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Oklahoma and Oklahoma State Turn to New QBs to Replace Departed Stars in 2018

Kyler Murray, Oklahoma QB

Kyler Murray, Oklahoma QB

An 85-mile stretch of Oklahoma roads is all that usually connects Norman and Stillwater -- except in the fall, when college football grips folks standing on one side of the Bedlam line across every county.

Over the past three seasons, quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Mason Rudolph tied together the Sooners and Cowboys and their fans even more closely, operating as the faces of their programs and for the state during a run of success for both schools.

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Oklahoma State Football/Big 12 Magazine

They piled up yards and touchdowns and wins and awards, gaining notice as arguably the greatest quarterbacks ever at either school, heady stuff at historically offensive outposts like Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.

As it goes, however, the college game cycles, eventually sending players on and turning the keys over to who's next.

So, for the Sooners and Cowboys, who is next?

At both locales, it's complicated. And it could be terrific. Or turbulent.

"We are not scared to play a freshman," says Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy.

One-time Texas A&M starter Kyler Murray is the favorite at Oklahoma, although sophomore Austin Kendall is a former four-star recruit who may better fit the profile of recent Sooner quarterbacks.

There is no favorite with the Cowboys, as inexperienced holdovers Taylor Cornelius and Keondre Wudtee battled in the spring before bracing for the arrival of more competition come August -- when Hawaii transfer Dru Brown and touted recruit Spencer Sanders expect to make a run at the job.

History suggests both offenses will hardly miss a beat. They've churned through quarterbacks and thrived before.

Still, you don't easily replace a Rudolph or Mayfield, who ranked first and third nationally in passing, respectively, in 2017.

"Everybody thinks it's going to be a huge drop-off, but it's absolutely not," Mayfield says in considering OU's succession plan. "If they can figure out how to play together as a team, they're going to be better than we were the next couple of years."

Mayfield and Rudolph pulled teams together, with strong leadership skills that rivaled their record-setting production.

Mayfield won the Heisman Trophy, as well as the Maxwell, Davey O'Brien, Manning, Earl Campbell Tyler Rose and Walter Camp awards, and was named Associated Press Player of the Year. He was a unanimous first-team All-American. Twice he led the Sooners to the College Football Playoff, establishing a Big 12 career record of 153 touchdowns responsible for, and ranking alongside Oklahoma's elite roll call of signal callers in almost every meaningful passing category. And going 33-6 as a starter, Mayfield ranks second in wins among Oklahoma quarterbacks all time.

"No matter how long I go coaching, whatever the rest of my career being like, I don't know that I'll ever have a player that's as special to me as he is," says Sooners coach Lincoln Riley.

So it was in Stillwater, where Rudolph had his redshirt yanked late in the 2014 season, rescued that season -- punctuated by a stunning win over the Sooners -- and finished 32-9 as a starter, climbing past Cowboys coach Mike Gundy as Oklahoma State's all-time winningest quarterback.

"We can argue stats, wins or whatever," Gundy says. "Here's what he has done: He has been the most committed player to this team that I have ever seen. It doesn't guarantee he's going to make all his throws, or he isn't going to misread something, or he isn't going to throw an interception. But his commitment to success for his team and himself is through the roof."

The stats are strong, too: More than 50 school records, including 13,618 career passing yards and 92 touchdown throws. Rudolph bested Mayfield to win the 2017 Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award and also added the Bobby Bowden Award, which recognizes off-the-field elements along with playing excellence. Rudolph passed for more than 1,000 yards in bowl games alone, including three wins. He was cool in the clutch, too, directing 10 comeback wins in which the Cowboys trailed in the fourth quarter.

So, again, you don't easily replace a Rudolph or Mayfield, right? The Sooners and Cowboys will do their best, looking to maintain their status among the Big 12's elite, evidenced in their 1-2 ranking as the conference's winningest programs since 2010.

At Oklahoma, if Murray wins the job, he'll give the Sooners a new look as more of a dual threat. The speedster and son of former A&M quarterback Kevin Murray played in eight games and started three for the Aggies as a true freshman in 2015, passing for 686 yards and running for 335, finishing as the team's second-leading rusher. One red flag: Murray was picked off seven times, offsetting his five touchdown passes.

In limited action a year ago as Mayfield's backup, Murray showed improvement as a passer, completing 18-of-21 throws for 359 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions. He also averaged 10.1 yards on 14 rushes. In his limited action, Murray has revealed himself to be a dangerous runner with elite speed. He'll still have to show more in the passing game, which has been the focal point of Oklahoma's offense for nearly the past two decades.

"Some of the things that Lincoln (Riley) is going to draw up with him are going to give people fits," Mayfield says.

That's if Murray seizes control of the offense, which Riley hardly considers a done deal.

"There's zero assumptions in our building," the second-year head coach says, "so all that on-the-outside noise is what it is. I think Austin is just motivated to come compete. I told him the other day, 'This is why you came here all the way from North Carolina, to be the guy here.' This is a great opportunity."

Murray spent the spring splitting time between football drills and playing for the Oklahoma baseball team -- he's a pro prospect as a center fielder. He worked the heavy schedule with Riley's full blessing.

[Editor's note: Kyler Murray was drafted ninth overall by the Oakland A's in June's MLB draft. He signed a deal with the A's worth nearly $5 million and while he will play for the Sooners in the fall, he will forgo his senior season to start his professional baseball career.]

"The way you train baseball players and the way you train quarterbacks, there's actually not as many differences as you would think," Riley says.

Kendall was the backup two seasons ago, when he passed for 143 yards and two touchdowns. He redshirted last fall to preserve a year of eligibility.

Bob Stoops used to allow quarterback competitions time to breathe, often letting them linger into August. This will be Riley's first spotlight battle since stepping into the head coaching job last year, so it's unclear how long he'll go before naming a starter, although there are things he's still wanting to see.

"I think there's always, of course, an element of performance," Riley says. "The guy's got to be able to perform and do his job, and then I think there's the element of intangibles, the leadership, the toughness, the mentality that he brings to your group. Do the other 10 guys play better when he's in there? We've told them all, look, it's not going to be a sprint, it's going to be a marathon."

At Oklahoma State, options and uncertainty are plentiful.

Cornelius and Wudtee have taken only limited game snaps, none in meaningful situations. Neither took hold of the backup job last fall, although Cornelius reportedly made significant strides during the season.

Still, Cornelius is a fifth-year former walk-on who has appeared in only nine games, each time in mop-up duty. As for Wudtee, a redshirt sophomore, he has one college completion on his résumé.

"I like the development of Corn Dog (Cornelius), and I like where Wudtee's at," Gundy said in anticipating a spring that offered each with opportunity to move ahead in the race.

But it's a race that offered no finishing line in the spring and may extend even into the early games of the 2018 schedule, allowing Brown to learn the system and display his skills, but also providing Sanders time to catch up.

Brown's appeal is obvious, as he's a proven college performer who threw for 5,273 yards and 37 touchdowns over the past two seasons. They didn't win much at Hawaii, but Brown will enjoy a major upgrade in weaponry in Stillwater, which could make him a perfect fit as a bridge to the future.

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And the future, everyone seems to agree, is Sanders, the Player of the Year in Texas and the No. 8-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the country by the 247Sports Composite.

During a four-year career at Denton Ryan High School, Sanders piled up 8,747 passing yards, including 3,845 as a senior, when he threw for 54 touchdowns. A smooth yet explosive runner, he also rushed for 1,380 yards and 16 TDs in his final season. He was a winner, too, going 46-6 during a four-year run as Ryan's starter.

"Everybody's looking for 'it' in a quarterback," says Dave Henigan, Sanders' coach at Denton Ryan. "And he's got 'it.'"

The offense Sanders ran in high school is a close copy of what the Cowboys do with their spread, so the learning curve should be reasonable. The rest is up to him.

"I'll do the best I can," he says with a grin.

Gundy calls Sanders the most complete high school quarterback he's seen "off of tape." Soon, it will be time to analyze Sanders, and his place in the Cowboys' pecking order, up close and in person.

"I think he's a special player," Gundy says.

Written by John Helsley (@jjhelsley) for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2018 Big 12 Regional Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2018 season.