NORMAN, Okla. (AP) – A year ago, new Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley was scrambling to find his way after Bob Stoops’ abrupt retirement put him in command just two months before fall camp.
The 34-year-old offensive mastermind now has a season under his belt and the kind of pay increase that often comes with a job well done. He led Oklahoma to a No. 3 final ranking and cashed in with a new five-year, $25 million contract.
There are plenty of reasons to believe Oklahoma’s investment will will pay off. Riley’s No. 1-ranked offense from last year returns two of its top three receivers, the top two running backs and three starting linemen. Though Riley has to replace Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Baker Mayfield, his expectations haven’t changed. He believes either Kyler Murray or Austin Kendall can step in and lead the Sooners back to the College Football Playoff.
“We did lose an outstanding individual player, no question about that,” Riley said of Mayfield, “but we also had a lot of players around him that helped make him that player, too, and a lot of those guys are still here.”
Oklahoma lost All-America left tackle Orlando Brown and Mackey Award-winning tight end Mark Andrews, who both now play for the Baltimore Ravens, but the Sooners are strong in both spots as they pursue a fourth consecutive Big 12 title.
On the defensive side, the Sooners have to replace Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. Linebacker Kenneth Murray is the top returnee after finishing second on the team with 78 tackles last season. Caleb Kelly, another linebacker, had 56 tackles last year. Cornerbacks Parnell Motley and Tre Norwood are the top returnees in the secondary.
It’s rare that a cornerback gets so much hype in Big 12 country, but freshman Brendan Radley-Hiles is the preseason Big 12 Newcomer of the Year and one of the most highly sought after recruits in the nation. He’ll help a secondary that has been assigned blame for many of Oklahoma’s issues in big games in recent years.
Riley isn’t saying who will replace Mayfield as the starter, but he likes his options. Murray was selected in the first round of the Major League Baseball draft but chose to return to school. The speedster completed 18 of 21 passes for 359 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions last season as Mayfield’s backup. He also ran 14 times for 142 yards, including a 66-yard burst on the first play against West Virginia. Kendall completed 16 of 22 passes for 143 yards as a freshman before redshirting last year.
Running back Rodney Anderson suffered a season-ending knee injury two games into the 2015 season and a season-ending neck injury in fall camp in 2016. He didn’t even start until mid-season last year, but he finished with 1,442 yards and 18 touchdowns from scrimmage. In his best game, he had 290 yards and four touchdowns from scrimmage in a regular-season win over TCU. In his final eight games last season, he had 1,333 yards and 16 touchdowns from scrimmage. At 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, he is a powerhouse with breakaway speed and good enough hands to have grabbed five touchdown receptions last season. He’s a potential Heisman candidate if he gets off to a fast start.
Oklahoma’s receivers were a question mark heading into last season, but they are a strength heading into this one. The main weapons are Marquise Brown, Ceedee Lamb and tight end Grant Calcaterra. Brown had 57 catches for a team-leading 1,095 yards last season. Lamb had 46 grabs for 807 yards and Calcaterra had 10 grabs for 162 yards.
Despite his critics, Mike Stoops remains the defensive coordinator. The Sooners have had notable defensive collapses the past several years. Oklahoma improved on that side last season, yet fan disappointment reached a boiling point after the 54-48 loss to Georgia in last season’s College Football Playoff. The criticism will increase if the offense continues to dominate and the defense doesn’t close the gap.
The Sooners don’t have an Ohio State-type team on the schedule like they did the past two years, but there are several early tests. They open at home with Florida Atlantic, which went 11-3 last season under coach Lane Kiffin. They follow that with a home game against UCLA before traveling to Iowa State, which upset the Sooners in Norman last season. The Sooners close the non-conference slate with a home game against Army. There are road games against TCU and West Virginia, but the Sooners host the annual Bedlam game against Oklahoma State and are favored to win another league title.
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