Early in the offseason Oklahoma already is pushing for a memorable 2021

With 19 starters back on offense and defense, everyone back on special teams, a promising freshman class and a bunch of transfers, OU is a strong early contender
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The 2020 season is now but a memory. National Signing Day, such as it was, is in the rear view mirror. The coaching staff is in place.

Oklahoma is now focused on what could be a national championship run in 2021.

It’s early February, but so far, so good, Lincoln Riley says.

“Offseason (is) off to a great start,” Riley said last week. “Been very proud of the guys coming back, the energy, the excitement. I think there’s a lot of momentum in this program, and you can feel that with our players.”

The Sooners finished 2020 ranked No. 6 in the Associated Press Top 25 and the coaches poll. But the future looks brighter: ESPN’s Bill Connelly shared his annual SP+ projections looking into 2021 (factoring in returning production, recent recruiting and recent history) and has OU ranked No. 3 next season with a rating of 28.0, behind No. 1 Alabama (30.7) and No. 2 Clemson (28.6).

OU welcomed 10 newcomers in the class of 2021 — a class that ranks in the top five on a per-player average ranking — into the fold for offseason workouts, plus five transfers (three who were starters at their previous schools) via the NCAA Transfer Portal.

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OU is planning on nine starters back on offense (or 10, depending on senior left tackle Erik Swenson's decision), nine back on defense and everyone back on special teams.

Riley said he likes what he’s seen so far.

“They were excited to get back and get to work,” Riley said. “And … the new additions have been very positive; the team’s done a great job of bringing those guys along and getting them acclimated with our culture and with the way we do things.

“So yeah, looking forward to several weeks here of offseason.”

One reason Oklahoma stumbled out of the gate last season could be traced back to the cancellation of spring practice. OU had one of college football’s most inexperienced rosters in 2020, and players who were thrust into significant roles didn’t have any offseason development due to the pandemic and all the cancellations. The shutdown affected every team, but with a particularly young two-deep, OU was among the teams who made their biggest strides last year actually during the football season.

Riley hopes those players can benefit from an actual offseason this year.

“Our plan is to start spring ball in late March, to have a spring game in late April, and then obviously, see where we're at from there,” Riley said. “That’s certainly our plans right now, other than the recruiting piece which is still up in the air. Our plans are to get to work and have a good full offseason and a good full spring ball.

“From the players’ side, and certainly looking ahead at spring, the hope is — I think like everybody, the hope is that we could have a quote-unquote more normal spring. And I do feel like there’s some momentum towards that and an expectation that we will be able to conduct a more normal offseason, a more normal spring football period than what we had last year.

“We’re still in a pandemic. We’re still taking the same precautions that we did during the season, and that has not changed. We have not relaxed our standards, we have not relaxed our policies, our procedures. Our No. 1 goal still hasn’t changed, which is to keep these guys as healthy as we can, and then to do our part just as members of society to continue to try to fight against this pandemic and against this virus. That certainly hasn't changed.

“But we obviously learned a lot during the season about how we can handle that and still be able to go about our business. That’s still a big part of our everyday life up here.”