OU football: Spencer Rattler's development and other questions entering spring practice
NORMAN — For the first time since Baker Mayfield’s senior season in 2017, OU has a quarterback returning.
While Spencer Rattler put up strong numbers as a redshirt freshman last season — 3,031 yards and 28 touchdowns with seven interceptions in 11 games — Sooners coach Lincoln Riley expects a significant step forward and issued what amounted to a challenge heading into spring practice.
“I expect him to improve a lot, no doubt about it,” Riley said. “There’s so many areas for him to grow. We really challenged him physically to make some of the gains that he’s capable of making and needs to make. That comes now from a guy who has been through an offseason.
“There’s so many guys when they get here during an offseason, it becomes about survival and just kind of making it. A lot of times you see guys as they go further on in their careers, the offseason goals become a little more intentional. This is exactly what I’m trying to accomplish. Coach (Bennie) Wylie says it all the time. These guys have to put in the extra time. And if you have big goals, the extra is not extra. He says that all the time. It’s part of what you should do.”
Rattler and the Sooners begin spring practice Monday, working toward the spring game April 24.
Rattler has Heisman Trophy expectations and the Sooners have national title aspirations, so the quarterback’s development will be one of the main storylines of spring.
Here are three other things to watch as spring practice gets underway:
With Rhamondre Stevenson having opted for the NFL Draft and T.J. Pledger transferring, the Sooners figure to lean heavily on Kennedy Brooks at running back after Brooks opted out of the 2020 season.
Brooks started off his Sooners career with back-to-back 1,000-yard plus seasons but Riley said he’ll have to prove himself again.
“Some of it for us is a little bit yet to be seen,” Riley said. “You just gotta get back on the field and see where they’re at. You got a guy that’s obviously played a lot of ball and is a very smart football player that you feel like will be able to get back into the swing of things pretty quickly, but at the same time, any time you’re not on a football field for an entire year, it’s different. It just is. I’m sure there will be certainly some adjustment period for him, but excited to see him.”
Defensive lineman Jalen Redmond and offensive lineman Stacey Wilkins also return after opting out last season.
Redmond returned to the team in the lead-up to the Cotton Bowl win over Florida and figures to make an impact on the defensive line as one of several players with some positional flexibility in a front that figures to once again be a strength even with the loss of Ronnie Perkins to the NFL.
Receiver questions linger
Riley admits he “wasn’t real thrilled” with the play of the Sooners’ wide receivers last season, even with the emergence of Theo Wease, Marvin Mims’ strong freshman season and Drake Stoops becoming a solid piece.
“Know that we can play better there,” Riley said. “We know that we can coach better there.
“It’s something we’ve just all got to do a better job with.
“The standards are really, really high and we believe we’ve got the people in this building to play and perform at those standards.”
Riley said several players would be given chances at several different roles in the group to find the best combinations.
“I would say more than any position on the team right now that that is going to be a true blank slate,” Riley said.
Among the intriguing names to watch at the position — Jadon Haselwood and Trejan Bridges, two five stars from the 2019 class who didn’t play much last season due to injury (Haselwood) and suspension (Bridges) and freshmen Mario Williams and Cody Jackson.
The Sooners have plenty to replace in the secondary with Tre Brown and Tre Norwood having declared for the NFL Draft and Brendan Radley-Hiles having transferred to Washington.
Safety Pat Fields will also miss most if not all of the spring after undergoing a surgery that Riley characterized as a “clean-up procedure.”
While there’s a lot out, OU also has plenty of talent there, both returning and among newcomers.
At the top of that latter category is Tennessee transfer Key Lawrence, who played in all 10 games for the Volunteers as a freshman last season and who was a highly sought-after prospect in the 2020 class.
Other newcomers who figure to get plenty of looks this spring are Billy Bowman, an athlete who can also play wide receiver and running back but who is initially listed as a defensive back, cornerback Latrell McCutchin, and safety Jordan Mukes of Choctaw.
One of the most intriguing secondary returners is junior college transfer Justin Harrington, who likely would’ve had a prime shot at playing time last season for the Sooners but missed the year due to injury. At 6-foot-3, Harrington has the size Alex Grinch prefers on the back end of his defense.
Riley mentioned Josh Eaton and Jaden Davis among players he expected to see significant growth from at cornerback.
“There’s a lot of different combinations, there’ll be a lot of competition in that group but it should be a fun group to watch,” Riley said.
Ryan Aber covers OU athletics, especially football. You can send your story ideas to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @ryaber. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.