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Oklahoma Sooners Football: Lincoln Riley beefs up the offensive game plan with Jalen Hurts

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H-backs and Jalen Hurts’ running offer clues about what’s coming for the Oklahoma offense.

Houston v Oklahoma Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images

The reviews of the new Oklahoma Sooners offense are in, and the critics are raving.

ESPN has dubbed senior quarterback Jalen Hurts the leading contender for the Heisman Trophy. USA Today is calling Hurts the “perfect fit” to run OU’s scheme. Fox Sports commentator Joel Klatt took his praise of head coach Lincoln Riley to hyperbolic levels:

All of this for rolling the Houston Cougars’ woebegone defense? UH lost the best players from last year’s D, which was already bad, and the Cougars are installing a different scheme under new coordinator Joe Cauthen.

Yeah, kinda.

Cranking out 11.25 yards per play against an overmatched opponent is what take-no-prisoners offenses do. At the very least, we can say that despite a new QB and turnover across the offensive line, the Sooners didn’t show major cracks in the foundation of their offense. Interestingly, OU maintained its level of offensive efficiency from recent seasons – for at least a game – even though Riley made some tweaks to the attack.

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H-back is truly back

Remember Dmitri Flowers? He was kind of a Swiss Army Knife of an H-back for OU for what seemed like seven or eight seasons. The Sooners involved veteran Carson Meier in the offense a fair amount in 2018, but the H-back position had less prominence relative to the Flowers years.

Against the Cougars, H-backs Jeremiah Hall and Brayden Willis were everywhere, often at the same time. The duo combined to catch four balls for 39 yards and a Hall touchdown.

NCAA Football: Houston at Oklahoma Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

When I look at OU’s personnel groupings, I generally categorize H-backs as tight ends. I put the Y receivers (think Grant Calcaterra and Lee Morris) in the wideout bucket, given how infrequently they line up attached to the offensive line. With that in mind, here’s what I have for the personnel distribution of the Sooners’ 60 offensive plays last week:

  • 10 (one RB, no TE) – 28
  • 11 (one RB, one TE) – 13
  • 12 (one RB, two TEs) – 16
  • Short-yardage 22/13 (two RBs, two TEs/one RB, three TEs) – 3

Riley had an H-back on the field for a majority of snaps on Sunday. The Sooners put two (or more) H-backs together on the field about a third of the time. I don’t know exactly what OU’s personnel breakdown from ‘18 looks like, but it’s safe to assume the Sooners didn’t use H-backs at that rate.

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Active substitution patterns

Hurry-up, no-huddle offenses have become known for sticking with their personnel groupings from play to play. Doing so enables them to get to the line of scrimmage quickly without bogging down to substitute. Additionally, it prevents the defense from shuffling their personnel to suit down-and-distance scenarios.

Ironically, OU has slowed down in recent years, and the Sooners seemed to move at a glacial pace on Sunday. That probably had something to do with all the personnel groupings moving in and out of the lineup.

OU clearly didn’t sacrifice any efficiency by easing up on the gas and switching up packages. Keep an eye on this going forward, though. Riley may be experimenting early in the year with personnel groupings to see what works best. More likely, the Sooners will opt to tailor their looks to their opponents’ strengths and weaknesses.

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More QB run game

Riley deployed Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield judiciously on designed QB runs and read plays, with more of their rushing yardage coming from improvisational scrambling. Suspicions that OU would make Hurts a bigger part of the run game this season appeared dead-on after the first game.

Hurts carried the ball 16 times against UH for 176 yards. Kyler Murray reached that number of carries just one time last year, versus Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinal, and he never came close to touching that yardage total. Prior to that, Baker Mayfield went over 15 rushing attempts in a game once in three seasons as OU’s starting quarterback, with a high of 85 yards.

The big difference between Hurts as a runner and his predecessors is that Hurts is, well, big. At 6-2, 219 pounds, he can handle more contact than Murray and Mayfield and deliver more punishment of his own. Hurts also showed an ability to protect himself by sliding and finding his way out of bounds.

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What does it mean?

In the past two seasons, there was no real “book” on the OU offense. With Murray and Mayfield behind the wheel, the Sooners had equally effective counterpunches for anything a defense could throw at them. They could exploit any defensive strategy or weakness because they did everything well. We’re talking Platonic ideal of Offense.

OU no longer has a thrower at QB on par with the past two Heisman winners (few are). However, Riley can still build a brutally efficient offense in part by using Hurts’ legs to preoccupy defenses and put individual defenders in dicey run-pass conflicts. Here’s an example:

In this case, Houston’s defense comes out in a version of Iowa State’s “3-3-3” dime defense, which is quickly becoming a go-to strategy for defending the Air Raid. OU lines up in 10 personnel with three receivers to the right side of the formation and Ceedee Lamb by himself to the boundary. Hurts fakes a give to running back Trey Sermon, and the two proceed to sprint right. As one of the inside receivers to the boundary, Calcaterra stays in to block, so all the initial action tells UH’s middle safety (No. 3) that Hurts is running some type of QB sweep.

The middle safety hustles down to the line of scrimmage in run support, vacating his spot in the secondary. That opens up plenty of room for a post route to Charleston Rambo (first receiver to the boundary, outside the frame) in the middle of the field and a 33-yard gain. Presumably, Hurts could take off and run if he didn’t trigger the middle safety, and it also appears as though Nick Basquine is running a sideline route from the slot after feigning a block.

It’s just one game. However, the heavier personnel groupings and Hurts’ running ability suggest Riley is tinkering with a ground-up strategy that creates big-play opportunities for OU’s talented receiving corps.