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Oklahoma Sooners Football: Lincoln Riley entering most challenging year of coaching tenure

Entering a year that was shaping up to have plenty of promise, challenges are mounting in Riley’s fourth year as head coach.

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff Semifinal-Oklahoma vs Louisiana State Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Oklahoma Sooners have done so much winning in the last three seasons that it’s easy to overlook how unusual Lincoln Riley’s tenure has been.

He replaced a legendary head coach in a unique transfer of power just weeks before the start of a season. He shook up his coaching staff in the middle of a tumultuous year, rebounding to win a conference title. He helped three different quarterbacks get to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony.

Riley is now trying to steer OU through a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. That is just one of the challenges he is facing in what is shaping up to be his toughest test yet as a head coach.

A spate of injuries

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 16 Oklahoma at Baylor Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It seems as though OU has received nothing but bad news on the injury front this offseason.

It started with receiver Jadon Haselwood’s knee injury in the spring. The promising sophomore positioned himself to be one of the team’s chief offensive weapons in 2020. Instead, he’s probably hoping to play in four games and take a redshirt.

The Haselwood situation mirrors insider linebacker Caleb Kelly’s trying 2019 campaign in which a spring knee injury kept him from playing in all but four games. Another knee injury this year has wiped out the ‘20 season for the fifth-year senior, who was expected to provide a calming presence in the middle of OU’s defense.

How about another knee injury? Reporting indicates JUCO transfer Justin Harrington sustained one before he even made it to Norman. His late arrival to campus would have left him playing catchup as it was. Now the season is a wash for him.

In a change of pace, defensive lineman Marcus Hicks suffered a torn achilles after preseason practice opened. That means he won’t see the field this year.

Absences at running back

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 09 Iowa State at Oklahoma Photo by David Stacy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We already knew about Trey Sermon’s decision to transfer to Ohio State after a frustrating junior season in 2019. Over the weekend, redshirt junior Kennedy Brooks hit the Sooners with the news that he is opting out in ‘20 to prepare for the NFL draft.

That sets up senior Rhamondre Stevenson for a big year, right? Maybe, but unless he gets a reprieve from an NCAA-mandated suspension, he won’t see the field for a while.

That leaves Oklahoma counting on unproven runners like T.J. Pledger and Marcus Major to carry the load. Running behind an experienced offensive line will help matters, but it’s still less than ideal.

Suspensions o’plenty

Oklahoma v Oklahoma State Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

In addition to Stevenson, defensive end Ronnie Perkins and wideout Trejan Bridges will miss a big chunk of the first half to the season, courtesy of the NCAA. If you’re keeping track at home, we’re talking about:

  • Arguably OU’s best defensive player;
  • The team’s leading returning rusher (following Brooks’ opt-out);
  • A blue-chip pass catcher.

Then there’s the recent DUI charge against defensive lineman Jalen Redmond. Presumably, the redshirt sophomore will miss some action at the start of the season.

Those are some critical missing pieces for the early portion of the schedule.

Focus (or lack thereof)

Given everything that is going on in the world, you can’t really blame anyone who is distracted right now. Nevertheless, some signs out of preseason camp suggest the Sooners may be drifting amid the uncertainty of the pandemic.

Lackluster practices led to last week’s previously unplanned break for the team. Redmond ran into his legal difficulties during that period. Meanwhile, nine players tested positive for COVID-19 when the team returned, which represented a clear setback for a program that handled the virus well up to that point.

To be fair, every team around the country is trying to manage the chaos stemming from the coronavirus. No team can claim the fallout has been particularly taxing.

Even so, red flags have been popping up around the Sooners for weeks. If there is a fall season, Riley could have his hands full making sure this team lives up to the standards of his previous squads.