It might seem an inevitable conclusion that a quarterback would be better in his second year as a starter than he was in his first year.
But at Oklahoma, history offers pretty definitive proof that Spencer Rattler is on the cusp of a huge 2021 season.
Rattler goes into this week’s season opener at Tulane (dependent on what Hurricane Ida has wrought) expecting to make a big jump in Year Two.
“I’m excited to see what boxes I can check off hopefully,” Rattler said.
Every OU quarterback since 2000, from Josh Heupel to Baker Mayfield, saw either a massive jump in efficiency, productivity or both in his second year as the starter.
Oklahoma QBs, Year Two
That’s a natural part of a quarterback’s journey, head coach Lincoln Riley said.
“He understands our system a lot better,” Riley said. “I think he’s able to self-correct a lot quicker. Typically, even if there’s a mistake, he has a pretty good idea right away of what it was. He’s certainly been more consistent and more trusting with his decisions and his reads. I think with that it allows you to feel out and play some of the game situations a little better.”
Heupel’s emergence in 1999 as a prolific southpaw wowed a fanbase that had been smitten for generations with a dynamic ground game.
But although Heupel endured some significant injuries and a change in coordinators (from Mike Leach to Mark Mangino) and quarterback coaches (from Leach to Chuck Long) in Year Two under Bob Stoops, his completion percentage, his yards and his efficiency rating all went up.
Heupel’s touchdowns fell from 30 in ’99 to 20 in 2000, but that Oklahoma team was more reliant on an effective running game and a dominating defense. He didn’t have to throw the football as much, and the Sooners won the National Championship.
Similarly, Jason White’s touchdowns went down in 2004 (from 40 to 35) as he defended his ’03 Heisman Trophy with a much-improved running game (true freshman Adrian Peterson ran for 1,925 yards and 15 TDs).
But while White’s yardage total dropped off (from 3,846 to 3,205), his completion percentage skyrocketed from .616 to .654, and his efficiency rating rose slightly as well. Both years, White led OU to the BCS National Championship Game.
Heupel and White were older, more experienced players when they won the job at OU. Sam Bradford won it as a redshirt freshman. Still, Bradford shattered numerous NCAA freshman passing records in 2007 — then took college quarterback play to a whole new level as a third-year sophomore in 2008.
Operating Kevin Wilson’s high-tempo offense and supported by future NFL players all around him, Bradford’s numbers were through the roof in 2008: 1,600 more passing yards, 14 more touchdown throws, four more points on efficiency rating. That, and a trip to the BCS National Championship Game, got Bradford the Heisman Trophy.
In 2009, Landry Jones wasn’t ready to be the Sooners’ quarterback. That was supposed to be Bradford’s swan song, his chase for a Heisman repeat. Instead, Bradford went down with a shoulder injury in the season opener, and Jones was thrust into action.
Naturally, after a year under center and a full offseason as the starter, Jones’ sophomore year was better than his first — across the board. His completion percentage went from .581 to .656, his yards swelled from 3,198 to 4.718, and his touchdowns went from 26 to 38. Jones’ efficiency rating also jumped from 130.8 to 146.3.
Mayfield’s growth from Year One to Year Two wasn’t that pronounced, but he improved in every category, from completion percentage (.681 to .709) to passing yards (3,700 to 3,965) to touchdowns (36 to 40) to efficiency rating (173.3 to 196.4).
Mayfield already had starting experience as a true freshman at Texas Tech, and he was allowed to mature a bit as he sat out as a redshirt following his transfer to Oklahoma. Mayfield led the Sooners to three straight Big 12 championships, two College Football Playoff appearances and eventually won the 2017 Heisman Trophy.
Part of the job is just being more familiar with the playbook. But another part is growing into the expectations of being the quarterback — especially at a place like Oklahoma, where the standards are almost impossibly high.
“A lot of times, that first year, you’re so locked in on that scheme stuff,” Riley said, “and you combine that with, all of a sudden, you throw it in the middle of a two-minute drill, or this scenario, and that scenario. Can you process all that?”
Rattler hit a few speed bumps early in his first season, with seven turnovers in his first four games.
But after two tough losses and a benching against Texas, Rattler figured things out. He cleaned up the turnovers (two in the Sooners’ last six games), started making winning plays in clutch situations and grew as the team’s leader.
After backing up Jalen Hurts in 2019 and competing with Tanner Mordecai before the 2020 season, this past offseason was officially Rattler’s first as the Sooners’ starter. That embedded a new level of confidence in him. He goes into Saturday’s season a different player than he was just 12 months ago.
“Something I feel like I’ve gotten better at is just my decision-making,” Rattler said. “Being more consistent. Not turning the ball over. I feel like I had like only two turnovers in fall camp, and they were like on 7-on-7. Just being more consistent, being more decisive. Smarter with the ball.”
“He’s still got to be committed and focused,” Riley said. “He still has moments where he drifts away. He’s had a fantastic camp, but that’s a majority of the time when he’s not as his best.
“With all that being said, as your control and confidence in a system grows, you can feel those situations more. I think he’s been a much better situational quarterback.”
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