NORMAN — While flying in and out of recruits’ hometowns the past several weeks, Lincoln Riley has felt palpable interest in Oklahoma football.
There’s plenty to like about the program, with back-to-back College Football Playoff appearances, plus two consecutive Heisman Trophy quarterbacks.
“We’ve been on a lot of people’s TV screens over the last couple of weeks, which is a good thing,” Riley said.
There’s interest in another topic, too.
With the Dec. 19 early signing period less than a week away, 2019 prospects still don’t know who will be the Sooners’ next defensive coordinator. And Riley has no plans to bring one until after this season.
OU plays Alabama in the Orange Bowl on Dec. 29.
“We’ve had some [questions from recruits],” Riley said. “I told them we’re in the playoff right now. 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?”
Riley believes that pitch has gone over well.
“[The response has been] pretty unanimous across the board,” he said. “Of course the recruits are vitally important to us but our first priority are our players and our team right here. If we weren’t in a playoff, would it be different on a timeline? Maybe. But we are. We’re in it right now and we have a chance. They understand that and I think they have confidence that once we get through the season that we’ll have a great defensive coordinator here and we’re going to make the very best decisions that we can.”
OU has 17 players currently committed from the 2019 class, eight of whom play defense. What reassurances can Riley give them about bringing in a quality coordinator? The few hires he’s made during nearly two seasons as head coach have panned out relatively well.
Ruffin McNeill, who joined the staff in 2017 as a defensive line and assistant head coach, steadied a rocky ship taking over as interim defensive coordinator this season following Mike Stoops’ dismissal.
The presence of Bob Diaco, though he was hired solely as an analyst last offseason, paid dividends as well, giving the sideline an experienced outside linebackers coach in the shakeup that followed the Stoops decision.
Shane Beamer’s assistance has impacted OU’s special teams and sustained its success using H-backs within the offense.
“A lot of our hires in the last two years, 18 months, whatever, have been extremely successful,” Riley said, “and the next one will be as well.”
Riley sells that message personally.
In between the Big 12 championship game, ESPN’s college football awards show and the Heisman Trophy presentation, he and OU’s coaching staff have conducted as many in-home recruiting visits as possible.
Recently, they went to see highly touted defensive backs from the Los Angeles area — safety Jeremiah Criddell and cornerback Chris Steele. Riley was in both homes, alongside defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks.
Aside from the recruitment of quarterbacks, who Riley coaches, he said he’s equally involved with prospects on both sides of the ball.
“It’s probably been a little bit more time with the defensive guys, not just this year, but before,” he said. “We said that’s an area where we have to continue to upgrade talent. I believe we’ve done that in the last year or so and I believe we’re getting ready to do that in the next couple of weeks and the next couple of years. I don’t think that’s changed strategy at all.”
“I would have been where I’ve been the last couple of weeks no matter what.”
Early signing period
When: Dec. 19-21
OU 2019 commitments: 17
Class ranking: No. 9 (Rivals); No. 8 (247sports composite); No. 10 (ESPN)