NORMAN, Okla. -- Josh Heupel switched on the game film and started babbling that code that only the secret society of coaches can understand.
"They slide down into a different front, bring in a guy off the edge. He recognizes it's man free. ... He holds the safety, gets backside. Very accurate. He manipulated, then opened the post route by looking at the safety. We come back on third down. We're throwing it to our inside fade. The protection breaks down. He processes it quickly. The corner falls off his primary read. He's able to get down to No. 2 quickly. Feet underneath, short step, the ball is coming out ...
Oklahoma's quarterbacks coach snaps his fingers.
Yeah, great stuff, Coach, but there is something more obvious and understandable up on the screen.
The quarterback you're breaking down looks exactly like Joe Namath. No, not the good looks although there are those, too. Forget the fur coats. This is football, man. This reincarnation is tall, has the same long legs, a rocket arm, that presence. He sees the whole field just like Broadway Joe. All he needs are the green and white socks up to his knees and ...
"Are you ready for Sam?" someone asks.
You are ready to interview him, of course, because Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford is part of a lineup with which he is only vaguely familiar. The group he heads has little to do with the No. 1 team he will lead into the Cotton Bowl on Saturday against Texas. The redshirt sophomore is the best pro prospect among Big 12 quarterbacks, an elite group considering they are the best collection of signal callers in one conference in recent years.
Maybe the best, ever.
Asked whether he has seen a better group in one league, Gil Brandt responded, "No, I can't" say that. Brandt is the former vice president of player personnel of the Dallas Cowboys and current personnel analyst for nfl.com.
Who knows where their careers will end up, but the Big 12 is currently loaded with trigger men. They are the main reason the league has three teams in the top five, six in the Top 25. The 13-year-old Big 12 is enjoying its best season. That fact is embodied by a 6-foot-4, 220-pound reincarnation of Namath.
All Bradford lacks is the swagger and the big contract. The former is a plus; humility is good in Bob Stoops' program. The latter is sure to come, perhaps as early as next season, if Bradford decides to leave early.
"I haven't been around a lot of quarterbacks running on at the mouth," Heupel said. "You get him in the lockerroom, he's a guy who jokes, hangs out with the guys. But he carries a very loud stick with him. When he speaks, everybody listens."
Let's forget, though, about pro potential for these Big 12 quarterbacks. That's not the point. Conference USA in 2001 had three future NFL quarterbacks come out of it. Certainly the Pac-10 and SEC have had their share of greats in given years. These Big 12 guys are just playing, having fun.
Who cares where Missouri's Chase Daniel is drafted? He'll never be as good as he is now, standing seven yards back in the shotgun, flat-footed, throwing accurate missiles to the likes of All-American Jeremy Maclin.
The core group of Big 12 quarterbacks has changed not only the conference but also the culture of college football this season. The QBs have elevated the Big 12 to at least an even plane with the SEC at times in a battle for conference supremacy that continues week to week.
The only certainty is that the two leagues are so far ahead of the rest of the sport that it accentuates their differences. The SEC largely does it with defense. The Big 12 is a default key you hit when you want to know where the sport is, and where it's headed.
"It's a thrill to watch those kids play," said Stan Parrish, Ball State's offensive coordinator who has won both a Super Bowl and national championship as an assistant. "The league should enjoy the moment. It doesn't happen very often."
The Big 12 sports five of the top six scoring offenses, four of the top six passing offenses, a large part of it triggered at the top by four of the nation's top five quarterbacks in pass efficiency:
- Bradford, the 2007 pass efficiency leader as a redshirt freshman, is currently No. 2.
- Oklahoma State's Zac Robinson is third in efficiency, directing one of only 12 I-A programs that are averaging both 200 passing and rushing yards per game.
- Texas' Colt McCoy leads the 'Horns in both rushing and passing, and the country in completion percentage, 79.2 percent.
- Daniel, the current Heisman leader, guides an offense that hasn't gone three-and-out this season with him in the game.
We haven't even gotten to Texas Tech's Graham Harrell yet. The Red Raiders' career passing leader had more yards passing against Kansas State last week (454) than Army, Air Force or Navy have thrown for this season. Or Kansas' 5-10 Todd Reesing, almost a one-man offense for the Jayhawks, who has been compared to Doug Flutie -- by Doug Flutie.
Baylor's Robert Griffin is putting together a freshman All-American-type season. His game is eerily similar to Vince Young's.
"I enjoy watching everybody in the Big 12 play," McCoy said. "To be able to know most of the guys and watch is great. How fun is it every week to be up against a team that has another great quarterback?"
It's more than fun. It's written in stone, or as solid as the polls can be. This week the Big 12 has its highest combined ranking in its history -- No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 2 Missouri and No. 5 Texas in the coaches' poll.
It's not a fluke, it's not a gimmick. It just is, in this age of spread offenses that have largely overwhelmed defenses. Harrell, Daniel, McCoy, Robinson and Bradford have been sacked a combined 17 times in 847 pass attempts, or once every 51 times they dropped back.
"The most proud Coach (Darrell) Royal could be was to win a game without throwing a pass," Texas coach Mack Brown said. "It was a different time, a different place. What shifted in this league was spread offenses. People can use lesser linemen. They can get by, therefore, with lesser depth.
"It's kind of like the basketball analogy. If you get the point guard at quarterback who can run and is very accurate, all the sudden you find three little guys who can fly and put them at wide receiver. Take a smaller back and put him in the backfield and have big splits. You can move it with a lot of different people if the triggerman is hot that day."
How important is the Big 12's monopoly on quarterbacks? Ten of the top 20 quarterbacks in pass efficiency play for undefeated teams. Those 20 teams have a combined winning percentage of .840. Only five of the top 20 rushers are playing for undefeated teams.
It also helps that the Big 12 has quietly developed into a quarterback hotbed. There are 23 I-A teams with starting quarterbacks from Texas, according to recent research by the Denver Post. Six of those -- more than a quarter -- start for Big 12 schools.
McCoy, a junior from Tuscola, Texas, set the NCAA freshman record for touchdown passes. Daniel, a senior from Southlake, Texas, has been the man at Missouri since taking over full time as a sophomore. Harrell, from Ennis, Texas, is the first quarterback at Texas Tech to start in multiple seasons since 2003.
|Sam Bradford, Oklahoma||No. 2 pass efficiency|
|Chase Daniel, Missouri||No three-and-outs|
|Robert Griffin, Baylor||The next Vince?|
|Graham Harrell, Texas Tech||Raiders career leader|
|Colt McCoy, Texas||79.2 percent completion rate|
|Zac Robinson, Oklahoma State||Leads No. 3 scoring offense|
|Todd Reesing, Kansas||Only 3 INTs in 205 attempts|
"These trigger guys, three years ago, they were young and not established at quarterback," Brown said. "All the sudden these old boys grew up, they got mad. Now we're all trying to figure out how to stop them."
Sitting in the bowels of the Barry Switzer Center, Bradford is not about to be stopped. At the top of his game, he is the Big 12's No. 1 NFL quarterback prospect. The pros love those long legs, that rocket arm, that Namath look. But Bradford is still trying to figure out himself and his place in the Oklahoma universe.
It was slightly more than a year ago that he was in an August mix to replace Paul Thompson who played in 2006 only because Rhett Bomar had screwed the program (and himself) in the Big Red Motors scandal.
Bradford eventually won the job but was brought along slowly in 2007. Heupel admitted as much. There's nothing wrong with that approach; Bradford had yet to take a college snap. Though coaches thought he had tremendous upside, they couldn't risk his future or a season running a complicated playbook.
"I think I got that sense a lot more when we started two-a-days," Bradford said of this season. "At the beginning of the season, we had probably 10 times more stuff in than we did at the beginning of last year."
Oklahoma hasn't become an underrated quarterback factory by screwing up. Heupel is one of two quarterback Heisman finalists in the Bob Stoops era (Jason White won the award in 2003). Texas Tech coach Mike Leach was Heupel's and OU's offensive coordinator in 1999. The Funky Pirate went on to create a quarterback factory in Lubbock, winning 70 games in 8½ seasons.
Leach's replacement at OU, Mark Mangino, helped win a national championship and put his touch on Reesing at Kansas. Chuck Long moved up to OC, coached White and eventually scouted Bradford before becoming head coach at San Diego State.
In the process of Bradford getting used to the offense, Oklahoma won the Big 12 with the freshman throwing for 3,121 yards and 36 touchdowns. In the offseason, Stoops decided to install a no-huddle spread. Obviously it has worked, with Oklahoma averaging 49.6 points per game (fourth nationally) while running 79.8 plays per game (second).
Even a layman can see on film how technically sound Bradford is when he throws. No wasted motion, looking off defenders, squaring up to the throw. He averages a touchdown every eighth attempt.
"Coach Heupel has done wonders with my mechanics and fundamentals," Bradford said. "Before I got here, I never really had a lot of instruction. I was just kind of out there trying to be athletic. No one talked to me about feet or hips or anything."
One huge difference in Bradford that you should watch for Saturday is that the Sooners are almost always looking for the deep shot. When TCU decided to stop OU's running game Sept. 27, Bradford threw touchdown passes of 24, 55, 63 and 76 yards.
The Memorial Stadium hero is a reluctant hero in another way. His Cherokee Indian heritage has made him an icon to his people in a state with the largest native American population in the country. It is a heritage he is still trying to compartmentalize.
"It's kind of overwhelming," he said. "It's something you grow up with and know so little about. You have so much thrown at you. Hero? I'm still trying to get past that."
That combined with being a native son quarterback guiding the Sooners is enough pressure. But there's more. This being Texas week, defeat isn't an option.
"It's probably about as stressful as you can imagine ...," Bradford said. "If you lost 11 games and beat Texas, people wouldn't mention the other 11 games. If you win 11 and you lose to Texas they don't really care about the other 11 wins. You put a lot of pressure on yourself just so you don't hear things the rest of the year about it."
Heupel goes to the film again. He points out how Bradford, time after time, is able to go through his progressions. That has something to do with a talented offensive line. That has something to do with a calm, smart, maturing quarterback.
Being able to sift through receivers is something of a rarity for college quarterbacks who too often throw to their first or second option receiver. Heupel points out on film how Bradford, on third and 12, hits the fourth option.
"The thing that goes unnoticed," Heupel says, "is six inches either way with the ball makes a huge difference."
During this film session, Bradford has thrown for 304 yards and five touchdowns against Washington and is out of the game in the third quarter. One of the leaders of the Big 12 pack leaves the room no doubt with the same drive as his conference peers.
"He doesn't want to be second at anything," Heupel said.