Spencer Rattler, Sam Ehlinger and a tale of two Big 12 QB season openers

    Bill Connelly is a staff writer for ESPN.com.

First, a flashback to the most impressive throw I’ve ever seen in person. It came in a spring game — the 2009 Missouri spring game, to be exact.

Blaine Gabbert, the home-state, five-star QB, was prepping to become the starter. On one play in the scrimmage, the sophomore-to-be rolled left, couldn’t find anyone open and attempted to throw the ball away. Only it didn’t go out of bounds. He flicked his wrist and threw it approximately 115 yards beyond even the deepest receiver.

My memory exaggerates, so maybe it was only about 90 yards. Still, the way the ball left his hand was different. And it’s the play I think of anytime you hear a scout say the words “arm talent.” It’s a pretentious phrase, but it’s real. Massive arm talent isn’t required to become a great quarterback, and having it doesn’t make you great. (Case in point: Gabbert himself, whose Mizzou career was perfectly solid and whose pro career has been … not as solid.) Still, you know it when you see it, though.

If you saw Oklahoma’s 48-0 romp over Missouri State, you saw that arm talent basically every time Spencer Rattler threw the football. A few examples:

  • That’s 52 easy yards from release to catch, almost off of his back foot. It looked as if the defensive back, assuming the ball couldn’t possibly go any farther, cut in to break it up only to watch it go over his head. The ball was so pretty that I said, “Oooooooh” out loud on my sofa before I knew if there was a receiver waiting on the end of the pass. And then there he was.

  • Forty-seven yards on a rope after an almost casual throwing motion.

  • Forty-one yards downfield and into a tight sideline window.

In just one half of action, Rattler went 14-for-17 for 290 yards and four touchdowns. Two of his three incompletions were on the money but were dropped. He threw short passes with finesse, and long passes with staggering accuracy and just the right arc. I’m not here to proclaim that he’s going to be better than all of the recent, ridiculous lineage of OU quarterbacks — Sam Bradford, Landry Jones, Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, Jalen Hurts — and I’m not going to predict multiple Heismans. But when it comes to pure arm talent, this is about the most we’ve seen from a Sooners QB.

Rattler versus recent Sooners greats

Rattler wasn’t perfect, of course. He scrambled into trouble a couple of times, and one of those aforementioned drops came when a receiver couldn’t handle an absolute missile at short distance. But as far as debuts go, it’s hard to ask for much more.

Out of curiosity, I wanted to compare his debut to that of other recent Sooners starters. Here are the first starts for all recent OU starters since 1999, when the Sooners and the Air Raid offense first began dating exclusively.

  • (1999) Josh Heupel vs. Indiana State: 31-for-40 for 341 yards, five TDs and one INT (185.4 passer rating)

  • (2001) Nate Hybl vs. North Carolina: 20-for-29 for 152 yards, no TDs and one INT (106.1)

  • (2003) Jason White vs. North Texas: 23-for-35 for 248 yards, three TDs and one INT (147.8)

  • (2005) Rhett Bomar vs. Tulsa: 5-for-13 for 42 yards, no TDs and two INTs (34.8)

  • (2006) Paul Thompson vs. UAB: 14-for-24 for 227 yards, two TDs and two INTs (148.6)

  • (2007) Sam Bradford vs. North Texas: 21-for-23 for 363 yards, three TDs and no INTs (266.9)

  • (2009) Landry Jones vs. Idaho State: 18-for-32 for 286 yards, three TDs and one INT (156.0)

  • (2013) Trevor Knight vs. ULM: 11-for-28 for 86 yards, three TDs and one INT (93.3)

  • (2013) Blake Bell vs. Tulsa: 27-for-37 for 413 yards, four TDs and no INTs (202.4)

  • (2015) Baker Mayfield vs. Akron: 23-for-33 for 388 yards, three TDs and no INTs (198.5)

  • (2018) Kyler Murray vs. FAU: 9-for-11 for 209 yards, two TDs and no INTs (301.4)

  • (2019) Jalen Hurts vs. Houston: 20-for-23 for 332 yards, three TDs and no INTs (251.3)

  • (2020) Spencer Rattler vs. Missouri State: 14-for-17 for 290 yards, four TDs and no INTs (303.3)

Based on passer rating, the top five debuts were Rattler, Murray, Bradford, Hurts and the Belldozer, Blake. Adjust for opponent, and Murray and Hurts probably jump ahead of the rest, followed by Rattler and Bradford. Regardless, Rattler’s performance holds up against some ferocious peers.

Now all he has to do is the same thing over and over and over again.

Granted, the Big 12 didn’t exactly cover itself in glory on Saturday. It went 0-3 against the Sun Belt. Texas Tech tried really hard to lose to Houston Baptist, an FCS team, and aside from OU and Texas, only West Virginia managed to rise in the SP+ rankings this week. (Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State and Tech fell by an average of nine spots.) But if nothing else, a variety of defensive attacks awaits Rattler in conference play.

• Even if Kansas State can’t quite shore up the weaknesses exposed by Arkansas State — ASU’s Logan Bonner and Layne Hatcher combined to go 23-for-36 for 265 yards, four touchdowns and one pick, and the Red Wolves averaged 6.9 yards per play overall — by Sept. 26 and a battle with Oklahoma, a trip to Iowa State awaits Oct. 3. Though the Cyclones’ offense was awfully shaky in Saturday’s loss to Louisiana, the defense was fine until late, and navigating defensive coordinator Jon Heacock’s tricky 3-3-5 is a learning experience for a lot of young QBs.

• After ISU comes the Red River Rivalry, and Texas has both a new defensive coordinator (Chris Ash) and all the experience in the secondary it didn’t have a year ago. The Horns held UTEP to three points and 3.2 yards per play Saturday, but that’s obviously not saying much.

• We don’t yet know what late-season opponents such as WVU or Baylor will have to offer, but post-Red River there are still a couple of solid tests. First, OU plays at TCU on Oct. 24. Then on Nov. 21, Oklahoma State comes to town. Both opponents have serious levels of experience and physicality in their safety corps, and both could make life hard for what is still a pretty new OU receiving corps.

• If all goes well, then after those tests will come a rematch against Texas or whichever team is good enough to get past the Horns in the standings.

Losing the Tennessee nonconference game to reshuffling because of the coronavirus pandemic meant losing the single-biggest defensive obstacle on the schedule, but there are always lessons to learn. We’ll see how many mistakes Rattler can either avoid or make the smallest possible number of times moving forward.

Another Big 12 blueblood had a key debut of sorts

Not to be outdone, Texas’ Sam Ehlinger has all the experience Rattler lacks. He threw his first collegiate pass more than three years ago and has 9,300 passing yards, 73 passing TDs and another 25 rushing TDs. If he wanted to take advantage of the “everybody gets a free year of eligibility” rule and return in 2021 — and my guess is that he won’t — he could theoretically finish his career with something in the neighborhood of 16,000-17,000 passing yards.

(If you’re wondering, Houston’s Case Keenum is the all-time yardage leader at 19,217, but Hawaii’s second-place Timmy Chang, at 17,072 could be catchable in this scenario.)

In an attempt to catch up to annual Big 12 champion OU, however, Texas head coach Tom Herman brought in a new offensive coordinator, former Oklahoma State OC and Ohio State passing game coordinator Mike Yurcich.

At both OSUs, Yurcich’s system proved devastating in stretching the field vertically. Ehlinger is an efficiency machine. He’s a burly runner, and his quick passes to Devin Duvernay on the perimeter last year basically served as a second running game for racking up a high success rate. His deep ball, however, could improve. Of his passes thrown at least 20 yards downfield in 2019, he completed only 38% at 36.1 yards per completion with a 3.9% interception rate. Those aren’t terrible, but compare them to a couple of recent Yurcich proteges:

  • Ohio State’s Justin Fields on passes thrown 20-plus yards downfield in 2019: 44% completion rate, 34.3 yards per completion, 1.7% INT rate

  • Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph, 2015-17: 44% completion rate, 41.1 yards per completion, 3.0% INT rate

    Fields was almost mistake-free on downfield passes last year, and Rudolph was one of the most explosive passers in recent memory. If Ehlinger can become more like them and less like 2018 Cowboys starter Taylor Cornelius (38%, 33.8 yards per completion, 6.0% INT rate), the Texas offense might have another gear.

    Against UTEP on Saturday, Ehlinger wasn’t asked to wing the ball deep downfield all that often, but the intermediate passing was good. We saw other benefits of the Yurcich spread. With Texas receivers stretched the field both horizontally and vertically, stressing overwhelmed Miners defensive backs into mistakes and huge catch-and-run situations, like this one to Joshua Moore on the opening play of the game.

    UTEP is only a step or two above Missouri State, so we can’t draw much from this performance. But if we’re crediting Rattler for how he looked against overwhelmed defenses, we have to do the same for Ehlinger because a stat line of 25-for-33 for 426 yards (17 yards per completion!) and five touchdowns in a 59-3 win is pretty solid.

    Special teams: On full display

    Louisiana bought time for its struggling offense with not one but two return scores against Iowa State, then put away a surprisingly easy win when the offense came to life late. Texas State battled back from a huge deficit against UTSA and tied the score late in regulation with a thrilling punt return score. But the Bobcats fell short when they missed the go-ahead PAT, then pushed a chip-shot field goal attempt wide in overtime. Florida State blocked two Georgia Tech field goal attempts to stay ahead longer than it should have. (Tech eventually eased ahead and won.) Arkansas State has had punts blocked in each of its first two games.

    This was as wild a special-teams weekend as we’ve seen. The numbers bear that out. Let’s compare this season’s first two weeks, which featured just 29 total FBS games, with last year’s, which featured over 150.

    • Field goals attempts blocked: 7 in 2019 (1.8% of all field goal attempts), 5 in 2020 (6.8%)

    • Return touchdowns: 7 in 2019 (0.3% of all kickoffs and punts), 4 in 2020 (2.4%)

    • Field goal attempt success rate: 74% in 2019 (average length: 36.0), 66% in 2020 (35.7)

    • PAT success rate: 97.9% in 2019, 95.5% in 2020

    • Punts blocked: 7 in 2019 (0.6% of all punts), 3 in 2020 (1.5%)

    We’re seeing a percentage of nearly four times as many blocked field goal attempts — and kicks returned for scores is almost eight times higher. Kickers are missing far more despite field goal attempts of around the same average length.

    Because of the drastically altered practice schedule, positive tests and quarantines, we knew coaching staffs has less time time to implement their systems. But it’s clear that altered special-teams practice has had a massive effect. It also seems that while offenses and defenses might be able to handle unexpected shuffling, plugging in new guys on coverage units or PAT protection could result in a lot more botched blocks and tackles.

    College football’s collective special teams units are rusty, and I would assume that rights itself over time. But It’s easy to wonder just how many more games will be directly impacted by these miscues.

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