During an eventful summer, Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight has graced the cover of Sports Illustrated and seen his name mentioned on Heisman Trophy watch lists.
He’s embraced preseason projections that have the Sooners earning one of four spots in the inaugural College Football Playoff and winning the national championship.
Pretty heady stuff, in other words, for an OU quarterback who has yet to take a snap against Texas, got knocked out of his lone appearance against Oklahoma State and has fashioned only a 59 percent career completion rate. Thus far, the San Antonio Reagan graduate has yet to start as many as half of his team’s games in any season he’s spent in Norman, Okla.
But the sophomore is 5-0 as the Sooners’ starting quarterback, and No. 5 was a biggie: a 45-31 victory over Alabama in which Knight threw for 348 yards and four touchdowns in last year’s Sugar Bowl triumph.
Knight capped an up-and-down redshirt freshman season by setting career highs for completions (32), attempts (44), passing yards (348) and touchdown passes (four) against the Crimson Tide on Jan. 2 in New Orleans. Ever since, he’s been the face of the program in OU’s efforts to build on last year’s 11-2 season and claim this year’s Big 12 title.
“It was fun to play like that and get a big win. But now, the Sugar Bowl is a baseline for us. That’s the foundation,” Knight said of 2014 expectations for himself and the Sooners. “You want to build off that and get better every game.
“We’re back on top, preseason No. 1 in the Big 12, and that’s where we want to be. You come to Oklahoma to play in big games and have those predictions and to live up to them.”
Because of a standout defense, expectations are through the roof for these Sooners. But it will be up to Knight (6-foot-1, 201 pounds) to make sure OU scores enough points to win the season’s biggest games while operating with some offensive challenges.
The Sooners’ three most productive running backs (Brennan Clay, Damien Williams, Roy Finch) graduated after combining for 1,857 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns last season. A likely replacement, five-star freshman signee Joe Mixon, was suspended for the season by school officials after punching a woman in the face in a July 25 altercation at a Norman restaurant.
At receiver, the lone returnee who caught more than 13 passes last season is Sterling Shepard (51 catches, 603 yards, seven TDs in 2013). Oklahoma’s hope to add immediate depth in the form of Missouri transfer Dorial Green-Beckham disappeared last week when the NCAA denied the player’s appeal for immediate eligibility at his new school.
Without question, Oklahoma has other capable (albeit inexperienced) options at both positions. It will be Knight’s job to maximize their production, starting with Saturday’s opener against Louisiana Tech (6 p.m. in Norman). It will be a tall order, said ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit, a former Ohio State quarterback.
“I don’t think it’s fair to assume Trevor Knight will play this year the way he did at the Sugar Bowl because of the supporting cast he had around him in New Orleans,” Herbstreit said. “That same team won’t be taking the field in 2014.”
But teammates envision an older, wiser Knight making the difference.
“His confidence has stayed the same but his leadership role has come up tremendously,” said offensive tackle Daryl Williams, a fifth-year senior. “After that win over Alabama, everyone said, ‘Trevor’s the guy.’ We look at him as a leader, old guys and new guys.”
Knight views himself as a smarter player than the guy who lost five games to a variety of injuries last season. That is no accident, said coach Bob Stoops.
“At the quarterback position, regardless of how much or little we run him, we want him to take as little contact as possible,” Stoops said. “It’s something that we tried to [instill] a year ago. But I think another year more experience, he’ll be more familiar and used to doing that.”
Asked whether he could replicate his statistics from the Alabama game on a regular basis this season, Knight did not waver.
“Absolutely,” Knight said. “Last year, I was the youngest guy in the meeting room and splitting time. This year, I’m the oldest guy in the meeting room and I’m the guy. … We all go through ups and downs. But it’s how you attack every day and try to stay even-keel that carries you through.”
Knight, for one, vowed he will not be overwhelmed by his off-season of adulation following his signature moment against Alabama.
“It’s been awesome. As a young guy growing up and watching college football, you dream of stuff like this,” Knight said. “Being in the spotlight and having some No. 1 predictions, it’s what you dream of. To be that guy, it’s really cool.”
For OU to be a part of college football’s initial playoff bracket, Knight will have to be “that guy” on a regular basis this season.
• Last year’s top three running backs graduated and heralded freshman Joe Mixon is suspended for the season. That means lots of fresh faces at RB, including freshman Samaje Perine (6-foot, 213 pounds).
• A rebuilt receiver corps returns only one player with more than 13 catches from last season. The Sooners need more dependable targets to join Sterling Shepard (51 catches, 603 yards, seven TDs last season).
• The Sooners project to have the Big 12’s best defense but need to be stingier in the red zone. OU allowed points on 85.7 percent of opponents’ drives that crossed the Sooners’ 20-yard line, ranking eighth among the league’s 10 teams.