Oklahoma football coach Lincoln Riley enters spring football with plenty of talent, but also with a jigsaw puzzle under his arm, as competition exists at some key positions.
Riley kicks off the spring season Thursday by meeting with media before workouts start Saturday.
Here are five spring storylines for the Sooners.
1. Quarterback change
OU fans last witnessed a quarterback battle in 2015, when Baker Mayfield, Cody Thomas and Trevor Knight vied for the spot.
That was before Mayfield’s three-year lockdown on the position, back when Riley was in his first year as offensive coordinator, and Baylor and TCU were the defending Big 12 champions.
It seems like ages ago.
While some view this year’s competition between redshirt sophomore Kyler Murray and Austin Kendall to be a formality — Murray presents the more clear talent and possesses more game experience — the situation must play out.
All the while, Murray will juggle baseball and football. The dual-threat QB can run, throw, and showed efficiency in seven games last fall, completing 18 of 21 passes for 359 yards and a touchdown. He also averaged 10.1 yards per carry on 14 runs.
Kendall has a size advantage — he’s 6-2, 215 compared to Murray at 5-10, 192 — and was named one of OU’s offensive scout team players of the year while redshirting in 2017. He served as Mayfield’s back up in 2016, but only played in two games.
2. New-look defensive backfield
There’s a sense that Riley’s offense won’t slow down, with a handful of experienced receivers back, a talented offensive line and deep backfield.
Per the usual, OU’s defense is heavily in focus after some low national rankings in 2017 — 67th (total defense), 68th (scoring defense) and 87th (passing yards allowed).
There’s a windfall of depth at cornerback thanks to a seasoned group of returning players, plus some new faces.
Freshmen Tre Brown and Tre Norwood are back after gaining valuable experience last fall, along with Parnell Motley. Sophomore Jordan Parker is also expected back after a knee injury cut his 2017 short.
Motley started 13 of 14 games and Norwood started the last five at the opposite spot, but no jobs are guaranteed at a position that is perpetually under the microscope at OU.
Incoming freshmen cornerbacks Brendan Radley-Hiles — the five-star jewel of the Sooners’ 2018 recruiting class — and four-star Miguel Edwards both enrolled early and can display their talent immediately. Radley-Hiles should be taken seriously as a starting candidate somewhere.
With safeties Steven Parker and Will Johnson out of eligibility, the search for their replacements begin, too. Riley has mentioned Radley-Hiles and Edwards are versatile enough to play there.
3. Life on the edge
If Ogbonnia Okoronkwo’s pass-rushing worth can’t be measured in his team-high 17.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks last fall, his NFL combine performance paints an even better picture.
Okoronkwo improved his draft stock with 27 bench-press repetitions and a 38-inch vertical — both were second most among edge-rushers.
He is one of the Sooners’ biggest losses.
Mark Jackson tallied seven tackles, a sack and a forced fumble as a sophomore, and figures to get an opportunity as OU’s primary edge-rusher. Freshmen defensive ends Ronnie Perkins and Jalen Redmond — who are both on campus already — should also factor into the competition.
4. The linebacking corps
Emmanuel Beal departs after leading the Sooners in tackles, and sophomore Caleb Kelly steps into a bigger leadership role at linebacker.
Kelly showed early struggles last season, but produced two huge plays down the stretch, including an 18-yard scoop-and-score in the Big 12 championship against TCU and a forced fumble that led to a touchdown in the Rose Bowl.
Still, there’s not much Kelly can show in the spring that most don’t already know, and OU signed three 2018 linebackers, but none are on campus yet.
The continued development of Curtis Bolton, Kenneth Murray, Jon-Michael Terry and Bryan Mead will be worth watching. Former four-star product Levi Draper is a name to watch, too, after coming off a redshirt season due to injury.
5. Punting away?
Austin Seibert has handled kickoffs, field goals and punts with success for the most part. But special teams coordinator/running backs coach Jay Boulware said early season he once considered taking punts off Seibert’s shoulders.
With new assistant Shane Beamer expected to play a heavy role in OU’s special teams, is that change a possibility?
Beamer’s addition alone is a storyline, considering the impact his special teams expertise had during one season at Georgia. Under his watch, the Bulldogs’ national rankings dramatically improved in net punting average (112th to eighth) and kickoff return average (116th to 40th).
Beamer might provide a different philosophy on OU’s kicking approach, especially if punter Reeves Mundschau, who signed to punt and redshirted in the fall, proves he can match Seibert’s effectiveness (42.3 yards per kick, with a long of 57).
Splitting up kicking duties would allow Seibert to focus on kickoffs and field goals, perhaps keeping him more fresh by bowl season.
OU spring dates to know
Saturday — Spring practice begins
March 14 — Pro Day
April 14 — Spring game (1 p.m., Owen Field)
April 26 — NFL Draft begins
April 28 — NFL Draft ends
Eight 2018 freshmen expected to take part in spring workouts
1. Ronnie Perkins
• (6-4, 260 DE/St. Louis, Mo.)
• Four-star recruit by 247sports, ESPN and Rivals. … a U.S. Army All-American with an opening to The Invite. … ranked the No. 10 defensive end nationally by ESPN, No. 4 weakside defensive end by 247sports and No. 11 strongside defensive end by Rivals. … Had offers from Georgia, LSU, Texas and others.
2. Jalen Redmond
• (6-3, 235, DE/Midwest City)
• A four-star recruit according to 247sports, ESPN and Rivals. … the No. 181 recruit nationally according to Rivals. .. A standout basketball player at Midwest City who began playing football his junior year. … Father Rodney played Division I basketball at what is now Louisiana Monroe. … Chose OU over Kansas State, Oklahoma State, TCU and others.
3. Jaquayln Crawford
• (5-10, 163, ATH/Rockdale, Texas)
• Four-star recruit according to 247sports, ESPN and Rivals. … had more than 120 catches, 2,100 receiving yards (25 TD) and 1,000 rushing yards (14 TDs) in high school career. … Held offers from Auburn, Georgia, Notre Dame and others.
4. Starrland Baldwin
• (5-11, 170, DB/Cypress, Texas)
• A four-star prospect according to Rivals and three-star by 247sports and eSPN. … the No. 33 player in the state of Texas, according to Rivals, 125th by 247sports and 127th by ESPN.
5. Miguel Edwards
• (6-0, 165, DB/Deerfield Beach, Fla.)
• Four-star recruit according to ESPN and Rivals, and a three-star by 247sports. … Ranked the No. 44 cornerback nationally by ESPN. … Ranked the No. 44 player in Florida by Rivals. … Chose OU over final list of Alabama, Auburn, Miami and others.
6. T.J. Pledger
• (5-9, 175, RB/Pacoima, Calif./ IMG Academy Bradenton, Fla.)
• Four-star prospect according to 247sports, ESPN and Rivals. … A U.S. Army All-American with an invite to The Opening. … the No. 5 running back in the country according to ESPN and Rivals. … The No. 12 player in Florida according to Rivals. … Had offers from Clemson, Georgia, Ohio State and others.
7. Patrick Fields
• (5-11, 185, DB/Tulsa)
• Three-star recruit by 247sports, ESPN and Rivals. .. the No. 29 safety nationally, according to 247sports. … Tulsa Union teammate Jordan Kelley also signed with OU.
8. Brendan Radley-Hiles
• (5-10, 180, CB/Inglewood, Ca./Bradenton, Fla.)
• Five-star recruit according to Rivals, four-star according to ESPN and 247sports. … U.S. Army All-American. … tallied five interceptions his senior season with four pass break-ups and two forced fumbles. … originally from Inglewood, California, but attended IMG Academy in Florida.