Sooners face most critical spring since Bob Stoops' first in 1999


Shortly after taking over as coach at Oklahoma in 1999, Bob Stoops inspected the practice fields. There, he was mortified to find chicken bones littering the grounds, remnants of a lax policy that had permitted fans to tailgate on Saturdays where the Sooners practiced during the week. Stoops quickly realized he had much work ahead that spring to overhaul a football culture gone haywire.

In the 16 years since, never has Stoops faced a more critical spring than the one he will embark on this weekend.

After five years of trending in the wrong direction, Oklahoma has arrived at another crossroads. The Sooners are coming off an 8-5 season in which they suffered two of the most embarrassing defeats -- 48-14 to Baylor and 40-6 to Clemson -- of the Stoops era.

Oklahoma’s top recruiter, Jerry Montgomery, has bolted town. The rest of the coaching staff has been completely revamped, leaving offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh as the only assistant holding the same duties he did last year.

The funding for an ambitious $400 million stadium renovation has come to a crawl, raising concerns as to whether it will ever be completed.

Quarterback is a total unknown. The pass defense has been in a perpetual spiral.

Baylor and TCU have surpassed the Sooners as the current class of the Big 12. Texas is back to dominating the recruiting trail.

And, for the first time since that chicken bone-clearing offseason, Oklahoma could open unranked in the preseason polls.

The pressure will be on Stoops and his Sooners this spring. To begin reversing this tide of recent decline.

"I’m more determined than ever to get Oklahoma back in the position to competing for national championships like we have so many other times," Stoops said this offseason.

Whether that will happen will hinge heavily on 31-year-old offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, who has been charged with bringing the Mike Leach air raid attack back to Norman this spring.

To clear a spot for Riley, Stoops fired Josh Heupel, who, from being Stoops’ first quarterback recruit in 1999 to Sam Bradford’s position coach, had been an integral piece of Oklahoma’s resurgence in Stoops’ early days. Yet as the Sooners struggled to regain their footing over the past five years, they lost their offensive identity under Heupel along the way, prompting Stoops the make the most drastic coaching change of his tenure.

Save for one bowl game, Riley has never called plays for a Power 5 conference offense. And he’s young enough to be Stoops’ son. But Stoops’ future and Oklahoma’s fortunes are now on Riley’s shoulders. All eyes will be on him this spring as he attempts to rehabilitate an offense that desperately needs to uncover an immediate and long-term answer at quarterback.

Trevor Knight, Baker Mayfield, and Cody Thomas will all be vying to be that answer in what figures to be Oklahoma’s most wide open -- and intriguing -- quarterback competition of this millennium.

Knight was supposed to be the Sooners’ quarterback of the future. But after a disastrous 2014 season in which he led the Big 12 in pick-six interceptions and suffered a scary transient quadriplegia injury, he could be Oklahoma’s quarterback of the past.

In three games relieving Knight, Thomas failed to gain a stranglehold on the job, as he finished last in the Big 12 in completion percentage.

That leaves Mayfield, who walked-on at Texas Tech before transferring to Oklahoma, where he sat out last season. Given his Tech ties, Mayfield has experience operating the system Riley will be installing. And he was the 2013 Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year. But after cruising through the non-conference, Mayfield also struggled against Big 12 competition that season. And he has not played in game in two years.

Quarterback, however, isn’t the Sooners’ only pressing concern.

When defensive coordinator Mike Stoops came back to Norman two years ago, he was supposed to bring the ferocious Oklahoma defenses of the early 2000s with him. Instead, the Sooners have been a sieve on that side of ball since his return, ranking ninth in the league in pass defense last season. It got so bad that Sooner fans booed through an embarrassing sequence against Baylor, in which quarterback Bryce Petty completed all nine pass attempts on a cinch of a scoring drive with Oklahoma’s overmatched defensive backs playing 10 yards off the ball.

Bob Stoops has taken his brother off manning defensive backs, and brought in Kerry Cooks from Notre Dame. But Cooks’ task of whipping a secondary into shape this spring is daunting, because the unit features only one proven difference-maker -- cornerback Zack Sanchez.

Oklahoma’s task of challenging for a Big 12 title next season is even more daunting.

TCU and Baylor are top 10 teams. Oklahoma State toppled the Sooners in Norman last season. And a Week 2 trip to Tennessee could thwart the Sooners before they even get going.

Oklahoma won’t have chicken bones on its practice field. But once again, Bob Stoops has plenty of work ahead.