Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press
Baker Mayfield. Kyler Murray. Austin Kendall?
Oklahoma quarterbacks have won the past two Heismans, and the projected starter for next season was listed at +1000 in the Dec. 8 initial odds for the 2019 Heisman, per 247Sports. Kendall was tied with Ohio State QB Tate Martell for the eighth-best odds.
It’s never easy to be the man following one of the best players in program history. Fair or not, that man will inevitably be compared to the one who came before him, and it’s usually not a flattering comparison.
But replacing the all-time great who replaced the previous all-time great?
Now, that’s a tough act to follow.
There’s no good reason to think Kendall can’t do it, though.
For starters, whether it has been Bob Stoops or Lincoln Riley calling the shots, Oklahoma has been a great system for quarterbacks for quite some time.
Landry Jones (2009-12) never placed top 10 in a Heisman vote, but he did finish third all time in career passing yards with 16,646 of them. Josh Heupel was the Heisman runner-up during Oklahoma’s undefeated 2000 season. Jason White won it in 2003 and placed third the following year. Sam Bradford also won in 2008. Factor in Mayfield’s fifth-place finish in 2015 and third-place finish in 2016, and “Oklahoma starting QB” has placed top five in the Heisman vote in eight of the past 19 years.
To put that run in context, there are only three other schools that have had at least five top-five finishers since 2000, regardless of position: Stanford (five), Alabama (six) and USC (six). And we’re even including USC’s Reggie Bush years which the NCAA wants you to believe didn’t happen.
Each of those programs was well-represented by running backs and/or defensive players. If we reduce the search to only quarterbacks, Florida (four) and Ohio State (four) are the only schools with at least half as many top-five finishes as Oklahoma.
How much that history applies to this Sooners quarterback is unclear, but Kendall almost beat Murray for the starting job this year—provided we can believe the OU coaching staff was making honest statements and not trying to sell us a bill of goods.
Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press
Murray struggled during the spring—especially during Oklahoma’s spring game—which may have been because he was more focused on baseball season. Regardless, it seemed like Kendall had a shot at becoming the starter, right up until it was announced in late August that Murray had won the job, with Kendall as his backup.
“We looked at the whole body of work and just thought that [Murray] was slightly ahead of Austin,” Riley said when naming Murray the starter, per OU Daily.
But as CBS Sports’ Barton Simmons astutely noted in June, part of the reason Murray had the inside track for the gig was the likelihood that he would leave and shift his attention entirely to baseball if he was put in the backup role yet again. It’s one thing to risk a huge baseball contract for a starting job on a title contender, but who wants to pause their career in one sport to hold a clipboard in another?
If Murray had left the team and Kendall had suffered an injury, true freshman Tanner Mordecai would’ve been forced into the spotlight. So unless it was crystal clear that Kendall was the better man for the job, Riley almost had to go with Murray for the sake of the depth chart.
Though we’ve barely gotten a glimpse of Kendall at the collegiate level—39 pass attempts in six games over the past three years, almost all of them in garbage time—this is a guy who has been in the Oklahoma system since January 2016, backing up multiple Heisman winners and nearly beating one of them for a starting job.
It’s also a guy who was rated as the 12th-best QB in the 2016 recruiting class—one spot ahead of Jalen Hurts, for what it’s worth—thanks in large part to averaging nearly 300 passing yards and just under 4.0 combined passing and rushing touchdowns as a junior in high school, according to MaxPreps. He’s a talented player who is (probably) going to finally get his chance to shine.
Kevin McGuire @KevinOnCFB
Congratulations to Austin Kendall or whoever ends up being Oklahoma’s starting quarterback next year on winning the 2019 Heisman Trophy.
He is also going to be surrounded by a ton of returning talent. Marquise “Hollywood” Brown will likely declare for the draft, but CeeDee Lamb, Grant Calcaterra, Lee Morris, Trey Sermon and Kennedy Brooks are all coming back. The Sooners also signed two of the top 10 wide receivers in the 2019 recruiting class (Theo Wease and Trejan Bridges), as well as the No. 3 tight end (Austin Stogner), so there’s even more help on the way.
And unless the NFL gets its man and steals Riley away from the Sooners, he’s going to have a great offensive mind at head coach. These are all factors that should lead to a great season and could result in another Heisman QB in Oklahoma.
The only question is, will it actually be Kendall behind center in 2019?
One of the biggest position battles to monitor this spring and summer will be Kendall vs. Mordecai vs. 5-star QB Spencer Rattler. It’s too bad we can’t just bet on “Oklahoma quarterback” for the Heisman. This may well be a situation similar to the ones at Alabama and Clemson this past summer, in which both possible starters were viewed as viable threats to win the Heisman.
Kendall should enter the offseason as the favorite, though, given his seniority and years of service with the Sooners. And that makes him one of the top early candidates for the stiff-armed trophy.
Kerry Miller covers college football and men’s college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.