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Keys To Success
Ten things Oklahoma must do to return to the College Football Playoff

After finishing the 2016 season with a 10-game winning streak, Oklahoma will be focused on extending that success this fall, with sights on making a return to the College Football Playoff for the second time in three seasons.

Of course, they will be doing it under the direction of first-year head coach Lincoln Riley, who takes over for Bob Stoops after a highly-success 18-year run in Norman.

There are several positions and other variables that Riley and the Sooners must address going into the 2017 campaign, including the running game and on defense.

Here are 10 keys to the Sooners’ success in 2017:

1. Finding the right running back combo

The Sooners don’t have a shortage of options at running back but none are established. The last two years, they’ve been able to count on the tandem of Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon. With both having departed for the NFL, OU has a lot of talent that is unproven there. Rodney Anderson looks the part of a power back but his recent injury history makes him a question mark. Abdul Adams was the most consistent performer in the spring and has the most Division I experience in the group after rushing for 283 yards last year behind Perine and Mixon. Marcelias Sutton, Trey Sermon and Kennedy Brooks also will get a chance to find their way into the rotation. With a stacked offensive line and the quarterback spot set, the Sooners should be able to run the ball, the question is just who it will be getting the carries.

2. Pressuring the quarterback

A big part of the defensive move to the four-man front in the offseason was the Sooners’ trouble in recent seasons with putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks without selling out on the blitz. OU coaches feel good about Ogbonnia Okoronkwo coming off the edge but want to get that pressure to come from different places this fall after Okoronkwo had nine of OU’s 25 sacks. That makes players like D.J. Ward and Neville Gallimore crucial to the success of the Sooner defense. That pressure should also make life easier on the secondary, which struggled with coverage at times last season as quarterbacks were able to sit in the pocket.

3. Defensive takeaways

In 2015 when the Sooners made the run to the College Football Playoff, their defense’s ability to put the ball back in the offense’s hands was a big reason for the success. That season, Oklahoma forced 27 turnovers, including 14 combined by cornerbacks Zack Sanchez, Jordan Thomas and Dakota Austin. Last season, the Sooners forced just 17 turnovers, nine on interceptions and just two of those from the cornerback spot. Getting back to forcing turnovers in bunches will be an important piece of making OU’s defense better in 2017 and make life easier on an offense that is replacing the majority of its production in the running and receiving games.

4. Replacing Dede Westbrook

A year ago at this time, one of the biggest question marks was who would replace Sterling Shepard as Baker Mayfield’s go-to target. Westbrook wound up being that answer and now the Sooners are back in the position of looking for a No. 1 receiver. Mark Andrews’ health was an issue much of last season and his return to 100 percent figures to make him the most likely candidate but there are others — Kentucky graduate transfer Jeff Badet and Jeffery Mead in particular.

5. Don’t rely as much on the deep ball

Whoever Oklahoma’s top wide receiver is, he doesn’t figure to be as much of a big-play threat as Dede Westbrook was. Westbrook had 14 catches for 40 or more yards last season, including 13 for touchdowns. While finding a top receiver is a priority, things figure to be not only more spread out this season but rely more on shorter routes with receivers like Andrews asked to be more sure-handed than game-breaking like Westbrook and Joe Mixon were last season. The Sooners will still have some deep-play potential, especially with Jeff Badet, who led the SEC with a 21.6-yard per catch last season but it isn’t likely those deep shots will make up as big a part of the offense as they were last season. Players like Mykel Jones, Jordan Smallwood and Nick Basquine, as well as freshmen Marquise Brown, Charleston Rambo and CeeDee Lamb also have a chance to play key roles.

6. Keeping Seibert fresh

Austin Seibert showed signs of wearing down as a sophomore while once again handling both the punting and placekicking duties. Seibert was just 11 of 16 on field goals, though only one of those misses came from inside of 42 yards. Bob Stoops said his staff will find ways to lessen the workload on Seibert during the week to try to keep him fresher. Though Seibert struggled with placekicking, he didn’t falter at punting. His average slipped a bit to 41.1 from 42.0 but only nine of his 42 punts were returned for a total of 67 yards — 51 of those on two of the returns.

7. Keep Mayfield healthy

Not only did Baker Mayfield have excellent numbers last season — putting together one of the best seasons for a quarterback in college football history — but he was able to stay healthy. Mayfield twice suffered from concussions or concussion-like symptoms late in the 2015 season, but had no such issues last fall. A big part of that was the fact that he was so good through the air and OU’s running game was so effective that he didn’t have to make play after play with his feet like he did in 2015. Although the Sooners are in better position behind Mayfield this season with Kyler Murray eligible once again, Mayfield is the most valuable returning player and his health will be important to OU’s chances of getting back in the playoff.

8. Be ready for a rematch

The addition of a Big 12 title game this season adds a different dynamic to the conference season as the winner of the conference will have to win a December game against a team they’ve already played. The new format forced Bedlam off its late-season spot and up to Nov. 4. While the Cowboys seem like the best bet for a potential rematch with the Sooners, whichever opponent the Sooners face should they make it would present a unique challenge that the Sooners haven’t faced in a decade. But Bob Stoops’ Sooners have been very good in rematches. In Oklahoma’s eight Big 12 title game appearances from 2000-2010, three times the Sooners faced a team they’d beaten during the regular season and all three times Oklahoma won the rematch and twice the margin was bigger in the second meeting.

9. Keep the offensive linemen happy

Oklahoma returns eight offensive linemen with starting experience — Jonathan Alvarez, Orlando Brown, Alex Dalton, Bobby Evans, Cody Ford, Ben Powers, Dru Samia and Erick Wren. While it looked like Ford’s season-ending injury against Ohio State would be a big step back, that proved to be the turning point as that was the week when Bill Bedenbaugh shuffled his line to insert Powers at guard and Wren at center after some earlier changes. That combination wound up making a big impact. Though all five of those players are back, Bedenbaugh said he preferred to be able to rotate at times, though not at center. If Wren is the starter, Alvarez has spent time at guard and could find playing time there. In the spring, all eight talked up their group unity but managing playing time among a large group of players that have had success will be important.

10. Solving the other safety spot

Last season, replacing Zack Sanchez at corner proved to be a difficult chore as a series of replacements had their chances at the starting spot before struggles or injury knocked them out. Jordan Parker eventually gave the Sooners stability there. Oklahoma would like not to go through similar drama this season as it works to replace longtime starter Ahmad Thomas at safety. Junior Will Sunderland and freshman early enrollee Justin Broiles each had impressive springs. Chanse Sylvie and Will Johnson are options as well but whoever earns the spot will need to be strong from the get-go.

(This story appears on the 2017 Spring Sports Review Issue of Sooner Spectator. To read more or to subscribe, call 405-364-4515)