Big 12: Chuka Ndulue

Oklahoma cruised to its second win of the season, hammering Tulsa 52-7 on Saturday afternoon at H.A. Chapman Stadium in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Sooners dominated on the ground, through the air and without the football as Bob Stoops' team looked worthy of its No. 4 AP ranking.

Here's a closer look at five plays that changed the game, what they said and what those plays could mean for the future.

Trevor Knight's 54-yard pass to Sterling Shepard on OU's first play from scrimmage

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The Sooners sent a message from the start of the game with Shepard catching a flip pass from Knight and racing down the sideline, aided by a key block from Keith Ford, for a gain of 54 yards. Oklahoma grabbed immediate momentum with the play, which led to a seven-yard touchdown run from Ford to give Oklahoma a 7-0 advantage less than a minute into the game. The play removed any doubt about the Sooners' focus despite being a clear favorite heading into kickoff.

They said it: "Sterling is a special player; he has a chance to have a special year. He can run it, he can get behind you, he can return it, he's really pretty special." -- OU coach Bob Stoops

Knight's 31-yard touchdown run

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The Sooners had already taken control of the game before Knight's 31-yard gallop into the end zone, but the play was a glimpse at just how lethal their offense can become with Knight behind center. Oklahoma spread the field with an empty backfield, then Knight went right down the middle of the Golden Hurricane defense, made a man miss in the secondary and was gone. That will be difficult for any team on the Sooners' schedule to defend, because Knight is proving he has the ability to make teams pay with his arm and legs.

They said it: "They were just running out of there [the middle], so Heup [offensive coordinator Josh Heupel] dialed it up and it opened up for me." -- Knight

Alex Ross' 82-yard touchdown run

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One play after Jordan Phillips' fumble return for touchdown was erased by a penalty, Ross put the points on the scoreboard anyway with a 82-yard run that put his speed and strength on full display. The sophomore from Tulsa, Oklahoma, has created a buzz with his terrific speed and size at 6-foot-1 and 221 pounds, but this long touchdown score was the first time we've seen it in a game for the Sooners. His big-play ability could be a key asset this season.

They said it: "If I had gotten chased down, I never would have been able to see another day after that. I was trying to [make sure] I'd never get caught." -- Ross

Geneo Grissom's 38-yard interception return for touchdown

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Grissom looks like he's finally found a home as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker in Oklahoma's 3-4 defensive system. He drops back in coverage at times, yet plays in the defensive interior in the Sooners' pass-rush packages, a sign of his versatility. On Saturday, he dropped into coverage to intercept a pass from Tulsa quarterback Dane Evans and cruised into the end zone after stiff-arming Evans, who was the final Golden Hurricane standing between himself and paydirt.

They said it: "I started licking my chops. I feel like I'm more physical than most quarterbacks. I might even slow down just so I can get a stiff arm. It's all fun. I like making plays." -- Grissom, on what went through his mind when he saw Evans was going to try to stop him

They said it, part II: "Reporters always ask me, 'Have I found a home yet?' I think my home is the end zone." -- Grissom

Shepard's 48-yard reception in the third quarter

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It wasn't a game-changing play against Tulsa, but Shepard's 48-yard reception got Oklahoma out of trouble from deep in its own territory in the middle of the third quarter. It was a key play to give the Sooners some breathing room and an even bigger play for the future. Knight's accurate deep throw is a great sign, as he can keep defenses honest and become a defensive coordinator's nightmare if he can consistently drop accurate deep balls into the arms of OU receivers. Shepard finished the game with eight receptions for 177 yards and one touchdown.

They said it: "I think you're going to see all year that he's tough. If you're going to stop the running game, then you've got to play a lot more one-on-one with him. The fact they're very balanced in what they do makes him an especially tough matchup." -- Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship, on Shepard

They said it, part II: "Trevor's been doing a great job putting those on the money." -- Shepard

BONUS PLAY: Jordan Phillips' nullified touchdown

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The best touchdown of the day is nowhere to be found on the score summary. Phillips rumbled 69 yards for a touchdown that was erased by a penalty on Chuka Ndulue, who was blocking behind the play. Here's what Phillips had to say after the game:

On what he thought after he found out it didn't count: "Man... that's as G-rated as I can keep it."

On if Ndulue owes him dinner: "We're going to Chipotle tomorrow, so it's OK."

On his sack and forced fumble which started it all: "I knew which way they were going to slide, so I set up the guard and it just opened up for me. When he saw me, I saw the ball come out, so I pushed him and I got a good bounce, so I took it."
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.
Over the next two weeks, we’ll be analyzing the depth charts of every Big 12 team coming out of the spring. On Tuesday, we continue the series with Oklahoma:

Offense (projected starters in bold)

QB: Trevor Knight (So.), Cody Thomas (RFr.), Justice Hansen (Fr.)

[+] EnlargeKeith Ford
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsAfter receiving only 23 carries last season as a freshman, OU's Keith Ford will likely be the starting tailback in 2014.
The Sooners feel great about putting the offense in the hands of Knight after his Allstate Sugar Bowl MVP performance against Alabama. The sophomore looked like a future star against the Crimson Tide while leading the Sooners to a 45-31 upset win. OU is inexperienced behind Knight with a pair of freshman in Thomas and Hansen. Former Texas Tech quarterback Baker Mayfield, who transferred to OU in January, would be the perfect fit behind Knight but won’t be eligible to play until 2015. If he plays consistent and remains healthy, Knight could lead his team to a College Football Playoff berth. If not, OU could flounder below expectations and look back upon the 2014 season as a missed opportunity.

RB: Keith Ford (So.), Alex Ross (So.), Daniel Brooks (So.)

Ford exits spring as the favorite to start in the backfield, but he didn’t take the job and hide during 15 spring practices. Ross was one of the stars of the spring as he continually made plays during scrimmages, and Brooks was one of the standouts during the spring game. OU has several talented options at running back and is poised to add two top freshman runners in Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine.

FB/TE: Aaron Ripkowski (Sr.), Dimitri Flowers (Fr.), Blake Bell (Sr.)

OU uses fullbacks and tight ends in similar ways as both positions spend their meeting time with tight ends coach Jay Boulware. Ripkowski is one of the unsung heroes on the entire roster. He played a critical role during the team's strong finish to the 2013 season. Flowers has stepped on campus ready to make an impact with his versatility and football IQ after enrolling in school early. Bell has moved over from quarterback and looks poised to make an impact as a pass catcher with his size and athleticism. It’s a talented and versatile group that is likely to get overlooked this fall but could be the foundation of any success the team has on offense.

WR: Sterling Shepard (Jr.), Derrick Woods (So.), Durron Neal (Jr.), K.J. Young (RFr.), Jordan Smallwood (RFr.), Austin Bennett (So.)

Shepard should be one of the Big 12’s top receivers if Knight continues to develop as a passer. OU badly needs someone to emerge alongside Shepard if it hopes to have a strong passing game to help make the 2014 version of the offense more balanced than the 2013 version. There’s talent on campus but nobody separated themselves during the spring, opening the door for a freshman like Michiah Quick to step on campus and into the lineup this fall.

C: Ty Darlington (Jr.)

G: Dionte Savage (Sr.), Nila Kasitati (Jr.), Tony Feo (Sr.), Adam Shead (Sr.), Tyler Evans (Sr.)

T: Tyrus Thompson (Sr.), Daryl Williams (Sr.), Josiah St. John (Sr.)

Darlington has been groomed to replace All-Big 12 center Gabe Ikard and could slide into the starting lineup with ease. Nonetheless, adding competition at this position would help the Sooners. OU is fairly deep at guard and tackle which should allow competition for playing time to help everyone improve. Williams is the anchor of the entire offensive line and should be one of the Big 12’s top tackles this fall. The Sooners should have one of the better offensive lines in the Big 12.

DEFENSE

DE: Charles Tapper (Jr.), Geneo Grissom (Sr.), Matt Dimon (So.)

DT: Jordan Phillips (Jr.) or Chuka Ndulue (Sr.), Jordan Wade (So.)

[+] EnlargeDominique Alexander
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsSooners linebacker Dominique Alexander emerged as a playmaker as a freshman.
OU’s defensive line could be one of the most disruptive and deepest in the nation. The Sooners should easily go six or seven deep along the defensive line, particularly if Phillips returns to his early 2013 form after suffering a back injury last season. Tapper and Grissom have the ability to be disruptive against anyone, and the overall depth on the roster should allow OU to come at offenses in waves with fresh bodies rotating throughout games. If OU makes a national title run, the defensive line will likely be the driving force.

LB: Dominique Alexander (So.), Frank Shannon (Jr.), Eric Striker (Jr.), Jordan Evans (So.), Devante Bond (Jr.)

Striker could be the Big 12’s best pass rusher, Alexander has the potential to be one of the Big 12’s best before his career is over, Evans could take a major step forward as a sophomore and Bond impressed as a junior college transfer this spring. If Shannon returns to good standing after missing part of spring due to personal issues, this is a good, experienced group. OU’s linebackers are one of the main reasons its defense could be the most athletic and versatile in the conference this fall.

CB: Zack Sanchez (So.), Julian Wilson (Sr.), Dakota Austin (So.), Stanvon Taylor (So.), Cortez Johnson (Jr.)

Here’s where things get interesting for the defense. Wilson returns as the starting nickelback and a productive veteran in the secondary. Sanchez is solid and took his game to another level this spring as he strives to be the type of coverage cornerback that teams don’t want to test. But the Sooners need someone to step up on the opposite side of the field with Austin ending the spring as a starter but remaining untested. No matter who wins the job, they will be picked on repeatedly until they prove they aren’t the weak link of the secondary. Defensive back is one of the few unsettled and unproven spots on the entire roster.

S: Quentin Hayes (Sr.), Hatari Byrd (So.), Ahmad Thomas (So.)

Hayes was quietly one of the better safeties in the Big 12 in 2013. He was productive with 75 tackles and solid in coverage. Byrd and Thomas have matured and started to develop as sophomores and should be key contributors this fall. Nonetheless, freshman Steven Parker has the talent to step in an earn a role this summer. If Parker is as good as advertised, OU will go two deep with talented options.
NORMAN, Okla. -- Oklahoma is dreaming of a national title run that would make its Allstate Sugar Bowl destruction of Alabama an afterthought.

If that dream turns into reality, the Sooners will likely have their defensive line to thank. As the defensive line went, so went the Sooners in 2013, as the group sparked the Sugar Bowl win yet faltered in OU’s losses to Baylor and Texas.

[+] EnlargeGeneo Grissom
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesOklahoma's Geneo Grissom is hoping to build off a two-sack performance in the Sugar Bowl win over Alabama.
It’s hard to imagine the defensive line taking a step backward in 2014. In fact, the group could end up becoming one of the best defensive lines of Bob Stoops' tenure after entering the spring of 2013 as one of the biggest question marks on the roster.

“It has a chance to be one of our deeper and better ones,” Stoops said. “Imagine that, in a year's period of time.”

Every significant contributor returns along the defensive line, including All-Big 12 end Charles Tapper, and the group should be boosted even more if tackle Jordan Phillips, who was playing at an all-conference level early last season, returns to full health after a back injury ended his sophomore season early. From top to bottom, it’s one of the deepest units in years.

“Yeah, no question,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said when asked if this would be one of the deepest defensive lines he has coached.

“You get Jordan Phillips back and we can go two deep and not really slide much. Tapper and Geneo [Grissom] are difference-makers, and the other guys will be difference makers as they continue to grow too. Chuka [Ndulue] is the old, reliable horse in there that holds down the fort, he pushes things to the other guys. They all work together extremely well. We have a unique group and they play hard.”

The bowl win over Alabama was a glimpse at just how good OU's defensive line could be. Crimson Tide quarterback AJ McCarron, who was sacked seven times, probably still has nightmares of defenders setting up camp in the backfield. Make no mistake, OU won the game in the trenches and hopes to continue that trend in 2014.

The returnees have proven to be quality Big 12 defensive linemen, yet their playing time is far from secure. The development and growth of several young defensive linemen has spurred Mike Stoops' belief they can go two deep without a drop off. Matt Dimon, Mike Onuoha, Charles Walker and Matt Romar are just a few of the young defensive linemen on the roster who have increased the competition.

“There’s a huge competition,” Ndulue said. “There’s a bunch of great guys out there, and any one of them could be the starting man. There’s just more drive because you want to play, so we just know that your 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. It makes our [meeting] room a lot better.”

At the center of it all is defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery, who joined the Sooners in February 2013 to jump start a disappointing defensive front. He has done that and more, proving to be stellar position coach after arriving from Michigan with a reputation as an elite recruiter.

“The defensive line is where the game is played,” Mike Stoops said. “They are very disruptive and that is what you need to have. [Montgomery] is very good with technique and he has a great relationship with the players, and that has all been very positive. They play hard and they play with technique, and that is where it all starts up front. They have been a catalyst for us.”

Few envisioned the Sooners’ defensive line becoming one of the Big 12’s best in 2013. Yet it was.

“It wasn’t supposed to be a very strong group for us a year ago, but they really flipped it and now it is one of the best groups in the country,” Mike Stoops said. “Again, hopefully we can get [Phillips] back and make this group even stronger. It can be a dominating group if we can get him back healthy and playing at the level he was playing at a year ago.”

Now the defensive line is looking to be called the nation’s best, with the goal of being the driving force behind a College Football Playoff berth.

“It all starts with the big guys,” Ndulue said. “If we’re not being dominant, getting driven back into the linebackers, it’s going to be a long day for us. If we’re playing on their side of the line of scrimmage, we can do something great.”
NORMAN, Okla. -- Oklahoma’s Sugar Bowl win over Alabama could end up being a blessing or a curse.

The nation watched with eyebrows raised as the Sooners throttled the two-time reigning BCS champions 45-31 in January then rode the momentum from that victory to a strong finish on the recruiting trail. The win could be a blessing as it showed the Sooners their potential, bringing visions of a national championship run into focus.

The downside? Those same players could hear the praise showered upon them in the offseason while forgetting the little steps and hard work that helped the Sooners overcome their inconsistent passing game to win 11 games.

[+] EnlargeKeith Ford
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiSophomore running back Keith Ford is one of many hungry young Sooners that are eager to build on last season's success.
OU coach Bob Stoops is confident that won’t happen to his team. The veteran coach is convinced his team is as hungry as ever as OU’s spring football gets under way on Saturday.

“Talking to Jerry Schmidt, our strength coach, and all of our coaches who have been working and developing our guys out of season really believe that it’s been our best or one of our best years,” he said. “We’re really excited about the overall attitude and preparation and the way our guys are working.”

OU needs that dedication to continue, as the Sooners could be counting on several young players to fill critical roles in 2014, including sophomore running back Keith Ford, sophomore cornerback Stanvon Taylor and sophomore safety Ahmad Thomas. Those three are just a few signees from the Sooners' Class of 2013 who need to step up if a national title run is realistic.

Those young players get their chance to shine, as the start of spring marks the beginning of an intriguing time of year for Stoops.

“It’s really exciting,” Stoops said. “Probably my most exciting time of the year because you get to see the young guys that we’ve seen in practice now in a more competitive setting and fighting for jobs and making plays.”

OU’s closed-practice policy means those young players start to make their move out of the public eye. Nonetheless, those players who make names for themselves in March and April often become contributors in the fall. Defensive end Charles Tapper’s strong spring in 2013 was a precursor of his All-Big 12 performance as a sophomore last season.

“Not everybody in the outside world gets to see it,” Stoops said. “As a coach, [you] get to see it in scrimmages or when we go good against good, we start to see them make those kind of plays. It’s exciting when guys start to really figure it out and get ready to play.”

Ford, Taylor and Thomas are among several Sooners who played limited roles as true freshman as OU went 11-2 during their first season. But making an impact on special teams and proving themselves ready to become regulars in their second season are two different things. Those special teams duties can give them a taste of performing on the big stage while making them hungry to make an even bigger impact in the future. It’s one reason Stoops expects a hungry team to take the field this weekend.

“It’s always that way,” Stoops said. “Guys who have played a little bit or haven’t played at all are really champing at the bit to show they’re ready for it and that it’s their time now. That’s why it’s always so exciting.”

The Sooners' reaction to last season's success could be a concern because the majority of the roster had never won 11 games or a BCS bowl before last season. Safety Quentin Hayes, nickelback Julian Wilson, tight end Blake Bell and defensive lineman Chuka Ndulue are among several Sooners who were redshirting when OU last accomplished both of those feats in 2010, but nobody had been a core contributor on a Sooners squad that had that type of success before the 2013 campaign.

Yet Stoops seemed unconcerned during his pre-spring media session on Thursday.

“We’ve had probably the best winter we’ve ever had,” he said. “So, they’re not sitting back thinking about that and not doing what they need to do to move forward. I think more than anything, it’s made them hungrier to build on and to keep improving.”

Big 12 pre-spring breakdown: DL

February, 24, 2014
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As we wait for the start of spring ball, we’re examining and ranking the positional situations of every team in the Big 12, continuing Monday with defensive line. Some of these outlooks will look different after the spring. But here’s how we see the defensive lines at the moment:

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesOklahoma end Charles Tapper will lead the Big 12's best defensive line in 2014.
1. Oklahoma: D-line began as a weakness but quickly turned into a strength under first-year position coach Jerry Montgomery. End Charles Tapper was an All-Big 12 selection as a sophomore, and tackle Jordan Phillips was on his way to earning similar honors before a back injury ended his season prematurely. Both players are back. So is Geneo Grissom, who had three sacks in the bowl win over Alabama. Nose guard Jordan Wade earned a starting role late in 2013, and Chuka Ndulue will be a starter for a third season. Basically, the entire rotation returns. If Phillips rebounds from the injury, this could prove to be Oklahoma’s finest D-line since 2009, when NFL All-Pro Gerald McCoy roamed the middle.

2. TCU: DE Devonte Fields, the Associated Press’ Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year as a freshman in 2012, had an empty season in 2013 thanks to a suspension, then a season-ending foot injury. If Fields can return to the player he was, TCU will be formidable up front. Chucky Hunter was a second-team All-Big 12 pick inside last season, and he’ll be flanked by an array of experienced tackles in Davion Pierson and Tevin Lawson, who were all part of the rotation last season. Ends Terrell Lathan, James McFarland and Mike Tuaua, who combined for 11 sacks in 2013, all return as well. Even with DT Jon Lewis giving up football, TCU's D-line figures to be as deep as any in the league.

3. Texas: Cedric Reed, one of the best sack men in the Big 12 last season, returns after giving the NFL a cursory thought. The Longhorns have to replace Big 12 co-Defensive Player of the Year Jackson Jeffcoat on the other side, but ESPN 300 recruit Derick Roberson, the No. 8 DE in the Class of 2014, could help right away. The Longhorns should also be stout inside, with run-stuffing tackles Malcom Brown and Desmond Jackson back to clog the middle.

4. Kansas State: Ryan Mueller, who was eighth nationally with 11.5 sacks last season, comes back after a breakout All-Big 12 season. Travis Britz is an all-conference-caliber tackle and gives K-State one of the better one-two punches on the D-line in the league. Joining them will be Terrell Clinkscales, who was the No. 4 junior college DT in the 2014 class. The Wildcats pried Clinkscales away from Nebraska, and at 315 pounds he could be the perfect complement to Britz, who relies more on quickness.

[+] EnlargeShawn Oakman
John Rivera/Icon SMIBaylor defensive end Shawn Oakman will play a bigger role next season.
5. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys lose two-time All-Big 12 tackle Calvin Barnett. James Castleman, however, will be a three-year starter, and end Jimmy Bean had a career night in the Cotton Bowl with three tackles for loss. The key to the Cowboys fielding one of the better lines in the league again will be whether Ben Hughes, Vincent Taylor and/or Vili Leveni can emerge inside after redshirting in 2013. All three are promising prospects, especially Taylor, who was an ESPN 300 recruit in the 2013 class.

6. Baylor: The Bears feature two of the more intriguing defensive linemen in the league. DE Shawn Oakman, a former Penn State transfer with tremendous length at 6-foot-9, finished sixth in the league with 12.5 tackles for loss last season, but he tailed off in Big 12 play. Baylor will ask him to play a much bigger role along the line, and he has the potential to give the Bears a unique playmaker there. On the inside, Baylor will lean more on Andrew Billings, who was part of the DT rotation as a freshman. If both Billings and Oakman play up to their vast potential, Baylor could be a handful up front.

7. West Virginia: The Mountaineers lose two of three starters along the D-line, including second-team All-Big 12 end Will Clarke. West Virginia is hoping for big things from DE Kyle Rose, who played a lot as a sophomore. Dontrill Hyman will likely fill a starting role on the other side, though he could get pushed for time by Eric Kinsey and Noble Nwachukwu, who both will be in their third year in the program. The Mountaineers will lean on Christian Brown and Darrien Howard at nose guard. Howard was an ESPN 300 recruit last year and played as a freshman. There’s some talent and potential here.

8. Iowa State: Like Texas Tech, Iowa State loaded up on immediate defensive line help, signing three juco defensive ends in Dalyou Pierson, Terry Ayeni and Gabe Luna, who is enrolled already for spring ball. Those three together with All-Big 12 honorable-mention selection Cory Morrissey and sophomore Mitchell Meyers should give Iowa State a solid rotation at end. Rodney Coe, who started the last four games, will anchor the Cyclones inside.

9. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders lose their two best defensive linemen in Kerry Hyder and Dartwan Bush, and Tech got pushed around up front anyway last season. Coach Kliff Kingsbury recognized this deficiency and signed four juco defensive linemen, all of whom have a chance to play immediately. Of the returning linemen, Branden Jackson was by far the most productive, totaling nine tackles for loss and four sacks as a starter.

10. Kansas: Despite also losing two starters, the Jayhawks have experience up front. Defensive captain Keon Stowers is back after manning the middle in 2013. Ben Goodman returns as well in Kansas’ “buck” role, and he is coming off a very solid sophomore season. Goodman’s backup, Michael Reynolds, and rotation players Tedarian Johnson and Ty McKinney give the Jayhawks depth.
In the next two weeks, we’ll continue to close the door on the 2013 season. Every Big 12 team suffered at least one loss during the regular season and losses can be as beneficial as wins. In this team-by-team series, we’ll take a look at the best loss of the season for each Big 12 team, including what happened and why it matters.

On Tuesday, we focus on Oklahoma.

Best loss: 36-20 against Texas in the Red River Rivalry, in a game the Sooners were expected to cruise to victory.

What happened: The Sooners were dominated. It’s just that simple. The Longhorns had two running backs run for more than 100 yards in Johnathan Gray (123) and Malcolm Brown (120) and quarterback Case McCoy made plays when he needed to make plays. Most importantly, Texas' defense, which entered the game as one of the laughingstocks of the Big 12 after a horrible nonconference showing, shut down OU’s offense on third down (2 of 13) and stuffed the Sooners’ running game (130 yards, 3.9 yards per carry).

Why it was helpful: The loss humbled the Sooners. They entered the game as the nation’s No. 12 team with victories over Notre Dame and TCU and an eye on inserting themselves into the BCS title chase. Sixty minutes at the Cotton Bowl changed all of that.

And the Sooners were better for it.

The loss showed OU how important its focus and preparation was and how thin the line between winning and losing can be. If the Sooners hadn’t lost to Texas, they probably wouldn’t have had the competitive resolve that emerged in wins over Texas Tech, Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Alabama. The Red River Rivalry loss forced the Sooners to renew their focus and dug out their competitive nature as it ignited doubts about the Sooners' chances to win double-digit games in 2013.

Revealing stat: 19.1 average yards per drive. The Sooners had 12 drives and averaged 19.1 yards per drive, their worst average in 2013 and a sign of the dominance of Texas' defense. Their season average was 33.2 yards per drive.

Quote of note: “We just needed to be more physical at the line of scrimmage and didn't do that. They out-executed us and we were driven back. That's pretty much it.” -- OU defensive lineman Chuka Ndulue.
NORMAN, Okla. — Oklahoma’s defense was among the Big 12’s best in 2013.

And it could be even better in 2014.

[+] EnlargeMatt Dimon
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesFreshman defensive end Matt Dimon and other young players will make OU's defensive line one of the nation's deepest.
Freshman linebacker Dominique Alexander, sophomore defensive end Charles Tapper and redshirt freshman cornerback Zack Sanchez were key playmakers while helping OU’s defense finish first in the Big 12 in total yards per game allowed at 336.3 yards. Other young defenders could help the Sooners defense next season and OU’s coaching staff got a glimpse at some of the young talent on the roster as their young players took the majority of the practice repetitions earlier this week.

“All of the young players are improving," defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “That’s critical this time of year, you could see them in three days starting to get better.”

The defensive line is quickly looking like it could be a clear strength of the defense with freshman Matt Dimon joining redshirting freshmen Charles Walker, Matt Romar and D.J. Ward along a defensive front that is poised to return every starter in 2014.

“We have a lot of guys coming up,” defensive end Chuka Ndulue said. “When they get it figured out, because right now they are just doing it off of raw talent and making plays … They are kind of like Tap (Charles Tapper). Just imagine a bunch of Charles Tappers running up and down the field. That’s going to be good.”

Walker, in particular, has impressed his teammates during his redshirt season on the scout team defense.

“He’s a monster, a man child out there,” Sanchez said.

A former high school running back, Walker was an late addition to OU’s 2013 recruiting class. The Sooners are hopeful that Walker translates his raw potential into consistent production in 2014. If he does, OU’s defensive line could be one of the deepest units in recent memory.

“Charles Walker on the defensive line has a great future ahead of him,” center Gabe Ikard said. “He might be the most explosive guy we have on the team right now. If he is able to develop the skill work that Coach [Jerry] Montgomery has been able to develop in the guys that are playing right now, he could be an animal on the football field because he is extremely explosive.”

In the secondary, L.J. Moore has impressed at cornerback. Moore, a true freshman, saw limited action in early games this season but wasn’t a consistent contributor during the Sooners’ road to the Sugar Bowl.

“L.J. has been doing his thing,” Sanchez said. “He got moved to the scout team throughout the year but he’s back and he’s competing. That’s big. When you get moved to the scout team, sometimes it can do things to your confidence, you kind of don’t want to be here, you don’t care but these past couple of days it’s been good to see that from him.”

Those young standouts could combine with Alexander and Jordan Evans, who each played well as true freshman linebackers, to give OU talented freshman and/or sophomores along the defensive line, at linebacker and in the secondary.

“It’s been great to see these guys out there,” sophomore linebacker Eric Striker said of the young talent on the roster. “To see them do [well] is a good thing for the future.”
NORMAN, Okla. -- It seemed like all hope was lost.

Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops had just announced defensive tackle Jordan Phillips would miss the remainder of the season with a back injury during his weekly press conference in mid-October. One week earlier, Stoops had announced linebacker Corey Nelson would miss the rest of the year with a pectoral injury.

Just that quickly, the Sooners were eyeing the bulk of their Big 12 conference schedule without two of their top defenders. Phillips had been emerging as a force in the middle after the season opened with lots of questions about OU’s defensive interior, and Nelson had become the anchor of OU’s defense after the season began with major concerns about the lack of production from the linebackers.

[+] EnlargeDominique Alexander
William Purnell/Icon SMIFreshman Dominique Alexander is one of many Sooners who have stepped up on defense in the wake of injuries.
The Sooners were back to square one. And with limited options. Defensive tackles Jordan Wade and Torrea Peterson stepped up to replace Phillips and linebacker Dominique Alexander filled in for Nelson.

A clear step backward was expected.

But it hasn’t really happened. For all intents and purposes, this Sooners defense has proven to have much better depth than anyone would have anticipated when the season began.

“No one thought we had any D-Linemen, now we’re two-deep,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “Dominique was a pleasant surprise, coming in and playing at the level he’s played at. We needed that or we couldn’t have survived. Guys have really come through.”

The stats have jumped in the last five games since Phillips and Nelson were lost for the year, with points allowed per game, yards per play and yards per game increasing. But so has the quality of the competition. And OU’s defense has remained the best and most consistent unit on the team, even without Nelson and Phillips.

“Some of the younger guys are playing are playing above their age,” defensive end Chuka Ndulue said. “They’re playing at a higher level than most young guys are expected to play.”

Alexander has 52 tackles in the last five games, averaging 10.4 tackles per game while becoming one of the most productive players on the defense. Wade and Peterson haven’t done much to be noticed, which is a good thing. As the anchors of a 3-man front, they aren’t expected to get numbers as much as they’re counted on not to get pushed around. The fact Alexander and fellow linebacker Frank Shannon usually sit atop the postgame tackle list speaks to solid contributions by Wade and Peterson, who are allowing the linebacker duo the freedom to make plays.

“We have a lot of positives our guys are taking away, even though you lose players it’s helping us transition,” Mike Stoops said. “Those are good things.”

The Sooners defensive coordinator points to the expectation of being a Sooner and the mental approach as the foundation of OU’s ability to handle the injuries without complete and total disaster.

“Consistently being tough and having pride about the way we play, that’s where it all starts,” Mike Stoops said. “That’s the most important element of defense, your attitude about it, regardless of who is in there, nobody cares who is playing. It’s how you play and how you attack each preparation each week. Our guys have been really consistent in those departments and that’s given us a chance.”

The ability to overcome those injuries has OU excited about the future, particularly with Alexander and Wade each in their freshman seasons and several other freshman, like cornerbacks Zack Sanchez and Stanvon Taylor, showing good long-term upside.

“You lose two leaders and two impact players, but at the same time it shows you what we can do with the players we have right now,” Ndulue said. “We’re playing at a high level with those two guys gone, so imagine the possibility if they were still here. We’re Oklahoma. We have pride. We have good players. Whoever is up to play has to be ready to step out there and make plays.”

The Sooners defense isn’t littered with five-star talent, a trend that’s led to some unrest by the Sooner faithful, yet the defense seems littered with plenty of young talent that has upgraded the overall speed and athleticism of the unit. Seeing young players like Alexander and Sanchez step up this season has validated the Sooners’ ability to evaluate somewhat overlooked recruits who can make an impact early in their careers.

“Watching some of our younger players play Saturday, we have a lot of good players that just haven’t had the opportunities,” Mike Stoops said.

But most importantly it’s been the expectation to excel which seems to have allowed OU to handle the loss of two critical pieces in the middle of the season and continue to field a defense that’s played well enough to win every game this season.

“If they’re at Oklahoma, they’re expected to play at a high level,” Mike Stoops said. “That’s all there is to it.”

Sooners' Big 12 hopes dwindling

October, 12, 2013
10/12/13
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DALLAS -- Dressed in all-white uniforms with crimson-and-gold trim, a shell-shocked group of players sat before the media after Oklahoma’s 36-20 loss to Texas, yet the Sooners didn’t really have answers.

Two hours earlier, on the field, they didn’t really have answers either.

[+] EnlargeBlake Bell
Jackson Laizure/Getty ImagesBlake Bell looked like a totally different quarterback Saturday.
Texas outplayed, outschemed, outexecuted and outcoached Oklahoma on its way to an upset win at the Cotton Bowl on Saturday. Some may say the Sooners didn’t take the Longhorns seriously, entering the game as clear favorites with UT struggling. Yet anyone taking away all expectations and just watching what occurred on the Cotton Bowl turf would assume the Longhorns entered the game as the favorite and simply took care of business.

“I don’t think we were overconfident,” Sooners center Gabe Ikard said. “I think we got outplayed.”

Quarterback Blake Bell's interception was returned 31 yards by Texas’ Chris Whaley for a touchdown, the Sooners’ punt team gave up an 85-yard touchdown by UT’s Daje Johnson, and OU was 2-of-13 on third down and allowed UT to convert 13 of 20 third downs. All this from a team that many expected to compete for the Big 12 championship and maybe even insert itself into the BCS title conversation after a stellar 5-0 start to the season.

“You give up a touchdown on offense, give up a touchdown on special teams, can’t convert on third down, can’t stop them on third down,” Ikard said. “All of these things adding up to something that was really poor on our part.”

That’s phrasing it nicely. Not to mention, OU’s offensive and defensive lines consistently lost the battle up front, as a Sooners rushing game that averaged 246 yards entering the game was held to 130 rushing yards and 3.9 yards per carry.

“They dominated up front, the offensive and defensive lines,” fullback Trey Millard said. “That was one of the things we wanted to focus on, and they beat us in that aspect. We wanted to play better than we did, get more consistent runs.”

Meanwhile, the Longhorns were running all over the Sooners defense, which had looked much improved through five games. On Saturday? Not so much. Johnathan Gray (29 carries, 123 yards) and Malcolm Brown (23 carries, 120 yards) became the first Longhorns duo to rush for more than 100 yards in the same game against OU.

While the Sooners' rush defense was nonexistent, Bell wasn’t much better in his first Red River Rivalry start. The junior finished 12-of-26 for 133 yards and two interceptions while looking jittery and uncomfortable in the pocket, the complete opposite of how he played in the Sooners’ 35-21 win over Notre Dame on Sept. 28.

“I’m the same player today I was at Notre Dame,” Bell said after the loss.

He sure didn’t look like it.

It all adds up to one of the worst performances of the Bob Stoops era, as there was never really any point in the loss when OU looked comfortable or confident.

“I expect more out of us,” Ikard said. “We weren’t able to get the job done today, and it starts with me and my guys [along the offensive line]. We’re a much better team than we played today.”

OU entered the game as one of the favorites to win the Big 12 alongside Baylor. Now, it's looking up at Texas and Texas Tech in the Big 12 standings. Unless the Sooners drastically improve in the weeks following Saturday’s debacle, they could slide even further down the standings.

The Sooners insist they are still in race to win the Big 12, and they’re right, as the 2009 Longhorns were the last Big 12 team to go undefeated to win the conference.

“We had one loss in the Big 12 last year, and we got a co-championship,” Millard said. “It’s still out there for us.”

But they’re not going to insert themselves back into the Big 12 title hunt playing like they did against the Longhorns.

“We just have to win all of our games,” defensive tackle Chuka Ndulue said. “Whatever happens, happens.”
NORMAN, Okla. -- Oklahoma believes its defensive front and linebackers have improved after a season full of disappointing production from both groups a year ago.

The Sooners get the chance to prove it on Saturday when they travel to South Bend, Ind., for a rematch with Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish won the battle in the trenches during their 30-13 win over OU in 2012.

"If you go to the University of Oklahoma, you have a sense of pride," defensive lineman Chuka Ndulue said. "Last year, what happened in the fourth quarter, they flat out beat us. It's in the back of our minds, because we're prideful players."

[+] EnlargeChuka Ndulue
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsChuka Ndulue said last year's loss to Notre Dame has stayed with him for a couple of reasons.
After a horrible end to the 2012 season, OU's defense is off to a terrific start this season. The Sooners rank among the top 20 nationally in yards allowed (291.3), rushing yards allowed (100.67), yards per pass attempt (5.06) and third-down conversion percentage (27.3 percent). The defensive line and linebackers have looked faster, more athletic and more aggressive this season, helping OU's defense get off to a quick start.

Yet they haven't been tested like the Irish's offense can test them.

This year's Sooners defense was built with stopping Big 12 spread offenses in mind while remaining versatile enough to adapt to power running attacks if needed. Mike Stoops' vision for his defense will be put to the test by Notre Dame, which can spread defenses with multiple receivers and line up with bigger personnel to employ a power running attack.

So don't be surprised if OU debuts a four-man front for the first time in 2013. The Sooners have relied on a three-man front for the first three games, getting more speed and versatility on the field with linebacker/pass rush specialist Eric Striker. It makes sense for Stoops to bring Ndulue or another Sooners' defensive lineman to get bigger in those situations when Notre Dame decides to try to lean on its power running attack.

"We can get in and out of a three- or four-man front, that's not a problem for us," said Stoops, who spent the offseason talking about his desire for the Sooners' defense to become more versatile in 2013.

No matter what personnel or scheme changes the Sooners utilize, they will need better play from their defensive line and linebackers in the rematch. Better play could start with a different mindset. Asked what he learned from playing the Irish in 2012, Ndulue's answer was revealing.

"Dominate the man in front of you," Ndulue said. "You have to have the mindset that you're going to embarrass them, just be a dawg, be a D-lineman."

OU hopes to have a pack full of dawgs along its defensive front on Saturday, and defensive tackle Jordan Phillips could be in the spotlight. The redshirt sophomore is emerging as a quality defensive lineman and finally fulfilling the promise he showed during his first two years on campus, when teammate Gabe Ikard called him "the next Gerald McCoy". He has been a force in the middle of OU's defense to start the season.

"He's maturing, he knows he can be a very productive and good player," Stoops said. "Taking that next step has become more important to him. He's become a more prideful player who works harder and is becoming more consistent. You can see the light starting to go on, so we certainly hope he continues to work like he has, because he's perfect for what you're trying to do in there."

OU's linebackers entered the season with redemption on their minds after having a minimal impact on the Sooners' defense in 2012. This season, linebackers Corey Nelson (20) and Frank Shannon (19) rank 1-2 in tackles. They'll need to show their versatility and toughness against the Irish, as they'll find themselves in coverage situations on one play, then facing an offensive lineman in the running game on the next.

"I feel like they've showed that [versatility] the first three games," cornerback Aaron Colvin said. "Of course, this will be on a bigger stage, but I feel like they've done a great job all year, and I don't expect anything different this week."

Opening camp: Oklahoma Sooners

August, 1, 2013
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Oklahoma is one of three Big 12 teams to open up camp today. With grass and sweat officially in the air, you know football isn't far off. Let's take a closer look at the Sooners.

Schedule: Oklahoma opens camp later today in preparation for its Aug. 31 opener at home against Louisiana-Monroe. The Sooners will host a fan day on Saturday, too.

Setting the scene: The story of the offseason for the Sooners is replacing quarterback Landry Jones and a host of defensive players from a unit that started 2012 strong but finished in disastrous fashion with rough outings against West Virginia, Oklahoma State and a blowout loss to Texas A&M. The quarterback competition heated up a bit more than expected during the spring, but Blake Bell separated himself a bit in the spring game, though he hasn't been officially named the starter ahead of Trevor Knight and Kendal Thompson.

All eyes on: Bell. That's going to be the story for a lot of Big 12 teams this fall. Everybody knows Bell is a physical presence, but there seems to be a lot of skepticism around the league about his ability to throw the ball. That skepticism seems to be rooted in an ignorance regarding his high school career. He's still got a lot to prove despite rushing for 24 touchdowns in the past two seasons, but Bell threw for 69 touchdowns and 15 interceptions along with just under 6,000 yards in his last two years of high school. Kansas high school ball isn't the Big 12, but the point is, Bell was recruited because of his passing acumen, and his ability to get some tough yards was simply a bonus. "Blake is a guy that does throw the football well. We have a history in my going on 15 years of having guys in quarterbacks that are really excellent throwers, and Blake fits that mold," coach Bob Stoops said at Big 12 media days last week. "We would never recruit a guy that we didn't feel would be a great passer."

Outlook: Oklahoma finds itself in an odd position of being something of an underdog. Not a big one, but this is the first time since the Big 12 went to 10 teams that the Sooners haven't been picked to win the league. Oklahoma did get eight first-place votes from 43 voters, and is second in the league's media preseason poll, but Oklahoma is not used to starting the season outside the top 15, which might happen.

Stepping up: The Sooners need major help on the defensive line, and might need even more with the lone returning starter, Chuka Ndulue, likely suspended for the season opener after an offseason DUI arrest. Last season was one of the worst defensive lines at Oklahoma in a long time, which was painfully evident in the Cotton Bowl loss to the Aggies. Oklahoma needs promising prospects like Geneo Grissom, Jordan Phillips, Charles Tapper and Mike Onuoha to start turning the corner. Getting juco transfer Quincy Russell officially eligible as soon as possible would be a huge help, too.

Breaking out: Jalen Saunders is likely to emerge as Bell's top target, but keep an eye on Sterling Shepard. He showed tons of promise as a true freshman a year ago, catching 45 balls for 621 yards and three scores. He caught multiple passes in 11 games last season, and drew comparisons to Ryan Broyles along the way.

Quotable: Stoops, on fixing the defense that returns just four starters -- "Definitely, in some of our schemes a year ago, we were more coverage-conscious, and it hurt us in the run game. We'll have to make some adjustments there. And personnelwise, we do lose quite a few guys, but we are very excited about the talent and ability of some of the young players coming up that we're still developing, still polishing, still trying to improve skills."

Video: Ndulue arrested on DUI suspicion

July, 3, 2013
7/03/13
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Jake Trotter discusses the discipline facing Oklahoma DE Chuka Ndulue, who was arrested on suspicion of DUI.
Here's what you missed over the weekend in the Big 12.

Sooners starter arrested on DUI complaint

It's that time of year. No coach wants to see his players making headlines this time during the summer, and Oklahoma fell victim early Saturday morning.

From colleague Jake Trotter:
Oklahoma senior defensive end Chuka Ndulue was arrested Saturday morning because of a complaint of driving under the influence, according to the Norman Police Department.

Ndulue was detained by campus police about 4 a.m. and taken to the Cleveland County Detention Center. He was released at 9 a.m.

Unless a player has previous issues (to this point, Ndulue has had none go public), DUI arrests usually result in one-game suspensions at Oklahoma under Bob Stoops. You can probably expect that to happen to Ndulue. OU opens its season against Louisiana-Monroe on August 31.

For Oklahoma it's concerning to see this type of reckless behavior and poor decision-making from somebody who should be taking on a leadership role. Ndulue is the only Oklahoma defensive lineman with any real experience and returns from an underwhelming unit last season. A quick way to see that improve is with strong leadership. Maybe he's shown it in offseason workouts, but this kind of thing is a bad sign for the Sooners who need a lot of help up front.

The Sooners return only four starters from last year's defense, and though Ndulue wasn't a standout, you want all the experience you can get heading into any season opener.

Pitt transfer could be heading to WVU

West Virginia might add another face to its absurd running back collection if former Pittsburgh back Rushel Shell becomes a Mountaineer. He told colleague Brett McMurphy his possible destinations are down to Kentucky and West Virginia. He's planning a visit soon.

If you're unfamiliar with Shell's plot, McMurphy gets you caught up:
Shell left Pittsburgh's program in April with the intention of transferring to UCLA. However, he had a change of heart and contacted Pittsburgh's coaching staff about the possibility of returning. Shell was Pitt's second-leading rusher last season as a true freshman.

Pittsburgh coach Paul Chryst would not allow Shell to return, so the running back was forced to find another school. Shell, who has two young daughters, wants to remain close to home in Hopewell, in the southern part of Pennsylvania.

Great news for West Virginia, who could be in line for a huge pickup. The Mountaineers are set with four solid backs for 2013, but Shell would not be eligible until 2014 after sitting out an NCAA-mandated season. He set the state record for rushing yards in Pennsylvania and was the nation's No. 3 running back and No. 26 overall recruit in the 2012 recruiting class. You've surely heard of the only two backs ahead of him: Texas' Johnathan Gray and Georgia's Keith Marshall.

West Virginia doesn't have a truly elite back on its roster right now, but Shell could develop into that guy before long if the Mountaineers can nab him.

Oklahoma Sooners spring wrap

May, 1, 2013
5/01/13
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OKLAHOMA SOONERS

2012 record: 10-3

2012 conference record: 8-1 (tied for first, Big 12)

Returning starters: Offense: 7; defense: 4; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners

RB Damien Williams, FB Trey Millard, WR Jalen Saunders, WR Sterling Shepard, C Gabe Ikard, DE/DT Chuka Ndulue, LB Corey Nelson, CB Aaron Colvin

Key losses

QB Landry Jones, WR Justin Brown, WR Kenny Stills, OT Lane Johnson, DE David King, CB Demontre Hurst, FS Tony Jefferson, SS Javon Harris

2012 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Damien Williams* (946 yards)
Passing: Landry Jones (4,267yards)
Receiving: Kenny Stills (959 yards)
Tackles: Tony Jefferson (119)
Sacks: Chuka Ndulue* (5)
Interceptions: Javon Harris (6)

Spring answers

1. Playmakers abound: The Sooners might have lost leading receivers Kenny Stills and Justin Brown, but there’s plenty of firepower back to support whoever wins the starting quarterback job. Jalen Saunders was actually Oklahoma’s most efficient receiver the second half of last season and seems primed to take over as the go-to target. The Sooners also have several talented up-and-coming receivers who had good springs, led by slot extraordinaire Sterling Shepard. The backfield is even deeper, with leading rushers Damien Williams and Brennan Clay back, to go along with Trey Millard, one of the top all-around fullbacks in the country.

2. Cortez will flank Colvin: The secondary was decimated by graduation and Tony Jefferson’s early entry into the NFL draft. One of those voids was cornerback, where Demontre Hurst had started the previous years. That void at least, however, appears to have been filled. Arizona transfer Cortez Johnson seized the job from the first day of spring drills, and has given the Sooners every indication to believe they’ll have a big, physical corner to pair with All-American candidate Aaron Colvin in the fall.

3. The linebackers will play: In a desperate move to slow down the high-powered passing attacks of the Big 12, defensive coordinator Mike Stoops pulled his linebackers off the field. The plan backfired, as opposing offenses ran at will over the linebacker-less Sooners. This spring, Stoops has renewed his commitment to the linebacker, which, ironically, could be the strength of the defense. Corey Nelson, Frank Shannon and Aaron Franklin are all athletic and capable of generating negative plays, something Oklahoma’s defense sorely lacked last season.

Fall questions

1. Who the QB will be in October: Bob Stoops said he would wait until the fall before naming a starter, and so far, he’s made good on his word. Junior Blake Bell took a lead in the competition during the spring, as expected. But sophomore Kendal Thompson and redshirt freshman Trevor Knight, who both got equal reps as Bell, played well at times, too. It’s hard to see Bell not starting the first game. But if he struggles against a tough September schedule, it’s not unthinkable one of the younger QBs would be given a shot.

2. How the new offense will fare: Looking to utilize the skill sets of their mobile quarterbacks, the Sooners will be running a very different offense from the one Sam Bradford and Landry Jones both operated. Offensive coordinator Josh Heupel kept most of these new plays - including loads of read option -- in his hip pocket during the spring game. But it will be interesting to see how the Sooners -- and just as important, opposing defenses -- adjust to this new era of offense in Norman.

3. Defensive line play: The Sooners went into spring ball with just three defensive tackles on the roster, and little experience at defensive end. The unit showed strides during the spring, with Chuka Ndulue making a smooth transition from end to tackle, and tackle Jordan Phillips coming up big in the spring game. But that was the spring. The defensive line will have to continue to grow rapidly in the fall for the Sooners to have any hope of improving from last year defensively.

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