Who will be the Oklahoma starting quarterback this season?
According to Coach Bob Stoops, the battle among Trevor Knight, Baker Mayfield and Cody Thomas is up in the air.
Two years ago, Stoops shocked OU fans by announcing that Knight would start over apparent incumbent Blake Bell. And at the end of the 2013 season, Knight shocked the football world by tearing apart the vaunted Alabama defense in a Sooner win in the Sugar Bowl (Knight was named Sugar Bowl MVP).
In the Sugar Bowl, Knight threw four touchdown passes and hit 32 of 44 passes for 348 yards. But last season in the Russell Athletic Bowl against Clemson, Knight hit only 13 of 37 passes for 103 yards and three interceptions.
Knight has been hampered by injuries the last two seasons but has started 15 games. He has hit 57 percent of his pass attempts for a career total of 3,119. Knight has 23 touchdown passes with 17 interceptions.
Mayfield started his career with Texas Tech and was named Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year. He was a Freshman All America Honorable Mention that year after hitting 218 of 340 passes for 2,315 yards, 12 touchdowns and nine interceptions
Mayfield transferred to OU and was ineligible last season, but he was named the OU scout team player of the year.
Thomas took over last year after Knight got hurt and started three games. He hit 30 of 66 pass attempts for 342 yards with two touchdowns and four interceptions.
“The quarterback battle, I know it’s popular for everyone to act like a certain guy has already got the job,” Stoops said at the Big 12 Media Days in Dallas. “That couldn’t be further from the truth. Trevor Knight and Baker Mayfield are in a tight battle, and Cody Thomas is right on their heels. He really made significant improvement in the spring. He’s a big guy with a great arm.
“So we really — that competition is going to continue. Whoever can make the most consistent plays, be the most consistent in moving the ball, and can avoid the really bad play will be the guy that’s on the field.
“I think we had eight turnovers last year that went for touchdowns, and those are hard to overcome. So whoever can protect the ball the best will be that guy leading us, and then we’ll just see, as it goes and the competition goes, who earns that job.”
The new offense relies so much on passing that some of the quarterbacks have sore shoulders from summer work.
“Baker’s shoulder is healing just fine, just a little bit overworked, and that’s where we had to have a talk that no one knows your shoulder but you,” Stoops said. “You have to monitor how often or how much you’re throwing, and he’s recovered really well from it. He’s back throwing the football now. Of course, we’re monitoring how much that is, but he’ll be fine once we get into two-a-days, not expected to have any limitations.
“Nor is Cody. Cody got a little bit sore as well. But they’ll be fine.
“The differences with them, they’re subtle. They’re both really good athletes. Baker may not be straight out as fast as Trevor, but he’s elusive. He’s good with moving his hips and getting away from trouble. Both have to continue to improve and be sharp at going through their read progressions and where they want to go with the football. But they have a lot of similarities really overall. Baker may have a little more experience, having played in the offense a year longer. But, again, Trevor’s picked it up, as Cody has, really pretty well. I’m really excited at their progress in the spring.”
The quarterback job will be under even more pressure this season as OU lost five games last season – the second worst record in Stoops’ 16 years at OU.
“We’re probably not the only team that’s 8-5 or 7-6 and on and on and on,” Stoops said. “And I look at a track record of 12 of the last 15 years, we’ve had ten or more wins. Now, I don’t think anyone else has done that in the country with that kind of consistency, and that doesn’t dissipate in a year.”
Stoops, the winningest coach in OU history, has an overall record of 168-44 (.792 percent). He has won one national title and eight Big 12 championships.
Stoops reacted to the poor record last year by firing offensive coordinator Josh Heupel (now at Utah State) and receiver coach Jay Norvell (now at Texas).
When Stoops arrived at OU in 1999, he hired Mike Leach, the offensive coordinator under Coach Hal Mumme of Kentucky. After firing Heupel, Stoops hired Lincoln Riley, a Leach protégé, who was offensive coordinator for East Carolina.
“As I was looking to hire somebody, I looked at what are the top total offenses in the country,” Stoops said. “I looked at what are the top 15 total offenses in the country. And 6 of the top 13 were from this family of — from Hal Mumme, Mike Leach, however you want to put it, from this family of offense. So I looked back, and I thought, well, here we are. I made it popular 17 years ago, and it worked, and then here 17 years later I’m the only one not doing it.
“I just felt that it will give us more opportunity, hopefully, again, to stay on the field longer, eat up more yards, gain field position, and score points. But we’ve yet to do that. Lincoln’s had a great track record in running this offense, and I believe we’ve got good personnel to go with this style of offense.”
Even though it seems like a pass-happy offense in a pass-happy Big 12, Stoops plans to utilize a stable of quality running backs, including All American Samaje Perine.
“We’re very aware of the quality of backs that we have and feel that we’ll take advantage of that and that that will mesh really well with what Lincoln wants to do,” Stoops said.
Perine led the Big 12 in rushing last year with 1,713 yards on 263 carries (6.5 yards per carry). He set a major college single game rushing record against Kansas with 427 yards and five touchdowns.
“Samaje, it’s hard to improve on where he was, but I believe he will,” Stoops said. “He’s such a great, great worker, very humble guy that’s always hungry. He’s really trimmed up a bit. He probably lost five pounds, but he’s faster and still has the same strength and maybe more strength with another year in the weight room. So I believe he’ll just continue to improve.”
OU is loaded with backs, including five-star freshman Joe Mixon, who was suspended all last season for an incident off campus when he struck a coed in the face in a bar.
The abundance of talent might mean fewer carries for Perine.
“It would be hard to run more than we were used to,” Stoops said. “Samaje is going to get the football. We’re very aware of the quality of player that he is, but, again, I think we’ll have a good mix. I think you’re at your best — I don’t worry that you’re ever 50-50. I just worry that you’re productive.
“If we’re productive throwing the football, generally it’s going to help you run the ball. If you’re good running the football, generally you’re going to be able to throw it a little easier. We just want to have a good balance to it.”
Defense was a big problem for the Sooners last year as they got blown out by Baylor in Norman and Clemson in the bowl game.
“Defensively, we hired a couple of new coaches in the secondary, Kerry Cooks and Diron Reynolds on the defensive line,” Stoops said. “And I like how that has gone through the spring. (Defensive coordinator) Mike (Stoops) moving to outside backers has allowed him more opportunity to move around to each position, and I thought through the spring we made really good progress.
“I feel like on defense we have — with all the guys that are back, we have a chance to make improvement just from experience with maturity and guys being older, in particular, in the secondary. Some guys I think are pretty special are Steven Parker and Jordan Thomas that were true freshmen a year ago, now, a year older, I see improvement through the spring and summer.
“Same with the safeties, Ahmad Thomas, Hatari Byrd, of course, Zack Sanchez is a guy who’s really special for us. He’s an all-star.
“And then up front some guys I think are really going to help. You’ve got Eric Striker and Charles Tapper up front. I think some guys like Charles Walker, D.J. Ward are some guys — Matt Romar on the D-line that are going to have a chance to really come on and really make a mark this year as well.”
Micheal Hunnicutt has graduated but OU has talented replacements in the kicking game.
“The kicking positions are really solid,” Stoops said. “I really like, even though we have new guys, Nick Hodgson went through the entire spring of 15 practices. I think he missed three field goals the entire spring, and we kicked every day. And has a huge leg, so I’m excited about the opportunity there. And Jack Steed is our punter, really showed good consistency through the spring. So I feel good about those guys.”