ATLANTA — In Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts, Oklahoma has gotten elite quarterback play from three different players with three different personalities and three different skill sets in three different versions of Lincoln Riley’s offense.
As OU’s offensive productivity has soared, quarterback play has routinely reached unprecedented levels. No matter who takes the snaps, no matter where the football goes, Oklahoma’s offense has set multiple records and won championships in each of the last three seasons.
“And the common denominator is Lincoln Riley,” said OU receiver CeeDee Lamb. “Think about it.”
Riley’s skills as a quarterbacks coach are already unprecedented. No team has ever produced back-to-back Heisman-winning QBs before Riley did it with Mayfield and Murray in 2017 and 2018.
Remember all the presumptions?
Murray can’t possibly be as good as Mayfield. Surely Riley’s offense will drop off.
He was. It didn’t.
Then this year Riley added Hurts to the mix, and more presumptions followed.
A run-first quarterback? An unpolished passer? A Nick Saban disciple? With a rebuilt offensive line and no Marquise Brown? He’s not that good. OU’s numbers can’t be as good this year.
He was. They were.
“Yeah,” ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit told The Franchise on a recent conference call, “it’s one of those things that somebody’s gonna be doing documentaries 50 years from now talking about his offense.”
Jason White, Sam Bradford, Landry Jones — all three set multiple offensive records in their time as Sooner QBs. Now imagine all three getting coached up by Lincoln Riley.
“I’d say the biggest thing is he fits the scheme around the guy rather than the guy around the scheme,” ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky told The Franchise. “Not a lot of coaches do that because a lot of coaches know a scheme and (say), ‘I’ve seen this scheme work, and you have to fit this scheme.’
“So he’s done a nice job of understanding what the player’s good at and making sure that they cultivate the offense around that, and then understanding what the player’s not good at, what is their weakness, and then not exposing them to it.”
Consider the inventory:
- Mayfield was a pure pocket passer who could run some. He’s still the only QB in FBS history with 14,000 career passing yards and 1,000 career rushing yards.
- Murray was a pocket passer who could shatter defenses with his nimble, explosive running style. He was just the second quarterback in Oklahoma history to surpass 1,000 yards rushing in a single season.
- And Hurts is a gifted, powerful runner who can throw just fine. He’s on the verge of breaking the school record for single-season rushing yards by a quarterback (he’s at 1,255; Jack Mildren’s mark is 1,289) and passing completion percentage (he’s at .718; Mayfield’s mark is .709).
“Honestly, if I knew the answer, I think I would be a millionaire. Man,” Lamb said. “Things he does in that meeting room, we don’t even know about.”
Riley said he’s “proud of what those guys have done,” but acknowledges that he, Mayfield, Murray and Hurts had a lot of help.
“I think the balance of not being so rigid in your scheme that ‘We’re gonna do this no matter who we have,’ and not try to tailor it to them, but also you’ve got to have core things that you believe in, too. And you’ve got to have a package. You can’t just have a bunch of random plays, where you can’t just change completely from one player. So we’ve been able to find a good balance in that.
“I continue to give credit to our offensive staff for the continuity we’ve had there. Because instead of coaching new coaches every year, guys figuring out what we’re doing, guys are pretty much on the same page. So we’re able to do new things and we’re able to adapt, I think, a little more easily because of the time that we’ve spent together as an offensive staff.
“And then we’ve been able to surround those quarterbacks each year with good players. We’ve been able to give them weapons, we’ve been able to give them offensive lines and equip them to play well. So it’s been a combination of all those things.”
In three seasons as a head coach going into Saturday’s Peach Bowl showdown with No. 1-ranked LSU in the College Football Playoff semifinal, Riley has a 36-5 record. He’s 3-for-3 on Big 12 Championships, and he’s 3-for-3 in College Football Playoff appearances (though OU has yet to win one). He’s also 3-for-3 in landing a Heisman Trophy finalist, with Mayfield and Murray bringing back the trophy.
Herbstreit said he was prepping for last year’s Orange Bowl between OU and Alabama and Riley revealed that NFL traffic in and out of Norman has picked up recently.
“He was like, ‘Man, two years ago, I would have maybe two or three NFL offensive coordinator or head coach-type guys come visit me in Norman, and now I have up to 30 guys that are coming in,’ ” Herbstreit said. “And if you watch the NFL, you can really see (it). I hope he stays in college forever, but I worry that we may lose him to the NFL ranks.”
Riley is unique, Orlovsky said, and his preparation would serve him well wherever he coaches.
“He, as a play-caller and play-designer, wins games and has the execution in games on Wednesdays and Thursdays,” Orlovsky said. “He knows, ‘OK, I’m playing this defense, this is what they do well, but we’re not gonna do that, this is how we’ll attack them,’ and then he anticipates because he wins games on Wednesdays and Thursdays. He doesn’t make in-game adjustments. He’s already made them on Wednesday and Thursday. He knows what your counter is gonna be to his success.
“And he does a really good job just planting seeds throughout the game: ‘Hey, they ran to this side in this formation,’ so you think you’ve seen it already but it’s really just a seed he planted to get to something else. So there’s a lot of good things that he does.”
When Hurts arrived in Norman almost a year ago, Riley soon realized he had a little work to do — and that had almost nothing to do with Hurts. In his three years at Alabama, Hurts had four quarterbacks coaches and four offensive coordinators.
Hurts said he learned from them all, of course, and incorporated what he could into his game and became a better quarterback for it.
“Just learning those things, having those experiences I can call back on,” he said, “it’s been very beneficial, I’d say.”
But to Riley, Hurts was a once-blank canvas that had been painted and repainted. And repainted. There was much to be done — or, maybe, undone. Teaching Hurts his playbook, Riley said, “was fairly normal” even though “we tried to rush that as much as we could.
“But yeah, probably the biggest challenge throughout the whole thing has been the way we play, the way we want the position to play,” Riley said. “… Certainly the way he was coached before versus now, it’s quite a bit different. It’s a little bit difficult to explain, but it’s just a little bit different overall mentality playing the position, and he’s taken to it well. But it’s certainly been a challenge.”
Given another opportunity to “explain,” Riley smiled.
“Yeah, at some point,” he said. “I’ll put it in the book.”
Remarkably, what ultimately makes Riley arguably the top quarterback coach and offensive mind in college football might not be his ingenuity or his innovations or even his ability to communicate with quarterbacks.
Apparently, Riley has other qualities that are less tangible but more valuable.
“He has a great level of wisdom and compassion about him as a man,” said linebacker Kenneth Murray.
“He’s one of the most open-hearted kind of guys I know,” said Lamb.
“My guess (at) what he’s talking about, I think our guys know where we stand on most things,” Riley said. “We’re pretty open with our players. On any subject. No problem admitting when we’re wrong. No problem letting them know where they stand. What we’re thinking. So I think there’s a level of respect there from both sides, and … we want to be on the same page. We want to always be able to communicate with our guys. That’s always been our approach, and I think that’s just who we are.”
Murray thinks that open line of communication goes significantly further.
“I think that’s what makes him a really good coach, a really good head coach,” Murray said. “He’s able to see things from a level that maybe a 21-year-old kid (can’t) … and he’s able to guide us in the right direction, and he’s also able to be that compassionate person that’s there for us as a coach. You know, truly show some compassion and really care about his players. I think that’s what makes him such a great coach.”
At Alabama, Hurts’ offensive coordinators were Lane Kiffin in 2016, followed by Steve Sarkisian for the national championship game, followed by Brian Daboll, followed by Mike Locksley. His quarterbacks coaches were Kiffin, Sarkisian, Daboll and Dan Enos.
Riley makes Hurts’ sixth college coach. Those other guys are all gifted coaches in their own right, but they’ve not come close to accomplishing what Riley has in three years as a head coach and five seasons as the Sooners’ offensive coordinator.
It was no accident that Hurts chose to transfer to Oklahoma and learn under Lincoln Riley.
“I think he does a great job,” Hurts said. “He has his philosophy and he does what he does well, just getting a lot of people involved. It doesn’t lie. What he’s done, his resume does not lie. He’s a great coach.”
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.