Oklahoma Sooners football: Who is this Lincoln Riley guy?


For the first time under Bob Stoops, the Oklahoma Sooners replaced an offensive play-caller with someone from outside the program. It has been confired that Oklahoma has hired East Carolina offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley to replace Josh Heupel, who was fired by Stoops last week.

The hiring of Riley, who has regularly had one of the top offenses in the country at ECU, has been met with mixed feelings from Oklahoma fans. Many like the idea of Stoops bringing on an accomplished and respected coordinator like Riley. Others were hoping to see Stoops bring on a guy known for running the ball more. That is very understandable considering the Sooners have FBS’s all-time single game rushing record holder in Samaje Perine on the team.

Many of the Riley critics are fearful of hiring a Mike Leach disciple and were hoping for somebody like TCU’s Sonny Cumbie to take over the play calling duties for the Sooners, which is funny because Cumbie also got his coaching start under Leach. For those who are worried about Riley abandoning the run game, I would suggest taking a closer look at Riley’s offenses at East Carolina.

While Riley is considered to be a Leach disciple, I like to say Riley runs a more balanced version of the Leach offense we saw at Oklahoma in 1999. Riley has put his own signature on the Pirates offense. His offense is actually run at a quicker tempo than Leach typically runs – as hard as that may be to believe – and does a much better job of involving the run game.

As for that tempo: Riley’s offense at ECU averaged 82.3 total plays per game in 2014 and 79.1 in 2013. In comparison, many think of Oregon when they think of up-tempo. The Ducks ran 74.8 plays per game in 2014 and 74.8 in 2013.

Under the guidance of Riley, the Pirates definitely put up some of the most impressive passing numbers in the country, but were also able to boast a couple 1,000-yard rushers. Vintavious Cooper ran for 1,139 yards in 2013 and 1,049 in 2012.

Riley’s offenses at ECU have managed to average at least 33 rushing attempts per game every season except is first year in charge of the Pirate offense in 2010. That’s roughly a 60%/40% pass to run ratio. In comparison, the 1999 Sooners offense coached by Leach only averaged 24.7 rushing attempts per game or roughly 37% of the time.

When the Sooners had Sam Bradford at quarterback, Oklahoma – under the guidance of Kevin Wilson, Jay Norvell and Kevin Sumlin – the Sooners installed an up-tempo spread offense that saw Bradford put up some of the best passing numbers in NCAA history. That offense had two 1,000 yard rushers in one season with DeMarco Murray and Chris Brown. In 2009 with Murray and Brown both returning and Bradford going down to injury, the Sooners went run heavy with an average of 37 rushing attempts per game.

Compared to those 2009 rushing numbers, the 33 rushing attempts per game by Riley’s Pirates in 2014 would seem to prove his willingness to run the ball. Keep in mind Riley didn’t have Cooper back to run the ball and yet, he still stayed just as committed to running the ball as he was in those two seasons with Cooper.

To keep things in perspective, I’ll admit that Riley’s up-tempo style leads to an inflated number of total plays, both running and passing, but the 2009 Sooners were also one of the most up-tempo offenses we’ve ever seen in college football, so it’s a pretty fair comparison when comparing which offense was more committed to the run.

Sep 6, 2014; Tulsa, OK, USA; Oklahoma Sooners running back Samaje Perine (32) runs past Tulsa Golden Hurricane cornerback Will Barrow (23) during the game at Skelly Field at H.A. Chapman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

I would expect Stoops is smart enough to insist Riley keep a healthy number of rushing attempts in his game plans with the likes of Perine, Alex Ross, Keith Ford and Joe Mixon on the roster. I also expect Oklahoma fans would be fine with a 60/40 pass to run ratio as long as points are being put up on the scoreboard. I could even envision something closer to a 55/45 split until the Sooners can prove there is an adequate passer and some receivers start to develop.

Speaking of developing receivers, Riley has become very well known for his work as a receivers coach. In 2007 he coached Michael Crabtree to a record breaking season. In 2014, East Carolina receiver Justin Hardy broke the FBS career receptions record, previously held by Oklahoma’s Ryan Broyles. Hardy finished his career with 387 receptions.

Riley’s career as a coach started out rather interesting. As a walk-on freshman quarterback at Texas Tech, Leach called Riley into his office and basically told him he though Riley lacked the talent to be a quarterback at the college level, but believed his knowledge and willingness to study the game would make him a great coach. Leach quickly convinced the young quarterback to move into a student assistant coaching position after that freshman season.

By the time Riley was 23 years old, he was being paid as receivers coach for Leach. After Leach was fired, Riley took over play calling duties for the 2010 Alamo Bowl against Michigan State. The Pirates would beat the Spartans 41-31 and Riley’s offense racked up 571 yards of total offense in his first game as a play caller.

Perhaps one of the biggest complaints Oklahoma fans had with the offense under Heupel, was the inability to convert on third down. The Sooners were 61st in the country in third down conversion percentage at 40.45%. They were actually worse in 2013 at 39.49%.

Meanwhile, East Carolina was one of the best in the country on third down with Riley calling plays. The Pirates were 11th in the country in third down conversion percentage at 47.85% in 2014. ECU was even better in 2013 when Riley had a strong running back in Cooper as a weapon. In 2014, Riley’s offense converted third downs at a rate of 49.16%.

If you’re a quarterback or receiver at Oklahoma or considering going to Oklahoma, you have to like the addition of Riley. If you’re a fan of the Sooners, you too should like the addition of Riley and if you are a bit skeptical because of your love of the running game, I would urge you not to buy into the “Leach disciple” label being tagged on Riley. When it’s all said and done, I’d expect the Sooners to definitely have a passing offense, but a more balanced offense than you might expect.

Now the next question will be who does Stoops pair with Riley. He has already said he expects to have co-offensive coordinators. The perfect match, while unlikely, would be Cumbie as a quarterbacks coach with Riley calling plays and coaching receivers. However, it appears that Riley will coach quarterbacks, which would mean Cumbie is not an option. Either way, the most important addition Stoops could make to Riley’s offensive staff would be a coach that can recruit really well and bring a positive reputation back to Oklahoma’s offense.