Big 12 coaches face uncertainty in goal to build on QB depth

Oklahoma has benefited from transfer quarterbacks, but also has had QBs leave in recent years. Randy Sartin/USA TODAY Sports

Oklahoma’s College Football Playoff chances were on the brink of extinction. Baylor had an Allstate Sugar Bowl berth on the line. TCU had a chance to get back into the Big 12 title race and Oklahoma State was hosting a de facto Big 12 title game.

And all four faced those situations without their starting quarterbacks.

Oklahoma relied on Trevor Knight to hang on to a 30-29 November victory over TCU. The Bears spent the majority of their season finale against Texas with receiver Lynx Hawthorne behind center. TCU faced Oklahoma with backup quarterbacks Foster Sawyer and Bram Kohlhausen running the offense. Oklahoma State turned to J.W. Walsh in its Bedlam battle with Oklahoma after a foot injury to Mason Rudolph.

In other words, backup quarterbacks helped decide the Big 12 championship. That isn’t a new development. Since TCU and West Virginia joined the conference in 2012, 47 quarterbacks have started games, with every program having at least four different starters during the past four seasons. TCU’s Trevone Boykin had the most starts during this span with 38.

The need for a quality No. 2 quarterback creates a problem that seems unanswerable for coaches across the conference, and college football. Every team needs a backup quarterback who can step in with minimal drop-off. Yet if a quarterback has those qualities, why would they stay around after coming up short in their pursuit of a starting job?

“That’s probably one of the most challenging situations for college coaches today,” Kansas coach David Beaty said. “You’re trying to find ‘the guy.’ Great teams, even good teams, they have a guy at that quarterback position. If you don’t have a quarterback, it’s going to be a rough deal.”

Nearly every program in the Big 12 has a quarterback who was unwilling to wait for his chance and decided to leave for greener pastures. Oklahoma, for example, has seen three quarterbacks (Justice Hansen, Kendall Thompson, Trevor Knight) transfer out and two (Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray) transfer in during the past four seasons. Developing multiple quarterbacks has become increasingly difficult.

“How you recruit, how you evaluate, the plans you have to have each year -- all of that has changed,” said Oklahoma offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, who started his career at Texas Tech under Mike Leach. “Quarterbacks don’t wait around anymore. At Tech we had four or five fifth-year seniors in a row. That’s not happening these days. You better adapt or you’re going to get caught.”

Hansen and former Texas signee Connor Brewer, both ESPN 300 signees, are examples of elite quarterback signees who transferred before their careers even got off the ground. Knight and Texas Tech’s Davis Webb represent guys who had brilliant moments early in college before ending up in a backup role and electing to finish their journey at Texas A&M and Colorado, respectively, as graduate transfers.

“It’s really scary because we all know you can go from having a guy that’s a really good college quarterback [who gets injured],” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said. “And you’ve put in 365 days of work [developing] one guy [then he] transfers and the other guy isn’t ready to play. All of a sudden, you’re not a very good team.”

What’s the answer to the dilemma?

“If anybody knows what the answer is, we'd better share that information,” Gundy said.

That creates the most challenging part of program management. A roster with quality quarterback depth is becoming a fallacy, outside of a few outliers. Some coaches hope to create an environment that makes their quarterbacks want to stick it out. Others have a mindset to simply prepare for the best and expect the worst.

“It’s who you recruit, the mentality of the person you recruit, it’s being honest during the recruiting process and having a culture in place where if you’re not the guy, the first answer isn’t, ‘I’m going to go somewhere else,’” Iowa State coach Matt Campbell said. “You hope your culture is one that ‘If I’m not the guy, I’m preparing to be the guy’ and if you’re not the guy, here’s what you can do to be the guy. [Because] they can be in in one snap and be defining in the season you have.”

Resigned to the trend, Big 12 coaches are simply using honesty alongside a challenge to compete to keep wandering eyes from turning into a life-changing decision.

“Getting guys to stay there and develop is not always the easiest thing to get done,” Beaty said. “As long as those guys know it’s an open competition and they’ve been given a fair shot at it, [that’s the best scenario]. We talk to the all the time about dealing in reality, ‘Listen, you know what’s fair. You know what your production has been [compared to] other guys.’ We try to communicate so well that we create an environment where they want to stay.”

Communication and competition only go so far. Nobody can expect patience to become the norm again. Realistically, time will tell if an answer to this quarterback quandary emerges. But bringing in several quality players at the position and sorting everything else out when problems arise is as good a bet as any for now. A program with too many good quarterbacks is a good problem to have, even if it leads to departures.

“We’ve had this discussion,” said Gundy, who expects the problem to start bleeding into other positions sooner or later. “The only thing you can do is continue to bring a quality player in every year and have in the back of your head, if you’re fortunate enough to hit on one, [to] know one or two of them will want to leave.”

“You can’t plan the other way. If they leave, that means they can play somewhere else, but if you have a bunch of guys that can’t go anywhere else, they’re probably not good enough to play [anyway].”