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OU football: Lincoln Riley, Sooners leadership stressing off-the-field poise as preseason hype grows

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Lincoln Riley

OU head coach Lincoln Riley during the 2021 Big 12 Media Days at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on July 14.

ARLINGTON, Texas — Nik Bonitto smirked when asked at Big 12 Media Days if this year’s OU team could be one of the best ever assembled. 

The redshirt junior outside linebacker thinks the Sooners need to play at least one game before they’re in the running for that title, even though they may have the talent to get there. This offseason, Oklahoma is the preseason media favorite to win its seventh consecutive Big 12 championship and among favorites to earn a berth in the 2021 College Football Playoff. College football prognosticators even picked the Sooners to win the national championship.

Earlier in the day, head coach Lincoln Riley was asked if he thought 2021 would be the year his team could snap its CFP losing streak and win the playoff outright. Like Bonitto, the now-fifth year answered with a smile before saying, “This is Oklahoma — every year is the year to do that.”

As buzz surrounding the Sooners has heightened with the start of conference media days around the country, OU's hype of winning the CFP isn’t unjustified. The Sooners ended last season on an eight-game winning streak, return a Heisman favorite at quarterback in Spencer Rattler and boast a defense that features Pro Football Focus’ No. 1 overall edge rusher in Bonitto. 

Yet, this preseason hasn’t been perfect for Oklahoma. Although the Sooners’ offseason has come with plenty of accolades, it’s come with plenty of distractions as well.

Due to their alleged involvement in an April 15 robbery, Trejan Bridges, Mikey Henderson and Seth McGowan were dismissed from the program this offseason. Henderson and McGowan’s dismissal means Oklahoma returns only four running backs, while Bridges’ exit leaves the team without a former five-star wide receiver.

Heading into a season with as much outside noise as ever, the Sooners’ leaders want the focus to stay within the program.

“They just made a mistake, and that mistake was handled by Coach Riley,” redshirt senior H-back Jeremiah Hall said of the dismissed Sooners. “For right now, we're focusing on the guys that we do have (on the team). I'm leading the guys that are in the locker room right now and may the best happen to the guys that we lost.”

Hall said he didn’t fully realize his leadership position within the team until this offseason. A conversation with Riley made him realize how he can pull his teammates together. Hall believes OU has a strong culture — one sustained by players like Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts — and he wants to grow it further by the time he graduates.

Bonitto shares Hall’s belief of the program’s culture, but admits it took him a while to buy into it. Bonitto said that during his freshman season in 2018, he struggled at times with off-field issues. His head coach said Bonitto “was on thin ice” as that season progressed. But Bonitto held multiple conversations with family members and defensive coordinator Alex Grinch — then just months into the job — and managed to turn his career around.

“You got to make sure you're doing the right stuff off the field,” Bonitto said. “Whether it's going to classes, not missing any tutoring sessions or mentoring sessions, it all starts there. Once you can get that together you can start coming to the football field and being a vocal leader (and) playmaker.

“I'm not really much of a rah rah type of guy, but I like to lead by example in all those different aspects. If you don’t take care of yourself off the field, it's gonna affect you on the field.”

Riley knows his program’s culture is atop the list of things he can control. Previously, Riley has voiced support for the Black Lives Matter movement, his players' right to vote in presidential elections and to get vaccinated. He believes for the Sooners to continue to find themselves among the country’s best programs, they need to hold themselves accountable every step of the way.

“Anytime anything in our program happens with anybody, good, bad (or) in between, I'll always evaluate it and always take it into account,” Riley said. “I'm always looking to get better. You're always gonna adjust as time goes on.”

Oklahoma opens its season on Sept. 4 in New Orleans against Tulane. 

Chandler Engelbrecht is a journalism senior and the Daily's assistant sports editor. He currently covers OU football and has previously covered OU men's basketball, volleyball and men's gymnastics.

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