Oklahoma 2019 spring football preview: Hurts helps offense, but can defense keep up?

Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley has Alabama transfer QB Jalen Hurts running the show now. But questions remain on defense. Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

First, Oklahoma convinced coach Lincoln Riley to turn down NFL overtures with a contract extension. Then, Riley convinced Alabama transfer quarterback Jalen Hurts to join him in Norman.

With Riley and Hurts in tow, Oklahoma is once again primed for a run to the College Football Playoff.

The Sooners do have to revamp the offensive line. And major questions remain on the defense despite a regime change.

But with Hurts now running Riley's show, the Sooners should feature a playoff-caliber offensive attack yet again.

2018 record: 12-2 (8-1 Big 12)

Spring practice start date: TBA

Spring game: April 13

Strength heading into spring: The Sooners will feature two of the premier pass-catchers in the country in wide receiver CeeDee Lamb and tight end Grant Calcaterra, both of whom figure to garner preseason All-America attention.

Lamb is coming off a sophomore campaign in which he hauled in 65 receptions for 1,158 yards and 11 touchdowns. He was especially dominant in the Orange Bowl against Alabama, reeling in eight catches for 109 yards and a score. With Marquise "Hollywood" Brown moving on to the NFL, Lamb will take over as the No. 1 receiving option for Hurts. Lamb won't be the only go-to target, though.

In the mold of 2017 Mackey Award winner Mark Andrews, Calcaterra proved to be a dangerous receiving threat in his first season replacing Andrews as a starter. As his one-handed, game-clinching touchdown grab against Texas underscored, Calcaterra is now primed to challenge for the Mackey, given to the nation's most outstanding tight end.

The Sooners don't have much in experience coming back at receiver otherwise. But they did land two of the nation's top three receiving recruits in Jadon Haselwood and Theo Wease Jr., along with ESPN 300 tight end Austin Stogner and wideout Trejan Bridges. Together, the contingent surrounding Lamb and Calcaterra should provide more than enough firepower for Hurts.

Question mark heading into the spring: Will the defense actually improve under first-year coordinator Alex Grinch?

The Sooners hired Grinch away from Ohio State before handing him a $1.4 million contract, the largest salary for a coordinator in Oklahoma history.

The Sooners ranked 92nd in defensive efficiency last season on the way to becoming a national punchline. At one point, well after firing defensive coordinator Mike Stoops after a midseason loss to Texas, Oklahoma surrendered 40 or more points in four consecutive games, becoming the first school in the modern era to achieve the ignominious feat while still winning each game.

Because of its offense, Oklahoma still made the playoff. But until the defense makes a dramatic turnaround, the Sooners will remain far away from actually winning a national championship.

Instant impact addition: Oklahoma landed the top free agent of the offseason in Hurts, who left the Crimson Tide after losing the starting job to Tua Tagovailoa during halftime of the national championship game two years ago. Tagovailoa has proved to be a star. Playing in Riley's offense, Hurts might return to being one himself.

The SEC Offensive Player of the Year in 2016, Hurts has put up big numbers and played in big games in his career. In two seasons as Alabama's starter, he rushed for 954 and 855 yards, respectively, totaling 21 rushing touchdowns.

Despite his reputation as a run-first quarterback, Hurts is still a capable passer. He boasts a career completion rate of 63 percent, to go along with 48 passing touchdowns to only 12 interceptions.

Hurts showed in the SEC championship game that he is still a game-breaking quarterback, rallying Alabama to a come-from-behind victory over Georgia after Tagovailoa exited with an injury.

After transferring in to Oklahoma, Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray became the first back-to-back Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks from the same school in the history of the award.

Hurts is more than capable of becoming the third straight Oklahoma transfer quarterback to challenge for the award.

2019 game to get excited about now: For the first time since 2008, the Red River Showdown could be a battle of top-10 teams.

Riding high off its first 10-win season this decade, Texas now has aims of winning its first Big 12 title since 2009. The Longhorns have saved their best for Dallas in recent years, winning three of the past six against the Sooners in the Cotton Bowl despite the struggles otherwise.

The winner once again this year will have the inside track back to the Big 12 championship game -- where another rematch could await.

Spring storyline to watch: The impacts of Hurts and Grinch likely will determine whether Oklahoma can reach the playoff for a fourth time in five years. The spring will provide a glimpse of their development.

If Hurts keeps the Sooners attack humming and if Grinch can whip the defense back into a legitimate force, Oklahoma could forge its way back to the playoff.