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July 14, 2021

Lincoln Riley

Arlington, Texas, USA

Oklahoma Sooners

Press Conference

LINCOLN RILEY: Certainly good to see everybody back here in Arlington. Good to be back in our second home here. So very, very thankful for a regular -- little bit more regular Media Days, which has followed up here a great off-season.

Really, really proud of our team and the way that we've handled it up to this point. I think everybody's looking forward and I think there's a lot of anticipation right now on this season and college football, in general, getting back to what we all know and love. I think we are all anticipating that and in some ways, maybe more in anticipation of this season than we have ever had.

Excited to be part of it and excited to be part of Oklahoma. With that, I'm happy to take questions.

Q. We saw Washington State's three-year progression on defense under Alex Grinch. Have you seen that similar pattern with him at Oklahoma, or has it exceeded any expectations you may have had?

LINCOLN RILEY: Well, the expectations were very high to begin with. I mean, Oklahoma is a place when we began the search for a new defensive coordinator, it's a place you feel like you can go out and have a chance to hire just about anybody in the country; one of the advantages of being able to work at a program like this.

Alex (Grinch) quickly separated himself for us during that process because of what we believed that this could be, and our visions were so much inline that it was almost scary for not really knowing each other that well prior to.

The progression has been great. We were much improved in year one, we took a big step in year two, and our plan is to take another big step here.

A lot of things go into that. Players now have been in that system for a couple of years, some really strong leaders. I think because of our success as a team, and especially our success defensively over the last few years, we've been able to recruit at a higher and higher level, especially on the defensive side of the ball. And we look different just even walking into a team meeting room on that side of the ball than we did a few years ago. It just looks different in a positive way.

Still, a lot of work to be done. Extremely high expectations for our season, but I believe we have the right people in the room to get it done.

Q. Spencer (Rattler) is not here today. I know you usually bring upperclassmen, so I assume that's why he's still in Norman. Can you expand on his level of maturity? We saw it on the field last year, but as a guy that's going to get so much attention, how do you expect him to handle that, and have you talked at all about ways that you guys might work to minimize that? Just your philosophy in how you're going to deal with that as it relates to him?

LINCOLN RILEY: Yeah, he's definitely in Norman because of our longstanding belief of bringing upperclassmen here. Certainly, he would be plenty deserving as well. But with only two guys, you've got to make a call.

Yeah, I think he's very well equipped for this, I do. He's had some great examples to look up to, even as we were recruiting him with Baker (Mayfield) and Kyler (Murray) and then his first year in-house with us with Jalen (Hurts), guys that -- those three probably got more attention than any player in college football at that time, and I think all three handled it extremely well, albeit some in different ways, but handled it very well.

Spencer is a team-first guy. He is. He has been his entire time here. We have visited about it. It can be a factor if you let it. You can't ignore it. You have to have a philosophy in place, both for the player and then for the person that -- and myself that makes some of the decisions on what he may do or may not do. We have to be on the same page, and I think we certainly are.

He's had some success because he's been a humble team-first guy, and as his career continues, if he'll continue to do that, then he'll continue to do improve at the rate that he has.

Q. The expectation or some of the comments from players has been that this is the year to get over the hump, if you will, to go on and win in the playoffs. Do you believe that? And if so, what is the thinking? What areas have you seen or do you expect to see the improvement to get you over the hump?

LINCOLN RILEY: I mean, this is Oklahoma. Every year is the year to do that. It takes a lot to get it done. There's no question about it. You know, I think for us and our team right now, I think we have a genuine excitement and confidence about the people in the room right now. We have the people, we have enough ability in the room that we have people that are invested wholly in what we can be as a team.

I think then for us our focus kind of zeros back in on getting to the best version of ourselves, and that's -- if we feel like that if we do that, then things will happen the way that they are supposed to happen. And so I think that's been our focus from day one when we flipped over after beating Florida in this building, and with the off-season with our current team, that's been our focus.

I think the guys are excited about the team and what we have coming back and the new guys coming in, the whole mix of it. But the good thing is we have enough guys in the room that understand all that it takes to get it done and to be a factor at the end of the season.

It's every year, they are really, really hard. I know we say that all the time, but they always are. It's hard to win the Big 12 Championship. It's hard to get in the playoffs. It's hard to win in the playoffs. You have to be at your very best to do it. We have a team that believes in themselves but also fully understands and appreciates the long, tough road ahead.

Q. So Jeremiah Hall is entering his fifth season with the team. What does his veteran status add to the offense and this team as a whole?

LINCOLN RILEY: Yeah, he's definitely one of the guys, one of our bell cows, a guy that we'll lean on certainly offensively but more importantly as an entire team. He's been through the fire and is an absolute team-first guy. Really proud of his progression as a player and what he's meant to us.

We'll need his best. The best teams, you look at it, your seniors, your veterans, always play the very best ball of their career, and he's one of the guys we'll certainly be counting on in a lot of different ways to get that done.

Q. You've had some unexpected changes to your running back corps this season. With Eric Gray coming in, what do you see his role being as a running back this season?

LINCOLN RILEY: Eric's been -- I can't say enough about the kid, walking in here day one. He's a true professional. I told somebody earlier, it feels like he's been in our program for months or years already. It literally felt like that the day he walked in the door. Just a very businesslike attitude. He honestly exceeded everything that we put in front of them. He learned offense quickly. He really got acclimated with his teammates and university quickly.

He does everything right. You can see why the guy has had some success early on in his career, and you combine that with some good experience, and we're thrilled to have him. Regardless of who is going to be in our running back room, he's going to be a big factor. We're thrilled to get him, and he's been a joy to have up to this point.

Q. The last four years, you've spoken at length about the GrowU program and how that ties to the culture you've developed at Oklahoma. Have you touched on that again with your guys in the off-season based on some of the incidents off the field and the decisions and dismissals you've had to make?

LINCOLN RILEY: I would say the GrowU program was forced to change a lot during the pandemic. That was one of the things that, unfortunately -- getting out in the community, holding team gatherings, bringing in outside speakers, I mean, all those things that we're used to doing, we had to significantly alter.

Excited that this spring has certainly been a lot more normal for us. It's been good to have some of these team activities and do some of these things that we believe in that are certainly core values of our program.

It's a program that's very important to us, and we've continued to push it and we're going to continue to invest our time, our resources, everything we can into continuing to build these guys.

Q. Going back to the running back room, Kennedy Brooks opted out of the 2020 season and he's back in 2021. What did you see out of him in spring practice, and what does he bring to your offense?

LINCOLN RILEY: It's great to have Kennedy (Brooks) back. He was -- I think which would be expected, he was rusty early on in spring. You know, I think he certainly worked during the time that he was away. But you can't miss a year of football and come back right away.

But I give him credit. He's worked hard. I think Coach (DeMarco) Murray has been good, really good for him. It's been good seeing them get a chance to work together. Finished spring really strong. The guy has had so much production for us and he's done it in big games and big moments and knows our system inside and out. He's really pushing himself to try to be the best version that he can be here towards the end of his career.

I think for him, there's a sense of not having last year and maybe kind of a little bit more of an appreciation for the process and all that it takes and the opportunity to play. So we're thrilled to have him back and excited to turn him loose.

Q. So what are your thoughts on this idea of the playoff expansion, and how do you think it would impact a team like OU?

LINCOLN RILEY: Thanks for the question. I think the expansion that's been proposed is a great start. I commend the committee that put it together because you've got to put yourself out there. You've got to start somewhere. And I think their proposal was really good in a lot of ways. I think it addressed, you know, maintaining the Bowls which are so important to the history of our game that I hope we never turn our back on.

I think it addressed getting the conference champions in the playoff, which has needed to happen. I think it addressed a pathway for a group of five member to be able to get into the playoffs, which honestly hasn't been realistic under the current system. In my mind, those are all great things.

There's still work to be done and questions to be answered. The obvious one of how many games you want to play in a season is certainly one. Is 12 too many? Certainly, some of those things are up for debate. I think it was a great proposal and something we can all work off of to make the system better.

Q. You started 0-2 last year and still won the league. What statement do you feel like that made for Oklahoma as a program, and do you want your players to think that y'all just own this conference?

LINCOLN RILEY: We could go a lot of ways with that one.

I don't know about the statement. I mean, each year is its own year, and I know we all want to write and talk about, you know, streaks or winning this many, and that's all great. But I think, you know, for that team, it was an opportunity with so many things not going our way, some within our control, some not within our control, of who we were going to -- who we were going to be.

I do think it shows the championship DNA of this program that I felt like our team was not going to accept, you know, mediocrity, which I very much appreciate about that team. We have a lot of respect for this league and what it takes to win in this league. A lot of it comes from the outside; people just think that it's a given. Anybody that thinks that doesn't know college football. They haven't been inside the ropes. They don't understand it. It takes so much and it's so hard. Everybody is a good coach and everybody has good players.

Each year is so different. Each game is so different. We're excited about some of the success we've had but we know that's not going to make a lot of difference this coming year. We've got to go do it again.

Q. You talked about your defensive improvement this past couple of years, in particular, last year. Can you pinpoint kind of the moment that you guys thought, okay, you're kind of getting over that hump with your confidence and the overall growth on the defensive side of the ball? And secondly, as far as your recruiting goes, did you change up how you decided you were going to go about recruiting defensive players, pinpointing different type of guys?

LINCOLN RILEY: Defensively, I don't know that there was the eureka, Hollywood moment. I think you felt just kind of constant improvement from day one, and we've made some big, big plays in big games, especially to close out games over the last few years, and I think those, in particular, do something for the psyche and confidence of an individual player or side of the ball that is hard to duplicate.

But I think it's just been a real consistent process, and I would really point to the defensive line, really becoming a strength of this team and really one of the best defensive lines in college football, that really stands out to me.

As far as recruiting, we have changed in some ways what we look for. I would say probably the defensive front and the secondary the most, we really put a premium on trying to get bigger in the secondary, and I think that's improved. There was a several-year stretch there where we were pretty small across the board. Not that you can't have a small guy here and there, but you don't want to roll out with four 5-8 guys out in the secondary. So we certainly look a lot different there.

And then with the front with us being so attacking, single gap, so much movement, the premium has been on obviously big guys but the athleticism there, and even if it's a big monster, a plugger, two-gap guy, we are not really recruiting that body type anymore. We want guys that can win one-on-ones, that can penetrate, that can get in the backfield and cause havoc. So those have been the two biggest changes from a defensive recruiting philosophy.

FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports

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