By Michael Kinney
In past years, whenever the Oklahoma football team officially opened up the season, it was a party atmosphere. The annual Meet the Sooners event drew thousands of kids and adults from around the state. Along with Media day, it has been the perfect way to kick off the gridiron season.
But that has all changed in 2020 with the rise of the coronavirus pandemic. On Friday the Sooners took the field for their first official practice of the COVID-19 era.
It was great. It’s been 143 days, so it’s a long time coming,” Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said. “You could feel that in the atmosphere today. Guys just eager to be out here, very excited, maybe even more than a normal opening at camp. Because they’re always fun, but this one had a little different feel to it.”
Due to the spread of COVID-19, Oklahoma didn’t let its players report to campus for voluntary workouts until July 1, which was much later than other programs across the country. That plan has seemingly paid off.
After the first week where OU had 16 players test positive for COVID-19. Their latest testing date came July 29 and 100 football players were tested for the coronavirus. None tested positive. All 16 players who had COVID-19 have recovered.
“We’re in good shape. We are. I think they did a really good job while they were home,” Riley said. “As a lot of people know, we kept our guys home a little bit longer than most, and yeah, they’ve done a good job. They were in good shape. We didn’t have to pull off of them very much from what we would normally do on a day like today so that was a big positive.”
Riley said they haven’t changed up any type of practice drills in order to protect the players. They just follow the guidelines of everyone wears masks.
“It’s more about keeping the face covered and what we do in between. We’re not changing a whole lot about our practices,” Riley said. “We’ve gone for seven days now in the OTA period and we’re doing, even in that, we’ve done team drills, guys up next to each other, and as everybody knows, we tested again and had no positives. We feel like what we’re doing is working. It’s not as much about what we’re doing as far as the drill, it’s limiting unnecessary times where guys are not socially distant and then everybody keeping their face covered.”
Riley, who recently signed a new six-year extension, also said they have a full squad of players on hand.
“We have no players sitting out,” Riley said. “As far as medical history, it’s something we pay attention to with all our guys, but obviously that’s something they won’t let me get into.”
Oklahoma enters practice looking to replace a host of key players. That includes at CeeDee Lamb, Jalen Hurts and Kenneth Murray, who were all selected in the 2019 NFL draft.
At quarterback, the battle should be between redshirt freshman Spencer Rattler and redshirt sophomore Tanner Mordeaci.
Most experts believe the 6-0, 198 pound Rattler has the inside edge at the start of camp. He was the top ranked quarterback coming out of high school in the 2019 class before backing up Jalen Hurts last season.
But, just like in past, Riley says every position is up for grabs.
“Looks like we’ve got a lot of contributors on this field, and a lot of guys that could potentially have a lot of big roles for this team,” Riley said. “It’s exciting, and I don’t think there’s a position right now that we’re not going to have a lot of competitive depth.”
The Sooners did suffer a major blow Monday. Linebacker Caleb Kelly has been reported to have torn an ACL in his knee.
Kelly’s career at OU has been marked by setback and injuries. After the fifth senior missed most of 2019 with a knee injury, 2020 was going to be the year it all came together for him. He was the leading candidate to replace Kenneth Murray at inside linebacker.
Oklahoma hasn’t confirmed the severity of the injury or how long Kelly will be sidelined.
Kelly graduated in May and is currently working on his master’s in administrative leadership.
The Big 12 was the only Power 5 Conference yet to make a decision on what type of schedule they will follow for the 2020 season. That hanged Monday night when the Big 12 Board of Directors announced they would essentially follow the same plan as the other major conferences.
Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and the rest of the league will be on the “9 + 1” schedule for the 2020 season consisting of nine conference games and one non-conference home opponent.
“The start of Conference play will be solidified in the coming weeks, with an anticipated start sometime between mid- to late-September, with the expectation that non-conference games are contested prior to beginning league games,” the Big 12 conference said in a statement.
The model also gives the Conference flexibility to move back the Dr Pepper Big 12 Championship game to December 12th or 19th.
“I would like to salute the work of our university presidents and chancellors, athletics directors, coaches, medical advisors and administrators who have worked tirelessly and collaboratively during these extraordinary times,” Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said. “We believe this change provides the best opportunity going forward. However, we will undoubtedly need to be flexible as we progress through the season in order to combat the challenges that lie ahead.”
As of right now, the Sooners are set to open the season at home Aug. 29 when they host Missouri State. It was originally scheduled for Sept. 5. This would constitute their one home non-conference game.
The Sooner’s next opponent was supposed to be Tennessee on Sept. 12. However, the SEC announced last week that they are playing only conference opponents this season. This forced the Volunteers to cancel their trip to Norman.
Oklahoma’s trip to New York to face Army is still on the schedule for Sept. 26 with the Big 12 opener set for Oct. 3 at home against Baylor. But that could all change as more details around the schedules come together.
“We appreciate the donors, ticket holders, partners and fans who have been so patient and supportive through these unprecedented times,” OU athletic director Joe Castiglione said. “Our staff has prepared for a number of different scenarios and we will be ready when the season begins. Our new schedule is being finalized along with all of the details that will be associated with stadium access and operation. We expect to have that information completed soon and will communicate it as quickly as possible. In the meantime, we remain very enthusiastic as we look forward to another great season of Sooner football.”
Story by Michael Kinney/Michael Kinney Media