NORMAN — Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley addressed a number of compelling issues Wednesday during a press conference to officially open spring football practice, from spring injuries to a few position changes to an oddity regarding wideout A.D. Miller returning from his brief Illinois transfer (he essentially went backward through the transfer portal) to criticism of Kyler Murray to needing a big crowd at the April 13 Red/White Game for recruits.
He even discussed former Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts drinking through a firehose to get the OU playbook and, well, an open competition at quarterback, if, after last year, you still believe that sort of thing.
But spring football at Oklahoma in 2019 is all about one thing, really: the Sooner defense.
“It’s been fun,” Riley said. “New challenges, kind of new energy, I would say, on that side of the ball. You can tell our players are excited about it. Our coaches are excited about it. It’s kind of, really a new approach.
“I think there’s a lot of anticipation and excitement for those guys. I know they’ve been probably more ready than anybody for this to get here.”
Riley decided last October he finally had to make a change at defensive coordinator. With Mike Stoops’ midseason firing, Riley also replaced linebackers coach Tim Kish (retired) and defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks (Texas Tech).
Enter Brian Odom, Roy Manning, and new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch.
That, Riley said, means there’s “just as much anticipation for us as coaches, if not even more, leading into this period.
“More than a new scheme and how we do this and that,” Riley said. “The mentality of it is a completely different approach. And that’s what we wanted. So it’s been great. Been great communicating with coach Grinch, coach Manning, coach Odom, kind of their experiences.”
This is only the second time Riley has prepped an entire team for spring ball. Safe to say he’s been on his own learning curve, picking up as much theory and philosophy and terminology as possible from his new aides in a short amount of time.
But spring practices begin Thursday. Now it’s time for the players to learn.
“How do we piece this together?” Riley explained. “Talking about personnel, talking about changing the mentality, which we know is something that has to get done on that side of the ball. We’ve done some great things behind the scenes here leading in, but there’s nothing like getting on the field and doing it. So I would say anticipation’s high.
“I’d say the communication, how everything’s been executed up to this point, has been very, very smooth considering we haven’t worked with each other for a long period of time, not all of us. I’ve been happy with it so far and can’t wait to see it on film.”
Riley never divulges schematics, but he did try to explain what Sooner fans can expect philosophically.
“As far as what you want to call it, coach Grinch breaks it down with the defense every time he talks to them: They’ve used the ‘Speed D.’ That’s been one thing for us, is getting more speed on the field. That has been a huge point both with our current players, with what we’re doing with our guys as far as how we train them, their bodies, and certainly … it’s a bigger emphasis right now in our evaluations of potential players before they come in here.”
Oklahoma’s defensive shortcomings have been well documented here and elsewhere. Now it’s about making the same kind of mentality shift that Bob Stoops made when he hired Riley in 2015 and turned the offense over to him.
Riley described the work strength coach Bennie Wylie has accomplished during the winter in getting defensive line players to shed unnecessary weight. That will help them play faster, and having worked so hard for their new physiques should only serve to remind them of the level of their personal investment.
“This is an active, very aggressive defense. It’s based on aggression,” Riley said. “A lot of that aggression comes from the front and being disruptive. You’ve got to have guys that have the quickness and burst to get that done and the conditioning to do it for a long time as you know in some of the games we play in this league.”
Riley and Grinch are also using new levels of analytics to study players’ work rate.
“We are going to spend a lot of time on how fast that we play,” Riley said. “That’s been one of the big goals. How do you play faster? You train guys to be faster. You recruit faster guys. Then you make sure you have a system that incorporates that, that accentuates that. That’s going to be a big part of what we do, what we coach, what we evaluate from looking at tape to what their GPS numbers are. We can get so much data from that. It’s going to be a bigger part of what we do throughout the day as well and our evaluation process.”
Riley said Grinch is chomping at the bit much like he was when he took over the offense in 2015.
“There’s gonna need to be significant improvement and it’s gonna have to happen quick,” Riley said. “As good as a run we’ve had offensively, the first few games that first year it took a second. It took a little bit of time, but if you keep pushing away, if you’ve got the right players in the right system with the right mentality, you can make it all come together. It can happen quickly, there’s no doubt. And we all believe we’ve got the right ingredients right now for that to happen. We’ve just got to go make it happen.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “The Franchise Drive” every weeknight from 6-8 on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and appears throughout the day on other shows on The Franchise. 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 also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.