior year. Coming off that 10–4 2018 season—the Longhorns finished ninth in the Associated Press poll, with a win over Oklahoma, a loss to Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game, and a Sugar Bowl win over Georgia—he was a legit Heisman Trophy contender and Sports Illustrated cover star. Instead, neither he nor the Longhorns reached their full potential. UT won two Alamo Bowls but couldn’t even get back to the Big 12 championship, let alone win it. And now Tom Herman’s gone.
Whereas Mond, having played his first year under Kevin Sumlin, got to navigate his fits and starts during Jimbo Fisher’s honeymoon period, and that paid off in 2020. While the big prizes—a win over Alabama and/or making the College Football Playoff—still eluded them, A&M’s season was the best one either quarterback had in terms of team accomplishment, with the Aggies going 9–1 against an all-SEC schedule, then beating North Carolina in the Orange Bowl. They finished fourth in the Associated Press poll, ahead of College Football Playoff semifinal losers Notre Dame.
Neither quarterback is ticketed for greatness in the NFL, though the same was also true of Ehlinger’s fellow Westlake grad Nick Foles (a third-rounder) and Cowboys star Dak Prescott (a fourth-rounder). But even if Mond or Ehlinger never throw a pass, or take the backup/journeyman route as did Colt McCoy and Garrett Gilbert, their pro careers are basically irrelevant. Johnny Manziel and Vince Young will always be A&M and UT legends despite their flameouts in the NFL, while Ryan Tannehill’s success with the Tennessee Titans doesn’t really put an extra glow on his career in College Station. Heck, an NFL breakout for Mond or Ehlinger might even sting a little: “Why couldn’t he do that against TCU?” (Or Oklahoma. Or Alabama. Or Clemson.)
Mond and Ehlinger also can’t control what happens next at their old schools. But that will absolutely matter. Mond helped start an era; Ehlinger became the end of one.
“If Jimbo Fisher does prove to be the home run hire all Aggies hope he is and builds a dynasty in Aggieland, then Kellen Mond will be fondly remembered as the first of many great QBs during the coach’s tenure,” says Good Bull Hunting’s Roberts.
Whereas in Austin, if new UT coach Steve Sarkisian does what Herman, Charlie Strong, and later-years Mack Brown could not, Ehlinger becomes just another alumnus waving happily on the sidelines next to Matthew McConaughey, singing whatever song has inevitably replaced “The Eyes of Texas.”
“He was such a steady presence in such a tumultuous decade,” says Eberts. “[But] with Sarkisian’s track record as a developer of quarterbacks, I think there’s a good chance that the emerging narrative ends up focusing more on what Ehlinger wasn’t able to accomplish than what he did accomplish.”
So who was better?
“I think this is a question where the answers will fall pretty distinctly along maroon and burnt-orange fault lines,” says Roberts.
True enough, though Mond and Ehlinger’s harshest critics were inside the house. Roberts already wrote as much in his farewell to Mond, and there wasn’t necessarily a huge clamor to see either quarterback return for a fifth year (because of COVID-19, last season did not count against any player’s NCAA eligibility).
In Ehlinger’s case, while he was Mr. Longhorn to a lot of fans, he also never quite lived down his cheeky attempt to render the “Texas is back!” meme unironic.
“I suspect that it’s one of the only things that he truly regrets about his Longhorns career,” says Eberts.
The two quarterbacks will also be remembered for where they stood in a year when you couldn’t “stick to sports.” Both Black Lives Matter and COVID-19 were inseparable from college football. Mond spoke out in favor of removing Texas A&M’s statue of Confederate general and Texas governor Sul Ross, much to the chagrin of some in College Station (perhaps including A&M’s administration). And Ehlinger got caught up in a controversy over “The Eyes of Texas” that was not of his own making, even though he seemed to be aligned with fans who want the song to stay (which remains the official position of UT, Sarkisian included).
“Some tried to say Sam was more of a Longhorn than his teammates because he sang ‘The Eyes,’ and some tried to say Kellen is less of an Aggie because he spoke out about Sul Ross,” says Finger. “I disagree with both assessments, and I suspect both quarterbacks do, too.”
Roberts echoes that sentiment. “Both were tough leaders, loved their schools, and often were the only glue holding the team together,” he says. “Alas … if only there had been a way to decide on a field of play once and for all which QB was better.”