NORMAN — There is little debate that Oklahoma’s non-conference schedule this season is the weakest the Sooners have faced in years.
An 18-point victory over Houston, a 56-point victory over South Dakota and a 34-point victory at UCLA have done little to prepare OU for the upcoming rigors of the Big 12 Conference. Certainly, nothing the Sooners have done so far will even begin to simulate what they’ll face in a Big 12 Championship Game setting or the College Football Playoff.
But there is a real benefit, a tangible advantage to mowing through three cupcakes.
It’s one of the most difficult things for a coaching staff to develop because the zero-sum game of college football is built on winning and nothing else. Even the degree of winning — style points — is judged by those who issue rankings and playoff invitations. Give up 21 points in the second half to an inferior opponent and it could be costly in December and January.
But Lincoln Riley’s third edition of the Oklahoma Sooners needs that one element that his first two teams lacked: enough depth to win a playoff game.
That’s why Kenneth Murray, a three-year starter and preseason Big 12 defensive player of the year, is standing on the bench in the second quarter. That’s why defensive coordinator Alex Grinch is probing for additional candidates to play safety. That’s why the defensive line substitutions have been so liberal. That’s why running backs Trey Sermon and Kennedy Brooks have gotten so few rushing attempts, and why CeeDee Lamb and Grant Calcaterra have caught so few passes.
At positions all over the field — even kicker, Riley said — coaches have their eye open for the next guy.
There actually is a method to what might seem to the common fan like so much madness.
“We’re not just gonna play guys to play ‘em. Anybody,” Riley said. “They’ve got to produce and give us a reason to put ‘em in the game.”
That’s been happening in practice. A lot. Particularly on defense.
“That’s all part of starting to establish the culture we want defensively,” Riley said. “That’s all part of the plan all along, is to play a lot of guys to create competition and depth and development of your other players. We’re not gonna play guys just for those reasons. They have to show us why (they should play). But we’re not gonna get married to playing a guy 90 snaps in a game. It’s hurt us in the past. There’s no other way to say it.
“We’re developing it better and with that, you gotta continue to recruit better and get better players that you want ot put in the game. It all goes hand in hand. It’s been healthy on that side. Guys know they’re gonna get an opportunity. Even if you’re playing behind a Kenneth Murray right now, you’re gonna get an opportunity. So if you think you should be out there, go out there and prove it.”
SoonerScoop.com reporter and Franchise contributor Bob Przybylo wrote this week that no one has yet played 75 percent of the team’s defensive snaps, and that 18 guys have played at least 55 snaps so far (opposing teams have snapped the ball only 204 times).
Riley put Grinch in charge of his defense, and Grinch isn’t just thinking about beating South Dakota or UCLA. He’s thinking about beating Texas in the Cotton Bowl. He’s thinking about beating Clemson or Georgia in the CFP. He’s thinking about winning a national championship — if not this year, then next year, and the next.
“There’s only one true way to develop depth, and it’s developing guys under the lights, on the stage, in the moment,” Grinch said. “And it’s hard to manufacture those reps in practice. That’s a piece of it. The next side of it is everybody’s a better football player — our sport is this way — playing 40 snaps instead of 80 snaps. The rep count has impact. And not every sport is that way.
“You get more at-bats in baseball, you have a tendency (to improve). But in ours is simply not that way. We want max reps. We want elite reps. And we want guys thinking survival on gamedays is not the ultimate aim. It’s to play at a high level and focus on effort and execution on every single rep.”
The Sooners gave up fourth-quarter points in all but three games last year (Army, TCU and the second Texas game) and only outscored those opponents 136-115 in the final period. Part of that is obviously owning a big lead and protecting the football on offense, but part of that also was a commentary on the Sooners’ lack of depth. Players got tired late and couldn’t perform at a high level.
Therein lies the value of such a manageable non-conference schedule. Even if guys like Bryan Mead and Isaiah Thomas and Kori Roberson and Brian Asamoah and David Ugwoegbu and Miguel Edwards don’t play Oct. 12 in the Cotton Bowl or Nov. 9 against Iowa State or Nov. 30 in Stillwater, their extended participation during the first quarter of the season has allowed the starters in front of them to stay fresh longer, which means fourth-quarter fatigue might not be such a factor as the season progresses.
“The dropoff can’t be any greater than what we’re willing to kind of be accepting of,” Grinch warns. “A lot of it stems from production. They gotta earn the right over the course of the week. We have a meeting every Thursday to develop a rep count for every single guy. Does it go that way every single week, exactly how we draw it up? No. The opponent has a vote. The way the game goes can dictate some of those things.
“But we’d rather play more (guys) than less. We’d rather leave the game and say we rotated too much than not enough. So we’ll continue to do so as long as these guys continue to earn the right in practice.”
The Sooners are off this weekend with their first open date and return to action next week against Texas Tech. Riley on Monday expressed a desire to see continued competition at virtually all positions.
- At receiver: “Sometimes it’s just how many snaps you get. We’ve had some explosive plays that’s limited snaps a little bit, kind of like last year in a way in that sense. … At least it’s kind of been that way to this point. Not really. If we’ve got an outstanding player that’s maybe not gotten enough, we may try to force feed him some. But more often than not we call the plays we like and sometimes the guy you think might catch it catches it, and then we had a couple the other night that were not at all who we expected to catch it caught it. That’s just th way it goes. The key is having depth where it stays competitive and multiple guys can make plays. We’re developing that.”
- At running back: “They are fresh. … We’re gonna have games where all those guys have a lot more than the 7 or 8 carries they’ve been getting. That’s coming. But not doubt, it certainly helps us. That was a position last year that, at times, we were hanging by a thread. There were times we’re sitting there like, ‘Man, one more guy gets hurt, we may have to play empty (backfield) the whole game. There were real conversations about that. I remember the Kansas game, Trey (Sermon)’s out and all of a sudden Kennedy (Brooks) is nicked up and I was like, ‘We don’t have anybody left.’ So, recruited hard and developed hard and it’s good to have some bodies in there now.”
- At fullback: “Everything we’ve asked that position to do, (Jeremiah Hall and Brayden Willis) both made competitive plays and they’ve both left plays out there. … There’s depth, there’s competition. We’re able to rotate those guys and keep ‘em fresh, where in the past it was all (Dimitri) Flowers or all Carson Meier. So it’s a little bit better setup right now.”
- At linebacker: “We played pretty stout up front. It was a strong game for our linebackers, especially from some of our other guys not named Kenneth Murray. DaShaun White, Ryan Jones did some really good things, Asamoah did some good things, Bryan Mead did some good things. Good to see those guys play well.”
- At kicker (just in case): “Gabe (Brkich) is a heck of a second option if we need to.”
Grinch’s position is safety, which has been arguably the weakest link on the defense so far. He said in the spring Delarrin Turner-Yell and Patrick Fields had separated themselves from the rest, and he reiterated that in training camp. Despite the occasional error, he’s stuck with them.
Doubtful Grinch is just being bull-headed. He, too, wants the best players on the field.
“I gotta do a better job,” he began. “I’d like more numbers in that room competing for playing time on Saturdays. … You could not accuse us of not wanting to play more guys. But we gotta produce. I gotta see you make that play on Monday. I gotta see you make that play on Tuesday.
“In any event, if we gotta shuffle the deck, we may look at some things in terms of who those guys might be. I think Pat Fields and Delarrin have played good football — probably played too much football at some point. So we’ve got to continue to develop some depth behind them.”
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. 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.