In the fall of 2014, a four-star tight end recruit from Arizona, the massive son of a massive Ravens lineman and the reigning Big 12 Conference Offensive Freshman of the Year somehow found themselves together at Oklahoma.
Mark Andrews, the tight end, and Orlando Brown Jr., an offensive tackle like his father, were true freshmen then, too young for big-time college football, so they were redshirted and put on the Sooners’ scout team.
Their quarterback was a sophomore transfer who had turned down Division I offers to pay his own way at Texas Tech, become the first Power Five quarterback to start as a true freshman walk-on, broken school records, only to lose the starting job a month later and transfer to Norman, Okla., with no guarantee of a scholarship or playing time for years to come. Over time, Andrews and Brown learned, Baker Mayfield didn’t care.
With Bakermania sweeping through Cleveland ahead of the Ravens’ game Sunday against the Browns (1-2-1), propelled by the rarest of results in the woebegone city — two games that didn’t end in defeat — the No. 1 overall draft pick’s ascent has taken on familiar contours. No, LeBron James and the rapper Nelly weren’t shouting him out on social media during his Oklahoma days, as they did after his comeback Week 3 win over the New York Jets. But Andrews and Brown, now Ravens rookies, know it’s best not to doubt Mayfield.
He left behind a flag-planting, crotch-grabbing, whip-dancing, Heisman Trophy-winning legacy with the Sooners, a singular career that started there on the scout team. That 2014 Oklahoma squad was not among the program’s best of its recent heyday; it finished 8-5 and lost by 34 in its bowl game, the first Sooners team since 2009 not to win double-digit games.
The defense, especially, was troublesome: just No. 54 overall nationally, limited by a pass defense that finished as one of the worst in the Football Bowl Subdivision. But then, if the Sooners starters couldn’t stop the scout team offense, what chance did they really have?
“We were tearing — tearing — our defense up,” Andrews recalled Wednesday.
In Andrews, they had a future Mackey Award winner as the nation’s best tight end. They had Brown, a two-time All-American who did not allow one sack last season, no small feat given Mayfield’s happy feet. They even had wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, a former top-five recruit and Missouri transfer who was drafted No. 40 overall in the 2015 NFL draft despite never playing a down for the Sooners.
But at season’s end, none had been named as an Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year. Those honors went to another wide receiver, a fullback and, of course, Mayfield.
“You could really tell he was going to be special within his first weeks of playing at OU,” Andrews said.
“We were loaded, bro,” Brown said. “That scout team probably could've started for any team in the Big 12.”
It did, eventually, but it took a year. Oklahoma lost just a combined three regular-season games from 2015 to 2017, climbing from 10th to second to first nationally in total offense on the arm (and legs) of its talismanic quarterback.
Andrews described Mayfield as having something close to a photographic memory, capable of remembering far more than just all the slights he’d endured along the way to being picked No. 1 overall. With his one-time scout team cast growing and learning alongside him, Mayfield improved every year at Oklahoma. He one-upped his 2016 season, in which he finished with the second-best passer rating in Division I history, by recording the best ever as a senior.
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“He's someone that, you miss on him, he's going to make you pay,” Andrews said. “So it's not like he's just a typical rookie quarterback. You can't just bring blitzes all over the place and expect that he hasn't seen that before, because he has. He's a smart guy. He's not a normal rookie quarterback, so you've got to be prepared for that.”
It’s not a normal week, either, for the Ravens’ three-man Oklahoma contingent. Safety Tony Jefferson, a former Sooners star himself, reveled in the team’s run to the College Football Playoffs last season. (“It's always fun to watch,” he joked Wednesday, “until you get to the playoffs and you don't go to the national championship.”)
Recently, Jefferson and Mayfield were trading texts, the rookie teasing the veteran about missed defensive-holding calls, the veteran claiming innocence. Jefferson said it would be exciting to face an “OU legend,” but also, they were in the NFL now, and his mission was the same: “Get after him.”
Andrews and Brown do not have to worry about stopping Mayfield themselves. That does not mean the Ravens (3-1) have not sought their help. Coach John Harbaugh acknowledged approaching the rookie duo in search of counterintelligence. There was not much they could offer on their close friend. “Honestly, I thought we’d get more,” Harbaugh said, laughing.
The interest in their former teammate should not have not surprised them. Brown said every team he spoke with during the draft process inquired about Mayfield. Andrews would tell NFL coaches and officials that Mayfield was a “football guy,” overflowing with intangibles to the point of being “almost indescribable.”
Brown said he’d probably speak with Mayfield soon, but that this week was “nothing different.” Andrews, meanwhile, didn’t expect much of a dialogue until game day. Mayfield, he said, had been one of “the best teammates I've ever had.” This week, maybe more than any other, he seemed to understand, couldn’t be like old times.
“Those are two of my best friends and two of the best teammates I ever had,” Mayfield said Wednesday, unknowingly echoing Andrews in a conference call with Baltimore-area media. “So I’m looking forward to seeing them on Sunday. But the message is definitely mutual, that it’s going to be competitive. Everybody here wants to win, so it will be great, but then we’ll be friends after.”