FRISCO, Texas — First-year Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley made his Big 12 Media Days debut Monday, and was joined by offensive tackle Orlando Brown, quarterback Baker Mayfield, linebacker/defensive end Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and defensive back Steven Parker at the Ford Center at The Star in Frisco, Texas.
For the better part of six hours, Riley and company answered questions from the media regarding the upcoming 2017 season.
New Coach, Same Expectations
Although 2017 marks the first time since 1999 the Sooners will be under the direction of a new head coach, the expectations haven't changed. Former head coach Bob Stoops retired in early June, but players still have the same championship mindset.
“His expectations are still the same — win a Big 12 Championship and then go to the national championship and win that,” Parker said. “That is the big stage.”
Off the field, Riley has continued to instill in the Sooners a strong responsibility to give back to the community. Through outreach and in-house personal development programs such as Riley's “Grow U,” players have responded well to the head coach's challenge to serve Norman.
“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,” Okoronkwo said. “He wants us to get something out of what we are doing.”
According to Brown, Riley, the youngest head coach in the FBS at 33, has a strong understanding of his players because of his age and connects well with them.
“He's very relatable. He's definitely a players' coach,” said 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.”
Mayfield echoed those sentiments.
“He's a great guy,” said the OU signal-caller. “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.”
Despite a slow start on the defensive side of the ball last year, the Sooners capped the 2016 season by limiting their opponents as part of their nation's-best 10-game winning streak.
Riley said he is eager to see what the defense has in store and anticipates a more physical approach like in year's past.
"I remember growing up in the Big 12, you knew when you played Oklahoma,” said Riley, who was a student and full-time coach at Texas Tech. “Coming from an offensive perspective, you felt it. You knew it was going to be physical, you knew they were going to be as aggressive (defensively) as could be and you knew you were going to feel it on Sunday after the game.
“We've had a lot of stretches over the last two years – you don't win as many games as we have without playing some really good defensive football, and we have. But I want us to really truly get back to that, where we are extremely physical and people know what's coming every time they step on the field with us."
Okoronkwo and Parker said the defense must get off to a quicker start this season to reach its goals of being one of the top groups in the country.
“We have been focusing on starting fast,” Okoronkwo said. “We haven't been worrying about anything except ourselves. We can control only what we can control. We put everything out on the field.”
Added Parker, “We've been working hard. Just talking about the secondary, everybody is hungrier. I've talked to them a couple times and said, ‘Last year ended well, but we have to start fast.' That's exactly what we are doing as a defense.”
Experience Up Front
One of OU's strongest position units is the offensive line. The Sooners return all five starters from last season and a total of eight players who saw at least one start in 2016, including seven who drew multiple starts.
Riley said he is enjoying the competitiveness that is developing within the group.
"It's one of the most important positions, and to have not only the experience but then also the competitiveness in that we have our top eight back,” he said. “There are some really good players who have played some decent ball for us that are right there in the middle of it. I made the point that two years ago Jonathan Alvarez was a starter for us, and started I think every game other than one he was hurt. And then last year got injured and then Erick Wren played really good and beat him out.
“I wouldn't be shocked at all if we have somebody who was on the sidelines with us at the end of games last year that beats one of these guys out. It's been that competitive. When you've got that kind of environment at that important position, you've got a good thing going."
Brown, a second-team All-American last year, anchors a deep front and has set lofty goals for himself this season.
“Being a unanimous preseason All-Big 12 (selection) is cool, but I want to be at the end of the season a unanimous all-conference player and unanimous All-American,” he said. “Those are things I'm striving for.”
The Sooners can also benefit on defense by going up against a physical offensive front every day.
“They are going to make us better in practice, and on top of that they are going to have great protection for Baker,” Parker said. “It's going to be a great influence on us because we are seeing one of the best offensive lines in the country.”
Competition at Running Back
Behind one of the best offensive lines in the country, a fierce competition at running back is emerging in 2017. The Sooners must replace the dynamic duo of all-time leading rusher Samaje Perine and versatile back Joe Mixon.
Sophomores Abdul Adams and Rodney Anderson are leading the charge, while junior college transfer Marcelias Sutton and freshmen Kennedy Brooks and Trey Sermon will also compete for playing time.
“I could play running back behind this offensive line,” Mayfied said playfully. “They're awesome. But it's the University of Oklahoma, and we always have a running back to step up. It's considered one of the best places in the country to be a running back for a reason. So we have guys ready to step up and reload. Like I said about the receiver room, I think our running back depth is something that we haven't had in a long time.
“You have guys like Trey Sermon, Marcelias Sutton, Kennedy Brooks and then you have Rodney Anderson and Abdul (Adams). 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.”
Brown likes what he's seen from the guys he'll be blocking for.
“I've just been impressed with their consistency and their focus,” he 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.”
Sooners Moving In
With Gaylord Family – Oklahoma Memorial Stadium getting a facelift ahead of the 2016 season, the Sooners will also enjoy a new locker room and training facility in time for the 2017 campaign.
OU players have enjoyed moving into the 132,000-square foot South end zone addition after two years in temporary trailers across Jenkins Ave. Along with a sparkling new locker room, the facility features a spacious training room, nutrition area, coaches' offices and player meeting rooms.
“You mean the Taj Mahal?” said Okoronkwo. “It feels great because it was cramped in those trailers. 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.”
Said Parker, “It feels amazing to get in that new locker room and have some room to kick your feet up and chill out. It feels great to be back in there. From the old locker rooms to the trailers to the new locker rooms, I've seen it grow and it's pretty cool.”