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Sooners Set for Spring Ball
March 05, 2014

Oklahoma displayed a penchant for resiliency in 2013, overcoming numerous hurdles to finish the season with an 11-2 record, a Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama and a No. 6 ranking in the final AP Poll. Whether it meant playing with inexperienced performers at key positions, reshaping the club’s defensive scheme or winning key conference games under inhospitable weather conditions on the road, the Sooners regularly rose to the occasion, finishing the season with a four-game victory streak.

Along the way, head coach Bob Stoops surpassed Barry Switzer for the most victories in school history. Stoops also became the only man to guide his squad to victories in every BCS bowl game, including the BCS National Championship Game. With a host of underclassmen gaining invaluable experience a year ago, expectations are once again high in Norman as the Sooners continue preparations for the 2014 season.  

With quarterbacks Trevor Knight and Blake Bell serving as starting signal callers for the Sooners in 2013, Oklahoma utilized a dynamic mix of running, passing and ingenuity on offense a year ago. A record-setting performance by Knight and the OU offense in the Sugar Bowl put an exclamation point on the season. Junior wide receiver Sterling Shepard is the most experienced returning skill player on offense, but competition will be heated for other key roles on offense, particularly at running back.

While the Sooners seek to build on the offensive diversity they established in 2013, there may be just as much enthusiasm for the potential of the Oklahoma defense in 2014. The move to a “30” front proved fortuitous last season as OU made substantial defensive strides. The Sooners displayed physicality and speed, while forcing turnovers putting pressure on the passer and dramatically improving their ability to stop the run and get off the field on third down.

Consensus All-Big 12 First Team defensive end Charles Tapper and All-Big 12 Second Team linebacker Eric Striker formed a disruptive duo, combining for 12.0 sacks, 20.0 TFL and 15.0 QB hurries. Linebacker Dominique Alexander was the Big 12’s Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2013, earning Freshman All-America honors after ranking second on the squad with 80 tackles. In the secondary, cornerback Zack Sanchez also earned Freshman All-America accolades. The club’s leading tackler, junior linebacker Frank Shannon (92 tackles), also returns in 2014.

Special teams have been source of strength of for years under Stoops. Don’t expect that to change in 2014. Senior kicker Michael Hunnicutt is the second-leading scorer in Oklahoma history, needing 40 points to overtake DeMarco Murrary (390) for that distinction. Hunnicutt set an OU single-season record with 24 made FGs in 2013 and should be a leading candidate for the Lou Groza Award in 2014. Punter Jed Barnett also returns after averaging 41.7 yards per punt last season. Competition will abound in the return game as the Sooners will seek candidates to replace the likes of Jalen Saunders, Roy Finch and Brennan Clay.

The Sooners will face a challenging schedule, with four of the season’s first six contests being played away from Norman. Oklahoma hosts Tennessee on Sept. 13 followed by road contests at West Virginia and TCU before the annual AT&T Red River Rivalry vs. Texas in Dallas on Oct. 11. The 2014 season will also usher in the advent of the four-team College Football Playoff. If Oklahoma hopes to be in contention for one of those coveted spots, a strong first-half showing would set the Sooners up to finish the year with four of their final six Big 12 games at home.


THE OFFENSE


Running Backs
Oklahoma rejuvenated its running game in 2013, averaging 223.9 ypg to rank second in the Big 12 as OU put up its best ground numbers since 1991. An increased emphasis on the quarterback run game played a significant part in that increase with Knight and Bell combining for 835 yards, but finding running backs capable of carry the load will be high on the Sooners’ spring “to-do list.” Keith Ford averaged 5.8 yards per carry in limited action, while Alex Ross is the only other returning OU running back owning any game experience on offense. Sophomore David Smith should also get a long look in the spring before the arrival of highly-touted signees Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine for fall camp.

The versatile Trey Millard has graduated, but OU does own a prototypical lead blocker in fullback Aaron Ripkowski. The former walk-on earned a scholarship for his stellar play on special teams in 2012 and took on a larger role in 2013 when Millard was lost to a season-ending knee injury.

Offensive Line
If the Sooners seek to rack up opulent numbers in the ground game again in 2014, upholding the standard OU set on the offensive front a year ago is imperative. Replacing All-America center Gabe Ikard is no easy task. Ikard started 50 games during his four-year career, including 32 games at center. However, junior Ty Darlington appears poised for the task. Darlington performed admirably in a start in place of an ailing Ikard against Baylor in 2012 and possesses similar profile in many respects.

Perhaps one of the most unheralded members of the Sooners’ offensive front in 2013 was tackle Daryl Williams. Williams started the first 12 games of the year at right tackle before injuries necessitated him shifting to left tackle for the Sugar Bowl. Williams returns for his final campaign along with fellow senior tackle, Tyrus Thompson. Thompson opened the initial 11 games of the 2013 season at left tackle before being sidelined for the final two games of the year. Oklahoma has a number of young players who will compete for time at tackle. The only member of that group who has seen any significant time is junior Derek Farniok, but others including senior Josiah St. John could make a push for action.

OU owns an abundance of depth at the guard post. Senior Adam Shead owns 28 career starts at left guard, including 10 contests in 2013. Junior Nila Kasitati can work at either guard position, opening seven games at right guard a year ago. Dionte Savage, J.P. Hughes, Tony Feo and Kyle Marrs should get plenty of spring reps. Tyler Evans returns after missing the last two years with knee injuries.

Receivers & Tight Ends
For OU fans who appreciate high-octane offense, the Sooners’ receiving corps appears poised to keep the putting up gaudy numbers. Sterling Shepard has accumulated 96 catches for 1,224 yards (12.8 avg.) with 10 touchdowns in his first two seasons. Should he maintain that pace the next two years, he would rank among the top five pass catchers in Oklahoma history in terms of both career receptions and yards.

Fellow junior Durron Neal could solidify his grip on another of the club’s receiver spots with a strong spring. However, a deep field of talented, yet inexperienced competitors will vie for reps during spring ball. Sophomore Derrick Woods is the eldest of that group that includes Dannon Cavil, Jordan Smallwood and K.J. Young, who all redshirted as true freshman.

The tight end position will undoubtedly draw increased interest in the spring with former quarterback Blake Bell working as a pass catcher instead of a pass thrower in spring drills. As Bell works to acclimate himself to a new offensive role, an intriguing battle appears ready to unfold. Sophomores Tyler McNamara and Connor Knight both own the requisite size for the position as does JUCO transfer, Isaac Ijalana, who is already on campus and will participate in spring drills. 

Quarterbacks
Oklahoma has won eight Big 12 titles with six different starting signal callers during the Stoops era. The Sooners will seek their ninth Big 12 crown with No. 9 Trevor Knight manning the quarterback position. Knight displayed his full package of skills in a 45-31 Sugar Bowl win against Alabama. He tied a Sugar Bowl record with four TD passes, an OU bowl record, while throwing for a career-high 348 yards against Alabama’s vaunted defense.

The San Antonio native proved adept at making plenty of plays with his feet in 2013, as well. He ranked third on the squad with 485 rushing yards, including 18 runs of 10+ yards and a 6.6 yards-per-carry average that ranked third in the Big 12.

One of the more intriguing storylines of spring will be the battle for the backup role between Cody Thomas and Justice Hansen. The strong-armed Thomas ran OU’s scout team a year ago and will split his time between football and his role as a reserve outfielder on the Oklahoma baseball squad. Hansen seeks to establish himself as the latest in a long lineage of Oklahoma natives to excel as signal callers for the Sooners. A product of Santa Fe High School in Edmund, Okla., Hansen is an early enrollee. Walk-on Baker Mayfield isn’t eligible to play in 2014 after transferring from Texas Tech, where he saw duty in eight games in 2013.

Bottom Line
The Sooners return numerous key components of an offense that averaged 41.8 ppg and converted 41.7 percent of its third-down opportunities in its four-game winning streak to conclude the 2013 campaign. However, carrying over such gaudy numbers will call for skill players at running back, receiver and tight end to emerge during the spring. Perhaps the most important offensive stat for OU a year ago was its +9 turnover differential (25 takes/16 gives). Whether it’s at quarterback or any other position, you’ll be guaranteed sound decision making and ball security will be stressed by Bob Stoops and his coaching staff.

Oklahoma is seeking to register back-to-back seasons with 11 or more victories for the first time since doing in three consecutive years from 2006-08. The Sooners put a premium on getting more physical at the point of attack a year ago and it paid off. The continued development of OU’s youthful skill positions could also tell the story of the Sooners. Oklahoma’s history of consistent offensive production under Stoops indicates that the scoreboard and stat sheet could again light up in 2014.  


THE DEFENSE


The Sooners returned to their dominant defensive ways in 2013, leading the Big 12 in total defense (350.2 ypg) for the first time since 2006. Anyone needing a refresher course on type of tenacious defense that OU can orchestrate, look no further than the 2013 Sooners. Oklahoma led the Big 12 in pass defense (212.5 ypg), while ranking second in both scoring (22.1 ppg) and rushing defense (137.6 ypg).

The Sooners registered dramatic improvements in 10 major defensive categories. Oklahoma regularly created timely turnovers as OU boasted 24 takeaways (up eight from 2012), while leading the Big 12 and tying for 10th in the nation by permitting only 60 third-down conversions. Oklahoma’s defense frequently found ways to get off the field, permitting a Big 12-low 17.9 first downs per game. Meanwhile, a potent pass rush registered 33.0 sacks, 9.0 more than the previous year.

Forgive Oklahoma fans if there’s a sentiment that even better things could be in store for the Sooners’ defense in 2014. All-Big 12 First Team cornerback Aaron Colvin, linebacker Corey Nelson and All-Big 12 Honorable Mention safety Gabe Lynn were the only major departures from this up-and-coming defensive unit permeated with underclassmen. 

Defensive Line
At the outset of the 2013 campaign, many outsiders placed a huge question mark next to the Oklahoma defensive front. By season’s end, that puncuation had evolved into an exclamation point, an incredible feat considering one of the unit’s most talented performers, defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, missed season’s final nine games due to back surgery.

Senior Geneo Grissom and junior Charles Tapper form a dynamic defensive end tandem. Tapper earned All-Big 12 First Team honors after leading the squad with eight QB hurries, while ranking second in TFL (9.0) and sacks (5.5). Grissom had 2.0 sacks, two fumble recoveries and a touchdown in the Sugar Bowl. Senior Chuka Ndulue can play either an inside or outside technique. Senior Rashad Favors is also back at defensive end along with sophomores Matt Dimon and Mike Onouha.

In Phillips’ absence in 2013, sophomore Jordan Wade started eight games at nose tackle, while senior Torrea Peterson garnered one start. Both should be expected to see significant duty once again in 2014. JUCO transfer Quincy Russell didn’t arrive until fall camp had begun last year and will undoubtedly benefit from a full spring with the squad.

Linebackers
Perhaps no position group displayed as dramatic of a spike in big plays and overall production as the Sooners’ linebackers in 2013. The even better news is that the trio that took the bulk of the snaps at linebacker all return in 2014. Junior Frank Shannon (92), sophomore Dominique Alexander (80) and junior Eric Striker (50) combined for 222 tackles a year ago. Add junior P.L. Lindley to that mix and Oklahoma could put four athletic and versatile performers on the field on any given down.

Striker earned All-Big 12 Second Team honors after leading the squad with 10.5 TFL and 6.5 sacks, tying a Sugar Bowl record with 3.0 sacks in that contest. Alexander was a Freshman All-America pick, while Shannon earned All-Big 12 Honorable Mention acclaim. Alexander was pressed into immediate action in the Texas game after Corey Nelson was lost for the year with a season-ending pectoral tear. He responded with a team-high 19 tackles, the best individual total by an OU player since 2008, one of his four games with double-digit tackles on the year. Shannon also set a career-high with 16 tackles against Texas and added a 15-tackle performance at Baylor.

There’s also plenty of potential for other players in this group to make an impact. Sophomore Jordan Evans was coming on strong a year ago before he suffered a season-ending injury. Senior Aaron Franklin has seen duty in 34 career games for the Sooners, while Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and JUCO signee Devante Bond could also factor into the mix before freshman Tay Evans and Curtis Bolton arrive for fall camp.

Defensive Backs
The departure of a two-time All-Big 12 cornerback like Aaron Colvin would leave a void in any secondary. However, the Sooners appear to have another emerging player of his potential caliber in Freshman All-America honoree Zack Sanchez. Sanchez started opposite Colvin in the 2013 season opener and only solidified his hold at that spot as the year progressed. His 74-yard interception return TD at Kansas State sealed that key Big 12 road victory, while a 43-yard interception return against Alabama was one of numerous momentum-changing defensive plays in Oklahoma’s Sugar Bowl victory.

The starting cornerback post across from Sanchez is up for grabs in the spring with senior Cortez Johnson and sophomores Stanvon Taylor and Dakota Austin all in the hunt. All three own tremendous physical tools to wage a battle that will likely carry over to the fall.

The Sooners’ safety corps will lose the consistent Gabe Lynn, who played in 44 games (25 starts) during his career in Norman. Senior Julian Wilson was the club’s starting nickel for 11 games a year ago and is the most seasoned member of the safety group. Look for Wilson to once again serve in that role once again in 2014 after ranking second on the squad with three interceptions last season.

Senior Quentin Hayes also returns for the Sooners after starting 12 games at strong safety in 2013. Even the most ardent OU fans may not realize that Hayes led all Sooner defensive backs with 75 tackles last season, a total that ranked third on the team. While Hayes wasn’t spectacular, Oklahoma coaches appreciate his consistent play in the back end of the defense and will seek even more production in 2014.

Sophomores Ahmad Thomas and Hatari Byrd should wage a spirited competition in the spring. Both players could take reps at Lynn’s former free safety post, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see them also getting snaps at strong safety or nickel. Owning high football IQs, plenty of speed and range, finding the best way to utilize the talents of these two should be interesting to watch unfold during the spring.

Bottom Line
The Sooners regained a solid dose of defensive swagger after a season that saw OU knock off a pair of AP Top 10 teams in Oklahoma State and Alabama to round out the 2013 campaign. But be assured, Oklahoma’s defense is still a work in progress with a litany of young players still learning to play the game with proper technique and attention to detail. 

Oklahoma rightfully regained its reputation for owning one of the Big 12’s most physical defensive fronts a year ago. Maintaining an aggressive posture on the line will continue to be a priority for the Sooners as they seek to build upon last season’s defensive progress. OU was frequently able to turn it’s pass rushers loose from the edge last season by putting opponents in obvious passing situations on third down. If that trend continues, Oklahoma may just conjure up even more memories of Mike Stoops’ opportunistic defenses during his first tour of duty in Norman.

The Sooners’ linebackers and secondary both have ample opportunity for improvement, as well. While the productive linebacking corps returns intact in 2013, the battle to fill starting positions at cornerback and free safety will be worth watching progress throughout the spring. With an influx of talented freshman, that competition will continue throughout the 2014 season.


THE SPECIAL TEAMS


Kickers
Senior Michael Hunnicutt should be on virtually every watch list as one of the nation’s top returning specialists. Head coach Bob Stoops hasn’t been shy about singing the praises of Hunnicutt, who connected on 88.9 percent (24 of 27) of his field goals in 2013, the seventh-best mark in the nation among kickers with at least 20 makes. This All-America candidate has nailed 86.1 percent of his career kicks (62 of 72) in an OU uniform. Senior Nick Hodgson boomed 43 kickoffs for touchbacks in 2013, setting a career high with a 65.7-yard kickoff average in the Sugar Bowl.

Punters
Jed Barnett punted 65 times for 2,711 yards (41.7 avg.) with 22 inside the 20 and 11 kickoffs of 50 yards or longer during his debut campaign. Barnett returns for his senior campaign, with strong-legged Jack Steed sure to get plenty of opportunities in the spring, as well. 

Return Men
Oklahoma led the Big 12 and was eighth in the FBS with a 14.17-yard punt return average. Spring will provide ample opportunity to audition replacements for the explosive Jalen Saunders, who scored on three punt returns the past two seasons. The kickoff return chores will also be open with both Roy Finch and Brennan Clay having departed. Finch ranked fourth in the Big 12 and 25th in the nation with a 25.6-yard average on kickoff returns in 2013.

Snapper & Coverage Units
Austin Woods was a model of consistency for the Sooners as a snapper. Walk-on Brendan Northcutt is the leading candidate to assume those duties, but other challengers could emerge throughout the spring.

During his tenure at Auburn in 2012, current OU special teams coordinator Jay Boulware oversaw a punt coverage unit that ranked second in the nation and a kickoff coverage squad that was third among FBS squads. With a host of talented young athletes seeking a way to get on the field, anticipate Boulware identifying individuals who can fill the voids left by the departures of Kass Everett and Trey Franks, who were the club’s two top tacklers on special teams. Aaron Franklin and Derrick Woods are the top returning players in that department. Franklin and Woods each had five coverage stops apiece in 2013.

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