If not for four interceptions in Saturday's Red-White spring scrum, the afternoon would've been widely approved. But if not for the 2014 Sooner interceptions, we wouldn't be here in the first place.
Neither would Lincoln Riley, nor outside receivers coach Dennis Simmons. Sans his killer picks, Trevor Knight would've been standing next to star runner Samaje Perine and watching three quarterbacks split snaps to determine who'd be his backup.
But just as the 2014 interceptions were real, so were yesterday's unwise throwaways. Worse, two of them came from Baker Mayfield, the transfer junior QB many hope and expect will lead the 2015 Sooners back to its winning ways. And Knight's high-risk/low-reward sidearm interception immediately reminded the 42,000 fans of the costly interceptions that led to a stunning five-loss season.
Redshirt sophomore Cody Thomas showed improvement and his interception by Hatari Byrd in the end zone was more of a good defensive tip/play by emerging inside linebacker Tay Evans than it was a bad throw. And Santa Fe redshirt freshman Justice Hansen was a perfect 5-for-5 for 70 yards and the only QB to not throw one to the other colored jersey. But his limited reps are probably an indication that the race is more of a two-man competition between the older signal callers, Mayfield and Knight.
Mayfield completed every pass in the 2014 spring game, stealing the show in his public debut. This year he completed but one of his thirteen throws. But it was the two that were caught by teammates on defense that left most less than exuberant. 10-of-13 for 176 yards and one touchdown was impressive. Two dumb decision pickoffs were not.
Afterward, Mayfield and Riley seemed okay with the transfer QB taking his chances – the gunslinger going-for-the-jugular mindset. Mayfield said, “Yea, I love taking my shots. When you have one-on-one matchups, you have to take your chances. There are times where I need to hold back, and it showed today when I turned the ball over. Just threw it up and made some bad choices. But I'm gonna take my shots.” Which I have no problem with, as long as you don't underthrow into triple coverage.
There's a major difference in chunking it deep to a receiver who will play defense and compete to avoid a jump-ball interception and underthrowing when you're out-numbered three to one. The term ‘gunslinger' can be endearing when you scramble around and throw deep balls that only your guy can catch. And gunslinger always sounds better when you have quality receivers.
Mayfield showed plenty of mobility, the liveliest arm and drop-in-the-barrel touch on a couple of deep throws. From the left hash he zipped a ten-yard out route to Mark Andrews at the boundary proving he has the arm strength to make all the throws.
Riley's job will be to see to it that Mayfield picks his spots and cuts down on the mental mistakes that have shown how they can kill a season. When Riley and Mayfield get the supremely gifted Perine, Joe Mixon – who no doubt will get ample touches and be a valuable weapon as a receiver – and Sterling Shepard in the huddle, maybe risking the interception will be less necessary.
I doubt if Bob Stoops and Riley were prepared to name Mayfield the starter after Saturday anyway, but his two picks took away that possibility. Stoops said afterward it could be deep into fall camp before a starter is named.
IMPRESSED WITH THREE RECEIVERS
I was very impressed with three receivers in particular Saturday. I was told by a regular spring ball onlooker that redshirt freshman Mark Andrews “will be special, because he's a big guy who gained weight and didn't slow down who will be impossible matchup problems for linebackers and safeties in the slot. Great hands, great feel for the game, and better every day.” The Scottsdale native told me that he's “6-6, 245, gained twenty pounds but didn't lose any speed – still ran 4.56 40.” OU has relied on smaller, fast-twitch slot receivers almost exclusively – Ryan Broyles and Sterling Shepard types. Andrews has nine inches and over fifty pounds on those guys. I have a feeling Riley has found a gem with the big fella.
The likable and talkative sophomore Jeffery Mead is evolving into the big-bodied, big-play receiver the Sooners expected when they signed him out of the stout Tulsa Union program. Another 6-foot-6 target, the former four-star recruit made a nifty one-handed grab and an impressive slant route that he caught on the run with relative ease. A pair of tall targets is something OU's not had the luxury of throwing to recently. This young tandem appears to have a bright future.
Dede Westbrook is the third receiver who jumped out in the scrimmage. The JUCO All-America transfer epitomized what Riley's new approach emphasizes: aggression. The 6-foot-1 Blinn Community College product caught an early slip screen and immediately accelerated 24 yards due north to the 1-yard line. One play said a lot. Hands, confidence, playmaking, toughness. I'll be surprised if Dede Westbrook does not have a productive year and allow whoever the QB is to have another quality weapon from which to choose.
Throw in senior Sterling Shepard, whom Bob Stoops said was 100 percent recovered from an awful nagging midseason hamstring-type injury, highly recruited sophomore-to-be Michiah Quick, returning starter Durron Neal, and possible early enrollee speed merchant John Humphrey, and OU's receiving corps should go from thin and below average to deeper and a team strength. The 2015 system that will better utilize space needs a lot of players. While I'd expect better quarterbacking, more success, the new scheme and the new coordinator to help future recruiting, there should be enough on campus now to win.
BACK TO QUARTERBACKS
To be clear, I've consistently been a Trevor Knight fan. If not a fan, at least someone who has long respected the Texan's character, versatility and leadership qualities. More so in this era than ever before, those assets are needed and appreciated.
I empathize with much of what Knight's experienced the past two years: the good, the bad and the ugly of being the Oklahoma starting QB. Most fail to grasp the fact that so many things are out of the control of the QB -- the undue praise and unfair ridicule; that often your battling odds that aren't obvious to the masses; maybe it was those so-so receivers who didn't get separation or a play-caller who didn't do his part by not committing to an offensive identity, but rather a grab bag of a little of this and a little of that –- some Perine power run game, a dose of zone read, some four-and five-wide pass game, then try some Pistol, how ‘bout some fullback-tight end game and a little dink and dunk. More than one insider has fingered the lack of decisiveness as a major problem in 2014. Who are you? Be who you are. No doubt Trevor Knight's bad decisions were costly. But there's a reason he lit it up in the spring of 2013 where there was a commitment to learning the zone read which was right down his alley.
It has seemed to me for a long time that the biggest obstacle in Knight's way has been Knight himself. He just wants it too much. Been there and done that. Instead of trusting your system, teammates and yourself, instead of free-flowing it and trusting your innate ability to make the right decisions, it's easy to press too hard.
Knight's touchdown to interception ratio supports this thinking: 14 TDs to 12 interceptions – 17 in 450 career passes, including several in 2014 that were backbreakers. But the junior fraternal twin has rare tools. Plenty big, strong and fast. Enough velocity on his ball –- “he can really spin it,” is how Mike Stoops may have hyperbolized his analysis back when Knight was quietly dislodging Blake Bell as the soon-to-be-surprise starter that fall.
But accuracy and consistency are high on any offensive coordinator's priority list. Unless Lincoln Riley stuns us all and injects a heavy dose of zone read, or unless he brings back the ageless King Switzer to install the bone, the Air Raid scheme is not a system that plays to the strengths of Trevor Knight. It's like telling Buddy Hield he's going to run point guard in a slow-down offense that features getting the basketball to the big man.
STEVEN PARKER MAKING QUANTUM LEAP
There's a reason Alabama offered Steven Parker a scholarship. The 6-foot-1, 201-pound sophomore from Jenks struggled at times last season along with others in the back-end of OU's secondary. But Bob and Mike Stoops confirmed what I'd been told by spring observers—that he is emerging as a potential difference-maker at the nickel position where OU legend Roy Williams once intimidated offenses. Parker's instincts, physicality and athleticism are standing out at the position. If Parker can transition from a player who under-produced a season ago into one who is all-conference caliber, then the OU defense will have significantly upgraded.
AT THE END OF THE DAY
It's hard for me to envision a new offensive coordinator rolling into town looking to make a splash and throw it 45 times a game and elect to go with the returning starter who struggled to complete downfield throws and avoid killer interceptions. Fair or not, common sense says that even if Trevor Knight and Baker Mayfield are dead even, a new coordinator would give the nod to the ‘other guy.' After arguably the most disappointing season in program history, the theme says it's a new day, new coaches, system, and new thinking.
Unless Baker Mayfield's gunslinger mindset leads to excessive turnovers it's hard to see the former walk-on transfer not seeing his dream realized of becoming OU's starting quarterback.