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Oklahoma exits spring without quarterback clarity

5d

NORMAN, Okla. — He stood behind the podium and spoke into the microphone. Yet Baker Mayfield was inaudible. To his left, Cody Thomas and Justice Hansen simultaneously chatted with reporters, creating a quarterback cacophony, which began on the field and carried straight into the interview room.

Saturday’s Red-White spring game delivered little clarity to the most wide open Oklahoma quarterback derby of the Bob Stoops era, leaving the Sooners with more questions than answers at the most crucial of positions heading into the season.

“We’re gonna let this thing go until the fall,” said new offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, who will have a big hand in ultimately choosing the starter. “It’s gonna be a great battle [but] there’s not enough separation.”

The 30,000-plus Sooner fans arrived at Owen Field hoping to see quarterback separation. Instead, they witnessed the same mistakes that plagued the offense during last year’s nightmare 8-5 season.

The quarterbacks overthrew open receivers. They passed into coverage. And they missed reads in the new offense that Riley and coach Bob Stoops said they had been nailing behind the scenes in practice.

“They’ve had a nice spring again in their reads and what they’re doing with the ball,” Stoops said. “I think they were definitely putting some balls up that when it’s practice it’s no big deal, but when you’re in game-type conditions it’s a bigger deal. They’ll learn from it. This isn’t indicative of what I’ve seen all spring. I’ve been pleased with what they’ve been doing all spring.”

We’ll have to take his word for it.

The Sooners had several positive developments Saturday. The wide receiving corps should be deeper and more explosive with the healthy return of Sterling Shepard from a groin injury and the addition of junior-college transfer Dede Westbrook and redshirt freshman Mark Andrews, who look the part of bonafide playmakers. Sophomore defensive backs Jordan Thomas and Steven Parker surged during the spring and have a chance to solidify a pass defense that was among the Big 12’s worst last year.

But Oklahoma is not challenging TCU and Baylor for conference supremacy without good to elite quarterback play. And Saturday, Oklahoma’s quarterback quartet was anything but.

Cody Thomas, who finished last in the Big 12 last season with a completion rate of 46 percent, connected on just 5 of 12 throws after getting the spring game starting nod. Thomas, who started three games in 2014 after Trevor Knight was injured, had a chance for a touchdown pass. Instead, he floated a ball that was tipped by linebacker Tay Evans and intercepted by safety Hatari Byrd, wiping out a golden scoring opportunity.

Knight, who led the Big 12 with three pick-six interceptions last year, threw another pick Saturday. He also lacked the proper touch on several passes, notably unloading a fastball through the arms of Andrews in the end zone, when a simple soft toss would have resulted in a touchdown.

“It’s going to be something we can look back on, ‘OK, once the fans get in there, once adrenaline gets going, that’s when you’ve got to be even-keeled,’” said Knight, speaking as if he were a true freshman instead of a veteran with 15 career starts.

Mayfield, who might be the favorite to be Oklahoma’s opening day starter, was the sharpest of the three, for the most part, completing 10 of 13 passes. But displaying the same overaggressiveness that eventually undid the Texas Tech offense two years ago, Mayfield twice took ill-advised chances.

“I love taking my shots,” Mayfield said. “When you have a one-on-one matchup, I feel you have to take it.”

Mayfield, however, took shots no matter the matchup. Early he tossed a ball deep into triple coverage, which resulted in a William Johnson interception. Then he underthrew down field into a double coverage, which led to a Jordan Thomas pick.

“Baker is not a guy who is afraid to take chances and that is the Catch-22 in this offense,” Riley said. “You cannot be scared but at the same time they have to calculated and smart. I love the aggressiveness of Baker and I do not want to pull on the reins.”

Riley, however, later said that the quarterback who wins the battle will be the one who scores points and takes care of the ball.

None did that well Saturday, leaving Oklahoma with the same quarterback cacophony heading into the fall.