Once a largely overlooked recruit, Baker Mayfield has emerged as the Big 12’s most productive quarterback
Baker Mayfield’s 2016 season will go down as one of the most effective years by any quarterback in the Bob Stoops era at Oklahoma. His place as a Heisman finalist in New York merely underscored what was evident from an 11–2 season that included the first perfect 9–0 finish by any team since the Big 12 introduced round-robin scheduling.
While Mayfield didn’t shoulder as much of the load as previous Oklahoma QB stalwarts, his efficiency was comparable to Sam Bradford’s during his Heisman-winning 2008 season or some of the other top seasons by Stoops’ better QBs.
Mayfield really blew previous Oklahoma signal-callers out of the water in three areas: yards per attempt, TD-to-INT ratio and completion percentage. Essentially, these stats that measure how efficient a QB is with the attempts he’s making in the passing game.
So how did Mayfield, who began his career as a walk-on at Texas Tech, achieve such an incredible level of efficiency? Was it the system and play calling by his offensive coordinator (and now head coach) Lincoln Riley, or Mayfield’s own brilliance? What can he achieve in his final year?
Naturally, it’s a combination of a lot of things. Mayfield can boast of a very broad skill set that allows him to execute a variety of different concepts, which enabled Riley to unlock possibly the most talented cast of skill players in the entire country.
Mayfield’s Skill Set
Mayfield’s various competencies on the football field are a nice microcosm for explaining how high school quarterbacks are so regularly misevaluated. Mayfield lacked a scholarship offer from any program in the Big 12 or any other Power 5 conference. Normally coaches value specific skills from their QB recruits, most notably NFL-caliber arm strength or elite running ability. Mayfield had neither.
But while Mayfield wasn’t an intimidating runner, he was a quick enough athlete to execute QB-run concepts at a collegiate level, if not explosive enough to be the feature of a run game. He didn’t have the height to survey the field from the pocket or a cannon arm to attack every part of the field, but he was already good in high school at finding passing windows and had enough arm strength to make the throws common to a spread offense, even while on the move.
When you have a QB who’s competent or better in multiple areas, it can open up a world of possibilities for an offense. As an example of how the Sooners would take advantage of Mayfield’s various abilities on one of their basic runs, consider the “counter-trey.”
In this version of the play, Oklahoma would have Mayfield read the backside defensive end so the Sooners could leave him unblocked and pull the guard and tackle like on the traditional counter-trey run. However, they’d also have the H-back run a quick route over the middle into the zone that the middle linebacker was supposed to cover, creating an additional read for Mayfield.
If the end crashes to try and tackle the RB, Mayfield can pull the ball and either run it himself or toss it to the H-back if the middle linebacker is chasing the run action. If the end stays home to stop Mayfield from taking off, then Mayfield can either hand off or still toss it to the H-back if the linebacker failed to pick him up in coverage.
Including an option read on just one of those two players would allow the Sooners to pull both linemen and execute a classic and effective play. By adding a read on a second defender (the linebacker), the Sooners forced opponents to commit an extra man from the secondary somewhere to have any chance of stopping the run.
It’s a very clever play design built largely off Mayfield’s ability to make quick decisions without asking for game-changing speed or an NFL arm. The beneficiary here was the running back, either Samaje Perine (Oklahoma’s career rushing leader) or Joe Mixon, both of whom ran for over 1,000 yards.
Mayfield was asked to make several quick decisions and then be mobile enough to run around a bit or make a short, accurate toss. None of these skills would entice NFL scouts, but they were valuable to the Sooners’ offensive staff.
Related: Big 12 Football Predictions for 2017
Putting it All Together in 2016
Oklahoma had a lot of play designs that worked in this fashion, using multiple skill players in the same design either through pass options attached to runs or old-fashioned play action. The result was a multiplier effect for every athletic advantage Oklahoma already had over its opponents.
It’s hard to stop Perine running behind an Oklahoma offensive line, but it’s even harder if you also have to worry about the quarterback pulling the ball and either darting around an uncovered edge or flipping the ball out to an uncovered receiver.
Something to note from the comparative chart (below) of Stoops’ best quarterbacks is that Mayfield threw only about 75 percent as many passes last season as either of Oklahoma’s Heisman-winning signal callers, Jason White or Sam Bradford, and only 58 percent as many passes as Landry Jones. His production and efficiency are a testament to how Riley, OU’s offensive coordinator in 2016, was able to use him as a conduit for feeding the Sooners’ stud skill talent.
One of those key talents was Mayfield’s fellow Heisman finalist and star wide receiver Dede Westbrook. The former junior college transfer was a total blur whenever he had open grass to work with, and it was hard for defenses to deny him that space when they also had to worry about the Sooner run game.
Riley typically set Westbrook up with play action and the wide receiver screen game, both of which would draw defenders into the scrum only to have Mayfield toss it out wide to Westbrook running into space and turning on the jets.
The combination of Westbrook’s speed and the Sooners’ run game was exceptionally potent and made up a considerable bulk of the Oklahoma offense. Oklahoma ran 957 plays in 2016 — 60 percent of which were runs. Of the 384 passes, Westbrook was the target for 104 — just over 27 percent.
This point guard-esque role was one that Mayfield was well prepared for by his high school experience running the Lake Travis offense and winning a Texas state championship. Lake Travis has thrived over the years by training versatile skill players and moving them all over the field while the quarterback sorts out who’s at an advantage and then distributes the ball to them.
Riley would often set Mayfield up for easy reads to determine which Sooner to hit by making use of versatile players like Mixon or flex tight end Mark Andrews. That duo accounted for another 25.7 percent of Mayfield’s targets in the passing game and were highly efficient, combining for 1,027 yards (11.2 yards per target) and 12 TDs.
Andrews’ specialty was presenting a big target — he’s 6'5" 250 pounds — in the seams or a big blocker on the perimeter while Mixon would run routes out of the backfield, be a checkdown for Mayfield or even flex out wide as a receiver.
Against Auburn in the Sugar Bowl, the Sooners hit the Tigers defense with several targeted play calls featuring misdirection, fakes and reverses that all took advantage of their versatile skill-position players. Andrews, Mixon and Westbrook combined forces in variety of ways to give Auburn fits and set Mayfield up for some easy reads that helped him to average 10.6 yards per pass attempt.
One such example was a bubble screen.
The Sooners were running a “split zone” running play inside, but the Tigers had loaded up the middle of the field to try and stop the run, trusting their defensive backs to hold up outside in man coverage. Oklahoma lined up Andrews on the line at the “X” receiver position and Westbrook (the “Y”) off the line behind him. They motioned Westbrook in, and Mayfield watched to see how the Auburn defensive backs would respond. When one of them motioned inside with Westbrook, the Sooners quickly snapped the ball and then flipped it out to their speedy receiver while Andrews mauled the cornerback with a block. The Auburn safety trying to cover Westbrook couldn’t reverse field and catch him in time, leading to a Sooner touchdown.
It’s yet another example in which Mayfield simply has to understand what the offense is trying to do against a particular defense, make a quick decision and then get the ball to the right player in the right place at the right time.
What About 2017?
The obvious question for 2017 is what the Oklahoma offense will look like now that Perine, Mixon and Westbrook are all gone. The trio combined to account for 159 targets, 2,168 receiving yards and 23 receiving touchdowns as well as 394 rushes, 2,435 rushing yards and 22 rushing TDs. All told, that’s 62 percent of the Sooners’ plays on offense, 63 percent of their yardage and 60 percent of their touchdowns.
The Sooners faced a similar, if smaller, challenge in 2016 when they replaced receiver Sterling Shepard after his 1,200-yard season in 2015. The answer now as it was then is that they’ll plug in new faces at running back, find another receiver on the roster who can hurt opposing teams when they zero in too much on the run, and lean on Mayfield to get the ball to the right players while calling his own shots as necessary. As long as the scrappy quarterback is leading the way, Riley won’t find it difficult to set up Oklahoma’s next generation of skill athletes for success.
Written by Ian Boyd (@Ian_A_Boyd) of SBNation.com for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2017 Big 12 Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2017 season.