Riley: ‘We swung and we obviously missed’
NORMAN — OU football coach Lincoln Riley said he was a bit blindsided by running back Tre Bradford’s decision to leave the team and enter the transfer portal last week —before ever having played a game for the Sooners.
“I would love to explain what happened,” Riley said Tuesday in his weekly press conference. “I really don’t have an explanation. … It was a strange situation. It’s part of the deal with the transfer portal. And then even in a COVID year, you’re bringing in some people that you flat out know less about. Do all the homework you want, you just don’t know.”
The transfer portal giveth and the transfer portal taketh away.
The portal has been a positive for the Sooners in recent years, with the additions of quarterback Jalen Hurts, and offensive linemen R.J. Proctor and Chris Murray in the first two years of the portal.
It figures to be a benefit this season with several players at key positions — running back Eric Gray, defensive back Key Lawrence and offensive linemen Wanya Morris and Robert Congel among them — having come through the portal and expected to play significant roles for OU this season.
But Bradford’s situation shows the pitfalls that can come from using the portal.
“On that one, we swung and we obviously missed and we made a mistake,” Riley said.
Bradford transferred from LSU after last season. It’s been reported that he was exploring rejoining the Tigers.
“You’re not going to hit on every single one,” Riley said. “We missed on that one. I mean, we just flat-out did. And so, you know, you’re going to continue to go back, learn, evolve your processes, keep trying to figure out like we would in any situation … why did we miss? What did we miss? Could we have seen that?
“We’ve got to control the things that we can and if there’s things there we can do better, then I promise you, we’re looking to do that.”
Bradford’s departure, which followed reports earlier in the week that Marcus Major would be ineligible this season due to academic reasons, leaves the Sooners with just two scholarship running backs.
“You definitely have to step it up,” said Gray, one of those scholarship players at the position. “You have to be on your toes. You have to go harder in practice. You know you’ve got to take care of your body after practice. You’ve got to make sure that when you’re in, you’ve got to do what you’re supposed to do.”
While Riley said he’s pondered options with players at other positions, he said that right now the two walkons behind Gray and Kennedy Brooks would get the majority of the time there with the two expected frontline backs.
Riley said Jaden Knowles and Todd Hudson have earned playing time.
“Even before the latest departure, both of those two were certainly going to play for us,” Riley said. “No question about it. Excited for those guys. We’ve got four we feel good about. I think that’ll be primarily what we use, but you know us. We’ve got several other different skill sets on this team and we’ll keep trying to figure out the best way to use everybody.”
Riley said the position was maybe the best prepared group to handle the rash of departures over the past year — from Rhamondre Stevenson leaving for the NFL, T.J. Pledger transferring, a pair of running backs being dismissed from the team after being charged following an alleged robbery in the offseason, Major’s academic issues and finally Bradford’s departure.
“It’s just been one of those years and it’s kind of all hit that one group,” Riley said.
In responses about specific players who could potentially move over to running back if needed, Riley said h-back/tight end Jeremiah Hall could be in the mix, as could wide receiver Brian Darby, who saw significant time at the position in high school. But he said they wouldn’t move someone there out of panic.
“We’re not going to jump the gun here,” Riley said. “We may look at a few guys here early, see what they do, look at a few guys behind the scenes, but I would say right now, obviously if we have injuries and lose other people, we’ll have to adjust, but we feel pretty good with those four guys.”
Riley said the division of carries for the running backs figured to be much more concentrated on the top two options than in recent years.
“It certainly makes sense that they could have an opportunity to both be very productive,” Riley said. “Maybe closer to the Samaje Perine/Joe Mixon days when we got both of those guys involved.”
In Riley’s first two seasons, 2015-16, Perine and Mixon combined to get 64.1% of the Sooners’ carries while the No. 3 running backs, Alex Ross in 2015 and Abdul Adams in 2016, had 7.5% of the carries.
Since then, the numbers have gotten more balanced for running backs outside of the top two options.
Over the last two seasons, the top two backs have accounted for 43.2% of the Sooners’ carries, while the No. 3 backs have accounted for 11.7%.
Gray said there’s plenty of confidence in the offense, regardless of how the carries are divided and how the offense changes.
“Coach Riley’s a mastermind,” Gray said. “You’ve seen so much of what he’s done in the past with Hbacks, with Y’s, moving people in the backfield, a lot of window dressing, things like that. You’ve seen what he can do, so I’m sure he’s going to mix it up.”