NORMAN, Oklahoma — First-year West Virginia University football coach Neal Brown is one of the bright up-and-comers in the world of college football coaching.
The same could be said about Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley. But in just three seasons in charge at OU, Riley has established himself not just as a name to watch, but as a coach to fear if you’re bringing a team into the Sooners’ Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium, as Brown will do with his Mountaineers on Saturday (noon on Fox).
Riley and Brown both have branches on the Hal Mumme coaching tree and have known each other for years; however, it is WVU offensive coordinator Matt Moore who likely knows Riley the best.
Moore and Riley were both on the staff at Texas Tech under current Washington State coach Mike Leach. At the time, Riley was still cutting his teeth in the football coaching business, but found a friend in Moore.
How close were they? Moore and his wife went on a Jamaican vacation with Riley prior to both men leaving Texas Tech a decade ago. The vacation went well, Moore said, and a good time was had by all — this was before the Rileys had children, after all.
Even back then, Moore said, he knew Riley was destined to big things in coaching. The rapid ascent up the ladder to become the head coach at a powerhouse program like Oklahoma did, however, surprise the West Virginia offensive coordinator.
“I knew he was going to be a really good coach,” Moore said. “He was a really good offensive coach. It’s really surprised me how well he’s handled everything. He’s really mature for his age and the way he handles everything. He’s really impressed me with the way he’s handled himself and handled his team.”
Riley, now 36, left Texas Tech after Leach was fired. The following season, in 2010, new Red Raider head coach Tommy Tuberville brought in his own young assistant to run the offense — Neal Brown.
Both head coaches in Saturday’s game briefly played for Leach in college — Brown at Kentucky when Leach was an assistant and Riley for one season at Texas Tech — and have built a bond in more than a decade of knowing and admiring the other’s work.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for Lincoln as an offensive mind and as a head coach,” Brown said Monday on the Big 12 teleconference. “Everybody thinks that you get one of these premier jobs and people just assume that you go out, you get the best players, and those are easy jobs. Those are really, really difficult jobs.”
In two full seasons in charge at OU, all Riley has done is lead the Sooners to the College Football Playoff semifinals both years with two Big 12 championships and two Heisman Trophy winners at quarterback. Oklahoma could have a third in line for the Heisman this season in graduate transfer quarterback Jalen Hurts. Yes, the same Jalen Hurts who was very good for some very good Alabama teams but ultimately lost his starting position to Tua Tagovailoa.
This season’s Sooners are a little bit different from the last few editions of the squad in that OU can play some defense in 2019.
“Defensively, they are much improved,” Brown said “That’s the storyline of this season.”
The Sooners allow 20.3 points per game — third best in the Big 12 — and 340.3 yards per game — fourth best in the league. Last week against rival Texas, the Sooners sacked Longhorn quarterback Sam Ehlinger nine times during 34-27 win at the Texas State Fair in Dallas. Leading the way for OU’s defense is junior linebacker Kenneth Murray, who was the Big 12’s Preseason Defensive Player of the Year and with good reason. Murray has shined for the Sooners, leading the team 42 total tackles and six tackles for a loss.
Murray’s play recently drew praise from ESPN’s David Pollack, himself a former All-American defender during his playing days at Georgia.
“Kenneth Murray is a stud,” Pollack said on “The College Football Podcast with Herbie and Pollack.” “He can play safety, he was rushing the passer. The one thing I know 100 percent — I don’t think (Oklahoma) are going to be world-beaters, and I think there’s vulnerability still on this defense. But they are way better than they were a year ago, and that gives Oklahoma more cracks on offense. That gives Oklahoma a chance to not have to outscore every single person they play because they’re still going to score a ton of points with those weapons and Jalen Hurts.”
- West Virginia will have graduate transfer Austin Kendall back at quarterback this week after missing most of last week’s loss to Iowa State with a chest injury. Kendall was on the Sooners’ roster for three seasons and has an undergraduate degree from OU.
“In a broad sense, is it strange (playing against a quarterback you recruited)? Yeah, a little bit,” Riley told the Norman Transcript when asked about going up against a Kendall-led WVU team this week. “Guy was recruited and was here with us for three years, so it definitely feels a little strange. I’ve got to see bits and pieces of him. Obviously, had a chance to study him a little bit more this week. He’s had some games where he’s played really, really well. I thought it has been pretty impressive early on in a system with so many new pieces — coaching staff, players, everything — they’ve really done a nice job. He’s made a lot of big throws. Made a lot of big plays.”
- Brown announced on his Thursday evening radio show that the Mountaineers will go with sophomore Leddie Brown as the starter at running back this week against OU.
- Oklahoma standout tight end Grant Calcaterra will miss his second consecutive game with an unspecified injury.