Lincoln Riley’s Biggest Challenges On The Horizon

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24 October 2015: The Oklahoma offense gathers around offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley (facing camera) during the Oklahoma Sooners 63-27 win over the Texas Tech Red Raiders at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, OK. (Photo by Stephen P. O'Brien/Icon Sportswire) (Photo by Stephen P. O'Brien/Icon Sportswire/Corbis via Getty Images)

Oklahoma has been the class of the Big 12 for several years running. The Sooners have clearly demonstrated excellence on the field unmatched by any of its conference mates. This is due largely to the successful tenure of offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, whose work is not going without reward. Riley’s contract with the Sooners has been extended through 2020, putting the future of the OU offense in his hands.

Lincoln Riley’s Biggest Challenges On The Horizon

Despite showing success on the field so far, the next handful of years will prove Riley’s true worth to Oklahoma. Since being hired in 2015, Riley’s Oklahoma offenses have been some of the most high-powered in the nation, pacing a conference renowned (or infamous, depending on perspective) for its scoring. The question facing Riley is whether or not that excellence can continue after losing a great deal of offensive talent.

Quarterback Baker Mayfield is obviously the most important cog in the Oklahoma offensive machine. The fact he’s returning in 2017 is huge for the team and the most crucial factor in its potential success. But, it’s impossible to ignore the loss of talent outside of quarterback that Oklahoma is facing this coming season.

Star talent moving on to the NFL

Dede Westbrook was the most recent star receiver for the Sooners, finishing last season as a Heisman Trophy finalist with 80 receptions and over 1,500 yards receiving to his name. Westbrook replaced standout Sterling Shepard as well as anyone could, bringing the Biletnikoff award back to Norman, Oklahoma, winning the award for best receiver in the nation in 2016. He won’t be back this season, as he’s Blake Bortles‘ newest target with the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars. Riley’s offenses have thrived in the last two seasons with a clear No. 1 receiver target for Mayfield to sling the ball to; now, the persisting question is whether or not Oklahoma can find similar success without a clear top option entering 2017.

Out of the backfield, Oklahoma had arguably the best one-two punch in the nation last season with Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, both of whom are preparing for their rookie seasons in the NFL after being taken in this year’s draft. Both backs were fantastic carrying the ball for OU during their careers in crimson and cream. Also, they added a dangerous element to the passing game (especially in Mixon’s case). That’s a massive amount of talent and production to lose in one offseason; can the Sooners overcome it to still produce points and yardage in 2017?

These questions will likely be answered in short order once the year starts. They must be, considering OU has tough contests at Ohio State and at Baylor in the season’s first month. These issues could realistically pose problems for Oklahoma this coming season. However, there’s no proof that Riley can’t lead a potent offense in the wake of losing all this talent.

Impressive track record

Before taking the job at OU, Riley built an impressive resume as the offensive coordinator at East Carolina. With the help of record-breaking receiver Justin Hardy and quarterback Shane Carden, who was a good college player but a far cry from Mayfield’s talent level, ECU put up the 23rd-best scoring offense and fifth-best total offense by yardage in the country in 2014. These numbers are quite impressive, especially considering the American Athletic Conference doesn’t score like the Big 12 does.

Additionally, Oklahoma still has young talent that will surround Mayfield on the field this season, even if it’s unproven. Assuming he can stay healthy (which he has yet to do in his time in Norman), sophomore running back Rodney Anderson can provide a formidable presence out of the backfield this year.

Plus, receivers like graduate transfer Jeff Badet and redshirt junior Nick Basquine, as well as redshirt-junior tight end Mark Andrews, will give the passing attack options down the field. The key is finding a player who can be a go-to option like Westbrook and Shepard were in recent years.

Proving value

Player development may be Riley’s lasting legacy at Oklahoma if he can turn some of these players into capable starters. Andrews is a stable starter, but acclimating players like Badet and Anderson to the Sooners offense would certainly legitimize Riley and his new high price tag.

Oklahoma is a heavy favorite to win the Big 12 in 2017, and deservedly so, although there are more questions for the Sooners’ offense this year than in the past couple of seasons. Lincoln Riley has impressed in his first couple years with OU, aided by a great deal of talent. (It also helps having one of the best quarterbacks in the country). The Sooners have lost a lot of talent, but another electric offensive season isn’t out of the question. Riley can establish himself as inarguably one of the nation’s best offensive coordinators if OU has another such season.

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