Tramel: Cut Mike Gundy some slack for Oklahoma State quarterback decision
By the time Shane Illingworth threw his second pass as an Oklahoma State Cowboy, a step-up-start-to-scramble dump-off to tight end Jelani Woods, I thought what you thought and what everyone watching thought.
Mike Gundy and his staff were traveling down Brandon Weeden Boulevard, incapable of choosing the right quarterback when the answer was as clear as the Caribbean Sea. What a bunch of boobs. Dunce caps all around.
After Spencer Sanders left the game with a first-quarter ankle sprain, OSU gave junior-college transfer Ethan Bullock eight series before turning to true freshman Illingworth, who rallied the Cowboys past Tulsa 16-7.
In eight series with Bullock, OSU produced 72 yards and no points.
In three series with Illingworth, OSU produced 136 yards and 13 points.
And if Sanders doesn’t play Saturday against West Virginia, Illingworth obviously will get the call to start.
But before we convict everyone from Gundy to Pistol Pete for coaching malfeasance, a little testimony. Evaluating quarterbacks who never have played is difficult. Evaluating quarterbacks who have hardly even practiced is dang near impossible.
“It’s really hard, because everything you do in the evaluation of a quarterback is not live,” said Texas coach Tom Herman. “At that position, some guys play a lot differently when they have a colored jersey that says you can’t get hit.
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“Gauging toughness, adapting to the speed of the game … even in a crazy year like this, we still at least scrimmaged in training camp, got to see all the other positions live and in color. That’s the one position you have to use a little bit of your gut.”
This was not the Weeden/Alex Cate decision of November 2009, when Zac Robinson missed the Colorado game and Gundy started Cate. The OSU offense was ineffective, but Weeden started the second half and rallied the Cowboys to a 31-28 victory.
That night, Cate was in his fourth season on campus. Weeden was in his third. Cate went on to transfer to Central Washington. Weeden went on to become a first-round NFL draft pick.
Gundy deserved nothing but sackcloth and ashes for that decision. But Bullock/Illingworth was not that.
Illingworth arrived in January, went through three spring practices, then went home to California after the pandemic hit. Even Illingworth’s preseason camp has been minimal; he missed 17 practices, by Gundy’s count, because of COVID-19 contact tracing.
Bullock didn’t even get to Stillwater until June, but at least he practiced in recent weeks. When dealing with two total unknowns, you can’t blame coaches for going with the guy who at least has found the practice field.
“It’s extremely difficult,” Gundy said of picking a backup quarterback. “It’s become the hardest part of offensive football for a head coach. They don’t get as many reps as they should get.
“Sadly enough, I was thinking about that a few months ago. There can be good quarterbacks that never really show up, because they don’t get enough practice or work with the ones (first-team offense).”
A Gundy example: Joe Burrow, who left Ohio State because he never really got to show his stuff. Went to LSU, won a Heisman and became the first pick in the draft.
In Columbus, Burrow was stuck behind J.T. Barrett and Dwayne Haskins. Clearly, the Buckeyes had no idea what they had. So if Gundy is a boob, so is Urban Meyer.
Starting quarterbacks get approximately 75 percent of the practice plays at most schools. That leaves limited time for the backup or the two guys trying to be the backup. And in spring ball, even quality quarterbacks can struggle working with the second-team offense.
“For backup quarterbacks, that’s tough,” said Texas Tech coach Matt Wells. “Coaches don’t want to hear about gamers. ‘I’ll do it when the light comes on.’ There’s limited reps to evaluate them on. Oftentimes, you can’t evaluate that until you get into a game situation.”
So now Gundy, offensive coordinator Kasey Dunn and quarterback coach Tim Rattay have game evaluation: 33 snaps for Bullock, 19 for Illingworth.
Illingworth moves much better and appeared to throw better. Of Illingworth’s six passes, three were fades to Tylan Wallace, who caught two and drew a pass interference on another.
Still, that’s not four years of Alex Cate and three years of Brandon Weeden.
“I’d say 75 percent of the time you can tell in practice, but it’s not always that way,” Gundy said. “Sometimes you find out more in a game. There’s so much to being a quarterback. You can look good in practice and throw good, but the savvy, your ability to handle the pressure, composure, your willingness to throw a ball away … a lot of time, you can’t see that in practice.
“We didn’t know what we had in Brandon Weeden. He looked good in practice and all that, then there’s times he would do things that would make you scratch your head. Then he got in games, and we were like, why is this guy not playing earlier?”
That’s the question we all asked Saturday as Illingworth took the Cowboys on an 86-yard scoring drive after almost three quarters of frustrating football.
But this time, Gundy had an answer. Cut him some slack.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at oklahoman.com/berrytramel.