Big 12: Austin Bennett

This week, we’ve been examining the most indispensable player for every team in the Big 12. In other words, who is the player each team could least afford to lose to injury?

We’re knocking on wood before we turn in these posts; so no need to worry about a jinx.

We continue with the Oklahoma Sooners.

Most indispensable player: Receiver Sterling Shepard

[+] EnlargeSterling Shepard and Jackson Jeffcoat
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsSterling Shepard's production will be vital to Oklahoma's success in the passing game in 2014.
2013 stats: Caught 51 passes for 603 yards and seven touchdowns.

Why Oklahoma can’t afford to lose him: A strong case could be made for sophomore quarterback Trevor Knight here. He was spectacular in the Allstate Sugar Bowl and has the skill set to be a star in college football. But it’s difficult to slap the “indispensable” label on a player who has only started and finished three games in his college career.

Last season, Oklahoma’s most indispensable player was do-everything receiver Jalen Saunders. This season, the Sooners’ most indispensable player figures to be another do-everything pass-catcher.

Shepard has been a key part of the Oklahoma offense from the moment he stepped on campus. Through two seasons in Norman, Shepard already has 96 receptions for 1,224 yards and 10 touchdowns.

With Saunders now a member of the New York Jets, Shepard will take over as the Sooners’ go-to playmaker at receiver. But unlike Saunders, who had Shepard and Lacoltan Bester alongside him, Shepard won’t have an experienced receiver flanking him. That makes Shepard all-the-more indispensable.

After Shepard, Durron Neal is Oklahoma’s second-leading receiver from last season, and he finished with only 13 receptions. Neal also missed spring practice with knee and ankle injuries.

Elsewhere, the Sooners are loaded with inexperience at receiver. Jordan Smallwood, Dannon Cavil and K.J. Young redshirted last season. Austin Bennett and Derrick Woods have been used sparingly. Mark Andrews, Jeff Mead, Michiah Quick and Dallis Todd are incoming true freshmen.

In fact, outside Shepard, the only two returning Sooners who had touchdown catches last year are fullback Aaron Ripkowski and place-kicker Michael Hunnicutt.

That’s why Shepard is so valuable.

He gives the Sooners an unequivocal tone-setter and leader for its extremely young group of receivers. And he gives Knight that one dependable target every budding quarterback requires.
Since last week we’ve been examining at the strongest and weakest position groups for each Big 12 team going into the fall.

We continue with the Oklahoma Sooners:

Strongest position: Defensive line

Pretty obvious choice here for Oklahoma, considering how this unit played in its greatest test yet against Alabama.

Eric Striker gives the Sooners an All-Big 12 defensive end who still has two years left to get even better. He's a playmaker, and senior Geneo Grissom proved against the Tide, with his two sacks and two fumble recoveries, that he can be, too.

We got to see Jordan Phillips in only four games last fall before he was shut down for the season, but the defensive tackle was one of OU's most promising defenders when he was on the field. The trio of Phillips, Chuka Ndulue and Jordan Wade is potent. Keep them healthy, and they can develop into a fearsome group.

What makes this group really stand out, and what probably gets overlooked, is the depth you don't see. While these starters form one of the conference's best defensive lines, the guys behind them will continue to develop in the background.

Some will be called upon when injuries hit, but having young linemen such as Matt Dimon, D.J. Ward, Dwayne Orso Jr. and Courtney Garnett waiting in the wings will mean an exciting future for this line.

Weakest position: Wide receivers

You can't lose a great talent like Jalen Saunders and key seniors Lacoltan Bester and Jaz Reynolds and not be a little concerned with this group.

The Sooners are essentially working with four experienced receivers going into 2014, led by Sterling Shepard. He can't do it all by himself. Among Durron Neal, Derrick Woods and Austin Bennett, quarterback Trevor Knight is going to need to find a couple guys he can trust. There are some redshirt freshmen waiting for their turn, too.

The good news is help is on the way, and it might be elite help. The Sooners signed three skyscrapers in Mark Andrews (6-foot-6), Jeffery Mead (6-6) and Dallis Todd (6-5) and then inked a four-star speedster in Michiah Quick on signing day. Three of those incoming freshmen are ESPN 300 recruits with big expectations.

If a couple are ready when they show up in Norman, this group will instantly get a lot better.
With spring ball done, we’re reexamining and re-ranking the positional situations of every Big 12 team, continuing Wednesday with receivers (and tight ends). These outlooks could look different in August. But here’s how we see them post-spring:

1. Baylor (pre-spring ranking: 1): The Bears maintained their commanding advantage over any other receiving corps in the league. Antwan Goodley remains an All-American candidate, and Corey Coleman looks primed to become Baylor’s next great wideout following a spectacular spring. Levi Norwood, Jay Lee and Clay Fuller are proven performers. And more talent is about to arrive, including blue-chip freshman K.D. Cannon. The Baylor receivers are as formidable as any position grouping in the league.

2. Texas Tech (3): The Red Raiders lost their two best pass-catchers from last year in tight end Jace Amaro and Eric Ward, but this group is overflowing with dynamic young talent. After reeling in two touchdowns in the bowl and dominating Texas Tech’s spring game, Jakeem Grant looks like he’s on the verge of becoming a star in the league. Bradley Marquez should be even sharper after giving up baseball to focus on football this offseason. And the speedy Reginald Davis is a potential big-play threat on the perimeter. All three players can fly, and they have a quarterback in Davis Webb who can deliver the ball to them down field. The unit goes deep in the rotation, too, with D.J. Polite-Bray, Devin Lauderdale, Jordan Davis and Derreck Edwards all poised to be factors.

3. Oklahoma State (4): The Cowboys don’t have a Justin Blackmon or Dez Bryant. But they have a deep rotation and a budding All-Big 12 candidate in Jhajuan Seales, who is ready to take over as the offense’s go-to receiver. Marcell Ateman, David Glidden and Brandon Sheperd were all significant parts of the corps last year, as well, and Blake Webb and Austin Hays, who both made starts two years ago as true freshmen, bounced back from injury-plagued 2013 seasons to impress in the spring. Track star/running back Tyreek Hill also will line up in the slot at times and will be a home-run threat any time he touches the ball. Considering none of the projected eight in the two-deep will be a senior, this group should only continue to get better, too.

4. Texas (5): Don’t fault the Texas receivers for not making a bigger impact in the spring game. For three quarters, reserve quarterback Tyrone Swoopes struggled to get them the ball. While the Longhorns probably lack an All-Big 12-caliber performer, they boast an experienced, reliable trio in three-year starter Jaxon Shipley and juniors Kendall Sanders and Marcus Johnson. Daje Johnson, who caught a Hail Mary from Swoopes in the spring game, brings even more playmaking to the group as a full-time receiver. Texas obviously has QB issues. But if the Horns can find the right player there, that QB will have reliable weapons to operate within the passing game.

5. Kansas State (2): K-State still has one of the best receivers in the country in Tyler Lockett, who is deserving of preseason All-American consideration. But the rest of the unit didn’t round out during the spring as well as the Wildcats would have hoped. Curry Sexton (eight catches for 88 yards) and Deante Burton (six catches for 48 yards) were both solid in the spring game. So was freshman Judah Jones, who hauled in a 51-yard scoring grab. But converted QB Daniel Sams still has a ways to go before making a huge impact, and highly touted juco transfer Andre Davis failed to make a big spring splash. Any receiving corps featuring Lockett is going to be a handful. But the supporting cast still needs work.

6. Iowa State (7): The Cyclones have the top returning pass-catching tight end in the league in E.J. Bibbs, who coach Paul Rhoads believes could vie for All-American honors. Quenton Bundrage has all-league potential, though he disappeared too many times last season, and did so again in the spring game. Jarvis West has proven he can make plays out of the slot, and the Cyclones have depth on the perimeter in P.J. Harris, Brett Medders and D'Vario Montgomery, who all developed rapidly during the spring. With highly touted signee Allen Lazard set to join the rotation, the Cyclones could boast their best receiving corps in several years.

7. Oklahoma (6): The Sooners feature a bona-fide No. 1 receiver in Sterling Shepard, who has 96 career catches his first two seasons. But the position is the Sooners' biggest question mark. With 12 catches last year, Durron Neal is the team's second-leading returning receiver. Austin Bennett, Jordan Smallwood and Derrick Woods all had moments in the spring game, but the competition for snaps will carry over into the fall. Talented four-star incoming freshman Michiah Quick could be a factor in the slot once he gets to Norman.

8. West Virginia (8): Starters Mario Alford, Kevin White and Daikiel Shorts are all back, but, collectively, must produce more consistently than they did last season. Alford seems to be the key. He had 215 receiving yards in West Virginia’s final game of 2013, and he has the talent and speed to give the Mountaineers a dangerous No. 1 wideout. Cody Clay is a valuable tight end, though does most of his damage with his blocking. Shelton Gibson, who was ineligible last year and this spring as a partial qualifier, is a former four-star recruit and could give West Virginia a boost.

9. TCU (9): The Horned Frogs actually had two positive developments at this position during the spring. Jordan Moore made a seamless transition from running back to receiver and is in line to give TCU a physical and fast presence on the outside. Then, former Texas A&M QB Matt Joeckel transferred in, potentially clearing the way for Trevone Boykin to swing back to receiver. This group has depth, with Ty Slanina, Josh Doctson, David Porter and Cameron Echols-Luper returning. But the future of the most talented receiver on the roster -- Brandon Carter -- remains in doubt after he was recently arrested on suspicion of marijuana possession, after sitting out spring ball to focus on academics.

10: Kansas (10): The Jayhawks might be at the bottom here, but they seem primed to field their best one-two punch at receiver since Kerry Meier and Dezmon Briscoe roamed Lawrence five years ago. Miami (Ohio) transfer Nick Harwell has taken on a much-needed vocal leadership role among this group and brings a track record of production, having finished second nationally in receiving in 2011. Flanking Harwell will be former running back Tony Pierson, who made the full-time move to receiver this offseason. While he’s raw as a receiver, Pierson is capable of the big play. Rodriguez Coleman also emerged this spring as potential viable third option. The dark days of the Jayhawk receivers posing no threat in the passing game appear to be over.
A glimpse at the future is no longer enough.

Oklahoma receivers coach Jay Norvell has several pass catchers in his meeting room who have made occasional plays for the Sooners, showing glimpses of their playmaking ability. This season OU is counting on those players to transform into consistent playmakers. If they don’t, OU could find itself with a passing offense that is shooting blanks.

[+] EnlargeSterling Shepard
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsSterling Shepard is a proven commodity at WR for Oklahoma, but there are plenty of question marks behind him.
“We don’t have as many guys with game time, but I think that’s a good thing,” Norvell said. “We’re going to have to find about five guys out of this group and they’re going to have to grow up in a hurry. It’s about being consistent and being competitive now. The really good players, they do it every day.”

Sterling Shepard qualifies as "really good".

The Sooners’ leading returning receiver will take over for Jalen Saunders as OU’s go-to receiver after two seasons as a complementary piece in OU’s offense. Outside of Shepard, the Sooners' returning receivers combined for 17 receptions and 228 receiving yards in 2013.

Durron Neal's 22-yard catch against Kansas State and Derrick Woods' 20-yard reception against Alabama provided glimpses of their potential. The duo joined Shepard in the same recruiting class but have been looking up at him on the depth chart for their first two years on campus. Neal was one of the nation’s top receiver recruits out of high school, and the Sooners held off a late charge from USC to secure Woods.

Making the occasional play is no longer acceptable for Neal or Woods; it’s either step up or lose their spot. Sophomore Austin Bennett joins redshirt freshmen Dannon Cavil, Jordan Smallwood and K.J. Young as highly regarded receivers nipping at their heels this spring. And four freshmen signees, including ESPN 300 receiver Michiah Quick, will arrive this summer with the goal of forcing themselves into the competition.

The overall depth of talent at the position is one reason the Sooners aren’t overly concerned about finding pass catchers for starting quarterback Trevor Knight.

“It’s a good group, they just haven’t had a ton of time on the field,” said Sooners coach Bob Stoops, who likened the receiver position to OU’s defensive line group, which was a major question mark last spring before blossoming into a major asset in the fall.

“These guys have been developing, training [and are] ready to take over. Those guys are just going to have to be more consistent [to] stay on the field.”

Shepard is the lone known commodity, with all-conference honors in his sights after 51 receptions for 603 yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore. He’s tough as nails, competitive and rises to the occasion in big games, with four of his seven scores coming in wins over Notre Dame, Kansas State and Alabama.

The Sooners' search for consistent receivers is reminiscent of two springs ago in Norman, Okla., when OU had just lost NCAA all-time receptions leader Ryan Broyles and returned Kenny Stills, who had been a key player during his first two seasons but was being counted on to anchor the receiver spot for the first time in his career. Norvell turned to Stills to raise his overall game and leadership that spring, much like he’s asking from Shepard over the next 12 practices.

“When you become a leader, you gotta make everybody else better,” Norvell said of his only veteran receiver. “He’s not competing against guys here, he’s competing against guys around our league, around the country. He’s got to raise the standard in his game.”

OU hopes the similarities between 2012 and 2014 stop at the concerns about the receiver spot during spring football. In 2012, the Sooners added transfers Justin Brown (Penn State) and Saunders (Fresno State) in the summer after post-spring suspensions took Jaz Reynolds and Trey Franks out of the equation. OU hopes its young receivers improve enough this spring to remove all doubt about the position heading into the summer while creating depth that can withstand any unexpected hits before August.

“It’s a competitive group,” Norvell said. “We’re extremely competitive in the spring, the whole group gets graded every single day on every snap, so it's really easy to know who the best players are. We have a bunch of young guys who have shown flashes but now it’s about being able to go out every day compete and make plays. So, we’ll see who rises to the top.”

How OU can salvage its season

November, 11, 2013
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NORMAN, Okla. -- Oklahoma is on the cusp of another disappointing season. Its chances of winning another Big 12 title are slim, and the Sooners are completely out of the BCS title conversation after their 41-12 loss to Baylor last Thursday.

Competing for national championships is the stated goal in Norman, so here are five things the Sooners can do to salvage the season with that ultimate goal in mind.

[+] EnlargeKendal Thompson
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsSophomore Kendal Thompson is in his third season in the program but hasn't appeared in a game.
Find a quarterback of the future. OU has sent out two starting quarterbacks this season, Blake Bell and Trevor Knight, and has a third, Kendal Thompson, who hasn't taken a snap. Yet, the Sooners don't seem any closer to replacing Landry Jones than they did when the season began. Bell has had good and bad moments and hasn't separated himself from either of the other two despite starting the majority of OU's games. Knight was the opening-day starter but didn't look like a game-changing signal caller as his youth was readily on display. And Thompson, who missed preseason camp and the first few games due to a broken foot, hasn't been given the opportunity to show what he can do. If the Sooners accomplish nothing else during the final weeks of the season, they need to have a much better feel for who they want to lead the offense in 2014 after the regular season finale at Oklahoma State.

Figure out the vision of what the Sooners offense should be. What is OU's identity on offense? At this point last season, the offense had progressed into a four-receiver attack that forced defenses to account for several talented targets in the passing game, with a solid supplementary running attack. This season OU can run the ball, but that's about it. It's clear the Sooners wanted to make running the football a priority, but they appear to have emphasized that goal to the point their passing game isn't anything worth worrying about. They're much closer to the goal of becoming a physical running team, but that doesn't do any good if they can't be balanced. OU must find a middle ground between its 2012 offense and this 2013 version, then aim to make that the starting point in 2014. There needs to be a baseline starting point that coaches, players and the rest of the staff are comfortable with to begin each cycle.

Get young players plenty of game experience. Coach Bob Stoops raved about his freshman class in August. It's time for those freshmen, like receiver Austin Bennett or safety Ahmad Thomas, who aren't in the midst of a redshirt year, to see the field much more often. If they're going to use a year of eligibility, why not use it by getting them prepared to make an impact as sophomores? True enough, there will be ups and downs to deal with, and the potential for opponents to take advantage of them, but it would pay off in 2014, show them what it takes to be successful at this level and could give them confidence heading into the offseason. One series here or there and those guys can gain some game experience while the Sooners remain committed to their starting lineup and veterans.

Find out who are the most competitive, mentally tough players on the roster. Adversity can be educating. The Sooners can use some of their current struggles to learn which players could be the foundation of a title run in the future. OU should be willing to put some of its younger players, not just freshman, into adverse situations down the stretch, even at the risk of making a game harder to win. Can Keith Ford respond when he's tired from carrying the load and OU needs to convert a key short-yardage situation in the red zone? Will Zack Sanchez accept the challenge if asked to cover the opponent's top receiver for a quarter? Would Derrick Woods flash some potential if he gets some snaps at receiver? Creating little scenarios like that will challenge the players and help the coaches learn some things about the roster they might not know otherwise heading into the offseason.

Find some confidence. Win or lose, OU needs to play well in every game the rest of the way. This team rarely has played to its potential in 2013 and doesn't seem to play with any confidence until something good happens. And if good things don't happen, the confidence to dig out of a hole seems sorely lacking. This squad, particularly offensively, seems to question its ability to get the job done any time adversity hits. OU needs to find the players who have the unyielding confidence that they can make plays, like receiver Jalen Saunders, and build around them for the next three games. The Sooners need to find some way to get back to the belief that they can excel against anyone if they execute and focus on themselves, not the opponent. If they do, it could help lift the program to greater heights in 2014.
June is nearly over, and as we head into July, it's time to update the Big 12 recruiting scorecard. You can see each full class by clicking on the team name, but you'll need ESPN Insider access to see the full coverage.

Here's where the Big 12 stands for the respective 2013 classes, which can't sign letters of intent until February.

Remember, this card is in pencil. Players are free to switch commitments until they sign a letter of intent with a school.

1. Texas Longhorns

Total commits: 15
ESPN 150 commits: 7
Key commits: QB Tyrone Swoopes, C Darius James, OT Jake Raulerson, OT Kent Perkins
Class update: Texas lost the nation's top receiver, Ricky Seals-Jones, but could pick him up later down the line. It added junior-college tight end Geoff Swaim and safety Erik Huhn.

2. Oklahoma Sooners

Total commits: 12
ESPN 150 commits: 4
Key commits: RB Greg Bryant, RB Keith Ford, DE D.J. Ward, QB Cody Thomas
Class update: Oklahoma added three commits since our last update, including a new ESPN 150 member in Thomas. It also added linebacker Jordan Mastrogiovanni, receiver Jordan Smallwood and athlete Austin Bennett.

3. Baylor Bears

Total commits: 13
ESPNU 150 commits: 1
Key commits: WR Robbie Rhodes, QB Chris Johnson, OLB Raaquan Davis, RB Johnny Jefferson
Class update: Baylor got the biggest pickup in the entire Big 12 since our last update, adding the nation's No. 5 receiver in Rhodes. That allowed the Bears to crack the national top 25, but they were already third in the Big 12. Baylor also added safeties Taion Sells and Austin Jupe as well as outside linebacker Xavier Phillips.

4. Oklahoma State Cowboys

Total commits: 10
ESPNU 150 commits: 0
Key commits: WR Fred Ross Jr., WR Marcell Ateman, DT Vincent Taylor, OT Zach Crabtree
Class update: The Cowboys added four commits between our April and May updates, then added five more in the past month to leapfrog Texas Tech. OSU has three commits in the ESPN 300, and six players with three stars. It added Taylor, quarterback Luke Del Rio, safety Jordan Sterns, guard Rami Hammad and running back Corion Webster.

5. TCU Horned Frogs

Total commits: 9
ESPNU 150 commits: 0
Key commits: OLB Paul Whitmill, OLB Sammy Douglas, OG Patrick Morris
Class update: TCU added five commits since our last update, and now has seven three-star commits. The Horned Frogs hopped over Kansas State and Texas Tech after adding defensive end Bryson Henderson, tight end Charlie Reid, cornerback Steve Wesley, tight end Bryson Burtnett and safety George Baltimore. (Future All-Name teamer?)

6. West Virginia Mountaineers

Total commits: 7
ESPNU 150 commits: 0
Key commits: QB Chavas Rawlins, OT Marcell Lazard, RB DeShawn Coleman
Class update: WVU added three commits since we last updated, getting a nice boost from a slow start on the trail. Three players are four-stars and four are three stars. Inside linebacker Darrien Howard pledged to the Mountaineers, as did guard Tyler Tezeno and inside linebacker Elijah Wellman. Howard is the class' first player from Texas.

7. Texas Tech Red Raiders

Total commits: 7
ESPNU 150 commits: 0
Key commits: ATH Devin Lauderdale, WR Dylan Cantrell, OG Baylen Brown
Class update: Texas Tech didn't add anyone since our last update, but has two four-star recruits and three three-star commits.

8. Kansas Jayhawks

Total commits: 5
ESPNU 150 commits: 0
Key commits: TE Ben Johnson, LB Kellen Ash, QB Jordan Darling
Class update: Kansas added two commits since our last update -- Darling and cornerback Colin Spencer -- and jumped ahead of in-state rival K-State. Each of Kansas' commits is ranked.

9. Kansas State Wildcats

Total commits: 4
ESPNU 150 commits: 0
Key commits: ILB Tanner Wood, DE Jordan Willis, WR LeAndrew Gordon
Class update: Kansas State hasn't added a commit since our update a month ago, but all four commits have at least three stars.

10. Iowa State Cyclones

Total commits: 4
ESPNU 150 commits: 0
Key commits: QB Trevor Hodge, OG Jacob Homa, S Kamari Syrie
Class notes: Iowa State wasn't even on the scoreboard the last time we updated, getting all four of its 2013 commits in the last month. However, only one recruit, Hodge, is ranked. It also added Homa, Syrie and tight end Emmanuel Bibbs.

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