ATLANTA — Some 16 hours after the Sooners’ latest and possibly greatest postseason implosion, Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley looked relaxed and assured Sunday morning, although not quite at peace.
Not after what happened Saturday night.
Before boarding a bus to catch the team flight back to Norman, Riley met with eight writers for almost 30 minutes in a ballroom at the Omni Hotel to discuss OU’s 63-28 loss Saturday night to top-ranked LSU in the Peach Bowl.
Some of the topics included why the team played so poorly in another College Football Playoff game, the future of the Sooners’ quarterback position, how he plans to handle the disappointment with recruits, how Alex Grinch did in his first year, what he thinks about assistants possibly leaving and his thoughts on being an NFL head coach.
The Sooners suffered their most lopsided defeat since the 2004-05 Orange Bowl, a 55-19 loss to USC. In many ways, this game was worse. While that final margin 15 years ago was attributed to a combination of the Trojans’ superior talent and OU players’ lack of investment during the final three quarters, the loss to LSU appeared to be based more on a disparity in the teams’ athletic talent.
OU came in without two defensive starters (defensive end Ronnie Perkins was suspended and safety Delarrin Turner-Yell broke his collarbone) and lost a third in the first quarter (nickelback Brendan Radley-Hiles was ejected for targeting).
Those three probably wouldn’t have led the Sooners to a victory Saturday night, but without them, Oklahoma’s lack of elite talent, lack of depth and lack of experience became obvious.
“We know we’ve got to continue to get better personnel,” Riley said. “Right now, we’ve got a lot of good personnel, but there’s still a handful of teams across the country, from top to bottom, that have better personnel than we do. That just is what it is.
“We’ve got good personnel. We’ve got a lot of good individual players, but we got to continue to build talent base across the whole team, and I think especially defensively.
“We’re closing the gap.”
Here is the full Q&A with Riley:
Q: The playoff committee says they only look at this season and so far that’s what they’ve shown, but is there any worry that at some point they’re going to start holding your lack of playoff success against you?
A: “No. If that happens then they’re not doing their job. We’ve had our opportunities. We didn’t play very well. Like I said last night, especially there that stretch at the end of the first half. We’ve had our opportunities in games. The goal is to get the best four teams in it. Year to year, so many things change, especially in college football these days. More guys leaving early, transfer portal, all that, rosters are turning over faster than ever. So, you’re different every year. So if they start factoring that in — they won’t — that’s not their job. We’ve got too many good people on it.”
Q: You said a couple of times last night and said it again today you didn’t play well. Why do you think that is, with 21 days of prep going into it?
A: “I don’t know. It’ll be interesting to go back and look. I thought — haven’t watched it yet — just some opportunities. I mean, LSU’s good. They’re probably the best team that we’ve played in the playoff (of all four years) I think they are. Definitely the best offensive team we’ve played, and Alabama was good offensively last year too, and the other two were good. They (LSU) are the best offensive team that we’ve played. I think a combination of missing the guys that we’ve missed, I think not making some of those plays early that we had opportunities to make on both sides. I mean, Burrow threw us two that hit us, we made great breaks on the ball, a competitive play there versus how many competitive plays their receivers made on our guys and we had them covered. Some of those were going to happen. We needed to make more competitive plays.
“Again, you just can’t giftwrap a couple of those like we did for them. We giftwrapped a couple defensively on busted calls. We giftwrapped a couple offensively. We missed a couple throws. We had Hall there on the sideline for a monster, monster play that we let the ball get tipped, and we were agonizingly close. It was — people aren’t going to want to hear this — there were very, very makeable opportunities there to make it a very competitive game, and I felt like with the way we practiced, if we could get it into the second half within striking distance that we could absolutely have a shot. But they’re good. They are.
“This group did a good job. I mean, this was a — I don’t want to say rebuilding year; that ain’t the right word. It’s never that here. But I mean, there was a lot of turnover for this team, this season. For this team, with all the new pieces and all the turnover and all the things that we replaced, to do what this team did, it’s a bad taste in your mouth from last night, but this team did a heck of a job getting here, and that’s the truth.”
Q: How much did having Jalen for a year help you in the future?
A: “I think it will. I mean, it helped us this year because our sense of that we needed an older presence in that room was probably right, with all the other new parts of the team, the o-line being completely new, and obviously a whole new deal defensively, counting on a lot of young or inexperienced players to play major roles. And so I think his leadership, his experience was a factor for us, there’s no question. And then I think a lot of guys individually will take how he prepared, carried himself, all of those things, and grow from it.”
Q: When did Spencer Rattler get that backup role (over Tanner Mordecai), and was he anticipated that position going forward?
A: “He wasn’t the — I repped them both equally. We to a point where you only have two games left. Spencer’s only used two. Obviously they both … The eligibility wasn’t a concern either way, so I repped both the guys. And if Spencer would’ve gotten that first down, I was going to put (Tanner) Mordecai in the very next play. I hoped to rep them both. I put Spencer in first frankly because Spencer’s had less game reps than Tanner’s been able to have, and I wanted to make sure and get him in. Obviously, I hoped and planned on getting them both in there at the end. Had them both warmed up, but we’re getting ready to have a battle with those guys. The more reps that they can both get, the better.”
Q: It’d be easy to draw the conclusion off of that, that Spencer is your next guy.
A: “Yeah, that’s not how we’ve ever done anything, what stars the guys have or what the public thinks. If Spencer would’ve been the best one when we had the competition over the last year, then he would’ve been the backup this year. So it’s going to be a good battle with those two.”
Q: I know you don’t want to go into detail about the suspensions, but do you know how long you’re gonna be without those guys?
A: “That’s still up in the air right now.”
A: “Uh, the process is ongoing, yes.”
Q: How do you assess how Alex Grinch do in his first year? Better or worse, or about like you thought it’d be?
A: “The positives heavily outweigh the negatives, without a doubt. I think we did some things defensively this year that were really, really important for the team and program, and we took some steps. We always said it’s not going to all happen right away. There’s a step by step process to make that happen. I think last night was a good representation of that. You can see that we got to continue to build depth. We got to a point last night where we were outmanned in some areas.
“Phase one, you get it installed, you work on changing the culture and mentality, which I think we really got off to a strong start with that. And you prove that, with a lot of the same guys, you can go up there and play really, really good defense. And now, I think the next part for us is now, all these recruits have seen that. They’ve seen the proof now. It’s not a mystery. It’s not us just projecting. It’s not hype. Like we did offensively a few years ago, we’re going to start to get better and better players and more of them there.
“And then, the other thing that happens is, when we get started here in a couple of weeks when these guys get back, it’s not the same starting point we were at last year with those guys. Everything was brand new with everybody. We’re starting at a much further point. Now, we’ve still got plenty to go, there’s no doubt about that. But we’re excited about the starting point and what we think we can build there.”
Q: Does the result of the Peach Bowl change in any way your thoughts on next year or the next couple of years … maybe specifically in recruiting?
A: “I don’t think the result of this game is going to change anything in recruiting. We know we’ve got to continue to get better personnel. Right now, we’ve got a lot of good personnel, but there’s still a handful of teams across the country, from top to bottom, that have better personnel than we do. That just is what it is. We’ve got good personnel. We’ve got a lot of good individual players, but we got to continue to build talent base across the whole team, and I think especially defensively.
“It’s kind of like the same process — I know you all are tired of me saying it — but the same process we went through offensively. We kind of got caught in a transitional year, certainly offensively, and scrounged it together and we were able to do some good things. We’re closing the gap. There’s no doubt we are. I think a lot of the things that need to happen are being done, it’s just there’s not always the immediate results we always want. That’s just part of building it.”
Q: The secondary, where do you think that is and where have you made strides? Where do you need to make strides?
A: “I think we’ve gotten a lot out of our guys this year. We’ve played with a bunch of guys that have either haven’t played at all coming into this, played very little, or guys that have had very up and down careers. If you look for the majority of the season, how those guys that played — I mean, the numbers speak for themselves. I think the development and what we’re doing schematically, I think all that’s good. I know a big part of it — we talked about it on signing day — is adding more length in the secondary. And you’re not going to have every guy be 6’3, but you’re not going to have every guy be 5’10 either.
“You see with some of the guys that we’ve signed that we’re looking to continue to address that, and then continue build depth because, yeah, it’s a shame (Delarrin Turner-Yell) gets hurt, it’s a shame (Brendan “Bookie” Radley-Hiles) make a dumb- play and gets kicked out of the game, but things happen. Of course, you want to be lucky and you want to have one of those years where nobody gets hurt and everything’s right, and I would’ve love to have seen what this team could’ve done with that, because there’s so many — I looked on the sideline last night and was like, ‘Man, there’s a lot of good players that don’t have pads on.’
“But the things within your control, building depth, building the talent base, I think the secondaries, I see that like the other positions right now. I’m proud of what we got out of our guys and we got guys that are going to continue to develop and become really good players and we’re going to continue to bring in better players.”
Q: Of your three years, was this the most challenging, coaching-wise, for you?
A: No, I wouldn’t say that. They’re all challenging. They’re all hard. They’re all — it’s just the recipe for winning’s different, the team’s different. No, I don’t know that I would say any more or less challenging. Dealing with the amount of injuries and things like that that we did, sure, that weighs on you. But the flipside of that is kind of seeing how our team fought through all that and all the new and all the change and found ways to win was kind of invigorating, too. I mean, it was fun. Every year is challenging. To win like we have is, I know people take it for granted, but it’s frickin’ hard to do, man. I mean, it is hard to do. I know we all want to take that next step. And everybody in this program wants to, and everybody knows that we’re going to. But it’s been pretty good, too. But they’re all hard, man. Every single one.
Q: This was the most turnover you’ve had, the amount of turnover you faced and the things you faced at the end of the year, the culmination of that at the end of the year, were you tired? Maybe more tired than the previous two years?
“Uh, no. I wouldn’t say so. I thought the thing maybe more tired — and all four playoff teams deal with it — was the week less. I’m sure that wore on everybody a little bit. But that’s how part of the seasons go, and my job is to be a steadying force, and so hopefully I did a good job of that.”
Q: When the players got suspended and Delarrin Turner-Yell got hurt, did you have to rally the troops at all or was everything just the same as always moving forward?
A: “A little bit. You know, when you lose that many good players in the fashion that we did and we kind of rally them back up like we did, then we lose a player like Delarrin and what he’s meant to us, it takes the wind out of your sails a little bit. Now, our guys are ready to play going in. I mean, it’s not like we’re sitting there saying ‘Poor me,’ and we’ve dealt with those things all year. You’d love to go into these games against good opponents at full strength and we obviously weren’t, but we certainly could have and should have done a much better job than we did.”
Q: You have two quarterbacks right now and haven’t added one in this class yet, do you feel it’s important to add another guy in that room to compete?
“No, it is. It’s important. And I feel great about the two we have, I really do. I’m absolutely not planning on doing something like we did last year and bringing in somebody like that, which I think speaks to how good I feel about Tanner and Spencer. But, for depth purposes, for the future, all that, no question we’d like to get somebody. But here, it’s not as simple as that because those two guys are pretty good and I could bring in some random guy to add depth, what does that accomplish other than adding another body? We want to make sure it’s the right guy, too.”
Q: What are you going to do at the tailback position? Kennedy might go pro, Trey is hurt and might have that option, Rhamondre is suspended — is that a depth concern for next season?
“No, I think it’s got a chance to be one of the deeper positions on our team. I’m pretty excited about what we brought in and we’re continuing to recruit in that area. We’re going to return several guys that have played a lot of ball. So, I think that room is going to look a lot like it did this year with some good additions and I think it’s going to be a pretty good room.”
Q: Have you started having conversations with guys who are thinking about going pro before the game? What’s the process there or do you usually wait until after the season?
A: “No, we normally have an initial conversation with them and a little bit more in depth one after. And every kid’s different. Some guys are in obvious situations where they’re probably going to go pro and some are in obvious situations where they probably should come back. Those conversations start way before the season, too. Some of the guys that are going to have decisions to make, we start those conversations as early as January or February. Because there’s a lot of information to get out, there’s a lot of things to think about and a lot can get thrown at these guys throughout the season. Then you see their focus go there and end up not playing well and hurting themselves and the team. So like most things in our program, we’re pretty open about it.”
Q: How do you prevent backchannel agent talk? Do you warn guys against that?
A: “Oh yeah. We spend a lot of time on that, just educating them, because it could be really dangerous for them. They can get taken advantage of in a heartbeat, and so we try to not have things that are off limits as far as being discussed. We don’t mind if you have a conversation with an agent. You do it on school property and if you do it with one of our compliance officials there so you don’t get taken advantage of.
“I had it happen at East Carolina, and I’ve told the team this several times, when one of our really, really good players there had a conversation with an agent that wasn’t on school property didn’t have anyone else there. He ended up not signing with that agent, and that agent went out and claimed, and this wasn’t public, that he had accepted these gifts and all this stuff, which was not true. But the agent was mad, or the runner, that he didn’t sign with him and it becomes a he said-he said, and it was ugly. We just want to be able to protect them and we don’t want to hold them back from opportunities. Shoot, I want them all to go to the NFL and I want them all to have good agents. We try to make it open and not let it just be the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about.
Q: Your name is still linked to NFL jobs, what’re your thoughts on that and how much does it impact recruiting or become a distraction?
A: “I think our recruits know where we stand. We’ve been very up front and it’s a common question. Every home we go into, every person we talk to, that’s a question we get and I think they’ve appreciated our honesty about it. I’ve told them the same thing that I’ve told you guys. This is where I want to coach — where I want to coach for a long time. I’m not ever going to say never because I don’t ever want to be that guy. But it’s hard to envision me wanting to leave this place unless something about our setup here changed that I thought wasn’t good for the program or our future.”
Q: Do you anticipate any changes in the coaching staff?
A: “You always gotta to see how that goes. When you have the success we’ve had, a number of our guys are going to get contacted, interviewed, that just goes with the territory. And we’ve got good coaches, we have a lot of guys on staff that’ll be head coaches or that’ll be coordinators. The good thing here at Oklahoma is the support we’ve had from administration and the president, everybody, being able to take care of these guys and put them in a situation where if they leave, it’s only for a no brainer. And that’s what you hope. You hope our success would lead to those guys getting some of those no-brainer ones. I hope they do. You don’t want to lose them, but shoot, I want them all to get an opportunity like I was able to get.”
Q: When you have to change the culture on defense and get better players, and you’re also losing your three best defensive players, how tough is it to keep building up the defense when your best players are gone next year?
A: “I think everybody deals with that right now. I think, yeah, everybody wants to hit on that one player that can transform a side of the ball, like some of the quarterbacks here have done, like the d-end at Ohio State’s done a little bit this year. Not that they’ve been awful defensively, but they’re a lot different if that guy’s not on the field. Every now and then you hit on one of those guys and that’s great, but I think to sustain it and to truly build it, it takes a core of players and it takes a culture and mentality that these guys are walking into as opposed to trying to learn it halfway through their career or on down the line.
“It’s the expectation when they walk in the door, and now I think it’s instilled in a lot of our players. Not that it’s done, but I think they’ve got an idea of what it looks like. And so I think the expectations are higher and I think all the new guys that come in over the next several years are going to walk in and have a chance to get — you see what we’ve done in 12 months; what can we do with these guys and our coaches being together for 24 months or 36 months? What does it look like? We think it looks pretty good.”
Q: The wide receiver room gets very young. You lose a lot of experience. What are your expectations for the young wide receiver group and what kind of jump do they have to make from year one to year two?
A: “It’ll be a young room. I think we’re adding some exciting pieces to it. We’ll continue to maybe add a few more because we are a little thin in that room, but it’s talented. I’m excited about those young guys, I’m excited about the way Rambo played this year. I think all those young guys are going to be really, really good players. And then we’ve also been able to build up the tight end/h-back side of it, too, which I think is gonna to continue to be a big part of what we do. All three of those kids are young and all did a really nice job this year, and all have the chance to be really, really good players.
“I think our skills have a chance to be pretty good. Some of those guys need to make the jump like some of our older guys have made like CeeDee and Marquise and some of those older guys made over the last few years. They’re certainly capable and they’re going to get stronger, faster and more confident and all those young guys have made some pretty big plays in some pretty big games and big atmospheres early in their careers. So that experience, combined with the jump physically, they’ll be ready.”
Q: Your first season here as coordinator, your name was being tossed around for head coaching jobs. You were patient and that worked out for you. Have you talked with Alex about being patient with head coaching jobs and not jumping at the first opportunity?
“Yeah, we’ve talked about it some. I want to be a resource for him and I’ve been through some of the things he’s gone through or is going through or wants to go through. I think it’s twofold. I think there’s an understanding that, if you do well here, then yeah, there’s going to be a lot of opportunities. And also it’s us putting him in a position where he doesn’t feel like he has to go jump on it. We talked late last night and his excitement about where we’re going is right there where mine is.”
Q: Is that even considering you’ve got Army coming up in 2020?
A: “Yeah no kidding. No kidding. That might be a negotiating point.”
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.