NORMAN, Okla. -- Landry Jones would have recruited Cam Newton too.
It was at end of 2009 when Oklahoma's Bob Stoops wasn't quite sure what he had at quarterback. Forced into action for the injured Sam Bradford that year, Jones had thrown for 26 touchdowns in his redshirt freshman season. But when the national junior college player of the year agrees to a recruiting visit and you are the head of a modern quarterback factory you don't hesitate.
|Josh Heupel won Sooners fans hearts forever with his championship. Landy Jones hasn't reached this level ... yet. (Getty Images)|
That was 16 months ago. On the eve of the NFL Draft, everyone is happy. Newton leaves behind a national championship and a questionable past at Auburn. If Jones, now a redshirt junior with Heisman aspirations of his own, was slighted by the recruitment it doesn't show.
"We, in a nice way, weren't desperate to get him," Stoops said of Newton. "We felt Landry was on his way to being a special quarterback, too. I don't have anything against Cam. When he was here, we all liked him."
Downside: Stoops and OU may have missed out on a national title. Look what Newton did for Auburn. Upside: Stoops and OU may have missed out on a national title. Look what Newton did to Auburn. His father's dealings in his recruitment are part of the three active NCAA investigations into Auburn football.
For the record, Oklahoma's coach says he only spoke to Cecil Newton on the phone and no demands were made. Cam came to campus by himself.
"If I was a coach I would have recruited him," Jones said. "He's a good guy. He's a really nice dude. People make mistakes. If he did that, it's no big deal."
Oklahoma enters 2011 as a likely preseason No. 1 in some poll or another. Jones is a big -- though, not particularly vocal -- part of the quest. Just another reason why Oklahoma might be one of the more unknown quarterback factories. Since 1996, only USC and Florida have had as many Heisman-winning quarterbacks as OU (all three with two). The man with potential to become No. 3 is unassuming, knowing that's something he has work on after throwing 64 touchdowns the past two seasons.
"He can do a better job of taking care of the ball at times," says the guy who will be calling plays for Jones this season, co-coordinator Josh Heupel. "He can become more athletic. He can be a better leader."
Wait, time out. Quarterback tradition? At OU? How did we miss it? Without a definitive answer at the moment, let's just say we did. Maybe it's because three of the four statues outside Memorial Stadium are of guys named Vessels, Owens and Sims. Total rushing yards: Almost 10,000. Total rushing touchdowns: 139. It's not until you get to No. 4 and Jason White's cocked right arm that it starts that it starts to hit you:
The Oklahoma of Wilkinson, Switzer and Adrian Peterson has placed a quarterback in the top three of Heisman voting four times since 2000. White (2003) and Sam Bradford (2008) won the award. White was third in 2004. Heupel was second to Chris Weinke in 2000. An OU quarterback has been a finalist four times under Stoops. This is a program where the immortal Nate Hybl was once a Rose Bowl MVP. Converted receiver Paul Thompson oversaw a Big 12 title.
The point is less about hardware than how Florida's former defensive coordinator has kept this quarterback train rolling.
"No, I don't believe it's talked about nearly enough," Stoops said. "I'm not pressing for it. I don't care [but] anyone who pays attention to it, are you kidding me? We've won seven Big 12 championships with six quarterbacks. I bring it up at media day and everyone gets pissed so I stop bringing it up."
Jones would love to hear it. He's next in line at Oklahoma having thrown for almost 8,000 yards over two seasons. The redshirt junior will go into the season as the program's next Heisman contender.
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"I'd like to win it," Jones said recently, lounging in the Sooners' locker room. "I'm good enough to be a Heisman candidate. That's not like my No. 1 priority right now."
Jones is cautious. He's come a long way since 2008. That was the year he enrolled early at OU and got wrapped up in the party life. Nothing new there. A lot of us had our struggles as college freshmen -- academics, fitting in, budgeting time. To hear him tell it, Jones' problems were much deeper. There were essentially 1 ½ years of down time before he saw the field that left Jones too idle.
"I just didn't want to live anymore," Jones said. "I wanted to crawl in a hole and not talk to anybody in the world. That was after that first year, after the national championship game [vs. Florida]. No one saw it. No one did anything. I don't know if I contemplated suicide. I just wanted to be by myself and not have to deal with all the stress."
Jones isn't blaming anyone. He felt alienated, being among a handful of early enrollees in 2008 having no real group of fellow recruits with which to bond. That summer after his first semester he was a self-described "knucklehead." There were what he called "dark times." Then he redshirted, which meant more inactivity to feed his anxiety.
"I just didn't know who I was," Jones said. "My whole life I had been a starting quarterback. That gets taken away from you. If you've never played sports before, you don't know how it feels. ... If you are a son of God, it feels like you are a son of football. You are the starting quarterback. When that gets taken away from you, you're just in shock. You try to fill it with other things."
It got to the point that Jones didn't want to be around here. The son of an Artesia, N.M., oil man, a Parade All-American, couldn't deal with not being the man. It probably happens to thousands of recruits. It hit this one particularly hard. Bradford helped in some small way by passing along tips. So did Jones' cousin, Jeremy Guy, his roommate from Tulsa. About a year into his time at OU, they turned off the TV one night and just talked.
"It was a real issue for him," Heupel said. "That first year carried over a little bit into his freshman year."
It's an old story but a relevant one. Guy and Jones found Christ. At that point, Jones' on-field issues were secondary. His debut -- an emergency -- came in the 2009 opener against BYU when Bradford injured his shoulder. It was also a loss, kicking off the worst season of the Stoops era (8-5).
"That was definitely nerve wracking," Jones said. "That whole season I was learning how to play -- play in college."
It wasn't until the Texas game that year when Bradford went down for good that Jones says he "calmed down." Those 26 touchdowns in 2009 led all freshmen. There were a school-record six touchdown passes against Tulsa. After Jones threw for a school bowl record 418 yards against Stanford in the Sun Bowl, Heupel got a text message.
It looks like you've got your quarterback for next year.
It was from Cam Newton.
Unburdened by demons and recruits in his rear-view mirror, Jones became that sixth quarterback to win a Big 12 title in 2010. OU's offense ran more plays than anyone in the country (1,211). Five times, Jones was part of a unit that ran at least 93 plays. He developed an intimate football relationship with receiver Ryan Broyles, who caught a nation-leading 131 passes. OU fans were falling in like. T-shirts sprang up -- "Fear the 'Stache" '-- saluting his then-cheesy facial hair. Jones, the quiet kid who needs to improve his leadership skills, was having the time of his life.
He would kill to become one of those beloved Sooners. It hasn't happened yet. In 2000, it was Heupel who helped bring OU all the way back from a crippling probation with a national championship. Sooners fans have never forgotten. How can they? In 2006, Heupel was hired full time as an assistant. That year Rhett Bomar was booted off the team a month before the season. OU won the Big 12 with Thompson, that receiver-turned-quarterback. In 2007, Bradford came on and set a bundle of national freshman records. The next year, when Jones was going through those dark times, Bradford won the Heisman.
So before getting to another athletic level, Jones needs to find another emotional level in Norman. They may be warming to him, but there is something close to love that exists between OU fans, Bradford and Heupel.
"You want people to like you, but I don't know if I've made it to that level yet," Jones said. "I haven't won a Heisman yet or taken a team to the national championship."