OU Football: Rattler, Sooners offer plenty of compelling storylines

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Jul. 13—Last year, the coronavirus prevented the Sooners and every other conference football program from taking the stage at Big 12 Media Days.

But with the pandemic's impact seemingly fading, the league's biggest offseason media event is back on, and there is a lot to unpack on the Sooners' side of things.

Lincoln Riley enters his fifth season at the Sooner helm with momentum, thanks to a sixth straight Big 12 championship and a 55-20 blowout victory over Florida at the Cotton Bowl. Defensively, the Sooners figure to take yet another step in the unit's third season under coordinator Alex Grinch. Offensively, Spencer Rattler, already a Heisman Trophy hopeful, returns at quarterback.

Though Rattler won't be with Riley in Arlington today, the Sooners are bringing H-back Jeremiah Hall and linebacker Nik Bonitto to help preview the season. Both were named to the 2021 Preseason All-Big 12 Team earlier this month.

As the Sooners gear up for the 2022-2023 season, here's a look at some of the storylines for the Sooners heading into Arlington:

—Rattler's ascension: Despite not being in Arlington, Rattler's sure to be a big topic of discussion.

Pre-season buzz has Rattler an early favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, and he's even projected as a No. 1 pick in some way-too-early 2022 NFL mock drafts.

It's not hard to see why. The redshirt sophomore overcame early inconsistency and a first-half benching against Texas to lead OU to eight straight victories to finish the season. The offense he directed averaged 43 points per game, sixth most in the nation.

Rattler also finished the season with 3,031 yards passing and 28 touchdowns against seven interceptions.

Caleb Williams put on a show in the spring game in April, and the highly-recruited true freshman could see his opportunity sooner rather than later, especially if Rattler jumps to the NFL after this season. But for now, it's Rattler's team.

Though Rattler won't be there, Riley, Hall, Bonitto and others from other programs are bound to be asked about him plenty.

—Running back issues: Off-the-field issues have left holes in the Sooners' backfield.

Running backs Mikey Henderson and Seth McGowen were dismissed from the team following an alleged armed robbery incident on April 15. The dismissals leave the Sooners backfield thin on available players.

Riley will likely lean on Kennedy Brooks, who opted out of last season due to coronavirus concerns, and Marcus Major to pick up the slack.

Riley may also give opportunities to Eric Gray, a junior running back transfer from Tennessee. Gray carried the ball for 1,311 yards on 258 attempts over two seasons for the Volunteers and was named the Big 12 Preseason Newcomer of the Year earlier this month.

Needless to say, Riley will be tasked with creating a workable running back committee once preseason practice begins.

—Defensive improvement: Grinch's unit's improvement from 2019 to 2020 can't be understated.

While the offense picked up during the team's eight-game winning streak, defense played a significant role, too. After finishing near the bottom of the league in total defense in 2019, Grinch's unit finished 29th last season.

The Sooners surrendered just 21.7 points-per-game, allowing 350 yards-per-game, both marks ranking second in the Big 12 behind Iowa State. That number dropped to 17 points-per-game allowed during the Sooners' eight-game streak.

Bonitto is one of 10 projected defensive starters, including 9 upperclassmen, who are returning.

—Big 12 preseason favorites ... again: The Sooners have won six straight conference titles and they're the favorites to keep that streak alive.

OU garnered 35 of 39 first place votes in the media produced Big 12 preseason poll. Iowa State received the other four.

While the Sooners are the betting favorite to extend their historic streak to seven, Iowa State is on their heels. The Cyclones return 19 starters from last year's squad, including reigning conference offensive player of the year Breece Hall. The Cyclones present the clearest threat to the Sooners' quest for continued dominance.

Expect Riley to be questioned about being the favorite and holding off Iowa State, a team that beat OU last season, before falling to the Sooners at the Big 12 title game.

Jesse Crittenden

366-3540

Follow me @jcritt31

jcrittenden@normantranscript.com

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