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3 keys to Baker Mayfield’s game that made him the Heisman Trophy winner

Here’s how the Oklahoma QB evolved into an air raid master.

NCAA Football: Big 12 Championship-Texas Christian vs Oklahoma Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Browns took Baker Mayfield with the first pick of the 2018 NFL Draft.

Baker Mayfield was the no-doubt Heisman winner for 2017. He’s now ranked in the voters’ top four three years in a row, and this has been his strongest campaign yet.

Each Mayfield season at Oklahoma was unique and impressive in its own way.

In 2015, the Sooners were turning over a very impressive OL that had helped Samaje Perine run for 1,713 yards, all while bringing in new offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, an air raid coach developed by Mike Leach back at Texas Tech — where, later on, Mayfield had started as a walk-on freshman.

Mayfield’s duties in Year 1 included running the option to help the OL break Perine and star freshman Joe Mixon loose, finding senior WR Sterling Shepard in the passing game, and making lemonade on third down when the inexperienced Sooner OL struggled.

2016 put Mayfield in charge of a ridiculously talented attack. The Sooners returned their OL largely intact, plus star RBs Perine and Mixon, and unleashed WR Dede Westbrook, who had 1,524 receiving yards and 17 TDs.

While Mayfield earned a trip to New York, his brilliance was maximizing all the talent around him, throwing for 3,965 yards while averaging 11 yards per throw, with 40 TD passes and eight INTs. His sacks dropped from 39 in 2015 to 18 behind a solidified OL, and he led an offense that was rated No. 1 by S&P+.

For 2017, it seemed likely that Oklahoma would take a few steps back on offense. The star RBs and WR left for the NFL, and Riley’s duties expanded to include head coach, after Bob Stoops’ retirement.

Oklahoma returned its OL, unheralded studs at TE and FB, and Baker himself, thanks to the “Baker Mayfield rule,” which gave him back the year of eligibility he lost after leaving Texas Tech to walk on at Oklahoma.

What has followed has been a season that has seen Oklahoma ranked No. 1 overall in S&P+ and No. 1 in EVERY MAJOR OFFENSIVE CATEGORY.

Here’s why Mayfield’s Sooners have been so devastating on offense and why 2017 has been their strongest yet.

1. Mayfield unlocks Oklahoma’s talent, no matter its shape or size.

The abilities of the QB have a lot to do with the skills an offense can feature. Everyone understands the essential nature of the OL — if you can’t block, there’s not a lot you can do — but the skill set of the QB is equally important.

Despite Riley’s air raid background, Oklahoma wants to run the football. Running from a spread formation requires preventing teams from loading the box with an extra man. That usually demands a good blocking TE or FB to give the offense a blocker for all six defenders in a nickel front, a QB who can run on option reads to account for the defender, or a QB who can make quick reads and throws on RPOs (run/pass options) to punish the extra man.

Oklahoma happens to have a good blocking fullback in Dimitri Flowers, but Mayfield also executes quick pass options and QB reads, the latter of which is essential to Oklahoma’s favorite run, the GT counter:

The backside DE is the real threat on this play. With both the guard and the tackle pulling, it’s impossible to block him, if he wants to chase the play down from behind. But OU will use Mayfield to read him, like on a zone-read play, and have him keep the ball if that DE gets too nosy.

With the guard and tackle pulling to where OU is already blocking down with All-America LT Orlando Brown and Flowers, it blows open a huge hole in the vaunted TCU run defense.

The next crucial ingredient is play-action off the run game. With Westbrook gone and big possession target Mark Andrews in the slot, the Sooners have turned to 5’11, 162 pound Marquise Brown to provide a home run threat. He’s averaging 20 yards per catch:

Mayfield’s footwork and vision from the pocket is hard to beat, and he always delivers accurate balls that hit his wideouts in stride, an underrated skill for a QB in the play-action game.

Finally, there’s big Andrews and the normal dropback passing game that the air raid is known for:

The Sooners have found it easy to incorporate different types of skill players without having to worry about whether Mayfield can get them the ball. They can be a dropback team, a power run/play-action team, or an option team, and Mayfield can do it all.

2. He also makes a lot of off-schedule plays.

The extra dimension that a team gets from a great college QB: what he can do when a play breaks down. Mayfield is no exception. His feet are probably his greatest physical attribute, whether it’s resetting to make a throw ...

... scrambling to throw on the run ...

... or picking up the yardage himself.

The Sooners don’t run him as much this season, but he’s always willing to scramble or keep the ball on an option. His ability to throw on the move is the real killer, though. Texas was able to best OU’s veteran OL on multiple occasions with blitzes only to fail to get Mayfield on the ground, then watch him make a throw or scramble.

3. Mayfield commands the action from the field.

The main reason for OU growing despite losing so many pro talents is Mayfield’s mastery at the line of scrimmage. Watching the Sooners is vaguely similar to watching Tom Brady and the Patriots, due to the mastery that Mayfield has over both sides of the ball.

The Sooner QB is almost always getting his offense into the right protection at the line and the right route combos to either pick up a gain or to exploit a weakness. They tend to get to the line with some pace, but they’ll typically pause and allow Mayfield to dissect the defense and “hold the chalk last” in the battle with the defensive coordinator.

Here’s a prime example in his battle with Gary Patterson’s veteran defense, which Mayfield won decisively (twice). OU hurried to the line after a quick pass, which Mayfield made look easy, but involved motioning the RB as Mayfield studied TCU’s adjustments. Then they just waited the Frogs out until deep in the clock, and eventually, Mayfield catches middle linebacker Travin Howard drifting toward Andrews in the slot and points it out to his teammates:

With the two-deep safety coverage, Mayfield knows there’s no reason for Howard to drift out, unless he’s taking over coverage duties for a blitzer. Sure enough:

The OU OL picks up the blitz, and Mayfield is zeroed in on the boundary slot, manned by freshman flex tight end Grant Calcaterra, whom he hits on a double move. If you watch an OU game carefully, you’ll notice that as easy as things look on many snaps, Mayfield is busily diagnosing all the time.

The Sooners have a veteran OL, tons of weapons, and schemes to get the ball to all of them.

However, their most dominant trait is a QB who knows how to execute and call it all, so that they are always firing precision strikes into weak spots with their own strengths. For that, he’s loaded up on some hardware, and now we’ll see what he can do against Georgia’s rock-solid defense in the Playoff.

Baker Mayfield's path to the Heisman Trophy