Riley’s Air Raid at Oklahoma might be better than in ’15
NORMAN, Okla. (AP) — A year ago, new Oklahoma offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley was still installing his Air Raid system while trying to figure out who would be his quarterback.
By the end of the season, he had won the Broyles Award for the nation’s top assistant coach, quarterback Baker Mayfield had finished fourth in the Heisman balloting and the Sooners had qualified for the College Football Playoff.
“We played better as we went on,” Riley said. “Part of that, it was Year 1, and it was just a progression of it. We knew what our identity was the entire way, we just weren’t great at it, yet. Kind of around midseason, we started playing better and got some confidence, and we were able to take it from there.”
Now a much wealthier man after a significant raise, the 32-year-old Riley has much of the talent from last year’s squad back, including Mayfield and fellow Heisman candidate Samaje Perine at running back for the third-ranked Sooners.
“Not only is our team more equipped and totally now understands our offense — what’s required and all the little nuances of it, but now also, coach Riley knows what he has to work with, where a year ago, he’s still piecing all that together,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. “I just feel like overall, there’s a lot more confidence and it’s a lot more fluid.”
Oklahoma will need all the offense it can get. The Sooners open with No. 15 Houston on Sept. 3 at Reliant Stadium, then host No. 6 Ohio State two weeks later. There will be no time for a slow start like the offense had last year.
“There’s certainly an expectation we have to be play better,” Riley said. “I think our guys have a strong understanding if we don’t, we’re going to be in trouble. We play some real good teams in the beginning. We have to be very good, very early.”
Stoops has no doubt that Riley will have the team ready. Overall, the Sooners ranked fourth in school history in points per game (43.5), third in yards per game (530.2) and third in yards per play (6.80) last season. The Sooners posted huge numbers in two of their most critical games last year, victories over Baylor and Oklahoma State.
“Lincoln is really organized and very detailed and/or sure of what he wants to do,” Stoops said. “Therefore, the things we put on the field have been well rehearsed. He’s got a great feel for play-calling and mixing the run and the pass. He’s a great communicator with the coaches and the players.”
With Riley calling the shots, Mayfield’s 2015 season was one of the best at Oklahoma. He passed for 3,700 yards and 36 touchdowns, and his completion percentage was second in school history for a single season.
Mayfield said Riley’s value goes beyond the game plan.
“He’s not a guy that’s going to yell at you, but at the same time, he can kind of crack the whip when he needs to,” Mayfield said. “I respect him a lot because he knows when to flip the switch and be serious, but at the same time, he’s a guy you can just talk to and I very much enjoy that, to be able to go into the meeting room and when we’re not talking about football, to just be able to relax.”
Riley’s biggest challenge will be finding ways to fill the void left by receiver Sterling Shepard, who has moved on to the NFL. Dede Westbrook, last year’s No. 2 receiver, had 46 catches for 743 yards last season. Mark Andrews, an All-Big 12 selection last season, had seven touchdown grabs. Geno Lewis, a transfer from Penn State, should fit in immediately.
Stoops said balance is what Riley’s offense is all about. The hope is more equal distribution of touches makes the offense even more difficult to defend.
“I think we’ll be further along than that this year, where we’ll have more guys contribute,” Stoops said. “Hopefully, in some of those games, 10 guys have receptions, multiple guys have several receptions. That’s what this offense is designed to do. I think we’ll be more that way this year.”
Freelance writer Murray Evans in Norman, Oklahoma, contributed to this report.
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: @CliffBruntAP .