All offensive systems in football look better when run by a rifle-armed quarterback with intelligence, pinpoint accuracy and twinkle toes in the pocket. You won’t find one of those guys on the Oklahoma Sooners roster right now. In fact, Bob Stoops is looking at three big QB question marks in Baker Mayfield, Trevor Knight and Cody Thomas.
A coach in Stoops’ shoes can hope that one guy magically puts everything together and starts playing at an All-American level. (Stoops has arguably hit that jackpot twice at OU with Jason White and Sam Bradford.) Alternatively, he can take steps to mitigate the importance of a quarterback to his team’s success.
During my recent podcast with Chris Brown of Smart Football, we discussed the idea of making an offense less “quarterback-dependent” in the era of the spread. The conventional idea of offenses that aren’t QB-centric is something akin to a Nick Saban wet dream – grinding running games paired with opportunistic play-action passing. In other words, bulk up and de-emphasize the QB by taking the ball out of his hands.
But is it possible to make the QB less of a factor in a spread system where he seems to be the focal point?
Enter Lincoln Riley, hired to guide OU’s transition away from the pseudo-Pistol offense of the last two seasons back to the Air Raid that brought the program to prominence early in Stoops’ tenure. As Chris pointed out during our conversation, the beauty of the Air Raid offense is that it can turn QBs with relatively pedestrian skill sets into effective triggermen by simplifying the passing game. Look back at Mike Leach’s parade of noodle-armed passers at Texas Tech to see how devastating the offensive system can be with quick-thinking QBs at the dials.
One of the top items on Riley’s agenda is figuring out which one of Knight, Mayfield and Thomas will have the most success operating Riley’s system.
The Favorite: Baker Mayfield
Members of the local media have anointed Mayfield the odds-on favorite to win the starting job this fall. It’s easy to see why. The Texas Tech transfer possesses adequate arm strength, accuracy, serviceable quickness and experience running a similar scheme with the Red Raiders. In the few opportunities that public has had to see Mayfield don the Crimson and Cream, he has put up solid numbers in spring games.
By all accounts, Mayfield also has a sense of self-confidence that should be a plus for a quarterback. He didn’t flinch when he got the call to start his first game as a walk-on at Tech; he still carries himself with that same confidence now in Norman. That seems to be a hit in the locker room, too.
On the other hand, red flags pop up all around Mayfield. Confidence is nice and all, but it’s a real bitch when it lures a quarterback into thinking he can make the kind of plays normally reserved for Aaron Rodgers. Mayfield had plenty of those moments in his freshman campaign, and his penchant for freelancing can lead to problems. He also coughed up the ball way too often.
Although evaluations in recruiting aren’t the end-all, be-all, Mayfield’s limited scholarship offer list raises further questions about what coaches around the country did or didn’t see in the 2013 Big 12 Newcomer of the Year. It’s worth remembering that Mayfield essentially lost his job to Davis Webb. That’s no reason to downplay his prospects at OU, but it just feels odd.
The Incumbent: Trevor Knight
Knight’s highs and lows have been well chronicled. In the past two years, he has proven himself to be a boom-or-bust QB, prone to both monumental errors and stunning highlights.
More importantly, though, let’s talk about what Knight hasn’t proven: that he fits the role of Air Raid QB in the classical sense.
His detractors rag on his decision-making, which has often left a lot to be desired. Yet, his tendency to spray the ball all over the field when throwing from the pocket is probably more alarming, along with his lack of touch. He just doesn’t pass the ball with the timing and proficiency of elite Air Raid passers. His height doesn't help much, either.
None of that is to say that Knight couldn’t flourish in the confines of Riley’s scheme. Leach’s Air Raid acolytes have put their own twists on the offense, and some have leveraged athleticism at the QB position to add another facet the O. Kevin Sumlin's high-wire act with Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M is one example, and that produced one of the more devastating attacks in recent college football history.
Ironically, Knight started making waves around Norman when he shredded the Sooner D while mimicking Johnny Football in the buildup to OU’s humbling loss to the Aggies in the 2013 Cotton Bowl. Knight doesn’t necessarily have Mr. Football’s elusiveness buying time in the pocket – or his proficiency as a passer – but he can do some damage running with the ball out of the gun. That raises the possibility of tailoring the scheme to fit Knight’s skill set: waggles, zone read, QB draws, etc.
The enigma: Cody Thomas
That prototype QB I mentioned earlier? Thomas is the closest thing to that on OU’s roster. So why hasn't the talent he showed while carving up the highest level in Texas high school football translated to the college game?
You could chalk up Thomas’ shaky outings last season to his springs on the baseball diamond and lingering injuries. Now, though, he should be asserting himself in the race for QB1. Based on media reports, it doesn’t sound like that’s happening.
As a fan, I really hope Thomas puts himself in a position to seize the starting gig. He boasts the most potential in the Air Raid of the three contenders. If Thomas can’t win the job now, it’s fair to ask if the light will ever come on for him.
So who wins?
The drumbeat in the media that Mayfield has sewn up the No. 1 position at QB has only grown louder since the end of spring camp. I don’t see any reason to believe that won’t hold up. (Online betting shop Bookmaker is even giving pretty healthy odds that Mayfield will win out.)
Assuming that does come to fruition, the big question for Lincoln Riley will be how the offensive whiz kid manages Mayfield’s fondness for ad-libbing. Interestingly, though, based on Riley’s comments in the spring about Mayfield’s swashbuckling, it doesn’t sound as though he necessarily wants the junior quarterback to dial it back. Mayfield may have settled down some from his days in Lubbock. It’s also possible that Riley and Bob Stoops are prepared to trade the occasional frustrations that come with Mayfield’s style for his confidence, accuracy and familiarity with the system.
Fortunately, whoever wins the quarterback job will have a stocked arsenal of offensive weapons at his disposal. In a sense, the coaching staff might be attempting to determine which QB has the potential to lift OU’s offense above its already promising floor. That’s a good problem to have.