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Oklahoma Sooners Football Recruiting: The past, present and future of Lincoln Riley’s first class

Lincoln Riley has vaulted OU’s 2018 class back into the national top 10.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Texas Christian Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Just as with an actual football team, there are few better ways to start a recruiting class than with a big, rock-solid, five-star left tackle. And with Brey Walker’s commitment in November 2015(!), Bob Stoops and the Oklahoma Sooners had found just that.

Walker was a tone-setter, a beacon, a totem. Some years the state of Oklahoma is a recruiter’s afterthought; other times it’s a wellspring of talent. And 2018 was shaping up to be one of those fertile years. People began talking about OU and a clean sweep of its in-state stars. The Sooners were resurgent, racking up a top-10 2017 class and taking advantage of a diminished conference. By adding Oklahoma’s best prep players, the Sooners could finally think about threatening for more than another conference title.

This is the as-yet incomplete story of the 2018 class and native sons like Walker, Ron Tatum, Jordan Kelley, Patrick Fields and Josh Proctor.

When Walker inaugurated the 2018 class, the Sooners were still months away from signing the ‘16 crop and a full year away from locking down the 2017 kids. OU was all set for an Orange Bowl clash with Clemson and was riding high from its first year of Lincoln Riley and Baker Mayfield.

Walker committed the night Oklahoma thrashed OSU 58-23 to lock up the Big 12.

The Sooners offered Walker in spring 2015, and it always felt like a two-horse race between the two Sooner State powerhouses (even though Michigan and Alabama had offered as well). As the state’s only four-star prospect at the time — Bleacher Report was already expecting an eventual five-star designation — the commitment demonstrated exactly which Oklahoma program held all the momentum at the time.

Abdul Adams committed the same day, if you still couldn’t process how freakin’ early Walker got on board.

Walker was huge then and he’s bigger now. At 6-6, 320 pounds, he ideally marries the size and athleticism required to protect the blind side.

Though Walker is hardly challenged during the season, he’s also excelled against elite competition at camps like Nike-sponsored The Opening. In a recent conversation with him, The Football Brainiacs described Walker as intelligent and mature, and said he models his game after former Sooners great Trent Williams.

Considering Walker’s dedication through almost two years of commitment and his continued development as an athlete, I’d say he could turn into one of the best linemen OU has ever produced.

Talent attracts talent. In July 2016, Oklahoma secured the services of Dakota Austin’s little brother Jordon, a 6-1 three-star cornerback who flies under the radar because of the North Texas players around him but could still make an impact. And finally that August, the most important puzzle piece: an elite Cali quarterback named Cameron Rising.

Sooner Nation was thrilled. Rising was one of the best QBs in the entire country and had his pick of Pac-12 programs — heck, of any programs. But it was hard to ignore what Riley and Mayfield were doing. He took the plunge and got on board.

But still the floodgates were not open. The Sooners were occupied with finishing off a decade-best 2017 class which, despite whiffing on linebacker Jacob Phillips at the last minute, they were able to do. Besides, with an elite quarterback in tow, the rest of the picture was sure to fall into place.

Patrick Fields was the first sign that strategy was working. Fields, a three-star Tulsa Union safety, announced his decision at The Opening regional in Frisco, Texas. The choice hardly came as a surprise, but the Texas Longhorns had made a hard, late push for Fields with a January offer, even getting him to a junior day event. They lost that battle, but Tom Herman’s new regime was going to prove more troublesome than most Sooners fans imagined.

Fields may not have been a top-five state of Oklahoma player, but he was a highly necessary addition for a secondary that was embarrassed far too often in 2016. Fields isn’t the fastest defensive back out there, but he has good instincts for the ball and solid tackling that helps make up for any deficiencies.

It was Fields that really got the ball rolling for the class. He has been a persistent recruiter in every way since he announced his decision.

His most important mission? Keeping Oklahoma’s best in the state of Oklahoma. But the first post-Fields commitment wasn’t an Okie at all — he was a Cali kid playing at Florida’s magnet IMG Academy, the first IMG player the Sooners ever successfully recruited. T.J. Pledger, though barely 5-9, was a fantastic commitment for Running Back U.

Pledger’s short, sure, but our own Kartik Rajendran said at the time that Pledger’s “stout build and shiftiness” help make up for it. “His ability to get to the edge is exceptional and his open-field speed is definitely his strongest asset. OU’s backfield rotation looks to be stacked for years to come, but the speedy multi-purpose weapon definitely appears to have the talent to slide into the rotation or on special teams from the get-go.”

Bleacher Report’s Rob Goldberg described Pledger as “a patient runner who knows how to find the hole and make people miss at the second level.”

“The California native makes up for his limitations with great quickness in small areas and instincts on the field,” he wrote.

It was a big out-of-state victory for Stoops, and with both Rising and Pledger in hand the 2018 class was shaping up to be a coast-to-coast juggernaut. All the national momentum was enough to convince one local kid — Jordan Kelley, a three-star DT from Tulsa Union and one of Oklahoma’s ten best players, joined his teammate Fields and committed to the Sooners the day after Pledger did.

Kelley is 6-3, 290 pounds’ worth of explosiveness. At one of Oklahoma’s best prep programs, he learned to be comfortable from several different formations and techniques and consistently overmatched his opponents while also standing out at showcase events. If Kelley can develop his hands and moves, he can turn into OU’s run-stuffing, pocket-pressuring answer on the interior.

That gave the Sooners three in-state products — Fields, Walker and Kelley — in the 2018 class. It was a very promising beginning for a class that seemed to be ideally fusing the local with the national, without the usual over-reliance on Texas kids.

Yet what looked like a normal, promising offseason was about to become anything but. Forces acting beneath the surface erupted unexpectedly over the next several months, changing the face of Oklahoma football — and its 2018 class — for good.

Brey Walker was the consensus best junior in the state last season, but behind him were several Tulsa-area kids that OU was gunning hard for. But they had plenty of options, and they explored.

Like Josh Proctor, the Owasso safety considered the state’s best defender. Ohio State wanted Proctor, and Proctor liked Ohio State. But surely some cold-weather school in Columbus couldn’t snatch away one of OU’s top targets?

On April 15, Proctor made it official: they had. He committed to the Buckeyes.

More bad news that same day — Bryce Bray, the three-star guard from Bixby, had committed to Oklahoma State. A few weeks later, star receiver C.J. Moore did the same thing (though the Sooners, somewhat controversially, had never offered him).

But the decisions were hard to fault at the time, because OU’s own class was in utter turmoil.

Because Cam Rising was already committed to OU, local QB and Sooners legacy Casey Thompson opted to join Tom Herman at Texas instead. That defection was made all the more painful soon after when Rising himself decided to flip from Oklahoma to Texas — a stunning reversal that left OU without a QB commit and UT with two elite ones.

Rising’s decision opened the floodgates. Two 2019 kids who’d rushed in too soon, Arjei Henderson and Theo Wease, decommitted. And Putnam City (OKC) product Ron Tatum, the state’s best defensive lineman, committed to Texas in a demoralizing last-minute decision to end the month.

All that, on top of grad transfer Scott Pagano’s decision to attend Oregon over OU, made April one of the worst months in Sooners recruiting history. Suddenly, the 2018 class had no QB and no direction. And Oklahoma was getting robbed by a program that had just finished losing to Kansas.

But the staff didn’t quit. At the end of the month, a defensive back from Deerfield Beach, Fla. named Miguel Edwards joined the class.

Kerry Cooks pulled a real coup to steal Edwards out of SEC/ACC territory and stop the Sooners’ bleeding. Edwards, while raw and a tad undersized, is a versatile ball hawk who finds a way to get involved in the play. With good speed, a fearless attitude and a high football IQ, Edwards may be a major player in the OU defensive backfield for years to come.

May was a quieter month, for better or worse, but Oklahoma did manage to tack on yet another defensive back — its fourth of the class — in Cypress Falls (TX) corner Starrland Baldwin. Baldwin, a high-upside player who became a major special-teams threat in high school, demonstrates elite athleticism and great body control, hanging tight by his man in coverage and keeping his eyes on the ball.

He was just the second Texas kid in the class, after Jordon Austin. Finally the class was getting closer to home. And while Lincoln Riley scoured the country looking for Cam Rising’s replacement at quarterback, his eventual choice came from just down I-35 in the heart of Bear territory. He was Tanner Mordecai, a three-star dual-threat QB and, ultimately, the final commit of the Bob Stoops era.

Bob Stoops has always been an apparently private, simple man. So when the news broke on June 7 that the legendary coach was walking away from the Sooners in the middle of the offseason, the decision made both total sense and no sense at all.

“After 18 and a half years, when is the right time?” Stoops explained in his hastily-arranged afternoon press conference, standing yards away from his successor and looking utterly content. “There isn’t a good time, that’s the bottom line. Here, lately, in the last week and a half, I knew it was the right thing to do for me personally and the right thing moving forward for the program and university, that this would be a positive thing.”

And then he walked away to the golf course, leaving 33-year-old Lincoln Riley in charge of a blueblood program and its somewhat diminished 2018 class.

Almost immediately the thoughts went to recruiting. What will this mean? Are we going to lose commits? But no players, to this point, have defected. In fact, Riley started his tenure with a scorched-earth campaign of commitments that was enough, I’d wager, to make even Tom Herman gasp. And they were all added around Mordecai, the Waco quarterback who found himself in the right place at the right time.

At first glance, the 6-2, 215-pound Mordecai looks more like a stationary gunslinger than a rushing threat. And it’s true, he’s not going to wow with his 40. But a calm demeanor and great field vision allowed Mordecai to excel as a runner in high school, and with some polish he could become a slightly taller, slower version of Baker Mayfield at the next level.

Like Mayfield, too, Mordecai extends plays and has the arm to keep defenses honest. While not a Rising-caliber recruit, he’ll help fill up a talented Oklahoma QB room and push the group to excel for years to come. And the first Riley-era addition to join him? The had-been turncoat, defensive lineman Ron Tatum. Suddenly, the Oklahomans were staying home again.

And Riley wasn’t done — not by a long shot. Since he took over, Oklahoma’s class has nearly doubled in size and vaulted once again into the national top 10. Tramonda Moore was next, a JUCO offensive lineman who was originally destined for Oklahoma State. At 6-6, 330, Moore is a mountain of a man who seems to have turned things around and should be a major asset for an already-outstanding Oklahoma O-line.

Perhaps returning the favor for Josh Proctor, Riley then kicked down Urban Meyer’s back door and snatched athlete Tavion Thomas from Dayton, Ohio. Thomas, a 6-2, 227-pound high school running back, is the perfect larger compliment to T.J. Pledger in the OU backfield moving forward.

And finally, a trio of receivers to close the month of June. The commitment of Kundarrius Taylor, from Memphis, suggests OU may be able to make inroads in a part of the country with few thriving programs at the moment.

Texans Treveon Johnson and Jaylon Robinson, who committed on consecutive days, demonstrated emphatically that Riley has captured the imagination of offensive players throughout the region.

Seven verbals in three weeks? The 2018 class was back in a big, big way.

So what’s next?

After a dead period from June 26 to July 9 when coaches were not allowed in-person contact with recruits, Riley has re-started the steam engine with the commitment of Rockdale, Texas wide receiver Jaqualyn Crawford yesterday. (You can read Jack’s thoughts on Crawford here.) It’s yet another victory for Riley’s offense and leaves the wide receiver position nearly wrapped months before signing day.

Oklahoma’s class is very balanced — the Stoops commits came mostly on defense, Riley’s in the skill positions. If Riley and his holdover staff can haul in some big names on both sides of the ball, like Midwest City’s Jalen Redmond, they will have the chance to finish with a truly elite class and lock it down in December.

Pay attention later this month, when the Sooners will host a BBQ in Norman for commits and targets who can make it. Events like these, which may prove central to Riley’s recruiting strategy, always give players a chance to see what life on campus could be like with a specific group of guys. After a few quiet weeks, expect more noise around that time.

And then before we know it the season will be here, and OU will be hosting elite players on campus at every opportunity. A big need in OU’s class moving forward is at linebacker — keep an eye on targets like Jacob Mangum-Farrar, Dashaun White and Brian Asamoah moving forward.

OU is also looking to add to its defensive line class of Tatum and Kelley. The staff is working hard on JUCO tackle Emmit Gooden, a current Arkansas commit, which has started an entertaining Twitter war between the border-state fanbases. OU also appears to be in the driver seat for St. Louis four-star end Ronnie Perkins, one of Missouri’s best players.

And with the Sooners looking to fill out their defensive backs, expect them to keep the press on Josh Proctor this fall — Fields and Tatum are doing their part to entice him back home from the Buckeyes. Riley is definitely staying in touch.

Oklahoma isn’t going to pick up every elite player from its state. But with Riley at the helm and plenty of positive momentum, the program is poised to to further expand the national footprint Bob Stoops fought so hard to build while staying competitive close to home and across the Red River.

With his youthful energy, eyeball emojis and leadership skills, expect Riley to be a formidable recruiter in the months head. Oklahoma is one or two top-10 classes away from true title contention. Riley is a safe bet to get them there. And with a (maybe) resurgent Texas program down south, the allure of Cotton Bowl Octobers and true round-robins — and yes, Big 12 championship games — might just turn Oklahoma’s flailing conference into a place where kids want to play.

The season is almost here, but recruiting season never ends. OU started building its 2018 class almost three years ago — so who’s looking good for 2021?