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From walk-on to Heisman? Why Baker Mayfield is perfect for Oklahoma's air raid

He wouldn't be the first overlooked, undersized QB from Texas to run and gun his way to the award in this system.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Almost every year, there's another highly successful Big 12 quarterback who was an overlooked high school star not recruited to the big programs. That quarterback then uncorks a fantastic season running a spread offense and makes at least one high-profile program rue the day it didn't offer him a scholarship.

Baker Mayfield was once on that same trajectory. Not one Big 12 school offered him out of high school. His best offers came from Florida Atlantic, New Mexico and Rice. Mayfield decided to walk on at a Big 12 school and earn a starting job. After being rebuffed by Texas, which felt confident with the five scholarship QBs it had on hand, Mayfield settled on Texas Tech to initiate his payback tour.

After he became the first true freshman walk-on QB to start a season opener at a power conference school, the Raiders denied Mayfield a scholarship in the spring. He departed for Oklahoma, and this was where his story diverged from previous undersized Texan QBs.

Mayfield's the signal caller at a traditional power ranked No. 7 in the country. He has a chance at 2015's No. 1 spot in passer rating and a budding case as a Heisman finalist after going into Waco and ending Baylor's 20-game home winning streak.

The overlooked high school champion

By the time Mayfield was entrusted the quarterback reigns at Lake Travis High School in Austin, the team had already won four consecutive state championships. He was simply the next in line in a QB tradition that included Todd Reesing, Garrett Gilbert and Michael Brewer, for a school that won two of those titles under eventual SMU head coach Chad Morris.

A 5'10, 185-pound QB in a proven system didn't stand out to recruiters. The success of fellow former state champions Drew Brees (maybe 6'), Reesing (maybe 5'11) and Chase Daniel (maybe 6') hadn't yet impressed the increasing irrelevance of height in the shotgun-spread era.

You'll never believe the skills he demonstrated at the high school level.

In high school, Mayfield was a good decision maker and a quick, tough runner in the QB option game. He had the arm strength to make all the necessary throws on vertical and horizontal stretch concepts and the ability to combine his legs, arm and vision to buy time.

If that sounds like the generously listed 6'1 player you've been watching at Oklahoma this season, well, it is! After Mayfield's success at Oklahoma, and the success of the fellow diminutive three-star Manziel, you wonder if major institutions will start ignoring size as a limiting factor for QBs.

Mayfield found the perfect home at Texas Tech. The more experienced Brewer went down before the year with injury, and Mayfield beat out fellow freshman Davis Webb for the right to throw to Tech's excellent WR corps that included future pro TE Jace Amaro. New head coach Kliff Kingsbury had just come from Texas A&M, where he'd unleashed Johnny Manziel on an unsuspecting SEC, and Tech's new air raid system found Mayfield a perfect fit.

When things went south in Lubbock, Mayfield found another perfect home.

Oklahoma's reborn air raid, the ideal situation

Sooners quarterback Trevor Knight was coming off a Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama and seemed poised for a breakout season. Mayfield nonetheless felt that OU's depth chart and situation was a better fit than TTU's for his skills. Kingsbury blocked the transfer, forcing him to sit out a 2013 season in which Knight struggled at the helm of what was essentially a pistol offense built around running the ball with Samaje Perine behind a TE and FB.

The 8-5 season that ensued got much of the Oklahoma offensive staff fired and replaced by another air raid OC of the Mike Leach tree, Lincoln Riley. So Mayfield again found himself eligible to compete for the starting job in an air raid offense. When asked about the systems at Texas Tech and under Riley, Mayfield said, "It's pretty much the same thing."

Oklahoma has been able to focus on building the offense around his skills. He has allowed the Sooners to throw and run the ball from spread sets despite an OL with freshmen at both tackle positions. The result is 2015's eighth-best offensive team by S&P+.

In the run game, a spread QB needs to be able to relieve pressure from opponents dropping DBs late into the box to outnumber the offense at the point of attack. He needs to do this either with run/pass options or by being a threat to run himself. Mayfield does both, and had 15 big carries for 76 yards in the Sooners' victory over Baylor. He's quick enough to win the edge on the zone-read play and tough enough to go up the middle on power-read.

As head coach Bob Stoops said after Mayfield's six-touchdown performance against Tulsa:

He has a good ability to feel the rush once it's on him and get out and scramble away from it. [He can] pull back and still wait for someone to come open and make the decision to run when he has the clear range to run. I've seen him escape our guys far too many times when we're out there in team sessions.

We go against each other on Wednesdays in third-and-long sessions and he can find his way out of some things. In some of our scrimmages, when we're not breaking him down, the defense barely gets a hand on him and they want to act like they sacked him, but I won't blow the whistle because I don't feel like they had him.

The Sooners don't give Mayfield many carries, preferring the load be carried by backs Joe Mixon and Perine. But on the goal line, it becomes very advantageous to utilize Mayfield to get a numbers advantage. He has six rushing touchdowns so far this year, like this one:

In the passing game, Mayfield has retained his talent for finding receivers on comeback routes if defenses take away initial reads in the middle of the field, and he can hit them from the pocket or on the run. In an air raid offense, where outside receivers often have these options attached to their routes, this ability makes the Sooner passing game particularly hard to account for.

Against Baylor, the Sooners ran a lot of twin-receiver sets on the boundary, to get the Bears to either move weak-side linebacker Taylor Young out of the box or get a slot receiver in space against the boundary safety. Here the Bears managed to cover the slot despite Young jumping at the run-action, but OU still has the comeback available on the outside.

What really sets Mayfield apart is his ability to avoid the disasters that come with inexperienced pass protectors, and even turn these situations into Oklahoma victories. The Sooners' decisive touchdown in Waco came on such a play:

The Bears dropped eight into coverage, completely covered all of Mayfield's reads and options, and closed on him with leverage, forcing him to throw off his back foot. But of course, Mayfield had found an open receiver and rifled the ball in for the score.

These are the kinds of plays that can make the spread offense special. Schematically, Mayfield has the tools and know how to use Riley's air raid system to create opportunities for his skilled teammates and get them the ball. But when defenses are spread out by formation and concept and then the QB runs around, buys time and creates new opportunities out of thin air, they really have a tendency to collapse.

Is he special enough to win the Heisman? I'm not sure, but he's definitely proved something about evaluations of high school quarterbacks.


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