Big 12: Jay Norvell

The ups and downs of Trevor Knight's season have made people wonder what happened to the Oklahoma quarterback who embarrassed Alabama’s defense in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

Knight’s numbers don’t resemble a guy who some considered a preseason Big 12 offensive player of the year candidate or even possible Heisman candidate. The sophomore is 128 of 217 pass attempts for 1,821 yards with nine touchdowns and six interceptions and a 79.9 adjusted QBR.

Knight has taken plenty of heat for his sophomore slump. Yet the changes around him could be the driving force behind some of the ups and downs of his season.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Knight
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsTrevor Knight and the Sooners won't start producing big offensive numbers until several young players start making big plays.
As a redshirt freshman, Knight was surrounded by veterans who had experience winning big games and shouldered the pressure of making sure the offense was operating efficiently. A closer look at Knight’s surrounding cast during the Allstate Sugar Bowl gives us a better feel for how his task has changed in 2014:

  • Starting center Gabe Ikard: A four-year starter whose contribution as a senior cannot be understated. He is a big reason the 2013 Sooners were able to play musical chairs at quarterback during an 11-win season, as his veteran voice and intelligence kept the offense humming.
  • Starting receiver Jalen Saunders: The Fresno State transfer changed games for the Sooners as a senior, both as a returner and receiver. His ability to always win one-on-one situations was a quarterback's best friend.
  • Starting guard Bronson Irwin: His versatility and experience was an asset.
  • Starting receiver LaColton Bester: Although he wasn’t an impact player at receiver, he had plenty of experience and the ability to make defense pay if they didn’t respect him.
  • Starting running back Brennan Clay: Oklahoma's ability to trust the senior running back in any situation has been missed this season. Not only could he get tough yards when they needed it, he was a asset in everything he did, from pass blocking to special teams duties.
  • Starting receiver Sterling Shepard: He simply abused defenses when they focused on Saunders. Defensive coordinators having to match up with Saunders and Shepard made Oklahoma's offense explosive a year ago.

This season, only Shepard remains.

Outside of a veteran offensive line, the offense is littered with inexperienced skill talent. Shepard has performed like an All-American, but the rest of the skill players have had ups and downs that mirror Knight's, but without the spotlight shining on their consistency, or lack thereof.

Confidence could be at the center of some of the inconsistency as Oklahoma's young players simply don't know what it feels like to change games with one play even though they have been relatively productive.

"Big plays can come from any part of your game, it’s just guys feeling confident and making plays at every position," co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. "TCU is not doing anything except playing at a high level, and guys feeling like they’re going to make plays. When guys start to play confidently, that happens."

The running back position hasn’t been an issue, with freshman Samaje Perine ranking among the conference leaders in rushing, Alex Ross emerging as one of the Big 12’s most explosive players, and Keith Ford, when healthy, providing versatility. And the receivers, along with tight end Blake Bell, have had their moments of production.

But the search for big plays continues.

Shepard is averaging 16.93 yards per touch, ranking fifth in the Big 12, but No. 1 among players with at least 50 touches. Durron Neal (12.79) is the only other Sooner with double-digit touches who is averaging more than 12 yards per touch in 2014. Receiver KJ Young (10.64) and tight end Blake Bell (10.46) join that duo as skill guys with a double-digit average and 10 or more touches.

Of Oklahoma's 40 plays of 20 yards or more, Shepard has made 17 of those big plays. No other Sooner has more than five, with Neal (5), Perine (4) and Ford (4) rounding out the top four players in that category.

"The key is execution and guys making big plays," Norvell said.

It’s not a talent issue, as several skill players have flashed their big-play ability in practices, scrimmages and even games. But transforming from an inexperienced talent to productive playmaker requires in-game excellence.

"Anything meaningful, that effects your confidence, happens in a game. And that history is really important," Norvell said. "We gain a lot of confidence in practice with practice repetitions, but the meaningful, lasting confidence happens in games, and it happens different in different years. The situations are tough in practice, but they’re not quite like in a game.

"It’s always better if it happens in a game."

The cast of skill players that surround Knight is improving and gaining experience with each week, and Oklahoma is even looking to inject some new blood into the attack with true freshman Michiah Quick set to see his playing time increase down the stretch. But until the 10 players around Knight improve, the offense is unlikely to resemble the unit that helped put up 45 points in the Allstate Sugar Bowl romp.

"We’ve done a lot of really good things through the first part of the season," Norvell said. "We’re excited about pressing forward, because we think our best football is in front of us."
Oklahoma opened the season with unknowns at running back.

In Keith Ford, Alex Ross and Samaje Perine, the Sooners backfield featured plenty of talent but no proven commodities that made fans in Norman, Oklahoma, feel good about their running back.

[+] EnlargeKeith Ford
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiKeith Ford scored two touchdowns against Louisiana Tech as part of Oklahoma's three-headed running back attack.
One game into the 2014 season, all three running backs look like they could be the man if needed after the Sooners rushed for 183 yards, 5.8 yards per carry, and five touchdowns in OU’s 48-16 win over Louisiana Tech.

“I thought our young running backs were all really, really good,” OU coach Bob Stoops said. “Every one of them were 100 percent assignment correct. They protected the quarterback when they had to. They knew where they were going in routes. They caught the ball exceptionally well and, of course, ran the ball in a very physical way. They made some great cuts and took care of the football.”

Ford built upon a solid freshman campaign with decisive running combining with a solid showing as pass catcher and pass blocker. He finished with nine carries for 51 yards (5.7 yards per carry) and two touchdowns. Ross displayed terrific speed and versatility as a running back and kick returner, adding 11 carries for 36 yards (3.27 ypc) two touchdowns along with an 80-yard kick return. Perine lived up to the hype, showing a physical running style that resembled the physicality of a fifth-year senior -- not a true freshman in his first collegiate game -- finishing with 13 carries for 77 yards.

The numbers are just part of the story. Ford, Ross and Perine combine to fit perfectly into the Sooners’ offense.

“I love our backs, I think our backs really fit our style of running game,” co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. “We do a lot of downhill running with the zone read and some of our triple-option stuff and our backs really fit that style. Keith, Alex and Samaje are a great trio of physical downhill runners that we can pour at a defense.”

That’s exactly what the Sooners did against La. Tech, with 22 rushes for 95 yards (4.3 ypc) and four touchdowns between the tackles. Perine excelled between the tackles with five carries for 37 yards, while Ford was outstanding as well with seven carries for 42 yards and two touchdowns.

“We’ve always done a lot of power running,” Stoops said. “This isn’t anything different or new.”

The threat of the inside run will be the foundation of everything the Sooners will try to accomplish offensively this season, opening up oppotunities for quarterback Trevor Knight and the Sooners' passing game while also preventing defenses from focusing on slowing OU's perimeter running game.

“To be able to have a defense respect us going north and south allows us to hit the perimeter,” Norvell said. “It’s really exciting, we have a physical line, physical runners and when you add the perimeter game and what we can do with the screen game.

“It gives us a fastball to work off of offensively.”

The result was 14 rushes for 66 yards and two touchdowns on option plays against La. Tech. Additionally, Ford and Ross combined for six receptions for 96 yards, showing their versatility while reminding defenses they can be just as dangerous in the passing game.

Ford, Ross and Perine are building reputations as physical runners, but ultimately their versatility and desire to become complete running backs could help them transform into one of the best trios in the nation before the season is over. None of them are close to finished products, but their hunger to master details such as pass protection and ball security are at the heart of the coaching staff’s growing trust in each running back.

“They are approaching the game like they want to be a complete back,” offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. “They are a work in progress. I love that they do come to work, and that was on the practice field and in the weight room this summer. They attack things in the right way.”
At some point this weekend, Dravon Henry will trot onto the field against SEC power Alabama. It will be baptism under fire for West Virginia's true freshman safety.

He's not alone.

More and more, true freshman skill position players are stepping on campus ready to take jobs and play immediately at schools across the Big 12.

Seven of the nine Big 12 schools that play this weekend had released their depth charts by Tuesday afternoon. Twenty-two true freshman find themselves on those depth charts at skill positions around the conference with every school featuring at least one true freshman on its depth chart.

TCU and Oklahoma lead the league with five apiece while ISU receiver Allen Lazard is the lone true freshman skill position player on the Cyclones depth chart. Coaches at Kansas, Oklahoma State and Texas — the other three schools — have already said they have true freshmen are in set to play for them at the skill positions in 2014.

The growth of pass-heavy spread offenses, increased summer and offseason football -- specifically 7-on-7 competitions -- and elite camps like The Opening are at the heart of the increased readiness of true freshman. Henry and Texas Tech cornerback Tevin Madison are the lone true freshman to earn a starting spot heading into the season but that duo is could be joined by other impressive freshmen -- like Lazard, Kansas running back Corey Avery or Kansas State safety Kaleb Prewitt -- in their squad's starting lineup at some point this season.

The additional offseason work's ability to help groom quarterbacks is well-documented but those extra reps are helping receivers, running backs and defensive backs as well.

"All the skill players, receivers, quarterbacks, tight ends, they all grow up throwing the football," Oklahoma co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. "So they're much more developed at an early age. We're seeing that we can do things with freshman that we could never do before because a lot of them have been doing it in high school."

Recruits step on campus having been seasoned in competitive situations like never before. Their understanding of offensive concepts gained in high school makes transitions to similar systems in college easier than before.

"As much as anything it's the offenses they're growing up in," OU offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. "They're playing in those [offenses] 365 days of the year. You go to certain parts of the country and they're practicing every day. They're growing up in those systems."

The state of Texas is at the forefront of trend with everything from weather and strong high school coaching helping to prepare signees to play from Day 1 at Big 12 schools.

"With the 7-on-7 aspect and the level of high school coaching in the state of Texas helps us," Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury said. "They're throwing the year round, they're catching the ball year round, quarterbacks go through reads year round, so by the time they get to us, they're college ready.

"As far as throwing, catching and seeing defenses, they're more prepared than ever."

The rise of elite national and regional football camps could also be helping to increase the readiness of true freshmen. Players like OU's Michiah Quick, a 2013 participant in The Opening who is listed as a backup slot receiver and punt returner for the Sooners, are stepping on campuses across the country having been tested in ways they had not been a decade ago.

"I think anytime you get to go against competition, you're going to come out more confident if you have a good showing," Kingsbury said. "The kids we have that have attended such camps come out of it knowing they belong and they fit in."
He has to deal with them every Saturday, so TCU safety Sam Carter would know better than most.

"The Big 12 is a quarterback league," the Horned Frogs senior said. "When the game is on the line, the ball will be in the air."

Yet the Big 12 seemed to lose its way a year ago.

Outside of the exploits of Baylor’s Bryce Petty or Texas Tech’s true freshman duo of Davis Webb and Baker Mayfield, quarterbacking in the conference took a clear step backward.

The Bears and Red Raiders were the only Big 12 teams that finished in the top 25 in the FBS in passing yards or averaged more than 300 passing yards per game. Two seasons ago, in 2012, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and West Virginia joined Baylor and Tech in the top 10 in that category and averaged at least 330 passing yards per contest.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Knight
Chuck Cook/USA TODAY SportsTrevor Knight is one of several unproven Big 12 quarterbacks who have flashed plenty of potential.
But conference coaches don’t expect the downward trend to continue indefinitely.

"I think time will take care of that," West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. "There were so many years with top-notch guys that got drafted. It’s the same schools, recruiting the same kids, being coached by the same guys and playing the same type of ball in the Big 12 for the last decade and a half. Time will tell."

Petty is the unquestioned face of Big 12 quarterbacks heading into 2014, the guy every team in the conference would love to call its own. He’s an ultraproductive, experienced leader who still has room to grow as a senior. Alongside Petty, the league features young talents led by Tech’s Webb and OU’s Trevor Knight. Kansas State’s Jake Waters, Kansas’ Montell Cozart and West Virginia’s Clint Trickett are other Big 12 quarterbacks who entered preseason camp as clear starters at their respective schools and still have room to grow as quarterbacks.

"I just think they have to get older," Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury said of the Big 12’s return to prominence at quarterback. "I don’t think it’s anything other than that. You have some stars that are younger guys getting broken in in this league. They’re a year older, year wiser. You had such a good run of three or four years, now it’s these guys’ chance."

That run is well-documented. No league supplied the NFL with more first- or second-round picks in the past five NFL drafts then the Big 12. Six quarterbacks who played in the conference have been drafted in the first two rounds since 2010, including a No. 1 overall pick in Oklahoma's Sam Bradford. The SEC and Pac-12 are tied for second with three apiece during that span.

The trend slowed a bit in recent years, as former West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith is the lone quarterback who played in the Big 12 to be drafted in the first two rounds in the past two drafts. But Petty, who enters the season as Mel Kiper's top-ranked senior quarterback, could hear his name called in Round 1 or 2 of the 2015 NFL draft, while Knight or Webb could find themselves in a similar position if their development continues during the rest of their careers.

Petty's proactive nature has helped cement his reputation as the Big 12's top quarterback, as he has refused to be satisfied with the accolades he earned a year ago. The Midlothian, Texas, native spent some of his offseason with quarterback guru George Whitfield, who has played a key role in Petty’s development. Petty says he would recommend time with Whitfield to any young quarterback looking to excel in the Big 12.

"When we have breaks, I want to work," Petty said. "A lot of times, because of NCAA regulations, I can’t do that with my coach [at Baylor], so Coach Whitfield is kind of my outlet to keep working."

It’s an approach Kansas coach Charlie Weis understands. The veteran coach believes the quarterback position has been in need of better coaching, be it individual quarterbacks coaches or more detailed coaching at their school, for years.

"I think the quarterback position used to be the most undercoached position, of all positions, even though it's the most important," Weis said. "Usually it’s because the title of quarterbacks coach almost always went to the offensive coordinator who has to worry about every single position. I think having a quarterbacks coach helps every offensive coordinator invaluably. It’s easily the most important position on your team."

Improved coaching is just one aspect. Simple game experience is another. The value of playing games in the conference is just as invaluable. At this time a year ago, none of Big 12’s top quarterbacks in 2013 were proven commodities.

"Each and every year, there have been guys emerge that were ‘no name’ guys because of youth or inexperience. Or they just hadn’t matured or developed yet," Holgorsen said. "We have some young guys that will make a name for themselves, probably starting this year."

Petty went from unproven to Heisman Trophy candidate and Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year. Webb was a true freshman fighting for a job, and Knight was about to be named OU’s starting signal-caller. Twelve months later, that trio represents the Big 12’s biggest hope for a return to the forefront of the elite quarterback landscape in college football.

"I think our league has a reputation and commitment to throw the football," OU co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. "And because of that, we develop quarterbacks in our league, and I think we’ll see a strong group this year."
Bob Stoops chuckled before answering the question.

"I thought they were kind of small," Oklahoma's veteran coach said during Big 12 media days last month after being asked about trying to replace the Sooners "big" trio of running backs.

Big, small or otherwise, there's no doubting the production of three departed running backs leaves a major hole in the Sooners backfield.

Brennan Clay, Damien Williams and Roy Finch combined for 1,857 of OU's 2,911 rushing yards in 2013. The Sooners return 153 rushing yards from running backs currently on the roster in Keith Ford's 134 and Alex Ross' 19.

[+] EnlargeKeith Ford
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiKeith Ford is Oklahoma's top returning running back, having rushed for 134 yards last season as a freshman.
The running back position is arguably the biggest concern on the Sooners' offense heading into this season. Ford looked poised to have a bigger impact as a true freshman last season, but fumble troubles landed him in the doghouse. Ross never quite forced his way into the lineup as a redshirt freshman. Freshman Samaje Perine stepped on campus as a ESPN300 running back and has the talent to join Ford and Ross as key members of OU's running game, but OU's depth at the position took a hit when fellow freshman Joe Mixon was suspended earlier this week.

Clay, Williams and Finch combined for 348 total carries last season, so plenty of opportunities remain for what could be the Sooners' new trio of Ford, Ross and Perine.

But nobody has separated as at the No. 1 guy during preseason camp. And the Sooners don't expect that to change before they kick off the season against Louisiana Tech on Aug. 30.

"They're all getting snaps now and we'll see how they do early," Stoops said. "A lot will be determined in what they do in their initial opportunities."

Ford is a physical, tough runner, who forced his way onto the field despite having three seniors in Clay, Williams and Finch standing between himself and playing time as a true freshman. He entered the offseason as the favorite to slide into the starting lineup and remains in line to be play a significant role.

Ross brings a terrific size/speed combination to the offensive backfield and was one of the Sooners' stars of the spring.

Perine is the wild card, bringing a big back option to the table at 5-foot-11 and 243 pounds. The No. 220 player in the ESPN300, he appears ready to make an immediate impact as a true freshman.

"He's one of the freshman that has an opportunity to contribute," co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. "He's a big physical kid, he's taking care of the football and we're gaining confidence in him every day. He runs with his pads very well and he's learned quickly. Kids that play as freshman carry themselves with maturity. And he's done that."

Ford and Ross are likely to sit first in the queue on game day. But, after that, all bets are off.

"You'll find out, sometimes with a running back, when the lights come on, in the [middle] of action how they'll respond," offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. "Ultimately on game day we're going to find out who the guy is."
Two trademark wins. Two drastically different game plans.

Oklahoma defeated Oklahoma State and Alabama in its final two games of the 2013 season, a pair of wins that stand as the driving force behind OU's preseason accolades heading into this season.

And the Sooners looked like two different offenses in each triumph, leaning on their running game and physical nature to overwhelm the Cowboys in a 33-24 win in early December before using an up-tempo passing attack to confuse and disorient Alabama's defense in the 45-31 Allstate Sugar Bowl win in early January.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Knight
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesTrevor Knight's versatility is one of the reasons why Oklahoma has a diverse offense.
Against OSU, the Sooners opened the game with a three-receiver, one-tight end, one-running back pistol formation and began the game with back-to-back zone read plays. OU's second offensive snap of the game came with 14 seconds on the play clock. Against Alabama, OU began the game with the same personnel grouping but opened with a completed pass followed by an no-huddle, uptempo approach that resulted in the Sooners second snap with 30 seconds left on the play clock.

In addition, the Sooners ran 18 plays (out of 73 total plays) with two tight ends on the field against OSU. Against Alabama, OU ran three plays (out of 74 total plays) with two tight ends on the field.

That type of versatility is one of the foundations of the Sooners offense and serves as one key reason why OU could find itself right in the thick of the College Football Playoff race in November.

"Our best teams have been versatile," co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. "That's what we've built this offense on. We look at the talents of our players and then we try to move the pieces of the puzzle around to take advantage of it."

Those two games could be a glimpse at the versatility at the disposal of Norvell, offensive coordinator Josh Heupel and the rest of the Sooners' offensive coaches in 2014. Quarterback Trevor Knight started both of those games, although he left the OSU game due to injury, and returns this fall to allow his versatility as a passer and runner to open up options for the Sooners offense.

Knight is the poster boy for OU's offensive explosion against the Crimson Tide but the Sooners' game plan and high tempo approach had just as much of an impact. Alabama looked ill-prepared for the Sooners' tempo, resulting in its defense playing much of the game on its heels as OU created chaos and confusion with the high-tempo game plan. It was a far cry from the Sooners' offense that averaged 38.7 plays per game with one or two tight ends on the field in the final six games of the regular season before running 21 plays with one or two tight ends against Alabama.

"When we have a quarterback that can handle it and our skill position players can handle it as well, our versatility helps our tempo package out tremendously," Heupel said. "I think that's where we are a little different than some tempo teams."

The change in approach gave OU an immediate advantage. And the Sooners are aiming to do more of the same in 2014.

"I think we're starting to see that with some of the kids we have the in the program now," Norvell said. "We're using that flexibility to be in tight formations and be spread out, use them as blockers, use them as receivers. We're trying to utilize those strengths the best we can. We've learned a lot about our new players in the last few weeks."

Knight is a terrific piece to build around, particularly if his passing skills continue to develop, but having a veteran offensive line could be the biggest piece of the puzzle. OU has eight different offensive linemen who have started a game in crimson and cream and feature a Big 12-best 107 career starts among those offensive linemen. That experience could pay dividends this season.

"It's huge," Heupel said of the impact of an experienced offensive line on the ability to play with tempo. "We're playing multiple formations so their ability to recognize things up front is critical. There's a lot on their plate so that experience is huge."

With Knight and an experienced offensive line to build around, OU is spending preseason camp identifying the players who can enhance the overall versatility of the offense while also fulfilling conventional roles with championship-level precision. Relatively unproven players like senior tight end Blake Bell, freshman fullback Dimitri Flowers and others will need to emerge for OU's offense to mimic the versatility it showed at the end of 2013.

"At the end of the day we have to play the guys who can go out and help compete for a championship," Heupel said. "That's what fall camp has been about."
Sterling Shepard could have something big in store for 2014.

The Oklahoma receiver’s collegiate career was in its infancy when he put the Big 12 on notice by leaping over Kansas State’s Nigel Malone during a post-catch run in his third game wearing crimson and cream in 2012. One year later, as a sophomore, Shepard was streaking through Notre Dame’s secondary for a 54-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown to seal the Sooners' win over the Irish.

 With his junior season just weeks away, Shepard is hoping to have an even bigger impact on the Sooners this fall.

“Each year I want to make a step up,” Shepard said. “I know I have to step up this year and be a leader. I look to get better every year, I’ve been watching a lot of film, trying to perfect the little things.”

Shepard's ability to change games is unquestioned. His emergence as a true freshman in 2012 essentially transformed OU’s offense into a four-receiver attack as the Sooners looked to find room for the talented youngster. As a sophomore, he became a staple of OU’s offense, pairing with future NFL draft pick Jalen Saunders to give the Sooners a solid receiving duo.

“I had some good games, but I’m always looking for the thing to do better,” Shepard said. “I'm always trying to perfect something, there’s always something going wrong in a game. I look back, and I want things to be perfect.”

Shepard enters his junior season with 96 career receptions for 1,224 yards and 10 touchdowns. But his next step is to handle the responsibility of being No. 1 receiver in the Sooners’ passing attack. It’s a role the junior looks toward receivers’ coach Jay Norvell to help him navigate.

“Coach Jay has been with the best, coached the best, he knows what it takes to be the No. 1 guy,” Shepard said. “He’s talked to every guy who has been through here and been the No. 1 guy. He knows what it looks like. He’s been stressing to be on top of everything you do, be it on the field or off the field, everybody is looking at you.”

Kenny Stills handled that role during Shepard’s freshman season in 2012. In 2013, Saunders took over the No. 1 receiver spot. Shepard got the rare opportunity to watch and learn a pair of future NFL draftees during his first two years on campus.

“The thing about Sterling, he’s just so competitive, he’s going to take advantage of every opportunity he has,” Norvell said. “His leadership is showing through and his versatility is starting to show through now.”

Like Stills before him, Shepard has progressed from true freshman standout to versatile junior as a guy who can line up in the slot or on the outside for OU.

“He’s shown he can play in the slot, now he’s showing he can run routes,” Norvell said. “Being able to play in the slot and on the outside and be a quality route runner is where he is completing his game.”

And the burden of leadership has comfortably landed on Shepard’s shoulders.

“I’ve seen it since early last spring then over the summer I really saw it,” Norvell said of Shepard’s growth as a leader. “He’s been way more vocal with all of the other players and spreading his wings that way.”
Big 12 teams rejoice.

For the first time in four years, Oklahoma faces the proposition of a season without Trey Millard as a critical piece of its offense and special teams.

[+] EnlargeDimitri Flowers
Tom Hauck for Student SportsWhile only a 3-star recruit, Dimitri Flowers' versatility stood out to scouts.
The former Sooner earned a reputation as one of the conference’s most physical and versatile players as a four-year starter and could easily be considered the hardest player to replace in the Big 12. Millard ran like a running back, blocked like an offensive lineman and covered kicks like a linebacker. Locating guys like Millard is nearly an impossible task.

The Sooners hope they found a similar hidden gem in early enrollee Dimitri Flowers. He starred all over the field at San Antonio Churchill, making plays as a running back, tight end and defensive end. Flowers, at 6-foot-1, 234 pounds, has been earmarked for a Millard-type role as a hybrid tight end and running back and is already impressing coaches and teammates with his versatility.

“He’s one of the most skilled, well-rounded guys that I’ve seen come into our program,” offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. “His ability to play in line and in space as an H-back, motion guy, [and] he does a great job of catching the football and he’s extremely bright for a young kid coming into your program.”

Flowers was called “as versatile as any player in high school” by ESPN.com recruiting experts, who rated him as a three-star athlete with “above average” size, speed and strength.

It would be asking a lot for Flowers to step right into the Sooners plan and have a similar impact as Millard, who essentially forced the coaching staff to find an immediate role for him as a true freshman. Fortunately for OU, it doesn’t need him to make an similar impact with former walk-on Aaron Ripkowski already proving he can be a core contributor as a fullback/tight end after Millard missed the end of the 2013 season with a knee injury.

Nonetheless, Flowers still could provide superb depth and play a special teams role this fall, particularly if he makes a smooth transition to college football and can handle the little details that can be the difference between seeing the field or watching from the sideline.

“He came in [as] a really good [player],” sophomore running back Keith Ford said. “He’s adjusted to the speed and the things I’ve seen with the catching the ball and pass blocking, he’s picking it up fast.”

OU used Millard and Ripkowski together at various times in 2012 and 2013 so it’s not out of the question for Flowers to have a role in the Sooners’ offensive plans with a strong showing this spring.

“He’s a really versatile player, very young, but a lot of great qualities,” co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. “A lot of our best players can do a lot of things and he’s showing a lot of versatility on the field. He’s green as grass, he doesn’t know much but he’s a good athlete and he can play for us so we’re excited to have him.”
Blake Bell is quickly ascending to hero status in Norman, Okla.

[+] EnlargeBlake Bell
AP Photo/Darron CummingsOklahoma is hoping Blake Bell's athleticism and physical style translates to his move to tight end.
The Oklahoma senior saved the day, quarterbacking the Sooners on a game-deciding touchdown drive to win Bedlam, giving OU fans bragging rights over Oklahoma State supporters while robbing the Cowboys of their second Big 12 championship in three seasons. Bell started eight games at quarterback in 2013, passing for 1,648 yards and 12 touchdowns as a major contributor to OU’s 11-2 campaign.

Yet, after Trevor Knight's Sugar Bowl MVP performance, there was no question who would be the Sooners’ starting quarterback in 2014. Thus, Bell had a choice to make: Stay at Oklahoma or search for greener pastures elsewhere.

Bell chose to return to OU, cementing his legacy in the minds of several Sooners fans by asking to move to tight end, a clear sign of his commitment to the program.

“It was a tough decision,” Bell said. “Obviously playing quarterback was my dream, but another dream of mine was to play at OU. And I didn’t want to leave, I didn’t want to go anywhere, so that’s why I stayed around. I love these guys, love my teammates. I just wanted to get on the field somehow.”

This spring is Bell’s first taste of his new position. The blue “don’t hit” quarterback jersey has been abandoned for a crimson No. 10 jersey, bigger shoulder pads and more time battling the big boys in the trenches.

“It’s just a different mindset, and it’ll take me a little bit to get used to, but it’s been fun,” Bell said. “It’s a mentality. You’ve got to flip the switch from quarterback to tight end, and I think that’s the main deal.”

Everything is different, from the physical nature of the position to the intricacies of blocking schemes. He’s gone from being a prime target in the pocket to being able to dish out some punishment of his own on linebackers and defensive linemen. It’s going to take a while before Bell’s athleticism and talent can be on full display at the position, but the senior is slowly but surely becoming more comfortable at tight end.

“It’s a brand new world for Blake,” co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. “It’s fun to watch because he’s a good athlete and he’s got long arms. It’s a different workload for him and he’s beat up and sore. He’s got parts of his body that are bruised that have never been bruised before.”

Bell’s experience as a quarterback could make the transition much smoother for him. He won’t have to spend time trying to understand plays and concepts, allowing him to focus on technique, blocking assignments and route running instead.

“It’s helped me a lot to know the offense,” he said, while noting the ability to read defenses is also a useful asset.

Bell earned the nickname “Belldozer” with his physical running style as a freshman and sophomore behind former quarterback Landry Jones. At 6-foot-6, 264 pounds, he gave as much punishment as he received while becoming a short-yardage specialist in 2011 and 2012. OU hopes that physical nature and playmaking ability can transfer to the tight end position.

“Blake’s got soft hands, good hands,” Sooners coach Bob Stoops said. “He’s running around really well. He’s a huge target. I’m sure blocking is something we’ll have to work hard on, but Blake’s athletic, Blake’s tough. He’s got size, he’s got strength, he’s got the things you need to do it.”

OU has been searching for a receiving threat at tight end since James Hanna moved on to the NFL after the 2011 season. The Sooners are hopeful that Bell will be the answer to their woes at the spot.

“It’s really fun to watch him compete and make plays for us,” Norvell said. “I think he’s really going to help us as a tight end.”
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.”
The Big 12 is full of talented assistant coaches. In a conference loaded with quality assistants, we've tried to narrow it down to the top 10 based on the on-field production of their offense, defense or position group and their ability to evaluate, recruit and develop players at their position.

[+] EnlargeMike Stoops
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesMike Stoops' defenses at Oklahoma have been among the best in the Big 12 the last two seasons.
Here's a closer look at the top 10 assistant coaches in the Big 12:

  1. Mike Stoops, Oklahoma defensive coordinator/safeties coach: The Sooners defense has been solid since Stoops returned after his stint as head coach at Arizona. Oklahoma has been among the Big 12’s top defenses during the past two seasons, particularly against the pass. Stoops secured the top spot on the list with his willingness to completely change the defense in 2013, going to a three-man front and making the defense faster and more versatile. And he’s one of the best evaluators and developers of defensive backs in the country.
  2. Phillip Montgomery, Baylor offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach: Montgomery coordinated the nation’s top offense in 2013. The Bears led all BCS teams, averaging 52.4 points and 618.8 yards per game, as the offense spearheaded Baylor's run to its first Big 12 title. Montgomery also has mentored some of the Big 12’s top quarterbacks in recent years, including Robert Griffin III and Nick Florence, capped by Big 12 offensive player of the year Bryce Petty in 2013.
  3. Glenn Spencer, Oklahoma State defensive coordinator/linebackers coach: Spencer took over Oklahoma State’s defense in 2013 and the Cowboys transformed into a more aggressive and adaptive unit. Oklahoma State's defense led the Big 12 in fewest points allowed (21.6) and lowest third-down conversion rate (31.4 percent) to finish among the top 20 teams in the BCS in each category. Spencer also is a superb recruiter and developer of linebackers for the Cowboys, who featured two of the Big 12’s best in Caleb Lavey and Shaun Lewis last season.
  4. Dick Bumpas, TCU defensive coordinator/defensive line coach: Bumpas has coached with TCU head coach Gary Patterson since 2004, and the Horned Frogs have fielded some of the best defenses in the nation during Patterson’s tenure. TCU’s defense finished among the Big 12’s best in several categories in 2013, including its 4.83 yards allowed per play, which was No. 13 among BCS teams. Bumpas’ defensive line group also has been among the Big 12’s best, as he consistently turns players other teams overlooked into solid performers.
  5. Dana Dimel, Kansas State offensive coordinator/running backs and tight ends coach: The Wildcats' creativity on offense often goes unnoticed, but K-State finished among the top 30 BCS teams in yards per play. Dimel, who coaches the running backs and tight ends, has been a key member of Bill Snyder’s staff and has coached 34 players who have played in the NFL. That includes Daniel Thomas, who arrived on campus as a junior college quarterback before developing into an All-Big 12 running back.
  6. Joe Wickline, Texas offensive coordinator/offensive line coach: Wickline has been one of the Big 12’s top position coaches for the past few years as Oklahoma State’s offensive line coach. He coached several players to all-conference honors, including NFL first-round pick Russell Okung. Wickline moves to Austin, Texas, in 2014 after being named Texas’ offensive coordinator by head coach Charlie Strong. He has a proven ability to evaluate talent and develop relative unknowns into productive offensive linemen.
  7. Wally Burnham, Iowa State defensive coordinator/linebackers coach: Burnham consistently has developed All-Big 12 linebackers during his time on the Cyclones' coaching staff. During his five seasons coaching linebackers, Jesse Smith, Jake Knott, A.J. Klein and Jeremiah George each earned All-Big 12 honors. The Cyclones defense took a step backward in 2013, but much of their success under Paul Rhoads is built upon an underrated defense led by quality linebackers.
  8. Sonny Cumbie, TCU co-offensive coordinator: The Red Raiders receivers have been among the Big 12’s best under Cumbie for the past few seasons. His work with the receivers was one reason Texas Tech led the Big 12 and finished second nationally with 392.85 yards per game in 2013 despite playing multiple quarterbacks. Cumbie will play a key role in kick-starting TCU’s offense in 2014.
  9. Kendal Briles, Baylor passing game coordinator/receivers coach: Briles secured his spot on this list thanks to his ability to evaluate, recruit and develop receivers. He’s one reason Baylor has become “Wide Receiver U” in the Big 12 while putting several players into the NFL, including Kendall Wright, Terrance Williams and Josh Gordon. Not only does he evaluate well -- such as with overlooked speedster Tevin Reese -- Briles has shown he can develop those signees into all-Big 12 performers.
  10. Jay Norvell, Oklahoma co-offensive coordinator/receivers coach: Much like Briles, Norvell consistently recruits and develops players for the Sooners. He coached NFL draftees Ryan Broyles, Kenny Stills and Justin Brown during the past three seasons, when six receivers have caught at least 50 passes. His ability to continue to bring in elite prospects amps up the competition at the position.

NEW ORLEANS -- "The King" tweeted it best.

"What's great about playing Bama," legendary former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer wrote on Twitter this week, "is they are the team to find how good you are or how far you have to go."

[+] EnlargeBob Stoops
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezHow good are Bob Stoops' Sooners? We'll find out in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama.
Thursday night in the Allstate Sugar Bowl (ESPN, 8:30 ET), the Sooners will play in the ultimate barometer game against third-ranked Alabama.

It's a game that will reveal where the Sooners are, relative to the Crimson Tide. And just how far they have to go.

"How could it not be that?" Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops asked. "They're as good a football team as we've played in 15 years.

"So it’s definitely that."

Under coach Nick Saban, the Crimson Tide have become the standard-bearers in college football. Since 2009, Alabama has won three national championships, and only the wildest ending in college football history prevented the Tide from playing for another.

"They're obviously the program the last five years that has set the bar in college football," Sooners co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. "Is it any more of a benchmark than any other game? Probably so."

Under Stoops, Oklahoma once set the bar in college football. At the turn of the millennium, the Sooners played for three national titles in five years, and captured the championship in Y2K with a defensive flattening of Florida State in the Orange Bowl.

Like the Tide of now, the Sooners of then rolled in top-five recruiting classes every February. And every April, Oklahoma produced a lion's share of first-round draft picks.

But that was then.

And in the present, the Sooners have fallen on hard times -- at least according to the towering expectations that apply to the likes of an Alabama or an Oklahoma.

"We win 10 games every year," said center Gabe Ikard, "and people feel that we’ve fallen off."

True, the Sooners haven't fallen off into a canyon like their Red River brethren (even though Texas did dismantle Oklahoma this year in Dallas). But in Norman, 10-win seasons minus the championships ring hollow.

It has been six seasons since the Sooners seriously contended for a national title past October. And after seizing six Big 12 championships over a span of nine seasons, Oklahoma has only one outright conference title since 2008.

This November, once they fell 41-12 to Baylor -- yes, the same Baylor that Central Florida roasted Wednesday night in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl -- the Sooners weren’t even a factor in the Big 12 race, much less the national one.

At the moment, Alabama owns RecruitingNation's No. 1 class, while Oklahoma's just barely cracks the top 25. Last year alone, the Crimson Tide furnished the NFL with three first-round draft picks. The Sooners, meanwhile, have had just one first-rounder (OT Lane Johnson) since 2010.

But just because the results have tapered off in Norman doesn’t mean the expectations have.

And against Alabama, the Sooners will find out where they stand.

"This is definitely going to show what kind of team we have right now," said Oklahoma receiver Jalen Saunders. "What type of players we have at OU. Where we stand nationally."

Lately, the Sooners haven’t stood quite as tall.

As a testament to Stoops' unrivaled, long-term consistency, Oklahoma still managed to grind out 10 victories in 2012 despite having no running game and a shaky defense. But whenever the Sooners faced a quality opponent last season, they were vanquished. Kansas State out-executed them in the Big 12 opener, Notre Dame smashed them in the fourth quarter, and Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, well, he just made them look ridiculous in an AT&T Cotton Bowl rout.

As a result, Oklahoma opened 2013 outside the top 10 in the preseason polls for the first time since Stoops' second year.

Even though the Sooners stunned Oklahoma State in the 2013 Big 12 regular-season finale to sneak their way into the BCS, Las Vegas oddsmakers have pegged them as 16½-point underdogs against the mighty Tide. That, by the way, is the third-largest point spread in BCS history, behind only this year's Baylor-UCF Fiesta Bowl and the 17-point line Oklahoma was handed over Connecticut in the 2010 Fiesta Bowl.

In other words -- at least according to Vegas -- the gap between Alabama and Oklahoma right now is roughly equal to the gap between Oklahoma and Connecticut then.

"They're a great, great team," Stoops said of the Tide. "Great talent across the board."

When facing great talent, however, comes great opportunity. To ascend back atop college football's summit, the Sooners have to start somewhere. They'll find no more opportune setting than the Sugar.

"They’ve been so dominant," said Oklahoma running back Brennan Clay, "that if we come out with a victory, it would definitely say we're a national championship-contending-type team."

The Sooners can't secure a national championship overnight. And they certainly can't on Thursday night. But they can send a message. And in doing so, also can launch their climb back to the top.

"Winning this game would be big," Ikard said. "Big for recruiting, big for the program, big for the fan base.

"It would show that we're still one of the premier, top-five programs in the country."

The Sooners haven’t been a top-five program lately. But in New Orleans they get to find out how good they really are.

And just how far they have to go.

Jalen Saunders soars as a Sooner

December, 23, 2013
12/23/13
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NORMAN, Okla. — It was a perfect fit.

Receiver Jalen Saunders was searching for a home in early 2012, looking to transfer from Fresno State after two seasons with the Bulldogs. Oklahoma was looking for a veteran receiver, hopeful to replace the departed Ryan Broyles, the NCAA’s all-time reception leader.

After a tip from former New Mexico State coach Dwayne Walker, Sooners receivers coach Jay Norvell got in touch with Saunders and convinced him that Norman, Okla., was the place to spend his final two seasons. Saunders quickly became one of OU’s top receiving threats and he’s put himself in position to be the fourth Sooners receiver selected in the NFL draft in the last three years, joining Broyles, Justin Brown and Kenny Stills.

[+] EnlargeJalen Saunders
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiJalen Saunders turned out to be a perfect fit for Oklahoma, and vice versa.
OU received an explosive threat who has proven ability to change games. Saunders received added exposure and better competition week in and week out. Saunders' decision to finish his career at OU has paid off.

“Oklahoma has a great legacy behind its name and there have been a lot of greats come through here,” Saunders said. “Adrian Peterson, Ryan Broyles and Sam Bradford -- the list goes on and on. So this is just a great program to come out of.”

Entering the Allstate Sugar Bowl, Saunders has 198 career receptions on 295 targets for 3,010 yards and 24 touchdowns. In 21 games at OU, the senior has 118 receptions for 1,483 yards and nine touchdowns, with 61.9 percent of his receptions gaining a first down.

“Jalen has had a huge impact,” coach Bob Stoops said. “He has been a great player for us, explosive player, and a very consistent player, too. Every week he performs well and he plays hard and always has that ability to make big plays.”

Saunders is playing his best in a crimson and cream uniform during his final few games as a Sooner. He changed the game with a punt return for a touchdown against Iowa State, sparking a 48-10 win. He led OU with seven receptions for 95 yards in a 41-31 win over Kansas State and saved his best for last, catching the game-winning touchdown against Oklahoma State and added a critical punt return in the Sooners’ 33-24 win over the Cowboys to help earn the Sugar Bowl bid.

“He’s ratcheting it up,” Norvell said. “He sees the end coming and he really is dialed in to how he can help this team. We’re moving him around a little bit more; we’re putting him in different spots. Sometimes when you’re a college football coach you start seeing the end with some guys and you want to get as much out of him as you can. But he’s a really good player. He’s really tough for a little guy and we just are trying to use him up here these last few weeks and put him in good spots.”

During OU’s last five games, Saunders has 27 receptions for 376 yards and three touchdowns, six punt returns for 192 yards and two scores (32 yards per return) and a 55-yard kickoff return.

“He’s played a major role in our success down the stretch,” co-offensive coordinator Josh Heupel.

The senior’s production helped earn him an invitation to the Senior Bowl, where he will get a chance to prove himself in front of NFL scouts and coaches. Questions about his size (5-foot-9, 157 pounds) will undoubtedly hurt his NFL stock, but he can start answering those questions in Mobile, Ala. in late January.

Norvell, who coached in the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts and Oakland Raiders, believes Saunders can be an NFL receiver.

“I don’t think there’s any question,” Norvell said. “I think he’s really showing he can do a lot of things very well as a punt returner and a route-runner. I think they like his toughness. He’s showing that he’ll mix it up. We use him in a lot of situations where you’d use a bigger receiver and he goes in there and throws his body around, so I’m probably most proud about that of him and just how he’s played the physical part of the game.”
NORMAN, Okla. -- Oklahoma has been searching for answers in its passing attack for the majority of the season.

Redshirt freshman Trevor Knight got the first shot, starting the Sooners' first two games of the season, then Blake Bell got the nod against Tulsa on Sept. 14 and has been the starter ever since.

[+] EnlargeKendal Thompson
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsSophomore signal-caller Kendal Thompson played well in OU's Red-White spring game but has yet to play in 2013.
Neither player has solidified themselves as the Sooners' signal-caller of the future.

Meanwhile, there was another competitor in OU's quarterback derby throughout the spring and summer. Sophomore Kendal Thompson was part of the three-quarterback race to replace Landry Jones until a broken foot on the first day of fall camp derailed his hopes of winning the job.

With the Sooners still searching for consistency at quarterback it would seem natural for the now-healthy Thompson to get a shot to quarterback the squad, as the lone one of the three who hasn’t gotten the chance to show what he can do in a game. Yet coach Bob Stoops doesn’t see it that way.

“I’m not going to sit here and make wholesale changes in the ninth game of the year when we’ve done some good things through the year,” Stoops said. “Kendal has done an awesome job. We love what he’s doing. He’s got a bright future. It’s hard to overcome the initial way that he started.”

Thompson missed the month of August and part of September while recovering from the foot injury, creating a hole that the coaching staff believes has been too deep to dig out of. Asked what Thompson would have to do to get an opportunity to lead the Sooners offense in a game, co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell preached patience.

“Kendal has to do what he has continued to do, practice hard and continue to prepare,” Norvell said. “He will ready when his opportunity comes. It is unfortunate; he got hurt at a very critical time in training camp when people were competing for the spot and it just hard to get an opportunity once the season starts.”

It’s tough to spread the practice reps to three different quarterbacks, Norvell contended, particularly with the Sooners trying to do everything they can to work on the improvements needed if their passing attack expects to click consistently as the season comes to a close.

The OU quarterbacks rank ninth in the Big 12 at 195.3 passing yards per game with Kansas as the only other conference squad averaging less than 200 passing yards per game. It's an ugly realization considering the league is full of sub-par and unsettled quarterback play.

OU coaches consistently say their players must prove themselves in practice to get an opportunity in games but even Stoops admitted things can be different when the lights turn on.

“It’s always a different feel,” Stoops said. “Practice to games can be drastically different.”

It doesn’t sound like the Sooners are going to stray away from their commitment to Bell anytime soon. Even though Norvell and offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said Thompson has continued to develop since returning to full health, Stoops reaffirmed his commitment to Bell earlier this week.

“Are we going to go and experiment now?” Stoops asked. “I don’t think that’s the case. [Kendal]’s doing everything. He’s a wonderful young man with a bright future, and he’s a talented guy.”

Will we ever see Thompson's talent on full display on the Oklahoma Memorial Stadium turf? That question remains unanswered.
NORMAN, Okla. -- Just the thought of his defense spending the majority of the game on the field makes Mike Stoops uncomfortable.

“If we play 90 to 100 snaps, it’s not good,” the Oklahoma defensive coordinator said. “You can’t win a game against Baylor playing 90 to 100 snaps. That’s not a game you want to be in.”

[+] EnlargeRoy Finch
AP Photo/Orlin WagnerRoy Finch and the Oklahoma offense must stay on the field to keep Baylor's high-powered offense on the sidelines.
Oklahoma’s offense could be its best defense when it meets Baylor at Floyd Casey Stadium on Thursday. By running the ball, controlling the tempo and keeping the Bears' offense on the sideline, the Sooners' offense could be the difference.

“You hope that your offense can control the football and that you can control the tempo of the game,” Stoops said.

It’s a formula that has worked before against the Bears. Kansas State held BU to 58 offensive plays in its 35-25 loss to the Bears on Oct. 12. Not surprisingly, the Wildcats held the Bears to season lows in plays (58), yards (446), touchdowns (5) and plays of 10 yards or more (12).

Giving Bryce Petty, Lache Seastrunk, Antwan Goodley and the rest of the Baylor playmakers too many opportunities to make plays will result in big plays and plenty of points. It’s simply unavoidable. But limiting their offensive plays and opportunities can make their offense look human and make the ultimate goal of winning the game within reach.

Fortunately for the Sooners, this game plan fits right in line with the approach that has carried them to a 7-1 record. Opponents average 63.8 offensive plays against the Sooners this season, five plays per game less than any other Big 12 team. It’s a big reason why OU sits atop the conference in yards allowed per game (314.3) and ranks second behind the Bears in points allowed (18.8).

The Sooners average 234 rushing yards per game and have leaned on that running game to carry the offense this season while their passing game has been inconsistent. Running the ball, controlling the clock and converting on third downs is a formula the Sooners used to defeat Texas Tech, 38-30, in their last game.

“If we can limit the opportunities they get by not turning it over and converting on third downs we help our cause,” OU co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. “It’s not a complicated formula, but it’s important that we get the type of execution we had a week ago.”

Ideally, OU will have to find a way to get a lead then use its running game and short-passing game to run out the clock while Petty and company helplessly watch from the bench. The approach has been widely discussed in the halls of the Switzer Center over the past week as the Sooners know their offense and defense must work as one unit to slow the Bears’ explosive attack.

“The short passes have to be like runs,” Norvell said. “They’ve [OU receivers] got to be catch the ball no nonsense and get up the field, no dancing, and that’s the mentality we have to play with. We’ve got to make a three-yard catch eight yards and a six-yard catch nine yards. We’ve got to get the first down first and then worry about making something flashy happen.”

OU is converting just 40.7 percent of its third down conversion attempts, ranking fifth in the conference. But the Sooners have improved in recent weeks, converting 14 of 28 attempts combined against Texas Tech and Kansas in back-to-back weeks. Like any big game, making key plays in key moments will decide the outcome.

“It’s critical that we stay ahead of the chains, not get in third and long,” quarterback Blake Bell said.

In its lone loss to Texas, on third down OU had to gain six or more yards on 50 of its 59 plays against the Longhorns. It averaged -0.31 yards per play on third down. Quite simply, the Sooners won’t win if they have another performance like they did against the Longhorns.

“Staying on the field obviously comes down to your first- and second-down plays,” guard Bronson Irwin said. “I think getting yards on those plays puts you at third-and-manageable, whereas if you’re at third-and-long your percentages for staying on the field are going to be a little lower. I think being effective and efficient on first and second downs is going to be a huge part of this game.”

The moral of the story? OU wants to make this game ugly because its not sure it can win pretty. It’s an approach that has been pushed upon them by the struggles of its passing game but one the Sooners have grown to embrace.

“That’s kind of the mentality we have,” Norvell said. “This team has become a blue collar team. We kind of felt that way in the spring, and we’ve got a fighter’s mentality. We’re going to pound on you for four quarters and then try to win it in the fourth. That’s the way we’ve got to be, and that’s okay. It doesn’t matter how pretty it is. If we end up on the right side of the ledger that’s really all that matters.”

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