Sooners Preview 2019 Season at Big 12 Media Day
ARLINGTON, Texas — Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley, defensive lineman Neville Gallimore, offensive lineman Creed Humphrey, wide receiver CeeDee Lamb and linebacker Kenneth Murray represented the Sooners on Monday to kick off Big 12 Media Days at AT&T Stadium. Wide receiver Nick Basquine also attended as OU's Big 12 Champions For Life representative.
Riley and company met with the media throughout the day and discussed OU's preparation for the quickly approaching 2019 season.
SOONERS TABBED AS BIG 12 FAVORITES AGAIN
Last week, Oklahoma was picked to win its fifth straight Big 12 Championship by the league's media. The Sooners garnered 68 of 77 first-place votes, easily topping the poll. OU has been the preseason pick to win the league in seven of the nine years since the conference moved to 10 teams.
“I think the expectations and standard of Oklahoma football are so high that it almost helps a little bit in a funny way,” head coach Lincoln Riley said. “It almost helps you refocus in that, yeah, the last four were great, but what about the fifth one? That's the mindset around the program. I think we've got a good culture. I think our guys understand and have a healthy respect for how difficult each and every championship has been, each and every win has been. We have had to play our tails off and coach our tails off to get it done, and that's how it should be in the Big 12. And to make another run will be just as difficult — if not more difficult — and it will take everything we have.”
Oklahoma returns 14 starters from last year, including 10 on the defensive side of the ball. On offense, OU must replace four offensive linemen and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Kyler Murray, as well as All-America wide receiver Marquise Brown. Despite the lost offensive production, neither Riley nor Lamb anticipates a dip on that side of the ball.
“People thought there was going to be a drop-off last year when Baker left and Kyler was coming in,” junior receiver CeeDee Lamb said. “They can think what they want because when the first game comes, that's when the truth is going to come out.”
With new coordinator Alex Grinch in the fold, the Oklahoma defense is producing reviews from its members that include words like fast-paced, effort-based, speed and accountable. Players such as senior defensive lineman Neville Gallimore said it is evident when players do not give full effort or play full speed.
“I feel like there's no hiding in this scheme. There's no hiding with Coach Grinch,” Gallimore stated. “He keeps us players on edge. Playing this sport, playing this defense, you can't ever be satisfied, you can't ever be content. He's always finding an opportunity to get better and never settle, and just finding ways to be the best we can be, as well as being great men. That stands out.”
Gallimore said junior linebacker Kenneth Murray has the ability to live up to his preseason billing as the league's top defensive player, singling out his desire and passion.
“He's a dog. He's a playmaker,” Gallimore said of Murray. “Obviously he stands out from the moment he steps on the field. His heart, his hunger and his passion for this team and to play football stands out. As a guy I played alongside the last couple of years, whether on the practice field or a game, he wants to sell out and be at his best no matter what. It's good to have a guy like that in your corner, because I know the expectations I have for him are high, and I know it's the same for me.”
Lamb lent his viewpoint when asked on Monday, expressing confidence in what he has seen from the unit in the last few months.
“They live up to their standard and they live up to speed D,” he said. “When it comes to Saturdays in Norman in the fall, you will see what Alex Grinch actually came in and changed, and how he helps his team and gives them a different mentality going into the season.”
OVERHAULED OFFENSIVE LINE
Last season, the Oklahoma offensive line won the Joe Moore Award as the nation's top such unit. Four members of the group moved on to the NFL, leaving only center Creed Humphrey, a freshman All-American last year.
Humphrey was asked Monday about his new offensive line mates and how the four players around him will step up to the challenge of replacing such a successful unit from 2018.
“You don't come to the University of Oklahoma and not be ready to accept that challenge,” Humphrey said. “We've always put out great offensive lines and great offensive linemen, and they're expecting to do the exact same thing.
“All of the guys are extremely motivated and all hardworking individuals,” he continued. “We've been watching a ton of film together and doing a ton of drills together. Our chemistry will be fine right out of the gate. I think working through this fall camp, we're going to be in a good spot.”
Leadership is not new to the redshirt sophomore from Shawnee, Okla. As soon as he knew that all four upperclassmen from last year – Bobby Evans, Cody Ford, Ben Powers and Dru Samia – were entering the NFL Draft, Humphrey accepted his new role as the veteran leader of the unit.
“Even when I was in high school, I've always been a natural leader,” he stated. “When I found out everybody was leaving, I thought, OK, that's fine, it's just going to be a new challenge for me. It's going to be fun. I enjoy doing things like this. I enjoy being the leader and I'm ready for it.”
One of the hottest topics for OU's contingent Monday was about the team's quarterback derby. Alabama graduate transfer Jalen Hurts will battle in August camp with redshirt sophomore Tanner Mordecai and freshman Spencer Rattler to replace Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray.
“(Hurts) brings game experience that Baker (Mayfield) and Kyler did not have when they got here, but also doesn't have as much experience in the system,” said Riley. “It has been quicker but it's been fun. He's been eager. There have been things that we do that he's been able to trace back kind of the roots to different things that he's done at Alabama or even in high school. So it's not like you're starting from scratch. It's a fun process. He's a smart kid. He's eager and works very hard at it, and we have meshed together well.
Junior wideout CeeDee Lamb expects a battle between the trio even if Mordecai and Rattler may be labeled as the underdogs.
“Those guys (Mordecai and Rattler) are so overlooked and they don't get credit for what they've done up to this point,” explained Lamb.
“Obviously, Spencer just got here. He's maybe two months in but the guy is a competitor. His accuracy is out of this world. Tanner, he can really spin it from any distance. With Jalen transferring in, I feel like everybody else just got overshadowed. And that is no disrespect to him or any of them. The other two guys in that room are playing with a chip on their shoulder and they're not just going to let that opportunity go out the window because a grad transfer came in.”
Head Coach Lincoln Riley
On the strength of the Big 12 and how the league may evolve:
“I think there will always be really good offenses in this league. I do. But I think the league will continue to evolve. I think there are too many good coaches, too many good players, too many programs that maybe had been down for a few years that are showing a lot of promise right now. You could name several right now off the bat in this league. I think it's healthy for the league. I think great offense will be played in this league. I think great defense will be played in this league and I think the future for this league is as bright as any league in the country. I really do."
On the defensive overhaul and where the unit is in the process:
"I think for us it was first in spring football getting a baseline of schematically what we wanted to do and more importantly starting to understand the mentality that we want to play with defensively. And I think Alex and his staff have done a great job setting the foundation with that for our players. When you get to summer you only get eight hours a week with these guys, which is not very much. So they've got to know what they need to work on, so a lot of spring for us was educating them on things we need to do to get better. You can't get it all done at once. It's a step-by-step process and we do have to get better at it each day. But I think our guys had a good concept of the things they needed to improve on from a mentality standpoint and physical standpoint and learning and understanding schematically what we want to do. I think it's a process. I think it's a hungry group. There are a lot of guys that have played a lot of ball and they're eager to play their very best ball.”
On OU's season-opening opponent, Houston:
“Houston is a really good football team. Has been a really good program for the last several years. (I) have a lot of respect for the players they have; one of the best returning quarterbacks in the country, without a doubt, and a lot of talented players around him. I've got a ton of respect for Coach (Dana) Holgorsen. We have known each other for a long time. We've coached against each other here for a number of years. He does a tremendous job. He has at all the stops, and I am sure he will do so at Houston. I'm sure it will be a tough opener for us.”