NORMAN, Okla. — The list is almost laughable.
Here’s a top quarterback recruit who never played a down of college football; there’s one who transferred to an FCS team, and now is laboring in an Italian professional league; here’s another who transferred from the Pac-12 to the AAC to Division II.
Another switched to tight end. And here’s one who quit football and now plays professional baseball, and another who threw just 35 passes in two years before deciding to become a regular student.
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Ooh, look, there’s one who became the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft.
So other than maybe former Cal quarterback Jared Goff, who’s red hot in his second season with the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams, there’s not one quarterback in the 2013 recruiting class you’d rather have than Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield.
Who, incidentally, wasn’t even on anybody’s list that year.
This year’s Heisman Trophy front runner, a 6-foot-nothin’ gunslinger with smooth dance moves, an unbendable will and a pile of self-made chips he likes to carry on his shoulder, was somehow unwanted as a high school football recruit.
“Well,” said Hank Carter, Mayfield’s coach at Lake Travis High School, “people wanted him. They just didn’t want him soon enough, or it wasn’t the right people that wanted him. His recruitment was late for a few reasons.”
Only four FBS schools — Florida Atlantic, New Mexico, Rice and Washington State — offered Mayfield a scholarship. And 119 did not.
TCU slow-played Mayfield and then offered another quarterback. Mayfield and another quarterback vied to be the last quarterback offered by Washington State. But while Mayfield’s Lake Travis team was busy making a deep run in the baseball playoffs, the other guy committed.
247Sports’ Composite rankings listed Mayfield as the 1,028th overall recruit in the Class of 2013, and 160th in Texas.
Rivals.com didn’t have Mayfield ranked at all, but did rank 23 quarterbacks in its Rivals250 that year, including three in Texas: Cody Thomas, the former Sooner who eventually saw Mayfield’s magic and decided to move on to baseball, J.T. Barrett, the Ohio State senior who’s 1-1 against Mayfield (including a 31-16 loss this year in Columbus), and Kenny Hill, who’s 0-2 against Mayfield (including Saturday’s 38-20 defeat in Norman).
Even the school Mayfield landed with, Texas Tech, didn’t want him. He walked on and won the starting job, and is considered to be the first walk-on true freshman to start at quarterback in the season opener for a Power 5 school. That year, he set Texas Tech records and earned freshman All-American honorable mention. But when Mayfield, after an injury, asked Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury for a scholarship, Kingsbury wouldn’t commit.
So rather than chasing a dream, Mayfield — a Sooner fan growing up in Austin, Texas — followed his heart: He walked on at Oklahoma completely unannounced, introducing himself to coach Bob Stoops at an informal team function and, after sitting out a transfer year, immediately won the starting job in 2015.
Now, after three seasons rewriting Oklahoma record books, and with at least three games left to play, Mayfield has emerged as the runaway leader for the 83rd Heisman Trophy. Mayfield is that close to completing the impossible journey from unwanted walk-on to college football’s most outstanding player.
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Mayfield is 13-0 in true road games during his Oklahoma career. He has the opportunity to finish second in Big 12 history in career passing yards. He has a touchdown pass in every single game for Oklahoma (36 consecutive) and has thrown at least two in 23 straight. He’s four shy of tying the Sooners’ all-time passing touchdowns leader. He currently leads all of major college football in completion percentage, passer efficiency rating, yards per attempt and yards per completion. His efficiency rating of 202.1 would shatter the single-season FBS record of 196.4 — which he set last year.
He is the two-time defending recipient of the Burlsworth Trophy — given to the most outstanding FBS player who started their career as a walk-on — and would seem an easy choice this season to win his third.
And he’ll probably win Oklahoma’s sixth Heisman Trophy, securing iconic permanence — probably somewhere near Jason White and Sam Bradford — with his own heroic-sized statue outside Memorial Stadium in Oklahoma’s Heisman Park.
How the heck did this happen?
“I’ve been around football for a while,” said Kansas coach David Beaty, who faces Mayfield on Saturday in Lawrence, “and I’ve seen one other guy that can do the things that this guy can do. And that’s Johnny. Johnny Manziel. That guy’s extremely talented, and this guy really reminds me of him.”
Manziel, of course, won the Heisman in 2012 with fancy footwork and improv magic. Mayfield has a touch of that electricity, having accumulated 1,003 career rushing yards and 21 career rushing touchdowns, but much prefers the long ball instead.
It seems Mayfield fell through the cracks for two primary reasons: A lot of quality high school quarterbacks were available in the 2013 class — at least, that’s what everyone thought back in 2013 — and, physically, Mayfield was simply a late bloomer. At a time when most young quarterbacks were getting noticed at camps and combines, Mayfield said he went into his freshman year standing just 5-2. By the end of his sophomore year, he was closer to 5-10.
“That was a rough time for me. Thanks for bringing that up,” Mayfield said with a laugh.
“He was really baby-faced,” Carter said. “He was just a late bloomer. By the time he had really grown and gotten himself looking like a Division I player, a lot of the schools he was interested in already had commits from quarterbacks.”
At Lake Travis, “being quarterback … is a big deal,” Mayfield said. “It was always a very special player that got the reins at that high school. I was working hard to do that, but we had a guy (Colin Lagasse, now a senior at SMU) that was a great athlete and wound up beating me out for the job. It was tough QB battle. It was a hard time for me because I believed in myself and I wanted to play. At the same time, that kid was a heck of an athlete.”
“Then the first ballgame,” Carter said, “Lagasse gets injured and Baker comes in and tears it up. So he only had to wait about four plays.”
“I think,” Mayfield said, “that was a key moment in how my mind works and how I carry myself, how I prepare.”
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Mayfield’s stature was a factor, but so was his lack of involvement with the camp and combine circuit, Carter said.
As much as anything, his system at Lake Travis had produced prolific quarterbacks like Todd Reesing, Garrett Gilbert and Michael Brewer, who won scholarships at Kansas, Texas and Texas Tech, respectively. That actually may have made some recruiters nervous.
“Probably, people thought he was product of system at Lake Travis,” Carter said.
Beaty, who was wide receivers coach at Texas A&M when Mayfield was a recruit, said another factor weighed heavily in schools passing on Mayfield, and it’s something NFL scouts are still scratching their heads about today: Like Manziel, he plays the game so differently, with such an unpredictable flair, it’s a challenge to properly evaluate him.
“You could see the talent,” Beaty said. “Some of the things he’s doing right now, he was doing over at the high school level where you’re like, ‘Wow!’ Almost hard to evaluate because he was running around so well, you almost saw so many crazy good plays that were off-schedule that you might not be able to see just how good this guy is at pure pocket plays.
“So sometimes that’s difficult on guys like him and Johnny to evaluate, because everything’s a wild play.”
That’s not exactly how Carter remembers it.
“David’s a friend of mine, but I would say that’s a little bit revisionist history,” he said. “Baker didn’t ad lib as much in high school as he does now.”
Beaty’s Jayhawks haven’t had much success trying to stop Mayfield in two previous meetings. In a 62-7 Oklahoma win two years ago, Mayfield was 27 of 32 for 383 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. In last year’s 56-3 Sooner wipeout, Mayfield was 16 of 24 for 236 yards, four touchdowns … and, again, no picks.
After watching Oklahoma film again this week, Beaty offered an evaluation of the Sooner captain.
“I think the thing that makes him so dangerous, his arm talent is just ridiculous,” Beaty said. “I mean, he can put the ball anywhere, anytime. His feet are phenomenal. His accuracy is second to none. But he can run the ball. He’s so strong. He bounces off tackles. He’s got really good speed, terrific vision, great lateral moment, COD — change of direction — I mean, he’s got just about all of it. I mean, the kid is really talented.”
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While Mayfield has always had skills, he didn’t always have the tools. He worked to develop those, adding muscle where he couldn’t add height, making his arm stronger and his feet quicker and his mind sharper.
And while he was building his quarterback physique, he was also building that indomitable attitude bigger than the state of Texas, one that told him he could walk on at Texas Tech and start immediately, one that told him he could displace Sugar Bowl hero Trevor Knight at Oklahoma and one that tells him every night when his head hits the pillow he’s better than all those other 2013 quarterbacks.
And he aims to prove it.
“I do know this,” Beaty said, “he’s turned into one of the best players I’ve seen in college football in a number of years. Like I said, the only one I’ve seen like him is Johnny — a guy that can literally take the game over at points where you need him, and he seems to do it every time they need him. Every single time, he’s there for them.”