Spring practice starts Saturday, March 9 in Norman.
The 15th season of the Bob Stoops era at Oklahoma will usher in another new chapter in Sooners history. Stoops owns a 149-37 mark at OU and is only nine wins shy of eclipsing Barry Switzer for the most victories in school history. Oklahoma is coming off its eighth Big 12 title under Stoops and a second consecutive 10-3 campaign.
Expectations are always high in Norman, and rightfully so. OU has registered 11 seasons with 10 or more wins under Stoops and no team in the nation can boast more all-time 10-win seasons than Oklahoma (34). The Sooners will face a challenging 2013 schedule that features 11 opponents that appeared in bowl games last season. That slate also includes six home contests against bowl participants, as well as a non-conference road trek to Notre Dame.
While there were many key departures from the 2012 roster, no vacancy will be scrutinized more closely than the quarterback position, where a number of players will compete to replace Landry Jones, who started a school-record 50 contests. The last time the Sooners experienced an off-season quarterback duel was in 2007 when Sam Bradford emerged to throw 36 touchdowns en route to winning a Heisman Trophy a year later with a 50-touchdown campaign. The Sooners' spring signal-calling candidates in 2013 include Blake Bell, Trevor Knight and Kendal Thompson. Freshman Cody Thomas will join the club in the fall.
Defensively, consensus All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin headlines a unit that ranked second in the conference by permitting only 206.1 passing yards per game. Competition will abound on the defensive front, where the only incumbent starter is junior defensive end Chuka Ndulue. Senior linebacker Corey Nelson returns to lead a linebacking corps that should also see a wealth of competition for playing time, while senior Gabe Lynn is back at the nickel position.
Special teams were a source of strength and consistency in 2012, a trend the Sooners would like to see continue in 2013. Oklahoma ranked in the top eight nationally in both punt and kickoff return average a year ago. Running backs Brennan Clay and Roy Finch are both back to return kickoffs, while wide receiver Jalen Saunders returns for his senior campaign. Both Finch and Saunders registered touchdowns in the return phase last season. Kicker Michael Hunnicutt is back for his junior campaign, while JUCO transfer Jed Barnett is the leading candidate to replace punter Tress Way, who concluded his OU tenure with the best career punting average (43.95) in school annals.
High expectations, a challenging schedule, a quarterback competition and position battles abounding across the depth chart - all of this sounds likes the makings of an exciting spring in Norman. But Stoops and his staff have been here before and know fully that the expectation of winning championships remains firm among the Oklahoma faithful.
Replacing the Big 12's all-time leader in passing and total offense is no easy chore. Landry Jones registered 39 victories during his illustrious OU career, throwing for 16,646 yards and 123 touchdowns. But waiting in the wings are players with diverse skill sets that the coaching staff is eager to exploit.
The ground game should continue to be an area of strength as the club's two leading rushers return from 2012. Last season, running backs Damien Williams (946 yards, 11 TDs) and Brennan Clay (555 yards, 7 TDs) combined for 1,501 yards and 17 rushing scores. Meanwhile, All-Big 12 performer Trey Millard returns and is regarded as one of the league's most versatile performers.
While a rash of injuries on the offensive front necessitated the need for new combinations of players to contribute in 2012, that experience should pay dividends in 2013. All-Big 12 center Gabe Ikard, Bronson Irwin, Tyrus Thompson and Adam Shead started a combined 73 games last season, while Ty Darlington opened one contest at center. The biggest void to fill is the starting left tackle spot manned by All-Big Second Team pick, Lane Johnson.
The Sooners have a solid track record when it comes to the game's marquee position. Oklahoma has won eight Big 12 titles with six different starting signal callers during the Stoops era. While no current passer on the OU roster has starting experience, Oklahoma is far from inexperienced in the passing game.
No matter who takes the helm at quarterback in 2013, don't expect OU's penchant for passing to change. Watching for the potential evolution of more production in the ground game from the quarterback position may be a storyline worth following in the spring.
Junior Blake Bell earned the backup role behind Jones during 2012 spring drills largely due to his proficiency as a passer. But it has been his ability to move the chains and score touchdowns as a runner that has gotten him on the field the past two seasons. Bell owns 104 career carries for 372 yards (3.6 avg.) with 24 TDs, including a 55-yard scoring jaunt last year vs. Baylor (11/10/12).
The competition between Bell, sophomore Kendal Thompson and redshirt freshman Trevor Knight will unquestionably be one of the biggest storylines of the spring as Thompson and Knight have both earned high praise from the coaching staff for their practice work in 2012.
|| Running Backs
Last fall, junior college transfer Damien Williams quickly caught the attention of his coaches and teammates in practice. Sooner fans got a glimpse of skills as he registered back-to-back 100-yard games to open the season. Williams earned All-Big 12 Second Team accolades and finished the year with 946 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns.
Multi-talented senior fullback Trey Millard was an All-Big First Team selection in 2012. Whether he lines up in the backfield or as a tight end, he is a big-play threat. Millard averaged 6.0 yards per carry and 11.2 yards per reception in 2012, racking up a career-high 156 receiving yards in a win vs. Texas (10/13). Former walk-on Aaron Ripkowski also returns at fullback after earning a scholarship for his contributions last season.
While Williams was slowed by an ankle injury in 2012, Brennan Clay stepped up to produce a 156-yard game at Iowa State (11/3/12) and score the game-winning TD in overtime vs. Oklahoma State (11/24/12). Senior Roy Finch worked as a hybrid a year ago, seeing action in the backfield, in the slot and as a return man.
Redshirt freshmen Daniel Brooks, Alex Ross and David Smith showcased their skills on the scout team in 2012 and will get plenty of carries in the spring. Freshman Keith Ford is slated to arrive in the fall.
|| Wide Receivers
The receiving corps was one of the Sooners biggest question marks heading into the 2012 campaign, and by season's end it was one of OU's strong suits. While the club's two top pass catchers from a year ago - Kenny Stills and Justin Brown - have both departed, a talented corps of pass catchers remains on the roster.
Senior Jalen Saunders returns after accumulating 62 catches for 829 yards and three TDs in the final nine games of the 2012 campaign. Sterling Shepard hauled in 45 passes for 621 yards and three scores as a true freshman. Lacoltan Bester returns for his senior season, while Trey Metoyer and Durron Neal are back for their sophomore years. Redshirt freshman Derrick Woods will also compete for playing time. Senior Jaz Reynolds did not play in 2012, but will continue practicing in the spring.
In addition to Millard, who often lined up at tight end in 2012, senior Brannon Green returns. Redshirt freshmen Taylor McNamara and Sam Grant should also figure into the TE competition.
|| Offensive Line
All-Big 12 First Team selection Gabe Ikard anchored the offensive front at center last season, but also owns experience at left guard. Ty Darlington opened one game at center last season as a true freshman when Ikard was injured, giving the Sooners another viable option at center.
Left tackle Lane Johnson is the only starting member of the o-line who has departed. Junior Tyrus Thompson started games at both tackle positions a year ago, while junior Daryl Williams logged 10 starts at right tackle before suffering a season-ending knee injury. JUCO transfer Josiah St. John adds another big body in the tackle mix along with sophomore Derek Farniok.
Senior Bronson Irwin opened all 13 games at right guard and junior Adam Shead started every contest at left guard last season. Also returning is Tyler Evans, who is coming off a knee injury suffered in fall camp last year. Evans started 13 games at right guard in 2011. Senior Austin Woods provides depth on the interior of the offensive front back after overcoming a battle with Hodgin's Lymphoma in 2012. Sophomore Nila Kasitati is among a host of talented underclassmen on the interior of the offensive front.
Mike Stoops is back for year two of his return engagement as Oklahoma's defensive coordinator. In 2012, his squad held seven opponents to 21 points or less, while ranking second in the Big 12 in pass defense by permitting 206.1 yards per game. The club extended its streak of consecutive seasons with a defensive TD to 14. During his six seasons as defensive coordinator for the Sooners, the club has racked up a total of 19 defensive touchdowns.
The defensive unit is headlined by senior cornerback Aaron Colvin, who earned All-Big 12 honors a year ago and will be a preseason All-America candiate in 2013. While All-America Second Team pick Tony Jefferson departed for the NFL following his junior campaign and a pair of All-Big 12 Second Team selections have graduated in defensive end David King and cornerback Demontre Hurst, a wealth of talent remains on the roster. Several members of a strong recruiting class could also make immediate impacts.
|| Defensive Line
Senior David King anchored the defensive front a year ago along with fellow seniors Jamarkus McFarland and Casey Walker. Defensive end R.J. Washington has also graduated, leaving the door wide open for a host of younger players to take advantage of an opportunity.
Defensive end Chuka Ndulue returns for his junior campaign after earning All-Big 12 Second Team honors from the Waco Tribune-Herald a year ago. Ndulue started 10 contests, producing 45 tackles and 5.0 sacks last season.
Rashod Favors also owns experience at linebacker and will join fellow junior Geneo Grissom at defensive end in spring drills. After redshirting in 2012, JUCO transfer Chaz Nelson could make an impact, as well. Mike Onouha, who played in four games as a true freshman, and Charles Tapper, who saw duty in five contests as a true freshman, have both shown flashes of their vast potential and could be contenders to join Ndulue for playing time at the defensive end posts with strong springs. Sophomore P.L. Lindley also makes the move to end from linebacker in the spring. Early enrollee D.J. Ward will be a spring participant, while a number of talented incoming freshman will join the Sooners in the fall.
Competition will also be wide open at the defensive tackle post. Sophomore Jordan Phillips saw duty in 11 contests last year and is the most experienced returning member of the interior line group. Junior Torrea Peterson also returns, as does redshirt freshman Jordan Wade. JUCO transfer Quincy Russell is anticipated to join the team for fall drills in addition to a trio of incoming freshman.
The Sooners moved to a nickel defense as their base alignment in 2012, meaning athletic and versatile performers became an even bigger necessity in the linebacker corps. Fortunately for OU, there are a host of performers who fit that bill and could fill a variety of roles for the team in 2013. Spring drills will provide an opportunity to work players in a number of different positions to find the best combinations.
Senior Corey Nelson brings a wealth of experience to the linebacker corps, seeing action in 40 games with 22 career starts. Nelson's 126 career tackles (62 solo), 13.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks also lead all OU returnees at linebacker. Junior Aaron Franklin worked behind Nelson at outside linebacker and has seen duty in 23 career contests. Joseph Ibiloye and Jaydan Bird have both departed after each saw action in 51 games apiece in four campaigns with the Sooners.
Sophomore Frank Shannon could be a candidate to play either outside or middle linebacker for the Sooners in 2013. Shannon came on strong down the stretch a year ago, seeing action in 12 games (two starts), finishing the year with 40 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks. Shannon may be a leading contender to replace the interior spot vacated by Tom Wort, who declared for the NFL Draft with a season of eligiblity remaining.
Other notable returnees in the linebacker corps include Eric Striker, who could make a push for playing time with a strong spring. Striker saw action in all 13 games as a true freshman in 2012, racking up six tackles vs. Kansas (10/20/12).
Freshman Dominique Alexander and Jordan Evans will join OU for fall drills.
|| Defensive Backs
All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin returns for his senior campaign and could be poised a big year after successfully making the transition from safety to right corner in 2012. Colvin has started 26 career games and tied for second in the conference with four INTs last season. He also added a team-high 11 passes defensed.
The starting post across from Colvin will be wide open after the departure of Demontre Hurst and his back-up, Lamar Harris. All three players who manned the club's nickel position return are back, and it's within the realm of possibility that any of those three could work at left corner in the spring in addition to taking snaps at nickel.
Senior Gabe Lynn started 10 games at nickel last season, registering 37 tackles (29 solo). The versatile Lynn owns 4.5 career tackles for loss and could potentially work at either safety spot or the nickel position in the spring.
Junior Julian Wilson also returns and was a versatile performer in the secondary a year ago, producing 31 tackles and five passes defensed. Senior Kass Everett played in 11 games last season after joining the club as a JUCO transfer.
A host of other defensive backs will be looking to crack the lineup at either left corner, the nickel position or in one of the team's sub-defenses. Cortez Johnson sat out the 2012 campaign after transferring from the University of Arizona, where Mike Stoops was his head coach. Johnson started a pair of games for the Wildcats as a true freshman in 2011.
Sophomore Gary Simon, Redshirt freshman Zack Sanchez, senior Trey Franks and junior Quentin Hayes could all get a look there in the spring.
At strong safety All-America Second Team pick Tony Jefferson declared for the NFL Draft with a year of eligiblity remaining. Jefferson led the squad with 119 tackles (85 solo) in 2012. Starting free safety Javon Harris has graduated, creating an opportunity at both positions in the back of the defense. Harris paced the Sooners with six INTs a year ago and was second on the squad with 86 tackles (58 solo).
One area where the incoming freshman class could make an immediate impact is in the secondary. Safety Hatari Byrd and cornerback L.J. Moore were both consensus four-star prospects after stellar prep careers in California and will be on campus for fall practice. Tulsa native Stanvon Taylor was also a consensus four-star selection at cornerback. Meanwhile, early enrollee, Ahmad Thomas, is already in Norman and should see plenty of time working at cornerback during spring ball.
Junior Michael Hunnicutt returns after hitting on 81.0 percent (17 of 21) of his field goal attempts last season. Hunnicutt has connected on 38 of 45 FGs (84.4%) and is 75.0% (6 of 8) from 40 yards or longer. Hunnicutt is also the top candidate to handle the kickoff chores with the graduation of Patrick O'Hara, who handled those duties for much of 2012.
Tress Way finished his OU career boasting the best career punting average of any player in Sooners history, making his consistent ways a tough act to follow. Oklahoma believes it may have found the man for the job in JUCO transfer Jed Barnett. Barnett originally enrolled at California before transferring to Laney College. Boasting a strong leg and exceptional hang time, Barnett will be challenged by Dylan Seibert and Jack Steed in the spring.
|| Return Men
Running backs Brennan Clay and Roy Finch split the kickoff return chores in 2012 and both players return this spring. Finch broke loose for a 100-yard kickoff return TD vs. Kansas (10/20/12). While departed wide receiver Justin Brown handled the bulk of the punt return chores, wide receiver Jalen Saunders is back for another season. The explosive Saunders had an 81-yard punt return TD vs. Oklahoma State (11/24/12). Plenty of other capable performers will likely audition for both return roles.
Senior Austin Woods has snapped for placements the last two seasons. and could get the opportunity to snap on both placekicks and punts. Incumbent punt snapper Daniel Franklin has graduated, opening that position for competition.