NORMAN — Lincoln Riley fired his defensive coordinator at midseason, replaced him with an interim coordinator, doesn’t really have a concrete plan, and somehow never missed a beat in recruiting.
Riley brought 22 newcomers into the Oklahoma program on Wednesday, the first day of the early signing period, and 12 of them were on defense. They don’t know who their coordinator will be—they may not know who their position coach is, if Riley is so inclined to purge any more of the defensive staff—and they don’t know what kind of defense they’re going to play next year.
But they know they’re going to be Sooners, and for now, that’s enough.
“Yeah, I think they believe in us as a staff,” Riley said. “I think our guys believe in this program and they’re able to get in here and see it with their own eyes. They see where we’re at, which is in a great place right now, but they also feel, like everybody does in this building, strong about where we’re going.
“And the fact that we can get so much better. I think our players see that. I think they trust us, they trust the direction that this thing’s going, and they trust that any changes that we make are gonna be in their best interest and do nothing but make this program better.”
That Riley not only pulled off a signing class without a defensive coordinator but actually went into California and flipped a West Coast commit (safety Jeremiah Criddell was verbally committed to Oregon, but on Wednesday changed his pledge and signed with OU) is nothing short of remarkable.
“Yeah, it was one for the book. It was one for the book,” Riley said. “Great player. Obviously comes out of a prime program there at Mater Dei in California. Guy we’ve had our eye on for a long time. Recruitment really picked up here at the end. One of those guys that kind of had his choice to go wherever he wanted to go. Huge target for us. Safety was certainly a position we wanted to continue to address in this class, and he gives you some great versatility that we’re excited about, you know, physical but also can cover. Really, really love the kid and his maturity. So it was a tough decision for him, and he came down to the wire, but it was a cool moment when he chose the Sooners.”
A video of Riley and the OU staff celebrating after Criddell’s announcement went viral on Wednesday. Riley said raucous celebrations like that are not uncommon when a player commits to the Sooners.
“It’s not always captured on video, but there’s an extreme level of excitement because we’re competing for the best players in the country. And it’s competitive,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it. These guys got a lot of places they can choose. So when they choose OU, they trust us with their future and developing them and being all that we need to be for them. It’s a great feeling, and J. doing that today was pretty awesome.”
Riley said he’s thought about the hire (there’s been a lot of quiet time to think during all the December recruiting trips), he still doesn’t have a timetable for hiring a new defensive coordinator (after the playoff games have concluded, he said), and he’s not sure exactly what he wants the OU defense to look like next year or beyond.
“It doesn’t matter a ton today,” he said. “What matters today is getting this class signed and trying to get ready to beat Alabama.”
But locking down college football’s No. 7-ranked recruiting class (so far) and actually flipping one prospect without a defensive coordinator speaks to the level Riley has raised the program.
“I do think our players consistently across the board can feel the stability within this program right now,” he said. “This is as stable of a program and a setting and a staff as you’re going to find. I mean Oklahoma, it’s why you don’t see this program doing this. It stays right there, and that level of stability can be felt when these guys come on official visits, when they get around the program, when they compare it to other places they go, they feel that. I think they understand where we’re at. We’ve been totally upfront and I think that they’re confident in any direction that we decide to take.”
He said he always knew after he fired Mike Stoops and promoted Ruffin McNeill, there was a risk of losing some defensive pledges.
“You know it’s possible,” he said, “but I don’t think you can let that stand in the way of what you think is right. I felt we built up enough of a relationship with these guys, I think Oklahoma made enough of an impression in general on these guys that, you know what, if you lose a guy or two over it, you hate it, but you’ve got to go find other people, and that’s part of it.
“But I think they understand the direction we’re going. They understand that we’re always going to be looking out to make things better, that we’re not going to let anything stand in the way of trying to make this thing as good as we possibly can.”
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