CBS Sports: Lincoln Riley To Have Tough Choice For Quarterback
NORMAN, Oklahoma - Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray was drafted ninth overall in the 2018 MLB Draft on Monday, surpassing even the most optimistic pre-draft projections. He then quickly announced that the pick wouldn't stop him from suiting up for the Sooners this fall. With that announcement, any lingering suspense surrounding the quarterback competition in Norman between Murray and Austin Kendall was effectively squashed.
In other words, one assumes Murray isn't risking a lucrative professional baseball career to be a backup.
Here's the expectation: Murray will sign a contract with the Oakland Athletics by July, pick up a hefty signing bonus in the range of $4.7 million, play football for Oklahoma as the Sooners' starting quarterback and then begin his professional baseball career in the winter.
One part of that may be a foregone conclusion to some, but there's a strong case to be made that coach Lincoln Riley should think long and hard about Kendall -- not Murray -- in the starting role.
Murray was a flashy backup, fitting of a flashy starter in Baker Mayfield last fall. Though he has just over 1,000 passing yards and under 500 rushing yards in two seasons of eligibility (one as a freshman at Texas A&M) since graduating from Allen High School in 2015, Murray's dynamic style conjures up dreams of Mayfield magic. But expectations of a second coming are presumptuous at best and belief without evidence at worst. Even Mayfield showed up at Oklahoma with a 2,300-yard season in his back pocket.
Reminisce back to Murray's freshman year at Texas A&M. He looked like a promising, athletic true freshman, capable of magnificence -- like 156 yards rushing and 223 yards passing against South Carolina -- and youthful indiscretions like his three interceptions in a loss to Auburn. It was exciting, but it was frenetic and unpredictable.
Fast forward to 2017 and Murray beats out Kendall as the primary backup to the future Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft. He has a role in Riley's devastating offense. Riley weaponizes Murray, using him surgically in seven games in a variety of roles that includes starter. In those bursts, Murray completed 85.7 percent of his passes for 359 yards and rushed for 142 more.
Our latest peak into the Murray evolution came at the Oklahoma spring game -- an event he sandwiched in between Friday night and Saturday night baseball games. That workload, 30-mph winds and a spring that split his focus all likely contributed to a mediocre showing for Murray. He threw for 85 yards on 11-of-21 passing and added 35 rushing yards. But stat line aside, Murray was scramble-prone and Aggie-evocative.
So, was that Murray? Or was that just the depleted version of Murray that was the result of a distracted spring? Because if we are getting an un-evolved version of Murray this fall, Kendall deserves a closer look.
Kendall doesn't provide Oklahoma with the upside of Murray. He's not as explosive running the football and doesn't have the same creativity with the ball, but he appears to be more equipped to follow the script. In that same spring game, Kendall looked more controlled and comfortable in the offense. He finished 11 of 18 for 134 yards and added 32 rushing yards. Remember too that Kendall served as Mayfield's backup in 2016. That season, Kendall completed 72 percent of his passes for 143 yards.
But the Kendall consideration isn't just about getting blinded by spring game stats; it's also about the long game. If Murray starts for Oklahoma this fall and heads to the baseball diamond, Oklahoma is looking at three starting quarterbacks in three years in 2019. That year will see Kendall finally get his turn or lose the job to either 2018 signee Tanner Mordecai or 2019 commit Spencer Rattler.
If Kendall is the starter in 2018, then he enters his eighth semester on campus and second season as the starter in 2019 on a team that is tracking to be one of Riley's most talented.
So how good is this Oklahoma roster in 2018? Does it need the upside Murray to shoulder the playmaking burden and carry it to the College Football Playoff? Or is it so talented that Kendall, with his lower reward but less risk, is the bus driver it needs to stay on schedule under a mind as creative as Riley?
With little else in the quarterback room save for the incoming freshman, the discussion may just be moot. Even if Riley is considering the Kendall scenario, Murray's $5 million signing bonus provides a defensible path to walk away from a backup job, leaving Oklahoma with one viable starter. You only have to look back as far as last year to see Georgia and Alabama tell us that one quarterback isn't enough if a national title is the goal.
The right decision for Riley may just be a compromise of some sort. Hand Murray the keys but keep Kendall engaged with a meaningful role that both prepares him for the job in 2019 and keeps a steady arm warm in case Murray gets loose.
Like so many coaches around college football at places like Alabama, Georgia and Clemson, Riley has options. In this case, he needs to consider them.