To jump into the 2015 College Football Playoff race, Oklahoma must get better and more consistent quarterback play (along with the secondary and receivers). And what offensive coordinator Josh Heupel didn't say Monday night after practice said it all: the Oklahoma staff has mapped out its strategy that should deliver them the QB with the best chance to take them to the next level. The strategy is pragmatic, fair and the best way to follow through on recruiting promises.
An open, four-man competition like this place has never seen will commence at sun-up the morning after the bowl game. Harken back to the old made-for-TV Home Run Derby. It'll be OU's four-,an QB derby; winner take all, loser looking to transfer. OU's four QBs on scholarship will have the chance they were promised when they signed on the dotted line: to become the big man on campus. After having been there and done that I can tell you there will be sweaty palms in the middle of winter just like there are sweaty palms during game week. It's on your mind 24/7. You go to bed seeing corner blitzes; in class seeing bracket coverage. This quartet will be under the microscope, the keenest of competition. Unfortunately, unlike the televised Home Run Derby when we had three channels, we won't see much of this, even though we now have a thousand and three cable channels.
Heupel and Company will monitor their progress beginning with winter drills. They'll compare and contrast the four in almost everything they do. Rightly, no one has the inside track in this QB Derby and may the best man win. Here's the starting line, strap it on and show us what you got. No clear cut favorite. No one unworthy of putting up his dukes. If the Sooners weren't afraid to shock the fan base in the summer of 2013 when they named then-freshman Trevor Knight the starter over the popular and assumed choice Blake Bell, they won't have a problem in naming freshman Justice Hansen the 2015 starter. Or sophomore Cody Thomas. Or junior Baker Mayfield. Or the junior Knight.
There's a chance none of the four will be the quality of QBs currently in the playoff mix. But pure competition is the best way to find out. There aren't any five-stars but they are four quality players and character guys who may have more upside than people think. And there'll definitely be quality backups – although it's hard to see all four sticking around very long if they see themselves as the last man on the totem pole.
Surely the Sooners will figure it out on the back end and the receiving corps will be improved. If Dorial Green-Beckum surprises and foregoes coming out into a draft where he could be the top receiver picked and a top-15 selection, this position will automatically become scary strong. Sterling Shepard on one side, DGB on the other, Michiah Quick in the slot, with multiple bigger target younger receivers developing. So while this three-loss season has become monumentally disappointing to fans, if the four-man derby produces a big-time winning QB, the Sooners will be right back in the business of playing real football. Because in this new playoff era, a program like Oklahoma feels like the season ends when they're out of the playoff chase.
Take a look at the video attached to this story and see Heupel darn near pull a groin muscle trying to avoid direct questions. After playing dodgeball with multiple media questions and claiming, “I don't answer hypothetical questions,” I asked the clear-as-mud, non-hypothetical question to the former Heisman runner-up and got another Simbo stiff-arm non-answer. No problem. What wasn't said was articulated loud and clear. Trevor Knight will “compete” for the starting job against OSU with Cody Thomas (barring an awful day Saturday and a loss to Kansas). The bigger point is that even if Knight returns and is given the keys to the car and drives the Sooners to another Bedlam and bowl game win, Bob Stoops is opening up the starting QB job. And before they tell you ‘every job is open every year' just go back to the Stoops-era QBs and check the record. It's not fight-for-your-life every spring and summer. Especially for a leader and respected guy like Knight who will have been OU's starting QB for two years.
Several insiders insist the odds-on favorite may be Mayfield, a proven passer with ample spunk and savvy to fulfill his once thought-to-be-bizarre dream of transferring from a school where he'd started (Texas Tech) to one with a sophomore QB starting his second season and coming off a Sugar Bowl for the ages performance. That's not to mention the freshmen tandem of Thomas and Hansen, a pair of competitive athletes who can rock and fire and carry themselves without a bit of back-off in them.
But Thomas proved in the win at Tech that he has dual-threat potential to be the man. He has a big arm that will only get bigger and better with reps; outstanding running instincts and innate option skills that are rare. He may not win the 40-yard dash, but his fakes and ball skills could be molded into some of the best the school's had. Sure looks like a gamer who is plenty confident but not a bit cocky.
Hansen comes from great genes and appears to be a guy who'll develop into a strong, effective option runner and executioner. Throwing the ball should not limit him. While not the favorite, he's got a chance. That's all he wants and all he could ask for.
Knight is baffling. While possessing unimpeachable character and with special leadership skills, his passing is inexplicably inconsistent: from his Tom Brady impersonation in the Alabama win to senseless big-game interceptions where he stares down receivers and doesn't see defenders, to his pitcher-like baseball wind-up and slow delivery, you just never know if he's gonna go 28-for-32 or 12-for-32 and three picks. Heupel has definitely not helped — another story in and of itself — by basing his passing game around drop backs and throwing from the pocket and throttling back on zone reads and QB runs for far too much of the season. Knight's a weight room freak, a 4.5 runner with natural second-level running skills. Perhaps because it was hammered into his head that getting down and protecting himself was priority number one, his effectiveness as a runner is not what it could be. I'd peg him a 7.5 on a 10 scale when he should be a nine.
Will the QB derby take Knight's running effectiveness to the excellent grade level? It could, which brings up the major question of whether the QBs should be protected in spring practices. The simple answer is no. There is absolutely no way to truly evaluate four QBs if you don't let them take some live scrimmaging to determine what they can do in this option-oriented style of offense. This team must find the best playmakers and playmakers aren't found with early whistles. End of subject.
Knight very well could become the three-year starter. But none will go down without an all-out fight; including Mayfield. One high-salaried coach described it as a “toss-up” when asked how who would start if Mayfield had won his NCAA eligibility case. The competition will be so intense that whoever wins the job should go into 2015 with all the confidence in the world that he is capable of making clutch plays and wining the big games this current team has not.
Thanks to the Heupel-thetical answers to the non-hypothetical questions the plan emerges.