How can we count the ways in which the quarterback position at Oklahoma is fascinating this year?
- The Sooners have to replace one of the best signal callers in college football history.
- One of the contenders for the starting job just got $5 million from the Oakland A’s after being selected ninth overall in the Major League Baseball draft.
- The other candidate is best known for flapping his gums prior to OU getting run out of its own building by Ohio State.
- The head coach has declined to name a starter even though everyone is assuming it is a formality.
- That presumed starter is a former Texas high school legend who will in all likelihood play his final football game this season.
Of course, “fascinating” in this context can mean “that sounds exciting” or “let’s watch this team try to avoid a train wreck.”
Sooner Nation can take comfort in Riley’s track record of developing quarterbacks. Prior to Baker Mayfield, he groomed Shane Carden and Dominique Davis into productive players at East Carolina; both went on to have a cup of coffee in the NFL. Riley has two players with superior skill sets to those ECU QBs on his roster this year.
Riley is paying lip service to the notion of a QB derby in camp, and the word from Norman since the spring is that Austin Kendall responded well to the opportunity. Nevertheless, it would constitute a huge upset if Kyler Murray doesn’t take the first snap in the opening game against Florida Atlantic.
You could view Murray as being in an unenviable position, seeing as the last guy who played there was Baker Mayfield. Trying to live up to that standard sounds like begging for disappointment.
On top of that, Murray is short. He hasn’t seen extensive playing time in three years. When he did play as a freshman at Texas A&M in 2015, the results were hit and miss. Despite all the yards accumulated on the ground that year, Murray struggled to take care of the ball when he threw it.
All those are fine reasons to be concerned about what's in store with Murray. But let’s explore a possibility that doesn’t seem all that remote: Murray is a really good quarterback who just happened to get stuck behind an all-time great a year ago.
As Ted Nguyen of The Athletic detailed in our podcast earlier this year, Murray flashed some top-tier skills in the few chances he had last year. He hit on some throws in tight windows that demonstrated accuracy and decisiveness. Murray also proved on multiple occasions that he has all the arm strength necessary to push the ball down the field.
However, Murray’s running ability truly sets him apart. He’s not only fast, but elusive in the open field. For all the talk about Mayfield’s ability to make something out of nothing with his feet, he pales in comparison to Murray when it comes to tucking the ball and running with it.
To that end, OU’s offense will undoubtedly feature more designed QB runs and zone reads this year. Riley has shown a knack for creativity in designing a running game, so he can leverage the threat posed by Murray’s legs. Murray also might opt to flee the pocket quicker on dropbacks than Mayfield, who had a tendency to hold onto the ball and try to make big throws down the field.
If Murray is running that often, Austin Kendall might end up seeing the field more than your usual backup QB.
Given that Kendall redshirted as a sophomore last year, any impressions from his stint as Mayfield’s understudy in 2016 have faded. He only got mop-up time in two games. He made a few nice throws in live action and a few where he looked amped up and off target. We’ve also seen in spring games that he is a smooth enough runner to at least keep defenses honest versus the zone read.
Kendall has more of the classic Air Raid QB profile relative to Murray. If OU has to switch QBs at some point in the middle of the year, Riley would likely need to reconfigure the offensive scheme to play to his QBs’ strengths. That could create some execution issues, but it’s par for the course when teams have to juggle quarterbacks in the middle of the year.
Mayfield’s departure looms over the program right now, so I don’t blame anyone who expects the QB position – and OU’s offense – to take a major step back this season. Casting aside Mayfield as a frame of reference offers a different perspective, though.
The Sooners have two strong prospects vying to play QB this year. Neither has to perform at the same level as No. 6 for OU to field a College Football Playoff-caliber team. If this competition were taking place at a school that wasn’t trying to replace a Heisman Trophy winner, the conversation would be totally different.
Bottom line: Whatever worries you may have about this team, QB shouldn't be one of them.