March 03, 2010
Assessing the fall's starting passers, in no particular order. Today: Oklahoma sophomore Landry Jones.
• Typecasting. Jones showed up with scout-friendly measurements (he was listed at 6'4" and well over 200 pounds out of high school) and solid hype as a high school All-American and Rivals' No. 6 "pro-style" passer in the '08 class. That was good enough to set Jones up going into last season as the heir apparent to returning Heisman winner and soon-to-be first-round pick Sam Bradford after redshirting as a true freshman, although not quite to keep him from taking in a few mouthfuls when he was suddenly tossed head-first into the lake on opening night.
The offense suffered dramatically under Jones after Bradford went down with what amounted to a season-ending shoulder injury in the first game of the year -- for the season, the Sooners averaged just 17 points against teams that finished with a winning record, down from 39 per game against .500 teams in 2007 and a whopping 48 per game in '08 with Bradford at the helm -- but Jones was hardly a disaster given the circumstances. Given his hype and early experience, his transition to full-fledged, entrenched starter this fall should be relatively seamless.
Physically, you get pretty much what you'd expect from a guy Jones' size: He's even less mobile than Bradford, picking up a meager 34 positive yards on the ground all year, but can match his feted predecessor for sheer arm strength. The test this season will be how well Jones improves his accuracy and decision-making (always major strengths for Bradford) after finishing at or near the bottom of the Big 12 in completion percentage and interceptions.
• At his best ... The Sooners returned a pair of 1,000-yard rushers, Chris Brown and DeMarco Murray, to take pressure off the young quarterback after Bradford and leading receiver Jermaine Gresham both went down in the early hours of the season, but didn't ease up on the throttle in the passing game at all -- in fact, the Sooners threw more often with Jones, putting the ball in the air at least 30 times in every game and holding the run:pass balance (usually tilted decisively toward the run) at roughly 50:50 throughout the year. Jones responded with a handful of eye-popping efforts, statistically, beginning with a 336-yard, six-touchdown barrage against Tulsa that earned him Big 12 Offensive Player of the Week in September and continuing in blowout wins over Kansas State (294 yards, 4 TDs) and Texas A&M (392, 5 TDs) and culminating in his best game, a 418-yard, three-touchdown effort in the Sun Bowl win over Stanford.
When the Sooners won, they won big -- six of their seven regular season wins were by at least 23 points, and the other was a 12-point triumph over Kansas State -- and Jones looked very good: In those wins, he completed over 62 percent of his passes for more than 275 yards per game and connected on 23 of his 26 touchdowns, to just six interceptions. Not coincidentally, he was also untouchable, succumbing to just three sacks.
On an aesthetic note, Jones also sported the nation's most famous amateur mustache for most of the season -- a labia sebucula of such epic proportion that it got Jones nominated for the American Mustache Institute's prestigious "Goulet" Award as the Mustached American of the Year -- and bagged OU hoops star Whitney Hand, though those two achievements weren't entirely compatible.
• At his worst ... The flip side of Jones' consistent success against the worst defenses on the schedule were his consistent struggles against the best. It's not fair to cite his less-than-stellar numbers against Texas and Nebraska as an indictment (though his five-interception effort in a 10-3 loss to the 'Huskers was especially ugly) because Texas and Nebraska were two of the top five or ten defenses in the nation -- almost nobody had success against the 'Horns or 'Huskers, passing or otherwise. We can forgive him for failing to lead the Sooners to a mere field goal in the second half of the 14-13 loss to BYU, given the circumstances of his first significant action off the bench. But Jones also struggled in the losses to Miami and Texas Tech, winnable games against relatively mediocre defenses, and was pedestrian (no touchdowns, no interceptions) in the defensively-fueled, 27-0 win over Oklahoma State in the regular season finale.
His only clear success against any respectable-looking defense was the October assault on Kansas State, and the Wildcats status as "respectable" (39th nationally in total D, 46th in scoring) is up for debate. The Sooners can't return to Big 12 championship/BCS contention if they can't count on more than 17-20 points against opponents on the fringes on the polls.
• What to Expect in '10. The wins over Oklahoma State and Stanford to close the season weren't necessarily turn-the-corner moments for Jones, personally -- he was in "just don't screw up" mode opposite the dominant Sooner D against OSU, and Stanford's 90th-ranked defense was far from respectable -- but they were easily the Sooners' biggest wins of the season and should fuel a lot of optimism about an immediate return to the top 10-15 in the polls. As bad as the Cardinal secondary was, Jones' big afternoon in the bowl game is going to be a key part of those expectations.
Last year was a chaotic transition, not just for Jones but for the entire offense, which was breaking in an almost entirely new set of linemen and wide receivers and was deflated by the loss of its two best players before halftime of the first game. Those growing pains should make this year's group dramatically better, beginning with the quarterback: With seven of his top eight receivers and all but one of the regulars from an injury-ravaged line back, Jones should take a major step to solidifying himself as one of the best passers in the Big 12 for the next two or three seasons, at least. That improvement may not be readily apparent on the stat sheet, where his overall yardage and touchdown totals will be hard to top, but the route to those numbers should be much steadier than it was the first time out.
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Previously: Scott Tolzien (Wisconsin).