Even after a trip to the College Football Playoff, the Sooners have a lot of work to do on defense
The Oklahoma Sooners had a new head coach on the sidelines last season for the first time in 18 years. However, the unique circumstances under which Bob Stoops stepped down — leaving the program in the middle of the offseason — mean Lincoln Riley is overseeing his first spring football session in 2018.
That’s not the only big change for the Sooners this spring: After three seasons with Baker Mayfield as the starting quarterback, the Heisman Trophy winner finally used up all of his eligibility. Replacing arguably the best player in the history of the program isn’t even the biggest issue facing the team, either, as defensive coordinator Mike Stoops searches for answers to nagging questions on that side of the ball.
The problems on defense lead the top storylines around the Sooners this spring.
5 Storylines to Watch During Oklahoma’s Spring Practice
1. What’s the plan at inside linebacker?
Weak-side linebacker Emmanuel Beal’s graduation means OU lost not only its leading tackler, but a solid player in coverage. The bright side for the Sooners is that his departure potentially enables Kenneth Murray to take over at his more natural position. Murray stepped in to start at middle linebacker as a true freshman in 2017, but his mobility and athleticism seem better suited to Beal’s old spot.
Murray’s future role may depend on who emerges from a group of inside LBs with few skins on the wall. Jon-Michael Terry, a redshirt sophomore, certainly has the size to play middle LB, but he failed to beat out Murray a year ago. The other two candidates for playing time, redshirt freshman Levi Draper and fifth-year senior Curtis Bolton, are both coming off significant injuries.
Count on Stoops and linebackers coach Tim Kish to try a variety of combinations in the spring to see what works and what doesn’t.
2. A quarterback competition?
In all likelihood, Kyler Murray will take the field in the fall as Oklahoma’s starting QB. The Texas A&M transfer served as Mayfield’s understudy last season while sophomore Austin Kendall took a redshirt year, which offers a good indication of how the coaching staff views the two.
Could Kendall make a move this spring? Murray has to juggle spring football practice with the demands of the baseball diamond. If Kendall is sharp, he could make things interesting. On the other hand, should he fail to make up ground, count on speculation about Kendall transferring to heat up.
3. Finding a disruptor
Feisty edge defenders Eric Striker and Ogbonnia Okoronkwo have been the saving graces for OU’s defense in the last five years. Although Striker was a strong-side linebacker and Okoronkwo played on the weak side, both gave opposing offenses fits with their ability to create havoc in the backfield.
The most likely candidates to turn into that disruptor come from the JACK position vacated by Okoronkwo. Junior Mark Jackson saw some reps at the position last season and looks like the early favorite to win the job. He will have to fend off sophomore Addison Gumbs, a talented Californian who was considered one of the top players in last year’s recruiting class.
Wild cards include redshirt freshman K’Jakyre Daley and Jalen Redmond, a raw early enrollee from the 2018 recruiting class with major upside.
4. Thin numbers at safety
The position of greatest concern to OU’s coaching staff? It should be safety.
The Sooners are losing both starters from last year’s squad, veterans Steven Parker and Will Johnson. But considering neither excelled in his final season that leaves room for improvement at the position. However, the reality is that none of the returnees could unseat Parker or Johnson in 2017 when their spots were there for the taking.
Senior Kahlil Haughton and sophomore Robert Barnes have the inside track for the two openings. Keep an eye on redshirt freshman Ryan Jones, though, whose physicality has been lacking in OU’s secondary of late.
5. Freshman phenoms
OU nailed down a consensus top-10 recruiting class this year, and many of the newcomers are getting a jump on things by enrolling for the spring. A total of nine true freshmen will hit the field for the 15 spring practices, headlined by five defensive backs.
In addition to Redmond, the rookie most likely to make waves this spring is five-star defensive back Brendan Radley-Hiles. Although Radley-Hiles may have a tough time breaking into the rotation at his natural position of cornerback, he could still force his way onto the field at nickelback. He should make a bid to play as a returner on special teams as well.
— Written by Allen Kenney, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Kenney is founder and editor of BlatantHomerism.com and host of the Blatant Homerism Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BlatantHomerism.