Quarterback depth sparks interest at OU’s spring game

More than 42,000 fans gathered in Norman Saturday  and for many, the big topic was the performance of backup quarterbacks.

The Red team beat the White team 17-16 but all eyes were on the new quarterbacks.

Baker Mayfield is the starter and could be a Heisman candidate this year after a stellar year in 2015. But Trevor Knight has transferred to Texas A&M and Cody Thomas has left the team to play baseball. Mayfield’s backup this season will be a true freshman or a walkon.

Four quarterbacks played in Saturday’s scrimmage, with Mayfield completing 13 of his 18 passes for a team-high 142 yards in one half of work.

Kyler Murray, who transferred from Texas A&M and will sit out the 2016 season due to NCAA transfer rules, threw the game’s only two touchdowns through the air, finishing with 136 yards on 6-of-10 passing. After hitting Jordan Smallwood for a 33-yard pass in the third quarter for his first TD of the day, Murray wrapped up the afternoon by finding Michiah Quick for a 52-yard touchdown.

“He’s prepared for this,” OU offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley said of Murray. “He’s known this was coming for a while and he’s got a great example there in Baker. Yes, you can’t do it on the field but there’s still so much more you can do to prepare yourself for that competition when you are eligible after this year.”

True freshman Austin Kendall completed 8 of 17 passes for 52 yards, while redshirt freshman walk-on Connor McGinnis completed his lone attempt for a 13-yard gain.

“He just gets better and better,” Riley said of Kendall, who enrolled at OU a semester early. “He’s pretty smart about the chances to take. It was good to see the look in his eye today, knowing the level of people – again, this kid that should be getting ready to go to prom is playing in front of a great crowd today and he handled it great. He had a great look in his eye from the beginning and really, he has the whole time. But you never really know how they’re going to react that first time, and so today was just a great step for him.

“He’s been very, very steady all spring. He missed a few things today…but he’s a little better than I thought physically. He’s shown the ability to get out of things a little bit more. We felt coming in he was a really good thrower and he’s shown nothing but that. We’ve been really happy with how just mentally he’s progressed. He’s really bought in.”

OU coach Bob Stoops liked what he saw from Kendall Saturday.

“It just shows what we thought,” Stoops said. “He’s just got a lot of poise, a lot of maturity to him, a lot of confidence to him. He’s got an excellent arm. It was tough throwing out there, let’s be fair. If you were down on the field, it was gusting 20-30 (miles per hour) back and forth, so each way throwing the ball with the wind, it carries too far into it and knocks it down. It’s just hard to gauge. But overall, I thought he did really well like he did most of the spring, taking care of the football really well, too.”

“I think he was nervous at first, but he did a good job of gaining command of the offense as quickly as he did,” Mayfield said of Kendall. “Once he settled in, he really got going. For his first game performing in front of a crowd like that, I think he handled it well.”

Kendall graduated from high school a semester early and has been shadowing Mayfield.

“Baker is the biggest leader on the team, so I strive to be like him,” Kendall said. “ Just trying to imitate him, but I have to find a role where I can be a leader, too.

“Once I got here and in the system, I felt comfortable. Now, with practices, scrimmages and the spring game, I feel comfortable. If my name gets called I’m confident I can get the job done. Coach Riley says always prepare to be in there every down and I’m going to be next to him (on the sideline) every single play and be ready if anything happens

“I see myself as a pocket passer. When the pocket breaks down, I feel like I can get out and I’ve showed the guys on the team I can do that. I’m not the fastest guy but I feel like I can get a first down.”

Murray is an exciting prospect at quarterback.

“Kyler, he can make plays,” Stoops said. “He’s exciting. He’s explosive like that. When he takes off, he can make a lot of things happen. He’s got a really live arm, too. He’s got the ability, though, to hurt you both ways.”

Murray took a chance by transferring from Texas A&M, where he started several games as a true freshman.

“I knew what was at stake coming here,” Murray said. “The guys and the coaches will help me. I know, for myself, sitting out, getting bigger and learning from Lincoln (Riley) and Baker (Mayfield) will help. I know it’ll hurt to sit but being around the guys and the team, I’ll be fine.”

He likes the OU offense compared to A&M.

“There’s no comparison,” Murray said. “I’m here getting better and just trying to learn the offense from Coach (Riley) and get better every day. It really depends who you are; me and Baker have similar styles. Coach Riley’s offense is very quarterback-friendly and we definitely have the weapons. If we trust the system and trust the process then we will be successful.”

Murray picked OU because of the coaching staff

“It (the decision) came down to the trust I had with Coach Riley and Coach Stoops,” Murray said “Obviously, you also look at the guys around you and we have all the pieces to have a great squad.”

Sterling Shepard is headed to the NFL and OU is looking for a go-to receiver.

On Saturday, 13 players had at least one reception, led by Dede Westbrook, Quick and A.D. Miller, who hauled in four catches each. Westbrook led the Sooners with a game-high 76 receiving yards, while Quick and Miller had 66 and 48, respectively. Quick’s 52-yard touchdown came from Murray late in the fourth quarter on a short out route.

Redshirt junior Jordan Smallwood, redshirt sophomore Mark Andrews, redshirt sophomore Nick Basquine and Penn State graduate transfer Geno Lewis all finished with two catches Saturday. Smallwood averaged 21.5 yards per catch and scored on a 33-yard pass from Murray in the third quarter.

Stoops was pleased with what he saw from his receiving corps.

“A.D. (Miller)’s had a great spring,” said Stoops. “He’s shown up every week. He’s been solid. Dahu (Green) has been, all those guys. Jeffery Mead’s improved, (Michiah) Quick. Like I said, I think that group overall is just a lot stronger at this time than it was a year ago. And even though Sterling (Shepard) — you’re missing that big-play guy — Dede (Westbrook), I think, has a chance to have more of an impact, and I think the overall group will have more guys in the rotation that will be productive, having another full year of understanding what we want them to do and another year of maturity.”

In terms of the receivers, a lot of progress has been made compared to the spring game last year.

“I don’t think there’s any comparison,” Stoops said. “We’re further along offensively than a year ago at this time. We were brand new in the system. That was the case even for the first half of the season. Coach (Lincoln) Riley and our other coaches being able to be even more familiar with our guys in game situations and how we’re going to handle things. I don’t think there’s any comparison offensively. We’ll be much stronger starting the year and coming into the year than we were a year ago.”

Riley sees progress in the offensive line despite some key losses to graduation.

“I think we’re getting better…I think we’re going to be a deeper group,” Riley said. “I think we’re going to have more guys who can play and I think we’re going to have more competition on that line than we did last year. I think we’re going to be more talented this year than we were last year.

“There’s still a lot to be seen. At this time last year, we had no idea that Orlando Brown was going to start at tackle and we didn’t have any idea that (Jonathan) Alvarez was going to be a starter at guard. Bruce Neal wasn’t even here yet.

“There’s still a lot, especially when you’ve got a strength trainer like we do, there’s still a lot that’s going to happen throughout the summer as we go into camp. We’re certainly further ahead and I’m really happy that deep O-line – that second O-line – is further ahead because there’s going to be some really good competition coming down.”

All American cornerback  Zack Sanchez left early for the NFL and sophomore P.J. Mbanasor and senior Dakota Austin are competing to start opposite of returning starter Jordan Thomas.

Austin played in 11 games a year ago, with 25 tackles, a pair of interceptions, three pass break-ups and five quarterback hurries. Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said he was pleased with the performance of both on Saturday.

“I thought P.J. Mbanasor competed better, covered better (than he did last year),” Mike Stoops said. “He’s starting to move his feet better, so we’re happy about that. That’s promising, but there’s a reason Dakota (Austin) started today. Our guys will always be competing. I think P.J. is making some progress, like I said, and we need that.”

Stoops was optimistic about the progress this spring.

“I thought we addressed a lot of issues that we needed to for this year where we lost people,” Stoops said. “To start the O-line, Jonathan Alvarez at center is a really great move. He’s a natural center, that’s what he was in high school, that’s what he was recruited for. Having started every game last year at guard, he’s ready to play in there at center. Ben Powers, Cody Ford, a bunch of guys that really have come on in the guard spot to help us, so that’s great.

“(Running back) Rodney (Anderson) continues to (improve), along with Daniel (Brooks) and Alex (Ross). Some of the other backs have been more consistent this spring to go with Samaje (Perine) and Joe (Mixon).”