Baker to Kyler: A Look at How Lincoln Riley Could Tweak the Sooners Offense

by Filip Prus

Heisman trophy winner. Number one overall NFL draft pick. When Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley lost Baker Mayfield, he lost more than just a quarterback and a team leader. He lost an entire offensive identity.

In addition to Mayfield’s toughness, ball placement and arm talent, his ability to master an offense and take command of the huddle is what really separated the Sooner from the very good and thrust him into the upper echelon of the college football landscape.  So, can Kyler Murray be the next transfer from a Texas school to take the reigns of this and power this Oklahoma offense? 

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That will largely depend on Riley and how malleable he is to tailoring the offense to Murray’s strengths. An ethereal athlete, Murray is an enigma for a coach who has largely depended on timing throws and intermediate to deep accuracy to take advantage of well-schemed routes and progressions. Mayfield was an underrated athlete in his own right, but whispers of a 4.38 forty-yard dash for Murray blisters Mayfield’s 4.84 time. Additionally featuring as an outfielder for the Sooners baseball team, Murray is an exceptional athletic specimen who warranted a ninth overall pick selection in the MLB draft for the Oakland Athletics. 

So what changes can we expect to see looking forward to 2018?

As efficient and dominant as the Sooners offense was last season, it can be even more venomous in 2018 with the added element of what Murray can do with his feet. In 2017, Murray registered 142 yards on 14 rushing attempts. In his first snap as a starter against West Virginia filling in for the suspended Mayfield, Murray demonstrated what kind of threat he can pose with the zone read option, as he broke it for a 65-yard gain.

On the very next play, the Sooners lined up in the exact same alignment (11 personnel with TE Mark Andrews in the slot), sent the fullback in motion, and, instead of keeping it this time, Murray handed it off to Rodney Anderson for a touchdown.

Showing these plays consecutively is important because it epitomizes how many ways Murray can challenge a defense. It shows how many things an opposing coordinator has to account for when game planning against him.

 The likely implementation of more zone read and RPO concepts from Riley this season is going to paralyze opposing defenders, and that’s important for a player like Murray who is still growing into a passer, as it buys him extra time to go through his reads and progressions from the pocket. Another wrinkle that Riley can add to provide Murray with even more time to diagnose coverages is adding more pre-snap motions, such as the fake jet sweep handoff you see below.

Although Riley obviously employed some of these misdirection concepts last season, Mayfield’s elite mental processing and ability to progress through his reads quickly made it more of window dressing than an actual tactical ploy. Murray doesn’t possess the computer-like RAM and mental processing that Mayfield developed from three years of experience as a starter in Riley’s system, so Riley is going to need to manufacture time by employing more of these zone read and RPO concepts.

Related: Lethal Simplicity: Willie Taggart’s Jet Motion and Why it Will Continue to Stress Defenses 

While the lack of tactical and fundamental processing seems like a handicap at first glance at first glance, Riley can surely use Murray’s athleticism in new and unique ways to break down a defense.

 In this five-wide alignment on 3rd and 11 against Oklahoma State, the defense drops everyone back in ruby trap zone coverage and only rushes three. While Mayfield forced the pass into trap coverage, Murray could potentially take advantage of his athleticism and scramble by rolling left and outrunning the spy (#19 Justin Phillips) to the first down marker instead of having to force the throw into crowded coverage.

Understanding this, opposing teams will have to change their approach and philosophy in playing Oklahoma this season, and Riley will need to be one move ahead. If Murray can execute a no-huddle, hurry up offense on top of all this, the Sooners will simply overwhelm and exhaust opposing defenses both physically and mentally.

Conversely, if defenses start cramming the box and blitzing against the run, Murray will have to take advantage of open receivers on short and intermediate routes, especially over the middle of the field.

 In mop-up duty last season, Murray went 18/21 for 359 yards with 3 TDs and no interceptions as a passer. While an 85.6% completion percentage insinuates that ball placement should be no problem for Murray, the aspect of the Sooners passing game that could be cannibalized is the deep pass, which is bad news for speedsters like Marquise “Hollywood” Brown (19.2 yard per catch in 2017). 

Mayfield was exceptional with his deep ball placement, so it wouldn’t be surprising if the amount of explosive passing plays that Riley and the Sooners offense attempt dwindles in 2018. Murray’s arm strength is not a question in my mind (he’s going to be an MLB outfielder), but his deep accuracy and ability to lead receivers is a mystery right now. 

The best insight into how Riley plans on adapting his offense to Murray’s skill set comes against Kansas, when Murray had nearly the entire fourth quarter to develop a rhythm. The offense lined up almost exclusively in shotgun 10 personnel 2x2 sets that forced the defensive backs to split and gave Murray the option of scrambling to his left or right depending on pressure. With the departure of fullback Dimitri Flowers, I would expect fewer ace formations with redshirt senior Carson Meier picking up Flowers’ responsibilities as needed. Murray’s only deep shot came on a play-action bootleg to his right to capitalize on isolated man coverage:

The ball floated in the air slightly, but Murray’s placement on the back shoulder was fairly good outside of the receiver having to slow down and adjust. If Murray leads the receiver downfield on the fly route, it’s a touchdown. It wouldn’t be surprising if the majority of Murray’s deep completions come off of bootlegs and play-action rollouts that feed off of the success of stud running back Rodney Anderson this upcoming season.

Ultimately, it’s hard to imagine a team who lost a team captain, Heisman winner, and number one overall NFL draft pick not skip a beat and repeat as Big 12 champions, but that seems to be the way that oddsmakers are leaning

When you step back and think about Lincoln Riley’s creativity as a play-caller paired with Kyler Murray’s athleticism and MLB-caliber arm strength, it makes sense. Expect Riley to continue spreading out defenses and manufacturing easy short and intermediate passing lanes or running alleys to take advantage of Murray’s strengths, and expect opposing defensive coordinators to develop a few more bald spots as they rip out their hair trying to figure out a way to stop it.