NORMAN — The Oklahoma Sooners enter conference play 3-0, but Lincoln Riley acknowledged everything has to be a bit better moving forward this season.
In two of the three contests so far, the No. 4-ranked Sooners have needed a defensive stop late to secure victory, but as a whole the effort across all four quarters appears to be improving.
Plenty of guys have gotten into the game across the first three contests, but Riley said the coaches are still stressing the importance of raising the level of play in practice to nail down each guy’s role in the rotation, as well as continuing to limit outside distractions during his weekly press conference on Tuesday afternoon.
Take the Decision Out of the Coaches’ Hands
While the defensive rotation has tightened since the season opener against Tulane, Riley had a simple solution for players who want to ensure they get plenty of snaps on Saturday’s — dominate in practice.
“What we’ve told our guys is, don’t make it 50-50. Don’t leave it up to us,” Riley said on Tuesday. “ Make it so clear cut that any Joe Schmo in the stands could figure out who needs to be the starter. If you do that, you’re probably going to be on the field.”
There are plenty of tight position battles, Riley said, but the best thing anyone can do is to show up every day in practice and keep improving. Riley also pointed out that even if a player isn’t getting a tough of run early in the season, it can change and that player can still become a major contributor down the stretch.
“One example we’ve used through the years, (Marquise Brown’s) first year,” Riley said. “Go look at the first half of Marquise’s year, go look at the second half. Our second game at Ohio State, he didn’t even play one snap. By the end of the season, one of the best receivers in the country.
“Opportunities can come up. They’re going to fluctuate when you’ve got at talented team like we do. We need guys that continue to compete and we’re going to continue to evaluate. I think those reps will continue to fluctuate as time goes on and the different circumstances do come up.”
The Offensive Line Will Continue to Rotate
One position group that appears primed for continued rotation is the offensive line.
Center Andrew Raym came in on the third drive against the Cornhuskers and appeared to spark the run game, but Riley said he’s been pleased with how plenty of guys have played with that unit, and they’ve all earned at least a few snaps going forward.
“I'm sure a group will settle in here as we go but I would imagine the quality of bodies that we have in there, I'd imagine we'll play six or seven the majority of the games,” Riley said. “I think you've got to have a few more that can play. And we've tried to be a little more conscious of it early this season because we've had several pretty hot games already to we try to be conscious of it there.”
Robert Congel still could factor at center despite Raym’s emergence on Saturday, and all eyes will continue to be on Tennessee transfer Wanya Morris to see if he can force his way into the rotation at one of the tackle spots.
But overall, Riley said he was content with how the offensive front played against the Cornhuskers.
“I thought we did a lot of good things up front the other day,” Riley said. “Honestly, that group was probably the strongest group offensively on the field. I thought we played well. We were pretty solid in the run game, pretty solid in pass pro. Really the majority of the pressures came—the backs have got to do a better job of pass pro finishing. We're getting there. We're taking some strides there.”
NIL Not a Distraction… Yet
As coaching staffs across the country navigate a season with the new name, image and likeness legislation for the first time, Riley said he’s been really pleased with how his players have balanced the new opportunities with continuing to take care of business on the field.
“I think our guys have done a great job,” said Riley. “They’ve done a good job communicating with our processes when these things have come up.”
Riley said he did stress to the team the importance of getting the NIL distractions done early so that the team could continue to focus as the year pressed on, and that it’s not the most important issue every day in the locker room.
“I’ve gotta be honest, among our walls we still check in with our guys about it, talk about it all that, but it hasn’t maybe been as big a topic as what people on the outside might think,” Riley said. “Our guys for the most part have handled it well. I’m not aware of any distraction that’s come up or something that I’ve had to address up to this point. I’m not saying it won’t happen, but I don’t think NIL has had any impact on our season up to this point, which is where we want it.”
The coaching staff will hope the team continues to stay honed in as the Sooners open up the beefy portion of their schedule this weekend against the Mountaineers.
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