A balanced offense is what Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops wants to emerge by early September. That work began in earnest Saturday with the first spring practice.
The most compelling story line of the next six weeks is who will win a wide-open quarterback derby. Mastering new offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley’s offense will decide who wins between Baker Mayfield, Trevor Knight, Cody Thomas and Justice Hansen.
But can Riley adjust to OU’s best skill group being running backs?
The Sooners were the best rushing team of Stoops’ tenure last season. They averaged 6.1 yards per carry. Samaje Perine average 131.8 yards per game. The stable of running backs continues to grow with Joe Mixon and true freshman Rodney Anderson joining Perine, Keith Ford and Alex Ross.
“In this offense, there are times coach Riley has used two running backs quite often to do different things,” Stoops said.
Stoops didn’t go looking for an offensive coordinator to specifically maximize the running back potential when he jettisoned Josh Heupel and brought in Riley.
Last year’s 8-5 record showed a dominant running attack can only take a team so far. It’s limited without a dominant defense to back it up.
“We understand a positive part of our offense. But we still only had so many wins. And we had so many losses,” Stoops said.
The hope is a much-improved passing attack creates better opportunities to run the ball. Perine and last season’s offensive line showed it could take over games. Three of those five starters are prepping for the NFL Draft. There’s no guarantee life without offensive tackles Daryl Williams and Tyrus Thompson and left guard Adam Shead won’t make running the ball much tougher.
It’s going to take a more productive passing offense to guarantee Perine room to run.
“I believe, with our ability to throw the football in a more positive way, he may have better opportunities to run the football … more room to run the football. That’s what we are after. I believe that can happen. We don’t have to be as predictable and that’s all we’re doing,” Stoops said.
It’s going to be hard for OU to be much worse throwing the ball than it was in 2014. Its passing efficiency rating was 117.7 last season. That was 93rd out 125 FBS teams.
The passing struggles were not strictly a quarterback issue. Stoops sacked receivers coach Jay Norvell because the receivers were largely ineffective and couldn’t get open against much of anyone after Sterling Shepard suffered a groin injury with six games to go.
Whether that means more passing attempts or passing yards remains to be seen. OU has to become much more productive throwing the ball. It’s guaranteed every team OU faces next season will be geared up to stop the run.
What OU does schematically to combat that is a big part of today’s practice and the next 14 the Sooners have over the spring. It has to make defenses that sell out to stop one thing pay.
Stoops envisions the offense OU ran from 1999-2003. That one had a lot of spread principles, but was able to run the ball when necessary.
There is a difference. A couple years into Stoops’ tenure, OU was much better stocked at receiver than running back. Defending a spread offense was still a foreign concept to many defensive coordinators.
In some ways, it still is. High-scoring offenses have been the Big 12 standard for well over decade. Last season showed winning a national championship is predicated on the ability to put up an enormous amount of points.
The depth at running back is something many teams don’t have. Eliminating predicability is what OU’s after.