The Oklahoma Sooners came into the 2021 season with high expectations. A 10-2 finish didn’t meet them. But the disappointment of failing to reach the Big 12 Championship Game paled in comparison to head coach Lincoln Riley's staggering departure for USC at the end of the season.
Nevertheless, a number of Sooners had seasons and performances to remember in 2021.
Offensive MVP: Kennedy Brooks, RB
After sitting out the 2020 season, Brooks returned to action this season with another stellar campaign. The senior running back rushed for 1,111 yards and 10 touchdowns on 184 carries. That made him OU's most reliable offensive option for the season. Notably, Brooks had two of his best outings of the season in rivalry games against Texas and Oklahoma State.
Defensive MVP: Nik Bonitto, OLB
Bonitto built on a strong 2020 season with an even better 2021. The edge rusher was nearly unblockable at times this year, notching 15 tackles for a loss. That total included seven sacks. Bonitto's departure for the NFL will leave a big hole to fill on the Sooners' defensive front.
Best Freshman: Caleb Williams, QB
A dynamic dual-threat quarterback, Williams supplanted Spencer Rattler as the starter at the midpoint of the season. He never surrendered the job the rest of the year, although Williams had his fair share of rookie moments this year. Assuming Williams is back in Norman next season, the Sooners may have the best QB in the nation.
Best Play of the Season: DJ Graham's spectacular interception versus Nebraska
You won't find many plays this season better than Graham's miraculous one-handed interception in the fourth quarter of OU's 23-16 win over the Cornhuskers. With NU attempting to mount a late comeback, quarterback Adrian Martinez lofted a wobbling throw towards the Sooners' end zone. Graham leapt and snatched the ball from across his body with one hand, securing the ball against his torso as he spun towards the ground.
Best Performance: Brooks vs. Texas
The OU running game started rolling in its annual rivalry game versus the Longhorns at the Cotton Bowl on Oct. 9. Brooks churned out 217 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries. His last run was his best: a game-winning dash to the end zone covering 33 yards.
Best Performance: Oklahoma 52, Texas Tech 21
The Sooners arguably had one complete performance all season, a 31-point shellacking of the Red Raiders on Oct. 30. OU averaged 9.8 yards per offensive play while rolling up 541 total yards. Williams completed 23-of-30 pass attempts for 402 yards and six TDs.
Biggest Surprise: Tyrese Robinson, OT
In an overall disappointing season for the OU offensive line, Robinson was arguably the most consistent member of the unit in '21. After shifting outside from guard, the senior gave the Sooners a dependable presence at right tackle. Robinson still projects as a guard at the pro level, but showing off his versatility this season can only help as he prepares for the NFL draft.
Biggest Disappointment: Lincoln Riley
OU's head coach stunned the college football world by leaving the Sooners the day after their final game of the regular season. Riley's departure for USC marked the end of an impressive five-year run that saw the program win four conference titles and make the College Football Playoff three times. Ex-Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables now has responsibility for helping the Sooners bounce back from a lackluster '21 campaign and getting them ready for life in the SEC.
Senior That Will Be Missed the Most: Isaiah Thomas, DL
You could make a strong case that Thomas was OU's best defensive player this year, but Bonitto was slightly more disruptive. Still, Thomas demonstrated leadership all season as a team captain and put together a productive year with 11.5 TFLs. His move from defensive end to an interior position on the defensive line for a stretch in the middle of the season proved invaluable as OU worked around depth issues caused by injuries.
Player to Watch in 2022: Clayton Smith, OLB
As a five-star recruit in OU's 2021 class, Smith was expected to contribute immediately on the field this year. It turned out that the freshman edge rusher needed more time in the weight room, and he appeared in just three games all season. With Bonitto off to the pros, Smith has a chance to wreak havoc in OU's new defensive scheme.
Offseason Storyline: Adjusting to a new coaching staff
A decade after he left for Clemson, the Sooners are looking to Venables to stabilize OU football after getting jilted by Riley. The new head coach has received a hero's welcome in Norman. While his decision to hire Jeff Lebby away from Ole Miss to run the offense is getting strong reviews, Venables' top priority for 2022 is instilling a defensive-minded attitude around the program. That process may mean a few current members of the squad head elsewhere, but it should pay off in the long run.
— Written by Allen Kenney, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Kenney is the founder and editor of BlatantHomerism.com and host of the Blatant Homerism Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BlatantHomerism.