NORMAN — When pressed last year, over and over, about who could possibly replace the productivity of Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon and Dede Westbrook, Baker Mayfield assured Sooner Nation that it didn’t matter who played running back and wide receiver at Oklahoma, those positions would be just fine.
And the Sooners’ quarterback was dead on, as usual.
But now that the tables have turned — running back and receiver is loaded, the offensive line once again looks well stocked and it’s quarterback that has become OU’s preseason concern — Mayfield’s answer can be rephrased into a question:
Does it even matter who plays quarterback for the Sooners?
“Oh, it matters,” coach Lincoln Riley said Sunday during OU’s annual media day. “It definitely matters.”
Riley suggested there was a confidence in Rodney Anderson and Trey Sermon and CeeDee Lamb and Marquise Brown during last year’s preseason, even though they hadn’t played big-time college football before.
The reality, though, is that the Sooners had a bulwark offensive line and a dynamo at quarterback, and with those two elements, it really didn’t matter who played the skill positions.
There is a comfort, to be sure, for either Austin Kendall or Kyler Murray in knowing that those playmakers are back for the Sooners this season.
“I think every quarterback in the nation would want to have the guys we got around here,” Murray said.
“Standards don’t change around here. We obviously have guys who left, but at Oklahoma, you reload. We’ve heard a lot of that, ‘They don’t have this anymore. They lost Baker. Blah, blah, blah.’ I’m not worried about what the critics say. We got a lot of guys around here who can go. We’ll wait for the season. Time will tell.”
First, of course, time will tell who wins the job. And time will tell if that guy keeps it, or stays healthy. Both Kendall and Murray say they just want to go to work every day, and both are approaching training camp as an open competition. That, Kendall said, is to be expected at a place like OU.
“You are coming to the best offense and the best team in the nation,” he said. “It’s always to be expected. You have to ignore the noise on the outside and come in and grind. I know coach Riley talks about the last time he had a big competition, it was with Trevor (Knight) and the rest of the guys. He’s telling me to come in every day ready to work, come in with questions and come in ready to go.”
The agenda never changes, apparently.
“Compete real hard,” Kendall said, “be a great leader and make all of the plays.”
It’s that “leader” part that produced so many questions on Sunday. Mayfield was one of the strongest leaders in college football over the past decade, and he proudly wore it on his sleeve. Heck, he even had commemorative sleeves made up special for the occasion.
“Obviously Baker did really great things here and we may never make it to that point. If we’re winning games, that’s all that matters,” Kendall said. “He really set the bar. Even during 7-on-7 drills, offense-wise we never wanted to lose against the defense. When he was here, I don’t think we ever lost. That’s the mindset we have every day on 7-on-7. It’s the little things around him.”
Kendall said Mayfield’s energy every day in practice is the thing the team misses most about him. That’s just hard to replicate for any player, whether that player has already won the starting job or is embroiled in a competition.
“I think (leading) is natural for myself but in kind of my own way,” Kendall said. “I’m more of a quiet leader, I would say, not really the rah-rah guy. I just kind of get things going.”
Murray said he’s not trying to recreate what Mayfield did. He has to be himself. Still, it must be a challenge to project his abilities — physical and otherwise — onto the coaching staff when he hasn’t won the job yet. How does one lead if one is not in a position of leadership?
“I’m not really trying to impress coach Riley. Coach Riley knows who I am,” Murray said. “… I’m not coming out here to be something I’m not. They know that. I lead by example.”
Their teammates don’t seem anxious about who wins the job. On the flip-side of what Riley says, they say it won’t really matter who takes snaps this season — the OU offense will be successful.
“Doesn’t matter who it is,” Anderson said. “I mean, people talk about Kyler and AK, but we’ve still got two Tanners — Tanner Schafer and Tanner Mordecai. It’s anybody’s job. … We’ve got weapons all over the offense.”
“No, it don’t matter,” said Brown. “We’ve got a ton of talent at each position, so it don’t matter. It’s good for them to have players around that can make things happen, good o-line and running backs. They’re gonna complement us and we’re gonna complement them.”
“Here at Oklahoma, we’re deep everywhere,” said Lamb. “Baker, he’s led the way. He rode a good ride, and he’s taught our quarterbacks everything he’s learned on his way up. So here, I feel like there’s no specific order. I just feel like whoever’s in there, we’re gonna ball with ‘em.”
“I feel like it matters,” said Sermon, “but I feel like both guys are ready to step up and do the job.”
Riley explained the confidence he had last year in the guys who lined up to replace Perine and Mixon and Westbrook. He says he has a similar feeling this year.
“You don’t know necessarily where it’s going to come from, but I have that same confidence in the quarterback room now,” Riley said. “I don’t know who it’s going to be. But I do feel like those two guys, combined with the rest of that room, that whoever emerges from that is going to be a really good player for us.
“And who knows? We know how this game goes. We’ve been fortunate the last two years but a lot of times you need more than one to play and to play well throughout a season. I think we have that in the room.
“Is the level of play going to be the same? I don’t know, but I expect it to be pretty damn good.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “The Franchise Drive” every weeknight from 6-8 on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and appears throughout the day on other shows on The Franchise. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.