A host of factors favor new Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley at the onset of his first season at the helm of the Sooners.
Unlike almost all coaching changes, Riley didn’t have to hire a new staff or to get to know the players.
“What made this so unique was the continuity,” Riley said during Big 12 Media Days. “It has definitely made it easier on me – not having to hire 10 new coaches, not having to get to know new players and develop those relationships and people within the program, like support staff.”
Riley said Stoops has been very helpful to him since Riley arrived in Norman two years ago as offensive coordinator.
“I spent a lot of time with him, especially this last year going over as many different things in a program that you can could imagine. He knew that eventually I did want to be a head coach and he was so gracious with his time and knowledge.
“I certainly look forward to using him as a resource – someone I can visit with and bounce things off of.”
Riley said Stoops had a keen sense of the “pulse of the team.”
“You’ve got to have an understanding where the team is and what is best for the team and that current situation,” Riley said. “I thought there were times even among the staff that we weren’t totally in agreement with him, but now, looking back on it, he just had a unique sense.”
In his first meeting with the OU players, Riley told them that he expected to earn their respect.
Riley is excited about the prospects for this season, with a bunch of good players returning and some exciting new prospects.
“Obviously, we have a very demanding schedule that you always get in the Big 12 and a demanding nonconference schedule,” Riley said.
That nonconference slate includes a road trip to Ohio State in the second game of the season.
Riley is grateful for the return of Baker Mayfield, maybe the best quarterback in the nation, and an offensive line that returns all starters and has eight players with starting experience. He praised the defensive secondary and said OU might have the best overall group of linebackers in the nation.
“He wants us to win and carry ourselves the right way in the community. He wants us to give back while we are here, not to just be here,” linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo said. “He wants us to get something out of what we are doing.”
“He’s very relatable. He’s definitely a players’ coach,” said Orlando Brown, the 2016 Big 12 Offensive Lineman of the Year. “Seeing the strides he’s made has been interesting. From the moment he got here we all had a feeling someday he’d be a head coach somewhere. We just didn’t know it’d be with us.”
“He’s a great guy,” Mayfield said of Riley. “That’s why he’s the best thing for this program, not just because he’s a great coach, but the values he has off the field. He started the ‘Grow U’ program. It’s about developing us off the field. All of our playing careers will be over one day, so how are you going to handle that and how will you know everyday things and how to handle certain situations? He cares about us as players, yes, but he cares about developing us as men, too.”
Mayfield could have declared for the NFL draft but he chose to return for his senior season.
“I think he has gotten more comfortable as a quarterback within our system and more comfortable with our current players,” Riley said of Mayfield. “Having good quarterback play in big games is always such a huge part of it. We are thrilled about his progress. We think he really took some strides this spring.”
Riley said he has emphasized some aspects to get the Sooners to play better early in the season. Last year, OU was upset by Houston and was beaten at home by Ohio State.
“We felt that at the end of the season the last two years, we were playing as well as anybody in the country,” Riley said. “We have got to do a better job so we hit our stride a little bit earlier, Baker included.”
While the offense has a lot of experience, question marks remain about running back and receiver. Record-setting running back Samaje Perine is with the Washington Redskins and running back Joe Mixon was drafted by Cincinnati Bengals. Those are big shoes to fill.
“When you lose two great players, guys who were incredibly productive in this league and who I think will have long NFL careers,” Riley said. “But one position – maybe more than any other one at The University of Oklahoma – that has always been able to reload is (running back).
“You have guys like Trey Sermon, Marcelias Sutton, Kennedy Brooks and then you have Rodney Anderson and Abdul (Adams),” Riley said. “I trust all those guys. I don’t think it’ll be the same offense we had where Joe and Samaje were playing at the same time. I think we might be a one-back team, but we won’t know until we start practice a little more. I think we’re in great shape with those guys. They’re very talented.”
Freshmen running backs Trey Sermon and Kennedy Brooks have all-star backgrounds.
“You never know if a freshman is going to be ready, but you pop on the tape of those guys and see what we’ve seen physically and you see some hints that they may be.
“We are going to have an open mind about it and it’s as wide open as it could be.”
Brown shares that enthusiasm about the stable of running backs.
“I’ve just been impressed with their consistency and their focus,” Brown said. “They’re all really focused and working hard. Everyone’s really approaching it with the mindset that each wants to be the No. 1 back. You can tell that by the way they’ve been grinding.”
After former OU receivers Sterling Shepard and Dee Dee Westbrook were drafted by the NFL, the question is whether Riley can come up with another star receiver.
“I think we can replace the production,” Riley said. “Will we replace it with one player? I don’t know. If we do, that’s great. If we don’t, if it’s a little bit more spread out, that’s fine too. I do think, looking at our receiving corps, that it would be deeper and a little bit more talented than we’ve been across the board than the previous two years that I’ve been there.
“We’ve got some guys, kind of like DeDe was as a junior, that are right on the verge, Jeff Mead, Mark Andrews, Nick Basquine, those guys that have made some plays that are right on the verge, and then some new exciting players, along with the transfer player Jeff Badet, that we think are – we’ve got the right guys in there. Just got to get them in the right spot and just kind of see how they grow.”
Recruiting has improved since Riley was named head coach and he credits the stability of the program and the news facilities.
OU players have moved into the 132,000-square foot South end zone addition after two years in temporary trailers across Jenkins Ave. Along with a new locker room, the facility has a spacious training room, nutrition area, coaches’ offices and player meeting rooms.
“It feels great because it was cramped in those trailers,” said Okoronkwo. “We have some elbow room now. The place is beautiful and we have access to it nearly all day. I go in and chill sometimes. It’s for sure one of my favorite spots on campus.”
When Stoops was hired from Florida, Oklahoma football was in bad shape. Conversely, Riley is taking over when the Sooners seem to be in great shape. They are picked to win the Big 12 and contend for a national title.
“Coaches have always had differing thoughts on that, right?” Riley said. “Would you rather take over the one that’s struggling so maybe the standards are a little bit lower or the one that’s better? I’ve always envisioned it being more like this.
“Of course you get the pressure with it. Of course, the expectations are there to win, like they always are at Oklahoma. But that’s something that I enjoy and something that our staff enjoys, our players enjoy. That’s why you come to play and coach at Oklahoma is to win and to win big. It’s always been like that. If you don’t enjoy that sense of pressure and those expectations, then it’s probably not the place for you.”