NORMAN, Okla. — Looking at the careers of Jason White and Sam Bradford before him in this era of Oklahoma passing, it would be natural to immediately roll your eyes and suspect that Landry Jones is just the next system quarterback in the Sooners’ machine.
But consider that Jones moved past those recent Heisman Trophy winners this fall to become the all-time leading passer at OU. Granted, a school that built its national prowess on the backs of the wishbone did not begin throwing — and throwing and throwing — until Bob Stoops and Mike Leach’s arrival at the turn of the millennium. It’s not as if White and Bradford were chumps, though.
Knee issues prevented White from ever shining on the professional stage. Bradford, the top pick in 2010, is grinding through his second season with the understaffed St. Louis Rams.
As for Jones?
Most analysts see him as a top-five-type pick. Fox Sports has him going a little lower, sixth, to the Redskins. He’s the third quarterback behind Stanford’s Andrew Luck and Southern Cal’s Matt Barkley. He’s even higher, fourth, on Mel Kiper’s famed “Big Board.” Kiper’s ESPN co-hort, Todd McShay, likewise has Jones fourth.
Still, some aren’t sold. Two regional scouts recently told a Houston sports talk radio host that Jones should return for his senior season.
But, really, these are mere forecasts that can change greatly in the coming months. A lot will be determined by how Jones fares in the combine and in workouts leading up to the April draft.
Of course, this is presuming he even comes out. Jones has told friends on and near the team it is no guarantee he will declare after the season. One thing to consider is that Jones’ fiancee, Whitney Hand, is the point guard for the women’s basketball team. Hand has another year of eligibility beyond this season.
If he is available in 2012, teams will have plenty of video on the guy. In 36 career games, Jones has attempted 1,510 passes — for a jaw-flooring 11,712 yards and 92 touchdowns — in a wide-open offense that’s now coordinated by former OU quarterback Josh Heupel.
Jones has been fortunate to play all three years with All-America receiver Ryan Broyles, the NCAA’s all-time leader in receptions. Well, almost three full years. Broyles went down Nov. 5 with a knee injury that ended his decorated college stay.
NFL scouts who considered Broyles as something of a safety net will now see it removed for (potentially) Jones’ final handful of games, including the Dec. 3 showdown at Oklahoma State.
“He’s thrown to more than just Ryan, and thrown it well,” Stoops said last week. “I just feel he’ll need to adjust to different people in that position. I’ve got confidence in his accuracy and decision-making that he’ll continue to do well.”
If Jones throws for big yardage and touchdown numbers the rest of the way, and especially in the Bedlam rivalry game, there’s a chance he could be a Heisman finalist — again following in White and Bradford’s footsteps.
Looking for a dual threat? Jones is not your guy. He’s big, 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, but he looks like a wounded animal when he runs. Peyton Manning is more equipped to scramble than Jones. What he does well, though, is avoid pressure in the pocket. His mobility is exhibited in that 5-foot bubble. He’ll step forward and position himself well for downfield throws, more often than not.
Jones has terrific awareness of pressure. He has been sacked five times all season, despite 444 attempts. If anything, Jones gets rid of the ball too fast at times, giving up on plays before they have had a chance to fully develop. Most of the time, though, his internal clock is clicking at just the right speed. That pre-emptive throwaway beats an 8-yard loss, every time.
Jones’ arm is above average, but not best-you’ve-ever-seen good. He very rarely underthrows deep routes. He hits the open receiver in the middle of the field well. He has the arm strength to throw the 15-yard out. He’s improved all throws since being thrust into the starting role in 2009, when Bradford went down with a shoulder injury.
“He’s just more sure of himself, confident in himself,” said Stoops, comparing Jones then and now. “The ball comes out quicker. He’s just bigger and stronger, so the ball has more velocity, too. Those deep seam routes, the out routes, those kinds of things. I think you see all those get out there a little sharper now.”
Note, though, that Jones does not possess Luck’s accuracy. So few do; that’s why Luck is a cinch for the top spot. Jones can make all the throws, but he doesn’t always make all the throws. He lets go no fewer than two passes a game that cause everyone in the stadium to scratch their heads and murmur unpleasantries. If the other team doesn’t catch those errant passes, consider yourself fortunate.
One other thing Jones has going for him, and it’s important to the position, is character. He often draws from his entrenched faith that’s grown during his college years, fueled by a spring 2011 mission trip to Haiti. Jones has the respect of his teammates, on and off the field. He’s not a rah-rah type of leader — he’s rarely, if ever, emotional — but he is not the guy you’ll have to worry about causing locker-room upheaval.
Is he a starting quarterback in the NFL? Probably. Is he a guy to save your franchise? Doubtful. Drafting Jones will additionally require a sturdy line and playmakers to regularly get open and run after the catch. He can help make a team into a championship contender, but not on his own.
Travis Haney covers University of Oklahoma football for the Oklahoman. Follow his work at newsok.com/sports/ou and blog.newsok.com/ou, as well as @TravHaney on Twitter.