Four in Store? 2018 Season Preview
Lincoln Riley's debut year as Oklahoma head coach was a banner one, as the Sooners posted a 12-2 record, went 8-1 in Big 12 play, won a third straight conference title (beat TCU 41-17 in the Big 12 Championship Game), qualified for their second College Football Playoff in three years (were the No. 2 seed), finished No. 3 in both major national polls, set multiple school offensive records and produced four first-team All-Americans in tight end Mark Andrews (unanimous), offensive tackle Orlando Brown (unanimous), quarterback Baker Mayfield (unanimous) and defensive end/linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo. Mayfield, in a landslide vote, also became OU's sixth Heisman Trophy winner and was the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns.
Oklahoma returns 12 players (not including specialists) who started at least five games last year (six on each side of the ball). Eleven of those 12 started at least seven games and 10 started at least eight contests. OU also welcomes back Austin Seibert, who handled all of the Sooners' placekicking, punting and kickoff duties in 2017.
Top-10 Recruiting Class
Lincoln Riley's first recruiting class as OU head coach was a consensus top-10 one. The Sooners signed 22 players, 18 of them ranked as four- or five-star prospects by 247Sports, ESPN or Rivals. The class is comprised of 13 defensive players, nine offensive players and a kicker. Eight of them enrolled at OU for the spring semester: defensive backs Starrland Baldwin, Miguel Edwards, Patrick Fields and Brendan Radley-Hiles, defensive end Ronnie Perkins, defensive end/outside line.
New Staff Members
Lincoln Riley introduced new staff members Shane Beamer and Bennie Wylie in January. Beamer became OU's 10th assistant coach and has the title of assistant head coach for offense. He coaches tight ends and H-backs, and will play a prominent role in overseeing the Sooners' special teams. Beamer spent the last two seasons at Georgia, and was also an assistant at Virginia Tech, South Carolina and Mississippi State. He is the son of former Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer. Wylie is no stranger to Riley, as the pair was together at Texas Tech when Wylie was the Red Raiders' football head strength and conditioning coach from 2003 through 2009. Wylie served in the same capacity at Tennessee (2010) and Texas (2011-13).
Riley also hired Bob Diaco as a defensive specialist in March to replace Chris Woods, who was hired as defensive coordinator at Texas State. Diaco arrived at OU after serving as defensive coordinator at Nebraska last year. He was head coach at Connecticut (2014-16) and defensive coordinator at Notre Dame (2010-13) and Cincinnati (2009).
Clarke Stroud also joined Riley's staff in July as director of football operations after an 18-year run as OU's vice president of student affairs and dean of students. Stroud replaced Matt McMillen, who arrived with former head coach Bob Stoops in 1999 and spent 19 years with the Sooners.
Riley's Fast Start
The Football Bowl Subdivision's youngest head coach (33) at the time of his hiring, Lincoln Riley became just the fifth mentor in FBS history with no previous head-coaching experience at a four-year college to win at least 12 games in his debut season. The previous record for wins by a first-year OU head coach was 10 by Chuck Fairbanks in 1967 and Barry Switzer in 1973. Switzer holds the Sooners' record for most wins in his first two seasons as head coach (21 in 1973-74). Riley needs nine wins in 2018 to tie the mark.
Strong Non-conference Slate
The Sooners' 2018 non-conference schedule figures to be a challenging one despite the fact that all three games will be played in Norman. Florida Atlantic (11-3), UCLA (6-7) and Army (10-3) combined for a 27-13 (.675) record last season, and all three played in a bowl game (Florida Atlantic and Army won). UCLA will be under the direction of first-year head coach Chip Kelly, who led Oregon to a 46-7 record (33-3 in conference play) and three Pac-10/12 titles (2009-11) before coaching four years in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers.
Rare Seven Home Games
Oklahoma will play seven home games this year for the first time since 2007, as all three of its non-conference contests will be held at Gaylord Family – Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. The Sooners have played six home games each of the past 10 years and in 13 of the last 14. OU will be the visiting team just four times in 2018, as it will be the designated home squad for the Red River Showdown against Texas at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas on Oct. 6.
Going for a Four-Peat
If Oklahoma wins the 2018 Big 12 title, the Sooners would become the first Power Five program since Florida (1993-96) to win four straight outright league titles.
Oklahoma lost five starters, including 2017 Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Baker Mayfield, from last season's offense that averaged school records of 579.6 yards per game, 361.8 passing yards per game and 8.3 yards per play.
Few will predict the Sooners to be as effective in 2018, but then again, nobody envisioned Lincoln Riley's offense would be as potent last year as it was in 2016 after losing standout skill players Joe Mixon, Samaje Perine and Dede Westbrook to the NFL.
If recent history has proved anything, it's that Riley's schemes and playcalling leave nothing to the imagination and usually result in offensive performances that confound the opposition no matter who's on the field for OU.
Primarily due to the loss of Mayfield, the Sooners return just 31.5 percent of their total offense and only 8.3 percent of their passing offense from last season. But they do welcome back 70.1 percent of their rushing yards, 58.5 percent of their receiving yards and 68.4 percent of their scoring.
The Sooners are replacing the most decorated and efficient quarterback in school history in Baker Mayfield, who was a unanimous All-American after throwing for 4,627 yards and accounting for 49 touchdowns against only six turnovers. He is the Big 12's career leader in TDs responsible for (153), and set FBS records for passing efficiency rating in 2016 (191.8) and 2017 (198.9).
Kendall (2016) and Murray (2017) served as Mayfield's primary backups the last two seasons and are engaged in a battle for the 2018 starting spot.
Running Backs & H-Backs
Anderson, Sermon and Sutton accounted for more than two-thirds of the rushing yards for an OU team that led the Big 12 in rushing offense last season (217.8 ypg). Add fourstar prospects Brooks and Pledger, and OU appears to again be in a great position with its running backs for 2018.
Shane Beamer, OU's new assistant head coach for offense, will coach H-backs and tight ends, and is tasked with replacing the production of one of the nation's top H-backs in outgoing senior Dimitri Flowers. A 2017 first-team All-Big 12 pick, Flowers started 32 of his 53 career games (23 the last two years) and caught 54 career passes for 886 yards and 13 TDs while also rushing for 151 yards and four scores. He also played a prominent blocking role.
OU lost unanimous All-American Mark Andrews early to the NFL Draft, and his team-high 62 catches (for 958 yards) and eight TD receptions will seemingly be hard to replace.
But first-year Sooners Brown, Lamb and Calcaterra combined for 2,064 receiving yards and 17 TD catches last season, and figure to play even larger roles in 2018.
They'll be bolstered by junior Mykel Jones and redshirt freshman Rambo, as well as a promising crop of freshmen as OU looks to pick up where it left off.
Led by position coach Bill Bedenbaugh (a finalist for the 2017 Frank Broyles Award, [nation's top assistant coach]) and unanimous first-team All-America left tackle Orlando Brown, OU's 2017 offensive line was consistently regarded as one of the top units in the country and factored heavily in the Sooners setting single-season school records for total offense (579.6 ypg; led FBS), yards per play (8.3; second all-time in FBS), passing yards per game (361.8) and completion percentage (.714; led FBS), and in leading the FBS in passing efficiency rating (202.7) and first downs (361). The unit also paved the way for a ground attack that paced the Big 12 by averaging 217.8 rushing yards per contest.
Even with the departure of Brown and first-team All-Big 12 center Erick Wren, returning OU linemen have combined for 103 career starts.
And with Bedenbaugh's strong recruiting efforts (he was named one of Rivals.com's top 25 recruiters in 2017 and '18), plenty of talented youngsters are eager for a shot to showcase their ability.
Oklahoma's defense ranked fourth in the Big 12 last year by allowing 394.9 yards per game, a total that was 37 fewer yards per contest than the Sooners surrendered in 2016. They ranked third in the league by giving up 238.4 passing yards per game (down from 269.4 in 2016) and sixth by allowing 156.5 rushing yards per outing (down from 162.6).
Despite the across-the-board improvement from the year before, Riley and defensive coordinator Mike Stoops know more strides need to be made. According to Riley, they think they have the personnel and leadership — albeit young — to do it.
“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,” said Riley.
“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.”
The Sooners return six defenders who were starting at the end of last season, including two linemen, two linebackers and two defensive backs. Only one of those six (tackle Marquise Overton) is a senior. OU brings back 54.4 percent of its tackle production from last year, 42.3 percent of its sack production and 50 percent of its interceptions.
Oklahoma only has to replace two regular players from its 2017 defensive line in end D.J. Ward (senior who started all 14 games and made 36 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss) and noseguard Du'Vonta Lampkin (redshirt sophomore who started two of his 12 games and logged 23 tackles and 5.0 TFLs).
Plenty of help is on the way with three highly regarded members of the 2017 recruiting class redshirting last season. And perhaps no OU position group will be bolstered by the 2018 signing class as much as the defensive line with a quartet of four-star recruits (three of them U.S. Army All-Americans).
The Sooners didn't boast the deepest linebacking corps heading into 2017, and some early season injuries didn't help the situation.
The 2018 group figures to be much deeper despite the loss of leading tackler Emmanuel Beal (95 tackles, 7.0 tackles for loss) at the Will position and leading pass rusher Ogbonnia Okoronkwo (76 tackles, 17.5 TFLs and 8.0 sacks) at the Jack.
Similar to the defensive line, OU looks forward to the contributions of a bevy of highly regarded true and redshirt freshmen. Sophomore Kenneth Murray is back at the Mike after earning Co-Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year honors and junior Caleb Kelly has moved from the Sam to the Will.
No OU position group is as young as the defensive backfield. Of the 13 scholarship players on the roster, only two are seniors and just two more are juniors.
Seven of the other nine were at least four-star recruits before signing with the Sooners. That's good no matter the circumstance, but especially this year with OU looking to replace a trio of seniors (safeties Will Johnson and Steven Parker, and cornerback Jordan Thomas) who combined for 133 career games played and 98 starts.
Four of the team's five 2018 defensive back signees enrolled in January and went through spring ball, including versatile five-star prospect Brendan Radley-Hiles.
Outside of veteran long snapper Wesley Horky, the Sooners return all of their primary special teams specialists for 2018.
Senior kicker and punter Austin Seibert earned second-team and honorable mention All-Big 12 honors, respectively, last season and also handled kickoff duties for the second straight year.
Holder Connor McGinnis was named the 2017 Mortell Holder of the Year, and CeeDee Lamb and Marcelias Sutton are back after leading the team in punt and kickoff returns, respectively.
Redshirt freshman Kasey Kelleher is the lone long snapper who was on last year's team.
Running backs coach Jay Boulware has served as special teams coordinator the past five seasons, and Riley indicated in the spring that new assistant head coach for offense Shane Beamer will also play a prominent role with some of OU's special teams in 2018.