Baker Mayfield: When Will Meets Skill
By RICH CIRMINIELLO
Size matters in football. Baker Mayfield’s career reminds us of the importance of measuring the right stuff.
Mayfield has been doubted at every stage of his athletic career, usually some derivation pertaining to his stature. By now, naysayers ought to know that criticism is a propellant in Mayfield’s world. The more they doubt him, the harder he works to prove them wrong.
Mayfield’s journey from teenage obscurity to national prominence has been an inspirational one, the likes of which is usually accompanied by a Fox Searchlight script. But there’s nothing Hollywood about this tale, even if at times it seems too good to be true. Everything about Mayfield, from his persona to his unique story, is steeped in authenticity.
The old adage that it’s not where you begin that matters, rather where you finish best encapsulates Mayfield’s meteoric collegiate career. He began in 2013 as a Texas Tech walk-on, an undervalued and overlooked recruit from Lake Travis (Tex.) High School. He closed as one of the most prolific and electrifying passers in college football history and the recipient of the 81st Maxwell Award after being a finalist in each of the prior two years. In between, there was a lifetime of big wins, explosive plays and spontaneous celebrations.
Mayfield is a quarterback, of course. But he’s actually a force of nature. Think young Brett Favre for his ability to energize a squad and a community with his toughness, fearless play and magnetic personality. Mayfield is everything a coach wants in a QB, a dart-throwing gunslinger with seemingly boundless intangibles. Teammates respond to him, and no one since Tim Tebow was a Gator has been better at rallying the troops. Fueled by a deep love of the game, a bottomless reservoir of energy and an insatiable competitive fire, Mayfield has the uncanny ability to elevate those around him.
And he’s quite the ball distributor, too.
For all the attention that Mayfield gets for his on-field charisma and caffeinated makeup, he’s also a next-level hurler. It’s no accident that the four-year starter ranks top 10 all-time in FBS passing efficiency, touchdown passes, total offense and passing yards. Mayfield, who completed 70% of his passes in 2016 and 2017, delivers with surgeon-like accuracy, and no amateur in America is a better deep-ball passer. He’s unflappable under pressure, staring down the heat before placing the ball where only his receiver can haul it in. And he’s an improvisational wiz, using his athleticism and keen instincts to extend plays destined for minus yards.
When will meets skill, anything is possible.
Much was expected of Mayfield in 2017. And why not? This was the 2013 Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year in Lubbock and the proven star triggerman of the high-powered Oklahoma attack. And while Bob Stoops retired unexpectedly in June, successor Lincoln Riley already shared a special bond with Mayfield that ensured a seamless transition.
Yes, much was expected and much was produced this past season in Norman.
That the Sooners were tasked with replacing a pair of 1,000-yard rushers and Biletnikoff Award-winning WR Dede Westbrook in 2017 had absolutely no bearing on Mayfield’s output. A retooled supporting cast simply meant an opportunity to uplift a new ensemble of playmakers, such as RB Rodney Anderson and young receivers Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb. In the plug-and-play world of Mayfield, all he ever needs is a ball, a helmet and the green light to ignite an offense.
Rather than enter the NFL Draft, Mayfield returned for his senior season with even more to prove. Sure, he’d thrown for 40 scores and led Oklahoma to a second straight Big 12 championship in 2016. Still, the Sooners missed out on a playoff berth that year, and another league crown and defeat of Bedlam counterpart Oklahoma State would be nice. Plus, this was his time to finally become the face of college football after sharing the honor with the likes of Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and Louisville’s Lamar Jackson in recent years.
After nearly throwing a perfect game in the opener with UTEP, Mayfield scripted his first signature moment of 2017, spearheading a 31-16 upset of second-ranked Ohio State … in Columbus. He completed 27-of-35 for 386 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions against one of college football’s most talented defenses to avenge a 2016 home loss to the Buckeyes. The planting of OSU in the ‘Shoe set the tone for another banner year of records and hardware in Norman.
Mayfield piloted the Sooners to a Big 12 championship in each of his three seasons since walking on without a scholarship in 2014. He also went 3-0 against instate rival Oklahoma State, outgunning Mason Rudolph this past Nov. 4 behind a school-record 598 passing yards. Oklahoma lost just one time in the 2017 regular season, twice shoving around the league’s stingiest D, TCU, including in the Dec. 2 revival of the Big 12 Championship Game. That second rout of the Horned Frogs padlocked a coveted playoff berth opposite Georgia in the Rose Bowl.
In Pasadena, Mayfield & Co. rang up 48 points on a stingy Bulldog defense that had yielded just 13.2 points per game in the regular season. Still, it wasn’t enough in a painful 54-48 overtime loss that ended the quarterback’s brilliant college career.
“That kid is a relentless competitor,” says Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker. “From a coach’s perspective, he’s a nightmare to prepare for, and I really believe that he’s going to be very successful at the NFL level.”
When the final numbers were tallied, Mayfield did what Mayfield always does in his college farewell. He completed 285-of-404 attempts for 4,627 yards, 43 touchdowns and only six picks. The yards and TD passes ranked second nationally, while he set the NCAA single-season passing efficiency record … for a second straight year. However, as is often the case with players like Mayfield, his impact to the game and to his campus reaches far beyond a box score or a record book.
From two-time walk-on to college football’s peak, Mayfield is proof that anything is attainable when the cries of critics can be transformed into motivational tools. With a heart as big as his swagger, Mayfield has always been wired to overcome all challenges that cross his path. And that, as much as his records, titles and unforgettable collection of footage, will be the lasting legacy for the next generation of young athletes with big dreams and humble beginnings.
Rich Cirminiello is the Director of College Awards for the Maxwell Football Club, and someone who revels in the opportunity to tell each award winner’s unique story.
Winner: The Maxwell Award – University of Oklahoma