When the 2014 season began, some thought this first week of January would feature Oklahoma in deep in preparation for the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented By AT&T.
Instead, Bob Stoops is searching for answers.
Co-offensive coordinators Josh Heupel and Jay Norvell were the first dominoes to fall, with the Sooners' veteran head coach announcing their dismissals during a Tuesday news conference.
“I hate it for them, but I feel moving forward that we have to go in a different direction,” Stoops said. “I want to emphasize this isn’t their fault. Ultimately I’ve got to do what I feel is best for us and I felt a different direction was necessary.”
Although Stoops said he didn’t expect any other changes to the Sooners' coaching staff in the near future, it’s quite possible more moving boxes will be needed in the halls of the Switzer Center in the coming weeks.
Heupel, who coached quarterbacks, joined receivers coach Norvell as co-offensive coordinator in December 2010. Heupel was the primary playcaller.
During the four seasons with that duo at the helm, OU ranked among the Big 12’s and the nation’s top offenses. OU averaged 36.7 points per game (No. 10 among Power 5 teams), 474.5 total yards (No. 7 among Power 5 teams), 6.26 yards per play (No. 13 among Power 5 teams) and 2.51 points per drive (No. 13 among Power 5 teams) from 2011-14.
Those numbers don’t scream “change needed.” Yet here we are.
The fatal mistake was after former quarterback Landry Jones left in 2012. OU turned to more quarterback run game and zone-read-style schemes as an offensive focus, and things went downhill. The Sooners went from a balanced attack that could take advantage of a defense's weakness via the air or on the ground to a run-heavy attack that didn’t scare anyone when quarterback Trevor Knight (or any other OU signal-caller) dropped back to pass. OU averaged 199.08 passing yards per game in 2013 and 203.54 passing yards per game in 2014 after averaging at least 250 passing yards during the previous six seasons.
Furthermore, it’s hard to raise money for a $370 million Oklahoma Memorial Stadium expansion project, which was announced last June, on the heels of an 8-5 season that ended with a shocking Bedlam loss at home to Oklahoma State and an embarrassing 40-6 drubbing at the hands of Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
Change might not have been needed, but hope was.
Hope could come in the form of a new offensive coordinator who promises a return to a balanced spread offense that could thrust the Sooners back into Big 12 title contention with an eye on even higher goals. Stoops refused to go into detail about what he’s looking for in a coordinator, noting his concern about speculation surrounding coaches who run similar systems, but it appears OU needs to look to the past to improve its future. A spread offensive attack similar to the one the Sooners ran in 2008 -- the last time OU made an appearance in the national title game -- would be a step in the right direction.
It's obvious Stoops has a clear direction he wants to take offensively and, most importantly, he sounds like he’s ready to completely hand the reins to his next coordinator.
“I want to hire someone to run what they run, their system,” Stoops said while noting his new hire wouldn’t be coming in solely to run what he wants.
That’s great news for Sooners fans because OU’s defense needs the extra attention from Stoops. The defensive struggles in 2014 are well chronicled, with the Sooners finishing among the nation’s worst pass defenses (276.23 yards allowed per game, No. 117 among FBS teams). As change hit the offensive staff, Stoops said having nine returning starters on defense was a driving force in his decision to retain the members of OU's defensive staff at this point, but the potential for changes remains in play.
“With nine guys back, I felt like it would be best to continue that way,” Stoops said.
One thing is certain: This is the second major staff shakeup in a span of three years, after Bill Bedenbaugh, Jerry Montgomery and Jay Boulware joined the program following its blowout loss to Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl in January 2013. Now, Bedenbaugh’s offensive line and Montgomery’s defensive line could be considered the strongest position groups on the roster. Stoops is hopeful newcomers to the staff will bring similar results.
“I’ve thought about this a lot, a lot of sleepless nights,” Stoops said. “I’m hopeful this will give us a strong boost.”
If it doesn’t, Stoops could find himself in the crosshairs.