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OU football: Robert Congel, Sooners' offensive line flashes pass protection strength, run blocking weakness

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Robert Congel

Redshirt senior offensive lineman Robert Congel during the season opener against Tulane on Sep. 4.

OU battled Tulane in a surprise home opener and claimed a 40-35 victory. Here are our highlights from the game:

Filmed and edited by Justin Jayne

Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley surprised reporters on Sept. 1 when he announced sophomore Andrew Raym and redshirt senior Robert Congel were still battling for starting center duties.

This season, the Sooners are replacing three-year starting center Creed Humphrey, a two-time Big 12 Offensive Lineman of the Year who was drafted by Kansas City in April. Raym, formerly the No. 1 2020 recruit in Oklahoma, per Rivals, was thought to be Humphrey’s successor despite offseason competition with Congel, Ian McIver and Nate Anderson. He received first-team snaps most of 2021 spring practice and started OU’s spring game while offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh raved about his potential.

So, it was additionally surprising to see Congel, an offseason transfer from Arizona, start and play most of the snaps at center in Oklahoma’s 40-35 season-opening win over Tulane on Saturday. Meanwhile, Raym played sparingly in the second half and Riley revealed afterward that Raym missed practice time with a medical issue, and probably shouldn’t have played at all.

Bedenbaugh said during spring practice Raym would have contributed more last fall if not for COVID-19-related issues. Now, another setback has opened the door for Congel, who started all five of Arizona’s games last fall at right guard, to command the center spot and stabilize an adjusting OU offensive line.

“I kind of had an idea the week going into the game that I was gonna get the start, which was an awesome moment for me to get out there and play in front of The Palace. You dream about that kind of stuff,” Congel said Wednesday. “I think the competition was really tough. Raym’s a fantastic player, and I think (our competition) will keep going moving forward, but it’ll be up to the coaches and all I can control is how I perform.”

Congel came to OU partially because of his family’s friendship with former Sooners safety Scott Case and his relationship with Oklahoma running backs coach DeMarco Murray, who previously coached running backs at Arizona. Congel’s with his third school in five seasons after initially walking on at Texas A&M in 2017, but said during spring practice he couldn’t pass up the chance to play for Bedenbaugh. He got his wish in his Sooners debut on Saturday.

“I think it went pretty well for me,” Congel said of his performance against Tulane. “Obviously, there’s always room to improve, so I still have some stuff I gotta clean up, but I think it went pretty well. From the jump (strength coach Bennie Wylie) and his whole staff (helped me) physically. I’ve never felt as strong and as fast as I’m feeling.

"And I’d say just having Coach Bedenbaugh as a coach, he really helps with the mental aspect of the game, as well as the techniques and stuff, but I feel like I’ve improved a lot. I’ve learned the game a lot more and that’s really helped me out on the field.”

Around Congel, right tackle Tyrese Robinson, right guard Chris Murray, left guard Marquis Hayes and left tackle Anton Harrison started for the Sooners against Tulane. Few deficiencies were apparent, save for three false starts — two by Murray — on OU’s first scoring drive. Riley said Congel, Robinson and, despite his mishaps, Murray, played the best of the bunch.

The group allowed only one sack and no quarterback hurries, keeping the pocket clean for redshirt sophomore quarterback Spencer Rattler. Riley praised the group afterward for its “excellent” pass protection against the Green Wave. Junior tight end Austin Stogner, who benefits from pass protection as a receiver and provides blocking for runners, also took notice.

“If you’ve got the protection up front, you can do some stuff with the routes that maybe you wouldn’t do if you see there's a blitz coming (and) you speed up and find an (opening). But if you’ve got good protection, you can kind of work that route, get into the route you want,” said Stogner, who made three catches for 30 yards against Tulane. “(Pass protection is) a huge part of the game and we’ll only continue to get better.”

After one game, the Oklahoma o-line’s most glaring weakness is run blocking. Between running backs Kennedy Brooks and Eric Gray, Rattler and freshman backup quarterback Caleb Williams, the Sooners averaged just 3.3 yards per carry against the Green Wave.

In 2020, OU averaged less than that in only two games while averaging four yards per carry as a team. Though it’s a small sample size, OU ranks No. 91 among FBS schools in yards per carry following week one of the 2021 season, partially due to lackluster blocking.

“We're still trying to find that best five, and it wouldn't shock me if that doesn't evolve, because we do have some good players that are right there that I think are going to push as this year goes on,” Riley said. “We’ll see if that same starting five is kind of what it ends up being.”

Redshirt senior Erik Swenson, who started at left tackle last season and played some right guard snaps against Tulane, was among potential contributors Riley mentioned. So was junior Wanya Morris, an offseason transfer from Tennessee who many expected to start at left tackle. Morris has since moved to right tackle and did not play last Saturday, but Riley said he’s “on the edge” of being “in the game no matter what.”

Regardless of how the rotations shake out, Congel believes his group is poised for improvement.

“All of us trust each other, and when we’re out there we’re confident in what we’re doing,” Congel said. “It’s a great group of guys and I really, really think this is a special group. … I think obviously we didn’t run it as well as we could have (against Tulane), but I think we have so much potential to be a great offensive line running the ball, and I think we’ll get there.”

Sports editor

Mason Young is the OU Daily's sports editor and covers OU football. He was previously assistant sports editor and has covered women's gym, wrestling and former Sooners in the NFL. Email Mason at and follow him on Twitter @Mason_Young_0

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