Sooners Preview 2018 at Big 12 Media Days
FRISCO, Texas — Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley, running back Rodney Anderson, defensive end Amani Bledsoe, linebacker Kenneth Murray and offensive lineman Ben Powers represented the Sooners on Monday to kick off Big 12 Media Days inside the Ford Center.
Riley and company answered met with the media for six hours and discussed OU's preparation for the quickly approaching 2018 season.
BUILDING OFF RILEY'S FIRST YEAR
In his first season at the helm of the OU program last year, Lincoln Riley led the Sooners to their third consecutive Big 12 title and their second College Football Playoff appearance in the last three seasons. Riley used his first full offseason as OU head's coach to build upon his impressive start in charge.
"It's a year-to-year deal, Riley said. "We've tried to build this team and take whatever lessons from last year that could help us, but this is a new team with new players and new leaders and we've got to approach it that way."
Oklahoma returns 12 starters from last year's squad, six on each side of the ball. Riley has been able to see new leaders develop as the Sooners look to replace NFL Draft picks Baker Mayfield, Orlando Brown, Mark Andrews and Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, as well as others.
"I've been really happy with Cody Ford on the offensive line for us," Riley added. "We returned a lot of great players there, but we lost our center, Erik Wren, who was kind of the anchor of our line, and obviously, Orlando Brown, who was the best left tackle in the country the last few years. We're going to have to have a couple guys step up, and Cody — I've been really pleased with him and the way he's really attacked the process. He's played for us a little bit. He also had a pretty devastating injury two years ago at Ohio State when he was a starter as a redshirt freshman, and so it's been nice to see how he's bounced back and I think he's ready to play at a high level for us."
Defensively, Riley was quick to mention sophomore cornerback Tre Norwood and junior tackle Neville Gallimore.
"I think Tre Norwood has really improved for us. He's really started the last half of the season for us as a true freshman at corner," Riley said. "I think he's got a chance to be a really good player for us, so I've been happy with the way that he's improved. Neville Gallimore is another guy who's shown flashes for us on the defensive line. I think he has a chance to become a dominant player for us there. I think he's in a great place mentally and really ready to handle all that it takes to do that."
With the Sooners looking to become the first program in Big 12 history to win four straight league titles, Riley noted the strength of the Big 12 nationally as a new year gets underway.
"I love the direction of the league — the new blood, the old guard, the talent. I think the league is really headed in a great direction, but you've got to earn your own respect and so we've all got a job to do there."
The Big 12 has been home to many of the nation's top quarterbacks over the last several seasons, but could 2018 be the "Year of the Running Back" in the league? The Sooners look to make that case with a plethora of talent returning in the backfield.
OU's running back room is packed with experience and talent. The Sooners return Preseason All-Big 12 pick Rodney Anderson along with Trey Sermon and Marcellias Sutton. Add highly coveted freshman T.J. Pledger and redshirt freshman Kennedy Brooks, and OU's stable of backs ranks among the nation's best.
Anderson shined in his first full season of action in 2018 after playing in just two games over the previous two years due to injuries. He led the team with 1,161 rushing yards and 18 total touchdowns last season (almost all of that came over the final eight games). Anderson wants to increase that production in 2018 and continue to build off the strong close he had to last season.
"I feel like I have a lot more experience," Anderson said. "Obviously, I was able to play more than a game and a half. I feel like my experience level has gone up."
Anderson said that arrival of new strength and conditioning coach Bennie Wylie has helped prepare him for the grind of a new season.
"I love Bennie. He has been a great asset to the team. It's more than just lifting with him. It's taking care of nutrition, staying straight in the classroom and staying straight off the field. I feel like he does extra. He's a great guy and a great fit for Oklahoma."
Despite missing two seasons with injuries, Anderson is now the veteran in OU's backfield. He's taking that opportunity to help Sermon continue to grow after his strong freshman campaign that resulted in 744 rushing yards and seven total TDs.
"I feel like Trey, he's good at any time and I feel like he showed that. He's definitely good in the fourth (quarter), but he's good in the third, second and first as well," Anderson said. "Our whole running back group has just got weaponry."
Anderson also spoke highly of Pledger, a four-star signee who enrolled at OU in January and went through spring practice.
"He is doing really good, especially as a freshman" he said. "He got here and he showed out in the spring and he's been doing great things. I feel like he's been making leaps and bounds in the weight room as well. He's been doing really well."
One of OU's deepest positions is the defensive line. The Sooners return seven players from last season who appeared in at least five games.
Junior defensive end Amani Bledsoe explained that the development of the unit comes down to a few important factors.
"Discipline and mindset, and understanding and trusting the defense and playing as a unit," he said. "Offensive players can kind of get away with it a little bit, but (on) defense, you have to all play together and be on edge at the same time. Everyone has to be on the same page and communicate and play as a unit. That's important for a defense."
Riley said there's an opportunity for several players to step up as leaders on the defensive side of the ball, including Bledsoe and sophomore linebacker Kenneth Murray.
"I don't think we're far off from being the kind of defense that we want to be. ... The potential is there, now what are we going to do with it."
After starting 14 games for Sooners at middle linebacker as a freshman, Murray looks to continue to build off his first season in Norman that culminated with Co-Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year honors and freshman All-America acclaim from the Football Writers Association of America and USA Today.
"We're hungry," said Murray. "That's one word to describe our defense. That's our mentality."
According to Riley, nobody should be surprised to see Murray make a big leap for the Sooners in the middle of the defense.
"(Kenneth) needs to take that next step and be a dominant player for us. There's no question. He's got the physical ability to do it. There's not a more gifted linebacker in the country than this guy physically. He's committed to it and works his tail off. He's just getting better because he wants to and I expect a big, big year from him."
The most-asked question for OU's contignent Monday was who would win OU's starting quarterback job. The battle to replace Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield will wage into fall camp between redshirt sophomore Austin Kendall and redshirt junior Kyler Murray.
And Riley's completely fine with that.
“It's going to be fun," said the head coach. "It's different this year. In our first quarterback battle three years ago, I was new, the offense was new, we had three guys who were just learning. But this one is different. Kyler and Austin have been Baker's backup in the last two years. They've both played in college football games, they've both been in this offense for a couple years, so it's a different level of experience, especially within the scheme heading into it. They're different players, but they're both very good. They're both ready to be a starter, so it should be a great battle.”
OU's head coach likes what he has seen out of Kendall and Murray in spring practice. The Sooners were able to redshirt Kendall in 2018 and Riley said that year has paid off.
“It's been fun to see (Austin's) development. He took a little bit of a different road in that he was the backup as a true freshman and the situation worked out where he was able to redshirt last year, which was great for him, great for OU. He was able to get a different vantage point from there and get a chance to practice against our scout team defense, a chance to really attack the offseason in a way that you can't when you're actually playing on Saturdays. He's in a great place. He's confident, he's as healthy as he's ever been — physically, he's really improved. He's ready to go compete, without a doubt.”
Murray spent the spring balancing football practice and playing center field for OU's baseball team. His physical and athletic abilities continue to stand out to OU's football staff.
“He's unique. He's so dynamic athletically," said Riley. "I think in recent history, him and (former TCU quarterback) Trevone Boykin have a lot of similarities (on the field). I do think there's some differences, too, but I think there are a lot of similarities. They're dynamic athletes. Kyler's different, though. He's a different breed. I don't know that there's one guy you can say he's just exactly like.”
Riley said he's excited to watch how the battle for the position unfolds.
"They're very similar in a lot of ways — they've been with us the same amount of time, they both were Baker's backup, they've both played in games, they're both ready to be a starter. It's going to be a great fight. I'll have a pretty good seat for it.”
Head Coach Lincoln Riley
On OU's non-conference schedule:
"That's one of my favorite things about the way we schedule — we schedule aggressively and so if we're lucky enough to win our league, you're going to be able to look back at our non-conference schedule and say, 'These guys play some of the best.' We've done it year in and year out. UCLA will be a great challenge. They're a West Coast team with a lot of great potential. They put a ton of guys in the NFL. Obviously, now with Coach (Chip) Kelly coming back to the college game, he had a great record at Oregon, as everybody knows, and I'm sure he'll do a great job there. It'll be a great matchup. We've been fortunate to play in some of these really marquee matchups and this one will be one we can add to the list. ... It'll be fun. You enjoy going up against other good teams and good coaches, and [Kelly's] record speaks for itself. I think our team will very much enjoy it."
On OU's running backs last year:
"We were a little torn with our running backs going into the season last year, having lost Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine. We had a lot of talent, a lot of unproven guys, so between Rodney Anderson, Trey Sermon, Marcelias Sutton and those guys, we didn't know exactly what we had and where it would all shake out, so we played them all early. I thought Rodney was a little rusty early. He missed the first two seasons with injuries — severe injuries — and I think he got his groove back; got his confidence back midseason, specifically in the Texas game. He got a couple of really nice runs that game and really started coming into his own, and after that, he just kept competing and continued to produce."
On which position group he feels most confident in:
"I don't know that I'd identify one right now. I always feel pretty good about the offensive line. I think we've got a pretty nice group there. I'm excited for our linebackers. I'm excited about our defensive backs. It's kind of a mix. We've got some guys who have been there and done it and we've been lucky enough to recruit pretty well the last few years, so there's some great young talent that we're mixing in. So we'll see how they jell and that will be the key."
Redshirt Junior Running Back Rodney Anderson
On his offseason:
"All the offseasons I have had have been pretty consistent. I have really good offseasons. I improve on my game. I improve on my lifts. I improve on my speed, weight, all that kind of stuff. The only difference this year is I am not recovering from an injury."
On the quarterback battle:
"It's the same summer for me. I am going to be good with whatever quarterback steps on the field come September."
On the transition from Bob Stoops to Lincoln Riley last year:
"There wasn't too much of a transition between Coach Stoops and Coach Riley. It was really smooth, and so it really feels like we've been carrying on business as usual. I'm excited to see what Coach Riley's got for this year."
Sophomore Linebacker Kenneth Murray:
On new strength coach Bennie Wyle:
“It's different when a coach tells you to squat 500 pounds, and having a strength coach who squats 500 pounds with you.”
On the biggest thing he learned from his freshman season:
"Improving mentally. I've always been a big, physcial player. I've always been tough and I love contact. Hitting people is what I love to do. Mentally, I had to re-teach myself football. I had to learn every formation. I had to go back to basics. It helped me learn what other teams wanted to do in certain formations."
Senior Offensive Lineman Ben Powers
On the offensive line being a thankless position:
"We just do our job and go home happy at the end of the day that we dominated the man in front of us. A lot of people ask me what motivates me. What motivates me is I love taking a grown man's dreams and crushing them."
On if he takes more pride in protecting the quarterback or opening up a hole for the running back:
"The running back breaking an inside zone run is awesome for sure. You can feel the running back go behind you and it's almost like in the middle of the play you can feel that it's going to be a good play. It's fun to feel the running back go behind you and turn around and see him 20 yards down the field."
On what the offseason has been like in Riley's second year:
"We've been working a lot harder. That might surprise you because we made it to the College Football Playoff last year. Obviously, we didn't do what we wanted to do at the College Football Playoff, so we've been working a lot harder and we've been getting after it."