The last 30,000 or so words I’ve written in this space have been all about games from the past for our ’19 Leading into 2019’ series about significant UH games this century. So, it’ll take some temporary mental re-wiring for me to think about a future game, instead of diving into one that’s already happened.
At minimum each week I’ll write about the 5 things I find most interesting from the upcoming match-up.
The challenge with the Oklahoma Sooners is culling my mental list down to 5 things. The Sooners aren’t just a college football name brand, they’ve re-invented themselves with a young head coach who’s developed back-to-back Heisman winners.
But they’re not invincible and some of their weaknesses line up with UH in advantageous ways.
1.) Wanted: Passable Secondary Play
Neither of these teams could defend the pass worth a damn last year (though, UH didn’t do anything well defensively by the season’s end). The problems in pass defense might have been more pronounced at Oklahoma, but that’s only because every Cougar opponent realized they could run the ball to even more devastating effect.
The situation got bad enough for the Sooners 5-star freshman safety Brendan Radley-Hines was benched against West Virginia and played minimally in OU’s postseason games. It was easily the Sooners’ biggest weakness last year and the situation hasn’t improved much since then. They lost returning starter at safety Tre Norwood to a season ending injury in fall camp.
The Sooners’ two-deep projects them to start up to 3 sophomores in a 5-man defensive backfield, not much different from what the Coogs are doing. Radley-Hines is listed as an OR starter at Nickel Back with junior Chanse Sylvie who missed most of last year with injury
At the other 2 safety positions the Sooners are starting a pair of true sophomores: DeLarrin Turner-Yell and Pat Fields. Both were 3-star recruits and early enrollees who saw some back-up action in the second half of last season. There’s a bit more experience at the starting cornerback spots where Parnell Motley and Tre Brown both have starting experience. Neither guy was terribly effective last year, though everybody in this secondary has the blessing (and curse) of low expectations on them.
First-year Sooner defensive coordinator Alex Grinch also coaches the Safeties, so as defensive play caller he will know the limitations of that group. Grinch was the architect of turning around a bad defense at Washington State from 2015-17 and he’ll have more dramatically more elite athletes to work with in Norman.
But I am not sure there’s much Grinch can do, excellent pedigree aside, in week 1 of the season with this group’s efforts to corral D’Eriq King and talented Cougar receivers like Marquez Stevenson, Keith Corbin and others.
2.) Trench Talent and Inexperience
The Sooners have exactly 1 returning offensive lineman with any starting experience: sophomore center Creed Humphrey. Though Humphrey turned enough heads as a freshman starter last year that there’s a good chance as a 3rd year sophomore that this is his final college season. Despite his relative youth for a veteran-dominated position, Humphrey is likely the best interior lineman the Coogs will see in the regular season.
4 of the Sooners’ projected offensive line starters joined the program in the 2017 recruiting class, including new starters: right guard Tyrese Robinson, right tackle Adrian Ealy and left guard Marquis Hayes. Robinson was the best recruit and saw the most game action of the 3 guys last year (6 games). The most difficult position, protecting Hurts’ blind side at left tackle will go to junior Erik Swenson who saw action in 4 games last year.
Considering the obvious lack of experience, I was surprised when none of the Oklahoma people we talked to seemed terribly concerned about the O Line. All 4 of the now-departed starters were drafted between the 2nd and 4th rounds of the 2019 NFL draft. This is a strong endorsement of both Sooner OL coach Bill Bedenbaugh and that staff’s ability to evaluate prospective talent at a notoriously difficult position group.
If you like parallels, Oklahoma started a pretty inexperienced offensive line when they faced off with the Coogs in 2016. I don’t believe that means much in 2019, but it’s a cautionary tale of what can happen with an inexperienced O line.
3.) Hurts So Good
I am deeply sorry for the John Cougar Mellencamp reference.
Leading off with Jalen Hurts seemed like a painfully obvious story line, but its far too significant to ignore. The former Bama QB could’ve started for 90% of the teams in Division 1 and after losing his spot to Tua Tagavailoa, elected to use his final year at the highest profile school with uncertainty at QB.
Hurts also allowed Lincoln Riley to bridge the gap in 2019 to the future of either former #1 QB in the nation Spencer Rattler or 4-star Tanner Mordecai (Hurts’ backup on the latest OU depth chart).
The thing I find so interesting about Hurts is there’s no way Riley can run the same offense as he did with Baker Mayfield or Kyler Murray. Both of those guys were better at throwing the deep ball than just about anyone in the country. Even if the reports about Hurts throwing a decent deep ball in Sooners are true, it’ll never be his strength like it was his predecessors.
What Hurts can do at a high level is avoid turnovers and run between the tackles better than just about anyone in the country. Even the threat of a power runner like him changes the calculus of how opposing defenses approach the Sooners.
4.) The Sooner Ground Game
When previewing the Sooners offense, a lot of the ‘Oxygen’ gets taken up by the talk about the new QB Hurts, one of the most talented incoming receiver groups in the recruiting rankings era or the re-tooled offensive line.
But the Sooners quietly return a pair of running backs who combined for 25 rushing TDs and just over 2,000 yards: sophomore Kennedy Brooks and junior Trey Sermon. During the summer Brooks was cleared in a Title IX investigation that would have likely ended his Sooner career. In his first season seeing action Brooks averaged an absurd 8.9 yards per carry. Sermon is a bit more of a power runner but led the last year's team in carries and rushing TDs.
Hurts will certainly be a big part of the run game too, as he ran for 1,976 yards in 3 years at Alabama. He profiles like Sermon: a power runner with a nose for the end zone. The ‘X factor’ could be sophomore T.J. Pledger, a high school All-American who saw some action last year and got extended looks in the spring with Brooks out.
I feel like we (as a fan base and folks who write/talk about the Coogs) have talked about the Sooner receivers and the difficulty an inexperienced Cougar secondary will have matching up. But Hurts and an RB group that can go 3 deep will be an equal challenge.
5.) Local Ties
As they always have, the Sooners dip into the state of Texas for recruiting and have 44 Texans on their current roster, 9 of whom are from the Greater Houston area.
Among those 9 Houston area players are some of the biggest contributors on this Sooner team: Jalen Hurts (Channelview), star wide receiver CeeDee Lamb (Richmond Foster) and leading tackler Kenneth Murray (Fort Bend Elkins). Both Lamb and Murray were high school seniors when Houston and Oklahoma faced off last.
Lamb was a pre-season All-American in basically every publication and looks poised to be a 2020 1st round draft pick.
These local ties actually apply to both teams, as Cougar sophomore safety Gervarrius Owens went to high school about 20 minutes away from the OU campus in Moore, Oklahoma.