Sam Ehlinger turning heads in Colts camp, with help from his 'freak' rookie receiver

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WESTFIELD, Ind. — The Indianapolis Colts truly don’t know who their starting quarterback will be on Sept. 12, one month from Thursday, when the Seattle Seahawks arrive for their Week 1 game.

It could be Carson Wentz, currently sidelined with a foot injury that appears to have turned in a positive direction in the past few days.

It could be Jacob Eason, the 2020 fourth-round draft pick — and one-time five-star recruit — who is coming off what amounted to a redshirt season as a rookie.

And it could be Sam Ehlinger, the former Texas QB who was more Bronko Nagurski in college than Brett Favre but who is impressing with each day at Colts camp.

“I’m just trying to always have a plan at the line of scrimmage,” Ehlinger told Yahoo Sports after a strong practice effort. “I’ve just been focusing so much on anticipating and getting my timing square. That’s what all the film study and prep is for.”

After Wentz got hurt early last week, Eason earned the bulk of first-team reps. That tide has turned with Ehlinger now splitting those reps with Eason over the past few days. Thursday’s joint practice with the Carolina Panthers provided good opportunities for both young quarterbacks, especially Ehlinger.

If the Colts’ coaches like one more than the other as a stand-in for Wentz, they’re not yet tipping their hands.

“Both Sam and Jacob today were really solid,” Colts head coach Frank Reich said after practice. “Really solid days from both of them.”

Eason looks the part of a classic starter, standing 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds, outfitting with a hose of an arm that can make every throw. Ehlinger — shorter and stockier and with far less arm talent — is making the kinds of plays that have made this a fascinating battle, even if Wentz returns on the earlier side of the 5-to-12-week timetable the team put on his injury.

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Sam Ehlinger could start for an injured Carson Wentz. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Sam Ehlinger could start for an injured Carson Wentz. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

“You just want to see [Wentz] ready when he comes back,” Colts owner Jim Irsay said during practice. “If that’s [against] Seattle, so be it. If it’s not, it’s when he’s ready, and no one can tell that for sure.”

That makes these practices with the Panthers, plus the Colts’ three preseason games, crucial for the young quarterbacks. This was a team, after all, that was earning some dark-horse Super Bowl buzz prior to Wentz getting hurt.

Even if Wentz is cleared for play by Week 1, one of these other quarterbacks — along with Brett Hundley, who mostly ran with the threes — will back up a QB who has battled injuries almost annually since 2017. (This is also a franchise that knows all about rushing quarterbacks back from injury with the Andrew Luck debacle, so there’s an added layer of anxiety here.)

“We’re just trying to make each other better,” Ehlinger said of himself and Eason. “We want to make it a tough call [for the coaches].”

If that option is Ehlinger, which looks possible, it would be a fantastic story as a sixth-round draft pick whose passing prowess was criticized by more than one online scout. And if that happens, we can’t overlook the assistance he’s received from a fellow rookie — a Bahamian-bred seventh-rounder who last played competitive football at the Division II level nearly 21 months ago.

Colts’ mystery receiver looking tremendous in camp

After the University of Charleston (West Virginia) canceled its fall football season last year, along with every other lower-level college, Michael Strachan spent last year working on his craft at Bommarito Performance Systems in Miami.

It was there he tried to hone his craft as best he could while NFL scouts attempted to crack the code of the physically blessed project who lit up D-II defenses for 78 receptions, 1,319 yards and 19 touchdowns — all school records — in 2019.

He also ran track there, helping Charleson win conference championships in the 200 meters, 400 and the 4x400 relay. Strachan is the school’s record holder in the 400.

At 6-foot-5 and 226 pounds, with 34 1/4-inch arms and 10-inch hands, Strachan is as big as receivers get these days. The league has trended away from that type of wideout in favor of smaller, quicker, more shifty players in recent years, and that’s partly why Strachan fell to the first pick of Round 7 this spring.

Other factors were his level of competition and relative lack of football, especially with none last season. Strachan was born in the Bahamas before relocating to Virginia as a sophomore in high school. He picked up football there and became a star at Charleston and was viewed as a project by Colts general manager Chris Ballard.

But Strachan has been one of the shocking standouts in Colts camp. Thursday was another big day for the king-sized pass catcher as he hauled in throw after throw, including a fastball from Ehlinger in red-zone work.

Ehlinger pumped his fist after that connection, and it received one of the bigger ovations of the day.

“Mike is a freak,” Ehlinger said. “You look at him, and you’re like … oh my goodness. It’s pretty incredible the genetics he has.”

Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Mike Strachan has been the talk of training camp. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Mike Strachan has been the talk of training camp. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Those genetics allowed Strachan to fight off a good jam at the line from Panthers cornerback Stantley Thomas-Oliver III in press coverage, gear back on the slant he was running and haul in a hard pass from Ehlinger (with a slight double catch) and a first down.

“He’s good, he can play,” former Panthers receiver Steve Smith told Yahoo Sports. “He’s caught my eye today. But can he play small, you know? Can he move like a smaller guy, is what I’m saying. It’s about getting off the line. Don’t give up your chest. Get into your route. That’s how he’s going to [have to] do it.”

Earlier, Strachan cut his route too short in individual work and caught an earful from Colts wideouts coach Mike Groh. Then after a failed red-zone rep, Wentz — who attended practice Thursday, moving effortlessly without a boot — approached Strachan to talk about the play.

“We make mistakes; nobody is perfect,” Strachan said of his handful of mental miscues. “We get it corrected and move forward. "

"[Wentz] was talking about different situations on that play as far as timing goes.”

The injured starting quarterback talking timing with a seventh-round rookie is notable. If Wentz isn’t expecting Strachan to make the team, perhaps the guy coming off foot surgery doesn’t walk over to the 229th pick in the draft for a teaching moment.

The Ehlinger-Strachan connection is real

Ehlinger started slowly in practice when the teams went live, facing some early pressure and misfiring on a few throws on the move. The quarterback whose every rep counts was going to need a few big throws to keep up his ascension.

Just then, Irsay spoke to a small group of media and was asked about the quarterback situation. The team owner ran through some platitudes before seemingly lightening up and offering a fun morsel on Ehlinger.

“With Sam, we’re always hoping and you think, ‘Where’s the next Montana or Brady? Could that be him?’ You just don’t know,” Irsay said.

From that point on, Ehlinger got hot. Eason looked solid, too, but Ehlinger had a few more splash throws — especially during tempo and in the red zone — and a better overall performance.

“That’s me, that’s my thing right there,” Ehlinger said. “I like 11-on-11 football, you know? … Seven-on-seven has its place, I get it. But I like when we line up, put the ball down and 11 guys go to work. That’s football, to me at least.”

Strachan caught multiple passes from Ehlinger on Thursday as the pair have formed a bond since becoming teammates. Ehlinger had a similarly sized wideout at Texas in 6-foot-6 Collin Johnson (now with the Jaguars), but Steve Smith had another comp in mind for Strachan.

“I think he’s what [the Colts] wanted Devin Funchess to be,” Smith said.

Noted for his own work ethic, Ehlinger instantly gravitated toward Strachan once he saw how the receiver put in the time.

“He’s come in and had the underdog mentality, [he’s] wanted to learn as much as possible,” Ehlinger said. “Still soaking up information every day.”

The two even have set up their own little daily debriefings to sort out each practice plan.

“Every morning he’s like, ‘Let’s go through the script.’ So you have the learner mentality and the physical ability to do whatever he wants to do. That’s a pretty decent combo.”

There’s a scenario where Ehlinger goes from nice camp story to third string. The same goes for Strachan, who remains one member of a deep stable of pass catchers. There’s also a possibility that each could play an unexpectedly significant role for a quality AFC contender.

Ehlinger feasibly could be in line for meaningful quarterback duty this season. Strachan is bigger than Michael Pittman Jr., faster than Mo Alie-Cox and could be a red-zone threat. Could this happen?

“We’re just blessed,” Strachan said. “And only God knows what will happen. Until then we just work hard and pray for the next opportunity. We’re really having fun out here doing it.”

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