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Mayfield poised to lead solid stable of quarterbacks into 2016 season
Unlike last year, Oklahoma’s quarterback position — at the top, at least — is crystal clear: Baker Mayfield will obviously be atop the depth chart when the Sooners open their 2016 campaign Sept. 3 against Houston in NRG stadium.
Mayfield threw for 3,700 yards, 36 touchdowns and seven interceptions last season — while also rushing for 405 yards and seven more scores — and earned first-team All-America honors. He also finished fourth in Heisman Trophy voting, led OU to its first outright Big 12 title since 2010 and helped the Sooners secure a berth in the four-team College Football Playoff.
But as the Sooners wrapped up spring practices in mid-April, the main focus among fans wasn’t the top of the quarterback depth chart — rather, it’s the battle to replace Mayfield next year between Austin Kendall and Kyler Murray.
Kendall, an early enrollee from Waxhaw, N.C., would seem to have a leg up entering 2017 by default. Because Trevor Knight transferred to Texas A&M, Cody Thomas gave up football to focus on his baseball career and Murray is ineligible in 2016 after his transfer from A&M, Kendall is the presumptive backup to Mayfield this season.
“He just gets better and better,” offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley said of Kendall after the mid-April Red-White spring game. “He’s pretty smart about the chances to take. It was good to see the look in his eye in that huddle today when you’re in front of a lot of people.
“This kid should be getting ready to go to prom, and here he is playing in front of a great crowd today, and he handled it great.”
In the spring game, Kendall completed 8 of 17 pass attempts for 52 yards and rushed for a touchdown, a score that came at the end of his first drive behind center.
Kendall said he thought he started off well in the spring game, but regressed as the game went along.
“I think through the first couple drives, it showed that I was pretty comfortable,” said Kendall. “I know it faded out a little bit at the end, but I think I’ve progressed a lot this spring.”
He said his best moment this spring came during the Sooners’ second scrimmage. He threw two touchdown passes that day.
Kendall’s self confidence showed even before he arrived on campus. He committed to the Sooners back in April 2015 and remained steadfastly pledged to OU. But in late December, after OU announced Murray would be transferring, few would have blamed Kendall for rethinking his decision.
“Austin never wavered,” said David Johnson, Kendall's coach at Cuthbertson High School. “When Kyler Murray transferred over, we had a conversation about it, but he’s a competitor. He’s not a kid that is gonna run away from competition.”
Kendall is more of a pro-style quarterback than the elusive, speedy Murray. Still, the true freshman showcased his ability to move some in the spring game.
He was elusive under pressure and showed that — despite the “pro-style” label — he won’t be a statue in the backfield.
Of course, one of the downsides of Kendall being Mayfield’s backup this season would be that it would all but guarantee a lost redshirt season. If Kendall is the backup, he would be the guy to play mop-up duty at the end of games.
One possible solution to that problem?
Thomas returning to the fold in the fall.
Thomas — who was drafted by the New York Yankees out of high school but chose to come to OU — played baseball his first year on campus, then skipped that sport last spring to focus on the quarterback battle with Mayfield and Knight.
Despite his rising to second on the depth chart last fall, Thomas chose to return to his other sport this spring and sit out spring football. But if Thomas ends up unhappy with his professional baseball prospects after this season ends, could he come back to the gridiron?
“I guess there's always a chance,” Sooners coach Bob Stoops said in March. “That isn't something that's being discussed but you never know where things are at with him at that time.
“I would say this — we'd always welcome him back just because we love the guy. He’s been a great player for us, a great team guy and a talented guy. We’ll just see. But that isn’t something that we're planning on.”
The Sooners also have two walk-on quarterbacks in camp — Reece Clark from Cypress, Texas, and Connor McGinnis, product of nearby Heritage Hall High School.
The player who has probably generated the most buzz among the quarterback group — other than Mayfield, of course — is Murray.
A former five-star standout from Allen (Texas) High School, Murray is considered by some to be one of the greatest high school quarterbacks in Texas state history. He led Allen to a 43-0 record and three state championships as a starter.
He signed with Texas A&M out of high school, continuing a family legacy.
Murray’s father, Kevin, ended his Aggies career as the Southwest Conference’s all-time leader in passing touchdowns and led A&M to consecutive conference championships in 1985 and 1986.
In his lone season in College Station, Kyler Murray started three games and finished with 686 passing yards, five touchdowns and seven interceptions. He also rushed for 335 yards and another score.
Before the Aggies’ bowl game, though, both Murray and Kyle Allen — another former five-star quarterback prospect — opted to transfer, decisions that opened the door for Knight to land in College Station.
In the spring game, Murray completed 6 of 10 pass attempts for 136 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including a 52-yard strike to Michiah Quick late in the fourth quarter. He also rushed for 34 yards and a touchdown.
“Love it,” Murray said of Oklahoma. “Ever since I’ve stepped on campus from day one, it feels like I’m back in high school. The team, the camaraderie, everybody’s for everybody. They just want to see everybody succeed. It’s crazy.
“The team is so close. The coaches (are) there for you. We win championships. You’re gonna play in big games.”
Of course, for Murray, the waiting could end up being the hardest part. He’s played football in every season for as long as he can remember, but NCAA rules mean he’ll be an observer in the fall of 2016.
Fortunately for Murray, though, he’s got a good example to learn from. Mayfield also had to sit out the 2014 season after transferring from Texas Tech, and used that time to improve.
“You can’t do it on the field, but there is so much more you can do to help prepare yourself for that competition when you are eligible after this year,” Riley said of Murray. “Whether it’s learning the offense, getting better physically, working on mechanics.
“I wasn’t here two years ago, but there was certainly a sense from talking to people around the program that Baker had done a pretty good job of that even when he wasn’t playing. That was important for the leader he became for our team last year.
Kyler has a pretty good blueprint to follow.”
(Editor's Note: This story appears in the April-May Spring Football Issue of Sooner Spectator. To read more or subscribe, call 405-364-4515)