NORMAN — While Lincoln Riley is no longer a rookie head coach after directing the Sooners to the 2017 Big 12 title and a College Football Playoff appearance, Saturday's spring practice will be his first as OU's man in charge.
So how will Riley approach the 2018 spring football season following the loss of quarterback Baker Mayfield and a host of other key performers from last year's 12-2 squad that finished third in both major polls? What is he hoping to see from returning players and early enrollees as they work to establish, or strengthen, their depth chart positions ahead of summer workouts? He took time to address those topics and several more in the following Q&A.
Question: It's been pretty eventful for you off the field since Jan. 1 with recruiting and a couple of new hires. How much are you looking forward to getting back on the practice field?
Answer: "A lot. Yeah, with all the traveling and recruiting, and all the in-office preparation for spring ball, you get antsy to get out there. And it's exciting to see the new team start to come together, seeing new leaders emerging, how our early enrollees fit within the team. We're definitely excited to get back out there."
What will be your approach to your first spring season as head coach? Are you looking to make any significant changes from your first three springs at OU?
"Not a ton. I believe a lot in how we did it in the past. There are a few things that we're going to do differently practice schedule wise. And then the biggest difference is probably going to be just the emphasis on the spring game and all that's going to entail. We want to create a great atmosphere for our current players, because it helps our evaluation of them. It also helps them to be in an atmosphere like that, especially our young and new guys. And obviously it's going to be a huge event for us from a recruiting standpoint."
How have the early enrollees adapted to OU and major college workouts so far? What do you want to see from them this spring?
"So far, so good. For their age and the position they're in, it's a pretty mature group. I like the mindset. They've done a good job adapting to everything we've asked them to do. I know they're probably as eager as anybody to get out on the field and get those first college practices under their belt. It's an exciting group. I think we've got some guys who have a chance to be big contributors for us."
The position that everyone will be talking about is quarterback, with the loss of Baker Mayfield to the NFL. What are you looking for from that group in the spring?
"I just think for each guy to continue to progress, and for them to compete. We've got a great room. We've got several guys who have been in that room, who have been in this offense and this program for multiple years now. The guys have varying degrees of experience, and they're talented. It's going to be a competition. We'll be looking to see, leadership wise, who can bring the group together, move the group and help it when things aren't going well; guys that continue to progress within the offense and where they're at as players. They've got to continue to take big steps. Competition always brings out the best and we're counting on that happening again."
Marquise Brown (left; 1,095 yards; 7 TDs) and CeeDee Lamb (right; 807 yards; 7 TDs) combined for 1,902 receiving yards and 14 receiving TDs as first-year players last season.
Kyler Murray got off to a good start with the baseball team this season. What's the plan for him in terms of juggling both sports once football practice starts?
"It's helped us this year having gone through it last year; that's made a big difference. We were lucky this year. This year the baseball schedule fits a lot better, so a couple days of the week right now he works out with us, a couple days of the week he's with baseball. And then once we start spring practice, it looks like he's only going to have to miss one baseball game, and he won't miss any spring football practices. So we were fortunate with kind of a heavy home baseball schedule throughout our spring practice dates. That being said, he's going to have some busy days. He's going to have several days where he's got spring practice and then a baseball game after that. But it's doable and it's probably a little better setup than we had last year."
Orlando Brown and Erick Wren are gone from the offensive line, but that unit still appears as though it will be a strength in 2018. What's your assessment of that group for the spring and are you able to say yet what options you're eyeing in terms of replacing both of those guys at key positions?
"Yeah, our expectations are still high. The center position will be an interesting battle. Jonathan Alvarez has played a lot of ball for us and played very well, and we were lucky enough to be able to redshirt him last year. He'll be a factor. Creed Humphrey, who's still one of the most talented young offensive linemen we have in the program, is going to be a factor. I think even a guy like Alex Dalton could be a factor. So we've got some interesting options there, some guys who have played a lot of ball. You've got to have that great leader and guy who can kind of control the group. Erick did a great job of that and we'll be looking for the next one.
"Tackle will be interesting. We don't have quite as many bodies out there right now. Obviously we still have Bobby Evans, and Dru Samia has played some tackle for us as well, so he's an option. It's going to be fun to see what some of our unproven but very talented guys are ready to do, like Adrian Ealy, Quinn Mittermeier, Erik Swenson, some of those guys. And we'll get a couple of our signees in here pretty quick and see what they're about when we start in June. So we've got some intriguing options, kind of like last year, with a lot guys who have played. There are going to be some big-time position battles that I think will continue on throughout the season."
You return three running backs from last year in Rodney Anderson, Trey Sermon and Marcelias Sutton, and bring in a highly regarded freshman in T.J. Pledger, who's already on campus. And Kennedy Brooks is ready after a redshirt freshman year. Safe to say you're excited about that group?
"Yeah, yeah, I am. We're in a different place there than we were last year at this time. We had numbers, but now we have guys who have played some ball. Rodney's played a lot of ball, Trey's played a lot of ball and Marcelias got to play quite a bit. Kennedy's back healthy after his offseason surgery, so I'm excited to see him this spring. And then of course T.J. as well. There will be a lot of competition there, a good mix of experience and young talent. So it's going to be fun to see those guys progress."
How important – and difficult – is it going to be to replace Dimitri Flowers at H-back?
"We have two returners in Carson Meier, a senior who's done some really nice things for us the last few years, and Jeremiah Hall, a guy we were able to redshirt last year. Those guys will get the bulk of the work this spring. We'll learn about their skill sets even more, and kind of how they fit in. And we'll throw (freshman) Brayden Willis into the mix when he gets here in June. So we've got some intriguing options there. Dimitri did a lot for us, but these guys got to learn from him and kind of watch as the offense evolved. So I think we're going into it with some guys who have a good idea what we're doing. That's been an important position and I think we'll have some nice competition there."
Several first-year receivers like CeeDee Lamb, Marquise Brown and Grant Calcaterra played big roles last season. What's the next step for them, and for that group as a whole?
"For some of them, it's learning to become an every-down player and being good enough to where that's what we want to do with them. For a lot of them, it's just going to be the consistency of being good week-in and week-out. A lot of those guys had some big games here and there, and at times weren't there as much. So if you want to be a great one it's got to be each and every week. We've got some guys who have a chance to take that next step, but also it's difficult to take that next step. The work ethic has to grow, the maturity's got to grow. They've got to really want it and fight for it.
"We're lucky enough with that group, kind of like the running backs group, that we have some experience and that we're going to have some really good competition there. We redshirted A.D. Miller and Charleston Rambo, so we're really excited to get those two back in the mix. And we've got a pretty talented group of signees coming in who are going to push. It's a nice receiver class to throw into the mix with some guys who have played already. Just like CeeDee coming in last year and beating out some of the guys already on the roster, I think that's very much a possibility again with some of the guys we have coming in. All of our returning guys, even the ones who produced a lot last year, are going to have to really improve and keep up their sense of urgency."
Kenneth Murray was 2017 Co-Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year. Says Lincoln Riley: "You just have a strong sense that he's going to be a lot better than he was (last season)."
You return six defensive guys who were starters at the end of last season. What are you hoping to see on that side of the ball this spring?
"We've got some key guys we have to replace. The two safeties right off the top, Will Johnson and Steven Parker, played a lot of ball for us. There are going to be some interesting battles there. Like a lot of these positions, you've got a few guys who have been around here who did some really good things. Kahlil Haugton really did some nice things before he got injured; we were pretty pleased with his progress. He's going to be a factor. Robert Barnes is going to be a factor; Chanse Sylvie. We've got some interesting names there, some talented guys you feel like are poised to take that next step. And then you start to throw in some of these newcomers like Bookie (Brendan Radley-Hiles), Miguel Edwards, Patrick Fields, some of those guys we've been very high on. All three have come in and done a great job so far. I think the safety battle is going to be important because it's such an important position this day and age with what you see day-in and day-out. Those guys have to be versatile and do a lot of things well.
"Certainly, replacing the steady, consistent production of D.J. Ward and the explosiveness that Ogbo (Okoronkwo) gave us. I don't know, especially with Ogbo, that you have one person who replaces all of that. But you've got to be able to continue to win one-on-ones and create that kind of havoc that he was able to create. It will probably take a few different people to get that done.
"We've got some pretty specific defensive goals internally that we feel our guys are ready to make in some areas that we know we can and need to improve. I'm excited about the potential of this defense. It's going to be young. We've got some really young leaders. A lot of the leaders on this defense are going to be sophomores and juniors. There aren't many seniors on it. So it's going to be a young but very hungry defense. I'm excited to see how it all works together now that we'll have a full spring for all of us to get it where we need it to be."
Have you already communicated your expectations to some of those younger guys in terms of stepping up and taking advantage of the opportunity to assume a bigger leadership role?
"Absolutely, absolutely. We've told a lot of them, 'You don't have to have played for multiple years here to be a leader. If you're a leader then you need to step up and be a leader, period.' And I think several of these young guys have that quality and want to step up and do it. The potential is there, the eagerness is there. We've got to teach them and help them to grow and to learn how to do it, and be as effective as we need them to be."
Kenneth Murray was Co-Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year last season, but you lost your leading tackler in Emmanuel Beal at the other inside linebacker spot. Who among the players here this spring will be candidates to replace Beal?
"Having Kenneth back is a big deal, with how he improved from the beginning to the end of the year. You just have a strong sense that he's going to be a lot better than he was. It's hard to play Mike linebacker any time, especially when you're a true freshman and your background isn't playing inside. Kenneth was more of an edge guy (in high school). He did a really nice job for us last year, but the expectations for him are high. He's worked to earn those.
"We've got some other intriguing options. We've got (redshirt freshman) Levi Draper coming back off of surgery, we've got Curtis Bolton coming back off of his surgery. Obviously we had some different injury situations there that challenged us to say the least. Jon-Michael Terry was banged up early in the year, too. So we've got a few guys we'll take a look at inside. Caleb Kelly gives us some versatility, depending on how the rest of the linebacker crew shakes out. I think he's a guy who could play multiple positions for us.
"Ryan Jones is one of our most talented young guys in the program, period. If he can continue to grow and mature I think he's got the chance to have an impact. And then we'll be excited to see what these newcomers can do in camp when they get here. We get three more with Brian Asamoah, DeShaun White and Nik Bonitto. I think all three, physically, have the skill set to help us right away. We're going to be deeper there. We're going to be a little bit younger in some areas, but we're going to be deeper. I think we'll have more talent, more bodies, more competition, which is always a good thing."
You mentioned Ryan Jones, who was a receiver in high school and started out here as a DB last year. What went into his move to linebacker now?
"Yeah, his body, that's just the direction that it's gone. He was already a big kid, pretty big for a receiver or a DB originally. Getting into the weight and nutrition programs here, he's just continued to get bigger and stronger, so he's going to go from being a guy who was a big, athletic receiver when he came in to a linebacker with pretty apparent athleticism and ball skills. He's shown some flashes. He's new at the position but there are a lot of things he does very naturally. If he can continue to mature then he's got a chance. As far as inside or outside, he's got some versatility. We'll figure that out, and then of course you've got some other outside guys like Addison Gumbs, Mark Jackson, Jalen Redmond and some others who we definitely want to take a look at, too."
One position that doesn't get a lot of attention, especially if things are going well like they did the last few years, is long snapper. What's the plan there with the departure of senior Wesley Horky?
"We'll have some pretty good competition going on with that spot. (Redshirt freshman) Kasey Kelleher came in and did a nice job for us on the backburner last year as our back-up guy, so he's going to have a crack at it for sure. And then we've got a couple newcomers coming in who we're going to take a look at as well."
Five-star defensive back recruit Brendan Radley-Hiles is one of seven early enrollees who will participate in spring practice. Lincoln Riley says an eighth early enrollee, Starrland Baldwin, will miss the spring season due to injury.
How have Bennie Wylie and Shane Beamer integrated themselves with the program and what has their addition to your staff meant thus far?
"They've been great; it's been really smooth. Bennie was able to hit the ground running with the players being in the position he's in. It didn't take long for our guys to see he's the real deal, can make them better and is invested in them. They've had a tremendous offseason so far. He's introduced some new challenges, some new ways of doing things that have been kind of a breath of fresh air for our players. So I've been really pleased with how that's gone. He and that staff have been tremendous.
"Shane's been great as well. I know he's probably as eager as anyone to get on the field. You can do some position meetings here and there and watch guys work out, but you're pretty limited this time of the year as an assistant coach with what you can do with these kids. He's excited to get out there.
"So both guys have been great. They're easy guys to work with, both very good at what they do. They're going to help us."
What will Shane's coaching focus/responsibilities be this spring?
"He's going to coach our H-backs and will coach the tight ends when they're in-line. His primary focus will be getting the H-backs ready to go, especially with us losing Dimitri Flowers and the battle we're getting ready to have there. Then he's going to have a very prominent role with some of our special teams."
Which players will not participate in spring practice due to injury?
"Nick Basquine will be out with the Achilles' injury I mentioned in early February. Mykel Jones and Caleb Kelly both had offseason surgeries. They'll both be fine for the season but won't participate in spring ball. Jordan Parker won't do any full contact work during spring ball; he might do a few things after spring break. Starrland Baldwin is also coming off an injury last season (in high school), so he won't do anything in spring ball. I think that's it."