After finding himself, Landry Jones can shape his legacy against Irish
After the fireworks came the fair. By consent of the head coach, Oklahoma players were allowed to meander through the Texas State Fair on Oct. 13, so Landry Jones and his wife Whitney stepped right up. As usual, it was difficult to ascertain who was more exhausted: The quarterback who had just dissected Texas for hours, or the spouse who lived and died with every incision. They ordered a funnel cake and a turkey leg and sat down, letting the commotion pass them by.
This was fun. Tattooing the Sooners' archrival for 63 points and almost 700 yards of offense was also fun. Unwittingly, the Longhorns' defense had just become a part of Jones' ongoing catharsis, one that hasn't stopped yet. It began on a much more unhappy night for husband and wife, when Jones returned home after a loss to Kansas State that he literally and figuratively let slip from his hands. The two spent that September evening doing close to nothing. It was around that time that Jones asked himself why he was doing this in the first place.
For a spiritual guy, the conclusion unsurprisingly involved a large degree of faith. Jones passed on likely first-round NFL riches to return to Oklahoma for, presumably, something better than misery. To get where he wanted to go, he had to stop worrying about where that decision would take him. He had to cut it loose, he said. He had to cut everything loose.
"It was more like walking on eggshells, trying so hard to play perfect that I was getting in my own way," Jones said. "You can't play like that. You can't play like that as an athlete. You just have to not think and just go out there and react and play the way you know you're capable of playing."
If the way Jones has played since is any indication, Oklahoma may have begun a slow crawl back into the BCS picture and, depending on chaos at the top, the national title race as well. Of course, everything depends on what happens Saturday against No. 5 Notre Dame. It is the sort of game that defines programs and players, and it is certainly the sort of game that defines a legacy like Jones', something he readily admits.
"Definitely you'll be remembered by some of these games," said Jones, the winningest quarterback in program history who's still working on how he'll be remembered, four years and 43 starts later.
But then there's the tantalizing prospect of everything coming together for Oklahoma. The offense has averaged 52 points and 484.7 yards in three straight wins, the product of Jones honing chemistry with almost an entirely new mix of weapons. The familiar face is leading receiver Kenny Stills, but then there is explosive Penn State transfer Justin Brown, who arrived in training camp. There is freshman Sterling Shepard. There is Fresno State transfer Jalen Saunders, who arrived, in terms of eligibility, during a mid-week evening practice before the Red River Rivalry.
After every practice since the preseason, Jones led his receiving corps through extra route-running drills. Every week, they sat in film rooms and discussed reads and what to expect from each other. It was normal football routine made more imperative with all the fresh faces, and still, it took a few games to take. Now here come the Irish, and in every sense, Oklahoma's timing couldn't be better.
"It isn't just Landry, I think the entire offense is executing," Sooners coach Bob Stoops said. "Understandably so, when you've got all new receivers and tight ends. It just took a little while for everybody to get the precision down to what it needed to be."
It was hard-earned in a process that, really, started before Oklahoma got started. In Justin Brown's case, it began with a phone call. The gifted-but-underutilized 6-foot-3, 209-pound receiver was contemplating his emergency eject from Penn State when Jones got on the phone with him. Appropriately enough for a caller from a Norman area code, he laid it plain for Brown:
This would be no hurried exit. Brown felt he owed it to Penn State teammates to ask for their blessing, so he started the arduous process of canvassing a program in distress. "They would tell me I had to do what's best for me," Brown said. "They were very supportive of everything. That made it a little bit easier."
It was not in character for a relatively quiet Delaware native to venture this far out of his comfort zone, but he immersed himself immediately in his new surroundings. He found a new favorite restaurant, Cane's Chicken. He found Jones, right away, to take extra reps and establish a rhythm. Jones recognized what he had. He just didn't recognize how to get the ball to what he had at first. "I haven't had a receiver like Justin that's been that long, big, tall, long-striding receiver," Jones said. "So it's getting used to his strides and how far I can put the ball out in front of him where he can catch it and stay on the run. Some things like that you get used to, and now we're both on the same page as far as where he wants the ball and where I'm putting it."
In his second game, Brown became the 11th player in Oklahoma history to record three plays of 40 yards or more in a single outing: He made a 46-yard catch and ran back punt returns of 43 and 62 yards against Florida A&M. He has made it look easy. It hasn't been, and especially not for the quarterback who owns nearly every important passing record in program history but still doesn't necessarily own the unwavering confidence of his fan base.
Jones' critical interception and fumble against Kansas State Sept. 22 reignited the howling. Some called for sophomore Blake Bell. And it all sparked that awakening in Jones. He stood before the Sooners the next week -- even with a bye set for that Saturday -- and he told them:
"You have these certain expectations for yourself, and yes, it's good to have expectations, it's good to set goals," Jones said. "But sometimes you can't buy into those things. You can't think that always everything is going to go exactly the way you planned. You have to flow with some things in life. Sometimes things happen. Things happen that you don't understand. But you go with it, and you make the best of the situation that you're in."
Since then, he has posted three of his best four games in terms of passing efficiency. "He's had a couple of flat games, but when he's on, he's on," said Kansas coach Charlie Weis, who saw Jones throw for 300 yards and three touchdowns in the Sooners' 52-7 rout of the Jayhawks last weekend. "Unfortunately we got him on one of those nights. The Kansas State game, he wasn't on. When he's in a groove, he's one of the best in the country."
Monday, Jones stood at a podium and said the Notre Dame game is important to him. It was an unexpected flicker of candor. Asked about that comment a few minutes later, Jones explained that it's not every day you play a Notre Dame. It's fun to be a college athlete, he said. It's fun to play teams with tradition and history. It took a dark, quiet night with his wife in late September to remind him of it. "It's just more enjoying life, and enjoying the little things in it," Jones said.
Some things are bigger than others. Saturday brings another chance to shape his legacy with a night that no one will forget.