August 26, 2010
The last word on the coming season's most pressing topics.
Here's what we know so far about sophomores Landry Jones and Garrett Gilbert as they step into the most scrutinized positions in the Big 12: They both have the size and the arm to back up their prodigious recruiting hype. They were both thrown into the fire in place of Hall-of-Fame starters in unexpected, ill-fated situations as freshmen, and came out more than a little charred, if not quite incinerated. Jones is flanked by a pair of first-rate playmakers, running back DeMarco Murray and receiver Ryan Broyles, behind a season offensive line that took more than its share of lumps last year; Gilbert, taking the reins for the unstoppable Longhorn recruiting machine, has every reason to expect a similar arsenal to emerge around him in Austin.
For a couple guys being handed the keys to offenses with the usual Big 12 and national championship ambitions in their sights, that's not a whole lot. Of course, it's enough to keep both Oklahoma and Texas in their familiar roles in the preseason polls, given their decade-long dominance in the Big 12 South and the even greater quarterback uncertainty among the competition. But the most salient fact going into the season still concerns what Jones and Gilbert are not: The standards they pick up were established by two of the most prolific, celebrated passers in recent memory, Sam Bradford and Colt McCoy, who combined to go 69-12 as starters with three Big 12 championships, two BCS championship appearances, one Heisman Trophy and a truckload of shattered school, conference and national records.
Jones has a substantial head start, courtesy of his 10 starts last year in place of Bradford after the '08 Heisman winner went down against BYU (and again against Texas) with a shoulder injury that effectively sunk the Sooners' season before it began. Opposite one of the most statistically dominant defenses in the country, Jones came in for a lion's share of the blame for an attack that dipped from 42 points per game under Bradford in 2007 and a staggering 51 per game in 2008 to just 31 last year, and averaged just 18 in five high-profile losses.
Under the circumstances, it's not fair to dock Jones for 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.
Gilbert's debut comes with a similar asterisk: Abruptly thrust into the brightest possible stage after McCoy went down on the first series of January's BCS title game, Gilbert acquitted himself relatively well with a pair of second-half touchdown passes that briefly made an unfair fight look like a game. But in the big picture, he still ended the only significant action of his career to date with four interceptions and a crucial fumble that iced the game for Alabama. In the end, he never really had a chance.
What you have, then, is a couple guys who have clearly shown flashes of the physical ability and big-play knack that lifted their predecessors to the ranks of the all-time greats, but just as clearly have a long way to go to demonstrate the kind of consistency and big-game knack that will ultimately define the season. With first-year starters, there's considerable evidence that the defense will have more to say about how far the team can go, but in this case, there's no evidence that either the Sooners or Longhorns – both of which replace multiple draft picks from two of the top defenses in the country – have any significant edge on that side of the ball. If the Red River Shootout is set to play its usual role as the gateway to the top of the Big 12 and the thick of the BCS championship scrum, the team that rides through on Oct. 2 is bound to be the one whose young gun has grown up the fastest.