Spring Position Preview: Quarterback

Oklahoma quarterbacks coach Josh Heupel and offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson talk about the upcoming spring battle between Joey Halzle (pictured), Sam Bradord and Keith Nichol. (Photo/SoonerPhotos.com)

The biggest question mark in the spring for Oklahoma is who is going to be the starting quarterback in 2007. However, we also know this question will not be answered in the spring.

In every quarterback battle since Bob Stoops has been the head coach at Oklahoma, the competition has carried over from the spring through the summer and on into two-a-days. This will be the most wide-open competition thus far in the Stoops era; you can bet the 15 days of spring practice will only be the opening round of the competition.

This spring will serve as the first real opportunity to see junior Joey Halzle (6-3, 198), redshirt freshman Sam Bradford (6-5, 197) and freshman Keith Nichol (6-2, 180). At this point, the only thing that separates the three is their age.

"All of our guys really haven't been in our program that long," said OU quarterback coach Josh Heupel. "Joey is the only guy who has been in it over a year. Sam has been in it a little over six months and Keith is a new guy who just showed up in January. Those guys have to continue to progress and work hard leading up to spring ball.

"I have said it before — mistakes are going to be made. We don't expect them to go out there and be perfect in every decision, but we do want to see them continue to learn to take care of the football and not get ourselves beat first and foremost. Then as they continue to grow in the offense and grow in their understanding of defenses and what we are trying to do, progress to the point where they are making plays and pushing the ball down the field."

Each quarterback is going to get an opportunity to show that he is the best quarterback on campus, but just how the competition takes place remains to be seen.

"I do think a key will be in the spring getting that quarterback situation manageable," said offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson. "With the limited amount of practice days, snaps and opportunities that you get with the three guys that we will have in the spring, if you spread it out too much sometimes we can water down the opportunity for improvement. We have seen around here with Paul last season how much a quarterback can improve when he is getting the majority of the reps. It is going to be a difficult challenge to make it a fair challenge between the three." "I think it is going to be an open race with all three guys. It is going to be interesting to see how the young guy (Nichol) is going to be once you get him on a daily basis, compared to Sam (Bradford) and Joey (Halzle). I think one of the keys this spring will be to get the race geared to the top two guys, whoever that may be, so that potential player in time can get the bulk of the work and become the best player. I think that will be a challenge."

If you asked 10 people associated with the program who the starting quarterback is going to be — or even who the top two would be — you would get a variety of answers. But one thing we do know for sure is that Heupel will be looking for basic, fundamental attributes in all of his quarterbacks.

"You want to see your quarterbacks progress and get better each and every day," said Heupel. "Mistakes are going to be made, but the way that they carry themselves and the way they handle those mistakes to get better each every day is what is important to me. The way that they carry themselves in the huddle and in the meeting room are also important signs of what you are looking for in naming your next starting quarterback."

Halzle was the backup quarterback last season, but that didn't earn him much action on the field. He worked mostly in mop-up duty when the game was no longer in doubt as Stoops was more concerned about not running up the score.

Halzle mostly handed the ball off when he was in, only throwing two passes, completing one for 15 yards. However, the advantage that Halzle did earn as the backup was the opportunity to work with the varsity all year and get second-team reps in practice as he prepared each week in anticipation of playing. Those practice reps at least gave the Sooner offensive coaches a better idea of what Halzle can do than his two competitors at quarterback.

"You take Joey, who is a junior college guy but who only played a year before he showed up here on campus," said Heupel. "He just played one fall, so even when he showed up he was young in his career and he still had four years — three years of eligibility. Joey is a young man that has continued to grow in our offense and because he has been here the longest he probably has maybe a better understanding of it. He can probably draw it up on the board and everything. He has more repetitions on the field than the other guys as well, because he was our backup a year ago. He is a guy who needs to continue to develop physically and become better and better in understanding what we are trying to do with him taking the snap behind center."

Bradford didn't get many varsity reps, but at times wow'd the Sooner defense with his ability on the scout team. When a guy is hot on the scout team against the No. 1 defense in the Big 12, word gets around and his effort on the scout team had the players and coaches excited about his ability.

"Sam is a young guy who was a great athlete coming out of high school," said Heupel. "He was a great athlete, but he probably didn't spend a lot of time throwing the football growing up. Because of his athleticism, you can see him getting better each and every day. He needs to continue to progress as a quarterback fundamentally with his technique while also grasping what defenses are trying to do and where we are trying to go with the football.

"He is a guy who has not gotten a lot of repetitions because with Paul moving back to quarterback from wide receiver at the beginning of fall camp, he was a guy that we had to give as many reps as possible during two-a-days. That cut back on Sam's opportunities to get reps. During bowl practice, you continued to see him get better and better each and every day. I think he did a good job on scout team continuing to grow and maturing on that side of the ball."

Rounding out the competition is true freshman Keith Nichol, who de-committed from his childhood favorite Michigan State to sign with OU. The state of Michigan Gatorade Player of the Year threw for a career total of 5,325 yards and 73 touchdowns. As a high school senior, he compiled 2,225 yards on 118 of 185 passes with 31 touchdowns against only six interceptions. Nichol also proved he is an outstanding rusher and finished the season with 1,075 yards and 19 touchdowns on just 121 carries last season.

Nichol said it was the opportunity at Oklahoma that convinced him to switch his commitment and enroll early to get a jump on that opportunity.

"Hopefully we have a great competitor with a great understanding with what it takes to be successful behind the center," said Heupel on Nichol. "Keith is a great leader and a guy who can bring all those intangibles that we always talk about to the table."

It is not always the guy with the strongest arm that is the best quarterback. There are a lot of intangibles that go into becoming the starter at Oklahoma.

"It is one position where the intangibles are extremely important," said Heupel. "Your leadership and your demeanor, attitude and character are going to be shown in front of a football team, and shown throughout the course of a year. If you don't have the mental makeup, along with the physical toughness to handle it, then you are going to crack somewhere along the way. Great quarterbacks have those intangibles and are able to get the 10 other guys in the huddle to play at a higher level. That is certainly what you are looking for in any quarterback."

A year ago Heupel had to work with a fifth-year senior returning to the position, but who at least knew a great deal about the offense. This year, Heupel will have to take the three current prospects and mold them from the ground up.

"I think that is the great thing about college football. Every four or five years there is a changing of the guard and you get another opportunity to work with someone new," Heupel said. "You are working from the ground level and building them up as you go along in their career. It's an opportunity to work with young people and see them progress, understand the game and what we are trying to accomplish and see them continue to grow in their position. That is something that a coach gets great satisfaction out of.

"I am excited about working with these three guys because they bring so many things to the table. They bring great energy, focus in the meeting room and they are anxious to learn and soak up knowledge. They continue to get themselves into a position to be a better football player. Working with these guys is something that I really look forward to."

So, let the competition begin. May the best man win.

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