Oklahoma Coach Bob Stoops shuffled his coaching staff to pump up his offense and in a few weeks, fans will see if those changes will have an impact.
Perhaps the biggest change was firing offensive coordinator Josh Heupel and replacing him with Lincoln Riley from East Carolina. A protégé of Hal Mumme and Mike Leach, Riley had a reputation for high powered offenses with lots of passing yards.
In 2014, OU excelled in rushing the ball with the emergence of All American running back Samaje Perine while the passing game was inconsistent with an oft-injured quarterback, Trevor Knight.
OU ranked 10th in the nation in rushing last season, averaging 261 yards per game. OU was No. 82 in passing at 203 yards per game.
That apparently prompted Stoops to replace Heupel (now at Utah State) with Riley.
“Josh (Heupel), just like Chuck Long, the guy he learned from, they’re technique guys and we really believe in them,” Stoops said during media day. “They’ve recruited a ton of great quarterbacks for us here, so they deserve all that credit. It’s just that Lincoln has a different way, and I would take it to probably the way (Hal) Mumme and Mike Leach — it’s so much their discipline in how strict they are in their system.
“I think that allows the quarterback to become very regimented in not only his technique and development, but they see the same things over and over and over and it allows a degree of comfort. When you go for an entire year running the same play, there’s a lot of discipline and fundamentals in it that have been successful.”
The new offense could enhance the play of the three quarterbacks – Knight, Baker Mayfield and Cody Thomas – who are battling to start for the Sooners.
“Look at (Clint) Trickett a year ago at West Virginia,” Stoops said. “That’s what I keep saying. They have such trust in their system and the fundamentals and the discipline in it, and once a quarterback becomes comfortable in that, it allows for a lot of success. It’s not only for quarterbacks but for receivers as well. You’ve seen it in a lot of schools and maybe even in a lot of guys who weren’t highly recruited at quarterback and receiver both.”
The change has shown up on the practice field with the quarterbacks.
“You can tell all of them are more comfortable with all their reads and where everyone is at,” Stoops said. “You can tell they all did a lot of really good work all summer on things they did on their own with their pass-skel situations and their route running with their receivers. You can tell they’re quicker and more comfortable with where they’re looking for their spacing and their routes. Cody (Thomas) has had a really good three days also. You can tell he’s totally different than even the way he finished in the spring.”
Riley has been a big hit, even with the defensive coaches.
“He does a lot of good things,” said defensive coordinator Mike Stoops. “Most importantly he knows how to utilize his personnel, how to space the field and how to work leverage. Those are all key ingredients in building any great offense in today’s era.”
Riley’s up-tempo offense is great preparation for OU’s defense, which will face similar offenses all over the pass-happy Big 12 Conference.
“I think so,” Mike Stoops said. “They’re very precise in what they do and space the field tremendously. It will help us play better against teams who run the spread offense. Obviously last year we were a strong run team, and consequently we were very good against the run. The other side to that was we weren’t very good against the pass. You get good against what you prepare for.”
Riley won’t tip his hat on how he will mix OU’s running and passing but he guarantees a lot of work for the running backs.
“You’ll see. A lot. They’re going to be tired on Saturday nights and on Sunday mornings,” Riley said.
The big issue is how Riley will manage Perine, a potential Heisman candidate.
“I wish we had about three of him,” Riley said. “He’s pretty good. Very versatile. Very, very dependable. I have been impressed with his versatility. I knew coming in that he could run the ball. Everybody knows that. Seeing the kind of person he is, seeing how smart of a football player he is, and how versatile he is, that shows you why he is the kind of player he is.”
Sophomore fullback Dimitri Flowers is convinced all the running backs will have a role in the new offense.
“Oh yes, definitely,” Flowers said. “When (offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley) talks about how we’re going to get the backs involved I definitely feel myself included in that just because of the different types of packages and the different types of things all of us can do in the backfield.”
The offensive linemen like the new offense, too.
“Like Coach Riley said, this up-tempo offense will only go as far as us big guys can take it,” said center Ty Darlington. “Everyone knows we lost some great guys last year, but that just creates the opportunity for other guys to step up. We expect to be the best offensive line in the Big 12 every year, and this year is no different.”
“We got a lot of young guys right now,” said senior offensive lineman Nila Kasitati. “I think they’re doing a pretty good job of stepping up and understanding this is their chance to take a starting spot. Everybody is taking it very seriously and doing a good job at bringing their best.
“Last year we had a lot of veteran guys, like Daryl (Williams) and Tyrus (Thompson) and Adam (Shead), a lot of guys with experience. Right now, it’s a lot of young guys who are making their way to that spot. There’s a lot of potential in them.”
The battle for the quarterback starting spot seems to be between Knight, last year’s starter, and Mayfield, a transfer from Texas Tech who sat out last season. Thomas filled in for Knight when he was injured last year and has improved in the offseason.
Knight is sold on Riley and the new offense.
“He’s been great,” Knight said. “He’s a guy who will tell you exactly what you’re doing wrong, but also a guy who’ll celebrate with you when you’re doing things right. That’s the kind of coach you want to play for because for us as players, it gives you confidence and makes you want to learn.
“It’ll be a fun offense to watch; up tempo with a lot of big plays. We’ll push the ball down the field and utilize our committee of talented backs to create a dynamic look. I’m excited for people to see it.”
Oddly enough, Knight, Mayfield and Thomas are friendly competitors.
“Me, Baker and Cody have been and will continue to be very close through this entire process,” Knight said. “That’s what you’ve got to have. We all come in and compete and make each other better every day. I feel like personally I’ve been through a lot of ups and downs as a quarterback, but have been able to remain confident in who I am and what I can do. That’s due in large part to those two guys.”
Mayfield is anxious to return to action after sitting out a year due to his transfer. He, too, likes the new Riley offense.
“He has been great,” Mayfield said. “He’s a high-energy guy and you want to play for him. He gets you in a positive attitude and makes you want to play.”
With all the talent, can Riley keep everyone happy?
“You’re always going to have some people that disagree with where the ball should be, but when they win and they get a national championship I don’t think they argue,” Mayfield said.
Riley, who will likely pick the starter, likes what he sees in Mayfield.
“He looks good,” Riley said. “He is throwing the ball well. All three of those guys have made really, really big strides in the summer. I think you can attribute that to (the fact) it’s a competitive group. It’s a competitive situation. They are all guys that are pretty internally motivated as it is. This is an offense that maybe, more than you could in a Stanford or that kind of system, that you can improve a lot over the summer. A lot of the things that we do, you can work on without helmets, without pads on. Those guys did a great job this summer and they have come in a lot further ahead than they were in the spring.”
Riley’s system seems to produce quarterbacks who weren’t expected to be stars.
“Well, I think you can make this system fit the quarterback,” Riley said. “A lot of times, the guys who people think are the best quarterbacks are because they are 6-7 or because they have a huge arm or run really fast. A lot of that has nothing to do with playing quarterback. If you go and look at some of the best guys in the NFL right now, you’ve got a guy like Drew Brees who is six foot. Guys like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning — neither of them could break 5.2 in the 40-yard dash right now, but they are great players because they know how to play.
“Everybody has always called us a quarterback-friendly system. I agree. If we ever run a system that’s not quarterback-friendly we’re not doing our job.”
Thomas said the new offense is similar to what he ran in high school.
“I don’t know if it’s too much different with the amount of reps we get, but the tempo is quicker than what we’re probably used to, which is good,” Thomas said. “It’s what I ran in high school, so I’m familiar with it and it’s what I like. Going out and doing that will help us out a lot.”
It represents a shift in philosophy.
“It’s a different mentality I would say,” Thomas said. “For this offense to run, the mentality is to get the ball in the playmakers’ hands, and we have a lot of those this year in the receiving positions and with the running backs. We’re just going to get the ball in their hands and let them make plays.”
Will these changes translate to championships?
“The expectation from our perspective is the same every year,” said Darlington. “At OU we want to go out and win a Big 12 and national championship every year.
“I think this year’s team in particular has a chip on our shoulder because the fans and other members in our conference may have lower than normal expectations of us. That said, that’s not a bad spot to be in.
“Last year everyone was picking us to win it all and to fly through the conference, and that didn’t happen. This year is the complete opposite and I think we’ll embrace that.”