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Oklahoma Sooners Football: Grading the new coaching hires

Jamar Cain and DeMarco Murray fit with Lincoln Riley’s focus on ramping up recruiting.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Three years after inheriting the job as head coach of the Oklahoma Sooners from Bob Stoops, the program truly feels as though it belongs to Lincoln Riley. Nowhere is that more evident than with his coaching staff.

Riley has brought in a total of seven assistants since taking over, and the hires in the latest cycle took on special significance for Riley after his mentor Ruffin McNeill opted to step away from his position as outside linebackers coach. The Sooners were also looking for a replacement for running backs coach Jay Boulware, who defected to the Texas Longhorns.

The young newcomers to the OU staff, DeMarco Murray and Jamar Cain, reflect Riley’s emphasis on infusing energy and recruiting juice into the organization.


DeMarco Murray, Running Backs Coach

Age: 31
Previous job: Arizona Wildcats running backs coach

Iowa State v Oklahoma Photo by Jackson Laizure/Getty Images

As OU’s career leader in all-purpose yards and career touchdowns, Murray needs no introduction in Sooner Nation. What he does need is to find a way to use the program’s offensive explosiveness to attract more talented RBs to Norman. It’s the one area where OU’s recruiting seems to lag the other positions on that side of the ball, and that shouldn’t be the case.

The last guy

Jay Boulware had a solid run at OU after joining the program as tight ends coach and special teams coordinator in 2013. He took over the RB room from Cale Gundy in 2015, and the Sooners didn’t suffer any drop-off in productivity on the ground.

Few could match Gundy’s prowess on the recruiting trail, though – Adrian Peterson, Joe Mixon, Murray. OU witnessed a decline in the caliber of RB prospects signing up as time wore on, and the Sooners probably left some yards on the table as a result. In that sense, a change in position coach doesn’t seem like the worst thing for the program.

Why Murray

Six years ago, he won the NFL Offensive Player of the Year award and was named an All-Pro running back. He did it while playing for the Dallas Cowboys, one of the marquee franchises in all of sports. That still carries weight with recruits who were 11 or 12 years old at the time – especially in the Metroplex.

Oklahoma already has a strong enough reputation to get a foot in the door with elite RB prospects. Combining that track record with Murray’s bonafides makes for one hell of a sales pitch.

Why not

There’s a saying, “Those who can’t do, teach.” There should be a corollary, though: Some who do, can’t teach.

The fact of the matter is that talented individuals often struggle to teach their crafts because they can’t relate to people who don’t have the same natural endowment of skills. For example, imagine Patrick Mahomes trying to put himself in the shoes of quarterbacks who can’t gun the ball the way he can.

Of course, plenty of successful players have transitioned into successful coaches who can share the tricks of the trade with younger generations of imitators. Which category applies to Murray? Seeing as he has one year in coaching under his belt, anyone who claims to know with certainty is lying.

An important nuance in this case: Running back is generally considered the most talent-dependent position on a football team. In other words, there’s only so much an RB coach do for his players in the first place from a coaching standpoint.

Grade: B-

Riley is betting on the come by hiring Murray. The Sooner legend still possesses name recognition, but competitive recruiting requires a major investment of time and energy on the part of position coaches. The lack of a track record in terms of his actual coaching also raises some concerns.

Odds are that this move will pay off big for OU, but there’s enough uncertainty surrounding Murray the coach to warrant some caution.


Jamar Cain, Outside Linebackers Coach

Age: 40
Previous job: Arizona State Sun Devils defensive line coach

Cain’s name didn’t come up much prior to Riley filling the spot opened up by McNeill’s departure, but it sounds like OU got a good one.

The last guy

Farewell to the Riva Rat.

McNeill is one of the most well-liked people in the entire coaching community. He’s popular with media members and players, too. By all accounts, he provided a steadying presence and a needed sounding board for Riley after joining OU’s staff in the summer of 2017.

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

By those same accounts, his ability to contribute as an on-the-field coach and an on-the-road recruiter was waning. As such, this seems like a change that should work out for the best for all parties involved.

Why Cain

The buzz around Cain is that he is a rising star in the coaching industry. He possesses a strong pedigree after grinding for two decades on nearly every level, including:

  • A year at Arizona State under Herm Edwards
  • Two seasons with Jeff Tedford and Bert Watts at Fresno State
  • Three seasons on Chris Klieman’s staff at FCS powerhouse North Dakota State

Also, Cain supposedly has some serious recruiting chops, especially in California. Strategically, that fits well with Riley’s ambitions to establish a greater presence out west. Like Murray, Cain could make even greater strides with the opportunity to sell the OU brand.

Why not

Honestly, it’s hard to find much to fault here. Cain has yet to coach at the upper echelons of the sport, but you can’t knock much of what he has done to this point. It does bear mentioning that he’s coaching OLBs at OU, which is a minor shift in responsibilities from his previous stops.

Can he land the most coveted recruits in the country when going head-to-head with Texas and Alabama and Ohio State and the like? Probably so, but time will tell.

Grade: A-

Riley did his homework here. Cain isn’t a big, established name at the position like Larry Johnson or Rodney Garner. Among up-and-coming coaching prospects, however, you won’t find many who can match Cain’s potential when it comes to developing players and acquiring talent.

This is a great hire.