As I watched Blake Bell disintegrate over the span from the Texas game going forward, a thought kept coming to me. "Josh Heupel is supposed to be one of the best quarterback coaches in college football. Why hasn't Blake Bell made more progress than this?"
Don't get me wrong, I expected some growing pains. However, I did not expect a quarterback sapped of all of his fire and confidence, a quarterback who missed open receivers and made terrible decisions. When the answer finally came to me watching the Baylor beatdown. And it was almost too infuriating to mention.
But to understand the real meaning of this conclusion, you have to go back to the 2009 season. You have to realize how it is that this issue has stayed hidden for so long and you have to apologize to the scapegoat who took the beating he didn't deserve.
When Sam Bradford went down for the year and redshirt freshman Landry Jones was thrown to the wolves, OU fans were understandably frustrated by the many mistakes from Jones that followed. But the backup of a guy like Bradford just doesn't expect to see the field except in rare blowouts. Spare me the platitudes about how you're always just "one snap away" because the backup of a Heisman winning QB is never just one snap away. It's more like a chasm between you and controlling the team. You're backing up a guy who is going to be spoken about with a reverence bordering on that reserved for a religious figure who borders on deity. And you're up next.
It's worth mentioning at this point that this is also the time that we recruited a five-star quarterback in the class of 2010 from Kansas named Blake Bell. Bell had only played quarterback since his junior year, but his stats and level of play were above what you'd expect from a guy having spent so little time at the position. He was immensely gifted, but he was also incredibly raw as a prospect. Almost every evaluation of Bell noted that he would need a great deal of coaching and work to have the polish necessary to be a D-1 quarterback. Bell's first year as in Norman would be Josh Heupel's last year solely as the quarterbacks coach.
We all watched Landry struggle in 2009, but the "rationals"* among us understood that expecting Landry to be ready to win ten games, in that kind of a situation, was unfair. We knew that we were paying 2010's come-uppance a year in advance. We also knew that we had a secret weapon: we had Josh Heupel there to coach Landry up. We had a guy coaching quarterbacks whose physical limitations were rarely evident due to his preternatural understanding of the game and as a former quarterback himself.
(*To clarify, the "rationals" is a term coined by Scipio Tex at Barking Carnival to refer to the fans of a college team who don't jump on every trend or hot player, who don't scream "Fire Bob/Mack/Muschamp/Richt" at every bad turn. Rationals understand that bad things happen in a violent sport played by young men who are still a decade away from emotional, psychological, and physical maturity, and you have precious little influence over those bad things and young men. Where this differs from your average beat reporter is that modern media has confused apathy for objectivity.)
In 2010, patience was rewarded. As expected Heupel had indeed coached Landry up. His reads were better, his footwork and pocket presence were significantly improved, and his throws were more accurate. He still had some bad moments, but the positive change was undeniable. Landry was on the sharp upward trend of a learning curve that OU had seen Heupel manage with Paul Thompson and Sam Bradford before him. Based upon the previous years of improvement we'd seen Heupel manage, there was good reason to believe that he could smooth out some of Landry's rough edges. Even during this season, we'd see Landry come off the field shaky, and there would be Heupel to talk him through the confusion and panic. When Landry retook the field, he seemed to be more collected. Most importantly, Landry was never the sole or even primary cause of an OU loss in 2010. Unfortunately this trend, like others, would not continue.
After Josh Heupel took the reins of the OU offense in 2011 following the departure of Kevin Wilson, we all knew a return to the top was just over the horizon. Despite Heupel's relative youth to the position of major program offensive coordinator and play-caller, we all remembered 2000 when Heupel just seemed to be a step ahead of everyone else on the field. If he was like that as a 'coach on the field' type player, imagine what he could do with the whole offense!
Unfortunately, Landry seemed to be almost exactly the same player he was the year before. He had the same happy feet in the pocket and he still lacked poise under pressure. This time those conversations on the sideline with Heupel weren't happening, because Heupel was up in the booth calling plays.
Then, in Bedlam, Landry was the actual primary cause of an OU loss. When we went into Stillwater to face the best team OSU had ever fielded, Landry just absolutely collapsed. The entire game plan was put on him and he simply collapsed under the weight of that pressure. There were even a few errors (like the fumble-throw) that were just inexcusable for a guy with this much game experience.
What's worse is that the OU defense was taking steps backwards. We were giving up 600 yards of offense to Baylor, 570 yards of offense to Texas Tech (under Tuberville), and just a hair under 500 to Oklahoma State. So instead of looking at the issues with the quarterback, we realized, correctly, that the failures on defense were a bigger problem. Out went Brent Venables, in came Mike Stoops. One is an aberration, two is a coincidence, but three is a pattern.
During the 2012 offseason, Landry Jones went to George Whitfield for help on developing his game. Whitfield said of Landry:
[A]s a passer, he would arm the ball. There were times [in 2011] he’d arm the ball. He’d be in a situation and you could play on the film, energy-wise, most of this ball’s energy came from his throwing arm. That’s not very efficient, and it’s going to impede you after awhile. He told me his throwing arm would be really fatigued, almost dead. So we needed to transfer some of that functionality and that energy to his lower body and to his core. And now his throwing arm, the power in his throwing arm is more of an asset. You get caught in certain situations, you have to arm what you can. But everything else, use your leverage.
When we read these words from Whitfield, we all thought them to be comforting. "Good. There's a cause. And there's hope for this to be fixed." There's just one problem. Why wasn't Josh Heupel teaching this? Why was this a revelation? Why is Landry, in his THIRD year as a starting QB, and his throwing mechanics are still a problem? Throwing from the lower body is taught at the high school level and below.
As 2012 went on, Landry was still fundamentally the exact same player he was in 2010 and 2011. You may think I'm kidding, but go look at his stat line. The numbers are nearly identical over 2010, 2011, and 2012. If you shuffled them and asked even any educated OU fan to tell you which stat line matched which season, I'd bet less than a quarter of them would get it right.
Of course, we had a very different problem in 2012. We couldn't run the football on anyone with a better than mediocre defense. So every game was now the 2011 Bedlam game. If Landry couldn't make miracles happen, then they weren't happening at all. We played four good defenses that year: KSU, Notre Dame, TCU, and Texas A&M. We only got above 20 points once in those four games and that one was because TCU's offense was painfully inept.
Then 2013 rolls around and Trevor Knight wins the starting job. At this point, it was clear that something had gone wildly wrong in Bell's coaching. We just didn't realize it yet. Maybe Stoops had a jones'ing for the Johnny Football style of offense that had just waxed his squad in Arlington. Maybe the spring game was entirely misleading because everyone of note had the quarterback competition as a two-horse race at that point: Bell had a slight lead, Kendal Thompson wasn't too far behind. Then Thompson hurts his foot, and Knight is named QB1. We should have known right here that something was terribly wrong with our quarterback coaching.
Once Trevor Knight started throwing the ball, that delusion was stripped from us. Johnny Manziel completed at least 70% of his passes his first year and he did better against weaker teams. So we weren't running the Johnny Football offense. Knight went down early and then the coaches gave Bell his shot. Again, we should have known something was wrong when Bell was only asked to throw a single pass.
Eventually Bell had to throw it against a Texas defense with something better than Tulsa's tackling dummies for a secondary, the "Bench Bell" train started pulling out of the station and gaining steam. With Thompson riding pine, the only assumption we have left is that the quarterback position at OU is a dumpster fire.
Before I give my obvious-by-now conclusion, I want to revisit the colossal mistake of recruiting Blake Bell. The only time you recruit a player who is that raw of a prospect is if you know, without any doubt, that he can and will get the level of focused attention necessary for him to develop D-1 level efficacy by his junior year. Otherwise, you'd do better to get a junior college transfer or a far more polished high school talent. Instead, we recruited a guy who needed an immense amount of focused coaching and we made sure to keep the guy responsible (Heupel) for giving that coaching to him busy with preparation and game planning.
In fact, look at our three players not redshirting. All three had mobility and on some level were running quarterbacks as a fundamental part of their games in high school. Bell was a Klein-bot style power runner, Knight and Thompson were Manziel-types who created passing opportunities with their speed and athleticism. That means in order to hit the tight windows afforded in college football, they would all need a great deal of coaching on passing technique, footwork, and making reads against complex defenses. The alternative would be to put them in a "streetball" offense like Texas A&M's and just cut them loose.
Neither of those things has happened to this point and we're witnessing how big of a problem that has created.
Josh Heupel isn't effective as both an offensive coordinator AND a quarterbacks coach. What's worse is that Heupel's own style of play proved that elite quarterback thinking can make up for relatively limited physical ability. It's far more important at this point that our quarterbacks start making significant strides and that starts with their position coach doing his job.
We owe Landry Jones an apology. While a number of media pundits thought that the apology would be for not appreciating his performance while he was here, they were only skimming the surface. We owe Landry an apology because he was treated like a player getting regular coaching and teaching only that wasn't actually happening because his position coach was busy being first time offensive coordinator. Landry was pretty much hung out to dry.
Here's the conclusion: we can have Josh Heupel as the offensive coordinator, or Josh Heupel the quarterbacks coach. We can't have both. A guy this early in his career just isn't ready to call the plays for a college football program that is among the greatest in the sport's history AND spend the level of time and effort necessary to coach up quarterbacks who need the extra attention of a dedicated position coach. There is no other position on the field more technically demanding than quarterback.
We should have seen this coming years ago. When Landry Jones' learning curve flatlined, when Trevor Knight led a zone-read offense different from anything OU had ever run, when Blake Bell fell apart against Texas...we should have seen this coming.