Big 12 spring check-ins: Oklahoma

Ian Boyd

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The Oklahoma machine rolls on in Norman. This is a year the Sooners have been circling for a while as a potential breakthrough season. The 2018 squad was a historic unit on one side of the ball, with five draft picks on the offensive line protecting a #1 overall pick in Kyler Murray as he threw to a pair of first round wide receivers in CeeDee Lamb and Marquise Brown. Most everyone from that crew was gone in 2019 but Alex Grinch was hired to fix the defense which had held the program back and Lincoln Riley imported Jalen Hurts to keep the offense going.

For the 2020 season the Sooners had to retool the defense some due to departures while breaking in redshirt freshman quarterback Spencer Rattler. Of course they still won the Big 12, even after spotting the rest of the league a couple of wins to open the season. The defense came along as the season drew on and they were slowly able to overcome a particularly bad offseason due to the pandemic.

Now for 2021? Rattler is a second year starter and third year player, the offensive line returns a few starters, the heralded 2019 wide receiver class is coming into their own, Grinch's defense returns multiple starters, and Riley has continued to demonstrate his prowess as the Necromancer of the portal to summon additional talent and patch up his roster.

A seventh consecutive Big 12 Championship would be impressive for Oklahoma but their goals for 2021 are to go back to the playoffs and win a National Championship. At such a point...we'd have to start humoring a serious discussion on Lincoln Riley's place among the greatest coaches in Oklahoma history. But first, here's how things appear to be coming together for the Sooners with their immediate goals of winning games in 2021.

Infrastructure stress test: Offense

It's been a while since Oklahoma wasn't very sturdy and sound in this component of their team. They have a couple of secrets here, one is offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh. The man has a real knack for finding talent along the line recruiting a tier just below that of say Georgia, Alabama, or Ohio State and then is a fantastic teacher and run game coordinator. Their other trick is an emphasis on recruiting ancillaries, a oft-overlooked part of their approach.

Riley himself told me at the 2018 Big 12 Media Days their value for recruiting H-backs and tight ends stems in part from being able to fill out their special teams units with capable athletes. I think he inherited this institutional knowledge from Bob Stoops, who was running the Air Raid with tight ends and fullbacks when they won the National Championship in 2000 and continued to stock his roster with some of the league's best tight ends and fullbacks throughout his tenure before handing the program off to Riley.

For 2021 the Sooners have a lot at these positions. Tight end Austin Stogner will probably be a near full-time Y receiver flexed out from the formation, Jeremiah Hall and Breyden Willis return at the more ancillary "H-back" position, and then they seem to be inventing a new position for Mikey Henderson whom they're calling a "running back" but will have a myriad of duties. Their traditional running back position is also well stocked, despite Seth McGowan's recent off field issues, with Kennedy Brooks returning and Tennessee transfer Eric Gray recently conjured through the portal by Riley's necromancy.

The offensive line is a touch shakier but still quite stable. They're losing right tackle Adrian Ealy, whom I named "Groot of the year" for his work on the edge for the Sooners, and also center Creed Humphrey. The loss of Humphrey stings a bit too because he was excellent at holding the backside in their various counter schemes, he had some near tackle-quickness and size for them while holding things down inside. Texas tried to get a similar effect from starting converted right tackle Derek Kerstetter last season and decidedly did not enjoy a comparable advantage.

However, the Sooners have guards Marquis Hayes and Tyrese Robinson back along with their 49 combined starts and then the Necromancer has Tennessee left tackle Wanya Morris working to get eligible and UCLA transfer Chris Murray fighting for a job along the interior. Murray seemed to be next in line at center but judging from the spring game, it'll be sophomore Andrew Raym. There's also a trio of giants hoping to get on the two-deep at guard or center in super senior Erik Swenson (6-5, 329), Brey Walker (6-6, 353), Anton Harrison (6-5, 317), and Stacey Wilkins (6-6, 316).

Perhaps most importantly, quarterback is much stronger than a year ago. Spencer Rattler is back with another, fuller offseason for Riley to try and teach his sorcery to the improv-prone passer. Then, while Oklahoma loses Chandler Morris to the TCU Frogs over the frustrations of Riley, they added Caleb Williams as an early enrollee. Check out the next 5-star Oklahoma passer on these two early snaps in the spring game.



Caleb Williams is a big time weapon orchestrating a power-option offense. He can read easy leverage and flip the ball around to attack the entire field and he has some home-run speed in the quarterback option game. At 6-1, 219 he's also built more like Jalen Hurts and potentially more capable of carrying a load in the run game without getting injured and losing his ability to execute the passing game. He's not going to beat out Spencer Rattler this year but it would be all too easy for Riley to come up with some effective gameplans making the most of his ability, especially given that he'll have the spring and fall camp to learn the offense.

Infrastructure stress test: Defense

One of the nastiest shocks for the rest of the Big 12 was when Alex Grinch's overhaul of the Sooner defensive front yielded immediate results and transmuted some players who hadn't terrified opponents in the past into demons from hell. It was easy for everyone to forget while the Sooners were getting murdered on offense how athletic many of their contributors were coming out of high school.

Grinch had their D-linemen cutting weight and giving up the Mike Stoops gap control life, which lead to the emergence of multiple guys who came alive in a scheme which allowed them to attack gaps and move regularly. Three years later after more development within the system and more targeted recruiting and things are in even better shape. The defensive line is going to be a major handful with Perrion Winfrey, Jalen Redmond, and Isaiah Thomas back and then backed up by Josh Ellison and LaRon Stokes, to name a few. They've been recruiting to the system for a while now.

At linebacker things are also in great shape with Dashaun White back for his potential third year as a starter and pushed by second year starter Brian Asamoah and 2020 breakout player David Ugwoegbu. White and Asamoah know how the defense works and where to be in order to make tackles and prevent leaks. Ugwoegbu brings more physical upside than either at 6-4, 250 and was starting to work out how to play the position in 2020.

Safety is where things get more interesting. For all his faults, Brendan Radley-Hiles had a lot of roles within the Oklahoma defense which included man coverage, hash safety, post safety, and occasionally as an extra box defender, the role for which he was often most famous and poorly suited. Replacing him at nickel is going to be interesting, particularly on the coverage side where he was so good. Otherwise, the Sooners are in pretty good shape. Patrick Fields and Delarrin Turner-Yell have been starting at safety for the entirety of the Alex Grinch era, so they either continue to hold things down with a high level of expertise or they are replaced because someone else with more talent has learned enough to unseat them.

There's a lot of depth here at all three levels and some talent upside as well.

Space force speed test: Offense

This was arguably not as strong a spot for the Sooners last year as normal, they did the most damage throwing to freshman slot receiver Marvin Mims rather than any of the bluechip sophomores. Trejan Bridges was suspended for much of the year, Jadon Haselwood had a ripped knee, and Theo Wease played but was second fiddle to Mims. Haselwood is now back and made an acrobatic catch in the spring game while Wease and Mims are back and a year better.

Tackle was also a touch iffy, at least by OU standards, in 2020. Erik Swenson ended up holding down left tackle for the second consecutive season and having a solid year, Adrian Ealy made a leap and played right tackle very well but is now gone. Stacey Wilkins, regarded in 2019 as the likely future at the position, opted out and freshman Anton Harrison flashed a lot of promise. Now three of those guys are back and joined by Wanya Morris, who was legitimately very good at Tennessee.

Between all those players and Mike Woods, summoned from Arkansas by Riley the Necromancer of the portal, there's a lot to work with here. In Riley's ideal world Haselwood, Morris, and perhaps Mims would all dominate opponents this season on the perimeter.

Space force speed test: Defense

I've been saying for a while now this is the potential vulnerable spot for the Sooners in 2021, although @keganr strongly disagrees. Nik Bonitto is back at Jack linebacker after a nine sacks in 2020. He's a menace off the edge who's speed is very difficult for tackles to account for when he has any amount of space to work in. The Sooners also have pass-rushing threats everywhere else on the field so shading help to account for Bonitto isn't particularly easy.

Out wide at cornerback or nickel everything is less certain. D.J. Graham might be the left cornerback, he showed some potential in 2020 and is probably ahead of Woodier Washington as a pure athlete and cover man. Washington figures to start opposite and is highly effective in zone coverage, both staying over the top and playing underneath in cover 2. This is less of a team for playing press-quarters as they did early on for Grinch and are more likely to mix in more zone. It'll be interesting to see how that goes for them with the overall concept and if it hurts them to start yielding the flats more or if they end up trading in easier underneath completions for more of the precious turnovers.

In summation

Oklahoma is a heavy favorite to win the Big 12 Championship again, obviously. National Championship upside will hinge on three things.

1) Spencer Rattler's maturity and decision-making. The better he gets at executing Riley's system, the higher their overall ceiling is as a team.
2) Finding a dominant wideout. I think Oklahoma having really great tackle play is a near lock with so many returning players and rising young talents, but finding another Marquise Brown/CeeDee Lamb level talent has not yet occurred. If it does (or has) then they should be back to totally overpowering opponents with scoring.
3) Defensive space force. How well will this team hold up when they face other playoff-caliber teams they can't overwhelm up front with athleticism? Or when they face teams who can test their young coverage defenders with NFL-caliber receivers?

The 2018 Sooners could score with anyone except another high-powered offense with the extra benefit of facing their own defense. In 2019 they were virtually helpless against the LSU offense. How are they two years later?
 

Ian Boyd

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7 straight would be too much to handle. Please, anyone but OU this year.
They’re on a roll, obviously. Either someone needs to put together a very good team or OU needs to get unlucky with injuries. I think the last two years were arguably when they were most vulnerable. Maybe next year they will be again if they lose Rattler although that penn state transfer is supposed to mitigate that risk.
 
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hypnotoad

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They’re on a roll, obviously. Either someone needs to put together a very good team or OU needs to get unlucky with injuries. I think the last two years were arguably when they were most vulnerable. Maybe next year they will be again if they lose Rattler although that penn state transfer is supposed to mitigate that risk.
Agreed. The last 2 years were more up for grabs, and unfortunately no one was able to seize it. Have to give props to Riley with what he was able to do after the start that they had last year.
 

Wings N Girls

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National Champions, I think.
God I hope not.

Our worst enemy has been ourselves for a long time more than OU’s greatness tho. We just need to worry about beating teams we should beat and having a good year 1. Will be happy with a conf title appearance or 9-10 wins tbh

On paper this looks to be the best oklahoma team in the playoff era due to a vastly improved defense and rattler + weapons returning. I wonder if rattler takes a big leap like expected tho. He sputtered quite a bit last year but he was a first year starter of course. I hope things go sideways for em though and we can somehow win the RRS

at least we prob won’t get sacked 6 to 9 times lmao #herb #whatisastunt
 
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falconsooner

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Nice write up Ian. I laughed at the multiple Necromancer references. A couple of additional thoughts:

The much heralded 2019 WR class has been snakebit and things aren't getting better. Wease missed all of spring with a broken foot, Haselwood is still far from 100% after his ACL tear and currently is nothing more than a possession WR. Hopefully he will get his explosiveness back by fall. Stogner is still recovering from the staph infection that almost cost him his leg and Bridges may never wear the uniform again. Bridges would be a huge loss. Reports were that he was the best and most complete WR in camp (he is an alpha). Coaches have ofterned compared him to Tylan Wallace. Bottom line is OU isn't real deep at WR (hopefully Mario Williams emerges) and that is why Riley is bringing in Mike Woods.

Oklahoma sideline reporter, Gabe Ikard, talked extensively about the OL on his (and Teddy Lehman's) podcast. Bottom line is Bedenbaugh likes the pieces but putting them together is a challenge. It all starts with C. Murray has what they want physically but has struggled with the calls. Consequently, they moved Raym there and he seems to be handling the calls better but needs to get physically stronger. They had numerous injuries in the spring; particularly at OT, which has kept them from getting an established lineup. So it is a work in progress.

It is odd to say but the D might be the stronger unit this year; particularly, if they get solid play from the nickel (manned by either Criddell or Bowman who both have had really good camps).
 

Ian Boyd

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Nice write up Ian. I laughed at the multiple Necromancer references. A couple of additional thoughts:

The much heralded 2019 WR class has been snakebit and things aren't getting better. Wease missed all of spring with a broken foot, Haselwood is still far from 100% after his ACL tear and currently is nothing more than a possession WR. Hopefully he will get his explosiveness back by fall. Stogner is still recovering from the staph infection that almost cost him his leg and Bridges may never wear the uniform again. Bridges would be a huge loss. Reports were that he was the best and most complete WR in camp (he is an alpha). Coaches have ofterned compared him to Tylan Wallace. Bottom line is OU isn't real deep at WR (hopefully Mario Williams emerges) and that is why Riley is bringing in Mike Woods.

Oklahoma sideline reporter, Gabe Ikard, talked extensively about the OL on his (and Teddy Lehman's) podcast. Bottom line is Bedenbaugh likes the pieces but putting them together is a challenge. It all starts with C. Murray has what they want physically but has struggled with the calls. Consequently, they moved Raym there and he seems to be handling the calls better but needs to get physically stronger. They had numerous injuries in the spring; particularly at OT, which has kept them from getting an established lineup. So it is a work in progress.

It is odd to say but the D might be the stronger unit this year; particularly, if they get solid play from the nickel (manned by either Criddell or Bowman who both have had really good camps).
That's certainly a sobering perspective for Sooner fandom. On the other hand, they still have summer and fall camp to sort out a lot of that and last year convinced me Marvin Mims might be better than any of the big three from 2019 anyways.
 

falconsooner

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That's certainly a sobering perspective for Sooner fandom. On the other hand, they still have summer and fall camp to sort out a lot of that and last year convinced me Marvin Mims might be better than any of the big three from 2019 anyways.
Lol. I guess that was a glass half empty perspective. Agree about Mims....Bridges might be better but we may never know. They also have high expectations for Mario Williams. Even if their WR numbers get low then Riley can always run his heavy sets utilizing Stogner, Hall, Willis and Henderson.
 
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Ian Boyd

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Lol. I guess that was a glass half empty perspective. Agree about Mims....Bridges might be better but we may never know. They also have high expectations for Mario Williams. Even if their WR numbers get low then Riley can always run his heavy sets utilizing Stogner, Hall, Willis and Henderson.
Yup, they have lots of big bodies. Still gotta have at least one deep threat though or it'll be hard to put away B12 opponents like they have been. But I think Mims can fill that role, he's special.
 
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falconsooner

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I think Bowman may be the answer at nickel. And at corner presumably they'll just hold everyone
Bowman certainly has the athleticism. He stuck with Mims pretty good in the spring game. The holding strategy overall has worked well. Force the refs to call it. We learned this the hard way against the SEC teams in some of the BCS and playoff games. The SEC was very liberal in allowing DBs to get "handsy" with the WRs and when we would face these teams in the postseason...our WRs weren't prepared to deal with it because Big 12 was calling interference much tighter.
 

melodicmarc

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Nice write up Ian. I laughed at the multiple Necromancer references. A couple of additional thoughts:

The much heralded 2019 WR class has been snakebit and things aren't getting better. Wease missed all of spring with a broken foot, Haselwood is still far from 100% after his ACL tear and currently is nothing more than a possession WR. Hopefully he will get his explosiveness back by fall. Stogner is still recovering from the staph infection that almost cost him his leg and Bridges may never wear the uniform again. Bridges would be a huge loss. Reports were that he was the best and most complete WR in camp (he is an alpha). Coaches have ofterned compared him to Tylan Wallace. Bottom line is OU isn't real deep at WR (hopefully Mario Williams emerges) and that is why Riley is bringing in Mike Woods.

Oklahoma sideline reporter, Gabe Ikard, talked extensively about the OL on his (and Teddy Lehman's) podcast. Bottom line is Bedenbaugh likes the pieces but putting them together is a challenge. It all starts with C. Murray has what they want physically but has struggled with the calls. Consequently, they moved Raym there and he seems to be handling the calls better but needs to get physically stronger. They had numerous injuries in the spring; particularly at OT, which has kept them from getting an established lineup. So it is a work in progress.

It is odd to say but the D might be the stronger unit this year; particularly, if they get solid play from the nickel (manned by either Criddell or Bowman who both have had really good camps).
Are you an Atlanta falcons fan and a sooner fan? Because I thought I was the only one.
 

melodicmarc

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That's certainly a sobering perspective for Sooner fandom. On the other hand, they still have summer and fall camp to sort out a lot of that and last year convinced me Marvin Mims might be better than any of the big three from 2019 anyways.
I would second that about the 2019 receivers. I really really doubt Bridges and Mcgowen will return. I don't know if Wease has the athletic potential to ever believe in him being more than a route runner. I will say there has been a bunch of buzz on Mario Williams, the freshman 5 star receiver. They are saying he has elite quickness and amazing speed, so he is someone to keep on your radar. Latrell McCutchen is the other freshman to really keep your eyes on. He will more than likely get meaningful snaps at CB this year as he has had a really impressive spring.
 

sherf1

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National Champions, I think.
Nah.

They dont have the explosiveness at WR or the talent in the backfield. They are perfectly constructed to beat up on teams a notch below them (which is usually everyone in the Big 12 besides occasionally Texas), but I think their ceiling is still more limited than you would expect.

Obviously if Rattler turns into mini Baker Mayfield that's a bit of a game changer, but even then that 2017 team was still stuffed by a very good Texas D and eventually figured out by Georgia. Riley's approach gives you the highest of high floors, but the highest ceiling teams will always be those built around a QB who can execute a consistent drop back game without the systemic crutch that the best teams take away.
 
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stilesbbq

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Nah.

They dont have the explosiveness at WR or the talent in the backfield. They are perfectly constructed to beat up on teams a notch below them (which is usually everyone in the Big 12 besides occasionally Texas), but I think their ceiling is still more limited than you would expect.

Obviously if Rattler turns into mini Baker Mayfield that's a bit of a game changer, but even then that 2017 team was still stuffed by a very good Texas D and eventually figured out by Georgia. Riley's approach gives you the highest of high floors, but the highest ceiling teams will always be those built around a QB who can execute a consistent drop back game without the systemic crutch that the best teams take away.
I think Rattler goes 1.1 in next year's draft. If he is that good, the offense gets there I think
 

sherf1

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I think Rattler goes 1.1 in next year's draft. If he is that good, the offense gets there I think
He might off arm talent, but he made some ridiculously bad decisions last year. Sometimes guys grow out of those (Sam, for instance), but lots of guys dont (Purdy, Jameis) and its a very hard thing to project, because making a bad decision isnt a linear skill. I'm hoping he keeps that "gunslinger" mentality and costs them a game or two.
 
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Wings N Girls

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Bowman certainly has the athleticism. He stuck with Mims pretty good in the spring game. The holding strategy overall has worked well. Force the refs to call it. We learned this the hard way against the SEC teams in some of the BCS and playoff games. The SEC was very liberal in allowing DBs to get "handsy" with the WRs and when we would face these teams in the postseason...our WRs weren't prepared to deal with it because Big 12 was calling interference much tighter.
I thought bowman was supposed to play offense at OU?
 
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falconsooner

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I thought bowman was supposed to play offense at OU?
Sorry for late reply. OU actually recruited him as an athlete who could play offense or defense. Grinch won the arm wrestling battle for him (perhaps saw a quicker path towards playing time??). Still it shows a changing of culture....a couple of years ago he probably would have insisted on playing offense. We could see him returning kicks this year.
 

_b ez_

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On the other hand, they still have summer and fall camp to sort out a lot of that and last year convinced me Marvin Mims might be better than any of the big three from 2019 anyways.
Something to consider r.e. receiver and would like to hear your (and @keganr) thoughts.

Mims played at Z last year for OU behind Rambo. In previous iterations of Rileys offense he would run a lot of 12 to 11 personnel with guys like Andrews, Calcatera, and Stogner as a flex out Y. They rarely used a traditional slot and always ran dependable hands types when they did (Jones, Basquine, Stoops). In 2020 we saw a lot of Stoops at Y and moving Stogner in as the H due to all of the questions at receiver and injuries at both receiver and at H (Stogner would go down that last 1/3rd of the year as well).

This spring Riley with Haselwood and Bridges being back, Riley moved Mims to Y in front of Stoops and for the first time made that slot position a priority. As you noted, he also move Henderson out of the H room to get some versatility in their 2 back sets. I think he's setting up to move away from a 12 base with the ability to go to 11, to an 11 base with the ability to go from 20 to 10 depending if Stogner/Willis or Hall/Henderson are out there as the ancillary. With Stogner having a bigger upside on the LOS than their previous types, Andrews and Calc, this gets your best 4 receivers on the field:

X: Haselwood, Wease
Y: Mims, Stoops, Jackson
H: Stogner, Willis, Hall, Henderson
Z: Williams, Wood, Mims

Since all of his previous QBs were a much bigger threat in the zone/read game I can't help but think this is a move to help Rattler who is much less likely to pull in most situations. Get your best big play receiver inside for hot reads and a lot more chances for big plays in the seam where we know Rattler has no problem trying to fit the ball in tight windows.
 
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Ian Boyd

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Something to consider r.e. receiver and would like to hear your (and @keganr) thoughts.

Mims played at Z last year for OU behind Rambo. In previous iterations of Rileys offense he would run a lot of 12 to 11 personnel with guys like Andrews, Calcatera, and Stogner as a flex out Y. They rarely used a traditional slot and always ran dependable hands types when they did (Jones, Basquine, Stoops). In 2020 we saw a lot of Stoops at Y and moving Stogner in as the H due to all of the questions at receiver and injuries at both receiver and at H (Stogner would go down that last 1/3rd of the year as well).

This spring Riley with Haselwood and Bridges being back, Riley moved Mims to Y in front of Stoops and for the first time made that slot position a priority. As you noted, he also move Henderson out of the H room to get some versatility in their 2 back sets. I think he's setting up to move away from a 12 base with the ability to go to 11, to an 11 base with the ability to go from 20 to 10 depending if Stogner/Willis or Hall/Henderson are out there as the ancillary. With Stogner having a bigger upside on the LOS than their previous types, Andrews and Calc, this gets your best 4 receivers on the field:

X: Haselwood, Wease
Y: Mims, Stoops, Jackson
H: Stogner, Willis, Hall, Henderson
Z: Williams, Wood, Mims

Since all of his previous QBs were a much bigger threat in the zone/read game I can't help but think this is a move to help Rattler who is much less likely to pull in most situations. Get your best big play receiver inside for hot reads and a lot more chances for big plays in the seam where we know Rattler has no problem trying to fit the ball in tight windows.
Sounds good to me, although maybe they want a blocker in the box rather than Stogner to help Rattler out in the run game. Maybe not.
 

stilesbbq

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Wonder how much Riley will run Rattler this year and if he has figured out a way to win at the goal line without QB run
 
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Ian Boyd

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Gonna use Caleb Williams apt on that role
They could, but then you have to sub out Rattler and the defense can easily send in a Caleb Williams sub-package. I think Caleb would still be effective there, I do wonder how Rattler would react to watching the back-up finish drives with touchdowns.
 
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melodicmarc

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They could, but then you have to sub out Rattler and the defense can easily send in a Caleb Williams sub-package. I think Caleb would still be effective there, I do wonder how Rattler would react to watching the back-up finish drives with touchdowns.
Landry Jones got to watch Blake Bell score his touchdowns and Landry still ended up being a really good... oh wait I see your point.
 
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keganr

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The Oklahoma machine rolls on in Norman. This is a year the Sooners have been circling for a while as a potential breakthrough season. The 2018 squad was a historic unit on one side of the ball, with five draft picks on the offensive line protecting a #1 overall pick in Kyler Murray as he threw to a pair of first round wide receivers in CeeDee Lamb and Marquise Brown. Most everyone from that crew was gone in 2019 but Alex Grinch was hired to fix the defense which had held the program back and Lincoln Riley imported Jalen Hurts to keep the offense going.

For the 2020 season the Sooners had to retool the defense some due to departures while breaking in redshirt freshman quarterback Spencer Rattler. Of course they still won the Big 12, even after spotting the rest of the league a couple of wins to open the season. The defense came along as the season drew on and they were slowly able to overcome a particularly bad offseason due to the pandemic.

Now for 2021? Rattler is a second year starter and third year player, the offensive line returns a few starters, the heralded 2019 wide receiver class is coming into their own, Grinch's defense returns multiple starters, and Riley has continued to demonstrate his prowess as the Necromancer of the portal to summon additional talent and patch up his roster.

A seventh consecutive Big 12 Championship would be impressive for Oklahoma but their goals for 2021 are to go back to the playoffs and win a National Championship. At such a point...we'd have to start humoring a serious discussion on Lincoln Riley's place among the greatest coaches in Oklahoma history. But first, here's how things appear to be coming together for the Sooners with their immediate goals of winning games in 2021.

Infrastructure stress test: Offense

It's been a while since Oklahoma wasn't very sturdy and sound in this component of their team. They have a couple of secrets here, one is offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh. The man has a real knack for finding talent along the line recruiting a tier just below that of say Georgia, Alabama, or Ohio State and then is a fantastic teacher and run game coordinator. Their other trick is an emphasis on recruiting ancillaries, a oft-overlooked part of their approach.

Riley himself told me at the 2018 Big 12 Media Days their value for recruiting H-backs and tight ends stems in part from being able to fill out their special teams units with capable athletes. I think he inherited this institutional knowledge from Bob Stoops, who was running the Air Raid with tight ends and fullbacks when they won the National Championship in 2000 and continued to stock his roster with some of the league's best tight ends and fullbacks throughout his tenure before handing the program off to Riley.

For 2021 the Sooners have a lot at these positions. Tight end Austin Stogner will probably be a near full-time Y receiver flexed out from the formation, Jeremiah Hall and Breyden Willis return at the more ancillary "H-back" position, and then they seem to be inventing a new position for Mikey Henderson whom they're calling a "running back" but will have a myriad of duties. Their traditional running back position is also well stocked, despite Seth McGowan's recent off field issues, with Kennedy Brooks returning and Tennessee transfer Eric Gray recently conjured through the portal by Riley's necromancy.

The offensive line is a touch shakier but still quite stable. They're losing right tackle Adrian Ealy, whom I named "Groot of the year" for his work on the edge for the Sooners, and also center Creed Humphrey. The loss of Humphrey stings a bit too because he was excellent at holding the backside in their various counter schemes, he had some near tackle-quickness and size for them while holding things down inside. Texas tried to get a similar effect from starting converted right tackle Derek Kerstetter last season and decidedly did not enjoy a comparable advantage.

However, the Sooners have guards Marquis Hayes and Tyrese Robinson back along with their 49 combined starts and then the Necromancer has Tennessee left tackle Wanya Morris working to get eligible and UCLA transfer Chris Murray fighting for a job along the interior. Murray seemed to be next in line at center but judging from the spring game, it'll be sophomore Andrew Raym. There's also a trio of giants hoping to get on the two-deep at guard or center in super senior Erik Swenson (6-5, 329), Brey Walker (6-6, 353), Anton Harrison (6-5, 317), and Stacey Wilkins (6-6, 316).

Perhaps most importantly, quarterback is much stronger than a year ago. Spencer Rattler is back with another, fuller offseason for Riley to try and teach his sorcery to the improv-prone passer. Then, while Oklahoma loses Chandler Morris to the TCU Frogs over the frustrations of Riley, they added Caleb Williams as an early enrollee. Check out the next 5-star Oklahoma passer on these two early snaps in the spring game.



Caleb Williams is a big time weapon orchestrating a power-option offense. He can read easy leverage and flip the ball around to attack the entire field and he has some home-run speed in the quarterback option game. At 6-1, 219 he's also built more like Jalen Hurts and potentially more capable of carrying a load in the run game without getting injured and losing his ability to execute the passing game. He's not going to beat out Spencer Rattler this year but it would be all too easy for Riley to come up with some effective gameplans making the most of his ability, especially given that he'll have the spring and fall camp to learn the offense.

Infrastructure stress test: Defense

One of the nastiest shocks for the rest of the Big 12 was when Alex Grinch's overhaul of the Sooner defensive front yielded immediate results and transmuted some players who hadn't terrified opponents in the past into demons from hell. It was easy for everyone to forget while the Sooners were getting murdered on offense how athletic many of their contributors were coming out of high school.

Grinch had their D-linemen cutting weight and giving up the Mike Stoops gap control life, which lead to the emergence of multiple guys who came alive in a scheme which allowed them to attack gaps and move regularly. Three years later after more development within the system and more targeted recruiting and things are in even better shape. The defensive line is going to be a major handful with Perrion Winfrey, Jalen Redmond, and Isaiah Thomas back and then backed up by Josh Ellison and LaRon Stokes, to name a few. They've been recruiting to the system for a while now.

At linebacker things are also in great shape with Dashaun White back for his potential third year as a starter and pushed by second year starter Brian Asamoah and 2020 breakout player David Ugwoegbu. White and Asamoah know how the defense works and where to be in order to make tackles and prevent leaks. Ugwoegbu brings more physical upside than either at 6-4, 250 and was starting to work out how to play the position in 2020.

Safety is where things get more interesting. For all his faults, Brendan Radley-Hiles had a lot of roles within the Oklahoma defense which included man coverage, hash safety, post safety, and occasionally as an extra box defender, the role for which he was often most famous and poorly suited. Replacing him at nickel is going to be interesting, particularly on the coverage side where he was so good. Otherwise, the Sooners are in pretty good shape. Patrick Fields and Delarrin Turner-Yell have been starting at safety for the entirety of the Alex Grinch era, so they either continue to hold things down with a high level of expertise or they are replaced because someone else with more talent has learned enough to unseat them.

There's a lot of depth here at all three levels and some talent upside as well.

Space force speed test: Offense

This was arguably not as strong a spot for the Sooners last year as normal, they did the most damage throwing to freshman slot receiver Marvin Mims rather than any of the bluechip sophomores. Trejan Bridges was suspended for much of the year, Jadon Haselwood had a ripped knee, and Theo Wease played but was second fiddle to Mims. Haselwood is now back and made an acrobatic catch in the spring game while Wease and Mims are back and a year better.

Tackle was also a touch iffy, at least by OU standards, in 2020. Erik Swenson ended up holding down left tackle for the second consecutive season and having a solid year, Adrian Ealy made a leap and played right tackle very well but is now gone. Stacey Wilkins, regarded in 2019 as the likely future at the position, opted out and freshman Anton Harrison flashed a lot of promise. Now three of those guys are back and joined by Wanya Morris, who was legitimately very good at Tennessee.

Between all those players and Mike Woods, summoned from Arkansas by Riley the Necromancer of the portal, there's a lot to work with here. In Riley's ideal world Haselwood, Morris, and perhaps Mims would all dominate opponents this season on the perimeter.

Space force speed test: Defense

I've been saying for a while now this is the potential vulnerable spot for the Sooners in 2021, although @keganr strongly disagrees. Nik Bonitto is back at Jack linebacker after a nine sacks in 2020. He's a menace off the edge who's speed is very difficult for tackles to account for when he has any amount of space to work in. The Sooners also have pass-rushing threats everywhere else on the field so shading help to account for Bonitto isn't particularly easy.

Out wide at cornerback or nickel everything is less certain. D.J. Graham might be the left cornerback, he showed some potential in 2020 and is probably ahead of Woodier Washington as a pure athlete and cover man. Washington figures to start opposite and is highly effective in zone coverage, both staying over the top and playing underneath in cover 2. This is less of a team for playing press-quarters as they did early on for Grinch and are more likely to mix in more zone. It'll be interesting to see how that goes for them with the overall concept and if it hurts them to start yielding the flats more or if they end up trading in easier underneath completions for more of the precious turnovers.

In summation

Oklahoma is a heavy favorite to win the Big 12 Championship again, obviously. National Championship upside will hinge on three things.

1) Spencer Rattler's maturity and decision-making. The better he gets at executing Riley's system, the higher their overall ceiling is as a team.
2) Finding a dominant wideout. I think Oklahoma having really great tackle play is a near lock with so many returning players and rising young talents, but finding another Marquise Brown/CeeDee Lamb level talent has not yet occurred. If it does (or has) then they should be back to totally overpowering opponents with scoring.
3) Defensive space force. How well will this team hold up when they face other playoff-caliber teams they can't overwhelm up front with athleticism? Or when they face teams who can test their young coverage defenders with NFL-caliber receivers?

The 2018 Sooners could score with anyone except another high-powered offense with the extra benefit of facing their own defense. In 2019 they were virtually helpless against the LSU offense. How are they two years later?
As Ian knows, this is a really good writeup and we have conferred to each other a lot on Oklahoma and I think we have come to the right conclusion.

I will maintain that corner won't be an issue, it's the backend of that secondary that is the worrisome part of the defense. Maybe that changes if/when Key Lawrence takes over for Pat Fields and Billy Bowman takes over at nickel.

I am not worried about the wide receivers at all. It's RG and RT that will be the difference between this offense rising back up to being the top offense in the country.

Something to consider r.e. receiver and would like to hear your (and @keganr) thoughts.

Mims played at Z last year for OU behind Rambo. In previous iterations of Rileys offense he would run a lot of 12 to 11 personnel with guys like Andrews, Calcatera, and Stogner as a flex out Y. They rarely used a traditional slot and always ran dependable hands types when they did (Jones, Basquine, Stoops). In 2020 we saw a lot of Stoops at Y and moving Stogner in as the H due to all of the questions at receiver and injuries at both receiver and at H (Stogner would go down that last 1/3rd of the year as well).

This spring Riley with Haselwood and Bridges being back, Riley moved Mims to Y in front of Stoops and for the first time made that slot position a priority. As you noted, he also move Henderson out of the H room to get some versatility in their 2 back sets. I think he's setting up to move away from a 12 base with the ability to go to 11, to an 11 base with the ability to go from 20 to 10 depending if Stogner/Willis or Hall/Henderson are out there as the ancillary. With Stogner having a bigger upside on the LOS than their previous types, Andrews and Calc, this gets your best 4 receivers on the field:

X: Haselwood, Wease
Y: Mims, Stoops, Jackson
H: Stogner, Willis, Hall, Henderson
Z: Williams, Wood, Mims

Since all of his previous QBs were a much bigger threat in the zone/read game I can't help but think this is a move to help Rattler who is much less likely to pull in most situations. Get your best big play receiver inside for hot reads and a lot more chances for big plays in the seam where we know Rattler has no problem trying to fit the ball in tight windows.
You need to remember that what Riley does with the wide receivers is less about one guy being a true X or a true Z. CeeDee Lamb was listed as the X in 2019, but he was basically the all-time Z (think Dede Westbrook in 2016). I think that will end up being Jadon Haselwood (or Trejan Bridges) role in 2021 if he is healthy.

I think Oklahoma has had some issues the past two years in regards to wanting to be a 12 personnel team, but not fully buying into that identity. It limits how creative you can be in the pass game.

National Champions, I think.
I will maintain my Georgia pick... but I will also maintain they'll beat Oklahoma to win it which means OU finally wins a playoff game.
 
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keganr

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The story for Oklahoma is pretty obvious for 2021—

  1. Spencer Rattler HAS to grow. The last three games of the regular season (Oklahoma State, Baylor, Big 12 Title) was rough, rough. Oklahoma can't win a national championship with him playing like that.
  2. How long until Bill Bedenbaugh find the right group? Tyrese Robinson has been a liability at right guard at times the last two years. Erik Swenson has started significant amount of snaps. How long until they find the right group, will Bedenbaugh roll with the right group and how good will that group be?
  3. What is the right combination in the secondary and how long does it take for Oklahoma to get there? I touched on that above, but I think both newcomers at NB and at FS elevate the defense's ceiling.
If those concerns are alleviated next season... that's how they win a national championship.
 

UTGrad91

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Everything points to OU winning a 7th straight conference crown and perhaps even being competitive in the CFP. I'm predicting fate will intervene and they don't win the conference much less go to the CFP. Injuries, bad calls, arrogance, etc will prevent them from achieving their goals.
 

UTGrad91

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Would ISU be any better?
Ummh, that would be a huge YEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!

Let's think this through, would we rather have the team that has owned the conference the last two decades, including six in a row, and is one of our biggest recruiting rivals for in state talent win yet another conference crown, or have a team that hasn't won a conference crown in over a century win a fluke conference championship? Doesn't seem like a tough question to me.
 

kevinbelt

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The more I see of Spencer Rattler, the less impressed I am. It's making me realize that Kyler Murray was probably better than I gave him credit for being.
 
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Wings N Girls

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Ian, I was wondering if you could do some sort of deep-dive into Lincoln Riley the offensive coordinator and playcaller, and what makes him so special in this regard. As a lifelong UT fan I have a disdain from birth for OU but you can't do anything but tip your cap to that offensive genius. What does he do that other guys can't do that separates him? I would love a breakdown on these sorts of things.
 

Wings N Girls

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Kylers one year was amazing.
That one long TD run he had against Texas while mounting that furious comeback was absolutely insane. He's gotta run a 4.35 or something along those lines, man. Insane athlete