College Football Preview 2014-2015: 4. Oklahoma Sooners
Coach: Bob Stoops (15th year)
2013-2014 Record: 11-2 (7-2 Big 12)
August 30th vs. Louisiana Tech
September 6th @ Tulsa
September 13th vs. Tennessee
September 20th @ West Virginia
October 4th @ TCU
October 11th vs. Texas (in Dallas)
October 18th vs. Kansas State
November 1st @ Iowa State
November 8th vs. Baylor
November 15th @ Texas Tech
November 22nd vs. Kansas
November 29th vs. Oklahoma State
The way the Sooners ended 2013 was so fantastic, fans and coaches have big expectations for Oklahoma this season. After a season that was filled with injuries and turnover at the quarterback position, the Sooners put it all together, beating archrival Oklahoma State on the road and then absolutely dominating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. With a ton of talent returning on both sides of the ball and a pretty favorable schedule, Oklahoma has a legitimate shot at winning the Big 12 and competing in higher games.
Backfield: QB was a major issue throughout 2013 for Oklahoma until Trevor Knight unleashed a four touchdown, 348 yards in the Sooners' two touchdown victory over 'Bama. His bowl performance was so impressive last season that backup Kendal Thompson transferred to Utah and Blake Bell, OU's leading passer last year, moved to tight end. Knight didn't look confident in his arm and struggled to make the deep throws last season. But, suddenly against one of the nation's most dominant defenses, he could make all the pre snap adjustments and he was making all the great reads. Entering his redshirt sophomore campaign, many just don't know what to expect from Knight, especially after he was average this spring. The good news is the running back position could be the strongest it has been since Demarco Murray was on campus a couple years ago. Sophomore Keith Ford will take over the running back duties with the departures of leading rusher, Brennan Clay and important contributor Damien Williams. Ford ran for 134 yards in very little action a season ago and he has all the talent to put together a big year. He has excellent burst through running lanes and but also be punishing. Unfortunately fumbles have been a real problem for Ford in his short time in Norman. Joining Ford will be two freshman ready to make a major impact. Joe Mixon has been given the five-star status by a number of scouting services but has had a spring and summer full of controversy. He is currently being investigated by police on assault allegations and he has not been practicing. No matter what happens with Mixon, the addition of lightning quick Samaje Perine should help this ground attack. Sophomore Alex Ross returns to give Oklahoma another option at back who is more dangerous than Ford.
Receivers: Junior Sterling Shepard has quietly emerged as one of the Big 12's most productive targets and should definitely be Knight's top option in the passing game. Last season, he recorded 51 catches for 603 yards and seven touchdowns. Although pretty small, Shepard has turned into such a dangerous weapon because he is very quick and possesses impressive acceleration. He also has great, soft hands and shouldn't drop much. A number of others will compete to complement Shepard, including sophomore Derrick Woods, junior Durron Neal and redshirt freshman Jordan Smallwood. Woods may be the most talented of the trio; he has the tools to put together an extremely impressive 2014. He is more of a deep threat than Shepard who could really end up stretching defenses thin. Tight end has been an issue since Jermaine Gresham left years ago but sophomore Taylor McNamara could emerge as a standout. McNamara is a large, strong option who is an exceptional receiver who can definitely move the chains for Oklahoma. Bell, who struggled as passer with his time at QB, has proven he can be a very powerful runner near the red zone. It will be interesting to see what he can do as a tight end after being a package quarterback so far throughout his time with the Sooners. Versatile freshman Michiah Quick has proven he can play a number of different positions. He should spend some time at wide receiver but he could also play a large role at defensive back. The speedster ran a very impressive 4.48 40 and while raw, he should have a big impact.
Offensive Line: Even with the graduation of center Gabe Ikard, an All-American in 2013 who won the Rimington Trophy last year, the award for the nation's top center, this offensive line could be great. Senior Tyrus Thompson is going to start while another senior, Daryl Williams, should start on the other side. The pair have combined for 40 starts in their career and both bring impressive size, smarts and strength to the table. Those two should man the exterior of the unit, while yet another senior, Adam Shead will contribute at left guard. Shead is another player with excellent size, but he moves pretty well for being 318 pounds. The biggest question on the O-Line is at center, where Ikard has started the past couple years. Junior Ty Darlington is expected to start at the position and although he doesn't have much experience he has all the tools to put together a strong 2013. If he struggles at center, expect true freshman Alex Dalton to get plenty of opportunities. Dalton, a four-star prospect, was a nice pickup from the Midwest as the Sooners snatched him up from Troy, Ohio, keeping him away from a number of Big Ten schools.
Defensive Line: Former Arizona head coach Mike Stoops hit his stride as a defensive coordinator a season ago and has decided on a 3-4 attack, that emphasizes blitzing and putting a ton of pressure on the quarterback. He will have the personnel to have an extremely impressive defense with the returns of two dangerous defensive ends in junior Charles Tapper and senior Chuka Ndulue. Tapper notched 49 tackles, 9 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks in his first season as the starter at DE and also recorded All-Big 12 honors. Ndulue also was very impressive, picking up 42 tackles and 2.5 sacks. The two are relentless pass rushers who should constantly be in the face of the quarterback. Up the middle, expect junior defensive tackle Jordan Phillips to start. Phillips is a physical presence who has proven he can get to the quarterback, even without not getting many opportunities a year ago. Sophomore Jordan Wade is hoping to return from back surgery and make a serious impact. Wade is a hard-worker in the middle of the line who can clog up running lanes. Even if he doesn't start he should definitely add important depth to this unit. Senior Geneo Grissom has been a career backup in Norman but he could see a lot of action this season. He could possibly play major snaps at defensive end or as a hybrid outside linebacker and he should be a dangerous pass rusher at either. Defensive tackle Courtney Garrett, a four-star recruit out of New Orleans, has the chance to see some major action early, especially if Wade doesn't recover completely from those nagging back problems. Three-star Courtney Glenn should also compete for snaps at defensive tackle; he was a solid addition from Irving, Texas, a suburb of Dallas.
Linebackers: Perhaps no team in the Big 12 has as strong and as deep as a linebackers unit as the Sooners. Returning to the table is junior Eric Striker, a big-play linebacker who could have a breakout season with OU. Striker recorded 50 sacks and 6.5 sacks in 2013 and showed how dominant he could be this season in the Sugar Bowl, landing three sacks against the Tide. He could be very dominant at one of the outside linebacker spots, while junior Frank Shannon returns at one of the spots in the middle. Shannon led the Sooners with 92 tackles a season ago and has looked like the undisputed leader of the defense this spring and leading into fall camp. Also returning to this unit is sophomore Dominique Alexander, who could also be in store for a huge year. In 2013, Alexander recorded 80 tackles, with 3.5 of them being for a loss. That helped him earn Big 12 Newcomer of the Year honors. With his quick speed to the ball and ability to move side to side so well, expect those numbers to increase. Those three could help Oklahoma record one of the nation's top rush defenses after they were 25th in rush defense a season ago. At the other outside 'backer position across from Striker, Grissom could well start. If he doesn't expect a number of others to compete for the job, including juniors P.L. Lindley and Devante Bond, along with newcomers Curtis Bolton and Tay Evans. Evans is a knowledgeable three-star find from Texas but it will be tough to take any positions away from Lindley or Bond, two proven vets.
Secondary: While the rush defense was very strong a year ago, the pass defense wasn't very bad either, landing 30th in the nation, allowing 212.5 yards per game through the air. It could also be very improved, with the return of gifted cornerback Zack Sanchez. The sophomore had some real growing pains at the start of last season but really found his groove and emerged as a shutdown cornerback down the stretch. He also proved to be a big play threat, picking off two passes and returning one to the house. Also back in the secondary is improving senior Quentin Hayes, the presumed starter at free safety. Hayes was third on the team in tackles last season, picking up 75, while also picking off two passes. Hayes possesses impressive range and has proven he can lay some big hits on ball carriers. Joining Hayes in the back will be an unproven, but talented sophomore, Hatari Byrd. Byrd should win starting strong safety duties away from sophomore Ahmad Thomas, who lacks coverage abilities. Byrd is a tremendous athlete with pretty good size who has the potential to really be an impact player next season. Also back is a more proven commodity, cornerback Julian Wilson, who should provide the perfect complement to Sanchez. While Sanchez can make his fair share of mistakes, Wilson is a very efficient corner who is a little bit bigger and stronger than Sanchez. Of course, Sanchez will have the chance to get bigger but right now, Stoops will match Wilson up against some of the conference's bigger receivers. Michiah Quick has the chance to spend a lot of time at defensive back but perhaps the biggest addition to the defensive backfield was superb safety Steven Parker II, a product from Oklahoma who has excellent size and has proven to show a great understanding of Stoops' defense.
Special Teams: There may not be a better kicker in the nation than senior Michael Hunnicutt, who has connected on 62 field goals in his Oklahoma career. Overall, he has hit an impressive 86% in his career, a very impressive number. Punter is also in great hands, with the return of big-legged senior Jed Barnett.
This season could well fall on Trevor Knight's shoulders. If he plays like he did against Alabama, this is a legit Top 5 team but if he doesn't, they could struggle to break from the pack inside the Big 12. the good news is that the defense could well carry this team in 2014, thanks to the impressive front seven. With an experienced offensive line and a number of weapons, the offense could still be dangerous, even if Knight struggles. This Oklahoma team is dangerous and a College Football Playoff berth is a real possibility.