I took in some of the Oklahoma spring game recently, as is my custom. These are always a mixed bag, I’ve taken impressions in the past from these games that were helpful and accurate and then I’ve had some that were worthless. For instance, Kyler Murray didn’t look in command for the 2018 spring game but that evaluation proved worthless when he went on to have one of the most dominant seasons in college football history.
Alternatively, it’s been easy enough to see on spring film most of the last few years where the flaws and cracks in the OU defense were.
For this contest I was curious about things like how the Sooner defense aligned, how guys looked in 1on1 matchups and individual fundamentals, and how far along the QBs looked executing Lincoln Riley’s legendary offense.
Let me start by noting that my understanding of the Oklahoma offense continues to expand and grow thanks to Noah B. Riley’s book detailing the concepts and numbers from their historic 2018 season. Everyone that loves the X’s and O’s of the Big 12 should get it.
Jalen Hurts was good at running the QB draw at Alabama and I noted in an article that the Sooners would do well just to expand their usage of the concept in 2019. Hurts scrambled A TON at Alabama when his first read wasn’t open. It’s pretty engrained in him at this point to roll right and either make a pass on the move (he’s quite good at this) or to scramble, indeed that’s the first play he made in the Oklahoma spring game.
But Oklahoma has an expansive QB draw package that they utilized with Kyler Murray, here’s a glimpse of some of it under Tanner Mordecai’s direction:
It’s a bubble screen except that the center and RB are leaking out to block if the QB opts to hold the ball and take off on a scramble. The Sooners often ran QB draw blocking, including slot fade pass attempts, and if you have a QB that’s prone to scrambling when the read isn’t there anyways you might as well turn a lot of your deep shot passing game into QB draw RPOs. Give him some blocking help when he inevitably just tucks and runs.
What’s more, Hurts’ used to be solid on run option read plays at Alabama but was a bit iffy on RPOs. The draw is simpler then other RPOs.
Presumably the GT counter game will also be great for Hurts. I caught this from the spring game though:
While shades is talking to the sideline reporter, Oklahoma’s nickel walk-on is blowing up the GT counter-read play with a backside blitz. The DE dives inside, not all that hard, so Hurts pulls the ball and finds the nickel waiting for him. It’s not Hurts’ fault though, the issue is that Austin Stogner doesn’t block him but sees him drift inside and then climbs up to find the safety. No one else can cover that, Austin, gotta pin him inside and give Hurts a call or a chance there.
Oklahoma primarily played two nickels in this game, Boo Radley (Brendan “Bookie” Radley-Hiles) and walk-on Caleb Murphy from Colleyville Heritage. The latter comes from a defensive scheme that’s very similar to what Alex Grinch is installing (although he was a corner in HS) while Boo Radley has been one of the most oft-discussed Sooner defenders for the last full calendar year.
Both of them looked pretty solid at times. The walk-on Murphy had a dreadful blitz to start the game where he gave up contain on Jalen Hurts but from then on out he was a scourge to the crimson offense such as on the TFL above or this play:
Not a great block by Nick Basquine here, but Murphy moves pretty explosively here to work across his face and to run down Jalen Hurts while fighting a blocker, ultimately forcing him back inside to help.
Boo Radley was less effective playing blocks on the perimeter but he made one of the best plays of the night on this disguised blitz:
Not the greatest awareness by Tanner Mordecai but all night long Boo Radley was emerging unexpectedly with scissors after disguising his alignment until the last minute. Those kinds of pre-snap games are how you win in this league.
That said, Boo’s physicality isn’t ideal for the nickel spot and he’s probably a year away pending how things go this summer and coming fall. At 5-9, 186 though you wonder if he’ll ever really put it together at nickel or not. When he’s disguising his alignments or moving around he looks like Tyrann Mathieu but not when he engages with blockers. It’ll be interesting to see how the nickel battle goes and whether Caleb Murphy could ever offer them enough to try Boo out at corner.
I’m rethinking my eval on Austin Stogner
Stogner looks better than I had him pegged for, if Eric Nahlin is reading this I’m sure he’s dunking on me in his imagination. My eval of Stogner read…
Eric had Stogner no. 37 in the state of Texas, I think I’m lower on him. Stogner is a physical dude with a good knack for running routes and good hands to bring the ball in. The problem is that he just isn’t very quick and it’s hard to see him getting separation against DBs in the B12 as a flex TE. However as an H-back, he can probably become a good blocker that easily makes the most of opportunities in the receiving game. He’s a legitimately skilled receiver, I just think he’ll need to threaten the defense as a blocker in order to get the space he needs. There’s also an outside chance that he goes the Lane Johnson route and ends up as a 290 pound tackle down the line.
…but the dude looked really fluid and natural out wide in the spring game.
I don’t know how Chanse Sylvie didn’t get to that ball but Stogner looked plenty comfortable on this one. The Sooners were in solo here, a coverage they played a ton in this scrimmage, where the boundary safety shaded over to the trips side to help. Sylvie didn’t seem to understand his role in that coverage here.
As long as we’re talking coverages, I noticed the Sooners playing some Tampa-2 in this game which was interesting. The inverted Tampa-2 with three safeties that Iowa State has introduced is a brilliant design but Oklahoma was playing the sorts where you ask an ILB to drop up the middle.
That’s a good set from a dime look but from this nickel package it asked Dashaun White to drop deep middle. This definitely flustered and shut down Hurts here, even though he’d motioned the RB wide to clear up the picture, but come fall it’d be better from a dime package. It may only be a third down set but Baylor tried to mix in traditional tampa 2 on standard downs quite a bit last year and typically got burned for it.
But all that aside, Stogner showed well in this game and reminded me of how Grant Calcaterra flashed when he was a spring early enrollee back in 2017.
Jalen Hurts is who we think he is
Dynamic runner with a lot of power and agility, can throw a great ball to an early read, doesn’t progress very well and is quick to bail on the pocket and generally to his right.
Here’s the finest example from the game of how Hurts is likely to translate in this offense:
Simple read and good protection but the throw is anticipatory and well placed. Hurts has a tendency to kind of lay the ball in and at times you wonder how that would work out against a quicker DB but the dude has never been known for throwing picks. He was more overly cautious at Alabama than anything.
It seems really straightforward to assume that with a summer and fall camp ahead that Hurts will be able to master a solid chunk of the Oklahoma playbook, which includes a lot of passing concepts that can offer simpler reads. When he has fuller reads to progress through he’s tended to miss pre-snap cues and struggled to find targets. For instance:
It’s one of those two-sided concepts. Snag to the boundary and double slants to the field with the outside WR extra wide to have space. Against two-high snag (corner route, snag route, flat) is often a good look because it’s hard for the deep safety to cover that corner route by the slot.
The issue with the snag concept run to the boundary like this is there’s less space to work in. The CB Robert Charlton and WLB DaShaun White get away with hanging a beat in the deeper passing windows (the corner route for Charlton and the snag for White) and beating that coverage requires Hurts forcing them to commit to routes or else pulling the trigger quickly. The snag was certainly open for a beat.
Instead he’s looking to the field, where the whole formation and concept is essentially serving to isolate that outside X receiver (freshman Theo Wease) on the slant. But Hurts looks at the H (Basquine) doesn’t like the spacing there on that first slant (duh, dude is starting from just outside the box) and then tries to work through the snag progression when it’s already too late before bailing right and ultimately throwing away. Both the snag and the outside slant were there if he works quickly through the read and the corner route might be there as well had he made the CB commit to the snag.
Again, he’s going to get better in this offense and there’s a lot within the Oklahoma playbook that will make the most of his considerable abilities. But the dude should never be confused with an NFL prospect and the concern is whether he’ll be able to discern disguises and make reads against good defenses that will take away the easy stuff.
Same old offense for the Sooners. Generally teams don’t like to put anything on film in the spring game that they haven’t shown before and obviously the Sooners weren’t going to test drive their next round of surprises for Gary Patterson at a public event.
They could only hide so much on defense though, where the playbook is new and you consequently have to show some of the base defense which is something of a mystery.
In the spring game they mostly showed the sorts of cover 3 and quarters coverages that they’ve utilized in the past but with some press coverage as a default alignment. Up front they’re a single-gapping unit now, which is a big change, but they used a few different fronts in this game and will undoubtedly do so in the season as well.
They had Ronnie Perkins playing as the down DE and then Mark Jackson or Nik Bonitto as the stand-up DE/OLB hybrid guys. You figure some of that may be the dearth of options at DE, particularly with Kenneth Mann out although he’s never lit the world on fire, but the down DE clearly gets a few different tasks in this defense. The DE/OLB position, that I labelled J for Jack linebacker in the diagram to stay consistent with old Sooner terminology, goes back and forth between playing as an OLB or a weakside end. The down DE position goes back and forth between playing as a true end on the edge or slanting inside as a DT. I’ve been skeptical that Perkins could hold up as a 4i-technique that starts from inside a tackle but I think he could hold this position down at 260 or wherever he’s at now.
They moved their tackles around a bit and often lined them up over the guards before slanting them into different spots after the snap. I think that’s going to be the name of the game this season. That sounds like an aggressive strategy designed to make the DTs into playmakers but for most teams it doesn’t work out that way. If you move your DTs around then they hold EXTRA attention from the OL, who’s primary concern will be preventing them from running free into the backfield to inflict a TFL. Now your LBs are running free without getting guards dropped in their laps as often.
Exceptions occur when one of the DTs is Hercules Mata’afa and no one can stay in front of him (on the positive end of things) or when OL with good unit chemistry easily trade off guys and the DT slant ends up freeing them up to go hunt LBs (on the negative end of things).
With their athleticism up front, even on a thin and still rebuilding DL, the Sooners will probably see plenty of the good and the bad. I’ll write more on this later in the year but there’s a few Big 12 teams with fairly intact OL that could give them trouble. Inside zone will probably be their chief concern as a defense since it lends itself to most easily picking up movement and creating gaps so the inside zone teams, particularly those with good and explosive RBs, may be the scariest to this group.
That’d be TCU, Texas, and maybe Oklahoma State. Kansas State’s unit blocking power and hammering their preferred gap with bodies while alternating in confusing play-action could be something to worry just a little about as well.
This is what spring games are best for, determining who’s playing with confidence in their fundamentals and who stands out when playing with other P5-caliber athletes.
I’ve already written this spring that it looks like Oklahoma will be counting heavily on Neville Gallimore to be the anchor of their defense. If he can move around and hold attention that will go a long ways towards making this concept work.
He was up against walk-on centers in this game so you don’t want to overreact, but at the very least you’d say this performance was encouraging. They couldn’t handle him at all.
Here he is working against my cousin Ian McIver from Keller, TX. On the other side I’m not sure that DT Isaiah Thomas is on the right track or not here, Boo Radley is doing well to blow by big David Swaby outside, and then Gallimore is working from a 2i-technique to the opposite A-gap to inflict the TFL. He had a sack as well on a similar move, his lateral quickness looks fantastic and I know from watching him two-gap in the past that he’s pretty sturdy as well. On the other side of things, Dillon Faamatu doesn’t look particularly useful. They had him slanting from DT to DE against a zone-read and he stayed home but Jalen Hurts kept the ball anyways and ran right past him.
At linebacker, DaShaun White looks the part and he’s playing with a fair amount of confidence and proper positioning. Kenneth Murray didn’t really stand out but his partner in this game, Ryan Jones, clearly doesn’t know what he’s doing yet and hasn’t mastered the spacing and feel of the position yet. That’s okay, it’s only spring, but they probably need him to figure some things out for the fall with Caleb Kelly out.
Chanse Sylvie didn’t look like he knew his assignments at safety well and this position, like almost every year, might be the biggest concern for next season. Last I heard it sounded like Dellarin Turner-Yell and Patrick Fields are the current first team tandem and both are true sophomores trying to play the most consequential position (in terms of preventing points) on a Big 12 defense. That’s a step up from last year when OU regularly played true freshmen at nickel and strong safety, but still not great. Robert Barnes is supposed to be back in the summer…I’m not sure what happened to him when Jacobs lowered the boom on him but I’m glad to hear that he’s alive. A healthy Barnes helps this defense a lot.
The younger WRs look good, of course. Tanner Mordecai is what I thought he was as well, a good athlete with a strong arm who’s going to need lots of time and repetitions for the game to slow down for him. Here was my eval on him out of HS:
With Mordecai, I worry about his visual processing, you can see him stare down WRs and make late decisions in the RPO game. It’s the classic issue you find where the strong-armed QB gets away with making late decisions and throws and then it becomes a bad habit. I think Mordecai could break it but we’ll have to wait and see what his aptitude is like for mastering multiple concepts and attacking defenses.
Mordecai is a plus prospect in terms of physical tools that can physically do many of the same things Mayfield did, I don’t know if he can think and see the game at a high level or not. That may not matter too much at this level so long as he’s able to understand what Riley is aiming at and can throw on time.
That seems about right on so far. He zipped in an impressive pass during the spring game but he was rifling it through three defenders, which is just not a good plan for sustainable success.
Last, we have the Oklahoma OL which will probably determine how this season goes for the program. Hurts can help the run game with his athleticism and toughness, but they really need play-action to be on point like it normally is to make this system work as well as it normally does.
Center looks like a big problem right now with Creed Humphrey out, obviously it’ll be fine when he’s there in the fall but if there was any thought towards moving the star sophomore out to tackle that probably can’t happen. Adrian Ealy looks fantastic at RT and he erased Perkins a few times in that scrimmage. The other guys across the unit have plenty of talent but it hasn’t all come together yet. The concern is just that they’re going to have too many hiccups along the way to put together another historically great offensive season, which is what they’ve needed in the past to win the Big 12.