Carlson: Why OSU quarterback Spencer Sanders' growth has been stunted (Spoiler: it's no one's fault)
STILLWATER — The math is weird on Spencer Sanders.
It feels like he’s been part of OSU football for a long time. Long before he became the starting quarterback last season, he was a fascination for Cowboy fans. First, it was as a big-time recruit, then it was as a third-string redshirt who people demanded to see any time Taylor Cornelius struggled.
Now, as this truncated regular season nears a halfway point, Sanders seems like a veteran.
But the numbers don’t add up.
On the day Sanders is expected to return after missing more than a month with an ankle injury, he will play in only his 13th game for the Cowboys and make just his 12th start. That isn’t an insignificant amount, but it’s also just approaching one full season of games.
Iowa State quarterback Brock Purdy, who’ll be on the other sideline Saturday, has played in 27 games for the Cyclones and started 25 of them. It doesn’t seem like Purdy has been around all that long, but he’s had nearly double the game experience of Sanders.
And if you take a closer look at the math, Sanders has really only played about 10 full games. Last season, he injured his thumb in the first half of the Kansas game, exited early in the second half and only played a couple snaps the rest of the season, limited to some running plays in the bowl game. Then earlier this season, he injured that ankle in the first quarter against Tulsa and hasn’t played since.
“He’s still a young football player,” OSU coach Mike Gundy said. “He hasn't played very many games.”
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And that has affected Sanders’ development.
No one is at fault for that. Not Sanders. Not his teammates. Not his coaches. Injuries happen, after all. And yet, there’s no denying Sanders isn’t as good a quarterback today as he would have been if even one of his injuries hadn’t happened.
“It’s affected his development because he’s not out there,” Gundy said.
The Cowboy coach was talking there about Sanders’ development as a leader, but really, his overall development has been stunted, too.
How could it not?
There is no teacher like experience, something Sanders showed last season.
His first three Big 12 games were rough. The opener at Texas, a loss, featured two interceptions. The next week against Kansas State was better because OSU won, but Sanders still threw a couple interceptions. A week later in an ugly loss at Texas Tech, he threw three and had two fumbles.
But after that, Sanders only had three interceptions the rest of the season. He took much better care of the ball while also throwing it better. His completion percentages steadily went up.
Against Baylor: 56.3 percent.
At Iowa State: 66.7.
Against TCU: 60.0.
Against Kansas: 66.7.
No one knows what Sanders might’ve done had he played the last two regular-season games against West Virginia and OU and the bowl game against Texas A&M. There could’ve been steps backward, of course. But there could’ve been steps forward, too. No matter what, there definitely would’ve been learning.
Same for this season.
Tulsa, West Virginia and Kansas aren’t the best opponents OSU will face this season, but each of them could’ve been a learning opportunity for Sanders.
Those were opportunities lost.
Take, for example, Sanders’ emotions during games. Gundy says the quarterback’s mentality is similar to a lot of defensive players, always revved up, nearly ready to run through a wall.
It’s part of the reason why Sanders is widely seen as the heart and soul of the offense.
“It’s not a disrespectful, negative emotion,” Gundy said, “but he gets so caught up in the moment that he wants to win so bad that at times, he needs to settle a little bit.”
Gundy and Co. have worked on that with Sanders, but there’s only so much they can do in practice. Most of the teachable moments are in games.
And those have been limited for Sanders.
On a team with championship aspirations, both conference and national, a more seasoned quarterback would be ideal. It’s not mandatory, of course. Young quarterbacks have led their teams to great heights in recent years.
But so have veteran ones.
Spencer Sanders is somewhere in the middle, no longer the green starter he was at the start of last season but not yet the savvy veteran he could’ve been by now had injuries not gotten in the way.
“He's … got a ways to go in the development stage,” Gundy said.
The only way for Sanders to get there is to get back on the field.
The only way for the math to work is for him to add games.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or email@example.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.