After securing their sixth consecutive Big 12 championship in 2020, the Oklahoma Sooners should have their sights set higher in 2021.
OU brings back most of the key pieces from the program’s most complete team in a decade. The Sooners finished the year third nationally in Offensive S&P+ and 15th in Defensive S&P+, both of which measure efficiency. Rather than seeking out major fixes, Lincoln Riley and the rest of the OU coaching staff will be smoothing over rough edges between now and kickoff in the fall.
And what might those flaws be? Here are some to consider. In a major break from the past, more work seems necessary on the offensive side of the ball this year.
Quick game and screen passing
When a pandemic is screwing up your offseason and practice schedule, some of the finer points of your schemes aren’t going to be so fine. OU’s quick passing game looked like a casualty of the chaos in 2020. (We previously covered some of the issues.)
Timing routes and screens require precision of execution that the Sooners seemed to lack. The perimeter blocking by the receivers also left a lot to be desired. Lastly, OU never really identified a make-something-happen guy throughout the year.
To be fair, this part of OU’s offense rounded into shape as the season wore on. Of the items on this to-do list, this looks like the easiest fix.
Rattler’s pocket presence
Spencer Rattler’s ability to throw on the move is unparalleled in college football. Frankly, many NFL quarterbacks probably envy it. It would make sense that he might lean into that kind of skill.
That could explain his apparent tendency to drift into trouble in the pocket. Rather than bailing on a clean pocket behind his offensive line, which is a common complaint about mobile QBs, Rattler sometimes messes it up on his own by floating.
You don’t want to tinker too much with a prospect who can sling it like Rattler. He and Lincoln Riley will certainly look to buff these kinds of imperfections out of his game.
Adjusting to adjustments for GT counter
Scheming in football is an exercise in counterpunching. GT counter is OU’s knockout blow in the running game. We saw this season that defenses are learning how to punch back.
You’ll never guess what Baylor did on Saturday when OU ran GT counter… pic.twitter.com/zp6nihrosF— Allen Kenney (@BlatantHomerism) December 8, 2020
The good news is that Riley is already ahead on developing his own counters to the defensive counters. Don’t be surprised if Riley and offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh also try to get more meat-and-potatoes on the ground by relying on inside and outside zone blocking schemes.
Maximizing the safety and nickel group
Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch has made depth a priority for the OU defense. The Sooners have set up solid rotations across the unit with the glaring exception of safety. Free safety Patrick Fields rarely missed a snap throughout the ‘20 season. For most of the year, Brendan Radley-Hiles was in a similar position at NB, although Tre Norwood began to see more playing time at the spot late in the year. The strong safety position saw the most substituting over the course of the season, with Norwood often spelling Delarrin Turner-Yell.
Norwood’s decision to leave for the NFL means Grinch won’t have the equivalent of a fourth starter to move around in the defensive backfield in ‘21, so identifying more depth is a must. First, however, OU needs to figure out how to get the most out of the nickel.
The reality is that OU has some flexibility with the nickel – or limitations, depending on how you look at it. For example, Bookie’s size makes him a liability in certain one-on-one matchups with some tight ends and can leave him vulnerable against downhill running schemes, but he can cover slot receivers. Should Grinch double down by working a player at NB with a similar skill set, such as Jaden Davis, and tailor his scheme accordingly? Or should the Sooners begin moving towards a more physical presence like JUCO transfer Justin Harrington? Perhaps the most intriguing option would be using Harrington in a Norwood-like role as a utility man.
Once nickel gets sorted out, the other pieces on the back end should fall into place.