Oklahoma Football: Five big questions entering the 2021 season (Pt. 1: Offense)

August 27, 2021
Syndication: The Oklahoman
BRYAN TERRY/THE OKLAHOMAN via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Depth along the offensive line and in the running back room are concerns entering a season of high expectations.

This is the first installment of three preseason roundtable sessions pertaining to the 2021 Oklahoma Sooners. Eight days before opening kickoff, we’ll focus on the offense.

Amongst the receiver group, who is most likely to be 2021’s breakout star? (Note: This should probably exclude Marvin Mims, who broke out as a freshman)

Allen: Mario Williams. Frankly, OU’s receivers didn’t quite live up to billing last season, so I’ll go with a newcomer. The buzz around the five-star freshman has been too loud to ignore, anyway.

Think fellow Floridian Marquise Brown here. Williams may not have quite as much speed, but good luck checking him in one-on-one coverage. Lincoln Riley used an empty offensive set in the spring game that would create plenty of room for Williams to operate in space and exploit favorable matchups. We’ll soon see if that was an experiment or a preview of what is to come for Williams in the fall.

Seth: My pick for a breakout star at the receiver position is Jadon Haselwood. Though he’s entering his third year, he still hasn’t produced at the level he’s capable of, and that’s mainly due to the injury he dealt with in 2020. By all accounts, he’s now at full strength, and by the end of the season, I predict he’ll be OU’s leader in both receiving yards and touchdowns receptions.

Stephen: As much as I’d love to pick Jadon Haselwood, I do have concerns as to both his physical ability and confidence coming off his knee injury. So I’ll go with true-freshman Mario Williams.

The former composite 4-star and no.4 ranked WR in the 2021 recruiting class has impressed throughout fall camp. Outside of Marvin Mims, I think he has the most ability to make plays after the catch with his overall speed and lateral ability. You also have to add-in that because of several known-playmakers returning for the Sooners, Williams should find himself in plenty of one-on-one matchups throughout the season.

Jack: I’ll take the leap of faith and go with Haselwood. If he’s even close to fully recovered from his knee injury, he’s going to be a matchup nightmare for any secondary he faces. His agility for his size was always one of the things that stood out prior to 2020, so provided that this hasn’t gone away, he could end up being the biggest big-play threat for a group that isn’t exactly lacking in that department.

What aspect of the offense is your biggest area of concern, and why?

Allen: Depth on the offensive line. I have faith that offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh can put together one of the best starting fives in the country up front. What happens if the Sooners have to dip down into the second unit, though? OU has avoided significant injuries on the OL in recent years. Hopefully, luck doesn’t turn this fall.

Seth: While I have high hopes for the running backs, there are still more questions than answers for me with that group, especially after the news of Marcus Major’s ineligibility and Tre Bradford’s untimely departure. Will Kennedy Brooks pick up where he left off as a back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher, or will he need a lot of time to knock off the rust after opting out in 2020? Will Eric Gray be as dynamic as he showed in the spring game? There is plenty to like about the state of the position under DeMarco Murray’s watch, but only time will tell if the backs will be as reliable as they have been in years past.

Jack: As much as running back depth concerns me, it still has to be the offensive line. I have plenty of confidence in Anton Harrison, but the fact that Wanya Morris hasn’t quite seized the other tackle spot (for whatever reason that may be) gives me a bit of pause. If Erik Swenson ends up with one of the spots, this group simply isn’t maximizing its potential.

As far as center is concerned, I’m not short on confidence in Andrew Raym. Having said that, he’s about to fill the shoes of a guy who is set to start at the position for the Kansas City Chiefs. Expecting that transition to be seamless simply isn’t realistic.

Even when Bedenbaugh has returned a large chunk of his contributors, it has typically taken his groups some time to gel. Fortunately, sailing should be fairly smooth for the Sooners in the early going, which should ease the transition.

Who ends the season with more rushing yards — Eric Gray or Kennedy Brooks?

Allen: Gray. It bears mentioning that Brooks was operating in the same backfield in 2018 and 2019 as Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts, two superb running quarterbacks. He did serious damage on option plays in which defenses arguably preferred he get the ball over the alternative of the QB keeping it. That’s not a knock on him so much as recognizing the reality of what it will be like for him playing in an offense run by a more conventional quarterback in Spencer Rattler.

Gray’s versatility probably means he will see more snaps than Brooks, too, so he will be in position for more carries.

Seth: Kennedy Brooks will lead the Sooners in rushing this season, but I also predict Eric Gray will combine for more rushing and receiving yards than any of OU’s current RBs. Even with so much hype around Oklahoma going into the season, I believe the national pundits are still sleeping on Brooks. I could very well see him rush for north of 1,200 yards this fall.

Stephen: Eric Gray. We’ve all got questions about Oklahoma’s offensive line heading into the season. When I watch what Eric Gray did during his time at Tennessee, I don’t find those questions as glaring.

Jack: It’s a tough call, but I’ll go with Brooks for rushing yards by just a hair. I also think Eric Gray will be the most impactful player on this offense not named Spencer Rattler. Both can be true!

Which aspect (or aspects) of Spencer Rattler’s game would you like to see him improve upon in 2021?

Allen: Pocket discipline. Rattler throws extraordinarily well on the move – so much so that he seems prone to drifting and bailing too early. That raises the likelihood of self-inflicted errors.

Seth: I just want to see the game continue to slow down for Rattler. The bullets were flying fast against K-State, and even more so in the first half of the Texas game. Down the stretch, you could see a noticeable change in his field presence. I’d like to see him build on that this year.

Schematically, what would you like to see a bit more of this season?

Allen: I’d always like to see more jet motion, although that’s probably as much of an aesthetic preference as anything else. It just looks cool.

Seth: I’d like to see more power looks in short yardage situations. I know Rhamondre Stevenson isn’t walking through that door, but OU has the pieces along the offensive line and a veteran H-back group that should make picking up a 3rd and 2 or 4th and 1 all but automatic.

BONUS: What’s your go-to pregame meal?

Allen: OU plays so many early games that it’s usually coffee and some kind of breakfast sandwich/burrito.

Seth: I tend to switch it up quite regularly, but my favorite pre-game meal has to be tamales. I’ll eat a dozen in one sitting if I’m not careful.

Jack: At a tailgate, it’s any form of smoked meat (pork butt is a favorite) on a roll. At home, it’s Chick-fil-a breakfast. At a bar, it’s cheese fries with a fried egg on top.

DOUBLE BONUS: What’s the best show you’ve watched this summer?

Allen: I liked the second season of Lupin on Netflix. They kept it light, and the plotting was clever. I’d give it somewhere in the range of a B+.

Seth: I haven’t really watched anything new lately, but I did re-watch Breaking Bad and the first five seasons of Better Call Saul. BB is still a perfect show, and BCS is wildly underrated.

Stephen: Like many this summer, I’ve been on the Disney + craze, so I’ll go with the Loki series. A retro-futuristic, quirky art style. The dynamic between Tom Hiddleston and Owen Wilson was enjoyable to watch. And unlike many shows, the finale didn’t disappoint.

Jack: The White Lotus is one of the best things I’ve watched in some time, and Stiffler’s mom deserves an Emmy. I also love the fact that it’s going to be an anthology series, with each season taking place at a different location of the luxury hotel chain. I think Charleston would be the perfect location for a second season. A southern setting is a bit of a murder mystery cliche, but I don’t think anyone minds. I sure as hell don’t!