“The names have changed. I don’t know that the results have at all.”
On Monday, the assessment of the Oklahoma Sooners quarterback situation by Texas Longhorns head coach Tom Herman told a significant story with only a few words.
A year after Baker Mayfield won the Heisman Trophy, became the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, and posted the highest passer rating in college football since 1956 — and, therefore, undoubtedly the highest passer rating of all time — Mayfield’s replacement, junior Kyler Murray, is on track to break that record with a passer rating that currently sits more than 30 points higher than the mark posted by Mayfield last season.
The stories of Mayfield and Murray couldn’t be more different, however. Mayfield was the overlooked standout at a state power known for producing quarterbacks who had to walk on at Texas Tech. Murray was the two-sport star and Texas A&M legacy who earned offers from across the country and consensus five-star status despite his short stature.
“I remember him coming out of high school he was a phenomenal player, phenomenal in terms of the combination of speed and explosiveness running the football and then such a beautiful quick release with strong arm, tons of velocity on the ball,” Herman said of Murray.
An Oklahoma fan growing up, Mayfield carried a grudge against the Longhorns for not giving him an opportunity. Murray grew up under the tutelage of his father, who played quarterback for the Aggies, and nearly flipped his commitment from Texas A&M to Texas late in the 2015 recruiting cycle.
When Murray and wide receiver DaMarkus Lodge decided to visit Austin and post separate pictures of Longhorns jerseys with their numbers on them, it nearly broke Twitter. But both players knew they weren’t going to choose Texas by the end of that trip, despite the fireworks that ensued and continued until Murray made his decision official.
He was headed to College Station to compete with another former five-star prospect, Kyle Allen. After a tumultuous season, both players left Kevin Sumlin’s program — Allen headed to Houston and Murray went across the Red River.
Following a redshirt season due to NCAA transfer rules, Murray backed up Mayfield last season during Mayfield’s Heisman campaign and prepared to take the reigns for Lincoln Riley.
Murray had two major questions to answer. Was he more mature than the player who struggled at Texas A&M? And had he grown as a player after throwing more interceptions than touchdowns during his single season in Aggieland?
The answer to the first question largely seems irrelevant at the moment, though Murray was suspended for the start of last weekend’s game against Baylor and missed four plays. The answer to the second question, as illustrated by Murray’s astronomical passer rating, is unequivocally positive.
“I was watching him a lot yesterday,” said senior defensive end Charles Omenihu on Tuesday. “I went through their last game and UCLA, the dude is accurate. He can put the ball almost anywhere. He’s a lot better than what he was in high school and A&M that’s for sure.”
After the suspension for disciplinary reasons, Murray went on to account for seven touchdowns against the Bears. He’s now completing more than 70 percent of his passes through five games, with 17 touchdowns through the air and only two interceptions. He’s added four touchdowns and 285 yards rushing on the ground.
The more things change for Riley’s Sooners, the more they stay the same.
“Not a whole lot’s changed,” Herman said. “To be quite honest with you, they’re still one if not the best offenses in the country. We’ll have our hands full.”
Indeed, the early S&P+ rankings slot Oklahoma as the nation’s top offense. The offense is among the nation’s most explosive and efficient, even on passing downs. Murray already has seven passing plays of 50 or more yards, with four more of those plays going for 60 or more yards.
While the explosiveness of the offense represents business as usual for the Sooners these days, the difference between the Mayfield offense last season and the Murray offense this season is the running ability of its 5’10, 195-pounder quarterback — Murray is an elite athlete with incredible quickness and change of direction ability, if not outright long speed.
Mayfield became an effective and dangerous runner later in his career, but he could never match the athleticism possessed by Murray, which made him a top pick of the Oakland Athletics this summer as an outfielder in no small part due to his range and base-stealing ability.
As a result, defensive coordinator Todd Orlando may not be able to blitz Murray as much as he would prefer. Orlando may even have to devote someone like senior linebacker Gary Johnson as a spy in the event that the Longhorns actually get the Sooners behind the chains and into obvious passing situations.
“The spy thing yeah, I think there are times to do that in passing situations where you want to cover them all, but then a lot of times when you’ve got a guy that’s such an elite runner, you cover them all and turns into the quarterback draw,” Herman said.
“And so I think there’s a time and a place for it and we’re going to have to make sure that he doesn’t beat us with his legs.”
After facing many of the top quarterbacks last season, the Longhorns have gotten something of a respite in 2018 — the best quarterback Texas has faced this season so far is a true freshman — but that all changes on Saturday in the Cotton Bowl.
Now the challenge is to slow down a quarterback playing at an historically high level.
“He’s a boss but you have to step up for those kind of games,” said Omenihu. “You have to put your best foot forward because he’s going to do it, they’re going to do it, it is what it is. Can’t come in there timid, can’t come in there looking at the stands seeing all the people, there’s none of that for us. We’re going against some real dudes so you have to step up.”