Oklahoma football: Next season’s Sooners will get back to ‘the way we were’

NORMAN, OK - SEPTEMBER 28: Quarterback Spencer Rattler #7 of the Oklahoma Sooners throws during warm ups before the game against the Texas Tech Red Raiders at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on September 28, 2019 in Norman, Oklahoma. The Sooners defeated the Red Raiders 55-16. (Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images)
NORMAN, OK - SEPTEMBER 28: Quarterback Spencer Rattler #7 of the Oklahoma Sooners throws during warm ups before the game against the Texas Tech Red Raiders at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on September 28, 2019 in Norman, Oklahoma. The Sooners defeated the Red Raiders 55-16. (Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images) /

Oklahoma football has been to the last three College Football Playoffs, and the kicker is the Sooners have been led there by three different starting quarterbacks.

Hesiman Trophy winners Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray were at the controls of the 2017 and 2018 OU Playoff teams, respectively, and last season it was Alabama Transfer Jalen Hurts who quarterbacked Oklahoma to college football’s version of the Final Four.

All three possessed a different set of skills and strengths, and all three transferred into the Oklahoma program and played under head coach Lincoln Riley. The fact that Riley is the common link to all three is not a coincidence.

Mayfield was a highly accurate passer, particularly with the deep ball, and had the ability to move around in the pocket, avoid sacks and make something out of nothing, with both his arm and his legs, when the play broke down. It also helped that he was surrounded by offensive weapons and a strong offensive front.

Murray, a dual-sport star in football and baseball, was a true dual-threat QB, possessing a strong arm and, like Mayfield, exceptional accuracy combined with electrifying speed. He truly could beat you with his arm and his legs, scoring 54 combined touchdowns his final season at OU. Murray broke the NCAA passing efficiency rating that Mayfield had set over the previous two seasons.

Then, last season, came Hurts, a very different player than either Mayfield or Murray. There had been questions about his passing efficiency that followed him from Alabama. Although his accuracy throwing the football this past season was better than expected, that was not really his forte, despite a deep and talented wide-receiver corps that included Biletnikoff Award runner-up CeeDee Lamb.

Riley reworked the Sooner offensive a bit to best utilize Hurts’ strengths and style of play. Hurts passed for 3,851 yards and rushed for a school-record 1,298 yards. He accounted for 52 total touchdowns (32 rushing and 20 passing). The Bama transfer added another dimension to the Big 12 best rushing offense. At 6-feet, 2 inches and 220 pounds, Hurts is more like a running back when he runs with the ball; his size and strength make him difficult to bring down.

That was then, and this is now.

For the fourth time in as many seasons, Oklahoma will introduce a new starting quarterback when the 2020 season opens on Sept. 5. Spencer Rattler, the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in the 2019 national recruiting class will be the next man up at that position for Riley and the Sooners.

Oklahoma Sooners Football
Oklahoma Sooners Football /

Oklahoma Sooners Football

A natural passer with a quick release, Rattler was the first high school quarterback in the state of Arizona to exceed 11,000 yards passing in his career. He has good mobility and, like the Sooner QBs who preceded him, has the ability to extend plays. He has good speed and elusiveness but, right at six feet and a shade under 200 pounds, won’t be counted on to run the ball as much as Hurts.

The fact that Rattler, who was an MVP at the Elite 11 quarterback competition out of high school, had a full season to sit an learn the OU offensive system behind Hurts, puts him in a stronger position than he would have been as a freshman to step in as the starter at quarterback in the fall. He saw limited action his freshman season, playing in three games and completing seven of 11 passes for 81 yards and a touchdown. He also ran for 23 yards, averaging 7.7 yards.

Riley has not named a starting quarterback for next season, which is consistent with his three seasons as the Sooners’ head coach, but it is the worst kept secret in the universe because everyone knows the job is Rattler’s barring an injury.

Believe me, it was a conscious decision when Riley brought in Rattler to replace the starter Hurts late in the College Football Playoff game with LSU instead of redshirt sophomore Tanner Mordecai, who had spent the entire season as No. 2 on the depth chart. Consider it a preview of what is to come.

Despite the departure of three key receivers, including the All-American Lamb, who caught nearly 40 percent of the Sooners’ passes in the 2019 season, Oklahoma returns another talented group of receiving threats.

The Sooners return second-leading receiver Charleston Rambo along with the trio of top-five, five-star sophomore wide receivers Jadon Haselwood, Theo Wease and Trajon Bridges along with sophomore tight end Austin Stogner. OU also added graduate transfers Theo Howard out of UCLA and Obi Obialo, who comes by way of Marshall. The bottom line here: Don’t expect much of a drop off in the OU passing game. In fact, it is likely to be more prolific than last year’s aerial attack.

And Trey Sermon and Kennedy Brooks, both of whom have rushed for over 2,000 yards in their OU careers, are back for another go behind one of the country’s best offensive lines, which means the Sooners will boast another strong rushing ensemble to complement its passing game.

Marvin Mims, a highly touted, four-star wide receiver out of the Dallas area could also see some playing time.

With the dual-threat skills and abilities Rattler brings to the offense, and with much higher upside in the passing game than the Sooners had last year with Hurts behind center, expect the Oklahoma Air Raid offense to return to “the way we were,” to borrow from the popular Barbra Streisand song title and movie by the same name, and  look much more like it did when Mayfield and Murray were at quarterback.

A year ago, the Sooners got back to the days of old and ran the ball almost 200 times more than they put it in the air (565 rushing attempts to 381 passing plays). In 2020, expect that margin to narrow and the passing yardage to increase as the Sooners return to the deep passing threat they were in 2017 and ’18.

A powerful run game and Rattler’s arm and accuracy will make that possible.