OU rolled with punches in portal era of recruiting
Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley never went as far to say the Sooners belonged in the latest college football playoff, but he’s not wrong in saying it’s hard to believe there were four teams playing better than OU when the wild, COVID-19 season of 2020 wrapped up.
As good as it was, punctuated by a sixth straight Big 12 championship and a 55-20 shellacking of Florida in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic, there were holes for the Sooners heading into 2021.
Welcome to the portal era of recruiting, everybody. For every question mark you might have had about OU, Riley and staff were able to cross them off, one-by-one, and put OU in the best position possible heading into spring.
It looks like the transfer portal, winter portion, has reached its conclusion. A closer look at the five additions: quarterback Micah Bowens (Penn State), running back Eric Gray (Tennessee), offensive guard Robert Congel (Arizona), offensive tackle Wanya Morris (Tennessee) and safety Keshawn Lawrence (Tennessee).
2020 stats: N/A
Career stats: N/A
2021 classification: Freshman
High school & OU involvement: Not much and definitely not much as Bowens grew older in high school. He did camp at OU when he was a freshman. It feels like forever ago when you realize that meant Bob Stoops was still the head coach. Bowens was pretty locked in with Penn State, and OU was never in the picture. They knew each other, but not much more than that.
College career: That’s a big incomplete. You can’t say he was a star of a failure after one half of a season with the Nittany Lions and being that far away from home right as COVID-19 hit the nation. Bowens didn’t play one snap at PSU.
Why OU? Makes sense for both parties here. OU needed another scholarship quarterback after the departures of Chandler Morris (TCU) and Tanner Mordecai (SMU), and Bowens wanted to be closer to home but with a great opportunity. If anybody can figure out exactly how to bring out the best in Bowens, who certainly doesn’t lack for confidence, then it’s going to be Riley.
Riley says: “We were a fan of Micah coming out. Obviously had watched him at Gorman and what he had done there and were very aware of him. Yeah, just one of those things where we had a couple guys leave the room and when you’re going into it, we weren’t going to take a guy to take a guy, but at the same time, we thought if a viable option came up in the transfer portal at the quarterback position that we were going to take a good look at it because just the room. The room right now, with Spencer and Caleb – you’ve got right now, two scholarship players. We lost a couple of really good walk-ons out of that room, too. We knew we had to start to rebuild that room back up a little bit, and so we just said, hey, if a guy pops up that piques our interest that we think could come here and be a good player and obviously contribute and compete and come be what we expect out of that position, then we’re going to take a look. Micah went in the transfer portal and we liked what we saw. Had some good conversations with him and his family. And again, the interest was mutual and it moved along pretty quickly.”
OG Robert Congel
2020 stats: Started all five games at RG
Career stats: Played in 20 games, started 13
2021 classification: Redshirt junior
High school & OU involvement: Nothing here. Congel was one of those IMG Academy kids who went to the powerhouse just believing in himself and not as one of those mega-star recruits. He chose to walk-on at Texas A&M.
College career: As big of a success as you can get in his spot. He walked on with the Aggies and played five games. Then when Kevin Sumlin was let go and headed to Arizona, Congel followed him to Tucson. Sat out 2018 before playing in 15 games and starting in 13 of them in the last two seasons at either guard or center.
Why OU? If there’s anything offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh believes in, it’s competition. The Sooners have a wealth of experience along the interior, and now Congel adds another piece and will fight to break on through himself. His versatility will prove pivotal, and he’s someone who can help if there are injuries, or Congel could prove he belongs and play his way onto the field.
Riley says: “We were excited about him. Another one that had some mutual interest when he got in the transfer portal. Really liked him on tape. He reminded us of a couple of guys that we’d had before with some of his position flexibility and some of the experience that he had. And obviously, gave us a little bit of depth in there with losing a couple of guys. And a guy that’s played both center and guard that we’re going to work at both. Obviously, we’ll be looking to replace Creed, whether it’s a current center in our program or it’s shifting somebody into center, those are options that will be worked through. But getting a guy like Robert gives us experience and gives us flexibility. He was looking for an opportunity to come to place like Oklahoma and have a chance to compete for championships. And so we had what he was looking for and he had what we were looking for.”
2020 stats: 157 rushes for 772 yards (4.9 average), 4 TDs; 30 receptions for 254 yards, 2 TDs
Career stats: 258 rushes for 1,311 yards (5.1 average), 8 TDs; 43 receptions for 369 yards, 3 TDs
2021 classification: Sophomore
High school and OU involvement: OU hadn’t quite made a dent in the state of Tennessee for the 2019 class, at least offensively. The Sooners had other backs they wanted to land, and Gray was never really in the picture.
College career: You get a lot of portal entries where you’re trying to base things off potential instead of production. Gray was one of the few backs who could let his first two years of numbers stand on their own and let it carry the day. Proven to be an effective runner against Power 5 competition and a quality receiver out of the backfield, Gray was easily one of the top backs in the portal.
Why OU? Just weird how everything fell into place. The Sooners lost Rhamondre Stevenson to the NFL Draft and T.J. Pledger to the portal, meaning OU only had three scholarship running backs. You knew the Sooners needed a back, and you give a lot of credit for how patient they were. Gray hit, OU struck, and the Sooners were able to beat out rival Texas to get Gray onboard.
Riley says: “Eric was a little bit different. Didn't recruit him as much. Didn't know him as well, but felt like there was an opportunity here and once he got in the portal, we reached out and expressed some interest and evaluated him and we thought he could help our football team. They obviously know each other. They were kind of different classes. I don't know that one caused another to leave. It wasn't really a domino-effect type deal. I think it was three separate situations and they just happened to be from the same university.”
2020 stats: Eight tackles, one pass breakup in 10 games
Career stats: Eight tackles, one pass breakup in 10 games
2021 classification: Freshman
High school and OU involvement: A lot. OU was able to get Woodi Washington from the state for the 2019 class, so OU started to get a lot more aggressive. Lawrence was one of those top targets, and OU was in the hunt the whole way. The Sooners even got an official visit in October 2019, but Lawrence ultimately picked the Vols.
College career: If there’s one positive to say, it’s that Lawrence had six of his eight tackles in the final two games, including a career-high four stops in the last game of the season against Texas A&M. Judging any true freshman off the 2020 season with all that COVID-19 brought to the table is just incredibly tough to do.
Why OU? The Sooners were right there initially and became the easy choice once Lawrence hit the portal. Safety/defensive back was one of the biggest positions of need heading into the 2021 season, and that box was checked off emphatically with Lawrence. Add in his friendship with OU defensive lineman Reggie Grimes, perfect fit and defensive coordinator Alex Grinch got his guy.
Alex Grinch says: “Key, we call him a transfer but I don’t know if there was another recruit that I’ve been to more basketball games of or went to a football game. I recruited him for three years. I guess, by rights, he’s a transfer because he enrolled in another place last year. Really looking in, this isn’t a click on the internet and seeing what is available. In so many ways, we know more about Key than so many guys who might be signing somewhere else today. He’ll have an opportunity to compete in that way as he would have if he signed here a year ago, which I tell him he should have.”
2020 stats: Played in nine games, started seven
Career stats: Played in 22 games, started 19
2021 classification: Sophomore
High school and OU involvement: Actually, quite a bit, which really helped when Morris hit the portal because of the familiarity he had with the Sooners. He made a visit, and OU did what it could for a good chunk of his recruitment before it became obvious he was sticking with an SEC school. No hard feelings from either side.
College career: After a standout 2019 season as a freshman, the 2020 one wasn’t as smooth for Morris. He was returning from offseason hip surgery, and COVID-19 probably didn’t impact a single position group more than offensive line. He wasn’t always healthy during the 2020 season, but none of the injuries felt like anything that will slow down Morris in the long run.
Why OU? The biggest position of need for OU’s portal hunting was offensive tackle. So OU was able to say not only did it get the best available player in the portal but also at the position it needed a hit the most. Morris raved before about the relationship he built with offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh, and now we’ll see what the duo can do together in 2021 and beyond.
Riley says: “Wanya and Keshawn, we had recruited both in their original recruitment. We thought we had a pretty decent chance to land those guys, and I think we were right there pretty close before they ultimately chose to go to Tennessee. I think it was pretty natural for them, that when they made the decision to leave that this was going to be one of the places they considered because we had relationships with those guys. Those guys are just, it's like they took a one-year hiatus, but almost feels like we recruited them, we know them. I think, you know, they decided that they needed a change of scenery and they liked what we were doing here. Those things came together pretty quickly.”
Now we’ll flip it and examine how the portal can taketh just as much as it can giveth. A look at the players leaving OU through the portal in recent months.
LB/S Robert Barnes (Colorado): Barnes will remain a what if for years to come as who knows what he could have become without his rash of injuries. A true team player, Barnes looking for fresh start in Boulder.
WR Jalin Conyers (Arizona State): OU seemed incredibly high on Conyers for the 2020 class, but Conyers became the first of several true freshmen to leave in the last couple of months.
QB Tanner Mordecai (SMU): Some portal moves make incredible sense, like this one with Mordecai and SMU. He did what he could during his three years at OU, and you could tell no hard feelings from Riley.
QB Chandler Morris (TCU): No hard feelings, but maybe some surprised ones. Riley definitely seemed to be working on getting Morris involved as a true freshman, but Morris is staying closer to home and still in the Big 12.
OL E.J. Ndoma-Ogar (Missouri): A mid-season move, Ndoma-Ogar looked like he had a future at center or guard. But after opting out, it wasn’t long before Ndoma-Ogar simply decided to move on.
RB T.J. Pledger (Utah): Pledger showed what he could do during the first half of the 2020 season, and you could tell he was itching for a bigger opportunity. He should get that with the Utes.
DB Brendan Radley-Hiles (TBD): It has been three weeks since Bookie entered the portal. No signs of where he’s going yet, and we know Riley said he was going to do all he could to convince Radley-Hiles to stay at OU.
WR Charleston Rambo (Miami): After a solid 2019 season, it just didn’t come together with Rambo and Spencer Rattler in 2020. Rambo does have the distinction of having his final catch be a TD vs. Florida.
DE/OLB Jon-Michael Terry (Tulsa): This is what the portal was made for, right? OU is developing the RUSH linebacker spot in a huge way, and Terry going to Tulsa for a sixth year made all the sense in the world.
WR Trevon West (TBD): The latest surprise from last week because it seemed as though West was doing everything right to put himself in good position for 2021. Expect West to pick a school in Texas, with his brother signing with North Texas.