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Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley got the most out of Baker Mayfield's arm. Now Riley must alter his system to fit the athleticism of Kyler Murray.

Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley must forge new QB partnership with Kyler Murray

Jan 26, 2018

  • Jake TrotterESPN Staff Writer
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    • Covers the Big 12
    • Joined ESPN.com in 2011
    • Graduate of Washington & Lee University

In the aftermath of a season-ending defeat to Georgia in the Rose Bowl, Oklahoma’s past and future sat feet apart in the Sooners’ locker room.

After finally shedding the media contingent that had surrounded him after a final round of interviews, Baker Mayfield made a beeline to Kyler Murray. Mayfield gave Murray a hug, essentially passing him Oklahoma’s quarterbacking torch.

“They’re in great hands,” Mayfield had said moments before. “They have the best coach in the country. Kyler is the best athlete in the country. They’re going to be just fine.”

In the past three years, the Sooners had come to be defined by the partnership Mayfield and offensive coordinator-turned-head coach Lincoln Riley forged together. The two developed an almost symbiotic relationship characterized as more big brother-little brother than coach-quarterback, given their relative closeness in age. Teammates even marveled in practice at how Mayfield and Riley would audible a play on the fly simply by giving quick, silent glances.

With Riley writing the music and Mayfield conducting the band, the Sooners unleashed an offensive attack that went unrivaled over a three-year span and nearly culminated with a national championship.

Now, with Mayfield preparing for the NFL draft, Riley again faces the challenge of revamping his offense to fit the very different skill set of Murray, who is long on speed but light on size.

“There’s a reason we won three Big 12 titles in a row and that I’ve put myself in a good position going forward in the future,” Mayfield said. “[Riley] always adapts to his players. You look at how fast he climbed the coaching ladder. He was at Texas Tech where they threw the ball 70 times a game. Then he went to East Carolina where they had a lot more screen game and run game. Then he came here and been a lot more balanced. So whoever plays quarterback is going to be in great hands.”

How Riley tailors the offense around Murray remains to be seen. Most likely, the Sooners will incorporate more of a zone-read look to capitalize on a potential rushing duo of Murray and running back Rodney Anderson, who had 201 yards on the ground in the Rose Bowl.

Either way, a season after working with one of the most decorated quarterbacks in recent college football history, Riley will be working with one of the most decorated QBs in recent high school history.

Murray led Allen High School to three straight Texas state championships, compiling a remarkable 42-0 record as the starter. All told, he passed for more than 10,000 yards, rushed for another 4,100 and totaled almost 190 touchdowns. Doubling as a highly touted baseball prospect, Murray became the first athlete to play in both the Under Armour All-America football and baseball national high school all-star games.

Reminiscent of one of Barry Switzer’s old wishbone quarterbacks, Murray stands just 5-foot-10, 192 pounds. But like Jamelle Holieway and Thomas Lott, Murray possesses elite speed and quickness. That, combined with an ability to make accurate throws downfield, is why Murray became one of the most coveted recruits in the country in 2015, just as Riley had arrived in Norman.

The key for Riley and the Sooners will be how far Murray has come since that uneven 2015 season at Texas A&M. Playing in eight games and starting three for the Aggies, Murray amassed 1,021 yards of total offense but completed only 59.5 percent of his passes and threw seven interceptions with only five touchdowns.

One major difference, however, from then?

“Obviously, I think watching Bake and Coach Riley and the way everything works,” Murray said. “How to be successful at this level.”

There were signs of that showing a year ago, as Murray shined in Oklahoma’s spring game in April.

During an exhausting weekend of travel, Murray hit leadoff for the Oklahoma baseball team (he is planning to play baseball again this spring) against Texas in Austin on a Friday night, then flew to Oklahoma the following morning to participate in the spring game. Operating on limited sleep, he stole the show from everyone, even Mayfield, and completed 9 of 13 attempts for 144 yards, including a 70-yard touchdown strike. By August, Murray had ousted Austin Kendall for the backup job.

Staking a claim as OU’s future. Setting up Riley’s next partnership in Norman.

“I’m fully preparing myself in every way shape and form to be the quarterback of this team,” Murray said. “Obviously, there’s going to be competition. My job is to come get in, get better every day and lead this team.”

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