Baker Mayfield made landfall in Lubbock, Texas in the Summer of 2013. Six short months later, he was gone.
It was the last time Mayfield was a rookie at anything, and the odds were stacked against him. There was a sophomore quarterback, Michael Brewer, in line for the starting job. Brewer’s competition, or so he thought, was Davis Webb, a true freshman and ESPN-rated four-star recruit from suburban Dallas whom new head coach Kliff Kingsbury had convinced to remain committed to Tech after a regime change.
Brewer and Webb had the benefit of spring practices in the new coach’s offense, with Webb graduating high school early to enroll in the spring. Webb felt he was well on his way to beating out Brewer, who suffered a back injury during summer workouts. Then along came Mayfield, dancing his way into the hearts of his teammates from Day One.
At the beginning of two-a-days that summer, the football team held a dance competition among all newcomers to the roster in the team meeting room. Mayfield, who once taught his middle school football team to do the Superman dance for Soulja Boy’s 2007 hit “Crank That (Soulja Boy),” stole the show.
“I don’t think most people know that Baker can really dance,” said Eric Ward, a senior wide receiver on the 2013 team. “He dances like he’s a brother from another mother.
“He was doin’ The Jerk, The Dougie. That instantly got him respect. He knew all the culture dances.”
“He was doing the Stanky Leg, he was gettin’ it,” says Reginald Davis III, a redshirt freshman receiver on that team. “… Gettin’ it.”
It was Mayfield’s first experience playing with men up to five years older than him, including a handful of redshirt seniors who would count on him to help facilitate their shot at the NFL. He was jovial, carefree, and outgoing. Then he’d flip a switch, says former Tech offensive coordinator Eric Morris. “He just really did a good job of jiving with everybody,” Morris says. “Some way some how, our whole entire team loved him. And then he’d become a leader and put guys on his back.
“You can’t tell how kids are going to relate to people, how they’re going to lead grown men. He has a certain air about him, a certain charisma. If I can explain it, somebody’s gonna pay me a lot of money to go find these kids.”
Just as inexplicable was the way it all ended. That winter, the day Mayfield won the Big 12 freshman of the year award, Kingsbury and Mayfield met to discuss the quarterback’s future in the program. The coaches wanted to see a competition between Mayfield and Webb, after both saw extensive time in 2013.
Mayfield, who was injured in the third game of the season against TCU but played on and off for the majority of the remaining games, believed he hadn’t been given a fair shot to win his starting job back. There’s some dispute over whether a scholarship was promised for the spring semester before or after Mayfield made his final decision (Mayfield says it wasn’t offered until he was on his way back to Austin, his hometown, while Kingsbury has said Mayfield knew before then).
Nevertheless, Mayfield got in his car resolved to walk on with another Big 12 program, Oklahoma. A battle ensued over his eligibility—Tech and Kingsbury tried to block the transfer, and Mayfield was eventually forced to sit out the 2014 season after the intra-conference transfer, though as a walk-on he won the fight to keep his remaining three years of eligibility.
But it’s that first college fight, that quarterback competition with Webb, that provides some insight into how Mayfield will fare as a pro following his selection in April’s NFL draft. In fact, a handful of teams have called up Kingsbury to talk Mayfield. They’re less interested with how it all ended, Kingsbury says, than with how it began.
“Yes, I’ve had a few reach out to get my thoughts on his makeup, his mentality, how he compares to some of the others guys we’ve had,” Kingsbury says. “What stood out to me, and what I tell these teams, is how quickly he processed information. He’s got the strong arm, the quick release, but what really was really impressive was how quickly he could take it from the classroom to the practice field.”
One of the major reasons Mayfield was able to sneak up on Webb—and Brewer for that matter—was that he hadn’t been around in the spring. Never mind the fact that he was a walk-on; he was at a major disadvantage simply because he missed those crucial first months installing a new offense. Plus, Kingsbury didn’t distribute a physical playbook for fear of transfers sharing it with other teams, so all the learning had to be done in the classroom and through film study. Folks back home in Austin looked at the Texas Tech roster and wondered why Mayfield and his father, who had a big hand in both the decision to go to Tech and eventually to transfer to Oklahoma, chose Tech in the first place. “We all thought James was crazy for that,” says John Pate, a Lake Travis dad whose son played with Mayfield. “Turns out he was crazy like a fox.”
Determined to validate his decision to turn down an offer from Washington State and walk on at Texas Tech, Mayfield turned to Brewer, who had been his predecessor at quarterback at Lake Travis High School in Austin. Around the time Brewer fractured a bone in his back during offseason workouts, he began tutoring Mayfield on the offense, says former Tech quarterback Clayton Nicholas.
“It was difficult to understand the offense they brought from Texas A&M just from watching film, because Johnny Manziel was just doing his own thing on every play,” Nicholas says. “Not many people know this part of the story. I believe Michael [Brewer] was teaching [Mayfield] the Kingsbury offense while he was not even there, so when he came in it looked like he was ready to go.”
Says Zach Austin, Mayfield’s high school teammate and a fellow walk-on at Tech: “I don’t know that Michael expected to even be in competition with Baker. But Michael is just a great guy anyway. We were over their house all the time freshman year.”
In summer practices, Tech’s talented group of wide receivers were taken aback by the walk-on challenging the incumbents. “We were just running routes for 7 on 7, and we noticed he was throwing a tight spiral and a good ball, and we said maybe he’s just feeling good,” Ward says. “After a while we were like, who is this guy?”
Says Morris: “He had some head-scratching moments where it was like, dang, this kid’s a lot better than we thought.”
Webb had his moments, too, and he and Mayfield pulled ahead of Brewer and Nicholas, splitting time with the 1s in summer practices leading up to the opener against Southern Methodist.
“It was crazy,” says Davis III. “One day one of them would ball out. The next day the other one would ball out. The whole camp it was like, who is it gonna be? Nobody had answers. All this tension was building up.”
Ward saw Mayfield gaining an edge late in the game and decided to tutor him on what he saw as his biggest deficiency. When the play called for a fade to Ward, the leading returning receiver with 1,053 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2012, Mayfield would zip the pass on a line, leaving Ward no room for adjustment and providing the cornerback an easy swat at the football.
“I’m a redshirt senior,” Ward says. “I knew he was gonna be the starter. This was my last go-around, and in practice he was throwing these balls with no air under them. We’d stay after practice for 10 minutes and just throw fades. He became a magician with it.”
Mayfield was named the starter days before the opener, an outcome Ward says most of the wide receivers quietly hoped for. With Brewer, Webb and Nicholas each being sidelined in favor of a freshman walk-on, it was understood the decision would have some or all of them searching for greener pastures after the 2013 season. “We were like, dang that’s crazy,” Davis III says. “That boy walked on and took some stuff. It’s gonna be crazy.”
It was. Mayfield went for 413 yards and four touchdowns and no picks at SMU, then 367 yards with three touchdowns vs. Stephen F. Austin. He injured his knee in the third game, a win over TCU, passing for 216 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions. He had a presence that was fiery and calming at once, teammates say. “He brought energy, but he didn’t criticize,” Davis III says. “He was always about the next play.”
He left the game in the second quarter against Texas State, and spent the rest of the season hampered by the knee. Webb started four games, beginning October 12, with Tech winning the first two and dropping the next two. After Webb stumbled against Kansas State, Mayfield returned as the starter, vs. Baylor and Texas to close the season. Webb got the start in the bowl game, against Arizona State, tossing four touchdowns in a win to wrap up an 8-5 season.
Kingsbury had a delicate situation on his hands. He wanted both Webb and Mayfield back; he wanted them to push each other. He wasn’t sure, after an up and down season, who would lead the program in 2014.
Mayfield was broken up over the way the season ended, says his longtime friend and fellow Tech walk-on, Zach Austin. “It was a really hard time to be his roommate at that time because he was so upset about it,” Austin says. “He felt like he didn’t have the opportunity to compete and win his job back.”
Looking back, Kingsbury knew his options were limited. “During the season it’s tough to hold a quarterback competition and get done what you need to get done. At the end of the season, you try to reach them all and help them understand where your mind’s at, but that didn’t work with Baker. I’ve always said he’s a great young man. Loved working with him, and I think he’ll have tremendous success.”
Morris had recruited Mayfield while he was the wide receivers coach at Washington State, then served as co-offensive coordinator in Mayfield’s lone season at Tech (and was the sole OC for four seasons after that). He regrets how it all went down. He says he was on a recruiting trip when the conversation that led to the transfer happened, and he’s always wished he had a chance to sit down with Mayfield before he left.
“It was one of those weird Catch-22 situations when you have two really good guys and they’re both young and competitive,” says Morris, who is now the head coach at Incarnate Word. “We wanted to see them continue to compete. If you had a crystal ball, you might go back and change some stuff, but we didn’t.”
Nicholas transferred to Bowling Green that winter, Brewer to Virginia Tech, and Mayfield to Oklahoma, where he would start from 2015-17 and win the Heisman trophy in his final season. Webb stayed for two more seasons, then transferred to Cal after losing the starting job to Patrick Mahomes in 2015; he was drafted in the third round by the New York Giants last spring.
James Mayfield, Baker’s father, would describe Kingsbury as a “scoundrel” during the fight to preserve a season of eligibility for his son. Today, Kingsbury declines to get into details about the break-up: “I don’t want to get into the he said, she said. I appreciate the type of player and person he is.”
He’s happy, though, to talk about Mayfield and what will be, rather than what might have been. He doesn’t believe Mayfield’s on-field and off-field antics, nor his background in the Air Raid offense, nor his height, should scare anybody off, and that’s what he’s telling the teams who are asking.
Says Kingsbury: “I think if you watch today’s NFL and the way these teams are really adapting to these quarterbacks and really playing to their strengths, I think in the right system, you build an offense around him and he can be highly, highly successful.”
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