What Oklahoma is going through is team-wide, each position group is subject to it and there may be no avoiding it, at least on purpose.
“Whether it’s an injury, whether it’s COVID related … most days you’re going to have a few guys back and a few guys gone,” Sooner coach Lincoln Riley said. “And then you wake up and do it again the next day.”
He believes his program is getting better at managing coronavirus risk but must improve still.
“We cannot have games like that, where we’ve got that many people out,” he said, referencing OU’s season-opening 48-0 victory over Missouri State. “We’ve got to do a much better job.”
He also knows it’s just the lay of the land this season — for his team and everybody else.
“We’ve just got to be able to handle it,” he said.
A great way to understand what the Sooners are going through is to consider one facet of their game. So let’s go with the ground game.
OU was missing about 30 players against Missouri State and about 20 from their two-deep depth chart.
A scant few were known to be injury or suspension related, leaving the vast majority to be COVID related, be it by a positive test or a contact trace that put a negative tester into quarantine.
The Sooner offensive line — sort of — wasn’t diminished too badly, as 4 of 5 projected starters did in fact start: Marquis Hayes, Creed Humphrey, Tyrese Robinson and Adrian Ealy.
Yet, both the Nos. 1 and 2 left tackles — Anton Harrison and Stacey Wilkins — were missing. Andrew Raym, Hayes’ back-up at left guard, was also missing.
That’s 3 of 10 unavailable, which is no picnic. It meant Ealy moving to left tackle to protect quarterback Spencer Rattler’s blind side. It meant Swenson starting at right tackle and it meant the Sooners’ rotation on the line, meant to include 10 players, included only seven — the five starters plus back-up center Ian McIver and back-up right guard Brey Walker.
That was plenty to get past Missouri State, but one presumes the challenge will be more difficult come conference play, particularly against the likes of Oklahoma State, Texas and Baylor.
“One of the things we have going for us,” said Humphrey, OU’s starting center and a preseason All-American, “is that we have all played together.”
It’s a plus, but plenty of unknowns, week-to-week, are bound to remain.
“There’s days were we might not know who we are playing [on the line],” Humphrey said. “That’s the reality of the situation that we’re in this year. We have to play through it. No matter what, all five guys have to do their job.”
Not only may Humphrey not know who he’s blocking alongside day-to-day, he may not know who he’s blocking for.”
Before the season began, nobody figured OU’s opening-day, one-two running back punch would be redshirt freshman Marcus Major and true freshman Seth McGowan, yet that’s exactly what it was.
Major got the most carries, 11, but only turned them into 31 yards. McGowan turned his nine into 64 and a score, and his only catch into 37 and another score. Major caught one pass for 5 yards.
If everybody’s healthy, not caught up in a coronavirus contact trace and not suspended, the Sooners’ one-two ground punch is likely to be Rhamondre Stevenson and T.J. Pledger, the Nos. 3 and 4 running backs last season, behind Trey Sermon and Kennedy Brooks.
Sermon, though, chose to become a graduate transfer, and is now at Ohio State, which may or may not play football this season. Brooks has reportedly opted out of the season and is not on the Sooner roster.
Missing those guy, and others to the coronavirus is doing the Sooner ground game no favors, though that hardly makes the Sooner ground game unique.
“People can be doing all the right things off the field and they can still get this no matter what,” Humphrey said. “Obviously, it’s disappointing to have those guys not play the first game, but it’s something we have to go through this year.”
The good news, if you can call it that, is OU is not remotely alone.
Tuesday, Arkansas State, three days after shocking Kansas State, announced it would have to postpone its coming game against Central Arkansas.
At least that hasn’t happened to the Sooners yet.
Even depleted, most of the offensive line, most of OU’s running backs, most of the team, remained available.
Right now, that’s about as good as it gets.