One of the most fascinating — if not necessarily important — Week 1 contests is Oklahoma’s home opener against Lane Kiffin’s FAU. Kiffin had a great inaugural season at “Last Strike U” in 2017, going 11-3 while fielding an offense that ranked sixth nationally in opponent-adjusted S&P+.
Kiffin had already begun to explore RPO spread offense at Alabama, turning Amari Cooper into a horrifying weapon in 2014 by having him run routes attached to runs for Derrick Henry or T.J. Yeldon. At FAU, the Owls built a similar offense that unleashed sophomore RB Devin Singletary for a 1,918-yard season.
Oklahoma’s defensive reputation under Bob Stoops already took some hits when he brought back his little brother Mike Stoops and edged Brent Venables to Clemson. OU’s defense fell as low as 55th in 2016 S&P+, while Clemson became an annual top-10 defense.
But after Bob retired, the 2017 Oklahoma defense went off the rails, finishing 101st in S&P+ (as Clemson ranked No. 2).
Entering 2018, Mike Stoops’ defense loses top pass-rusher Obo Okoronkwo, leading tackler LB Emmanuel Beal, both starting safeties, and talented DT Du’Vonta Lampkin. The 2018 Sooners’ overhaul on defense will rely heavily on sophomores and freshmen, with Kiffin’s Owls serving as the first test.
Anything involving Kiffin won’t be boring. That goes for his offense, too.
While the story centered around Kiffin giving play-calling duties to since-departed OC Kendal Briles, the actual 2017 FAU offense was pretty close to Kiffin’s Alabama offenses. In fact, they started out close to Baylor and ended the year more like the Tide.
Simply running inside zone from a spread set became a considerable chunk of the attack, with some quick pass options attached outside, to help create angles for the runs. From there, it was Singletary running behind a dominant left side for gain after gain.
Singletary knew how to work the angles on the play. Ideally, the play works like a downhill power run, with a double-team block and a lead insert (watch the H-back go in motion toward the top of the GIF) on the backside of the play, with zone blocking to the play side.
If the defense wants to bunch up the middle and spill the ball to a DB, they can get into trouble. FAU would mix in zone-read and pass options outside, to punish defenders for attacking the run aggressively:
If linebackers paid too much attention to the H-back, Singletary was excellent at running to where they were being replaced by a small DB, then running him over:
Kiffin’s group returns both starting tackles while welcoming in Tulane’s starting center, Raul Diaz, as a grad transfer and JUCO OL Zach Bennett as a likely starting guard. They return leading receiver Willie Wright while adding West Virginia transfer Jovon Durante and promoting Texas transfer DeAndre McNeal. At QB, they have to replace Jason Driskel but figure to do so either with dual-threat JUCO (and former Last Chance U star) De’Andre Johnson or Oklahoma transfer Chris Robison.
Johnson was removed from the Florida State program after punching a woman at a bar. A blood clot in his arm kept him out in 2017. Robison was suspended from Oklahoma after being arrested for public intoxication after a spring game, then suspended by Kiffin before coming back.
Most likely the Owls will roll with Johnson and continue to run the option add-ons to their inside zone package.
This is a very difficult offense for linebackers and safeties to handle. While there are only a handful of blocking schemes, they’ll run inside zone in a variety of ways to pressure different defenders, and Singletary can always make a front pay for a mistake with a hard cut.
In 2018 the Owls could have a more dangerous passing dimension with one of their transfer QBs throwing to a talented receiving corps. They sprinkled in some deep shots in 2017 ...
... and if they add more vertical passing off play-action, this offense could be devastating. It’s hard to keep safeties deep while facing Singletary’s run game, and thanks to the Owls’ policy of taking any and all transfers, they have Big 12-caliber athletes outside.
Meanwhile, Mike Stoops’ defense is overhauling the disastrous 2017 unit that arguably cost the program a championship.
This includes position changes and infusions of younger players into key spots.
At linebacker, they are backing away somewhat from the 3-4 base defenses in favor of moving former five-star outside linebacker Caleb Kelly inside to play next to sophomore and returning mike Kenneth Murray. The rest of the interior will revolve around the move of talented DL Neville Gallimore to nose tackle. Big sophomore Robert Barnes and senior Kahlil Haughton are in pole position to take the open safety jobs.
On the outside, Okoronkwo’s featured pass-rush spot should be filled either by Mark Jackson Jr. or Addison Gumbs, with the elder Jackson holding the advantage. The Sooners expect to play more nickel, to help against spread teams. and are plugging in freshman Brendan Radley-Hiles who received rave coverage in the spring. The cornerback spots could be in better shape, with freshman Tre Norwood emerging and Parnell Motley returning opposite him.
This is a group with the athletes to man up against FAU’s receivers and bring an extra defender up front to account for Singletary.
The question is, will that be enough? The Sooners have built their defense to load the box just about every year, only to blow assignments or get blown off the ball time and time again when facing better spread run games. For instance ...
To say nothing of what happened against Georgia. In the former example, you see Kelly (No. 19) take a poor angle while trying to make a tackle as the extra man. In the latter, the DL and LBs aren’t on the same page against the option, and no one up front is playing a style that you’d describe as “physical.”
These Sooners were unrecognizable from a classic Bob Stoops team. They have been veering into shaky run defense against the spread for much of this decade.
They have a long way to go in order to play respectable run defense, and FAU will provide a much bigger test than your typical G5 program.
Can the young Sooner linebackers stay in position against FAU’s option-heavy, straight-ahead attack? Will the Sooners’ DBs make solo tackles on athletes like Singletary or Johnson? Or will we see Kiffin smirking on the sidelines while his obscure band of anti-heroes run roughshod over a recent playoff defense?
That’s a lot of fun questions for an 11 a.m. CT game in early September.