During the 2014 season, Oklahoma's coaching staff appeared to be wrestling with an offensive dilemma all year.
Starting quarterback Trevor Knight had proved in the prior season that durability wasn't his strong suit. With one-time backup QB Blake Bell transitioning to tight end for the ‘14 campaign, pickings behind Knight were slim.
He and offensive coordinator Josh Heupel operated all season as though keeping the his uniform clean was priority No. 1. Offensive calls that utilized Knight’s legs started to disappear. The zone read that was a staple of OU’s revamped scheme looked a lot more like “called give.”
Opposing defenses started to ignore the threat of Knight running. With their mobile QB tethered to the backfield, the Sooners struggled to take advantage of the well-rounded assortment of offensive options at their disposal.
In theory, the concerns about QB depth that constrained the Sooners in ‘14 are there again now. Baker Mayfield is in the top tier nationally, but a true freshman is running No. 2 behind him. After that, it’s an assortment of walk-on options.
Mayfield’s concussion history further raises the stakes surrounding his safety. If he goes down for extended time, a team with College Football Playoff aspirations could turn into a middle-of-the-pack Big 12 outfit fairly quickly.
Mayfield’s swashbuckling can put him in harm’s way. He has a knack for slipping through rushers’ grasps, but his reluctance to take an L on any given play can expose him to excessive punishment. He also played a not insignificant part in OU’s running game last season.
That all factors in to what makes Mayfield Mayfield. Take his improvisational skills away, and he’s just not the same player. Bob Stoops will admit as much.
What can Lincoln Riley do to keep his QB on the field? Aside from curtailing Mayfield's role in the running game, it's tough to say exactly. Maybe more quick-hitting throws. Fewer deep drops. More max protection calls?
Ultimately, figuring out how to take full advantage of the weapons at Mayfield's disposal might be less important to OU's success this year than figuring out how to keep the star QB healthy.