NORMAN -- We forget this because of his absurd success as Oklahoma head coach, but it wasn’t always easy for Lincoln Riley. Four years ago he took over an OU offense struggling to identify how it wanted to attack and with what players, particularly at quarterback.
It was an overhaul which took from the time Riley replaced Josh Heupel in January 2015 to five games into the ’15 season, the fifth being OU’s sagging 24-17 loss to Texas.
The Sooners caught fire from there, but it wasn’t just because Riley figured out how to maximize Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon in the same backfield with Baker Mayfield.
An overhaul takes changing scheme and so much more.
“Absolutely,” Riley said Friday at Meet the Sooners Day. “There were a lot of things behind the scenes that year, especially early, that we had to go through and struggle through ...
“It’s never easy. It’s not like flipping a light switch. A process has got to take hold. There’s going to be tension and there’s going to be ups and downs with it. If you settle in there and stay steady, and if you’ve got the right guys on the boat player-wise, then it becomes a positive experience. You grow from it, and that trust, relationship, bond is created. And then you take off from there.”
This is important to consider as Alex Grinch approaches his first season as OU defensive coordinator. He represents the program’s most important hire since Riley because he faces the stiffest challenge since Riley. It’s stiffer, really.
Mayfield, Mixon and Perine became NFL players. So did 2015 OU cogs Sterling Shepard, Dede Westbrook, Mark Andrews and Orlando Brown.
Grinch might have some future pros to work with ... might ... but nowhere near the lode Riley had. And while OU’s offense dipped toward the end of Heupel’s tenure, it was far from historically bad.
The defense Grinch inherits was historically bad last year. He must change how those defenders line up, run to the ball, try to take the ball and tackle. Those are just the basics.
“The scheme stuff, a lot of times, is the easiest thing to change,” Grinch said Friday. “It’s just checkers. It’s X’s and O’s. It’s a little harder to change the hearts and the minds of the guys. ...
“It’s attitudes. It’s believing in each other. It’s trusting coaches. It’s trusting each other. It’s a hard job to change all those things in a short period of time. Can you get everything done in seven months? You need to.”
This is Oklahoma, not Washington State, home of Grinch’s last defensive overhaul in, ironically, 2015. Cougars fans appreciated a new coordinator coming in, shaking things up, and shaping up a debilitated defense.
Sooner fans will expect that. They’ll expect to see changes of style and attitude and demonstrably better results from that.
What they must understand is it requires a lot more than the coordinator coming in and adjusting scheme, personnel and a few decibels in the “Let’s get ‘em!” speech that breaks up the meetings.
Riley knows. He alluded to it.
He had one of the brightest young minds in college football four years ago. He joined an elite program with some elite offensive talent. It still took more than 10 months for everything to start to sink in.
Grinch, like Riley four years ago, must align with players he did not recruit and is still getting to know.
“All of a sudden you’ve got to get them to buy into something new and develop a relationship and trust in a short amount of time,” Riley said. “Alex is building towards that.”
Grinch, like Riley, must align with a mixed staff of new arrivals and old hands. He brought in Roy Manning and Brian Odom, but that group must mesh with holdovers Ruffin McNeill and Calvin Thibodeaux.
Everyone must believe in the new direction, in the coordinator charting that direction especially.
It sounded encouraging Friday.
“Playing football, the most important thing is your mindset,” defensive end Ronnie Perkins said. “One of my favorite things about coach Grinch is how tough he is and how contagious it is with him.”
“If you don’t have the right mentality or attitude you can’t go out and do your job,” defensive tackle Marquise Overton said. “That’s what (Grinch) enforces.”
“We just felt like (we) were just in space last year. It was difficult,” cornerback Tre Brown said. “But coach Grinch has brought everybody along to make sure nobody is behind.”
“I’m ready to ride for him,” corner Tre Norwood said.
This is a start, a bunch of players tired of being beaten down and willing to accept a new voice, some new methodology. But we are a very long way from a finish.
It took Riley the majority of his first year for results to show, and he had advantages Grinch does not.
This overhaul will likely take years.
“You don’t get graded on a curve,” Grinch asserted. “No one cares that it’s the first year for the defense.”
OU fans dying for a playoff breakthrough, and fully aware that defensive failures have kept that breakthrough from occurring, certainly don’t care. They just want results.
Grinch might be the guy to deliver them, but in Year 1? With all of the dimensions to a new coordinator’s job?
That’s an enormous task, as Riley can attest.