Some in Sooner Nation might be feeling a panic attack coming on.
But the advice here is to just relax. All is well.
The questions are flying in — “What’s with the mass exodus of players?” “How can we lose a coach to Texas?” — and at first glance it would seem current events look bad for the Oklahoma Sooners.
From the start of 2019 to now, a total of 21 Sooners have entered the NCAA transfer portal or just left the team. That’s more than one-fourth of the 2018 roster who just opted out.
Of course that would seem like cause for alarm. And the departures may not be finished quite yet.
And then comes Saturday’s news that OU assistant Jay Boulware was taking a position at Texas — leaving the five-time conference champion to work for a team that hasn’t won the Big 12 in more than a decade.
So now players and coaches want out of Norman, huh? Better push that panic button, right.
Only, don’t. Not just yet.
Start with Boulware. His departure actually could be considered a win-win.
He’s a former Texas Longhorn, don’t forget, who famously and prematurely ended his playing career because of a heart problem. So Boulware is going home. No shock there.
Boulware came to OU with some fanfare after winning a national championship on Gene Chizik’s staff at Auburn, and after coaching tight ends and fullbacks his first two seasons in Norman, Bob Stoops shook up the offensive staff and moved Boulware to the running backs position in 2015, where he inherited Samaje Perine, Joe Mixon and Rodney Anderson.
Boulware has drawn criticism for a dropoff in his recruiting of running backs. The players he landed include Abdul Adams, Kennedy Brooks, Tre Sermon, T.J. Pledger, Marcus Major, Rhamondre Stevenson and Seth McGowan. But a big one he lost — Jase McClellan of Aledo, Texas, was verbally committed for 2 ½ years but flipped to Alabama on National Signing Day in December — really hurt.
Other high-quality running backs have escaped the Sooners’ recruiting footprint in recent years as well.
And as Boulware has been in charge of Oklahoma’s special teams, the Sooners’ have been mostly reliable but largely pedestrian — five years without a blocked punt from 2013-17, and they haven’t run back a kickoff or punt for a touchdown since 2017.
Lincoln Riley might hire a running backs coach — or he might slide inside receivers coach Cale Gundy back to the position at which he was one of the best in college football for so many years and just let Dennis Simmons coach all the receivers, and then hire a special teams coordinator.
Either way, Riley’s goal is to update the Sooners’ productivity at both special teams and running back — both in recruiting and in development.
And as for all the departed players, 21 is certainly a lot and is cause for concern. Of those, 16 were on defense (including four this week, three of which were linebackers). In no way can it be spun that a college football team losing 25 percent of its scholarship players in one calendar year is a good thing. It reveals mistakes in talent evaluation, miscalculations in scholarship offers, misapplication of recruiting resources and just plain misses on players — players who went elsewhere, or players who chose Oklahoma and have been unable to get on the field yet.
The list since the start of 2019 consists of quarterback Austin Kendall, defensive linemen Derek Green, Ron Tatum, Tyreece Lott, Arthur McGinnis and Troy James, offensive linemen Logan Roberson and Michael Thompson (who converted from defense), linebackers K’Jakyre Daley, Jonathan Perkins, Ryan Jones, Levi Draper and Mark Jackson, wide receivers Jaylon Robinson and Mykel Jones and defensive backs Prentice McKinney, Jaqualyn Crawford (who converted to defense), Starrland Baldwin, Miguel Edwards, Ty DeArman and Jordan Parker.
The number of 2019 departures actually (and incredibly) surpasses the troubling exits of 18 players during the 2011 calendar year (10 of those were transfers).
Many of those players were in the same boat — simply unable to crack the lineup — and left for greener pastures with the heartiest of blessings from Bob Stoops, who was at the time enduring both his first significant recruiting dropoff as well as his first round of mass player discontent.
During an interview before the Insight Bowl that season, Stoops said several of the departing players “have been told they need to transfer because I’m not renewing their scholarship, for a variety of reasons. … habitual skipping class, not being eligible to play or suspended from practice for these kind of academic reasons, or for drug-testing reasons, or for walking out or skipping out on a weight workout.”
It happens in all college football programs. But on this kind of scale, it happens at programs that are trying to catch up to those winning national championships. Here’s how: Coaches don’t land the elite prospects they want (think McClellan), so they settle, or, under a time crunch, they hurry through evaluations to try to catch up and sign players that either aren’t good enough to play at that level right away or that are not an ideal fit culturally or just never develop.
With the advent of the transfer portal, players who don’t play early in their career now have an option that wasn’t available to previous generations, and they’re using it liberally.
All the defensive departures would seem troubling, but major turnover is hardly uncommon when a new coordinator arrives. The kind of players Alex Grinch wants in his defense are different than the kind of players Mike Stoops wanted in his.
And while most of the turnover is about playing time or performance, some are just circumstance. Jordan Parker, for instance, was a promising freshman cornerback before a knee injury, and he’s hardly played since. Austin Kendall sat patiently behind Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray and rather than waiting another year behind Jalen Hurts, became the starter at West Virginia.
From Riley’s perspective, he and his coaching staff must view this mass exodus as an opportunity to upgrade the Sooners’ talent and, eventually, depth. That depth will take a big hit in 2020, but the idea should be to have tighter competition and broader depth in 2021 and beyond — the kind of depth that can produce a postseason victory or two.
Riley — now 0-3 in the College Football Playoff as a head coach and 0-4 overall at OU — knows that just getting to the CFP should no longer be the goal. The program demands a national championship.
Letting go of what turned out to be dead weight will benefit Oklahoma in the long run.
But, with scholarships now available and jobs now open, that means Riley and his staff can no longer afford to miss in recruiting.
Formerly co-host of “Further Review” and “The Franchise Drive,” columnist John E. Hoover is a college football insider on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover co-hosts The Franchise “Inside OU” Podcast with Brady Trantham and Rufus Alexander, and the Locked oN Sooners podcast on the Locked oN Podcast Network. He also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his YouTube channel at YouTube.com/c/JohnHoover, and his personal page at johnehoover.com.