After mastering "Halo," the Whip, Sooners' Mayfield takes on Big 12
NORMAN, Okla.—Baker Mayfield has just made a startling admission. The new Oklahoma starting quarterback, the owner of some of college football's finest dance moves, has, on occasion, spent his spare time on YouTube watching clips of other people's video game adventures.
"Yeah," Mayfield says. "That's pretty nerdy."
It makes sense, though. Mayfield plays Halo to win. The YouTube videos? Those are just research. No different from watching last year's TCU-West Virginia game to learn the tendencies of the Horned Frogs and the Mountaineers. "A lot of people don't know this, but I almost quit sports in high school to play video games—which is the nerd coming out in me," Mayfield says as part of an interview that will be broadcast during the Oklahoma Camp Tour show on Thursday at 9 p.m. ET on SiriusXM College Sports Nation. "Sometimes I like to rekindle that fire."
Mayfield says his parents weren't keen on their son and a group of friends leaving Austin, Texas, and traveling around the country to video game tournaments. So Mayfield kept playing football, which led him first to Texas Tech and now to Oklahoma, where he will run the Sooners' offense while also teaching center Ty Darlington how to properly guide Master Chief through alien worlds. "He's not very good," Mayfield says of Darlington's Halo ability.
Darlington thought he was a decent Halo player until he met Mayfield. "You get on the mic with him and you hear him talking trash to random 6-year-olds," Darlington says. "The way he talks about video games, he's on another level."
The Sooners hope Mayfield can help them get back to the level to which they've become accustomed in the Bob Stoops era. On Monday, Stoops and first-year offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley named Mayfield the winner of a three-man race that also included junior Trevor Knight, Oklahoma's opening-day starter each of the past two seasons. Mayfield, a junior who spent his freshman year in Lubbock playing in an offense that shares DNA with Riley's, will now have to show how much he has grown since he got tossed into action as a freshman walk-on.
Riley tried to coach Mayfield once before. After Mayfield made seven starts for Texas Tech during the 2013 season, he still didn't have a guarantee of a scholarship going forward. So, Mayfield decided to transfer to a school that would definitely put him on scholarship. He had no shortage of suitors. One was Riley, then the offensive coordinator at East Carolina. Like Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury, Riley had learned the Air Raid from former Red Raiders coach Mike Leach. Riley knew Mayfield's learning curve would be short, and after sitting out a year to comply with NCAA transfer rules, Mayfield could slide in to replace fellow Texan Shane Carden. Mayfield ultimately chose Oklahoma, the team he grew up cheering for.
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While Mayfield toiled on the scout team in 2014, Oklahoma's actual offense sputtered. Freshman tailback Samaje Perine became a star running behind a veteran offensive line, but the Sooners finished No. 72 in the nation in yards per pass attempt (6.9). In the high-scoring Big 12, that put undue pressure on Oklahoma's defense. After the Sooners finished 8-5, Stoops replaced co-offensive coordinators Josh Heupel and Jay Norvell with Riley, who would bring an attack similar to the one Leach brought to Norman as Stoops's first offensive coordinator at Oklahoma in 1999.
Sitting on the roster when Riley arrived was the quarterback he'd tried to lure to Greenville, N.C. That knowledge of the offense gave Mayfield an initial edge in the competition with Knight and redshirt sophomore Cody Thomas, who started three games in 2014 in place of an injured Knight. The edge did not, however, guarantee Mayfield the job.
"There was an advantage early with that. … You could see early that Baker had been in the system," Riley says. "But throughout the summer as the competition wore on, it became less of a factor." Thomas once played in a similar offense at Colleyville Heritage (Texas) High, and Knight studied hard. As Riley's deadline for naming a starter approached, the trio made the decision tougher.
Riley and Stoops ultimately chose Mayfield because he proved to be responsible with the ball. That wasn't easy for Mayfield, whose instinct is to whip it down the field. He knew he couldn't be the player who threw 12 touchdown passes and nine interceptions as a Texas Tech freshman. That ratio had to change, or Mayfield couldn't win the job in Norman. "[Riley] talked about the guy that's going to play is the guy that takes care of the ball most," Mayfield says. "My style of play is I like to throw the ball. I'm aggressive. So I had to be smart about when I want to press down the field and realize that we have running backs I can just dump it down to."
That's something coordinator and quarterback must remember. Riley gets asked constantly if he is going to use Oklahoma's deep stable of backs or simply throw the ball 65 times a game. Of course he'll run, he says, though no one seems to believe him when he points out that his East Carolina offense ran the ball 40.4% of the time last year. Mayfield says one look at the 230-pound Perine is enough of a reminder that Oklahoma can challenge defenses on the ground and through the air. "It's the same Air Raid offense, but we're still going to run the ball," Mayfield says. "That's the biggest difference from what I ran at Texas Tech and here. We're going to use a lot more run game. Personnel-wise, that's the smartest thing for us to do."
Mayfield is grateful for the chance to have two full weeks of practice as the named starter before the Sooners open against Akron on Sept. 5. "They're getting used to my voice and my cadence now," he says. And if the Sooners get comfortable, they should find the end zone regularly. If they do, will we see this?
Those moves might draw a flag—"Unsportsmanlike conduct, excessive whipping on the offense, 15 yards"—so Mayfield probably will have to keep them off the field. He credits his mother, Gina, with passing down rhythm. When Baker was young, Gina would play songs from The Jackson 5 in the Mayfield living room. Try to listen to "I Want You Back" or "ABC" without dancing. Young Baker had no choice. As he got older, he began adopting the trendy dances of the moment. "It probably started in middle school when Soulja Boy came out with the 'Crank That,'" Mayfield says.
Give him a few more years, and Mayfield might be able to make his own "Evolution of Dance." Or he might help Oklahoma win a Big 12 title. Or he might use the knowledge he gained studying video to thrash some faraway elementary schoolers at Halo. The possibilities are endless.
"He's got a very eccentric swag to him," Darlington says.