Big 12: Adam Shead
Next up: Oklahoma.
Strongest position: Offensive line.
Don't discount Landry Jones' experience and decision-making, but Oklahoma threw the ball 571 times last year -- more than everyone in the Big 12 but Texas Tech -- and gave up just 15 sacks, third-fewest in the Big 12. The Sooners have good depth at running back but not a true gamebreaker, and the offense still averaged 4.85 yards a carry, third-most in the Big 12. Oklahoma dealt with a ton of injuries on the offensive line and at the end of the season, was basically reduced to five guys who could play and depended on true freshman Ty Darlington at times, too. The unit loses tackle Lane Johnson, but Gabe Ikard is the Big 12's best offensive lineman and returns alongside Adam Shead, Bronson Irwin and Tyrus Thompson. This unit perhaps could have been better than it was in 2011, which is part of the reason you saw position coach James Patton shown the door in favor of WVU's Bill Bedenbaugh, but it should be a big strength yet again in 2013. I'd say it's definitely the Sooners' best overall position. The Sooners fought through the loss of center Ben Habern and guard Tyler Evans in preseason camp last year, and Evans is out again after injuring his knee this spring. Here's betting Oklahoma fills the void yet again.
Weakest position: Defensive line
If you watched the Cotton Bowl, you know all you need to know about this position for the Sooners. Texas A&M had arguably the nation's best offensive line, but the Sooners D-line looked like a bunch of high schoolers for much of the game, applying zero pressure to Johnny Manziel and letting him get loose for a record-breaking game in a blowout loss. The Sooners lose four seniors along the line, leaving behind just Chuka Ndulue, Jordan Phillips and Mike Onuoha as contributors from last year's D-line that helped Oklahoma rank just 108th nationally in tackles for loss and 94th nationally in run defense. Oklahoma needs a big upgrade at this position to return to prominence, and I'm not sure the answer to the Sooners being as good along the front line of the defense is coming anywhere but on the recruiting trail.
More Weak and Strong.
Less than 30 minutes into Jones' redshirt freshman season, the plan changed.
Sam Bradford's shoulder was planted into the turf and the first chapter of Jones' Oklahoma story was began. It wasn't a happy one, ending what the Sooners hoped was a return to the national title game with a 13-12 loss to BYU in the season opener.
There were other bumps in the road during Jones' first season, like a five-interception outing against Nebraska and an embarrassing blowout loss to Texas Tech in Lubbock.
By the bowl game, though, Jones looked like a different quarterback.
He rolled over Stanford's defense in the Sun Bowl, throwing for a then-career high 418 yards, three scores and completing nearly 60 percent of his passes in the 31-27 win.
"It was a starting point for sure," Jones said. "I grew up a lot in that game."
Almost three years later, he'll begin his final season in the same stadium. This time, Texas-El Paso awaits.
His freshman season ended with a career game. Jones passed up NFL money and a likely first-round selection to come back to Oklahoma for his senior season, which somehow disappointed at least a few Oklahoma fans.
Saturday, Jones will have a chance to remind most everyone of what he can do.
"I believe I’ll see more consistency," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. "I believe he’s a better player. More mobile, throwing a great ball. I believe the players around him will be more consistent. That position needs support."
Jones watched more film leading up to that Stanford win than he'd ever watched on an opponent before. He saw the results on the field, and his career's never been the same.
Being consistent has always been a struggle for Jones, and part of that has been decision-making and accuracy outside the pocket.
"Moving around in the pocket for sure, that’s one area that I wanted to grow in, one area I wanted to get better at," Jones said.
It was an emphasis all offseason for Jones, who also paid a visit to QB guru George Whitfield in California over spring break to work on his mechanics.
"Moving and throwing, that’s one thing that was big for me," Jones said, "and sliding around in the pocket and making throws whenever I was sliding."
Jones might need to be on the move a little more this year behind an offensive line struggling with depth. The Sooners lost a pair of three-year starters in Ben Habern (neck, back) and Tyler Evans (knee), who were both with Jones for his rocky freshman season.
Jones noted he has a lot of confidence in players like Adam Shead and Bronson Irwin, big talents sliding up into bigger roles, but Jones' senior debut will be Step 1 in proving he can be at his best for every week in a given season.
"I expect nothing but the best for myself," Jones said. "I expect to play really well and play winning football every game. That’s what I expect and that’s what I’m shooting for."
1. How does Whaley look in pads?
The injury to Ryan Broyles overshadowed the impact of the loss of Dominique Whaley, who suffered a season-ending ankle injury midway through the 2012 season. Whaley has been cleared to practice, but even Bob Stoops admitted the Sooners won’t know how Whaley will handle cutting and contact until the team practices in pads. The Sooners have other options at running back, but Whaley is the most proven of any of them.
2. How will the offensive adjust to life without Habern?
Mark D. Smith/US PresswireFreshman receiver Trey Metoyer is already penciled in as an opening-day starter for the Sooners.
3. Does Trey Metoyer build off his spring?
Other than Landry Jones, Metoyer was OU’s best offensive playmaker of the spring. Can the freshman phenom keep it going? By all accounts, Metoyer has busted it over the summer. So there’s little reason to doubt he won’t lock down a starting job before September.
4. Which other newcomer receivers will emerge?
With Jaz Reynolds and Trey Franks expected to serve long suspensions, and Kameel Jackson still working on academics, OU will need wideouts other than Metoyer to emerge. Durron Neal has been slowed by a knee injury this summer, LaColtan Bester just got to campus and Courtney Gardner was unable to qualify. That leaves freshman slot receiver Sterling Shepard as the most likely to step into a prominent role. Shepard has wowed his teammates with his work ethic this summer.
5. Will the secondary regain some of its swagger?
The confidence of the defensive backfield was shaken the second half of the season following porous performances against Texas Tech and Baylor. The group even dropped its “Sharks” nickname. But the return of Mike Stoops has the secondary primed for a bounce-back season. A change of scenery could do wonders for Javon Harris and Gabe Lynn, who both figure to open the season in the starting lineup. If they hold up, the secondary could be awesome, with stars Tony Jefferson, Aaron Colvin and Demontre Hurst manning the rest of the unit.
Wednesday, coach Bob Stoops announced that Habern has decided to give up football due to lingering neck and back issues. Habern had undergone neck surgery this offseason to repair a recurring disc problem that had been bothering him since his freshman year. Habern, a preseason All-Big 12 selection, would have been a four-year starter.
The silver lining for the Sooners is that they have another proven center in Gabe Ikard. And a rising star in Adam Shead, who will be able to take over for Ikard at left guard.
For the full SoonerNation post on what's on store on Oklahoma's offensive line, click here .
Really sad, surprising news out of Oklahoma today. Here's our news story:
Oklahoma senior Ben Habern's career is over.
The Sooner center won't return to the team after offseason neck surgery that fused together two vertebrae, despite expectations that he would return at full strength this fall.
"Our coaching staff knows this was a difficult decision for Ben," [coach Bob] Stoops said in a statement. "Ben has been a consummate leader for our team, both on and off the field. We appreciate the toughness that Ben has displayed, and we wish him the very best as he completes his education at OU."
First things first: Absolutely hate to see this for Habern. I covered the Sooners for The Oklahoman during Habern's freshman year, and he's consistently been a great guy to cover from that point through just last week, when he was chosen as a representative for Oklahoma at Big 12 Media Days.
Here's the video he took time to shoot for us. (Stick around until the end).
It's truly shocking news. Habern must have been thinking about quitting, but didn't know until just recently. If Oklahoma knew Habern's status was in doubt, it's highly unlikely he would have represented the Sooners at media days.
Habern's dealt with neck and back issues throughout his career, which also featured a broken ankle in 2009 and a broken right arm last season that forced him out of five games.
His experience and leadership simply can't be replaced this season. Oklahoma's fantastic offensive line takes a huge hit with his loss.
As for his spot on the depth chart? Look for guard Gabe Ikard (one of the league's best overall linemen) to slide over to play center, and junior Adam Shead to move up and replace Ikard at guard. The Sooners can handle that. Don't be surprised if freshman Ty Darlington gets some time at center, too.
Still, Habern has been around for everything coming into this year, and been a stalwart at center for the past three seasons. He saw the 2009 collapse up close. He was integral in the rebound for a Big 12 title in 2010. He learned from the pressure of 2011.
He talked about his neck surgery at Big 12 media days last week, but gave zero indication he was even thinking about quitting.
Now, he has.
It's a sad story, no doubt, but Oklahoma has no choice but to move on.
As Habern moves on, here's hoping for the best for him. I'm confident he'll excel in his future endeavors.
Suspended players reinstated
In Wednesday's statement, Stoops also said that receiver Trey Franks, defensive back Quentin Hayes and receiver Jaz Reynolds were each reinstated from offseason suspensions, but only for preseason practice. Their availability for Oklahoma's season opener at UTEP on Sept. 1 was still undecided. Receiver Kameel Jackson was not reinstated, and his suspension will be re-evaluated "at the conclusion the current academic session."
Stoops also confirmed previous reports that wide receiver Courtney Gardner and offensive lineman Will Latu would not be available this season.
2011 conference record: 6-3 (T-3rd)
Returning starters: Offense: 8; defense: 7; kicker/punter: 2
QB Landry Jones, RB Dominique Whaley, FB Trey Millard, WR Kenny Stills, OG Gabe Ikard, LB Tom Wort, CB Demontre Hurst, CB/S Aaron Colvin, FS Tony Jefferson
WR Ryan Broyles, LT Donald Stephenson, TE James Hanna, DE Ronnell Lewis, DE Frank Alexander, LB Travis Lewis, CB Jamell Fleming
2011 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Dominique Whaley* (627 yards)
Passing: Landry Jones* (4,463 yards)
Receiving: Ryan Broyles (1,157 yards)
Tackles: Travis Lewis and Aaron Colvin* (84)
Sacks: Frank Alexander (8.5)
Interceptions: Tony Jefferson* (4)
1. Trey Metoyer is the real deal: The true freshman had the best spring of any wide receiver on the OU roster, then capped it by leading the Sooners in receiving in the spring game. Metoyer has all but solidified a starting spot at wide receiver, and should help fill the massive production gap left by the graduation of Ryan Broyles.
2. Secondary on right path: Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops wasted no time revamping the secondary, sliding Tony Jefferson to free safety while inserting Javon Harris back into the starting lineup at strong safety. Stoops liked what he saw there in the spring, and if Harris can continue to bounce back from a shaky 2011 season, Stoops will have the flexibility of bumping Aaron Colvin to cornerback opposite three-year starter Demontre Hurst, solidifying the Sooners there, too.
3. O-line could be OU’s best in years: Not since 2008 have the Sooners been this deep and talented on the offensive line. Even with center Ben Habern rehabbing from offseason neck surgery, the line didn’t miss a beat grinding out OU’s defensive front most of the spring. Gabe Ikard has proved he can excel at either guard or center, guard Tyler Evans is entering his fourth year as a starter, and Adam Shead could be OU’s top interior run-blocker since All-America Duke Robinson. The tackles remain a little bit of a question mark. But Daryl Williams all but locked down the starting job on the right side with a great spring. On the left side, Tyrus Thompson is pushing to beat out 2011 starting right tackle Lane Johnson.
1. The No. 2 QB battle: Head coach Bob Stoops is no hurry to name a backup quarterback, a competition that figures to extend through August. Blake Bell, who shined running the ball out of the Belldozer formation last season, outplayed Drew Allen in the spring game, but Allen had his moments, too, and has another year of experience in the offense. Whoever wins the No. 2 job could have a leg up on the 2013 derby to replace Landry Jones.
2. The defensive line: Bob Stoops has had a first-team all-Big 12 defensive lineman every year since 1999. That streak, however, could be in jeopardy. Gone are sack machines Frank Alexander and Ronnell Lewis, leaving the Sooners without a proven difference-maker up front. The top five players in the rotation across the front will all be seniors, making it the most experienced in the conference. But for the Sooners to win the Big 12 and contend for a national title, someone must emerge as that difference-maker.
3. The backfield rotation: The Sooners have options in the backfield, but it’s unclear how running backs coach Cale Gundy will use them. It’s also unclear how effective 2011 leading rusher Dominique Whaley will be after missing half of last season with a fractured ankle. Roy Finch can be electric with the ball, but has not earned the trust of the coaching staff in his pass protection. Brennan Clay, banged up the past two seasons, finally looks healthy and had a solid spring. Then there’s touted junior-college transfer Damien Williams, who was also recruited by USC, and fullback Trey Millard, who warrants at least a handful of carries a game. Will someone emerge as the feature back? Or will Gundy go with a backfield by committee?
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
There's nothing like compiling these links to the accompaniment of some early afternoon major-league baseball games.
Wednesdays are starting to become one of my favorite days of the work week because of that.
Here are some of the stories people are talking about this afternoon from around the Big 12.
- Colorado fans are bitterly complaining about a new parking plan around Folsom Field which is removing some from favored tailgating spots of many seasons, the Boulder Daily Camera's Kyle Ringo reports.
- Des Moines Register columnist Sean Keeler predicts Iowa State will finish 5-7 this season with the Cyclones playing for a potential bowl appearance in their season finale.
- The Columbia Daily Tribune's Dave Matter examines the Hall of Fame prospects of several Missouri football legends, among other delectable tidbits, in his entertaining "Case of the Mondays on Tuesday" sports blog.
- The Topeka Capital-Journal reports that former Kansas State football player Leon Patton was arrested earlier this week in connection with a battery in Manhattan.
- The blog Burnt Orange Nation predicts that tight end-fullback Barrett Matthews could wind up as one of the most important incoming recruits for Texas because of his versatility.
- Incoming Nebraska linebacker Chris Williams' rehab from knee surgery is coming along well. His high school coach told the Omaha World-Herald's Rich Kaipust that he saw him two-stepping at a school dance recently.
- Pete Fiutak of College Football News previews the 2009 Kansas State season.
- The Oklahoman's Jake Trotter reports that Oklahoma picked up two commitments from Texas players in the recruiting class of 2010. Guard Adam Shead of Cedar Hill picked the Sooners over Texas Tech and wide receiver Sheldon McClain of Cibolo chose the Sooners over Utah, SMU and Texas A&M.
- The Austin American-Statesman's Suzanne Halliburton gets to the bottom of why former Texas player Austin Sendlein's 2004 Rose Bowl ring ended up on eBay.