Oklahoma football: Changes abound in 2017 version of Sooners


The oft-heard idiom expression ,”The more things change, the more they stay the same,” belies the 2017 edition of Oklahoma football and a program that has long prided itself on consistency and sustained success.

Yes, there are a few things that remain constant — like third-year starting quarterback Baker Mayfield, 16 returning starters, including the entire offensive line, and most all of the coaching staff —  but other than that, change is pervasive as the Sooners prepare to kick off their 122nd season of varsity football. And Sooner fans are hopeful that the many changes will produce more of the same, including another conference championship and potentially more.

The biggest change of all heading into the new season, of course, is the departure of Bob Stoops after 18 highly successful seasons and the elevation of Lincoln Riley from offensive coordinator to head coach. The 33-year-old Riley (who will turn 34 next week) takes over as the youngest head coach among FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) schools.

History will determine how well Riley will perform following a Sooner coaching legend like Stoops, whose 190 wins in 18 seasons is the most all-time by an OU football coach. Other than the addition of Ruffin McNeill, who joined the staff over the summer as assistant head coach and defensive line coach, the remainder of the coaching staff remains the same, which is a very important factor in an effort in maintaining  program continuity during the transition of a new head coach.

The changes are a plenty on the offensive side of the ball, where the Sooners lose three of their four biggest weapons. Running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon have moved on and taken their enormous skills to the NFL, as has sensational wide receiver Dede Westbrook. I can imagine Sooner fans are tired of hearing about who they have lost — I certainly am — and are more interested in hearing about who is going to be next up.

It certainly is not as if Oklahoma is back to square one retooling an offense that was the second best in the nation a year ago in total offensive yardage. How can you count out an offense that returns a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist at quarterback, arguably the most important position on any championship-caliber team?

In the next two weeks, we should know exactly what the Sooners have in the run game, and from all indications in training camp, and running behind arguably the best offensive line in the country, Mayfield should be well equipped with a talented quartet of backfield weapons named Adams (Abdul), Anderson (Rodney), and newcomers Sutton (Marcelias) and Sermon (Trey). Get familiar with them because you are going to be seeing them a lot, particularly in the early going as they  compete for playing time.

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The receiving corps is without Mayfield’s biggest and most dependable target from last season, but I’ll let you in on a little secret: The complement of receivers coach Riley puts on the field may be the deepest group the Sooners have had in a while, which means defenses will have more than just one prime receiver to account for.

Tight end Mark Andrews will be a big target in 2017 in more ways than one, and watch for 6-foot, 5-inch senior Jeffery Mead and sophomore Mykel Jones, a couple of wide receivers you haven’t heard much from in the past to step up big for Mayfield and the Sooners in the passing game.

Another name you are likely to hear called a lot in 2017 is newcomer Jeff Badet, a wide receiver/return specialist who comes to Oklahoma as a graduate transfer from Kentucky, where his head coach was Bob and Mike Stoops’ younger brother, Mark. And true freshman CeeDee Lamb should also turn some heads this season, and just could be the biggest surprise of all.

In addition to being named a starting wide-out, Lamb will also begin the season as the Sooners’ primary punt returner, a role that Westbrook had last season.

Badet is expected to be used as a deep back on kickoff returns.

An area where there will not be any change in 2017 is on the offensive line, where the full rotation from last season returns, including the primary starters.

The fact that many experts who follow and comment on the college game consider the Sooner O-line to be one of the best, if not the best, in college football this season, could well be the major point of difference that separates Oklahoma from the other Big 12 contenders in 2017.

We’ll soon find that out. More of the same…