Oklahoma football coach Bob Stoops can’t stop talking about the past.
When given the opportunity to discuss any topic of his choosing Tuesday during his news conference at Big 12 Media Days, Stoops used his opening statement to explain — yet again — how hard it was on the Sooners to lose five games last season.
“Just overall a disappointing year,” Stoops said. “When you’re used to 12 of the previous 14 years, we had 10 or more wins, and then you go 8-5, it’s not up to our standards and our expectations as a program, for sure.”
Opening statements come in all forms at these events. Some coaches use them to express optimism. Others tell jokes. Some bypass them and jump right into questions. So it was telling that Stoops focused on a negative. But he did his best to spin it into a positive, saying things could have gone much differently had Oklahoma avoided one big mistake in certain games, such as throwing interceptions that were returned for touchdowns and unnecessarily punting to the conference’s most dangerous return man.
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His message, in a roundabout way, was simple. It won’t take much for the Sooners to reestablish themselves as Big 12 contenders.
“A lot gives me optimism,” Stoops said. “We’re just a year removed from being in the top 10 and winning the Sugar Bowl … That doesn’t dissipate in a year.”
Oklahoma’s climb will start at quarterback.
The luster has faded from Trevor Knight’s breathtaking performance against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl two seasons ago, and many within the Oklahoma fan base are ready for someone new. Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield will challenge him for the starting spot, and some think the job is already his to lose.
A gifted pocket passer from Austin who also has enough speed to extend plays, Mayfield seems like a perfect fit in new offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley’s system. Stoops hired Riley away from East Carolina, where his teams had great success running the Air Raid offense made famous at Texas Tech.
“He is quick and he can throw it a long way,” OU receiver Sterling Shephard said of Mayfield. “He kind of reminds me of Johnny Manziel a little bit. He has a pretty strong arm, always throwing bullets.”
On paper, Mayfield appears to be a better option than Knight, a dual-threat runner. But Stoops insists both quarterbacks will get a shot.
Stoops thought enough of Knight to bring him to Dallas, allowing him to speak with media for hours about a job few expect him to win. Knight said that perception bothered him, but admitted he needs to play better to erase it. Stoops also said third-stringer Cody Thomas will also be in the mix.
“I know it’s popular for everyone to act like a certain guy has already got the job. That couldn’t be further from the truth,” Stoops said. “Trevor Knight and Baker Mayfield are in a tight battle, and Cody Thomas is right on their heels. He really made significant improvement in the spring. He’s a big guy with a great arm. That competition is going to continue.”
The ability to make big plays will be important in the race, but avoiding big mistakes may be the deciding factor.
As Stoops discussed what went wrong last season, including a 40-6 beatdown by Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl, turnovers were his main talking point. He said Oklahoma had eight mistakes on offense that led to touchdowns for opposing teams.
“Whoever can make the most consistent plays, be the most consistent in moving the ball, and can avoid the really bad play will be the guy that’s on the field,” Stoops said.
No matter what happens, much will be different this season. For the first time since his arrival in Norman, Stoops fired assistants and replaced them with up-and-comers. For the first time in recent memory, he is opening up the quarterback race with the incumbent on the roster. And unlike most years, the Sooners are not expected to challenge for a conference championship.
Something had to change. Until those changes take effect, Stoops will continue warning his team about the past.
“Nobody is asking us about what it’s like to be on top of the mountain anymore,” Knight said. “Now it’s all about how we haven’t been on top for a while, and what we have to do to climb back up. But I love it. It puts a chip on our shoulder, and I think that is when we are at our best.”