Oklahoma opens its 2021 spring practice near the top of the list for college football's national title contenders, and the first set of workouts is an opportunity for coach Lincoln Riley to continue to build the foundation for this fall. The Sooners started Big 12 play 0-2 last fall but rallied to finish 9-2 overall with their sixth straight conference title and a convincing win over Florida in the Cotton Bowl.
A high-powered offense has been a yearly staple of Oklahoma under Riley, and that trend isn’t going to change in 2021. Quarterback Spencer Rattler is among the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy, and his development should be more than enough to keep the Sooners in the mix to win the national championship. A strong supporting cast of weapons is around Rattler, but there’s some retooling to do up front. In addition to its high-scoring ways, Oklahoma’s improving defense is another reason to believe this team can finish No. 1. The Sooners won’t have a shut-down unit, but this group can now get enough stops and create takeaways to win a playoff game.
5 Storylines to Watch During Oklahoma's Spring Practices
1. The Next Step for Spencer Rattler
Every player can find an area or two to work on every offseason, but it’s hard to find many flaws in Rattler’s game. However, after last year’s abbreviated workouts due to COVID-19, this spring will be his first to work with coach Lincoln Riley for a full offseason as the No. 1 quarterback. As a redshirt freshman in 2020, Rattler threw for 3,031 yards and 28 touchdowns to just seven picks and connected on 67.5 percent of his throws. Now that Rattler has a full offseason to get settled, that’s even more reason to believe Oklahoma can win the national title in 2021.
2. Sort Out the Receivers
The receiving corps isn’t a weakness by any means, but Oklahoma can use spring ball to develop some options and sort out a pecking order at the position. Marvin Mims (37 catches) is the likely No. 1 target for 2021, with Theo Wease, Jadon Haselwood, Drake Stoops and Trejan Bridges expected to round out the top five options. The incoming recruiting class is also going to provide help, as Mario Williams and Cody Jackson will enroll in time to compete this spring, with fellow freshman Jalil Farooq arriving in time for the fall. Including running backs, tight ends and H-Backs, Oklahoma receivers dropped 22 passes last season. Improving upon that total, as well as solidifying the pecking order for Rattler are the top priorities here this spring.
3. Solidify the Offensive Line
With assistant Bill Bedenbaugh molding this group once again, it’s a safe bet to assume Oklahoma will have one of the nation’s top offensive lines in 2021. Bedenbaugh has a few spring priorities, however. Two starting spots are up for grabs with center Creed Humphrey and right tackle Adrian Ealy departing for the NFL. The foundation up front is strong with guards Marquis Hayes and Tyrese Robinson in place, while left tackle Erik Swenson returns after starting all 11 contests in 2020. Tennessee transfer Wanya Morris should push for a starting job at one of the tackle spots, but Anton Harrison and Stacey Wilkins are other key names to watch on the edge. The battle at center is likely to feature Chris Murray and promising sophomore Andrew Raym. The Sooners will be strong here. It’s just a matter of sorting out which players are in the starting five.
4. Build on Last Year’s Defensive Effort
Alex Grinch heads into his third season in Norman as the defensive coordinator with his unit clearly on the right track. Oklahoma allowed 5.6 yards a snap and 27.3 points a game in 2019 but cut those totals to 21.7 a contest and 5.2 per play last fall. With seven starters returning, Grinch has an opportunity to elevate the defensive performance even higher in ’21. Replacing standout end Ronnie Perkins will be a challenge, but Isaiah Thomas, Perrion Winfrey, Marcus Stripling, LaRon Stokes, and Jalen Redmond make up a formidable front, with Nik Bonitto poised to push for double-digit sacks off the edge. Caleb Kelly returns from injury to join Brian Asamoah, David Ugwoegbu and DaShaun White as key contributors at linebacker, while there’s plenty of experience and options to reload in the secondary (see below). The Sooners are trending in the right direction on this side of the ball. This spring can help the defense put together the pieces to take another step forward once the ’21 season arrives.
5. Restock the Secondary
With Tre Brown, Tre Norwood and Brendan Radley-Hiles departing, this position is likely to garner plenty of attention from the defensive staff this spring. The good news: There are plenty of options and talent ready to step up in 2021. The bad news: The Big 12 features plenty of talented quarterbacks and receivers, so the going won’t be easy for this unit. Delarrin Turner-Yell and Pat Fields (won’t participate in spring due to injury) headline the list of experienced options at safety, while Woodi Washington, D.J. Graham and Jaden Davis garnered a wealth of playing time at cornerback in ’20. However, the depth chart could look different than it did at the end of last season. Tennessee transfer Key Lawrence is going to push for time at safety, and Justin Harrington – a junior college recruit who missed ’20 – is working at corner this spring. Jeremiah Criddell could be the answer at nickel after Radley-Hiles transferred to Washington. Joshua Eaton and Latrell McCutchin will look to push for snaps at cornerback.
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