One of Lincoln Riley’s core offensive philosophies is maximizing the skills of his players by catering his offenses to what they do best.
When Riley was hired as Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator in 2015, legendary OU coach Bob Stoops said the following in a press release.
“Lincoln brings a fresh perspective to our program that I believe will help us maximize our potential offensively,” Stoops said. “He owns a consistent track record of implementing innovative offensive concepts during his career and has a history of developing productive offensive players.”
6 years and 2 Heisman trophy winning quarterbacks, along with 1 finalist, later and almost everything Stoops said has manifested itself in Norman, OK.
The Sooners offense under Lincoln Riley has produced some of the top offenses in the nation, frequently ranking at the top or near the top in terms of passer efficiency rating.
In Riley’s 1st year as head coach at OU (2017), Baker Mayfield ranked 1st in the nation in passer efficiency rating (198.9) and the OU offense ranked number 3 in the nation. Mayfield also set the all-time FBS record (at the time) for yards per pass attempt with 11.5. Mayfield won the Heisman trophy and was drafted first overall in the 2018 NFL draft.
In Riley’s second year as head coach at OU (2018), Kyler Murray broke Mayfield’s record for passer efficiency rating (199.2) and yards per pass attempt with 11.6 (most ever). The OU offense ranked number 1 in the nation. Murray won the Heisman trophy and was drafted first overall in the 2019 NFL draft.
The focus of this article takes shape in the form of Riley’s 3rd year as head coach at OU.
Jalen Hurts transferred from Alabama to the University of Oklahoma for his senior season and in Lincoln Riley’s offense, he completely transformed his game.
Hurts ranked second in the nation in passer efficiency rating behind Joe Burrow with a 191.2 rating and led the nation in passing yards per attempt for the 2019 season with 11.3.
Hurts would go on to finish second in the Heisman voting and as we all know would be drafted in the 2nd round of the 2020 NFL draft by the Eagles.
But what’s truly impressive is exactly how Riley has managed to have the level of offensive success at OU with 3 different styles of quarterbacks the last few seasons.
Sure, schematically Riley’s success has come in his form of the Air Raid offense which predominantly uses the running, play action, and RPO game to manufacture its passing game.
But the overarching philosophy of sorts has been his propensity for structuring his offense to the talents and skillsets of his quarterbacks. Riley focuses on getting the ball into his playmakers hands quickly and in space.
Do those offensive principles sound similar to a certain rookie head coach?
“The offensive philosophy, again, we’re going to be multiple,” Nick Sirianni said over a Zoom meeting in his introductory press conference.
“We can attack multiple ways. I’ll just use the example here from Indianapolis. We had Andrew Luck as our quarterback. That followed up with Jacoby Brissett as our quarterback then Philip Rivers as our quarterback. Those three teams looked different. They were all different in their own ways of how we attacked defenses and how we played the game.”
Nick Sirianni hasn’t coached a down in the NFL as a head coach. However, from hearing him speak, we know a few things.
- His offense will be structured around the skill-sets of his players
- The offense will seek out and attack mis-matches
- The ball will be in the hands of playmakers
Even if Sirianni and Riley’s offensive schemes are different (Air Raid vs. West Coast), the overall philosophical values are eerily similar and this bodes very well for Jalen Hurts.
In an offense that was tailored to his strengths as a quarterback, i.e. being allowed to use his legs and utilizing quick throws in the passing game, Hurts lit up Big 12 defenses to the tune of 3,851 yards passing (career high), 32 touchdowns, and just eight interceptions.
Hurts played in an offense at Alabama that had an established system which had led to sustained success at the collegiate level. Essentially, all Hurts had to do was manage the game and keep the car on the road. In a sense, the system forced Hurts to adapt to it, rather than the system adapting to the player’s skillset.
|Year||University of Alabama Number of Rushing Attempts|
|2016||639 (8th in the Nation) (2nd in SEC)|
|2017||612 (15th in the Nation) (4th in SEC)|
|2018||571 (18th in the Nation) (1st in SEC)|
In his 3 seasons at Alabama, Hurts averaged 8.8 yards per pass attempt. He wasn’t relied on to push the ball down the field and put up flashy passing numbers and then when he was called upon, he struggled. Which is the reason he spent his senior season in Norman, OK.
Hurts earned the label of a thrower, rather than a pure passer and in a system that wasn’t reliant upon his arm to beat teams, it’s somewhat understandable.
Conversely, under Riley, Hurts appeared calmer and more poised as a passer. Hurts was allowed to play free and loose in Riley’s system. The offensive concepts opened up things for him and that’s exactly what Riley intended for when Hurts made the decision to transfer to Oklahoma.
“We get the guys that are competing for (quarterback) and we teach them the base things. Understanding our base offense, concepts, fundamentals and then once we make a decision on who the starter will be, we’ll tailor it at that point and for the rest of the offense too — what that begins to look like as far as personnel,” Riley said on how the Oklahoma offense would change with Hurts at QB (The Dallas Morning News).
“But right now it’s teaching them the base things and then let’s make the right decisions personnel-wise and then let’s tailor it to that group,” Riley continued.
Nick Sirianni echoes similar offensive principles.
“I think that’s the sign of a good coach, that you’re going to change based off of your personnel, right? We have a certain personnel (group) in place. We’re going to figure out what they can do well and what their strengths are, and we’re going to play to their strengths and we are going to try to keep them out of situations that they don’t excel well at,” Sirianni said.
“It’s an ever-changing offensive philosophy. Sure, we have our core plays in place that we want to do, that we want to be good at, because that’s what we do. But a lot of it is going to depend on our personnel and utilizing our personnel to their strengths and their weaknesses.”
When your offense is structured towards the skills of your players it allows for players to play free and not have to overthink responsibilities on the field.
In every sport there are coaches who implore a sort of, ‘system over players’ form of thinking or coaches who value their scheme over talent (Cough Cough, Chip Kelly), but the true key is seen in seeking out player strengths and tailoring your scheme to those strengths.
In his 3 years at Alabama, Hurts had 4 different offensive coordinators. On one hand, being able to being around so many offensive minds could allow a player take pieces from each coach and apply them to their game. However, the other side of it comes when you’re tasked with learning (and playing in) so many different systems and styles it could cloud a quarterback’s thinking.
According to Brian Baldinger, in a recent interview with JAKIB Media Sports, Jalen Hurts has said the only coach who “ever coached him to make him better was Lincoln Riley.”
Whether it was Hurts’ improved throwing mechanics, footwork in the pocket, or consistency as a passer, he’s shown the propensity for improving his play. Playing in an offense catered to his skills made him that much better. And now he’s tasked with elevating his play and improving on the deficiencies in his game (running too early, decision making as a passer, etc.) once again, this time at the NFL level.
The two clips below demonstrate a small taste of the development Hurts displayed as a passer from his freshman year at Alabama to his senior year at Oklahoma.
It was a combination of Hurts identifying and working on things he needed to improve on, the offense being catered to his skillset, and a bevy of different experiences that allowed him to elevate his game and lead the Sooners to the Big 12 title.
Like Riley, Sirianni has structured offenses for 3 different quarterbacks and as he said, the teams looked different for each. Sure, up to this point it’s all words but truly tailoring your offense towards the skills of your players (most importantly the QB) sets everyone up for success.
Nick Sirianni and Jalen Hurts are joined at the hip (at least for this season). The team will go as far as those two take them. Ultimately, it’s on Hurts to prove himself and show that he can be the player the Eagles organization hopes he can, but it’s on Sirianni (and his entire offensive staff) to place him in situations conducive for success.
Cover Image Credit: AP/Matt Slocum, Pool