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The Lincoln Riley Oklahoma offense

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Lincoln Riley built the best offense of the Bob Stoops era in 2016 and as a reward he’s now been handed the keys to the kingdom.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Texas Christian Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps the defining trait from Bob Stoops’ legacy at Oklahoma is going to be how eager and willing he was to embrace offense as a means to winning despite his defensive background. Stoops came up under Bill Snyder at Kansas State, who was/is an offensive mind but one that embraces ball control and defense as necessary adjuncts to team strategy. Then Bobby went on to Florida to become the missing ingredient in Steve Spurriers’ Gator program. He was given free reign to do things as he pleased and he rewarded that trust from Spurrier by helping him win a national title in 1997.

Oklahoma rewarded that production with an offer to become their head coach and Stoops quickly won another ring with the 2000 Sooners. Then he went on to define nearly two decades of Sooner football with his aggressive team strategy and willingness to pair his defenses with cutting edge offenses:

His hire of Lincoln Riley came after Baylor won back to back Big 12 titles in 2013 and 2014 while beating the Sooners by margins of 29 and 34 points. It was a return to the Air Raid roots that launched Oklahoma’s initial run under Stoops in from 1999 through 2001 and an acceptance that Oklahoma’s dominance of the Big 12 needed to continue to be keyed by explosive offense.

Riley had a great reputation amongst Air Raid coaches and had really taken off in 2012 after installing former two-star Texas HS QB Shane Carden as the starter in East Carolina. The Pirates program was run by Ruffin McNeil, a man who had successfully coordinated good defenses under Mike Leach in Texas Tech and thus enabled the best stretch of football for the Raider program in that tenure. McNeil parlayed that success into the ECU job and took Riley, then a young inside receivers coach, with him to install the Leach Air Raid in the AAC.

Riley’s success with Carden and reputation across the Mike Leach coaching tree earned him a shot to revitalize the Sooner offense, which was struggling to match their former offensive successes with Landry Jones gone and no successor at QB gaining traction.

Riley’s adjustment in Norman

With Riley stepping in there were two big questions concerning the future of the Sooner offense. The first was who would run the show at QB, the athletic but often inaccurate Trevor Knight, or transfer walk-on Baker Mayfield from fellow Air Raid program Texas Tech?

The other question was whether Riley would maintain a pass-first approach or if he would evolve to incorporate Oklahoma’s deep stable of running backs (featuring returning 1800 yard rusher Samaje Perine and up and comer Joe Mixon) and Stoops’ penchant for fielding big, athletic OL that could dominate opposing fronts in the run game.

Baker Mayfield proved to be the better fit in the new offense by far, bringing far greater passing game acumen and accuracy than Knight while maintaining some of the dual-threat abilities. He took Knight’s job and the deposed signal-caller chose to graduate and transfer to Texas A&M.

Meanwhile Riley did indeed embrace the Sooner tradition of mauling opponents up front with the run game, but he brought a new approach to doing so. Specifically he brought a counter-trey running scheme that took the Sooners a while to master but by 2016 had become a devastating component to their offense with a handful of different tweaks and features.

Their most standard way to run it was with a QB keeper option attached to the backside to allow them to run the scheme from four-WR sets without getting gashed on the backside:

The play works like a zone read play, with the backside DE left unblocked for the QB to read and punish if he crashes too hard after the RB. To the play side it’s a standard gap scheme with one guy (the guard) kicking out the other DE and then the other puller (the tackle) leading through the hole. On the example above the unblocked Texas DE played it too aggressively trying to get upfield and consequently left the cutback lane open.

The Sooners made the GT (guard/tackle) counter trey play a staple in their weekly gameplans while attaching different reads for Mayfield in order to punish different defenses. Against the Houston Cougars they mixed in this nasty combo in which Mayfield reads the middle linebacker and either tosses a bubble screen to the running back or keeps it himself as the featured runner in the counter scheme:

That’s a nasty play because linebackers are trained to key OL movement and the path of the running back and this play crosses their wires in spectacular fashion by pulling linemen to the boundary while sending the two backs out to the field.

Against the TCU Horned Frogs they mixed in the standard spread counter play in which they pulled a guard and H-back and leave the tackle behind but they also ran this GT counter with the H-back releasing upfield on a quick POP route:

Again, the linebackers are crossed up and you can see the TCU middle linebacker hesitating to deny the quick hitting POP route to the H-back and then be unable to arrive in time to make the tackle on Perine.

In one more example we see Riley anticipate West Virginia crashing their DE to stop the RB on their standard counter play and then dropping the boundary safety to make the tackle on Baker Mayfield if he keeps it:

Mayfield is looking for this to occur and has a backside slant option now attached to make the Mountaineers pay for their aggressive, run-stopping tactic.

Riley maintained the Sooners’ normal inside/outside zone runs that have been a stable for many years in Norman but the introduction and eventual mastery of the counter-trey play really took their run game to a new level. With big, NFL-bound OL like LT Orlando Brown and all of their skill talent on the outside these plays made it exceptionally difficult for opponents to effectively outnumber the Oklahoma running game without being left vulnerable to easy constraints.

The pulling linemen moved gaps around in a way that zone concepts can’t and triggered opposing linebackers to crash downhill in a way that made for easy option reads for Baker Mayfield. Effective gap schemes from four-receiver sets are more or less the trickiest tactics in the spread game today.

By far the most impressive point on Lincoln Riley’s resume to this point is embracing the strengths of the Oklahoma roster and culture he found waiting for him and then adding enough tweaks to maximize them. The result was the creation of what was probably the best offense in the entire Bob Stoops era.

Lincoln Riley’s purpose in Norman

As effective as the Sooners have been running the ball with Riley and as great a credit as that is to his ability to evolve and adjust, Oklahoma didn’t need Riley in order to run over their Big 12 opponents. They were doing just fine in that regard without him. What they needed him to do was bring back the explosive passing game that had garnered Heisman trophies for Jason White (2003) and Sam Bradford) and that had made Landry Jones a three-time 4k yard passer (2010, 2011, 2012).

We still haven’t truly seen what he can do in terms of developing quarterbacks year in and out other than what he accomplished with Shane Carden at East Carolina. Baker Mayfield was a two-year starter for a dominant high school team, then a pretty solid true freshman starter at Texas Tech, then a redshirt sophomore when Riley arrived in Norman. It’s simply not a given that Lincoln Riley will consistently churn out top quarterbacks in Norman although the prognosis is certainly favorable.

However we have seen his ability to match his passing schemes to the talents on hand in the receiving corps. In 2015 it was all about Sterling Shepard whom Riley moved around in a few different positions to make the most of his quickness and route running on the hash marks. In 2016 the feature of the passing game was Dede Westbrook, who’s 1524 receiving yards and 17 TDs got him a ticket to New York with his QB Mayfield.

Riley kept Westbrook outside at the outside “Z” receiver position on the right and did what he could to get him isolated on cornerbacks who had little chance of keeping up with him running deep routes:

Play-action was a reliable way to accomplish that aim, as was their tunnel screens which could get their freakish OL out in space on hapless defenders. The Sooners could also line up some dangerous receivers inside of him, like flex TE Mark Andrews, to help free him up from unwanted attention. With all of the other features in the Oklahoma offense, it was all too easy for Riley to scheme up opportunities for Westbrook to work in space and isolation.

We think that Lincoln Riley can oversee the selection and development of quarterbacks at a place like Oklahoma but we know that he can make the most of good skill athletes and put them in position to roast opponents.

Can Lincoln Riley truly replace Bob Stoops?

Lincoln Riley seemed to be the best offensive hire yet in Bob Stoops’ long, 18 year career of making great offensive hires. As Steven Godfrey noted today, Bob Stoops’ legacy is largely defined by how well he managed his staff.

There was just one stain on his resume in that regard, one leftover problem that will provide Riley with an early chance to demonstrate whether he’s capable of overseeing and fitting together talents in the meeting room as effectively as he has on the field. That’d be Bob Stoops’ younger brother and current Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops.

Mike Stoops was brought aboard after getting fired from Arizona, a move which led Brent Venables to take off for Clemson, and a move which has yet to result in Oklahoma reestablishing themselves as one of the better defenses in college football with 2016 ending up as one of their weakest defenses yet. Since this transition is taking place over the summer Mike Stoops should have 2017 to build a case for his retention as a lifer DC with major experience that can help Riley oversee the program.

Lincoln Riley rose up the college coaching ranks while working under defensive-minded head coaches in Ruffin McNeil and Bob Stoops, it’ll be very interesting to see if he took the lesson from their program management on the importance of embracing the other side of the ball as an equal or even greater partner in the pursuit of winning.

The summer transition also means that Lincoln Riley will be calling the plays this coming season and essentially maintaining his role as offensive coordinator, then we’ll have to wait and see how he handles the OC job from there. Refusing to delegate to staff is not how Bob Stoops turned Oklahoma into a juggernaut that experienced more conference titles than home losses over his 18-year tenure.

Overall there are a lot of questions about Lincoln Riley, as you’d expect from a 33-year old first time head coach taking over one of the biggest and most successful programs in the country. One thing we know is that Bob Stoops trusts him to carry on his legacy and the last 18 years tell us that that’s as strong an endorsement as a coach can get.