NORMAN — For the first time since the 2015 season, the Sooners have a battle for the starting quarterback job in August. And according to head coach Lincoln Riley, the competition has been intense — and even — through the initial seven practices of training camp.
Redshirt junior Kyler Murray and redshirt sophomore Austin Kendall are engaged in a fight to take over for Baker Mayfield, last year’s Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall NFL Draft pick.
Following in Mayfield’s footsteps is not an enviable task. All OU’s sixth Heisman winner did in his collegiate career is finish second in FBS history in passing efficiency rating (175.4; the record is 175.6), third in yards per attempt (9.7), tied for fourth in touchdown passes (131), fifth in total offense (15,690 yards) and seventh in passing yards (14,607). He also set the FBS record for consecutive games with at least two TD passes (each of his final 27 contests) and owns Big 12 career records for yards per pass attempt, consecutive games with at least one TD pass (40) and touchdowns responsible for (153) while ranking second in league’s history in passing TDs, passing efficiency rating and total offense.
OU is in the rare position of having primary backup quarterbacks in consecutive seasons competing against each other for the starting job in their third years on campus. Kendall was Mayfield’s backup as a true freshman in 2016 when Murray had to sit out following his transfer from Texas AM. Last year, Murray was behind Mayfield on the depth chart while Kendall redshirted.
So with just 21 days until the season opener against Florida Atlantic in Norman, how have Murray and Kendall fared the first week of camp?
“I would say they’re both playing the way I expected them to play,” said Riley after Friday’s practice. “Both have been sharp; you can kind of feel them pushing each other. Seems like one guy will come make a play or have a good period or this or that, and then the other guy responds. There hasn’t been any major separation by any stretch. It’s been quality play by both of those guys.
“They just kind of seem to keep one-upping each other, which is how it should be. So you like that they’re competing at a high level, but they’re also not trying to do too much. I would say the last couple of days have been two of their best practices.”
“They’re both quite a bit better than they were in the spring right now,” Riley continued. “They just kind of seem to keep one-upping each other, which is how it should be. So you like that they’re competing at a high level, but they’re also not trying to do too much. I would say the last couple of days have been two of their best practices.”
Amazingly, Murray was more efficient as a passer last season than was Mayfield — the guy who holds the top two single-season passing efficiency ratings in major college football history. Murray completed 18 of his 21 throws for 359 yards and three touchdowns without an interception in seven games last year. He boasted an eye-popping 276.5 efficiency rating to Mayfield’s record-setting 198.9 mark, but of course didn’t have near enough pass attempts to qualify in the category.
Murray also ran 14 times for 142 yards (10.1 average). Included was a 66-yard dash on the first play of the game against West Virginia in OU’s home finale.
Kendall played in two games in 2016 and completed 16 passes for 143 yards, both of which set true freshman records for the 18-year tenure of former head coach Bob Stoops. Kendall’s two passing TDs tied Paul Thompson (2002) for the most by a true frosh under Stoops.
During OU’s local media day on July 22, Riley was asked how OU’s 2018 offense could differ based on who wins the starting job. He responded by saying Murray and Kendall aren’t as opposite style wise as people might think.
“They’re not as far apart as it probably seems on the outside,” responded Riley, who is also OU’s quarterbacks coach and play caller. “I think there’s a perception on the outside that Austin’s just a pure pocket guys who’s a statue, and I think there’s probably a perception that Kyler’s a track star who can’t throw the ball very well. Neither one of those are true. So they’re not as far off as what’s made in the public.
“Depending on who wins the job, will we try to tailor (the offense) to what they do best? Of course. But most importantly, they have to be able to execute our base package, and then we’ve got to figure out who the best guy is.”
Freshman Tanner Mordecai is the only other scholarship quarterback on the roster. A four-star recruit by ESPN, which tabbed him as the nation’s No. 151 overall prospect in the 2018 class, Mordecai threw for 4,797 yards and 51 touchdowns (to 13 interceptions) during his Midway High School career in Waco, Texas, and ran for 1,511 yards and 20 scores. He also received offers from Georgia, Oklahoma State, South Carolina and many others.
“Tanner has done a nice job,” said Riley on Friday. “He’s very eager, a very driven kid. He throws the ball extremely well, he’s got a pretty good mind for what we’re doing right now, especially with us throwing so much at him as a young guy. But I like his ability and the way he’s handled things so far. I think he’s got a bright future.”
Redshirt sophomore walk-on Tanner Schafer is in his third year in the program and has also been getting reps during camp. He saw action in last year’s season opener, completing three of his five attempts. Riley says his importance to the team is underrated.
“Tanner Schafer has been steady. He knows our system. He’s done a good job helping mentor Tanner Mordecai, and has been making plays as well. He’s very valuable because he’s so experienced. I have a lot of trust in him.”
OU’s other two quarterbacks are redshirt juniors Reece Clark and Connor McGinnis, neither of whom have seen the field as QBs. McGinnis, however, has served as the team’s holder each of the last two seasons.