Big 12: Cortez Johnson

Oklahoma will hold its spring game on Saturday, and there are several storylines to keep an eye on for the Allstate Sugar Bowl champions. Here's a closer look at what to watch in OU's spring game.

When: Saturday at 2 p.m.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Knight
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesTrevor Knight won't play a lot in OU's spring game, but he has a chance to showcase his development.
Where: Oklahoma Memorial Stadium

What to watch for:

  • Has Trevor Knight continued to develop? Don’t expect the Sooners quarterback to get a lot of work during the spring game as his health is a top priority. Yet, Knight is still a young and relatively inexperienced quarterback who needs quality reps. The spring game will show if he carries himself like a veteran and if his teammates are responding to him as the man in command of OU’s offense. A strong one or two series would show Knight is continuing to develop as a player despite not being pushed by daily competition for the starting job.
  • What about behind him? Quarterbacks Cody Thomas, a redshirt freshman, and Justice Hansen, a true freshman, are raw and untested. The spring game gives the duo the chance to show they can handle the No. 2 quarterback job if called upon in the fall. Thomas has been splitting his time with the Sooners’ baseball team with no ill effects on his football duties, while Hansen enrolled early and is adjusting to life as a college football player.
  • Who will get the bulk of the carries? OU will welcome ESPN 300 signees Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine to its running backs group this summer. So this spring is the opportunity for sophomore running backs Keith Ford and Alex Ross to cement their spots at the front of the line alongside Knight. Ford was a pleasant surprise as a true freshman. He earned carries before fumble troubles placed him on the sideline. Ross has been one of the stars of the spring with coaches and teammates alike lauding his explosiveness in scrimmages. Saturday is their chance to show they’re ready to fill the void left by the departures of Brennan Clay, Damien Williams and Roy Finch.
  • DB Ahmad Thomas: It would be a surprise if Thomas doesn’t see the field a lot this fall. The sophomore is proving to be versatile and talented while lining up at multiple positions in OU’s defense. After enrolling early in January 2012, Thomas played in 12 games as a true freshman and finished with nine tackles in limited action. Now, he appears poised to be a key piece of the Sooners defense as a sophomore. The Sooners are tinkering to find the best spot for Thomas, but a strong spring game could reaffirm his place as one of the breakout stars this spring.
  • New names: Several young players are creating a buzz, including receiver Jordan Smallwood, cornerback Dakota Austin and defensive tackle Charles Walker. Smallwood’s name has repeatedly come up this spring, as he’s made a solid impression after missing the 2013 season with a broken foot. Austin has been competing with Stanvon Taylor and Cortez Johnson to replace All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin, and, while undersized, his coverage ability and competitive nature have shone through. Walker has earned a reputation as a future star with his exceptional size and speed combination, so Saturday will be the first glimpse at the redshirt freshman. The spring game will give that trio and many other young Sooners the opportunity to show they can be contributors on offense or defense in 2014.
Zack Sanchez grew a lot during his redshirt freshman season at Oklahoma.

The Sooners cornerback was thrown into the fire, starting his first collegiate game after Cortez Johnson was suspended for the first game of 2013. Sanchez seized the opportunity and never let go, starting 13 games and earning FWAA Freshman All-American honors while leading the team with 13 pass breakups.

[+] EnlargeZack Sanchez
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiZack Sanchez led Oklahoma in pass breakups as a redshirt freshman and will be counted on as a leader in the Sooners' secondary.
This spring, OU’s defense is counting on Sanchez to continue to exceed expectations. Despite preparing for his sophomore season, he’s become the veteran of the Sooners cornerback group with Aaron Colvin heading to the NFL. The eyes that turned to Colvin during tough times in 2013 will now turn Sanchez’s way when adversity hits this fall.

With the mantle passed to him, Sanchez began to try to step up his leadership during winter workouts.

“I had to take essentially the same role as [Colvin],” Sanchez said. “Being the oldest guy or most experienced guy at corner, I had to take the leadership role through winter workouts and spring. I have to be more vocal to the younger guys and lead by example so they see that I’m doing it right and not just talking about it.”

Sophomores Stanvon Taylor and Dakota Austin fill the bill as young guys who could learn from Sanchez’s experience in 2013 even though they’re in the same boat eligibility-wise. Sanchez had ups and downs but, thanks in part to Colvin, was able to prevent the valleys of his freshman season from becoming canyons.

“He went through a learning process a year ago and has become a better player,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “I think you learn from your experiences and that’s what playing does for you, it gives you a lot of experience to fall back on, and I think that’s what he’ll do this year. He’ll be a much more complete player than he was a year ago. Hopefully he’ll be much bigger and stronger player, he needs to become that.”

OU is turning to him to become a leader, but he needs to become a better cornerback as well. Teams picked on Sanchez in 2013, but he competed well enough to win his share of battles. But this season he’ll be asked to do even more for OU’s defense, including trying to slow the likes of Baylor’s Antwan Goodley and Kansas State’s Tyler Lockett as the Sooners’ top cornerback.

Sanchez is hopeful the experience and mentality he gained as a redshirt freshman will pay off in 2014, not only for himself but for his teammates as well.

“I grew up really fast,” he said “I think I had to. Being young can’t be an excuse for that long or you’ll get pulled off the field. I learned from a lot of things and I feel really strong going into spring and I’m excited for what the future holds.”
Spring practice is in its infant stages but Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops has some encouraging words for anyone concerned about replacing All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin.

“They’re competing at a higher level and that’s what we need,” said Stoops, of those battling to fill the void in OU’s secondary.

[+] EnlargeStanvon Taylor
John Rivera/Icon SMIStanvon Taylor is in prime position to earn a starting cornerback job this spring.
Sophomore Stanvon Taylor, junior Cortez Johnson and sophomore Dakota Austin are the cornerbacks battling to replace Colvin. All three players saw time behind Colvin in 2013 but none of them separated themselves with their performances.

With Colvin battling a head injury, Taylor started in his third collegiate game against Tulsa, but his production tapered off as his freshman season progressed.

“It’s a lot faster game,” Taylor said of getting his feet wet as a true freshman. “You’ve got to be able to read a lot of stuff and know the offense and know formations -- all the things that come with football. You’ve just got to be ready to go.”

Johnson started against Iowa State and Kansas State but didn’t lock down "favorite to start" status heading into the spring. Austin saw limited duty on defense but has strong coverage skills. OU is hopeful their 2013 playing time, although limited, will pay off this fall.

“They’re green in a lot of ways,” Stoops said. “Just getting them out there and getting them in that environment, I think they understand how much they need to improve to get out there and play confidently. That’s the lesson they learned, that they need to get a lot better. Those experiences, hopefully, will process to them that they need to be in a better position than they were a year ago.”

OU returns Zack Sanchez on the opposite side of the defense, giving the Sooners' secondary at least one proven cornerback to build around this fall. He knows the importance of having a solid pair of bookend cornerbacks.

“It’s huge,” Sanchez said. “Stanvon, Dakota and Cortez are all doing a great job. They’re all making plays and it’s kind of up in the air right now. It’s going to be a tough decision for coach. All those guys are competing and all look really good.”

Colvin’s inner drive and competitiveness make replacing him an unenviable task. Taylor was mentored to slide into the spot but the job is open for the taking with all three players in hot pursuit this spring. If nobody steps up it creates a potential problem in a unit that could be one of the Big 12’s best. Stoops would have to turn to a true freshman (Tito Windham or Jordan Thomas) or prepare to provide help for one of the most important spots in his defensive system.

“We’re getting better,” Stoops said. “I think there’s improvement. We’re all kind of finding our way and we need one or two of them to, hopefully, separate themselves and take control of that position. I don’t think anyone’s done that at this point but, overall, we’re better at that position with those three guys. But I’m not saying that they’re at the same level as Aaron. They’re heading in the right direction.”
Oklahoma began its spring practices last weekend with back-to-back practices Saturday and Sunday. The Sooners get back to work today with an eye on capturing another Big 12 title under Bob Stoops. Here are some things to watch this spring:

Offensive returner ready to take next step: Sophomore running back Keith Ford could be ready to take the next step in the Sooners' offense. OU needs someone to fill the void left by departed running backs Brennan Clay, Damien Williams and Roy Finch, who combined for 4,824 career rushing yards in crimson and cream. Ford earned himself some carries as a freshman, but fumble troubles put him in the doghouse for a portion of his first season. This spring, Ford could lock down a major role in the offense with his power, decisiveness and quickness.

[+] EnlargeAhmad Thomas
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsAhmad Thomas' blend of size and athleticism makes him a candidate to step in at safety as a sophomore.
Defensive returner ready to take the next step: Safety Ahmad Thomas didn’t get major time on the Sooners' defense as a freshman. But the versatile defensive back appears poised to become a key piece of OU’s defensive plan as a sophomore. At 6-foot and 218 pounds, Thomas brings terrific size, athleticism and aggressiveness to the Sooners secondary. If he continues to improve and develop, he could be too good to leave on the sidelines, forcing defensive coordinator Mike Stoops to find ways to get him involved.

Redshirt freshman to watch: Defensive tackle Charles Walker was an unknown with an underwhelming offer list when he signed with OU in February 2013. But Walker was one of the guys who repeatedly earned praise during discussions of scout-team stars last fall. At 6-2 and 289 pounds, Walker moves like a much smaller man and could force his way onto the field with his play this spring and provide young, quality depth along the defensive line.

Most significant position battle: The battle to replace two-time All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin should be entertaining. There is no clear favorite among a group of talented cornerbacks that includes Stanvon Taylor, Cortez Johnson and Dakota Austin. This spring provides the opportunity for someone to step up in Colvin’s absence and become a trustworthy cover man on the perimeter of OU’s defense. If that doesn’t happen, the Sooners could be forced to account for a weak link in the secondary, particularly if none of the freshman arrivals in the summer (Tito Windham, Jordan Thomas, Marcus Green) proves they can slide into Colvin’s spot.

Key midterm enrollee: Linebacker Devante Bond already is making an impression during his short time at OU. An outside linebacker with pass rush skills, Bond isn’t going to replace Eric Striker in the Sooners lineup. Yet if he proves to be one of the best pass rushers on the squad this spring, Stoops could pair him with Striker to give Big 12 quarterbacks headaches this fall.

Question that could be answered: Will Trevor Knight build on his Sugar Bowl MVP performance? The sophomore ended his first season with a bang, leading OU to a upset win over Alabama. This spring will show if Knight is hungry for more and striving to play at a championship level every Saturday this fall, or if he could return to the inconsistency that hampered his play in 2013.

Question that won’t be answered until fall: Who will get the majority of the carries in OU’s backfield this fall? Even if Ford has an exceptional spring, there’s no guarantee he can hold off the talents of incoming freshmen Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine in the summer. The lone certainty is that there will be a bunch of talented options for running backs coach Cale Gundy.
Spring practice is just over the horizon for Oklahoma. The Sooners defense could develop into the Big 12’s best in 2014. It won’t reach those heights without replacing two-time All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin.

Here's a look at the battle to replace Colvin:

[+] EnlargeStanvon Taylor
John Rivera/Icon SMIStanvon Taylor could be poised to take over for All-Big 12 corner Aaron Colvin in Oklahoma's secondary.
Departed (2013 stats): Colvin was fifth on the team with 55 tackles in 2013. He added three pass breakups, one sack, one interception and one fumble recovery. His competitive nature and leadership example will be missed.

Spring contenders: Sophomore Stanvon Taylor; sophomore Dakota Austin; junior Cortez Johnson.

Summer contenders: Freshman Tito Windham; freshman Jordan Thomas.

The skinny: The Sooners won’t be able to replace Colvin, who was the best player in the secondary for the past three seasons.

Nonetheless OU needs someone to step up at the cornerback position opposite Zack Sanchez, a FWAA Freshman All-American who started all 13 games in 2013. Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops depends heavily on his defensive backs to be able to hold up in man coverage so he can come up with creative ways to terrorize opposing quarterbacks. That game plan falls apart if there’s a weak link in the secondary that is consistently being exposed.

Taylor, who started one game as a true freshman, spent the 2013 season as Colvin’s protégé, watching in the background while preparing to slide into his spot in 2014. That won’t happen if Taylor doesn’t take his game to another level, beginning this spring. The starting spot is there for the taking, but he’ll have to earn it with several other talented cornerbacks on campus.

Johnson, who started against Kansas State and Iowa State in Colvin’s absence, would bring an upgrade in size at the cornerback spot. At 6-foot-2, 201 pounds, he brings a physical presence that is unmatched by any of the other competitors.

Austin could be the most competitive of the contenders, but his lack of size (5-11, 151) is a major concern. The sophomore will be able to hold up in man-to-man coverage, but he’ll have to prove he can overcome his size limitations and play like he’s twice his size if he hopes to earn the starting spot.

Windham and Thomas arrive in the summer and could throw themselves into the competition as true freshman. Taylor and Austin escaped redshirt seasons in 2013 so there’s no reason to think Windham and Thomas can’t battle for immediate playing time.

Prediction: Don’t be surprised if there is some shuffling among some of the returning players in the secondary to help fill this void. If not, Johnson emerges as the front runner after spring. He passed Taylor on the depth chart during the 2013 season, so unless Taylor takes his game to another level, Johnson will emerge atop the depth chart. But, with two talented freshmen on the way, the lone certainty is that this battle will wage on deep into August.
NORMAN, Okla. -- The ball floated toward the two competitors as they both battled for position to pluck it out of the air. Seconds later, Oklahoma receiver Trey Metoyer leaped over his teammate to pluck the ball from the sky with ease. It was a spectacular play during Metoyer’s first spring game in Norman and one of the reasons he entered the 2012 season with plenty of preseason accolades.

In his first official game in a Sooners’ uniform, Metoyer was in a similar situation and, again, outfought the defender to make the catch in the 2012 season opener against UTEP. But the would-be reception went down as an incompletion instead as Metoyer was out-of-bounds when he made the catch after not running his route with the precision required along the sidelines.

[+] EnlargeTrey Metoyer
Richard Rowe/US PresswireSophomore wideout Trey Metoyer, who caught just 17 passes last season, could have a much bigger impact for the Sooners in 2013.
These are two drastically different examples of Metoyer’s journey.

In his first 18 months at OU, the sophomore receiver starred during the spring of 2012, struggled during his true freshman season and heads into this season looking to help replace Kenny Stills and Justin Brown in OU’s lineup.

“Success wasn’t coming to him the way he wanted,” receivers coach Jay Norvell said. “He was frustrated. He’s used to playing well at a really high level. When you walk in that door [at OU], you better come in here expecting to come and play, or you’re not really at the right place. That’s the kind of mentality he had walking in the door and when he didn’t have that kind of success, it was frustrating."

Metoyer entered the 2012 season as the Big 12’s preseason newcomer of the year and started his first four games in crimson and cream. Then, after Fresno State transfer Jalen Saunders was cleared to play before the Texas game, Metoyer tumbled down the depth chart, finishing with just 17 receptions for 148 yards and a touchdown. Ten of those catches came before Saunders’ was cleared in mid-October.

Yet, Saunders and Metoyer have become close friends, even spending time after practice during the spring to hone their skills. Saunders, a senior, has made a point to take the youngster under his wing.

“Last fall he was starting then kind of faded away from the offense,” Saunders said. “It hurt him a little bit because he was expecting a lot of things. He was taking himself out of the picture because he had high expectations and was feeling bad about himself. This spring me and him sat down and talked a lot, I kind of took him under my wing like a younger brother. I treat him like my younger brother because I want him to be the best out there.”

Heading into his second season in Norman, Metoyer is battling fellow sophomore Durron Neal, senior Lacoltan Bester and others to earn a starting spot at outside receiver for the Sooners. Metoyer's talent is readily apparent and his consistency is slowly starting to come to the forefront.

“I think it’s coming together for Trey,” Norvell said. “I think he understands our offense, I think he has been around our players and quarterbacks. He is getting to the point where he becomes more confident in what he’s doing.”

If Metoyer progresses to the point that Norvell considers him among the Sooners’ most consistent receivers and puts him in the starting lineup, Big 12 defenses might have to take notice.

“He’s going to be one of the best receivers, probably, to ever come through OU,” cornerback Cortez Johnson said. “Trey Metoyer has the best hands on the team, that’s why every play [during practice] I’m trying to go against him, trying to get myself better and get myself reps against an opponent like that.”

As the projected starter at cornerback opposite Aaron Colvin for the Sooners, Johnson should know what Metoyer brings to the table. He has had several one-on-one battles with Metoyer during the spring, summer and early in preseason camp, resulting in his high praise for the Whitehouse, Texas, native.

“He runs good routes, he knows how to get in your cushion, open you up,” Johnson said. “[He] has good footwork, great hands, he’s just a great player. He has a lot to work on still, but he’s going to be pretty good.”

Oklahoma Sooners spring wrap

May, 1, 2013
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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.
Colleague Mark Schlabach updated his preseason Top 25 after the spring, and there's still no Big 12 teams in the top 10, but two made his top 15.

I agree with shutting the Big 12 out of the top 10, though it would be the first time in league history it lacked a team in the preseason top 10. Where we disagree? The order.

Schlabach has Texas as the Big 12's top team at No. 13.

"(Mack) Brown also believes UT's defense, which ranked 73rd nationally in scoring defense (29.2 points per game) last season, will be more equipped to defend hurry-up offenses after seeing one in practice every day," Schlabach writes.

Maybe Texas ends up winning the league, but that defense has to show me something more and the offense has to be more consistent before I really believe the league's best team is the Longhorns. Two spots later, my Big 12 favorite, Oklahoma State, makes its appearance.

"(Defensive coordinator Glenn) Spencer inherits an experienced defense -- 13 of the top 27 players on the defensive depth chart are seniors," Schlabach writes.

Good points there, and one that gets overlooked. It'll pay off for the Pokes, who actually moved up five spots from No. 20 since Schlabach's last update. Texas had moved up one spot, from No. 14.

Oklahoma, though, is at No. 17, down two spots from the last update.

"The Sooners have to settle on a starting quarterback (all signs point to Blake Bell replacing record-setting passer Landry Jones), but their biggest concerns are still on the defensive side of the ball," Schlabach writes. "OU coach Bob Stoops admitted this spring that defensive coordinator Mike Stoops (his brother) might have underestimated the strength of Big 12 offenses in his first season back in the league."

Very interesting revelation from Schlabach there, who made a visit to Norman this spring. I definitely agree about the defense being a bigger issue, but Stoops sounded optimistic last week about the progress of some younger players like Frank Shannon and Cortez Johnson.

The fourth Big 12 team is right at No. 18, down from No. 17. That's my Big 12 No. 2: TCU.

"The Horned Frogs learned plenty while finishing 7-6 in their first season in the Big 12. They know defense is still their strength, after leading the Big 12 in total defense, allowing 323.9 yards per game," he writes.

That's no small accomplishment, especially considering how their fellow Big 12 newcomer, West Virginia, handled the offenses. TCU had to deal with tons of injuries and a whole lot of youth on defense, and still had the league's best defense. Amazing stuff.

Schlabach's much higher on Kansas State than I am, keeping the Wildcats at No. 20 coming off their Big 12 title season.

"Kansas State is renovating Bill Snyder Family Stadium this spring, and the Wildcats' venerable coach is rebuilding his football team, too," he writes.

Certainly seems like we have differing opinions on just how well that rebuilding project will go.

That's quite a logjam, and you can see why the league looks so wide open. That's five Big 12 teams in seven spots from No. 13 to No. 20. There's just not much separation between the league's No. 1 team and No. 7 team. Baylor and Texas Tech won't have to do much to crack the Top 25 this season, but I still see the Big 12 with four major contenders and three teams who could definitely get in the mix.

Sooners WR Saunders, teammate arrested

December, 2, 2012
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Oklahoma Sooners receiver Jalen Saunders and cornerback Cortez Johnson were arrested Sunday morning on a complaint of possession of a controlled substance, according to the Cleveland County Sherriff's Office.

Saunders and Johnson were arrested at 2:34 a.m. CT on Sunday for possession of marijuana and released, a spokesman for the Cleveland County Jail confirmed.

For more on this story from SoonerNation, go here.

Saunders caught seven passes for 108 yards and a touchdown in Saturday's 24-17 win over TCU that clinched a share of the Big 12 title.

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