FRISCO, Texas — You can wring your hands over Lincoln Riley’s quarterback competition. You can jump up and down and scream your head off about Mike Stoops’ defense. You can worry all you want about who’s going to rush the passer or cover the deep ball or protect the blindside.
But the No. 1 issue facing the Oklahoma Sooners in 2018 might not be any of those.
OU’s biggest challenge this season might be finding leadership.
“Agreed,” Riley told The Franchise on Monday at Big 12 Media Day. “I think it’s probably the No. 1 x-factor for our team going into this year.”
Consider for a moment the losses sustained from last year’s roster:
Quarterback Baker Mayfield, arguably college football’s strongest leader since Tim Tebow. Offensive tackle Orlando Brown, son of an NFL warrior who forged his own battle legends. Linebacker Obo Okoronkwo, who gutted himself on the field to ensure the Sooners beat Texas last year. Safety Steven Parker, a steadying force in an increasingly dizzy industry. Fullback Dimitri Flowers, the consummate team player who exulted in elevating his teammates.
And there were more.
“I feel like we’re gonna be talented. I feel like we’re gonna be inexperienced in a lot of areas, but I can’t do anything about that until we start playing,” Riley said. “But the leadership’s gonna be big.”
Bob Stoops spoke on the topic from time to time, and whenever he did, it was never a good sign. Having players in the locker room or the weight room or the practice field who can convince others to sacrifice for the good of the team simply can’t be overstated in the game of football.
“We have some young leaders that have the ability to be great leaders,” Riley said. “What we really need to see is, they can’t wait, some of them, to be seniors or to be juniors to be great leaders. They’re gonna have to be that at a young age. So it’s gonna take those guys stepping out of their comfort zone. It’s gonna take us as a staff doing a great job of helping them do that. Because we’ve got to cultivate that. We can’t just say ‘Go do it,’ and stand back and hope it happens.”
Riley said new strength coach Bennie Wylie has been instrumental in the offseason of helping players build that culture.
“We’ve had a good plan with it,” Riley said. “I think the staff’s done well with it. I think our guys have started to respond. But we’ll know a lot more as we get into camp and get into the season.”
When a team has shaky leadership, close games become losses and close losses become blowouts. Mayfield’s class witnessed that in 2013 and 2014, and they overcame their own early hardships in 2015 and 2016. By the time they were seniors, they were hardened. The leadership on last year’s OU team was off the charts.
“I think we’ve identified some guys that are potentially those guys,” Riley said. “I think Rodney Anderson is definitely one of the first names that comes to mind. I think he’s ready for that role and has started to embrace that role.
“We’re going to have to get more leadership from our offensive line because we do have some guys that have been through it, some multiyear starters that are good players: Ben Powers, Dru Samia, Jonathan Alvarez, Bobby Evans. Those guys have been through the wars with us, so we need them to step out and do that.
“Defensively, Kenneth Murray, even though he’s just going to be a sophomore, he’s a Mike linebacker and he’s ready to do it, even though he is young. I would put Tre Norwood in that category. I feel like he is ready to do it. Amani Bledsoe and Neville Gallimore, guys that have stepped up.
“So the potential is there, kind of like our team in general, the potential is there. Now, what are we going to do with it and those guys are going to be key.”
Riley was asked more about the potential of this team. He clearly is bullish on these Sooners returning to the College Football Playoff — if leaders emerge, that is.
“I do think we have that capability,” the second-year coach said. “Now, having that capability and getting there are two different things. It takes so many things to go your way. You’re going to have to win some tough games. You’re going to have to stay healthy. A lot of things factor into that. I do think the talent is there and I do think our leadership is going to be so critical. You asked what has to happen: our leaders have to step up, and our young, talented players have to grow up in a hurry — maybe, even fair to say, ahead of schedule on both accounts. I think that will be the key.
“I think if this team reaches its potential, then we can play with anybody and we can beat anybody.”
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.