Sooner Report: Spring Game Position Battles

Athletics Communications
By Athletics Communications
University of Oklahoma
APRIL 09, 2014
8 am OU Spring Sale Open
10 am Big Boomer BBQ Open
10 am Sooner Jr. Kids Zone Open
12:30 pm Elementary Student Gate 5 Open
1 pm Pregame Show Begins on FSSW
2 pm Spring Game Kick-Off
Postgame Concert featuring "My So-Called Band"
4 pm OU-Texas Baseball

Unique Atmosphere Set

When asked if he was excited about Saturday’s game, Stoops wasn’t shy about expressing his enthusiasm.

“I love it every time we get to go out and play,” he said. “We're going to have a great atmosphere. We've got a lot of exciting things going on. We'll go out and perform and hopefully get a lot out of the way we play, and have a little bit of fun with the crowd and the way we do it.”

While pregame events will include the OU Spring Sale and the third annual Big Boomer BBQ, a festive atmosphere will be maintained throughout the spring game itself. Live music inside the stadium will be provided by the Pride of Oklahoma and “My So Called Band,” a Norman-based group that specializes in ‘90s cover songs. OU students are encouraged to join the team on the field following the conclusion of the game to interact with student-athletes during a free one-hour postgame concert (no autographs permitted). Other fans will be encouraged to remain in their seats to enjoy the concert.

What to Watch on Saturday – Offense

While there will be plenty of intriguing position battles to keep an eye on at the OU Spring Game presented by U.S. Fleet Tracking, here are some of the top competitions to keep an eye on.

Running Back
With the departure of seniors Trey Millard, Brennan Clay and Roy Finch, the Sooners are left with a big hole to fill in their backfield. Luckily for the Sooners, they have an array of options at running back, but two big backs that will be under the spotlight on Saturday will be Keith Ford and Alex Ross.

I like 'em,” head coach Bob Stoops said of the young backs. “Alex Ross continues to really do well. Keith (Ford) is doing a good job, and David Smith. Keith has to continue to show he can do the things, and Alex, consistently to take care of the football and know what you've got to do.”

Looking at Ford and Ross’ numbers from last season, Ford did see the field more. The Cypress, Texas, native averaged 5.8 yards per carry, toting the ball 23 times for 134 yards. Meanwhile, Ross ran the ball three times for 19 yards. Both players have enjoyed solid springs and are being pushed by Smith. It will be interesting to see how each back is used in the spring game. The all certainly have a lot of prove, and don’t think they’re not aware that highly-touted signee, Joe Mixon, will arrive in Norman for fall camp.

And don’t forget to check out freshman fullback Dimitri Flowers, who Stoops has frequently compared to Millard. Flowers should get plenty of action behind the proven Aaron Ripkowski.

Offensive Line
What you see on Saturday won’t necessarily be the same offensive front you’ll see the Sooners sporting in the season opener against Louisiana Tech on Aug. 30. Senior tackle Daryl Williams has drawn plenty of praise from Coach Stoops during the spring. Both coaches and teammates alike point to him as the leader of the offensive line following the departure of All-America center and two-time team captain, Gabe Ikard. While Ty Darlington is the leading candidate to replace Ikard, outside of Williams the rest of the potential lineup for OU is still up for grabs.

Guards Adam Shead and Nila Kasitati own starting experience, as does tackle Tyrus Thompson. All three of those linemen will sit out the spring game, opening the door for other performers to get important reps on Saturday. Look for tackles like Derek Farniok, Josiah St. John and Sam Grant to all work at tackle, while Dionte Savage and Tony Feo both have vast potential as interior linemen.

Wide ReceiverDurron Neal, Jordan Smallwood, Derrick Woods, Dannon Cavil
Sterling Shepard is by far the most seasoned and productive receiver on the Oklahoma roster. With Shepard sidelined for the spring game with a hamstring injury, that opens the door for a host of players seeking to land one of OU’s other starting posts. Saturday’s spring game could make a very large impact

In the minds of the coaching staff heading into the summer.

Junior Durron Neal has made numerous big plays this spring, but will also sit out on Saturday. The St. Louis native has played in 23 games with 18 receptions for 251 yards in his two seasons as a Sooner. That means even more opportunities for redshirt freshmen Jordan Smallwood and Dannon Cavil to compete with redshirt sophomore Derrick Woods. While Woods only owns two career receptions, one of them was a spectacular 20-yard grab against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

Smallwood (6-2, 210) and Cavil (6-4, 212) are both big targets. While both players will make their regular season debuts in 2014, they are names that you should remember. Stoops and co-offensive coordinators Josh Heupel and Jay Norvell have all been effusive with their praise for Smallwood, who turned heads with his plays on the scout team during preparations for the Sugar Bowl. Meanwhile, Cavil and fellow redshirt freshman K.J. Young (6-0, 175) have been mentioned by teammates inside the OU locker as players with big-play potential.

Unlike last season, there is no doubt who will be the triggerman for the Sooners in 2014. Clearly, Trevor Knight owns the starting job. The Sooners played three different quarterbacks in 2013, and it’s essential that the next man up is ready to go. With Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield ineligible to compete in 2014 because of NCAA rules, the competition for the backup quarterback job will be heated between redshirt freshman Cody Thomas and early enrollee Justice Hansen, a true freshman from Edmond, Okla.  

“Because he's not able to play (this) year, we're going to purposely give the other guys more,” Stoops said of Mayfield’s role in the spring game. “We need to feed them a lot of snaps here in the last three or four days because Baker isn't able to play (this) year. We've loved what he's done. He's got a ton of snaps. But we will intentionally give these other guys more. How much he does, we'll see. Don't read anything into it. If he doesn't get much, it's because of that. It's strictly because he's not able to go (this) year.”

This will be one of the more interesting battles to keep an eye on during the spring, because neither Hansen nor Thomas has taken an in-game snap in college. Both were highly-touted recruits. Colleyville, Texas, Thomas is pulling double duty, playing both football and baseball for the Sooners.

“Coach Heupel has coordinated with (OU Baseball) Coach (Pete) Hughes, and they've been incredible to work with,” Stoops said. “I'd like to think we have been with them, allowing a young man to fulfill his dreams and to out of it as much as he can. It's been busy for Cody but I think it's been positive how we've managed it.”

In respect to Thomas, Stoops added that playing both baseball and football hasn’t seemed to impede the progress of Florida State’s Jameis Winston.

Tight End
As tight ends coach Jay Boulware has observed this spring, OU’s tight ends played a major factor in the best season rushing total by the Sooners during the Stoops era. While Blake Bell will sit out Saturday’s contest with a knee sprain, that doesn’t mean OU quarterbacks won’t still have plenty of options at tight end in the passing game. With Bell unavailable, that opens the door for potential candidates to prove themselves. Redshirt sophomore Taylor McNamara is the first candidate who comes to mind after coming up with a critical grab in the Sugar Bowl. A good spring game for McNamara could continue to propel his stock upward. Sooner fans will also get their first look at JUCO transfer Isaac Ijalana. And remember, versatile players listed as fullbacks like Aaron Ripkowski and Dimitri Flowers could also line at tight end, ala, Trey Millard.

What to Watch on Saturday – Defense

After earned Freshman All-America honors, Zack Sanchez is expected to once again be lock down one of the starting cornerback assignments for the Sooners in 2014. With Aaron Colvin prepping for the NFL Draft, the Sooners are looking to fill the other corner spot.

Sophomores Dakota Austin and Stanvon Taylor as well as redshirt senior Cortez Johnson all saw action at corner in 2013 and are all in the mix for the second starting spot. Johnson (6-2, 205) brings an imposing frame along with his athleticism. Taylor, tabbed as a four-star recruit by multiple sites out of high school, played in all 13 games last year and is looking to make the jump to starter. Austin finishes out the three-man race. He played in five games in 2013 and recorded his first career interception against Iowa State. While the position group may be young, Austin believes they can get it done.

“I know we’re going to get challenged and I feel like we have a group that’s up for it,” Austin said. “We really have a lot of aggressive guys, guys that are going to get after it. I wouldn’t want to do it with another group. I feel like we’re really going to get the job done. We’re really underrated and that’s what’s going to make it so much sweeter in the end.”

Fans will want to pay close attention to the cornerback rotation, as Saturday’s contest should give fans a glimpse into one of the most hotly-contested and critical position battles of the spring.  

Defensive End
The defensive end position appears to be in good hands to be set for the Sooners as they return standout junior and All-Big 12 First Team member Charles Tapper. Senior Geneo Grissom, who recorded 2.5 sacks in the Sugar Bowl, can work at either defensive end or linebacker.  While we’ve seen what both of those players can do, don’t forget about senior Chuka Ndulue, who can work at either end or tackle. The coaching staff is also excited about the return of Mike Onuoha, who sat out last season after undergoing shoulder surgery. And then there is Matt Dimon, who saw extensive playing time as a true freshman in 2013. The competition is fierce, but Ndulue believes it makes the crew work harder to become better.

“There’s a bunch of great guys out there and any one of them could be the starting man,” Ndulue said. “There’s just more drive because you want to play and we just know that our job is on the line each snap so it just makes you play to the best of your ability. As the defensive line, we know that there’s competition every day.”

Defensive Tackle
One of the biggest question marks many in the media had about the Sooners heading into 2013 was at the defensive tackle position, there is undoubtedly a host of talent there in 2014. Redshirt junior Jordan Phillips won’t play in the spring game, but everyone in Norman is excited about his return to the field after back surgery sidelined him for most of last season. Jordan Wade recorded 17 tackles and 1.5 sacks in 12 games last season and made tremendous strides a year ago as a redshirt freshman.

The senior duo of Torrea Peterson and Quincy Russell could also be factors in the defensive tackle rotation for OU in 2014. Peterson played in seven contests a year ago and Russell has benefitted greatly from a full spring under his belt after joining the club after the start of fall camp last season. While a minor ankle injury will keep Russell out of the mix on Saturday, head coach Bob Stoops is excited about the depth of his entire defensive front.

“It has a chance to be one of our deeper and better positions,” Stoops said. “Imagine that in a year's period of time, and it ended up being pretty deep a year ago, too.”

Senior Quentin Hayes will return at the strong safety position after starting all 13 games last season for the Sooners. Hayes wasn’t flashy in 2014, but he was productive, ranking third on the squad with 3.5 tackles. Fellow senior Julian Wilson is slated to work at nickel, but is rehabbing and won’t play on Saturday. That means both Hatari Byrd and Ahmad Thomas could see time at both free safety and/or nickel on Owen Field this weekend.

The free safety post is open because of the graduation of Gabe Lynn, who racked up 58 tackles to rank fourth on the squad last season. Byrd saw playing time in five of 13 games last season and recorded a career-high three tackles vs. Tulsa, and Thomas looked strong last year in his debut season at Oklahoma, playing in 12 of 13 games and managing a season-high six tackles against Iowa State. The battle should be a fun one for the spring game, as both will be competing for a starting position. Both Byrd and Thomas have frequently been mentioned by OU coaches as having tremendous upside.

While linebacker is one post where all of last season’s primary starters return, don’t be surprised to see Eric Striker lining up in a variety of positions. Whether it’s at outside linebacker, at defensive end or even at nickel, the athletic Floridian is always a threat to make a big play from anywhere on the field. After leading the squad with 6.5 sacks in 2013, even more is expected from him in 2014. Big 12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year Dominique Alexander ranked second on the squad with 80 tackles. He returns along with Frank Shannon, who paced the Sooners with 92 stops in 2013. After getting thrown into the fire as a true freshman, Norman native Jordan Evans is healthy and poised for a bigger role this season. The coaching staff has also seen explosive flashes from Ogbonnia Okoronkwo (aka Obo), who redshirted a year ago.



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