Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury hasn't wasted any time building up a reputation as a quarterback guru while he ascends the coaching ladder. In just six years, he's overseen the development of some of the most successful quarterbacks at the college level, including Case Keenum and Johnny Manziel.
And Kingsbury's latest project, Baker Mayfield, is off to the fastest start of them all.
In Mayfield's first-ever college game with the Red Raiders, he threw for 413 yards and four touchdowns against SMU. His second effort the following week against Stephen F. Austin wasn't too shabby, either.
In one half against the Lumberjacks, Mayfield tossed for a more modest 367 yards and three scores. The season is young, but Mayfield currently ranks third nationally in total passing yards with 780 to go along with his seven touchdowns.
That's good for any player after two games—or, one and a half, technically The fact that Mayfield is a freshman walk-on makes it all the more remarkable. Mayfield had chances to play elsewhere on scholarship, including Rice and Washington State. Instead, he chose to go to Texas Tech and first-year coach Kinsgbury.
But you'd never know Mayfield was starting his first two collegiate games by watching him play. More telling than any statistic, Mayfield hasn't looked like a freshman at all—redshirt, walk-on or otherwise. Rather, he's looked like he's been running the Red Raider offense for years.
Looks can sometimes be deceiving, but not in this case. Mayfield's confidence on the field against the Mustangs was 100 percent genuine.
“The first drive, he’s out there looking at us and cracking jokes," TTU center Jared Kaster said of Mayfield via the Dallas Morning News. "Coming from a guy like that, a walk-on that has a lot to prove to this university and this football team, he’s done a heck of a job. He knows how to get us calm, and that’s surprising for a kid like that.”
Besides, any player who knows how to Dougie is going to immediately earn the respect of their teammates, right?
Mayfield may have the charisma and leadership of a quarterback, but can Kingsbury get similar production out of Mayfield right away as he did with Keenum and Manziel?
History says yes.
Mayfield's early success may have been surprising to most, but not to his coach. Kingsbury said on the Big 12 coaches teleconference the Monday before the season opener that he would treat any quarterback, freshman or senior, the same.
He wasn't offering some version of coachspeak, either. Mayfield has 90 passing attempts so far this season. That's a lot of faith to put in a freshman.
But Kingsbury is as good at developing quarterbacks as anyone in the game right now, with a resume to back him up. Two of his former pupils are household names: Keenum holds multiple NCAA passing records and Manziel has a Heisman.
But perhaps Kingsbury's biggest accomplishment to date is the work he did with David Piland while serving as Houston's quarterback coach and co-offensive coordinator in 2010. That was the year Keenum went down with an ACL tear in the third game of the season against UCLA.
The Cougars would struggle down the stretch and finish 5-7, but Piland went on to average 330 yards a game passing in eight games, good enough to put him third nationally in that category. Like Mayfield is now, Piland was just a true freshman at the time he was thrown into starting duty one-third of the way through the year.
Piland made plenty of rookie mistakes, with four games of multiple interceptions (lowlighted by a five-pick game against Tulsa). Part of the problem was surely inexperience, but the Cougars were also trying to keep pace in multiple high-scoring games. All things considered, it was far from a bad job on Kingsbury's end.
Keenum would return to Houston for a record-setting season in 2011 as a sixth-year senior. By that point, he could have been considered an extension of the coaching staff. Still, Keenum's touchdown numbers went up, his interception numbers went down significantly and his passing efficiency rating jumped nearly 20 points from 154.8 (2009) to 174 (2011).
Kingsbury teamed up with Johnny Manziel, his most talented quarterback of all, the following year while serving as offensive coordinator under Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M. Manziel's biggest strength is his ability to scramble and play with his head on a swivel, but less recognized nationally was his efficiency as a passer.
As a redshirt freshman, Manziel finished the Aggies' 11-win season ranked 15th in the country (and fourth in the SEC) with a 155.3 passer rating. He threw for just over 3,700 yards and 26 touchdowns to just nine interceptions.
Wherever he's coached, Kingsbury has been able to produce results at the quarterback spot immediately.
So how can Kingsbury do the same with Mayfield at Texas Tech?
Unlike A&M, where the offense was more balanced between the run and the pass thanks to Manziel's scrambling ability, Tech has been a pass-first offense with a roughly 3:2 pass-run ratio. But, so far, Mayfield is a key contributor to the ground attack. Through two games, Mayfield is Tech's leading rusher with 82 yards (which may say more about Tech's running game than Mayfield).
Mayfield isn't the runner Manziel is. Then again, few quarterbacks are. But Mayfield can run well enough, especially with opposing defenses sitting back in coverage. SMU, for example, often rushed three and dropped eight to force Mayfield to make good decisions in the passing game (which he did).
Kingsbury responded with several designed quarterback runs to keep the Mustangs honest. If Mayfield runs well enough to where defenses have to put a spy on him, that's one less defender on a wide receiver or a running back.
Like any effective offense, the key for TTU is to be aggressive and force the defense to react. And so far, few Big 12 opponents have shown a consistent ability to get to the quarterback. Of course, Mayfield won't throw for 400 yards every game this season, and his interception-less streak will end sooner or later. It wouldn't be surprising if he has a bad game or two, either.
But opposing defenses are going to give up a lot of yards to him if they choose to sit back in coverage. Mayfield's on pace to throw for over 4,600 yards as it is (not that he necessarily will).
However, Kingsbury will get a much better gauge on where Mayfield really stands as a starter in Thursday's home game against TCU. The Horned Frogs got beat up in Week 1 by a much bigger and stronger LSU team and initially struggled against Southeastern Louisiana last Saturday.
This is an important game for TCU, though, and defensive end Devonte Fields should be back from suspension, if only for a half. Mayfield hasn't had to deal with much of a pass rush in the first two games. Fields could be a game-changer in that regard.
Last year, Manziel was introduced to the college football world early in a season opener against Florida. Though A&M lost 20-17, Manziel left an instant impression that only grew as the season went on. Similarly, Mayfield had a Friday night spotlight on him against SMU in Week 1. That spotlight will only get bigger Thursday if he has a big game against the Horned Frogs.
And Mayfield's trajectory, not unlike that of his coach, would start soaring upward.
Ben Kercheval is the lead writer for Big 12 football. All quotes obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise. You can follow Ben on Twitter @BenKercheval.
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