Ahead of spring, Lincoln Riley challenges offensive line to meet expectations

Oklahoma offensive lineman Tyrese Robinson takes the field prior to the Sooners' game against Texas Tech Sept. 28, 2019, in Norman. (Kyle Phillips / CNHI)

NORMAN, Okla. — Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley and offensive line guru Bill Bedenbaugh walked a thin line between praise and constructive criticism toward its blockers up front last season.

The message behind the message: OU could be better there.

Monday, no decoding was necessary. Riley said last year’s line didn’t meet expectations.

“That was a group that we feel like needs to play a lot better for us,” he said. “Very simply, we all have to do a better job.”

OU won the Joe Moore Award for the nation’s best offensive line in 2018, and even with replacing four starters gone to the NFL last season, the group was a semifinalist for the award.

That didn’t alter Riley’s point that better offensive line play is vital as OU moves into a new year.

No longer an option is quarterback Jalen Hurts’ ability for impromptu, big-yardage scrambles that don’t need to be blocked up precisely before the snap.

OU’s first spring practice Tuesday starts a new era at quarterback, where the heavy favorite for the spot is former top-ranked high school quarterback Spencer Rattler. At 198 pounds, neither he nor QB hopeful Tanner Mordecai — who weighs 210 — are suited to run the type of offense Hurts did.

The Sooners also figure to reassign more carries to running backs and H-backs compared to last year.

None of that will be possible without a consistently punishing offensive line.

“Granted, the way our group played last year, 99 percent of the teams in the country would have been very happy with it,” Riley said. “But our expectations around here on the offensive line area little bit different than most.”

Riley stopped just short of revealing which starting jobs are up for grabs, but he said OU is undergoing a reevaluation, which is common for the offseason. Defensively, he announced two other major positions changes with safeties Robert Barnes and Jamal Morris both moving to linebacker.

But there could be another offensive line shuffle in the works.

“I would say the offensive line as a whole — we’re looking at a lot of different combinations right now. I’ll put it that way,” Riley said. “Where guys have played in the past may not necessarily be where they play in the future.”

The most obvious question mark is at left tackle, where Erik Proctor is in line to start, but will be pushed by redshirt freshman Stacey Wilkins.

Wilkins, a 6-foot-6, 319-pound redshirt freshman from Camden, Ark., was a backup while redshirting last year.

“He has a chance. He had a pretty good redshirt year. He played pretty decent in the games that he came in,” Riley said of Wilkins’ chances to play. “He really developed some strength which was probably the most important thing for him. He’s a gifted athlete. He has elite length. He can really bend and really move. For us, it was adding a few pounds and hardening his body and then adding both some upper- and lower-body strength, which he’s done that. I certainly feel like he’s ready to compete.”

OU’s 2020 offensive line featured five different combinations. Some of that was due to injuries — Adrian Ealy, Tyrese Robinson, Marquis Hayes, Erik Swenson — but some was due to inconsistency.

When center Creed Humphrey missed last spring recovering from an injury, Riley and Bedenbaugh hoped it would speed up the development of new linemen by removing their security blanket.

Now, there’s hope that a returning group can jell even better with an entire spring together.

“I wouldn’t say disappointed [in last year’s group],” Riley said. “I would just say we just have a high standard here. You don’t still produce like we did offensively by being bad on the offensive line. We weren’t bad by any stretch but we need to be better and we expect to be better.”

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