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The Big Easy
Quarterback Sam Bradford demonstrates his cool while emerging as star

Somewhere between being almost an afterthought by recruitniks and being mentioned as a Heisman Trophy candidate four games into his first season as a collegiate quarterback, something happened to Sam Bradford.

Thing is, nobody can put their finger on exactly what it was, or when it happened.

He watched. He learned. He learned fast. He grew up. He gained confidence. He began to speak like a man, like a quarterback. He understood. He figured it out. He got it.

Something.

“One of the things my dad always tells me is don’t compete with anyone else but yourself,” said Bradford. “That’s one of the things I’ve grown up with. You always want to be better than you were last week. You come out and have a good game Saturday, all right, let’s go get better.”

Bradford was hardly the gem of the 2005 recruiting class. He had a good junior season at Putnam City North High School in Oklahoma City, but wasn’t overly special as a senior. His team, struck by injuries and stuck with no running game and little defense, didn’t make the playoffs.

And the Sooners, after all, already seemed set at the position. They’d gotten Rhett Bomar, Everybody’s All-American, to sign on the dotted line a year before. If anything, Bradford was a cheap insurance policy, good in a pinch until the Sooners could afford better.

Really, did anyone have any idea Bradford was this good?

Actually, take a closer look. Picking a quarterback sometimes takes a little more thought.

Like that scene in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” where the intrepid explorer, searching for the Holy Grail, examines an array of shiny, flashy, jeweled goblets, and plucks out a dusty, dented, wholly unimpressive cup.

Bomar? Very shiny. Tommy Grady? Flashy enough. Brent Rawls? Oh, jewels upon jewels there.

Now, look closer.

Josh Heupel? Dusty. Jason White? Dented, certainly. Bradford? Wholly unimpressive.

Go on, bark out that roll call: Shiny, flashy and jeweled? All gone. National championship? Present. Heisman Trophy? Present. Maybe the best of them all? Present.

“It’s almost easy for him,” said head coach Bob Stoops. “In fact, I told coach (Kevin) Wilson, I said, ‘We have to give him the nickname, ‘The Big Easy,’ because he just has an easy personality.’ He’s unflappable.”

From where did such a cool, calm, yet efficient and prolific quarterback emerge?

It is said that, during the Missouri game, in the huddle — between plays! — Bradford remarked about the announcement a few seconds earlier that No. 1 LSU had been beaten. Such a revelation furthered the Sooners’ push toward a national championship bout, giving the Memorial Stadium crowd cause to roar. Bradford noticed, then casually mentioned it to his teammates on the way to a scoring drive — his own personal Joe Montana moment.

“That’s kind of been my personality growing up,” explained Bradford. “I don’t know if I get it from my dad, but he’s pretty laid back, too. I feel like it is a better way to play the game. You can’t get too excited over the big plays, can’t get too down with the bad plays. You’ve got to keep your calm and keep playing.”

Apprised of Bradford’s huddle commentary, Stoops smiled, and said, “He might have been a little cooler than I thought he was.”

Recall that Bradford was neck-and-neck with Joey Halzle in the spring. Newcomer Keith Nichol came on strong in the summer and made a push in two-a-days. At one point during training camp, Halzle appeared to inch ahead.
But then Bradford had a good scrimmage, while Halzle’s was just OK and Nichol slipped a bit.

Then it happened again. And, finally, in the Sooners’ third preseason scrimmage, it was apparent that Bradford was in front and pulling away. Soon, the announcement was made — and he began to hit his stride. The added snaps, the increased repetitions, the extra drills all accelerated Bradford’s learning curve.

“I think his intelligence is really high, and his awareness as he plays is really high,” said Wilson. “He ‘gets things.’ He sees big pictures. But I think that competitive side, where he wants to do so well and he responds to challenges, it gives him a chance to survive as a young guy. I think he’s a guy that loves challenges and wants it hard.”

Stoops, though thought he might have seen something special months before Bradford earned the job. Like, in 2006, when Bradford was using his redshirt season to operate the scout team offense. Stoops said he noticed then that Bradford could stand in the pocket and deliver an accurate throw. He even invited a few offensive coaches to peek in from time to time.

And last December, before the Sooners started actual game preparations for the Fiesta Bowl, Bradford and Halzle got almost all the snaps, and Bradford stood out then, too.

In the spring, the summer and even into two-a-days, Stoops sensed Bradford might have a rare quality.

“You felt that way,” Stoops said. “I tell everyone he reminds me, I played with Chuck (Long) and then was a graduate assistant along through his development of maturing into a great quarterback. He reminds me always a lot of Chuck’s nature. He’s just easygoing, but incredibly competitive without wearing it on his sleeve. Just really took things in stride.

“Even the way he throws, the way he handles himself in the pocket really reminded me a lot of him. So, what you’re asking me, did I see that ahead of time? I did. And you would hope it would manifest itself the way it has on the field and in competitive situations.”

Like Bradford, Long wasn’t much of a high school prospect coming out of Wheaton, Ill. Bill Snyder offered him a late scholarship to Iowa, and there he flourished into arguably the best college quarterback of his day.

And go figure: Long recruited Bradford at OU before he became head coach at San Diego State.

Long finished second in the closest Heisman Trophy vote ever. Heupel finished second in a tight race. White, of course, won the statue.
Bradford already has a lot in common with those three. Will he soon find himself Heisman chase, too?

“Sam is deadly accurate, and we saw that in high school,” Long said. “He’s off to a great start and he’s got a lot of people around him that can help him, and he’s using that help. That’s the good thing.

“He’s going to be grounded just because he’s a freshman. He’s been deadly accurate, but he’s still learning at the same time. Sam’s fight is just keeping up with the game plan every week and learning how to read coverages and defenses. I know the Heisman talk will not affect him. It’s a different fight for him.”

Heupel may be Long’s greatest protégé. He took over as quarterbacks coach when Mike Leach went to Texas Tech and helped guide Heupel to the national title in 2000. And he obviously taught him well, because Heupel is passing what he knows down to Bradford.

“Sam’s ability, how he acts, he’s a guy that hasn’t gotten overwhelmed by anything,” Heupel said. “He’s very confident in what he does. He’s very poised. But he has all those characteristics because he does prepare himself very well.

“For a redshirt freshman quarterback, we’ve thrown a lot at him and he’s handled it. What we need to do to go out and execute at a high level on Saturday afternoons, we’ve put in there and he’s grasped it. I don’t know if anything’s holding him back.”

Through the first 10 games this season, Bradford twice tied White’s school record of five touchdown passes, and was one shy of the NCAA freshman record of 29 touchdown passes, set last year by Texas’ Colt McCoy.
Also, he had college football’s best passer efficiency rating of 180.4 (which ties precisely the NCAA freshman record; the overall record is 186.0). He led the nation in touchdown percentage (10.61 percent) and ranked second in completion percentage (70.08) and yards per attempt (9.50).

The Sooners started red-hot, too, and so Bradford was suddenly being mentioned, by national pundits, as a potential Heisman contender and, perhaps, someday the best Sooner quarterback of all time.

“He’s handled it well,” Wilson said. “Whereas some guys in that spotlight maybe wouldn’t have handled it. They can’t handle all the lights on ’em, or once they’ve had success, they can’t be consistent once they’re successful. Some guys can handle it when the lights come on.
They just flush it out.

“Whether that’s the way the Good Lord made him or how he was raised or how he was coached (by) Josh, or — high school, parents, his basketball influences, whatever. You’re touched by a lot of people. There’s been a lot of people have their hands on him that, for his makeup, he’s landed in a pretty good direction, I think.”

Said Bradford, “I’ve still got a long way to go. I know there’s a lot of things I need to work on, there’s a lot of things I can still see. Hopefully, I’ll get better each week and in a few years I’ll be where I want to be.”


(Editor's Note: This story appeared in the Nov. 23 issue of Sooner Spectator. Subscribe today by calling toll free 1-877-841-8877)