The Lincoln Riley era begins Saturday for the Oklahoma football team and the former offensive coordinator should have an easy victory in the season opener.
The No. 7 Sooners heavily favored at home by 44 points over the mid-major Miners of UTEP. But it would be easy to see how OU could overlook that Conference USA foe because Riley takes his team to No. 2 Ohio State on September 9 for a game that has national title implications.
Riley replaced Coach Bob Stoops, who unexpectedly announced his retirement this summer. OU officials immediately promoted Riley, who retained all of Stoops’ assistants, including defensive coordinator Mike Stoops.
Bob Stoops said he wanted to leave the program at a time when it was in good shape. Stoops won the Big 12 title the last two seasons.
Riley inherits protégé Baker Mayfield, maybe the best quarterback in college football. Mayfield is a record-setting redshirt senior who could have declared for the NFL draft but chose to stay to chase his dream of a national championship.
Along with perhaps the best quarterback/tight end (Mark Andrews) combination in the nation, the Sooners return with an experienced and deep offensive line.
The question on offense is how to replace running backs Samaje Perine (now with the Washington Redskins) and Joe Mixon (Cincinnati Bengals) plus Biletnikoff Award winner Dede Westbrook (Jacksonville Jaguars).
That’s a lot of offensive production to replace.
Riley is convinced that talent and depth at running back and receiver will make up for a lack of game experience.
Inside receiver Nick Basquine injured his Achilles tendon and is lost for the season.
In the receiving corps, sophomore Mykel Jones; freshmen Charleston Rambo and CeeDee Lamb; Kentucky graduate transfer Jeff Badet; junior A.D. Miller; walkon Myles Tease; seniors Jeffery Mead and Jordan Smallwood; junior college transfer Marquise Brown plus tight end Grant Calcaterra all figure to get a shot to emerge as the next pass-catching star for the Sooners.
“The biggest part for me is being a leader and teaching the new guys the plays,” Mead said about his role in camp. “Before, I was more worried about myself figuring everything out. Now, it’s more of teaching the younger guys and people coming in what they are doing and how they are supposed to do it.”
OU running backs coach Jay Boulware expects to play all four running backs — Marcelias Sutton, Rodney Anderson, Trey Sermon and Abdul Adams – against UTEP.
Adams has the most game experience, with 53 carries last year for 283 yards.
Anderson, a redshirt sophomore, missed all of last season with a neck injury and most of 2015 with a leg injury. Anderson was a four-star recruit and could be the most talented back on the team. Sermon is a 6-0, 222-pound freshman who is built more like Perine than any of the other backs. He was rated the No. 9 back in the nation in high school last year.
Sutton was an honorable mention All-American in junior college last season and was rated the No. 19 juco player in the nation. Norman freshman Kennedy Brooks could also see some action. Fullback Dimitri Flowers is back and his backups are Carson Meier and freshman Jeremiah Hall.
“They’re working hard; each and every day we have guys getting better,” running backs coach Jay Boulware said of the 2017 running back unit. “They’re making plays out at practice, which is what I want to see, as well as (displaying) an overall understanding of what we’re doing, not just offensively in terms of schematics, but situational. We try to teach them situational football and grow them up pretty fast.”
On defense, defensive coordinator Mike Stoops (brother of Bob Stoops) returns and has installed a 4-3 alignment as the base defense for 2017. The improvement over the last half of last season could continue into the fall campaign.
UTEP beat New Mexico State, UTSA, Houston Baptist and North Texas last year to wind up with a 4-8 record. The Miners lost at Texas by a score of 7-41. OU beat Texas in Dallas last season 45-40.
UTEP coach Sean Kugler is in his fifth season as head coach. UTEP finished tied with Rice for fifth in the West Division of Conference USA with a 2-6 league mark. In the C-USA preseason poll, the Miners were picked to finish in 6th place in their division.
UTEP offensive lineman Will Hernandez was named to the AP second team All-America list and was on the Outland Trophy preseason watch list. The Miners’ offensive line, anchored by Hernandez, allowed only 1.3 sacks per game last season.
OU offensive tackle Orlando Brown was named to the first team of the AP All-America team and is considered to be a first-round pick in the 2018 NFL draft.
UTEP travels to Norman to play No. 7 Oklahoma at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and the game will be on FOX.