John Hoover

Ask Hoover: On OU’s defense, OSU’s defense, Tulsa’s defense, Mason Fine, the Heisman Trophy … and kickers

Ask Hoover: On OU’s defense, OSU’s defense, Tulsa’s defense, Mason Fine, the Heisman Trophy … and kickers

OU’s Trey Sermon hurdles a Houston defender in the Sooners’ 49-31 victory over the Cougars on Sunday, Sept. 1, 2019. (PHOTO: Aaron Davis / The Franchise)

Time again for “Ask Hoover,” my weekly mailbag Q&A in which I answer your college football questions.

Some moderate concerns this week about the Oklahoma defense as well as the Sooners’ kicking game. Also Cowboy fans are appropriately worked up about the Oklahoma State defensive line.

All concerns will be allayed this week as the FCS comes to town: OU hosts South Dakota and OSU hosts McNeese. Tulsa, whose offense looked anemic last week at Michigan State, gets a chance to solve a few things as the Golden Hurricane visits San Jose State.

We will discuss the best questions every Friday on The Franchise Drive from 6-7 p.m. on 107.7 The Franchise in OKC, 107.9 The Franchise Tulsa.

Thanks to everyone who participated. If you want to jump in next week, shoot me a question (and don’t forget to follow me) on Twitter @johnehoover.

Let’s get to the questions:

 

Maybe my favorite question of the week came in while I was still in the press box last Sunday night.

Listen, Lincoln Riley is both smart and competitive. He believes in his kicker, he has confidence in his kicker, he trusts his kicker. But in reality, Calum Sutherland is 0-for-2 on the season. Both were makeable kicks in non-pressure situations. If he goes 0-for-3, Riley will absolutely start thinking about what plays he wants to run on fourth down.

 

I’d put very little stock in the Big 12’s 10-0 start last week. While historic — 2012 was the last time the Big 12 was perfect — it was hardly impressive. Big 12 teams were double-digit favorites in every game. Seven of the 10 opponents were from the FCS level.

That said, I do think the Big 12 is better at the bottom and better in the middle. Not sure yet about the top, though OU and Texas will make their statements in the coming six weeks. Texas’ home game vs. LSU this week is the league’s first true test.

 

I’d guess Kyler Murray. But that may be recency bias on my part.

 

You might be onto something. That’s the main thing I noticed from the OU defense on Sunday, is that guys on the field no longer look confused. Everybody knows what the call is. That’s so huge.

If Knowles is putting together a game plan that his players don’t comprehend, or if something is lost in the communication, or if Oregon State was giving the Cowboys an entirely unexpected look and OSU was unable to adjust to it, then Mike Gundy will be looking for a new defensive coordinator sooner than later.

 

I think there’s some of that. Three new coaches, new coordinator — guys might have been experiencing performance issues. That is, I’d buy that some of them were playing a little tight. There was also some inexperience on the field. I get that.

But the harsh reality is that many of these same guys weren’t very good football players last year, or the year before. And they’re back. Improvement is visible with the new coordinator and new system, but there may be lingering issues in regards to just pure defensive talent.

Still, most of the mistakes seemed to originate from either backups or guys who hadn’t played much before. So they’ll get better. The combination of young, inexperienced guys and guys who have played a lot but weren’t very good is something Alex Grinch and his staff must work through.

 

Logan Seibert is in the 2021 recruiting class, so that seems like a long time to wait for a kicker to show up. The thought here is that, yes, OU is on him. He’s not just a legacy player — his brother is the all-time NCAA kick scoring champ and PAT champ.

There’s video on Twitter of young Logan hitting an 80-yard kickoff and a 60-yard field goal (with no rush, and who knows which way the wind was blowing?). But Seibert is the 13th-ranked prospect in the 2021 class according to Kohl’s Kicking Camps. He’ll be recruitable for sure.

On a personal note, I’d have preferred Riley offer a scholarship to Union’s Noah Rauschenberg, who’s now a freshman at Baylor. One, the timing to replace Austin Seibert would have been perfect. Rauschenberg would have been a four-year starter, just as he might be in Waco. He’s currently competing for the Bears’ starting job as placekicker, and he put eight of his nine kickoffs into or through the end zone last week. Two, I’ve been saying for five years that Rauschenberg would be a Division I kicker — from the very first time I saw him kick for my son’s eighth-grade team at Union. He was drilling 40-yarders right down the middle like college kickers hit PATs. He’s a phenom.

 

You’re 100 percent right: injuries will be something to watch.

I do think the depth will work itself out. Talented players from the last two freshmen classes will find their way onto the field if they’re good enough, and that will push more experienced upperclassmen into reserve roles. That could happen at just about any spot in the secondary. But if those young guys can’t ascend to starting roles, that just means Grinch will keep more experience on the field. That’s not a bad thing.

The guess here is that the breakdowns you saw against Houston were more mental than anything, and that means they’re correctable. Grinch and his staff will figure out that part.

 

One word: consistency. That means if you’ve got a team down (like the Sooners had Houston down), there’s no room for mental errors. There’s no room for letting up. Somehow, after Houston got going a bit (definitely give Dana Holgorsen, D’Eriq King and those guys credit), OU players seemed to start playing a bit more tentative. That gave Houston even more confidence, and that’s not what Grinch wants to see.

To put it another way, it seemed OU’s early adrenaline wore off. They lost their edge.

That part is absolutely coachable.

 

Yeah, I asked Lincoln Riley about that directly. Publicly, he took the fall for Sutherland’s missed 49 yarder, and he suggested the miss might have shaken his confidence. That’s great for your head coach to fall on that sword, but it’s the kicker’s job — this year, with Austin Seibert gone, literally his only job — to make kicks. This is big-boy football.

I expect Riley to put Sutherland and Gabe Brkic under pressure in practice this week and see what comes out on Saturday. The important games really begin next week, and the Sooners need to have a guy they trust to make kicks.

Otherwise, as referenced above, Riley will be working extra on his fourth-down packages.

 

They are small, they are young, and they are wholly inexperienced.

But it’s also a byproduct of that odd front. There are ways to compensate, but not if you don’t have the depth at the interior positions, and not if you’re trying to man a spot on the line of scrimmage with a 200-pound linebacker.

Big 12 defenses anymore look afraid to stack the box because the result is often a 40-yard completion. I get that. Offenses are sophisticated enough that if the box is light, they will have success running the ball. That part is an age-old battle, and the defense is already at a natural disadvantage. But when the scheme itself invites teams to hand off, it’s hard to succeed.

It’s early to say this because schedules and stats are skewed, but after one week, the Cowboys rank 88th against the run and 96th against the pass. OSU needs to fix some things defensively.

 

No, he’s looking for his top 16 or so. He played 26 guys last week, and he’ll play more this week. That will be a recurring theme until he’s comfortable with the ones he believes in.

 

Spiking the football is a penalty in college. Always has been. In 2007 or 2008, they added throwing the ball in the air (Washington QB Jake Locker found that out against the Sooners). Let them play, yes, let them celebrate. There is plenty of gray area there. But it’s just too easy to see a player spike the football.

                                         

The offense looked bad, but Tulsa won’t come anywhere near a defense like that again in 2019. Those Spartans are absolute monsters. The one drive TU had for a touchdown was an impressive compilation of plays — well called, well executed.

What was most concerning — besides the bad shotgun snaps, which were addressed by a personnel change — was Zach Smith’s lack of pocket awareness. I realize he hadn’t played in two years and that he’ll probably get back that sense of timing. But he had to have known his receivers would be tightly covered by the MSU defensive backs. And he had to have known his offensive line would be under duress by the MSU front seven. But he still held the football way, way too long, and that cost produced points for the other team.

I wonder if Seth Boomer might have been a more appropriate option to play at Michigan State because of his mobility, though I suppose that also might have put him in significant peril.

I predicted the Tulsa defense would be in the top two or three of the AAC, and I might have sold them short. They looked fantastic. Michigan State’s offense could hardly be considered dynamic, but TU made impact plays — batted passes, quarterback pressures, tackles for loss — on virtually every drive. That was impressive. They have room to grow, sure, but this defense showed real signs.

Next week should be fun.

 

I maintain that Jadon Haselwood is the most advanced of the three, and he looked the part Sunday. Trejan Bridges contributed big plays on special teams. The guy who played the least is Theo Wease. That doesn’t necessarily answer the question, but it may be a really, really early indicator.

I do like your analogy with Hubbard/Hill and Sanders/Thomas. And maybe Mike Gundy does, too. Remember, Hill was used way too little last season (he averaged 11 carries in the first four games and averaged 15.8 per game for the season), while after one game, Hubbard had 13 carries midway through the first half and finished with 26. Let’s see what Hubbard can do over the course of a season.

 

All things considered, the Sooners’ o-line was good. In the past, when OU replaced four starting offensive linemen, the first games were a loss to TCU and a loss to BYU, and in both cases, the o-line was brutal. This o-line helped account for 354 yards rushing, 332 passing and didn’t allow a sack.

Now, about that last one: there were a handful of protection issues up front, primarily from the left tackle spot. Erik Swenson apparently had an injury in training camp that hindered his growth as a first-time starter, and R.J. Proctor slid over after having mostly played guard at Virginia and in camp at OU. Jalen Hurts was savvy enough in the pocket to avoid the rush and prevent a sack, but that’s something Bill Bedenbaugh is working to shore up.

Running backs were good, if a bit underused. Hurts had more carries (16) than Trey Sermon (11) and Kennedy Brooks (4) combined. That can’t be ideal. Sermon averaged 8.3 yards per catch and Brooks was back to his sneaky-good self, averaging 11.5 yards per carry. Sermon also caught two passes for 20 yards. Rhamondre Stevenson needs to be much stronger with the football, but as a runner he was both good (a 25-yarder and a 21-yard touchdown) and bad (loss of 2, loss of 4, no gain and a fumble).

Depth is suddenly an issue: T.J. Pledger had minor hand surgery after a preseason injury, and Marcus Major is hurt as well.

 

Sounds like you think TU’s offense may have to rely on trick plays this year? I’d guess you’re probably right. Philip Montgomery might have to get creative to stun some people. Agreed on the Tulsa defense. It might not be silly to suggest Tulsa has the best defense in the state this year (they did last year). And yes, Jim Knowles might have to resort to blitzing a lot more to compensate for his defensive deficiencies.

 

I’d say it’s a mystery, but it’s really not. Philip Montgomery had two QBs he believed in at the time, and neither guy came close to what he thought they’d be. On one hand, it’d be fair to say TU missed what every other D1 school missed. But on the other hand, both Jason Pirtle and Mason Fine badly wanted to go to TU, and got virtually no interest in return. You can say everybody else missed too, but these guys were in your back yard.

 

All you have to go on is one game, so yes, absolutely worry.

However, please see my above answers about what Riley said Sunday night and how I think he’ll push them this week.

 

In truth, there was only one change because this was the Monday (Tuesday in this case) depth chart that’s just a standard part of the weekly pregame notes package. That one change was at left tackle, where R.J. Proctor is listed as a “OR” co-starter with Erik Swenson. Last week that spot was taken by freshman Finley Felix.

This early depth chart for South Dakota came out before Lincoln Riley revealed that running back T.J. Pledger was out with a hand injury, so that change hadn’t been recorded yet.

Expect a few more changes on the depth chart we get Saturday. I’ll try to remember to tweet that out before the game.

 

That was really one of the biggest offseason concerns I had, and it played out in Week 1. Riley sounds confident, but I’m not so sure. Keep an eye on it as we go.

(Also, please see my answers above regarding the kicking situation.)

 

Yeah, Lincoln Riley told us that Pledger was out because of minor surgery for a hand injury and would be back sometime this season. Rhamondre Stevenson needs to have better ball security, for sure. That could hurt his playing time later in the season.

 

Every day.

Oh wait, drug test?

Sorry, misunderstood.

 

I don’t think so. Riley knows winning football games — particularly, winning national championships — and not Heismans is the best way to elevate the program, the way to get a statue built of himself, and the way to get paid. The best way to do all that is to keep your quarterback healthy.

But you raise an interesting discussion that conspiracy theorists would devour.

 

No. College kickers are just too inconsistent. I mean, these guys have their own hashtags for when things go sideways.

And I think your answer is Army. Nobody’s gonna beat Clemson this year, are they? Army, meanwhile, had me sitting in stunned amazement as they took OU to overtime last year.

Of course, that was the 2018 Oklahoma defense. Michigan ain’t that.

 

John Hoover
@JohnEHoover

John Hoover wrote for the Tulsa World for 24 years before joining The Franchise, where he was co-host of "Further Review" and "The Franchise Drive." Now he's The Franchise college football insider: Oklahoma's state Heisman rep, a voter in the FWAA Super 16 poll, an FWAA media access liaison, and a Big 12 writer at Sporting News and Lindy's preseason magazine. In his time at the World, Hoover won numerous writing and reporting awards, including in 2011 National Beat Writer of the Year from the Associated Press Sports Editors for his work covering the Oklahoma Sooners. From 2012 to 2016, Hoover was the World's lead sports columnist and won national awards in 2012 and 2014 from the National Athletic Trainers Association for reporting on sports medicine and in 2015 won first place in sports columns from the Oklahoma Society of Professional Journalists. After receiving a journalism degree from East Central University, Hoover worked at newspapers in Ada, Okmulgee, Tahlequah and Waynesville, Mo. He played football at Ada High School and grew up in North Pole, Alaska. Hoover and his family live in Broken Arrow.

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