NORMAN — Only one month separates Oklahoma from its season opener against Florida Atlantic.
What’s the anticipation level heading into fall 2018?
“I think I’m just as motivated as I’ve ever been, and I had a lot last year,” OU coach Lincoln Riley said. “I think every year, it’s a new slate. … No one knows how good it can be and that’s what is kind of exciting about it.”
Riley’s right: even last season’s 12-2 Big 12 championship team that came within a whisker of playing for the national championship had to configure preseason puzzle pieces in the preseason.
Here’s a season outlook for the Sooners:
• The big picture: OU hopes where it’s been — three straight Big 12 titles and two College Football Playoff appearances — mirrors where it’s going. That won’t be easy.
Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban are the only head coaches who’ve made it to back-to-back CFPs, and neither did so with fewer than eight seasons experience at the helm. Riley’s trying to do it twice, and in his rookie and sophomore campaigns. Also, no team in the Big 12 era has won four consecutive league titles. But it’s not an impossible feat.
OU has a deep stable of offensive weapons from running back to receiver. It will break-in a new quarterback, where Kyler Murray is the presumed but not official starter over Austin Kendall.
The offense will look different from a year ago, but considering the available skill talent — Rodney Anderson, Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb are among the nation’s top tier at their positions — it shouldn’t take too many steps backward.
Defensively, there’s guarded optimism around a young secondary unit replacing safeties Steven Parker and Will Johnson. Consider, though, that OU’s poorest defensive numbers in 2017 were against the run, not the pass. And the Big 12 has a stable of star running backs: Justice Hill (Oklahoma State), David Montgomery (Iowa State), Darius Anderson (TCU) and Alex Barnes (Kansas State).
What could activate another magical season? The historic offensive numbers quarterback Baker Mayfield helped drive aren’t necessary. Murray, or Kendall, if you’re among believers that he can win the job, need to effectively distribute to a deep group of skill players. Then simply, the defense needs to be better.
If neither happen, OU’s first three-loss campaign since 2014 is possible.
• All eyes on: The defensive front.
OU hasn’t been disruptive at the line of scrimmage in years, and it graduated 2017’s sack leader Ogbonnia Okoronkwo. Sooner coaches are peppered with questions about a revival up front. It’s easy to identify signing better talent as the key strategy, but for now, improvements are heavily predicated on development from returning players: Neville Gallimore, Kenneth Mann, Addison Gumbs, Marquise Overton, Dillon Faamatau, Amani Bledsoe, Mark Jackson and Tyreece Lott.
• The deepest position group: The backfield.
You could make a case for the receivers and still be correct, but OU’s the only Big 12 team returning two running backs who ranked among the league’s top-10 rushers.
Rodney Anderson returns after gaining 1,161 yards and 18 total touchdowns. Consider also that while coming off back-to-back season-ending injuries, he didn’t get comfortable in the offense until mid-October.
Trey Sermon rushed for 758 yards as a freshman and the team raves about developments from Kennedy Brooks, who redshirted 2017 due to a shoulder injury.
• The thinnest position group: Safety.
With Chanse Sylvie missing the season due to injury, only Kahlil Haughton and Robert Barnes return with significant experience here. Highly touted freshman Brendan Radley-Hiles can play the spot, but could wind up playing more nickelback.
Defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks’ solution is shapeshifting cornerbacks — namely Justin Broiles and Jordan Parker — into safeties.
• Newcomer to watch: Look no further than Radley-Hiles, or “Bookie,” as coaches and teammates will most often refer to him.
He will start somewhere. Exactly which position? For OU, the good part is he’s gained a reputation for playing anywhere in the secondary.
Radley-Hiles’ rap sheet is simple: he’s more physically and mentally mature than the average freshman, which helps support the theory that he’s the most coveted defensive back OU has signed in the modern recruiting era.
• Other key additions: DaShaun White (Fr., LB); Nik Bonitto (Fr., LB); Ronnie Perkins (Fr., DE); Jaquayln Crawford (Fr., WR); Jaylon Robinson (Fr., WR); Ron Tatum (Fr., DE); T.J. Pledger (Fr., RB); Starrland Baldwin (Fr., DB); Miguel Edwards (Fr., DB).
• Breakout player to watch: Grant Calcaterra.
The sophomore (6-4, 221 pounds) caught 10 passes for 162 yards (9.7 ypc) and three touchdowns last year. He could be poised for a big year at tight end/Y-receiver, replacing Andrews as the offense’s security blanket.