Trim and confident, Landry Jones out to tackle unfinished business
NORMAN, Okla. -- Landry Jones is Shedding for the Wedding.
Not intentionally, mind you. It just so happens that the fourth-year Oklahoma quarterback's biggest emphasis this offseason -- increased mobility -- will also help him look slimmer in a tux. Since January, Jones has ditched his beloved fast food and ice cream in favor of a rigid diet of lean meats and vegetables, eliciting both admiration and annoyance from the woman he'll marry July 6.
"It's more discipline and self-control than I could ever have, and I'm about to wear a wedding dress," said Oklahoma's All-Big 12 point guard Whitney Hand, Jones' fiancée. "He committed himself to it and lost weight pretty quickly -- which of course is very frustrating for a girl."
As he walked into a team meeting room following a recent spring practice, Oklahoma's all-time passing leader, who is listed at 6-foot-4 and 229 pounds, looked notably trimmer than during his first three seasons. He's dropped nearly 10 pounds and improved his body fat percentage.
He also looked far more content than he did the night of Dec. 3, when rival Oklahoma State thumped Jones' team 44-10, securing the Sooners' disappointing fall from preseason No. 1 team to Insight Bowl participant. Stung by season-ending injuries to starting running back Dominique Whaley (ankle) and NCAA career receptions leader Ryan Broyles (torn ACL), Jones, who threw for at least 363 yards in seven of the Sooners' first nine games, struggled mightily over the last three, averaging 222.3 yards and throwing just one touchdown against five interceptions.
During the week after Oklahoma's season-ending 31-14 bowl win over Iowa on Dec. 30, Jones wrestled with the decision he'd known all year would await him. As expected, the NFL Draft Advisory Board had handed back a first-round grade. Most draft pundits agreed he'd likely be the third quarterback taken this spring, after Stanford's Andrew Luck and Baylor's Robert Griffin III. (USC's Matt Barkley had already announced his intent to return.)
"I went back and forth so many times," said the Artesia, N.M., native, a career 37-game starter. But the disappointing end to OU's 2011 season weighed on Jones.
"Football's always going to be there," Jones said. "I don't get another senior year, I don't get another chance to win a national championship. Once I got that evaluation back, I thought, 'OK, well, if I go out next year maybe I get drafted earlier. The worst thing that could happen is I fall, but I'm not going to let myself regress and get worse.'"
His decision surprised some. It probably disappointed others.
Despite holding 13 school passing records, including career yards (12,379) and completions (1,021), Jones is far from a universal fan favorite in Norman. Since replacing injured Heisman winner Sam Bradford in the first game of his redshirt freshman season in 2009, Jones has notched nine 400-yard passing games but also thrown between 12 and 15 interceptions every season. Bradford, whose statue resides in Heisman Park just across the street from OU's stadium, threw just eight picks in each of his two full seasons. Jones has gone a respectable 29-8 as a starter, but that .784 winning percentage is considered below average for the Bob Stoops era (.803).
Compounding the pressure Jones faced last year, fans got tantalizing glimpses of touted redshirt freshman Blake Bell. Following Whaley's injury and OU's stunning 41-38 loss to an eventual 5-7 Texas Tech team, in which Jones threw 55 passes, Stoops' staff installed the "Belldozer" package, a short-yardage power formation from which the younger quarterback scored 13 touchdowns on 44 attempts. What did it say of purported Heisman candidate Jones that OU took him off the field in crucial situations?
During Oklahoma's spring break in mid-March, Jones flew to the Bay Area to work with private quarterback tutor George Whitfield Jr. Jones had seen television footage last year of Whitfield working with eventual No. 1 pick Cam Newton leading up to the 2011 draft. The same week Jones and Clemson's Tajh Boyd worked out with him on Stanford's practice field last month, Whitfield also orchestrated Luck's pro day.
"I saw some of the drills he did with Cam," Jones said of Whitfield. "I wanted to pick his brain about moving in the pocket, and what his thoughts were on how to do it efficiently and play as fast as you can."
Those who watched televised broadcasts of Luck's March 22 pro day may remember Whitfield as the guy who chased the presumptive No. 1 pick with a broom. He ran much the same drill with Jones, using the broom to simulate an oncoming pass-rush.
When a leaner, less statue-like Jones took the field this spring, his teammates noticed.
"In the  Big 12 championship game against Nebraska, he took off on the sideline, it took forever for him to get upfield 20 yards," joked Sooners receiver Jaz Reynolds. This spring, however, "[Jones] looks a lot better. He's lost some weight. He's more mobile in the pocket, a little more agile, not as stiff as he used to be."
Meanwhile, since the start of 7-on-7 drills in January, Jones has been working to build chemistry with his receiving corps, knowing Broyles' absence is now permanent.
It's no coincidence that Jones' late-season woes began shortly after losing his go-to target, whose NCAA-record 349 career receptions included at least 13 in four of Oklahoma's first eight games. The Sooners return two veterans in juniors Reynolds and Kenny Stills, and sophomore Trey Franks came on late last year. Meanwhile, one of OU's biggest breakthrough performers this spring has been 6-2 freshman Trey Metoyer, a five-star recruit who spent last season at Hargrave (Va.) Military Academy.
"We have to make sure Landry has confidence in us," said Reynolds, who only recently returned from a bruised kidney suffered in the Oklahoma State game. "When Ryan was playing, if Landry got in trouble he looked for him. He needs to look for somebody else he can be comfortable with in an under-attack situation."
Away from the field, Jones relaxes with Hand, who calls her fiancé, "Just a regular college guy. An ideal night for him would be to lay on a couch and watch a movie." Next month, for the second straight year, they will join several teammates from both sports on a missionary trip to Haiti.
Yet at one point last winter, the pair wrestled with the possibility of spending their first year of marriage apart, with Hand playing her senior season at OU while Jones went off to some far-flung locale to begin his professional career. She insisted he "be selfish" with his decision.
"When we got engaged [last summer], I said I don't want him to look back later and resent me or our marriage," said Hand. "There were days where he said, 'I want to go so bad,' thinking of that life. But he wasn't at peace with leaving. I could tell he hadn't accomplished what he wanted."
Stoops obviously supported Jones' decision, pointing to Bradford's similar choice to come back for his redshirt junior season. Even after an injured shoulder sidelined him for all but one full game, Bradford was drafted No. 1 the following spring.
"There's a lot of strong evidence over the years that quarterbacks that have gone through their four years have longer and probably better careers," said Stoops. "Who knows the pro game better than the Mannings do? Peyton and Eli probably could have gone out early. They went through their entire time, and they've done pretty well."
The Sooners return 15 starters from last year's 10-3 squad, including every notable running back and all but one offensive lineman. Stoops' brother Mike, fired last fall after eight seasons as Arizona's head coach, is back in his old job as OU's defensive coordinator. He looks to repair a unit that allowed too many big plays in defeats to Texas Tech, Baylor and Oklahoma State last season and must replace standouts Frank Alexander, Ronnell Lewis and Travis Lewis.
For once, Oklahoma does not appear on the early short list of national championship contenders, but that doesn't ease expectations for Jones. Since Stoops' 1999 arrival, every recruit who's played four years under him has reached at least one BCS championship game and won two Big 12 titles. Jones' class needs to achieve both to keep the streak alive.
"I feel our team is talented enough to play for a national championship, and I feel like I'm talented enough to be an All-American, maybe win a Heisman," Jones said. "This is another opportunity for me to go after some of those dreams. But it doesn't come without a lot of hard work."
Including some hard dieting.