NORMAN Okla. — West Virginia quarterback Will Grier is one of the latest notable players to opt out of playing in a bowl game as he prepares for the NFL Draft, and it’s a hot button issue around college football this time of year. Sooner head coach Lincoln Riley hasn’t had to deal with that situation so far in his first two seasons, as OU has advanced to the College Football Playoff each of those campaigns, but he thought he was about to a couple years ago as offensive coordinator. That’s when running back Joe Mixon and wide receiver Dede Westbrook pulled a funny on him.
“Actually, Mixon and Westbrook pranked me,” Riley said. “They came to me. We were in the Bud [Wilkinson facility] over there, and they both told me that they didn’t think it was in their best interest to play in the Sugar Bowl. And then I said a few choice words, and then they [told me the truth]. I didn’t totally believe them because that’s just not really those kids. They love ball so much.
“But I kind of quickly let them know what I thought about it, and then we laughed it off. It was funny. They got me pretty good.”
Those two, now playing in the NFL for the Cincinnati Bengals and Jacksonville Jaguars, respectively, are different than many, including Grier. Fellow NFL stars Leonard Fournette (LSU) and Christian McCaffrey (Stanford) recently sat out their bowl games. And all jokes aside, Riley does have an opinion on it.
“Yeah, you could see both sides of it,” Riley said. “I mean, you can. You can see both sides. I know a lot of people pointed to what happened to the kid at Notre Dame, Jaylon Smith, a few years ago. I mean, that’s kind of, I know, the big main example everybody uses. You can get hurt in any game. That’s football. I think it comes down to the individual person, what their team means to them, what their program means to them.
“I am thankful that through all the years here we haven’t had that happen here. You know, guys have been team first in how we finish out the season or winning a bowl game or regardless of what it is. It’s been important to each and every one of our guys. That’s not to say we won’t have to deal with it at some point. We probably will. And, you know, you’re torn because your job like this you’re kind of half parent. You see the individual side of it, then you’re also the head coach where you understand how important it is to the program to win bowl games and finish years strong and create memories for these guys that they’ll never get back.
“And so the only thing I ever worry about for these kids [is] will they look back—because you never know what’s gonna happen the rest of your career—but would you look back 30 or 40 years down the line and say, ‘Man, I had like a chance to play in a bowl game and I didn’t do it?’ That’s what I would feel. I know that.
“And I know we all grew up in a little bit different era, but I’m torn on it. I don’t fault guys for it, but also hope they keep in perspective the places they’re playing for and how lucky they are to play at great programs.”
It’s an interesting discussion and one that will continue to draw differing opinions from those in and around the sport. As for that Sugar Bowl, Sooner Nation may remember Mixon scored a pair of touchdowns while racking up 180 yards from scrimmage, and Westbrook hauled in six catches for 59 yards and a touchdown. Running back Samaje Perine and linebacker Jordan Evans were two others with similar situations. Perine, too, found pay dirt while rushing for 86 yards on 17 carries, and Evans tallied nine tackles, including one for loss, with a pass breakup on the other side of the ball. Oh, and the Sooners won it 35-19 over the Auburn Tigers. Obviously, that would have been quite the different game had those guys held out.