I wish I had a dollar...
...for every time I’ve been asked why I decided to transfer to Oklahoma — unannounced and as a walk-on — in the spring of 2014 after redshirt freshman Trevor Knight had just carved up Alabama’s defense in the Sugar Bowl.
Let me try to explain...
Tech had a quarterback who was two years ahead of me and was supposed to be the starter, and they had Davis Webb, who’s now with the New York Giants. He had enrolled early and had already been on campus for a semester when I arrived. Having the belief in myself to walk on there and compete and win the job over those guys as a true freshman, that started a foundation for me to have the confidence that I could compete with anybody at this level, and have success doing it.
Couple that with the fact that my heart wasn’t really in Lubbock, and I was like, “Why not go compete somewhere that means so much more to me?” It’s well documented that I was a huge OU fan despite growing up in the area of Lake Travis, Texas (right next to Austin) and that wearing the Crimson and Cream was a big, big aspiration. So add it all up and it didn’t matter to me how well Trevor played in that game or how many years he had left in Norman.
I watched that Sugar Bowl game on the River Walk down in San Antonio with some friends who knew I was planning to go to OU. As Trevor kept playing brilliantly, I remember some of them telling me I was crazy, but I just smiled. I believed in my ability.
I was actually ecstatic about the way Trevor and the team played against Alabama and how that would help recruiting, how it would help me to be surrounded by the best players. That was a great win for the program, but it ended up as a great win for my future, too.
I sat out a year and practiced on the scout team, and, leading up to the 2015 season, had to compete at the highest level against Trevor for the starting job. He made me work so much harder based on what type of guy he was. Same with Cody Thomas. They were exceptional and I credit them for helping bring out the best in me.
So I would never change the way everything happened, would never have taken the easy route. It was definitely not the simple or obvious choice, but was one that I felt good about based on my belief in me.
I describe a competitor as someone who doesn’t shy away from a challenge. Not just a simple challenge, but one that might look like a mountainous obstacle to others. Someone who rises to the occasion even when it’s a matchup that doesn’t favor them. They still give everything they have and they believe in their heart they’ll be successful no matter what. Someone who works so hard in preparation that when it’s time for the actual competition, everything just comes naturally.
My dad played football for the University of Houston a long, long time ago. He was very competitive, just hearing some of the stories he tells. He can recite his Pop Warner scores from when his Farmers Branch Bombers were national champions. He doesn’t initiate those conversations, but sometimes my mom brings up the subject and then he gets going. If she mentions something wrong he corrects her, so I can see where I get some of my competitive spirit.
Speaking of my dad, he would never go easy on my brother Matt and me when we were playing sports with him. It wasn’t like he was being a crazy sports dad or anything, it’s just that he would challenge us.
Here’s a perfect example: driveway basketball games. I wasn’t good at basketball. But I rarely had a glimpse of hope because he’d always come outside and drill me in a game of “PIG” and then let me soak up the loss so that I would work harder. And I did. He never handed me anything and it taught me to work for everything. Sometimes he would be busy inside with his job so he’d send out Matt, who is five years older, to beat me. So they basically took turns whipping up on me and then go back to whatever they were doing.
And my mom was the same way, even though she was a little on the sweeter side. When we’d play Monopoly or checkers she would always try to beat me. I don’t think she ever threw me a bone. Whatever we were doing as a family was the most competitive thing you could imagine.
We had a ping pong table in the garage of the Lake Travis home I lived in for the first 17 years of my life. We’d get all four of us out there for little round-robin tournaments, and they were trash-talking, competitive, winner-take-all events. I was 9 or 10 years old and I would get dominated because I didn’t know how to play ping pong. It was always highly competitive and caused a lot of arguments, mostly between Matt and me. But you’d wake up the next morning and you’d be fine because it was family and that’s just the way it was. It was always entertaining.
Circling back to those basketball games, I’d be outside getting warmed up, attempting to get better. Then I’d go inside and profess, “OK, I’m ready!” And they’d say, “No, you’re not. You need to go back out there and practice some more. It’s not gonna be good for you.”
Instant little jabs like that right to my stomach were very common. They were having fun with me, and it was never anything over the line. But I would think to myself, “Oh, so this is how it’s going to be.” And their barbs made me want to prove them wrong and beat them. They also made me want to get good enough to where they wouldn’t say those things.
Fast forward to now, and I think you see where I’m headed with this. A lot of people are aware that I like to turn negative comments about me or my teammates that I see or hear into fuel. I’ve had a lot of success with that, and I think it can be traced back to my elementary school days. When my dad or brother would say those things, I would go out there and practice more and be more serious about it.
It’s the same thing now. If I read or hear something I feel is disrespectful about my abilities, that’s what I’m thinking about as I get dressed for practice and getting mentally ready to go. Just be the best, the very best that I can be, and make sure I take advantage of the opportunities that I’m going to get that day.
My list. It’s a collection of various negative things people have said to or about me that I’ve used for motivation, and it goes back many years. It’s taken on different physical forms. At first it was hand-written notes on a piece of paper that I kept in my wallet. Later I kept it in typed form in my cell phone. I don’t reveal the contents of this list. Well, not usually.
Here’s a quick story.
When I was in sixth grade at Lake Travis Middle School I had a health class first or second period and our teacher was a P.E. and football coach. One day in class we were all talking about different professions and what we wanted to do for a career when we grew up. We were going around the room and eventually it was my turn. I said I wanted to be a professional sports player. Nothing really out of the ordinary for a middle schooler, right?
Well, the teacher immediately said in front of everybody that it was very unlikely I’d ever make it. He went into this whole spiel about numbers and percentages, talked about the risk of injury and other things that made it seem impossible for anyone to make it to the pro level. What my ears heard is that I couldn’t do it. In essence, that’s what he was saying. He was telling me to pick a different career because it wasn’t going to work out.
I’ve always remembered that. In reality, he probably wasn’t too far off. After all, he was looking at this little kid who was probably less than 5 feet tall say he wanted to be a professional baseball or football player. But most kids aren’t close to fully developed physically at that age, and so I was highly motivated by his bubble-bursting type of response. The next several years I found myself in situations where I had to lean on that motivation to get me where I wanted to be.
Going into seventh grade football, there was a kid my age who was not very good but had developed pretty early and was very tall. They wound up giving him the starting quarterback job on the “A” team, even though his accuracy left a lot to be desired and he had some other deficiencies.
I didn’t have the greatest arm strength yet at that point, but I had the mental aspect of things down and I was very accurate. I felt like I was more than capable of playing. But I didn’t see the field much that season, and it was very apparent that the reason was because I was too small. The other kid was one of the tallest in our class and he could easily see over the offensive line.
But then he moved before our eighth grade year and I got to take the reins for the first time since Pop Warner. It was an exciting time for me. I gained a lot of confidence and had a lot of fun. We were successful and I was proud of that. And then in the summer of 2009, going into ninth grade, I was the QB of our Lake Travis 7-on-7 team that won the state championship in College Station. That was a big deal because so many teams compete in that tournament. So I was eager to build on what I was doing as I headed into my freshman year at Lake Travis High School, where the varsity program went 31-1 my last two years of middle school and won the school’s first two state titles.
But things didn’t work out the way I had planned. Turns out I wasn’t selected as the freshman team’s starter because I was still undersized (I only grew about two inches from the start of middle school to the start of high school). I was rotating in and playing just here and there, despite the fact the guy who was starting was my backup on the 7-on-7 team just a couple months before.
So it was the same thing all over again for me. By that point I was just used to it. But it didn’t mean I was OK with it, and it’s where I got my motivation. I just wanted to prove people wrong. I wasn’t going to listen to anyone about my size. I was just going to be like, “You know what, I can do it no matter how big I am. I believe the mental aspect of it and how I can get people around me to play better is much more important than anything physically I can do.”
In the spring of my sophomore year I was competing for the starting quarterback job with a kid who was a year older and one of the best athletes I’d ever seen. He had it all. He was an all-state safety the year before on varsity. Between my sophomore and junior seasons, just like every year, a lot of our coaches would say, “You need to get faster!” and, “Get your slow [butt] up and get moving!” during winter workouts and in the spring. I would just internalize that. I mean, I was not as fast as the other guy. He ran a legitimate 4.4 40-yard dash. There was zero competing for that. There were things like that about him that I couldn’t control, but, I could work on my own game.
He wound up being named the starter and it was a controversy within the community of Lake Travis. Some people thought, “He’s a senior, he’s a great athlete, he can play quarterback really well, so he should be starting.” Then there were the other people who said I should be playing quarterback and we should use the other guy as that athlete on other parts of the field.
The first game of the year was against Westlake, our huge rival, in front of 40,000-plus at Texas’ Darrell K. Royal Stadium. The third or fourth play of the game he separated his shoulder and had to come out. I was ready. People asked me going into that week if I was mad, and I said no. I was just more ready to take advantage of my opportunity whenever I got it, because I had worked and prepared so hard. When I went in that night I was confident. I didn’t look back. We won 35-7 and I never gave him an opportunity to regain the job.
The people who thought he should be quarterback eventually came around and admitted that I could play the position, and so when he got healthy we ended up putting him at running back and receiver, and he played some defense, too. We went 16-0 and won the state championship.
But normally, I’m not the one to start the trash talk.
That being said, I don’t back down from it and won’t hesitate to respond. But the Texas game is different. Like a lot of our guys, I come out firing. To me, if you’re wearing orange you’re the enemy. Doesn’t matter the shade. And you’re going to get a mouthful.
Some people ask me, “Aren’t you worried that your talk will provide extra incentive for a defensive player to want to hurt you?” No, because, if they get me I’ll pop back up and start talking to them some more. If anything it’ll make me get up faster. And it makes the pain go away if you have the motivation to prove your point.
If they’re going to have their free shots on me when I’m not looking, I expect them to take advantage. But if it’s a head-on matchup, I expect myself to win.
More than anything, I think talking a little smack on the field gets opposing players off their game. I think I’m able to do it at a level to where I can quickly focus back in and do my job. I don’t think that’s always necessarily the case for the guys I’m talking to. I don’t think they’re always going to respond the right way and it might adversely affect their performance. Everybody is a little different. I’m just trusting I can zero back in and do my job better than they can.
Back to the Texas game. I wish we could have played the Longhorns the day after we lost to Iowa State. Truly, that game couldn’t come fast enough for us. It was an opportunity to go out there and fix our mistakes from the week before. I had the same mentality going into OU-Texas that I had going into Ohio State. The Buckeyes came into our house last year and handed it to us, so we wanted another crack at them this year and took care of business at their place. And it was kind of the same thing after we lost to Iowa State. We wanted to avenge that loss with a big win over Texas. For me, that week was about getting our guys ready for the Longhorns. People said we weren’t playoff contenders anymore, so let’s go prove them wrong. I think that’s when we’re at our best.
Mentally, I liked where we were at going down to Dallas. Obviously I was very upset with the loss to Iowa State, but I knew the Texas game was going to be a good one for us. All week before the game I was thinking about how it was going to be my last one to go into the Cotton Bowl and to get my last shot against them. The day of the game I made sure I was taking it all in and enjoying every little moment. My pregame routine was the same, and I took a moment on the field before kickoff to look around and remind myself to give it everything I’ve got. (As if I needed the reminder.)
We knew there were going to be ups and downs that afternoon and that we’d need to fight through it all. The game was highly intense, and we took a 20-0 lead that should have been 28-0. We shouldn’t have had to settle for those two first-half field goals. The second half they started making a comeback and the thing for us was to keep our sideline energized. Our whole team did a great job of that. It was the most electric our sideline has been all year, and beyond. Everyone was consistently into it. The crowd was into it. I’d go so far to say that it was the best atmosphere I’ve experienced as a Sooner.
Late in the third quarter we were leading 23-17. It was third down and 3 close to midfield and if we converted it was going to be a real difference-maker in the game. I dropped back to pass and two of their guys blitzed off the edge. The outside guy started to wrap up my legs, and then one of the defensive linemen, as I was going down to the ground, came in and jumped on me and landed on my head while simultaneously rolling me over onto my right shoulder. A 300-some-pound guy coming in with that kind of momentum and doing that made for quite a bit of pain. The fact we had to punt made it hurt even more.
But going back to what I said earlier about enduring the ups and downs of the game, there was absolutely no way I was coming out. After the medical staff came over and started digging into my shoulder a little bit — which did not feel good at all — Coach Riley sat down next to me and asked if we needed to get our backup Kyler Murray ready. I don’t think I even let him finish the question before issuing an emphatic “No.” Kyler’s an incredibly talented quarterback, but unless Bevo himself landed on me I was going back in.
I stood up and tried to help get the defense and our whole team juiced. The next couple series I had to have the trainers make sure my shoulder didn’t get too tight, and Texas eventually went up 24-23 midway through the fourth. Then just a few plays later we got a great call from the coaches, I got great protection and found Mark Andrews on the right sideline for a long touchdown to put us back on top.
At that point I felt very confident that we were going to win. We had the momentum back. It was a relieving feeling, but we knew the game wasn’t over yet. A ton of credit to our defense for getting stops on Texas’ final two drives. Those guys were out there a good chunk of the fourth quarter and just gave it everything on a blistering hot day.
Late in Texas’ last possession, I looked at Ogbo Okoronkwo as he was about to pass out. Texas called a timeout and I went out there, looked at him and said, “This is your last one. You’ve got one more play in the tank so just leave it all out there on the field. I got you, don’t worry.”
He was phenomenal. We competed well as a team, especially when we needed to. That’s the biggest thing that I’m proud as I look back at that game.
The truth is I was in some pretty serious pain. Definitely more than I had experienced in quite a while. I was more than just a little nicked up.
Leading up to the game at Kansas State last week, I wasn’t able to throw until Friday morning, and even then it was just a little bit; nothing near game speed. So the whole week for me was just mental reps. That was hard for me because, the way I am, I want to go out there and push our defense to be better while also preparing our offense for the game.
So Saturday arrived and I hadn’t really thrown. I went out there before the game and tossed my first few passes during warmups and was like, “Oh. This doesn’t feel too great.” But just like in the Texas game, not playing was never a consideration for me. Just had to power through it. As we got closer to kickoff, the adrenaline started in and that helped me. I thought I’d be good.
I found out otherwise on my first throw, which was to Jeff Badet on a fairly deep out route. I had to put a lot on it. That’s when I realized, “OK, this is going to be a little more difficult than I thought.”
In talking to our trainers before the game, it wasn’t something that I was going to make worse by throwing. I was just going to have to deal with the soreness and the pain. That’s just a mental decision you have to make. I’ve always believed that. Yeah, sometimes you physically can’t go, but there are other times you can suck it up and push through it. That’s when you see how strong of a competitor a person is. Not everything’s going your way, maybe you don’t feel the best, but you push through and persevere.
We were down 21-10 at halftime and hadn’t played well at all. Coach Riley came in the locker room and got on us for not being physical enough. Said we had to want it more than them. After that, I went in where the offensive coaches were meeting and talked to them a little bit. And then the QBs came in after the coaches separated and we talked about what our mindset was going to be and what we were going to try to attack. For me, that’s when the switch flipped. I walked back out to the locker room, got up on a chair and told our team, multiple times, “Leave no doubt. Whatever you got, we need it.” I let it be known there was no option other than coming back in that locker room with a victory.
We broke it down and you could feel the energy as we headed down the tunnel. I was going to do whatever it took. I was going to run the ball more. I was going to withstand shots if they came my way. It wasn’t about my shoulder any more. It was about winning.
We were behind 21-20 going into the fourth quarter and took a 28-21 lead with a touchdown and two-point conversion. Then they tied it after getting a short field following a special teams mishap. The crowd was going wild.
The first play after that was a long curl to Marquise Brown that the guys had practiced during the week, but I hadn’t. It was one that required the same kind of zip on the ball that hurt me at the start of the game. But I was able to put it on him, and he made a great spin to get away and take it 60-some yards inside their 10. A couple plays later they brought a blitz and Rodney Anderson was able to slip out and get open. He made an unbelievable diving play for another go-ahead touchdown with about five minutes left.
I knew we’d get the ball again and would either have to score or get a couple first downs to run out the clock. K-State tied it at 35 with just over two minutes to go, and it was our turn again on offense. “Leave no doubt” was still our M.O.
Erick Wren, our center, looked at me and said, “You can’t draw it up any better than this.” He was absolutely right. You don’t want every game to be like this, but the great teams prove they can do it in this situation and in this environment.
My mindset on that last drive was no turnovers, no negative plays and do everything possible to win the game. And it wasn’t about kicking a field goal; it was about scoring a touchdown. We got a couple good runs from Rodney, he caught one, and then we got a big reception from Mykel Jones – who had left the game with an injury – to get us down to their 37. Two plays later Marquise caught a slant to get us into field goal range at the 22 with less than 20 seconds to go. Then Rodney made the play of the game with his touchdown run around the left side.
On the final touchdown, Marquise went in motion and made a great play to seal a guy on the edge after Rodney got pushed outside. And CeeDee Lamb got a block and took out two players. Just stellar plays by a pair of first-year Sooners.
I loved that game. You saw our guys give it everything they had and really play for each other. It seemed like everybody was a little banged up, and it certainly wasn’t the prettiest of performances. But the people who swing last win those types of games. Yes, we can be more focused and execute better throughout the whole game, but as far as our mentality, we played with a chip on our shoulder the second half, were extremely competitive and never gave up.