Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley told local media a story last week about the unique recruiting position he and the Sooners occupy just ahead of the Early Signing Period.
With the fourth-ranked Sooners slated to take on the No. 1-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide just 10 days from Dec. 19 when top recruits can sign their national letters of intent, Riley and his staff have spent the better part of two weeks securing commitments and trying to earn new ones with in-home visits across the country.
And all without a named permanent defensive coordinator.
For most, that’d be a problem, particularly when Riley needed to sit down with an uncommitted defensive prospect and his parents. Nearly all of OU’s committed recruits had some relationship with former defensive coordinator Mike Stoops and have questions about who will Riley’s top defensive assistant will be in 2019.
Riley was asked what he tells those prospects and their families when they ask.
“I told them we’re in the playoff right now,” he said. “I told them, and I think guys understand this when you put it in this prospective, if you are a senior on this football team at Oklahoma right now, what would you want me as the head coach to be worried about?
Do you want me worried about a defensive coordinator for next year and beyond or do you want us worried about trying to win a national championship?”
For most, the answer is obvious. You play big-time college football to win championships.
For others, it might sound like a punt ahead of game where the Sooners are 14-point underdogs against a Tide team that might be the best Alabama coach Nick Saban has ever fielded.
Couple that with the knowledge that Oklahoma lost commitments from wide receiver Arjei Henderson and Butler Community College defensive end Jacoby Jones. The Sooners have steadily slid in the recruiting rankings as they’ve picked up wins that have vaulted them toward their fourth straight Big 12 title and third College Football Playoff appearance.
But after a big recruiting weekend during the second week of December, Riley showed returns on the message he’s sent to defensive recruits with the commitment of Northeastern Oklahoma A&M defensive end LaRon Stokes.
Stokes, who is the No. 3-ranked strong side defensive end out of the JUCO ranks, essentially fills the void left by Jones. At 6-foot-4, 245 pounds, he provides the size, experience and depth OU craves on a defensive line that must get better in 2019—whether the Sooners win a national title or not.
Stokes picked OU over Oregon, Connecticut, Oklahoma State and told OUInsider’s Brandon Drumm he was fulfilling a lifelong ambition with his commitment to the Sooners just ahead of Early Signing Day.
“I grew up in Tulsa and it was always a dream of mine to play at the University of Oklahoma growing up,” he said. “This is just a dream come true.”
That’s the kind of recruit fans love to see join the program, but it’s also the kind of commitment that vindicates fellow classmates.
For those who have been sound in their commitments and for those who are thinking of committing, watching a defensive recruit join the program without assurances about who will be the next permanent defensive coordinator speaks to the job Riley has done in selling himself and OU and trust he’s built.
Ahead of and just following Early Signing Day, the Sooners will likely stick toward the bottom of the 2019 247 Composite team rankings. But it behooves many to remember Oklahoma surged following the New Year in 2018.
Imagine what that surge could look like following the hiring of a defensive coordinator with room still left in the boat to add five to seven more commitments and signings? It could begin to look like the kind of defense OU was known for more than a decade ago.