Co-offensive coordinators Josh Heupel and Jay Norvell, along with members of the Sooner offense, addressed the media in advance of OU's Sugar Bowl matchup vs. Alabama.
COACH HEUPEL: Appreciate the opportunity to be here. Obviously our staff and players are excited to be in this game, excited about the opportunity to play a great opponent, and have really had a good start to the trip so far.
COACH NORVELL: Just echoing Josh: It's been a great experience for our players so far. It's a fabulous opportunity to be here in the Sugar Bowl and obviously play Alabama. And I think everybody on our side is excited and looking forward to it.
Q. Jay, can you talk about Saunders and the run he's on with his punt returns; three straight games, he's had huge returns for you that picked you up, and how important would it be to get a similar return against Alabama?
COACH NORVELL: Jalen is a very talented guy. Early in the season I remember bringing him aside and just really saying: Hey, man, it's about time for you to really step up. He's got so much talent and ability and he's capable of getting on a roll like that. We kind of felt like he owed us some big plays, and he really delivered the last month of the season. But it's like any game, it's like any opponent: He's an offensive weapon whether he's in the kicking game or on offense. And he's capable of breaking big plays. And so that's an important part of this game, how we play on special teams, and our returns that gotta give us an opportunity offensively to put us in great field position for points. And so his role is really critical that way. Anytime he gets the ball, he's a threat. And especially on punt returns, the last three games, the plays he's made have been very big for us.
Q. Both of you, can you talk about how the dual coordinator thing works, who does what, who's in the press box, who calls the plays and who decides when you disagree?
COACH HEUPEL: More times we agree than disagree, to start off. But I'm up in the press box, I'm calling it. We work together throughout the course of the week. Through a normal down game plan situations, our entire offensive staff is there working through the kinks and the defensive looks and trying to give our kids the best opportunity to be successful. And then obviously we're trying to put the best schemes in to work against the personnel that we're seeing as well.
COACH NORVELL: I mean, we've worked very good together before we were named these positions, and it's continued on. We think alike in a lot of different ways. And I think it's my job just to remind Josh of things we talked about, ways that we want to attack people. Throughout the course of preparation, you talk about a lot of different things, and it's hard to keep it on track sometimes. But I'm like a reminder, I'm just poking at him saying: Man, remember when we talked about this. And it works well. I've had a chance to work on a lot of different staffs with a lot of different people, and this is by far the best working situation that I've ever been a part of. And so I really appreciate working with Josh and Coach Stoops and all of our coaches.
Q. I'm curious, you guys lose two key pieces in Adam Shead and Tyrus Thompson late in the season, but you do get the Oklahoma State game to kind of look at what you've got there. I'm curious how much it's helped having this time when you have such a major plan that you have to put together to piece together a competent offensive line here late for a big game?
COACH HEUPEL: We've battled through some injuries and adversity throughout the entire year. We lose Trey Millard in the middle portion of the year, too. That's obviously a huge component of who we were up until we lost him. That dramatically changed us. The preparation time that we have going into the Bowl game certainly is going to help us with the two guys that we lose up front. Their ability to communicate, %u2011%u2011 and I'm talking about the entire offensive line as a unit %u2011%u2011 their ability to communicate, be on the same page, and work cohesively, especially in your pass protection schemes, being able to bump off twists, is going to be critical in this football game. So a couple extra weeks, the extra practices are certainly going to help us with a couple of those guys being gone.
Q. Josh, could you talk about, you had 10 or 12 days you could work with your quarterbacks and continue the development. Many times throughout history you've been at Oklahoma you've talked about those two weeks are really important, even when you had really good quarterbacks, well%u2011established. So what did you see out of your quarterbacks during those 10 to 12 days?
COACH HEUPEL: First couple of practices, get an opportunity to work a couple of your young guys you really haven't had a chance to see, been on the scout team. But after that, you know, the three guys that you saw playing in the last ballgame have continued to grow, continued to get better, fundamentally, understanding our schemes. You get into game plan preparation. They get a little bit of extra time with your time at home in preparation for Alabama to see some of the schemes we'll probably see here in a couple of days, and so hopefully they've got a great understanding of where they're going with the football, where their hots are, our protection scheme, how to change them and get us in the right place.
Q. In deciding not to name a starter at quarterback, is that more to keep Alabama guessing or is that more internal to keep the competition among the quarterbacks crisp?
COACH HEUPEL: We've been this way throughout the entire year. It's to keep %u2011%u2011 our kids continue to push and find out who is going to practice the best, that typically tells you who is going to play the best. So when we get towards the end of the week that's when we'll know who our guy's going to be.
Q. Josh, wanted to know from you how influential Bill Bedenbaugh has been to the run game success this year. He seems to have a reputation for getting those running games going, especially with the stone read that you guys have gone to this season?
COACH HEUPEL: I think he's been instrumental in not just a run scheme but our ability with our front five guys and our tight ends included, just how far we've come fundamentally, our ability to execute. Their communication is a lot better than it was a year ago. And schematically obviously he's brought a lot to what we're doing. I think what we're doing schematically is a little bit different than any of us in the offensive staff room have really been in the last four or five, six, seven years. We've been growing with it together as a unit, and as a staff and really like the direction that we're heading in with it.
Q. Josh, like you said, leading up to this you keep Alabama guessing a little bit. How much fun is this as a coordinator to be able to do something you might not do during the regular season where you don't have quite as much time to prepare?
COACH HEUPEL: When you refer to that, you mean %u2011%u2011
Q. The different quarterbacks?
COACH HEUPEL: Working three different quarterbacks. We ended up working three quarterbacks in the Oklahoma State game. So we've played them all. They have all prepared well. Can they all play better at times? Yeah, certainly. But we're excited about the group we've got, the way they've competed, the way they've pushed each other, and then ultimately whoever is the guy needs to go out and perform well here in a couple days to give ourselves a chance to win.
Q. Just wanted to get both of your opinion on when you turn the film on, C.J. Mosley, what kind of impact does he have on Alabama's defense and what kind of challenge does he present?
COACH NORVELL: He's a fabulous, fabulous player. I had a chance to coach in the NFL and played against Ray Lewis, and he's similar in his ability to communicate, his sense, his football senses, the way he sees the field, gets everybody lined up. He's a really good football player and as good a linebacker as we've seen this year, and we've gotta do a great job of understanding where he's at and making sure we block him. It's important that we cover him up and we don't let him be a factor more than he's going to be. And obviously as Josh mentioned, we want to run the football. That's where our success has been. So being able to handle him and the people up front will be critical for our success. But I just %u2011%u2011 he's a complete football player and that's one thing, when we played Ray Lewis when I was in National Football League, I was just amazed where he always seemed to be in the right position all the time. That's the way Mosley is. He has played that way consistently. And it's a real credit to him and that defense and leading the defense the way he handles himself.
COACH HEUPEL: The guy has the ability to dominate a football game. And you better make sure you have a hat on him in the run game and know where he's at.
Q. Josh, it's been a question all season, but just the importance of a quick start against Alabama on Thursday night?
COACH HEUPEL: Critical in this football game that we come out, we execute early, we move the football. We gotta have the ability to gain field position in this football game. We need to score points when we're down in the red zone. Can't kick field goals as well. They're extremely tough to get touchdowns on in the red zone, great red zone defense. But for us to start fast, we need to execute. When we've done that early in the ballgame, we've played well early. When we haven't, we've struggled. So in this football game it obviously would help us to get off to a great start.
Q. Guys, Alabama's been the preeminent program in college football the last five years. Do you feel like this game could show, serve as a benchmark to how close this program is to winning a National Championship or being a National Championship type team?
COACH NORVELL: You know, I think we get measured every week. I mean, at Oklahoma, every game that we play is a measurement. And we have to go out and play at a certain standard. Obviously when you're playing a two%u2011time national champion, you've got to play your best football. And we understand that. We're excited about the opportunity. Is it any more of a benchmark than any other game? Probably, because they are the two%u2011time defending national champion. So we're excited. They're obviously the program the last five years that has set the bar in college football. And I think it's exciting to get a chance to do that. We're very proud of our history at Oklahoma, and we take that into this game. I don't think there's any question about that. So we're looking forward to the challenge and they are a great challenge and a tremendously well%u2011coached football team and very talented. I think our guys have had a very level set mindset the last month of the season and it's a football game, that's how we're approaching it. We're just going to go play it.
Q. Jay, could you talk about, their secondary's really good with an All%u2011American and looks like three other guys are going to play in the league. Some day your wide receiver corps has really made a lot of plays as of late. Can you talk about the matchup within the matchup in the game?
COACH NORVELL: I think they're very talented, well coached. I think they've been well schooled not to give up big plays, and they don't get out of position very often. And so we're going to have to do a great job of attacking them technique%u2011wise and taking advantage of opportunities when they come. That's the one thing that you see when you watch a season's worth of film on a team is that they just don't get out of position very often. So you are going to have to go out and earn plays, can't expect them to be out of position and give you anything. So that's the mindset our guys have to take. We have to be very focused, very exact in what we're doing and we have to go after the ball in this game.
Q. Early in the season you seemed pretty set that you wanted to have a quarterback and move forward with him, everybody asked if you could play two, didn't really seem to enjoy looking at that possibility. But I'm curious, after going through what you went through, do you feel like you're more flexible than you thought you could be as a coordinator, and did maybe you grow more as a coordinator going through what you went through this year?
COACH HEUPEL: I think at the beginning of the year you have a competition. You feel like one of those guys is going to step ahead and become the guy. We thought we had the guy in Trevor. Trevor gets dinged, injured. Blake comes in, plays well. He gets dinged up. Trevor goes in and continues to compete and plays well. For four years we had Landry that didn't get hurt in a single ballgame. And really we hadn't had a quarterback injured until you go back early in Coach Stoops' era in 2002, 2003, I guess Sam as well in 2009. Forgot about that one. But are they different? Yeah, they're different a little bit. And when I'm saying "they" I'm talking about Trevor and Blake. But at the same time both those guys have competed hard. Our players believe in both of those guys, whoever the guy is at quarterback, they really believe and have a lot of confidence in those guys that they're going to go out play at a high level. For me personally, I've enjoyed it because there's been great competition inside the room. I truly enjoy getting an opportunity to work with these guys every single day because of the way they come in, they're focused in the meeting room, the way they prepare during the course of the week, and at the end of the day they really do pull for one another. So it's been a lot of fun, and I think for us as a staff, you know, it's been fun in the way that we've been able to change throughout the course of the season, with all the injuries that we've had and all the different personnel changes that we've had, just scratching and clawing and finding a way to continue to win ball games.
Oklahoma Quarterback Blake Bell
(On preparing for the Alabama defense) “I think anytime you’re an offensive player, a quarterback, you’re obviously looking at film at what other teams do well, and some things they do not so well. I think the coaches are giving us a great game plan. We just have to go out there and execute.”
(On Alabama’s defense) “Well, first of all, give them credit. They have an outstanding defense, from their line to their secondary. There are always things you can pinpoint on their defense, and go out and attack them.”
(On competing against Alabama) “If you’re playing a team like Alabama, who’s been so good these last couple of years, and being an athlete, you like the challenge. You like the opportunity to go out there and play one of the best teams in the country.”
(On taking preparation week-to-week, and waiting patiently for the game) “I think we’ve been through so much stuff all year that it’s not much to us guys. We’re out there competing and battling every day. All we can do is do that and try to get better each practice. Whatever happens, happens. We’ll all be ready when we get our number called.”
(On what he’s seen from Alabama’s defense on film) “I’d say speed in the secondary, and speed on the overall defense. They have some big guys up front and I’ve actually seen them run someone down, maybe a running back or someone like that. I would definitely say the key to their defense is speed. Seeing their guys fly around is kind of what we’ve seen on film.”
Oklahoma Running Back Brennan Clay
(On Alabama being the preeminent program for the past five years and feeling this game can serve as a bench mark for where this program is in terms of winning a national title again) “I think it can most definitely do that for us. Coach Saban does a great job down there with Alabama. They have a dominant run game and do what they can with it. If we come out with a victory, it definitely puts us at a high benchmark – that we are definitely a national championship caliber team. They’ve [Alabama] done a great job, so it should be a good game.”
(On first impressions of the Alabama defense) “They are big up front. I like playing defenses like that though. We played Notre Dame and they are big up front as well. So, you get through those cracks and you’re good to go. It’s going to be exciting; Alabama’s defense is aggressive. They get to the ball. It’s going to be a real competitive and tough game.”
(On noticing Alabama’s team speed on tape, more than other teams previously faced) “I wouldn’t say they are speedsters, so much. I mean they get to the ball, but they gang tackle very well. They rip the ball out and that’s how they get their turnovers and get the possessions back to them.”
(On Oklahoma not running the ball well and how tough it will be against Alabama) “It’s going to be tough for any team. We have to be able to establish the running game and open up the doors for Trevor or Blake, whoever coach decides for the starter. We need to be able to establish our run game and that will allow us to take some shots down the field, which will get our offense going.”
(On how tough Alabama’s defensive line is) “The D-line is big and physical. They do a great job of disrupting the quarterback and getting into the backfield. Against the run game they are just big run stoppers. We need to be able to fill those voids and those gaps. We just have to be able to move the ball and win the line of scrimmage and we will be alright.”
(On this game being physical and look forwarding to games like this) “I love it. Being able to go against a great defense like this it’s going to be fun. I am excited for the challenge, we all are. Hopefully, we don’t take too many hits and get to the end zone quicker. The quicker the better.”
Oklahoma Offensive Lineman Gabe Ikard
(On playing against CJ Mosley) “He’s probably one of the most explosive guys we’ve seen on tape, very talented, always in the right spot and very physical. He’s going to be a first round guy, obviously; so, he’s one of those players where you always have to know where he’s at and you’ve got to account for him, and you have to match his physicality because he’s an extremely physical player. ”
(On how quarterback indecision affected offense) “With the uncertainty at the start of the season, a lot of responsibility was on my shoulders making sure that everybody stayed confident and stayed together, and let the quarterbacks work out their issues together. Both Trevor and Blake have done a great job at accepting roles and both of them are very vocal, much more vocal throughout the season. We realize that both of them can play and both are extremely talented. We look to them for leadership and they’ve both done a great job at accepting that role and embracing it.”
(On what this game means for the program) “As a senior guy going out, I want to do what’s best for the program and winning this game would be big for the program. It shows you that we’re still one of the premier, top five programs in the country. We win 10 games every year and people still feel that we’ve fallen off so it will be big for recruiting, big for the program, and big for the fan base.”
(On offensive line shuffling) “The way I see it is you’ve got to be ready to play with what you’ve got. It’s important for us to be ready to go either way. We’ve got talented guys up front that will be ready to play.”
(On playing in a Stoops/Saban) “I realize that this is going to be a cool experience. Oklahoma and Alabama are two of the most storied schools with the awards and national championships, so we’re really excited for this game. It’s a great opportunity to put two of the best programs in the country together and two of the best coaches; but, when it comes down to it, it’s between the players. We’re excited for the matchup; they’ve been at the pinnacle of college football for a while and it’s an opportunity we’ve wanted early in the year, and now that we have it – it’s time to go out there and execute well."
Oklahoma Quarterback Trevor Knight
(On getting used to the dual-quarterback system) “It’s something everybody has to get used to, playing two quarterbacks. We have continued to help each other grow and we’ve always been ready to play. The Oklahoma State game for instance, all three of us had to play. It’s just about coming into each game ready to be the guy that day. You can either butt heads or come together and make each other better, and I feel like we’ve come together this year. As a competitor of course you want to go out and be the guy, but we’ve done a great job of picking each other up all year.”
(On how quarterback Blake Bell has helped him) “He pushes me in practice. When he’s in there, I’m happy for him. When he’s doing well it pushes me harder to get back on top, and vice-versa.”
(On what he sees in Alabama’s defense) “They have a great defense; they’ve proven that over the last three years or so. We have to do our jobs and be technically sound, not make mistakes and take care of the ball. We have to be big on first and second downs. They’re physical. They play real physical and they don’t make a lot of mistakes. They play very sound and get after it.”
(On how Oklahoma will run the ball against Alabama’s defense) “Like I said we just have to be technically sound. We have to match up on first and second down, get some good yards. We have to make our zone read work. We have to make the right reads. We absolutely have to be in third-and-manageable situations.”
(On if practicing against the Oklahoma defense has helped in preparation) “Absolutely. Our defense has done a great job all year, so we’ve gone up against a great defense all season. I think we are going to be well prepared.”
(On if he needs to locate Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley on every play to have success) “Absolutely. He’s a great player, one of the best in the nation in my opinion. He’s going to be tough to go against, but we have to do our job.”
Oklahoma Wide Receiver Jalen Saunders
(On chances for another successful punt return against Alabama) “I feel like I have another good return in me. I am very excited about the opportunity to come out and play against Alabama, they are a great team.”
(On conversation with Jay Norvell [co-offensive coordinator] about being a major playmaker) “I definitely remember the conversation. I just wanted Jay to know that I would do everything in my power to have a great senior year. I started paying closer attention to the game, watching film by myself more often, and getting in extra practice – which really contributed to my success this year. I made sure I focused on everything the coaches told me and I am really thankful for the opportunity they gave me.”
(On the key to his successful punt returns) “Of course, I have great group of ten guys out there blocking for me. I also have smartest coaches that come up with creative formations for the games, and also help us focus on our speed and moves.”
(On what he thinks of when he hears the name, Nick Saban) “I think of championships. He has a big name in football. He wins championships and produces great players. I have a lot of respect for him.”
(On the historical background for these two programs meeting up) “We don’t meet up that often. This is only our fifth time meeting up in program history. We are real excited about this opportunity. You don’t play against Nick Saban every game.”
(On Alabama’s physical defense) “They definitely have a very physical defense. We expect a physical game from them and I believe it will be a great matchup.”
(On the national respect of the SEC) “I don’t get tired of hearing it, they deserve respect; but, I am definitely excited about the opportunity to challenge their name.”