- Travis Haney, ESPN Staff Writer
NORMAN, Okla. -- Landry Jones is the Oklahoma Sooners' all-time leading passer, ahead of Heisman winners Jason White and Sam Bradford. He has won 30 of his 37 career starts with the Sooners. In January, Jones was given a first-round projection by the NFL's draft advisory board. It was believed at one point that he would go before even Robert Griffin III.
All that, and there was still a sector of Sooners fans griping about Jones' decision to return to school for his senior season.
"How can you be mad that he's coming back?" OU all-conference offensive lineman Gabe Ikard said. "You've got the best quarterback in the country coming back. All you keep hearing is fans and people complaining. You're like, 'Stop.'"
What is it about Jones that makes some question his value? And what can we expect out of him in 2012? To answer both questions, it helps to look at the knocks people cite against him:
Jones doesn't move well.
Aren't there a lot of good college quarterbacks who don't run particularly well? Note that Jones was sacked only 12 times in 2011, and he gets partial credit for that, along with Ikard and the line.
Jones isn't Griffin with his feet, but he seems to have a fairly good feel for pressure. Sometimes the criticism is that he gets rid of the ball too early, not giving plays enough time to develop. But that seems a lot better than the alternative of 10- to 12-yard losses and long down-and-distances.
It isn't pretty when he runs, but Jones has shown the ability to scramble (a key red zone run in the Insight Bowl is one such example), and Jones said in March that quarterbacks coach Josh Heupel, who played the position on OU's 2000 national championship team, spent the spring focusing on mobility drills. "It comes with practice," Jones said.
It's also worth noting that a lack of scrambling ability didn't stop Jones from leading an offense that ranked in the top 20 in the nation in both yards per play and Football Outsiders' offensive efficiency metric (in addition to the gaudy yardage totals) in 2011.
Jones isn't demonstrative enough.
Some fans want their quarterback to rah-rah the team on and off the field and make all sorts of emotional expressions after something negative or positive. Some would prefer that their quarterback is expressive, a newsmaker, when speaking with reporters. (Tim Tebow comes to mind as the quintessential example of both, but those types don't come around all that often, do they?)
Jones, who is an intelligent guy, doesn't have a personality that bubbles like, say, Matt Barkley. But there's something to be said for a quarterback who operates on the even keel; it seems as if emotion could at times do more harm than good when coming from the QB position.
Against Baylor, in the third quarter, Jones threw one of his worst interceptions of the season. The Sooners were driving. It was an ill-advised throw and not particularly well-executed. Jones shrugged it off. He engineered fourth-quarter touchdown drives of 75 and 77 yards to erase a 38-24 deficit. Griffin had the last laugh, but it's worth remembering that OU put up 38 points in each of its first two losses, to Texas Tech and in Waco (and Jones threw a combined five touchdowns and two interceptions). It's not unfair to say that the Sooners' woes during the middle of last season had more to do with inconsistency on defense than it did a lack of production from Jones and the offense.
Jones' voice, too, sounds as if it's growing in volume. "He's as vocal as he's ever been," Ikard said. "He's the leader of the team. We all know that. I'm very, very thankful to have him back."
Jones said this spring that he has set being an All-American and a Heisman finalist as goals. Outspoken enough?
Jones isn't Bradford.
It's often an unfortunate distinction to follow someone considered a legend in their field or craft; this is an example, an unwinnable one for Jones.
Or is it?
Bradford played for a national championship, but he never won one. OU might not enter this fall as the favorite, as it did in 2011, but it wouldn't be of any great surprise to see the Sooners playing in Miami -- and Jones' potential is a big reason.
The way Jones finished the 2011 season (one touchdown, six interceptions in his final four games) not only concerned fans, it hurt his NFL draft stock, too. That's why ESPN's Mel Kiper doesn't have him on his first 2013 Big Board, but Kiper also says that Jones clearly has the potential to climb back up the rankings.
"His accuracy became really inconsistent at the end of the season," Kiper said. "He'll have to get better, but it's a pretty safe expectation that he'll bounce back. ... The tools are all there. Ideal size. Very strong arm. He knows the mechanics, he just has to actually maintain them."
Want proof that Jones has what it takes? Check out his stat line for the first nine games of the season last year, the ones in which his top target, Ryan Broyles, played (he suffered a season-ending injuring in the ninth game): 28 touchdowns, nine interceptions. If Jones can take care of some of his accuracy issues and adjust to having Kenny Stills and possibly Trey Metoyer, the team's promising freshman receiver, as his top targets, he could put together a dynamic 2012 campaign.
That, and a berth in the BCS title game, would certainly be enough to appease any remaining doubters.
Here's a look at three other players who are underappreciated:
Unless you're a fan of K-State, or a Big 12 team that played the Wildcats, your eyes will likely widen at the fact Klein rushed for 27 touchdowns this past season. And that was often with opposing defenses knowing full well that the odds of him running were much higher than throwing. Being 6-foot-5 and a sturdy 230 pounds makes Klein tough to bring down, even after initial contact.
When Klein was in a position in which he had to throw -- late in close games against Texas A&M and Oklahoma State -- he helped keep the Wildcats in the game. He completed a respectable 57.3 percent of his passes, even without a lot of playmaking threats on the outside. His feet often helped to set up his arm.
Did you miss it? Vanderbilt played in a bowl game last season. The Commodores also had a 1,000-yard rusher. Stacy stands only 5-9, but he's good for the tough yards. He averaged 5.9 yards a carry in 2011. That's impressive, but his 5.7 yards-a-carry average in conference is even more noteworthy.
In a league that has had Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson and does have Marcus Lattimore and Knile Davis, Stacy will be overlooked. But, in James Franklin's offense, don't be surprised if Stacy goes for another 1,000 yards and gets the Commodores into back-to-back bowls.
Jeff Fuller was the A&M receiver who received the attention going into last season. With Fuller dealing with nagging injuries, Swope elevated himself to the No. 1 target for eventual first-round QB Ryan Tannehill -- even if he still isn't well known outside East Texas.
That could change this season in the SEC, if he gets anywhere near his 89 catches and 1,207 yards from 2011. Losing Tannehill will hurt, no doubt, but Swope still had touchdowns of 63 and 50 yards in the Aggies' spring game from Tannehill's possible successors. And you know new coach Kevin Sumlin, known for his penchant for the pass, will find ways to get him the ball.