Spring practices are beginning to wind down across the Big 12 and teams are sending their squads into summer workouts. As they move forward, we’ll provide some thoughts and observations on things we’ve learned after the past few weeks.
Oklahoma began spring practices in mid-March and wrapped everything up with their spring game last Saturday.
The Sooners are coming off a 12-2 season in which an overtime loss to Georgia was the only thing standing between them and a shot at another national championship. Oklahoma hasn’t competed in the title game since 2009, but they’ve practically dominated the Big 12 this decade.
They enter 2018 looking to finish atop the conference for the fourth straight time. The Sooners always have blue chip talent on hand, but they’ll have to win this season with new faces across the board. Below are some thoughts on head coach Lincoln Riley and the Oklahoma football program following the end of spring practices.
1. A QUARTERBACK CONTROVERSY MAY BE BREWING IN NORMAN
It’s difficult to tell a lot of from a spring game, especially with the format that Oklahoma chose. Starters and backups alike were divided up into “teams” the same way you might pick teams on the playground.
That means that both of the quarterbacks competing for the top spot – redshirt junior Kyler Murray and redshirt sophomore Austin Kendall – played with ten other guys who were a mix of first team and second team players. It should also be mentioned that the weather didn’t do either passer any favors, as it was cold and windy at Owen Field all day.
Both quarterbacks still managed to have their moments. At his best, Kendall was efficient in operating the offense and showed that he’s athletic enough to pick up some yards with his legs.
Murray, who is also playing baseball this spring, seemed to be lacking an energy or sense of urgency at times. Still, the redshirt junior’s most elite asset, his speed, was regularly on display.
Neither player really seemed to have an inside track on the starting job, but it’s probably safe to pencil Kyler Murray in as the tentative starter in next season’s opener(that is if he doesn’t find himself in the MLB draft in June). Austin Kendall looked like a player ready to play quarterback at a Power Five program, but his play on Saturday was by no means mistake-free.
The “x-factor” of Murray’s superior athleticism will be difficult for Kendall to overcome, but if there are some offensive struggles early next season, the latter player could certainly get his shot. Should Kendall excel in the fall, this could be a story that continues throughout next season.
2. THE OFFENSE MAY NEED A LITTLE TIME TO DEVELOP
Given all the usual spring game caveats, the performance of both quarterbacks would best be described as “rusty.” That should serve as a reminder that the offense next season will probably undergo its ups and downs before hitting its stride.
There are a good deal of players on the offense who are effective but also young. At the skill positions, tight end Grant Calcaterra, wide receiver CeeDee Lamb and running back Trey Sermon are all sophomores. If Creed Humphrey starts at center next season for the Sooners, as has been the buzz this spring, Oklahoma will have a redshirt freshman touch the ball every snap.
Ultimately, whoever wins the quarterback job will have to develop some chemistry with the new faces on offense and that could take some time. Upperclassmen on the offensive line will help ease that transition, but it’s hard to expect the Sooners to start the season scoring at the exact same clip they did last season.
3. IT’S HARD TO TELL WHERE THE STRENGTH OF THE DEFENSE MIGHT BE
After the departure of a handful of defensive playmakers, who becomes the biggest name to look for to lead the Sooners on defense next season? There are potential names across the board, but none necessarily stick out above the others.
You might point to the up-and-comers in the Oklahoma secondary, which was maligned all last season, but got a slight boost with an infusion of youth. It’ll be good to have players like Tre Norwood back and early enrollee Brendan “Bookie” Radley-Hiles turned heads this spring as a true freshman. With only a moderate amount of starting experience in the back end, though, how will the unit fare?
Up front, the defensive line added depth this offseason with the addition of Notre Dame transfer Jay Hayes, but he’s not expected to come in and become a starter right out of the gates. Also, even though the Sooners are already stout in the interior with Amani Bledsoe and Marquise Overton, its hard to point your finger to a star pass rusher on either of the edges.
The linebackers might have the most upside. Caleb Kelly and Kenneth Murray are both big time talents, but both need to improve from a year ago. Staying fully healthy has been a challenge for both this offseason. Still, assuming that Kelly and Murray contribute, there’s no guarantee that either will be the kind of All-Big 12 talent that Lincoln Riley would like to have.
4. THE RILEY ERA HAS BEEN AUSPICIOUS THUS FAR
It might be easy to forget that Lincoln Riley has yet to be the Sooners head coach for a full calendar year, a testament to the fact that this team doesn’t feel all that different from the ones Bob Stoops coached.
Yet, given that Riley has been a part of the football program for about four years now, there are a couple of things to be confident about going into 2018.
One is that the offense will hum no matter who is chosen as the starting quarterback. Riley has two viable options there, along with a boatload of talent at the skill positions and veterans on the offensive line.
There is bound to be at least a small step back, but even at that the Sooners will probably be one of the best offenses in the Big 12 next season. Let us not forget that Oklahoma was ranked first in all of FBS in eight offensive S&P+ categories in 2017. At least in a statistical sense, the Sooners were the best offensive team in college football, so being slightly less productive in 2018 would still be pretty good.
The other takeaway from from what little we have of Riley’s young tenure, it’s clear that recruiting isn’t likely to slip if there’s anything the 34-year-old head coach can do about it. His efforts at enhancing the entertainment value of the spring game yielded some big time recruiting wins last weekend.
After a season in which Oklahoma came so close to playing in the national championship game for the first time this decade, it’s hard to believe that the Sooners can go anywhere but down. What exactly “down” means come next fall, however, is a bit unclear.
Lincoln Riley’s first full offseason as a head coach will require him to replace a Heisman-winning quarterback who played four years of college football and improve a defense that was mediocre in 2017. That is no small task, but there’s no reason yet to doubt that he’s up to it.
Questions on both sides of the ball will persist into next fall, but with the kind of talent they have in Norman, there might be some pretty good answers.
The Sooners open their season on September 1st against Florida Atlantic University at home.