Oklahoma football: Three question marks for Sooners in 2021 season

OU's Eric Gray (0) runs past Kendall Dennis (21) during the Sooners' spring football game on April 24.ONLY cut out of eric gray (0)
OU's Eric Gray (0) runs past Kendall Dennis (21) during the Sooners' spring football game on April 24.ONLY cut out of eric gray (0) /

There is a lot of hype and high expectations surrounding the Oklahoma football teams as we get set to kick off the 2021 college football season?

And for good reason. This is a very good Oklahoma team, returning seven starters on offense, including arguably the No. 1 quarterback in the country in Spencer Rattler, and eight starters on defense.

It is no coincidence that the Sooners are ranked between No. 2 and No. 4 in virtually every 2021 preseason poll.

This is as complete a team as Lincoln Riley has had in his now five seasons as Oklahoma head coach.

Oklahoma Sooners Football
Oklahoma Sooners Football /

Oklahoma Sooners Football

As good as the Sooners are projected to be this season, there still are a few concerns, and we’ve identified what we believe to be the three biggest question marks as OU wraps up the second full week of preseason training camp.

For the last three years, defensive performance would be at the top of the list, but that is not the case this season.

In fact, defense is not a top-three concern this season; this defense should be the best OU has had since Riley became head coach. It should actually be one of the strengths of the 2021 Sooners.

Who will replace Creed Humphrey on offensive line?

Oklahoma’s offensive line returns three starters, but one of the two starters who are gone is Creed Humphrey, the Sooners’ All-American center and the leader of the O-line group for the past three years.

The Sooners have good depth and versatility on the offensive line. A couple of new faces have been impressive early in camp — freshman Savion Byrd, who could end up at one of the tackle spots, and Tennessee transfer Wanya Morris. They also have starters Erik Swenson, Tyrese Robinson and Marquis Hayes back from a year ago. Swenson played left tackle last season; Robinson and Hayes were at the guard spots.

It appears that freshman Andrew Raym, from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, has won the job at center. He’s young and inexperienced at the Division I college level, but offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh says Raym has all the tools and smarts to be an elite center. How quickly he develops and grows in the role will be a key factor in how consistent and  effective this O-line unit can be in working together, opening up lanes for the running backs and keeping defenders out of the backfield on passing downs.

Will the weight of super-high expectations be too much for Spencer Rattler?

One of the biggest reasons Oklahoma is ranked so high in all of the 2021 preseason polls is because of Spencer Rattler, who is in his second full season as the Sooners’ starting quarterback.

Rattler got the chance to show what he could do last season, and he got progressively better as the season wore on, including a season-ending 247-yard passing performance and three touchdowns in OU’s 55-20 Cotton Bowl win over Florida. He also had 40 yards rushing in that game.

This preseason Rattler has been named to several All-America teams, is the lead contender for the 2021 Heisman Trophy, is CBS Sports’ Preseason Player of the Year and is one the watch list for several national individual awards, including the Maxwell Award and the Walter Camp Award, both of which recognize the most outstanding player in college football.

On top of all this, Rattler is tasked with the duty of leading Oklahoma to its fifth College Football Playoff appearance and getting the Sooners their first playoff win and potentially an eighth national championship. He’s not the sole player responsible, for sure, but you can bet that he feels he has the primary responsibility insofar as the players on the field.

That is a boatload of weight and expectation on one player’s shoulders. Can Rattler live up to all those expectations? He gives every impression that he can.

If he’s being true to himself — and, of course, plays within himself and successfully manages the highs and lows that are certain to come, the Sooners are going to be in excellent shape. But that is the unknown as we sit here two weeks out from the start of the season.

How will the year layoff impact RB Kennedy Brooks’ performance?

In his first two years in an Oklahoma uniform, Kennedy Brooks ran for over 1,000 yards in both seasons. He opted out of last season, however, out of health and safety concern for COVID-19.

Lincoln Riley says Brooks has looked good in training camp, but those are not game conditions. Right now, it appears that Brooks will be the lead OU running back. His primary backup will be newcomer Eric Gray, who transferred from Tennessee, where he led the Volunteers in rushing a year ago.

The play of the offensive line will have a lot to say about Brooks’ effectiveness running the ball. He ran behind good offensive lines in 2018 and 2019.

The Sooners are hoping to use Brooks and Gray as a two-man punch, much like they utilized the combinations of Brooks and Trey Sermon and Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine in the recent past.

We just don’t know what impact, if any, the year layoff may have had on Brooks. We won’t know that until after the first couple of games.

The run game is a critical component of OU’s Air Raid offense. If Brooks is able to stay healthy and perform anywhere near what he was in 2018 and ’19 — and with what they have seen from and are expecting from Gray — expect the Sooners to be another high-scoring offensive machine.