No matter what else happens in the spring all the major talk is going to center around the starting quarterback, or better yet who is going to be Oklahoma's starting quarterback? Nothing gets spring anticipation more into a fever pitch than a good old fashioned quarterback battle for the starting quarterback job at the University of Oklahoma.
For the past two years, the quarterback position has been in the able hands of Heisman winner Jason White, who played the position as well as anybody in the country. Because of the great play of White and Nate Hybl before him, the Sooners were able to recruit highly regarded Tommy Grady and Rhett Bomar to battle highly thought-of squadman Paul Thompson, who was talented enough to be a top 50 prospect in Texas coming out of Leander.
Thus OU graduates a great one, but there is plenty of talent still on campus. Each player will need to understand that every single move they make during the spring, summer and two-a-days will be analyzed by coaches, teammates, media and fans.
"I think if the quarterback job is up for grabs quarterbacks all major colleges go through intense scrutiny," said White. "In my battles here with Nate (Hybl), I know that every play was a game-like situation. You had to make the best of every play throughout the year, and if you got the opportunity to get in there at any time, even if it was pass skel or inside drill, you wanted to make the best of it. You wanted to do things right because you knew that somebody would notice that. I think they are all great competitors and it will be interesting to watch this spring. I hope to make it to a couple of practices or to a couple of scrimmages to see that."
OU offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Chuck Long has been through plenty of quarterback battles and he totally understands the fascination surrounding the position.
"We are excited about the spring. I have had three very productive quarterbacks so far. You hate to see guys like Jason White leave, but at the same time you get excited to coach the new crop of kids on the block," said Long. "It kind of gets your coaching juices flowing again. I am excited to start with these guys from day one and build them up to a championship level again.
"In this case, you have three young talented guys who are going to go out there and battle. What is going to happen? Nobody knows. I don't have a crystal ball, you just never know. This race may go deep into the fall. This race is going to be a good race nonetheless. Any time you have a competitive situation it makes them better and their team better."
Knowing head coach Bob Stoops as we do, we know that all three quarterbacks will get an equal opportunity to win the job. But do we have a depth chart to start the spring?
"All three are going to get equal reps, but Paul will be the first guy to go in there and take reps the first day of practice," said Long. "However, we are going to split them up evenly and the next day Tommy will start off and then the next day Rhett would start off. It is going to be an even amount of repetitions in practice and in scrimmages. It is going to be an interesting race. I am really excited about it. We can start over with these guys and build them up from ground zero, and I am excited to do that."
For the past two seasons Thompson has been the back-up quarterback at OU. In 2003, he actually played as the back-up and last year he redshirted. However, if White had gone down for any length of time Thompson would have played. Thompson is looking forward to earning his own opportunity.
"I am looking forward to the opportunity to go out and win this job," said Thompson. "For the past two years I have competed for the job, but we all know that Jason was going to be the quarterback. I think I learned a lot redshirting last year, but the whole time I watched every game as if I was going into the game. I know that the competition will be tough, but I know I am ready to be the starter here and I plan to prove that this spring."
Grady is a redshirt sophomore this spring who actually got into four games as the back-up to White. All of his action was in mop-up duty, but he was still impressive hitting 12 of his 14 passes for 63 yards and one touchdown.
"Last year actually made me hungrier for the job," said Grady. "I got a taste of what it is like to be the quarterback at the University of Oklahoma. It is a great feeling to be in that huddle calling plays. I look forward to the competition this spring and see how it all shakes out."
Bomar redshirted a year ago and didn't like one minute of it. The ultimate competitor itched to play all year, especially after coming out of Grand Prairie, Texas as the No. 1 quarterback in the country.
"It about killed me last year to not get into the games. I had to turn practice into my games," said Bomar. "I tried to compete as hard as I could at practice, but I knew that was my time to get better. I got a chance to work with the varsity some and I know the offense. I can't wait until spring to actually get out there knowing that I have a chance to win the starting quarterback job at OU. It is going to be a lot of fun to compete with Paul and Tommy, who are two great quarterbacks. I am looking forward to the competition."
What will make the race even more interesting is that all three quarterbacks bring different talents to the field.
"You have Paul Thompson, who has been in the system and knows what he is doing," said Long. "When a quarterback has been in a system for a certain amount of time, that helps him. He has great feet, excellent work ethic and he has an excellent arm. Paul throws very well on the run and he is one of those rare guys who can move sideways and throw back across his body with ease. He has a great release and he has worked hard up to this point to make himself into a good player. What remains to be seen with Paul, or any of the quarterbacks, is how they do when they are in hot water on third down situations in the pressure of a game with fans in the stands."
"Tommy is a tall quarterback who is not as mobile as Paul, but he does have mobility," Long continued. "Tommy can fool you with his mobility. He has an uncanny sense of where to go with the football. He reads very well when the ball is snapped and he has a good feel for the game. Tommy probably has our best pocket presence, knowing when to step up in the pocket and buy a little time when he throws. That is a special talent that only some guys have, and while some other guys have to acquire it through hard work, he had it form day one. He has a big, strong arm, probably the strongest arm of the three, which can help. And he is obviously tall and can see over the line of scrimmage.
"Rhett is an excellent young talent who is far ahead for a freshman in terms of reading defenses and knowing where to go with the ball. I have never had a freshman as far along as Rhett at this stage in his career. Rhett has grown up with a father who is a head coach and that has really helped him, and you can tell the difference with him. He has excellent feet, a quick arm, very accurate.
"While each posses a different talent, they are all guys who are even in a lot of ways in terms of arm strength and reading defenses."
So what specifically will Long look for when attempting to pick one over the other?
"How the separation is going to come into play will be how they lead," Long continued. "How they lead a huddle, how guys respond to them, and what they do in tough situations, which are hard to simulate in practice. We may have to go to game type situations in order to find that out. Those are the things that we try to find out and are the things that are going to make a difference between one and another."
While most of us will be reading the stat sheet and raving about how one of them had a great day in completions or yardage, the coaches may feel that another guy had a better day. The coaches will also look for the quarterback that made no mistakes and who led his unit to put more points on the board without the benefit of the big stats.
"They have to be productive, but we think all of them can put stats on the board," said Long. "It is going to come down to how the players feed off those guys. Are they leading in the right way? Are they not just guys who look pretty in the pocket throwing the ball? Are they moving the chains and are their teammates responding? Do they lift other guys up? Are they lifting the other guys up and are they making the other players around them better? There are a lot of intangibles that go into being the guy."
Long says quarterback is one position where competition takes place every single day on and off the field.
"Everything will be important in this quarterback race," said Long. "Every seven-on-seven rep, every scrimmage rep, every team rep. Every single rep is going to count in this deal. We will see who is going to keep competing every rep at every practice. Will one take a day off or a couple of days off intensity-wise? We will watch and see who leads off the field going to class and how hey handle themselves in public. You have to find those things out."
In years past, the competition at quarterback carried over into the summer, but could it be different this time around?
"That is hard to say. If there is a guy who is really out front and center then we may name a starter at the end of spring," said Long. "That is something that Coach Stoops and I will talk about, but if it is a tight race and things are even we will do what we did with Jason and Nate and go all the way to the fall and go to the third or fourth scrimmage before we do it. We like when it goes into the fall when it is all possible. That way they can lead in the summer and we can find out how they are in the summer. You are not around as a coach, so you find out about their leadership. It keeps them competing and it keeps the other guys competing as well.
"When they see the quarterbacks competing so hard, then it helps the players become a team. We also find out if our quarterbacks are leading in a positive way. Are they splitting the team up for example? Are they not pitting one against the other? Sometimes that happens. Are they keeping the team in mind first? Those are the things that you need to find out."
Due to his knee injuries, White was kept in the pocket and the Sooners never used the quarterback run game that Kevin Wilson was so noted for when he was the offensive coordinator at Northwestern. Thompson ran a 4.43 40 at the start of last year, which was the fourth fastest on the OU squad. Bomar is a 4.57 runner, which is outstanding for a quarterback. So, at least when those two are in the game the Sooners are going to use the threat of the running quarterback.
"You are going to see some more quarterback runs in the spring. That is something that we put in a couple of years ago," said Long. "We put it on ice because of Jason's health, but we would like to get back to some of that. Is there going to be a steady diet? Who knows at this point? However, you are going to see some of that in the future."
One thing is certain. From all my conversations with the coaching staff it is clear that the quarterback position is wide open between Thompson, Grady and Bomar. If you talked to all the coaches each one will give you a different opinion on who they feel will start and all three players would get votes. It is clear that the coaches feel all three have incredible talent and that they can win with all three, and going into the spring the quarterback position is one of the most talented positions on the team.
Who will win the job? Well, that is anybody's guess. All three are talented, but I, like all of you, will be evaluating every single hand-off, pass, run and sprint and can't wait for the competition to begin.
Spring Position Preview: Quarterback
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