NORMAN, Okla. — Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said he would prefer to name a starting quarterback during the Sooners’ fall camp, but isn’t guaranteeing that’ll happen.
“You get a lot more accurate snapshot of where these guys are really at, as camp unfolds,” Riley said during Oklahoma’s media day Friday. “I would prefer to [name a starter during camp] because then you’re able to get it out of the way, you’re able to start to focus your reps in on the starter and the team knows — everybody knows — and you can move on.”
While grad transfer and former Alabama starter Jalen Hurts is the overwhelming favorite to win the job before the Sooners host Houston on Sept. 1 (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC), he and redshirt freshman Tanner Mordecai will enter camp competing with newly arrived true freshman Spencer Rattler.
Riley said that while he was fortunate enough to name his last two starters — Heisman winners Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield — before the conclusion of fall camp, he said he’s in wait-and-see mode now.
Riley said he still needs to see one of his quarterbacks take command of the offense, the offensive players and the team as a whole better. He needs more consistent productivity during camp, his quarterbacks taking care of the football and for them play the position “a way that we expect it to be played here.”
He’ll rely on practice statistics somewhat, but Riley will make his quarterback decision based more on “feel” than anything.
“It’s one of those things that when you know, you know,” Riley said. “We evaluate stats, but it’s off a feel. It’s more than just the numbers. It’s the feel of the guy that’s gonna not only produce and play the best but also lead the best, as well.
“I’m not super experienced, but I’m experienced enough to know I’m darn sure not nailing it down right now. We’ll see how it unfolds.”
Rattler is a little bit of wildcard in all this, considering he wasn’t on campus for spring ball. Rattler, the nation’s No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in the 2019 class, will have every opportunity to earn reps to compete for the starting job this month.
“We’re not just gonna throw a true freshman in there just because. But we are going to give him enough reps to see if he’s ready to factor in this thing right now. If he is, we’ll adjust, and if he’s not, then we’ll adjust. You want to have reps with the big boys and you want a big chunk of reps, then come out here and prove it.”
Players have been impressed with how Hurts and Mordecai went through spring and summer workouts. Receivers CeeDee Lamb and Nick Basquine said that they weren’t sure if either quarterback was ahead of the other right now, but that they both give the Sooners a chance to repeat as Big 12 champions and as College Football Playoff participants.
“They all have that fight,” Lamb said. “They all play with a chip on their shoulder. The guys are very mature in the backfield, which you love to see as a receiver. They constantly want to better themselves, better each other. That’s all you can ask for in a quarterback.”
Hurts arrived in Norman this spring after backing up Tua Tagovailoa in Alabama’s 44-16 loss to Clemson in the national championship. He was benched for Tagovailoa before the 2018 season, but finished his Alabama career with a 26-2 mark as the Tide’s starter from 2016-17.
Hurts owns the Alabama quarterback career record with 23 rushing touchdowns and ranks second in school history among quarterbacks with 1,976 career rushing yards and 71 touchdowns responsible for. He’s also third in Alabama history with 7,602 yards of total offense and 48 touchdown passes.
When asked what he needed to do to win Oklahoma’s starting quarterback job, Hurts simply said, “That’s a question for coach Riley.”
“I came in here with the intentions of being the best version of myself and earning respect of my teammates,” Hurts said. “They’ve accepted me and they look at me as their leader. It’s just a well-respected relationship between me and those guys. I try to go out there and set the right example, I try to lead the right way. You can’t be a hypocrite. I have to set a right example if I’m going to be leading those guys and trying to demand excellence out of them.”
It’s clear that Hurts’ natural playmaking ability has caught the eyes of his teammates. Lamb and Basquine both lauded Hurts’ scrambling ability and praised his passing skills, which were often criticized during his time at Alabama.
“The man can throw the ball more than people can even imagine,” Lamb said. “I can’t wait for people to see that and the opportunity he gets, he’s going to take advantage of it. It’s going to be a fun ride.
“He has all the tools.”
Still, Mordecai isn’t backing down from the battle with Hurts, and his own passing ability — and more familiarity with Riley’s offense — have increased the confidence his teammates have in him.
“He’s a pure passer and spins the ball pretty well,” Basquine said. “People are not talking about him and think it’s a forgone conclusion [that Hurts will be the starter], but I’ve seen crazier things happen here.”
Added Mordecai: “I’m confident in myself. I don’t really pay attention to Twitter antics and different things like that because their opinions don’t matter to me. I believe in myself and believe in the guys in that locker room.”
Regardless, Hurts will continue to be the favorite to win the job until a starter is named. And while he’s learning from his fifth different position coach in four years, Hurts isn’t concerned about having to start over again.
He thinks all the change he endured during his three years at Alabama have more than prepared him for one last quarterback battle.
“I’m stronger, I’m wiser, much more mature,” he said. “I’ve seen it all. … I don’t think it ain’t nothing I can’t handle.
“It’s the same approach. They say different animal, same beast. I’m on a different team with the same goals.”