NORMAN — They weren’t kidding about Sooner Squad 17.
Every year on college football teams across America, National Signing Day becomes the greatest day in the program’s history. Can’t miss. Sure thing. Game changer. Five star.
And yet, the math often plays out quite differently: Schools are sometimes lucky to retain 50 percent of a given freshman class for four years. From any initial 25, there may be six or eight players, sometimes four or five, who become regular contributors over their career.
Oklahoma’s 2017 freshman class came in with the usual fanfare, and while it is certainly extremely early in their careers, they’ve lived up to the hype through two games so far — and in some cases exceeded it.
Bob Stoops said it in February: “On paper, this might be one of the top two or three classes we’ve had since I’ve been here.”
Two games in, it’s safe to say Stoops nailed it.
As many as 20 of the 28 total signees received a four-star rating. ESPN, Scout and 247Sports all had the Sooners ranked No. 8 nationally in their annual team recruiting rankings. Rivals had OU ranked seventh.
But they may be better than that.
“This is definitely one of the best freshman classes I’ve seen,” said senior left tackle Orlando Brown. “Obviously, my year is me, Joe (Mixon), Samaje (Perine), Mark Andrews, a couple other guys. This year’s freshman class — they’re ahead of us. They’re really far ahead.”
So far, nine freshmen have played, and eight of those have played in both games. Think about that: one-third of an entire class was ready to go contribute on the road against the No. 2 team in the country, Ohio State.
“I think that’s something that all the older guys had seen,” said quarterback Baker Mayfield. “As soon as the 2017 class got here, they had something special about them. Even from the days they were coming on their official visits and they’d make sure to come together instead of spread it out, they all came together at once.”
Said coach Lincoln Riley, “I think they all committed so early that they were all around so much. It wasn’t like these guys were a bunch of newcomers really coming in in that sense. They had been around our team, our program a lot. They had seen kind of how we do things, they got to know our players so when they came in it didn’t feel like we were bringing in a bunch of new players. It really felt like we were just adding some guys that had already been around and now we’re just putting pads on them.
“I think there was already some of that continuity and chemistry built up even from the get-go. And then they’ve come in here and they’ve competed. They didn’t back down from our older guys, they didn’t back down from challenges, and that’s made our team better.”
Oklahoma’s leading rusher, running back Trey Sermon, is a true freshman. So are the Sooners’ fourth- and fifth-leading receivers, wide receiver CeeDee Lamb and tight end Grant Calcaterra. Those three are in the team’s top 10 in all-purpose yards, too.
On defense, freshman Kenneth Murray is the starting middle linebacker and ranks fourth on the team with eight tackles through two games. Defensive tackle Tyreece Lott, cornerbacks Tre Brown and Tre Norwood and safety Robert Barnes have played in both games. Linebacker Addison Gumbs played against UTEP.
Most OU teams in recent years got a handful of first-year players on the field during the course of the season. But never have so many contributed in a game the magnitude of last week’s big win.
In fact, safety Steven Parker said it was the freshman class that played a major role in turning a 45-24 loss to the Buckeyes last year in Norman into a 31-16 victory this year in Columbus.
“There’s something about this year,” Parker said. “The freshmen have brought a different feel to it. There’s just a different mentality.”
Parker was asked before the Ohio State game if there might be any lessons gleaned from winning two years ago at Tennessee. Again, on his own, he invoked Sooner Squad 17.
“You’ve got to calm the young guys down,” Parker said. “It’s a big game. Not all people are going to fold under pressure. I don’t think any of our freshmen are going to fold under pressure because it seems like they love it.”
A few highlights from The Horseshoe:
- Lamb caught five passes for 61 yards against the Buckeyes, but more than that, he converted three third-down receptions into first downs. Mayfield even targeted him on one of the early fourth-down attempts.
- Sermon got the football three times for 22 yards on the Sooners’ first scoring drive right before halftime, and then got it 12 times for 54 yards and a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
- Murray had four tackles against Ohio State, including a critical third-down stop to force the Buckeyes’ first field goal, and also hurried quarterback J.T. Barrett into an incompletion on fourth down to set up the Sooners’ decisive fourth-quarter touchdown drive.
These guys are good.
“They’re definitely ready,” Parker said. “What makes me think that they’re ready is just by how they come out and play and practice. Every single day you see some of the little things that freshmen will do wrong maybe and you’ll say it’s a freshman mistake, but it’s honestly like everybody has learned from their own mistakes. We’ll fix it in film, then we’ll fix it in practice. Basically, day by day, you see them just get better. They fix that mistake instantly instead of it takes them a couple of tries. They’re not doing freshmen things.”
“As soon as they stepped on campus,” Mayfield said, “there was a different feel about them. They came here to do one thing. They put all their work in it. The older guys feed off that as well. It’s not the younger guys feeding off us, we feel that energy and that excitement they bring to it. That makes it easier, too.”
Riley said the performance so far of the 2017 freshman is “encouraging for the future. It doesn’t surprise us though with the way these guys were, in recruiting them. The mentality that they’ve had as a class has been good. We try to identify guys … you are going to have a couple of projects each year when you know you’re strong at this group or it may take this guy a little time to develop. We’re trying to bring in guys … as we look at this ’18 class right now, we’re thinking, ‘Who can help us this year?’ We want guys who are either going to win positions or push the guys that we have currently to make them better.
“I think sometimes, in other programs, it’s a little bit more of a balancing act, where you’ve got maybe some juniors or seniors in the program that maybe feel like they’re entitled to get this spot because somebody left or they’ve been in the program or don’t really accept the freshmen as quickly as we do. I think – it doesn’t have anything to do with me – but it’s been well-established here that the best guys are gonna play, and that’s the way things are gonna be.
“You never know exactly. You’ve got certain feels on guys, but no, you don’t know exactly until they do it. But, if these guys hadn’t showed us the things that they did in fall camp and then the ones that were here in the spring weren’t playing well, then they wouldn’t be playing. We’d have somebody else out there.”
Mayfield added that while the whole team is close and has great chemistry, “a lot of that is keyed by the freshmen.
“This team has a great group (and) team chemistry. But that group of freshmen is something special. The future for OU’s going to be very bright.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard every weekday on The Franchise in Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. with co-host Lauren Rew. In Oklahoma City, catch him Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings at 10:25 and every Friday afternoon at 4:05. 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. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.