Sooner Football: O-Line Deserves Plenty of Credit for OU’s Recent Success


One of the biggest question marks coming into the 2015 Sooner football season was how the offensive line would perform, with just one returning starter back from last season.

Center Ty Darlington is the only returning starter on the OU offensive line from a year ago that included two NFL draft picks (tackles Tyrus Thompson and Daryl Williams). Not only has the Sooner offensive line included four new starters in 2015, but they also have had to learn a new Air Raid-style offense being implemented by new offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley.

Generally, offensive linemen don’t get the credit they deserve, especially in a conference like the Big 12, which has the country’s highest-scoring and most prolific offenses. The quarterbacks and the other skill positions in the offense typically get all the headlines. But the truth is, their numbers and offensive achievements would not be possible without the solid play of the guys manning the trenches.

Using OU’s last three games as a measuring stick, the Sooners’ offensive line is doing just fine, thank you. Over the past three week’s, in successive blowout wins over Kansas State, Texas Tech and Kansas, the Oklahoma offense has been virtually unstoppable. The Sooners have averaged 60 points and 631 yards of total offense in those three games alone, and they rank in the top-8 nationally in both categories for the season.

Oct 3, 2015; Norman, OK, USA; Oklahoma Sooners wide receiver Sterling Shepard (3) and Oklahoma Sooners offensive tackle Orlando Brown (78) celebrate after a touchdown against the West Virginia Mountaineers in the second quarter at Gaylord Family – Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

That kind of offensive firepower does not happen without solid play at the line of scrimmage. The Sooners stuttered and sputtered at times on offense in the early games of the 2015 season, despite claiming four-straight wins to begin the season.

Oklahoma got a huge wake-up call, however, in its annual Red River battle royal against Texas. The Sooners had experienced difficulty getting their potent ground game going in the four games prior to the matchup with the archrival Longhorns – even a big, quick, bruiser-back like Samaje Perine was having trouble finding running lanes – and there had been occasional breakdowns in pass protection leading to untimely sacks of quarterback Baker Mayfield, but nothing like offensive unraveling that plagued the Sooners in the stunning loss to Texas.

The Sooners were held to just 67 yards rushing against Texas, a season low, and to make matters worse, Mayfield was sacked six times by the blitz-hungry Longhorn defense and spent most of the afternoon running for his life. The Oklahoma offensive line was literally and figuratively bull-rushed and bull-whipped the entire game as the Sooners found themselves on their heels from the opening kickoff.

As bad a display of football as it was for OU against a fired-up, underdog Texas Longhorn bunch, and could end up costing the Sooners a legit shot at the conference championship, that game could also end up serving as a savior for their season.

Freshman offensive tackle Orlando Brown acknowledged in an article on Monday in The Oklahoma Daily, the University of Oklahoma student publication, that what happened in the Texas game caused the Sooner offensive front and the coaches to go back to the square one and look deep within themselves.

"“We basically went back to the drawing board and just went back to the things we were doing before that,” Brown said. “I feel we kind of got away from those things as a group up front mentally.“Whether we’re playing good or bad, running it good or bad,” he said, “I feel that it starts with us up front.”"

Oct 10, 2015; Dallas, TX, USA; Oklahoma Sooners guard Nila Kasitati (54) in action against the Texas Longhorns during Red River rivalry at Cotton Bowl Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Whatever mental metamorphosis or physical adjustments Brown and his OU O-line teammates made after the disappointing loss to Texas, it clearly has had a highly favorable effect, and offensive coordinator Riley has seen the confidence in the guys up front growing each week thereafter.

"“I think the guys have kind of settled into a system a little more,” Riley said in the OU Daily article. “We’ve kind of found some of the things our guys are good at and (are) featuring those a little bit more.“And with success comes that confidence, and it’s growing for these guys right now.”"

One of the changes made after losing to Texas was returning 6-3, 297-pound sophomore Jonathan Alvarez to his starter’s spot at offensive left guard. Alvarez hurt his ankle in the victory over Kansas last weekend and was replaced by senior Derek Farniok, but the sophomore played very well in all three of the Sooner wins that followed the Texas game.

Another position change was elevating freshman Dru Samia to the No. 1 spot at right tackle ahead of senior Josiah St. John.

Since those two offensive line changes were made, the Oklahoma running backs averaged 3.83 yards before contact per rush against Kansas State and Texas Tech, and even better vs. a far-inferior Kansas team. That compares with 1.48 yards before contact per rush that the Sooners averaged in their first five games, including the Texas loss.

The improved line play not only has strengthened the rushing portion of the OU offense, but because the Sooners have been able to run the ball better, the Air Raid attack has gotten more dangerous, as well, because of the greater attention being paid by opponents to the Oklahoma run game.

It wouldn’t be right not to contribute some, if not much, of the improvement that has taken place on the Sooner O-line to assistant coach Bill Bedenbaugh, who works with the offensive lineman.

The guys are having to think less and, consequently, they’re able to use their physicality and go play, Riley said after the Kansas win.

The bottom line is: The Sooners are winning and winning big, and you know that can’t happen without the guys up front being a big part of hit.

All of this couldn’t be happening at a better time with OU heading into the defining month of November with huge games coming up against Baylor, TCU and in-state Bedlam Series rival Oklahoma State.