By Wendell Barnhouse | firstname.lastname@example.org
DALLAS - For the past eight months, as we waited for college football to move from last season to this season, the talk about the Big 12 Conference centered on quarterbacks. Specifically, there were too many schools that were uncertain about the player who would be running the offense.
Baker Mayfield was not in any of those conversations. He arrived in Lubbock in mid-July, a walk on hoping for reps in practice. Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech’s new coach, had first noticed Mayfield when he was a sophomore at Austin Lake Travis High School.
Friday night against SMU, in a game televised by ESPN, Mayfield became the first freshman to ever start a season opener for the Red Raiders. History wasn’t enough for Mayfield. He led Texas Tech to a 41-23 victory, throwing for 413 yards and four touchdowns.
“He’s got as much confidence as any quarterback I’ve ever seen,” Texas Tech junior tight end Jace Amaro said. “He gets the ball out quick to the receivers. He takes control of the huddle. He’s gonna be a great quarterback.”
Mayfield, who because of team policy is not allowed to talk to the media, completed 43 of 60 attempts and was also the Red Raiders’ leading rusher with 31 yards on 12 carries. He set a school record for most completions in a debut. And he is believed to be the first walk-on true freshman quarterback to start a season opener for a BCS school.
“He showed up and started running the seven on seven drills we have after practice, he started at the bottom,” Kingsbury said. “He impressed there, moved up to (second string). He impressed there, moved up to the ones. He had some scholarship offers but he fell through the cracks.
“I haven’t been around many kids with a bigger chip on their shoulder. That’s gonna keep him grounded.”
Sophomore Michael Brewer (also a Lake Travis product) was Texas Tech’s “oldest” QB but he had never started a game. Freshman Davis Webb enrolled early and participated in spring practice. When Brewer missed the last two weeks with a back injury, the starting job came down to a scholarship quarterback (Webb) or a walk on (Mayfield).
The decision was made Thursday. "He just smiled and said, 'Let's do it,'" Kingsbury said.
As a junior, Mayfield led Lake Travis to a 16-0 record and the Texas Class 4A state championship. SMU’s Garrett Gilbert, the former Texas quarterback, also played at Lake Travis, leading the school to two state titles.
"Quite honestly, I kept looking for a mistake from a true freshman and he didn't make one," Gilbert said of Mayfield. "He played outstanding. It's hard to find the words for it."
Gilbert completed 41 of 62 for 388 yards but was sacked five times; the Red Raiders had 19 sacks last season. Texas Tech defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt’s defensive schemes helped the Red Raiders disguise their blitzes and coverages.
“We’re flying around a lot more out there and it’s fun,” senior linebacker Will Smith said. “It was good to share the wealth as far as sacks. We’re moving around a lot and I think we were confusing them with our looks.”
While Kingsbury was making his head coaching debut playing an unknown rookie quarterback, this game matched rivals from the old Southwest Conference. SMU urged a “white out” for its fans and the game was the first advance sellout in school history. But Red Raiders fans made up at least half of the 34,790 in attendance and Texas Tech beat the Mustangs for the 15th consecutive time.
It wasn’t until 5:24 remained in the second quarter that the first touchdown was scored. Mayfield found junior Jordan Davis (a former walk on) across the middle for a 33-yard touchdown. Texas Tech led at halftime 13-9 but the second half was Mayfield’s show as he directed four touchdown drives.
“He did a great job and managed the game, he seized the moment,” said Bradley Marquez, who had six receptions including a 10-yard touchdown pass. “When he showed up, he had his mind made up he was gonna compete for the job.
“Baker saw I had single coverage and he (audibled) and threw me open. He’s not scared to change the play.”
“That’s the biggest difference this year with the offense,” said Amaro, who had to sit out the first half because of a fighting suspension from the bowl game. “Last year we’d keep the play on no matter what the coverage.”
Mayfield was far from perfect. Three times he threw into coverage that probably should have resulted in interceptions. He twice recovered his own fumbles. When the Red Raiders were first and goal at the 2-yard line, he audibled to a play that resulted in a nine-yard loss.
"He made up some check at the line that we don’t have, so they ran into each other," Kingsbury said.
On the next play, Mayfield put the Red Raiders up 27-16 with a nifty/shifty 11-yard touchdown run.
“He keeps attacking, that’s what fun about him,” said Kingsbury who last year as Texas A&M’s offensive coordinator coached the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy.
And about that scholarship? Kingsbury said Mayfield has earned a free ride.
“We’re gonna have to work through that, see what the numbers are and figure it out,” Kingsbury said. “We didn’t envision this when he came on campus.”