Big 12: Quentin Hayes

What we learned in the Big 12: Week 3

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
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Here's what we learned about the Big 12 in Week 3:

1. TCU and West Virginia might finally be finding their stride in the Big 12: Being in the Big 12 has been rough on the Horned Frogs and Mountaineers. In their first two years in the league, each went 11-14 overall. But with impressive performances Saturday, both are showing signs they are finally turning the corner. The Mountaineers racked up 33 first downs and almost 700 yards in a 40-37 win over Maryland, which was able to stay in the game only through the grace of West Virginia's three turnovers in the red zone. TCU completely manhandled Minnesota and picked off Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner three times on the way to an easy 30-7 victory. The Horned Frogs appear to be formidable on defense again, and TCU’s new offensive scheme has been generating more points. Meanwhile, West Virginia might have the two most improved players in the entire conference in quarterback Clint Trickett, who is completing 75 percent of his passes, and wideout Kevin White, who already has 460 yards receiving. The Mountaineers and Horned Frogs still have to prove themselves in league play. But their performances through the nonconference suggest they'll give Big 12 foes a run for their money.

[+] EnlargeJulian Wilson
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiJulian Wilson returned an interception 100 yards in Oklahoma's win over Tennessee.
 2. Oklahoma’s secondary is no joke: Everyone knew how deep and talented the Sooners’ front seven was coming into this season. The secondary, however, seemed to be a question mark. But in a 34-10 win over the Volunteers, Oklahoma’s defensive backs were dominant, delivering three game-changing plays among them. In the first quarter, Quentin Hayes came on a safety blitz and forced and recovered a fumble. In the third quarter, cornerback Zack Sanchez came up with an acrobatic interception in the end zone (his fifth pick in six games). And in the fourth quarter, cornerback Julian Wilson delivered the exclamation point, hauling in a tipped interception and returning it 100 yards for a game-clinching touchdown. After the game, coach Bob Stoops lauded this group. “They’re playing really well,” he said. “They’re not making mistakes. They’re challenging, competing for balls. They’re making big plays. Maybe as good a three-game stretch we may have had.” That’s high praise for this Oklahoma secondary. But the way it's playing, it's well deserved.

3. The league has some unshakable kickers: Two Big 12 kickers had the chance to produce winning field goals in the final seconds of their games. And both kickers delivered. First, Josh Lambert drilled a 47-yarder as time expired to give West Virginia a monumental victory over regional rival Maryland. Then, Iowa State’s Cole Netten connected on a 42-yard attempt with two seconds remaining to lift Iowa State to a 20-17 win over in-state rival Iowa. Netten actually misfired on his first try at the game-winner, but the Hawkeyes had called timeout first. Netten shook off that miss and came back and delivered in a moment he’ll remember awhile. Field goal kicking in the college game has become a lost art. But from Oklahoma’s Michael Hunnicutt to TCU’s Jaden Oberkrom, the Big 12 is loaded with talented place-kickers. In Lambert and Netten, the league has a couple of clutch ones, too.

4. Texas Tech’s run defense seems hopeless: Coach Kliff Kingsbury signed four junior college defensive linemen during the offseason to try to shore up what was the league’s worst run defense last fall. But in a disheartening 49-28 loss to Arkansas, the Red Raiders’ run defense looked worse than ever. The Razorbacks obliterated Tech in the trenches, rolling up 438 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground while averaging 6.4 yards per carry. As a result, Arkansas dominated the time of possession, holding the ball for more than 40 of the game’s 60 minutes while keeping Tech QB Davis Webb on the sideline and out of rhythm. “They lined up and pounded us,” Kingsbury said. “We just didn’t have an answer.” The Red Raiders might not face a rushing attack like Arkansas’ until Oklahoma visits Lubbock in November. But it might not take a powerful rushing offense like Arkansas’ to exploit what has been a shaky Texas Tech defense that has yet to stop anybody through three games.

5. Texas still has some fight: There were few reasons to believe the Longhorns could hang around with UCLA after their dismal performance last week against BYU. But behind an inspired effort from sophomore quarterback Tyrone Swoopes, Texas had UCLA on the ropes until backup QB Jerry Neuheisel tossed a 33-yard go-ahead touchdown with three minutes remaining. The Longhorns lost the game 20-17 and still have various issues, such as getting the coin toss right. But this was a performance they can build off. Although he couldn’t lead them on a game-winning drive, Swoopes was solid in his second career start, completing 24 of 34 passes for 196 yards and two touchdowns. And unlike last week, the Longhorns didn’t lie down when things didn’t go their way. After a disastrous start in 2013, Texas bounced back to have a decent season. This team showed on Saturday it could do the same.
NORMAN, Okla. -- Another SEC opponent. Another Oklahoma win.

Behind a sharp effort from quarterback Trevor Knight and a swarming defense that forced three turnovers, the Sooners coasted past Tennessee 34-10 to remain undefeated.

Here were the three plays that spearheaded Oklahoma's victory:

1. HAYES BRINGS THE HAMMER EARLY

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After Oklahoma scored a field goal on its opening drive, Tennessee came right back and was stringing together a drive of its own. Tennessee QB Justin Worley connected with Pig Howard for a 19-yard pass that pushed the Vols to the Oklahoma 40-yard line. But on the next play, Sooners defensive coordinator brought Quentin Hayes on a safety blitz. Worley never saw him coming, and Hayes belted into Worley's blindside, knocking the ball loose. After rolling through Worley, Hayes popped up and recovered the fumble, too. The turnover not only thwarted Tennessee's first potential scoring opportunity, it set up a Trevor Knight-to-Keith Ford touchdown pass six plays later to give the Sooners an early 10-0 lead and control of the game.

2. NEAL GETS SOONERS GOING AGAIN
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Despite a rocky start, Tennessee kept the Sooners from running away with the game in the first half, and trailed only 20-7 at halftime. But the Oklahoma offense, which struggled to end the second quarter, got rolling again in the third. With the Vols focused on Sterling Shepard on the boundary side, Knight flipped his vision the other way and tossed a strike to a wide open Durron Neal running a slant route. Neal slipped through a pair of defenders downfield, then raced to the Tennessee 9 for a 43-yard gain. Two plays later, Knight was in the end zone, giving the Sooners a commanding 27-7 lead.

3. WILSON DELIVERS THE EXCLAMATION POINT
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Tennessee trailed 27-10 early in the fourth quarter, but had one final chance to get back in the game. Facing third-and-2 at the Oklahoma 4-yard line, Worley tried to force a pass to Marquez North at the front of the end zone. But before the pass could get to North, Oklahoma linebacker Jordan Evans tipped the ball in the air over North and into the arms of Sooners cornerback Julian Wilson. With a convoy leading the way, Wilson sprinted 100 yards for the game-clinching touchdown. Officials reviewed the play to make sure Wilson crossed the goal line before he dropped the ball. But replay confirmed he was in the end zone first.
This week we've highlighted the key position battles for every program in the Big 12. We conclude the series with Oklahoma’s safety battle.

Here's where the battle stands:

Contenders: sophomore Ahmad Thomas, sophomore Hatari Byrd, freshman Steven Parker.

What happened last season: Returning starter Quentin Hayes and departed starter Gabe Lynn were a solid safety duo for the Sooners in 2013. They combined for 133 tackles and six interceptions. Hayes' versatility was an asset during his first season as a starter, and Lynn provided a veteran presence during his first and only season at safety.

Byrd saw limited duty as a true freshman but was solid in his lone extended action against Tulsa after an injury forced Lynn out of that early-season contest.

Thomas got better and better as the season went along. He was a core member of OU’s special teams and worked himself into the defensive rotation late in the season.

Parker arrived on campus this summer as the No. 139 player in the ESPN 300 for the Class of 2014.

Replacing Lynn has been a focus for the Sooners this offseason. Lynn and cornerback Aaron Colvin are the lone starters OU’s defense must replace heading into this season.

What they offer: It’s quite possible the Sooners’ safeties will be even better this fall, as all three contenders for playing time at the position appear to be securing themselves roles in the defense.

Thomas and Byrd have been so good that Hayes has migrated into the nickelback slot vacated by Julian Wilson, who has moved to cornerback to replace Colvin. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Thomas and Byrd alongside each other at safety this season, with Parker battling to earn time with the first team while providing a quality backup option.

Byrd is a fierce hitter with leadership traits that should allow him to develop into an important voice in the secondary. He’s made a clear jump from his freshman to sophomore season.

Thomas appears to be on the road to stardom. He can do it all in the secondary with good range, instincts and playmaking ability from his safety spot.

OU coaches have praised Parker as one of the most prepared freshmen they’ve seen, and he could force his way onto the field with his versatility and coverage skills.

Prediction: The Sooners will not only replace Lynn, they will use three safeties on the field at the same time quite a bit this fall. The emergence of the young safeties have made it easier to replace Colvin with Wilson’s move from nickelback to cornerback and Hayes' move from safety to nickelback. It’s all been done with an effort to get the Sooners' best 11 players on the field. OU’s safeties could be both younger and better in 2014 than they were in 2013.
Earlier Thursday, we concluded our 22-round draft of current Big 12 players. Below are the three lineup outcomes of that draft, and as you can see, each of us went in different directions.

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Like the St. Louis Rams, Max and Brandon built up their defensive lines before worrying about the rest of their rosters. While I grabbed the best quarterback in the league and surrounded him with protection and weapons.

After each lineup, read our final takes on our teams. Then, decide who drafted best in the weekly Big 12 poll.

BRANDON CHATMON’S TEAM

OFFENSE
DEFENSE
What Brandon says about his team: “Offensively, as soon as Petty was gone with the first pick I knew I wouldn’t take a quarterback until my final pick. Knight could be the steal of the draft. Versatility is the name of the game with the rest of the offense. We can put Pierson and Smallwood in the backfield and go read option or really ruin your Saturday and throw Daje back there in the Diamond. When you bring more guys in the box, you leave Seales and Lockett one-on-one. Or we can just go five wide and you can try to cover running backs who run routes like receivers with your linebackers. And an experienced offensive line will be the foundation of it all. Defensively, it would be wise for opposing quarterbacks to tell their families to stay home when facing this group. We’re going to man up and have our mail forwarded to the opposing backfield and make you want to take your ball and go home. And with a secondary full of coverage guys, I’m not concerned about the back end of the defense holding up. We’ll win more battles than we lose. By the final whistle, my team will have earned the moniker 'Chatmon’s chaos creators' with Tapper, Reed, Brown, Hunter, Alexander and Robertson living in your backfield.”

MAX OLSON'S TEAM

OFFENSE
DEFENSE
What Max says about his team: “You do not want to play against my team. That was my goal going in, and I constructed exactly the team I wanted. I have a great QB in Webb who gets to throw to Goodley, one of the nation's best receivers, and he'd help Jaxon Shipley put up Jordan Shipley numbers. I have the two-back punch of Linwood and Gray. I have Hill, who can do everything, and a good line. We're going to spread the ball around like crazy. Good luck stopping that. On defense, you have Fields, Oakman and Grissom all rushing the passer. That's deadly. We can go three-man fronts or even put Oakman in the middle, letting the 6-foot-8 stud swat your passes down. And while you're worrying about him and Grissom, you have the Big 12's best defensive player [Fields] coming after you. Hager and Shannon will hold it down at the second level, and the secondary is full of playmakers. This is a fun team, plain and simple, and one that can frustrate the heck out of anybody.”

JAKE TROTTER’S TEAM

OFFENSE
DEFENSE
What Jake says about his team: “Max and Brandon are good at talking smack. I’ll give them that. But my players do their talking on the field. Once I was fortunate to land reigning Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year Bryce Petty as my quarterback, my goal was two-fold: to keep him upright from pressure off the edge; and, to surround him with firepower. I accomplished both ends, and then some. I wasn’t able to get either of the two elite receivers in the league in Goodley or Lockett. But I put together the best overall receiving corps in Grant, Shepard and Bundrage, who could all deliver 1,000-yard receiving seasons in 2014. On top of that, I snagged the best pass-catching tight end on the board in Bibbs, as well as Brown, so that we can pound the ball between the tackles when we need. Speaking of tackles, aware that Brandon and Max were focused almost solely on their pass rush in the early rounds, I also added two of the most reliable pass-protecting bookends in the league in Drango and Williams. Defensively, I can bring pressure, too, with Mueller and Striker, who last season respectively placed second and fourth in the Big 12 in sacks. Castleman and Britz are roadblocks, Heeney and Dawson are tackle machines and my entire secondary has All-Big 12 potential. We don’t talk. We just dominate.”
Following up on NFL draft weekend, we’ve been conducting our own draft, picking from current Big 12 players to fill out three 22-man lineups.

Below is a recap of the first 15 rounds of the draft from the past two days, followed by rounds 16-22.

As another reminder, this is NOT a Top 25 player ranking. It’s only an exercise in determining where the value of the league lies, and the different strategies to putting a team together from the league’s present talent pool.

Jake Trotter:
Brandon Chatmon:
Max Olson:
Round 16

  • Olson: WR/RB Tyreek Hill, Oklahoma State
  • Chatmon: OLB Pete Robertson, Texas Tech
  • Trotter: OLB Brandon Golson, West Virginia
  • Analysis: "To combat the offensive attacks I would face in the Big 12, I'm going with a 3-4 on defense. Golson, who led the Big 12 in forced fumbles last season, is another playmaking outside linebacker who would fit in nicely in this scheme opposite Striker." -- Trotter
[+] EnlargeJohnathan Gray, Tanner Jacobson
AP Photo/Eric GayGetting potential Big 12 rushing leader Johnathan Gray in the 17th round could be a big steal for Max Olson.
Round 17

  • Trotter: LB Paul Dawson, TCU
  • Chatmon: C Dominic Espinosa, Texas
  • Olson: RB Johnathan Gray, Texas
  • Analysis: “I ended up getting a potential All-Big 12 running back in the 17th round. So I feel pretty good about that. Gray should be healthy for the opener, and he leads all returning Big 12 rushers with 86 rushing yards per game last season." -- Olson
Round 18

  • Olson: OT Troy Baker, Baylor
  • Chatmon: SS Quentin Hayes, Oklahoma
  • Trotter: OG Mark Glowinski, West Virginia
  • Analysis: "I wanted a safety who is comfortable in holding his own in coverage, while also having the ability to make plays all over the field. Hayes is the guy. With Worley, Shepherd, White, Barnett and Hayes in the secondary, I can unleash the rest of my defense on the quarterback and feel comfortable about my secondary holding its own against anyone." -- Chatmon
Round 19

  • Trotter: OG Nila Kasitati, Oklahoma
  • Chatmon: WR Tony Pierson, Kansas
  • Olson: SS Terrell Burt, Baylor
  • Analysis: "With Max and Brandon hoarding centers, I needed to attack the interior of my offensive line. Kasitati can excel manning either guard or center, and Glowinski is one of the league’s top returning guards." -- Trotter
Round 20

  • Olson: OT Halapoulivaati Vaitai, TCU
  • Chatmon: WR Jhajuan Seales, Oklahoma State
  • Trotter: WR Quenton Bundrage, Iowa State
  • Analysis: "The guys I wanted for my second guard spot weren't available at this round, so I'm going with the mammoth "Big V" Vaitai (6-foot-6, 308 pounds) and moving one of my other tackle selections inside. I ended up with a fairly good offensive line, which was pretty much my plan going in." -- Olson
Round 21

  • Trotter: CB Nigel Tribune, Iowa State
  • Chatmon: WR Wendell Smallwood, West Virginia
  • Olson: LB Nick Kwiatkoski, West Virginia
  • Analysis: “I picked up Bundrage in the previous round to seal up what I feel is the best all-around receiving corps, even if I didn’t get Goodley or Lockett. Tribune, the only true freshman to play for Iowa State in the past two seasons, is a corner with a ton of upside and, paired with Kevin Peterson, should provide me plenty of tenaciousness against the pass.” -- Trotter
Round 22

  • Olson: WR Jaxon Shipley, Texas
  • Chatmon: QB Trevor Knight, Oklahoma
  • Trotter: C Jared Kaster, Texas Tech
  • Analysis: “I just got the steal of the draft, and I knew I would wait until the final round to do so. As soon as Jake snapped up Petty, I knew I would be content with Davis Webb or Trevor Knight and wouldn’t draft a quarterback until the final round. The fact that Max opted for Webb made things even better for me as Knight has the versatility to run a run-heavy offense or spread things out and use his arm. He fits perfectly with the versatility I was striving for with each pick.” -- Chatmon
Over the next two weeks, we’ll be analyzing the depth charts of every Big 12 team coming out of the spring. On Tuesday, we continue the series with Oklahoma:

Offense (projected starters in bold)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C: Ty Darlington (Jr.)

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

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

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

DEFENSE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hayes was quietly one of the better safeties in the Big 12 in 2013. He was productive with 75 tackles and solid in coverage. Byrd and Thomas have matured and started to develop as sophomores and should be key contributors this fall. Nonetheless, freshman Steven Parker has the talent to step in an earn a role this summer. If Parker is as good as advertised, OU will go two deep with talented options.
Over the next two weeks, we’ll be breaking down the 10 best players at the moment on every team in the Big 12.

These lists won’t include junior college or freshman signees who haven’t arrived on campus yet. Rather, they will include only the players on their teams this spring. Some of these rankings might look different after the spring, but this is how we see them now.

On Tuesday, we continue with Allstate Sugar Bowl champion Oklahoma.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Knight
Chuck Cook/USA TODAY SportsA more consistent Trevor Knight easily would rise on this list.
1. Linebacker Frank Shannon: The Sooners' leading tackler finished with 92 stops including seven for loss as a sophomore. He fought through injuries to become OU’s most consistent and productive player on a defense that was the foundation of the program’s success in 2013. There’s no reason to think Shannon will take a step backward as a junior.

2. Linebacker Eric Striker: One of the Big 12’s top pass rushers, Striker showed what he can do during his three-sack performance in the Sugar Bowl. His relentlessness on the edge should continue to terrorize quarterbacks this fall.

3. Defensive end Charles Tapper: The former basketball player is coming off an All-Big 12 season, but he still hasn’t scratched the surface of his potential in a lot of ways. He’s continuing to grow as a football player, but his natural instincts and exceptional physical ability to cement himself near the top of this list until he leaves Norman, Okla.

4. Receiver Sterling Shepard: Shepard has been a key piece of the offense since he stepped on campus two years ago. His tendency to play his best in OU’s biggest games, particularly against Alabama, Oklahoma State and Notre Dame, is what makes him a special player.

5. Safety Quentin Hayes: He goes somewhat unnoticed, but Hayes' versatility is a critical piece in OU’s defense. He has the ability to cover receivers yet always remains active and around the ball. This spring Hayes needs to emerge as a leader in the secondary as the veteran in the group.

6. Quarterback Trevor Knight: If Knight can consistently play like he did in the Sugar Bowl, he’ll rise to the top of this list quickly. Even with several stellar performances by teammates, Knight was easily the Sooners' best player against Alabama, but the same cannot be said for the other seven appearances of his redshirt freshman season.

7. Linebacker Dominique Alexander: The Big 12 defensive freshman of the year joins Shannon and Striker to give the Sooners one of the Big 12’s top linebacker units. Alexander had 80 tackles while recording double-digit stops in four of the nine games he started as a true freshman. The sky is the limit for Alexander, who should be even better as a sophomore.

8. Tackle Daryl Williams: Injuries are the only thing that have kept Williams from being productive during his time in crimson and cream. He earned second-team All-Big 12 honors as a junior and should be the veteran anchor of the offensive line in 2014.

9. Defensive end Geneo Grissom: He finally started to realize his upside as a junior, capping it off with an outstanding performance against Alabama. Much like Knight, if he can consistently play at that level, he would skyrocket up this list.

10. Cornerback Zack Sanchez: He stepped up in a big way during his redshirt freshman year. Sanchez had major ups and downs but his competitiveness rose to the forefront on several occasions. He finished with a team-high 13 pass breakups along with 46 tackles and two interceptions. He’ll need to become a leader as a sophomore.
NORMAN, Okla. -- Oklahoma’s Sugar Bowl win over Alabama could end up being a blessing or a curse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big 12 pre-spring breakdown: DBs

February, 26, 2014
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As we await the start of spring ball, we’re examining and ranking the positional situations of every team in the Big 12, continuing Wednesday with defensive backs. Some of these outlooks will look different after the spring. But here’s how we see the defensive back groups going into the spring:

1. TCU: TCU has been tenacious defending the pass since joining the league, and even without potential first-round pick Jason Verrett, that shouldn’t change in 2014. Sam Carter was the only non-senior to earn first-team or second-team All-Big 12 honors in the secondary last season, and Chris Hackett was one of the best underclassman defensive backs in the league last year. Derrick Kindred is primed to step into TCU’s third safety spot after playing a key role in the rotation. The Horned Frogs also add the nation’s No. 3 juco safety in Kenny Iloka. Throw in senior Geoff Hooker, and the Horned Frogs have an impressive five-man rotation at safety. At corner, Kevin White was honorable mention All-Big 12 last year, and will take over for Verrett as the primary corner. The Horned Frogs have several options at the other corner, including incoming three-star recruit Nick Foster.

2. Texas: After playing the nickel role last year, Quandre Diggs will settle back at cornerback in place of Carrington Byndom. Opposite Diggs will be the ultra-athletic Duke Thomas, who was so good in spring ball last year, he forced the coaches to move Diggs to nickelback. Together, Diggs and Thomas could give the Longhorns the best cornerback tandem in the league. Antwuan Davis, who redshirted in his first year, was an ESPN 300 signee and figures to play a big role somewhere in the secondary. Josh Turner (37 appearances) and Mykkele Thompson (12 starts in 2013) each bring a lot of experience at safety.

3. Oklahoma: Oklahoma graduates the heart and soul of the secondary in cornerback Aaron Colvin, who gutted his way through an array of injuries last year. But if the Sooners can find an adequate replacement for him, the Big 12’s best pass defense statistically in 2013 should be stout again. Julian Wilson (nickelback), Zack Sanchez (cornerback) and Quentin Hayes (strong safety) all return as starters, though Hayes could be pushed by Ahmad Thomas and incoming freshman Steven Parker for time. Hatari Byrd, an ESPN 300 signee last year, should step into the vacant spot at free safety. Cortez Johnson will try to fend off Stanvon Taylor, who played as a true freshman, for Colvin’s spot in the only real uncertain area of this secondary.

4. Kansas State: The Wildcats will miss All-Big 12 performer Ty Zimmerman, but his cohort, Dante Barnett, was one of the best young safeties in the league last year. Barnett was third on the team with 75 tackles and first with four interceptions. Randall Evans also returns after leading the team in pass breakups and gives the Wildcats a versatile defensive back. As usual, Bill Snyder will also be looking for some juco impact. He should get it in Danzel McDaniel, who was the No. 4 juco CB recruit in the country. Cornerback Jesse Mack also could prove to be a key juco signee. If both players pan out, this could become one of the better defensive backfields in the league.

5. West Virginia: The bad news is the Mountaineers had the Big 12’s worst pass defense last year. The good news is they bring back three starters. Karl Joseph has started the last two seasons at free safety, though he could slide to the strong side with Darwin Cook gone. Joseph has All-Big 12 potential, and he needs to elevate his game for the West Virginia defense to take another step forward. Veteran K.J. Dillon could be the front-runner for the job alongside Joseph, though Jeremy Tyler and Jarrod Harper will also be in the mix. West Virginia also brings back both starting cornerbacks in senior Ishmael Banks and Daryl Worley, who started as a freshman. The Mountaineers also signed Keishawn Richardson, the No. 8 juco CB, and Jaylon Myers, the No. 9 juco safety, for depth. Cornerback Dravon Henry, an ESPN 300 signee who had offers from Alabama, Florida State and Ohio State, could play immediately if one of West Virginia’s veterans struggle.

6. Kansas: The Jayhawks return all five starters from their secondary, including last year’s Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year, strong safety Isaiah Johnson. Returning cornerbacks Dexter McDonald and JaCorey Shepherd, a converted wide receiver, were both honorable mention All-Big 12 selections and give the Jayhawks one of the better corner duos in the league. Free safety Cassius Sendish started every game and had 12 tackles in Kansas’ only Big 12 victory in 2013, over West Virginia. Nickelback Courtney Arnick started in six games as a redshirt freshman. If this group collectively improves, Kansas could field a solid defense in 2014.

7. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys lose All-Big 12 cornerback Justin Gilbert, who might be selected high in the first round of the NFL draft after a stellar combine performance. The Cowboys welcome back one of the best young corners in the league in Kevin Peterson, who was terrific as a sophomore in coverage opposite Gilbert. Ashton Lampkin has experience, and he will likely fill the other corner spot unless someone else emerges. Lyndell Johnson, who made a transition from linebacker to safety last season, will take over full time at strong safety. The Cowboys will need someone else to emerge at the other safety in place of departed veteran starter Daytawion Lowe. Deric Robertson, Tre Flowers, Jordan Sterns, Taylor Lewis and Darius Curry, all from the 2013 recruiting class, are possibilities.

8. Texas Tech: How the Red Raiders retool here will be on one of the bigger spring storylines in Lubbock. Keenon Ward and Justis Nelson were thrown in the fire as freshmen last year, and they will be counted on to fill bigger roles. The gem of the incoming recruiting class, four-star cornerback Nigel Bethel II, could be asked – and has the capability – to play right away. The Red Raiders have to replace both starting safeties, including freshman Tanner Jacobson, who is going on a Mormon mission. To compensate, Tech signed six safeties, including Josh Keys, the No. 5 juco safety in the country, who had offers from Auburn, Georgia and Oklahoma State. Getting strong safety J.J. Gaines back from a season-ending injury will be a boost, too.

9. Baylor: The Bears are one of several teams in the league that were decimated in the secondary by graduation. Baylor loses four of its five starters, including All-American safety Ahmad Dixon. Safety Terrell Burt is the only returning starter, leaving the other four spots up for grabs. The Bears signed juco corners Tion Wright and Chris Sanders to help fill the void. Both are already on campus and will be battling Xavien Howard, Ryan Reid and Tyler Stephenson for a starting job. Orion Stewart, who backed up Dixon as a redshirt freshman, will likely step in his role, and fellow sophomore Kiante’ Griffin will be the favorite to take over at the nickel.

10. Iowa State: Cornerback Nigel Tribune was the only true freshman to play for the Cyclones last year, and he received votes as Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year. Tribune, however, is the only returning starter. Veteran safety mainstays Jacques Washington and Deon Broomfield are gone. In response, the Cyclones will look for Devron Moore and Qujuan Floyd, the Nos. 6 and 7 juco safety recruits, respectively, to step in immediately.
As we close in on national signing day, it’s an appropriate time to look back at how the top Big 12 recruits from four years ago performed.

2010 was a banner year for the Big 12 in recruiting, as the league collectively landed 23 from the ESPN 150.

A few, such as Jackson Jeffcoat, Ahmad Dixon and Shaun Lewis, became stars. Others washed out before their careers ever got off the ground.

[+] EnlargeSterling Shepard and Jackson Jeffcoat
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsFormer five-star prospect Jackson Jeffcoat finished his career as the best defensive end in the Big 12.
Below is a closer look at what happened to ESPN 150 players who signed with Big 12 schools:

No. 2: Jackson Jeffcoat, DE, Texas – Though he never reached a high level of team success, Jeffcoat had a great individual end to his career, earning Big 12 co-Defensive Player of the Year honors and leading the league with 13 sacks.

No. 4: Jordan Hicks, LB, Texas – Hicks has been good when he has played. Because of multiple injuries, that hasn’t been often. Hicks missed most of last season with a torn Achilles, just a year after also being knocked out with a hip flexor injury. After getting a medical redshirt from his 2012 season, Hicks has one more year of eligibility remaining.

No. 13: Mike Davis, WR, Texas – Davis finished in the Big 12’s top 10 in receiving the last two seasons, compiling 200 career catches and 18 touchdown receptions.

No. 14: Taylor Bible, DT, Texas – Bible never played a down at Texas, leaving after his redshirt freshman season because of issues with grades. Bible ended up at Carson-Newman.

No. 15: Ahmad Dixon, S, Baylor – Dixon had a tremendous tenure with his hometown school, earning All-Big 12 and All-American honors as a senior as Baylor captured its first Big 12 title in 2013.

No. 18: Demarco Cobbs, ATH, Texas – The Tulsa, Okla., native has appeared in 29 games on special teams and as a defensive reserve. He missed all of the 2013 season with a knee injury.

No. 20: Darius White, WR, Texas – After making just six catches his first two seasons, White transferred to Missouri. He caught just seven passes this season for the Tigers, but has another year of eligibility left.

No. 21: Tony Jefferson, S, Oklahoma – In his first season, Jefferson was the Big 12 co-Defensive Freshman of the year, and he was a three-year starter before leaving early to go pro.

No. 46: Ashton Dorsey, DT, Texas – After serving as a reserve throughout his career, Dorsey was projected to start this season, but he transferred out days before Texas’ season opener.

No. 48: Austin Haywood, TE, Oklahoma – After getting playing time as a third tight end early in his career, Haywood unexpectedly quit in the middle of the season, tried to earn his way back on the team, failed and ended up transferring to Central Arkansas. After getting suspended there, Haywood gave up football.

No. 62: Corey Nelson, LB, Oklahoma – Nelson shined early this season after finally getting a chance to be a full-time starter. That, however, was short-lived, as Nelson tore his pectoral muscle in an early October win over TCU and sat out the rest of his final season.

No. 65: Blake Bell, QB, Oklahoma – The “Belldozer” starred his first two seasons as a situational, short-yardage QB. But in the preseason, Bell was beaten out by Trevor Knight for the starting job. Bell, however, still had his moments this season because of injuries to Knight. He led OU to a win at Notre Dame, then quarterbacked OU’s game-winning touchdown drive at Oklahoma State.

No. 72: Reggie Wilson, DE, Texas – He appeared in 51 games as a defensive reserve. Wilson had 19 tackles and a sack as a senior.

No. 73: Chris Jones, WR, Texas – Jones transferred out after one year, and never played.

No. 75: Shaun Lewis, LB, Oklahoma State – Lewis made an immediate impact, earning Big 12 co-Defensive Freshman of the Year honors along with Tony Jefferson. Lewis was a four-year starter and a big piece in Oklahoma State’s defensive turnaround this season.

[+] EnlargeBrennan Clay
Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY SportsFormer ESPN 150 recruit Brennan Clay was a solid, not spectacular, tailback for the Sooners.
No. 77: Quentin Hayes, S, Oklahoma – After serving a year-long suspension, Hayes returned to win a starting job this past season. He has another year left.

No. 86: Tevin Jackson, LB, Texas – Jackson has been a backup linebacker for the Longhorns and will be part of the team’s great depth there in 2014.

No. 103: Adrian White, CB, Texas – Played in 17 games, then joined the mass transfer exodus from this Texas class.

No. 109: Ivan McCartney, WR, West Virginia – McCartney never became a No. 1 receiver, though he did contribute on West Virginia’s explosive offenses in 2011-12. He only had 12 catches this past season as a senior, however.

No. 114: Aaron Benson, LB, Texas – The cousin of former Texas running back great Cedric Benson has only been a contributor on special teams.

No. 122: Carrington Byndom, S, Texas – One of the few players from this Texas class to pan out. Byndom made 39 career starts and was a second-team All-Big 12 selection this past season.

No. 129: Brennan Clay, RB, Oklahoma – Clay proved to be a reliable and steady force in the OU backfield. He finished his career with 1,913 rushing yards, including 957 in 2013.

No. 134: Adrian Philips, ATH, Texas – Phillips settled in the Texas secondary, collecting 28 career starts there. He was second on the team this past season with 82 tackles.

No. 141: Trey Hopkins, OG, Texas – Hopkins became a stalwart up front, making 42 career starts along the offensive line. He was a two-time, second-team All-Big 12 selection.

No. 142: Justin McCay, ATH, Oklahoma – McCay transferred to Kansas after two years in Norman. He had nine receptions and a touchdown, which also was the first scoring catch by a Kansas wide receiver in almost two full seasons.
NORMAN, Okla. -- Oklahoma football players aren't used to this scenario.

When the Sooners walk down the visitors tunnel Thursday night, they will emerge onto the turf at Floyd Casey Stadium as clear underdogs. Baylor hosts OU in Waco, Texas, in a battle of Top 10 teams that could end up as the game that decided the Big 12 title race when all is said and done.

[+] EnlargeAaron Colvin
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsSenior Aaron Colvin believes the Sooners play well when doubted, as long as they stay focused.
"It becomes a challenge, makes the game more exciting," safety Quentin Hayes said of being an underdog. "We just have to go out and play Sooner football. It is what it is."

Odds makers have made the Bears two touchdown favorites, as Baylor has looked as good as any team in the nation while reeling off a 7-0 start.

Even though they can count the number of times they've entered a game as underdogs on one hand, several Sooners seem to cherish the underdog role.

"I think this team thrives off the underdog role," defensive end Geneo Grissom said. "We almost feel disrespected being an underdog. We feel like we can play with anyone in this conference. It motivates us and helps us thrive."

Under Bob Stoops the Sooners have excelled in similar situations. OU is 4-2 in road games against AP top 10 teams under Stoops, including a 3-1 mark since 2010. The Sooners also are undefeated when facing back-to-back AP Top 10 opponents, having swept Kansas State and Nebraska in 2000 and Texas and Iowa State in 2002 under Stoops. OU defeated then-No. 10 Texas Tech 38-30 in its last game, Oct. 26.

Simply put, when questions about their chances to win arise, the Sooners tend to rise to the occasion.

"I think we do," cornerback Aaron Colvin said. "I feel like we play well when we're in that underdog role. Personally, I love the underdog role. I feel like I've been in it my whole life."

Several times in recent years, the Sooners have taken their game to another level when many doubted their chances to win. Florida State (2011), Oklahoma State (2009, 2010) and Kansas State (2011) are prime examples. OU won those four games by an average of 21 points.

Against No. 12 Oklahoma State in 2009, the unranked Sooners were winding down a five-loss regular season with a makeshift offensive line, yet they shut out the Cowboys in Norman, their 27-0 win dashing OSU's hopes of a BCS berth. In Bedlam 2010, No. 9 Oklahoma State was expected to win again before the No. 13 Sooners dashed their Big 12 title hopes with a 47-41 win in Stillwater. In 2011, top-ranked OU went to Doak Walker Stadium to earn a 23-13 win over No. 5 FSU in a matchup of Top 5 teams. Later that season, the team traveled to Manhattan, Kan., with a No. 9 ranking after having lost to Texas Tech and hammered No. 8 Kansas State, 58-17.

Don't go putting the much-anticipated matchup with Baylor in the win column, however. The past three times OU has been an underdog, they've proved their doubters right. In Bedlam 2011, No. 3 Oklahoma State got its revenge for the previous two seasons with a dominant, 44-10 win. Last year, No. 5 Notre Dame pulled away from the Sooners in the fourth quarter of a 30-13 win, and No. 9 Texas A&M dominated the second half of its 41-13 Cotton Bowl triumph to hand OU two of its three 2012 losses.

But make no mistake -- several Sooners feel disrespected by being the underdog heading into any game.

"I do feel pretty disrespected," Colvin said. "Not necessarily because of their opinion or them picking us to lose, but just some of the things they might say about us, or the point deficit they think we might lose by. Whatever it is, we can't worry about it, and that's my job as a leader to make sure we aren't worried about it."
NORMAN, Okla. -- Texas Tech will bring the nation’s No. 10 team, an explosive offense, charismatic coach and sizable chip on its shoulder when the Red Raiders visit Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on Saturday.

Yet, it’s hard to imagine a better time for Oklahoma to face Texas Tech.

[+] EnlargeKliff Kingsbury
AP Photo/LM OteroSomething has to give when Kliff Kingsbury leads No. 10 Texas Tech and its high-flying offense against No. 15 Oklahoma and its stout pass defense.
The Sooners’ run defense is in shambles with Texas and Kansas having exposed OU’s biggest defensive weakness in back-to-back weeks. OU allowed 255 rushing yards to UT and 185 rushing yards to KU as its defense tries to replace senior linebacker Corey Nelson. Those two teams averaged 5.13 yards per carry on first down as the Sooners had no answers for their running games.

OU’s pass defense is another story. As bad as it’s been when opponents turn to the ground during the past few weeks, the Sooners defense has been relentless and productive when teams try to throw. OU leads the nation allowing 149.71 passing yards per game and ranks second nationally in yards per pass attempt at 5.27.

“It plays right into our hands,” safety Quentin Hayes said of the Red Raiders coming to Norman. “Because we have one of the best pass defenses in the country and they’re a passing offense.”

In other words, the Sooners are lucky it’s not Kansas State, or even Baylor, set to step on the Oklahoma Memorial Stadium turf on Saturday. And yet there’s nothing easy about facing the Red Raiders offense, which leads the Big 12 and ranks No. 2 nationally with 416.43 passing yards per game but ninth in rushing offense at 131.71 rushing yards per game.

So Saturday’s matchup will be strength against strength, may the best unit win.

“Anytime you play an offense like this, that is explosive, it’s always exciting as a defensive player to try to go out and stop them,” cornerback Aaron Colvin said.

OU’s secondary has become a strength after entering the season as a potential weakness. Redshirt freshman cornerback Zack Sanchez has helped supplement Colvin at the other cornerback, while nickelback Julian Wilson and safeties Gabe Lynn and Quentin Hayes have played well. Colvin was the only returning starter who began the season at the same position he started in 2012.

Yet, as confident as the Sooners feel about their secondary, they know the Red Raiders will bring passing excellence they haven’t seen in their first six games.

“We’ve never been tested like we’re going to be on Saturday,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “We would be fools to think that.”

The past two games have exposed the weakness of OU’s new 3-3-5 defensive scheme with the Longhorns and Jayhawks using power running games to have success on the ground against the Sooners' undersized personnel. This weekend the strength of the Sooners’ three-man front comes into play as the additional speed and athleticism the scheme brings to the table will be critical as OU tries to slow the Red Raiders offense.

“There’s nothing that’s perfect for everything but this is part of the reason we wanted to be more multi-dimensional,” Stoops said. “Regardless of what you do, you have to be able to match up with their skill, their quarterbacks, their offensive line.”

Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury will undoubtedly have a twist aimed at taking advantage of OU’s subpar run defense and Stoops will have a plan to make things difficult for Red Raiders quarterbacks Davis Webb or Baker Mayfield.

“Their defense schematically has changed a bunch from last year,” Kingsbury said. “He does a good job bringing people from everywhere, very athletic, fly around, fundamentally sound. It will be a very, very good challenge for a young quarterback.”

The winner could be determined by which coaching staff and team makes the best in-game adjustments.

“Coach [Stoops] has made a lot of changes, given us a lot of options,” Colvin said. “Texas Tech is a different team, they like to throw it a lot. They’ll probably throw the ball more than they run but you never know. Whatever they do we’ve got to be ready for it.”


On Saturday, Oklahoma will make its first trip to Notre Dame Stadium in 14 years. The Irish won that 1999 contest, 34-30, and have won eight others against the Sooners, as they hold a 9-1 all-time mark in the series. Last season's game turned on several big Notre Dame plays on both sides of the ball, lifting the Irish to a 30-13 road win and an 8-0 record.

What will happen this time around? We turn to Big 12 reporter Brandon Chatmon and Notre Dame reporter Matt Fortuna to preview this weekend's tilt in South Bend, Ind.

Matt: Brandon, Blake Bell earned the noble distinction last year of becoming the first player to rush for a touchdown against Notre Dame. That was eight games into the Irish's season, and this year they have already given up two scores on the ground. Obviously, Bell has a lot more on his plate this time around. And he is making his first career road start, in a stadium where the Irish have won 10 straight games. What can Notre Dame's defense expect to see from Bell on Saturday?

Brandon: The Irish will actually have to account for the possibility they will see No. 10 throw the ball when he's behind center. Notre Dame will have to be prepare for Bell to test its secondary with his arm more than his feet, and he showed he might be a better passer than people think in his first start against Tulsa. Undoubtedly, the windows will shrink against ND but the fact remains that the Irish will have to prepare for Bell, who could test them with his arm and feet, unlike their preparations for Landry Jones, who doesn't put fear into the heart of any defense with his legs. The overriding question in Norman is: how have the Irish changed in the trenches after manhandling OU in Norman last season? Can they do that again?

Matt: The depth of Notre Dame's defensive line took some hits this offseason -- first with the transfer of Eddie Vanderdoes to UCLA, then with the ACL tear suffered by Tony Springmann. Still, the front-line guys remain very dangerous, though the numbers have not exactly depicted that through four games. The Irish's opponents have done a good job of establishing a quick-strike passing game, effectively negating the strengths of the Irish's defensive linemen. A mobile quarterback like Bell will likely present more challenges Saturday, and it us up to the Irish to continue to adjust. The other side is a bit of a mystery as well. Notre Dame has struggled to establish much of a run game so far, but its offensive line has done a tremendous job of keeping Tommy Rees standing up straight through four games, and the offense has again limited the turnovers. Rees and this year's group of running backs just don't pose the kind of threat that Everett Golson and last year's backfield did, so it's hard to imagine the Irish running to set up the deep pass in the same way they were able to last year, when they connected with Chris Brown for a game-changing 50-yard strike in the fourth quarter. They may have more weapons at receiver this year, though. How does Oklahoma's pass coverage match up with TJ Jones, DaVaris Daniels and company?

Brandon: Well, Matt, the Sooners' secondary would like to think it's ready for the challenge against Rees and Notre Dame's receivers. All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin won't be a concern, but the rest of the secondary is somewhat untested. Senior Gabe Lynn is starting at safety, a new position, after spending his first three seasons at nickelback and corner, and he has played well. OU's three new starters, nickelback Julian Wilson, cornerback Zack Sanchez and safety Quentin Hayes, have looked good but haven't yet played a quarterback who will capitalize on their mistakes. That said, the OU secondary, without question, is faster and better in coverage than the 2012 version. Whether it will it hold up mentally in a hostile environment is the unanswered question, so I can't wait to see how it all plays out. Anyway, who do you like this weekend?

Matt: Notre Dame's defense played its best game Saturday, responding to Brian Kelly's mid-week challenge. But I'm just not sure it has completely turned the corner yet. I think the Irish are getting Oklahoma at a more opportune time, as Bell is making just his second start and the Sooners have yet to really be tested. But I have not seen enough so far that makes me believe Notre Dame will be able to handle everything Oklahoma will throw at it offensively. Oklahoma has had one more week to prepare, and I sense a bit of wounded pride coming from the Sooners after the Irish out-muscled them late last year and, eventually, ended up ruining the their BCS-bowl hopes. How do you see this one unfolding?

Brandon: I think everything falls on the shoulders of the quarterbacks. Rees is much more experienced than Bell and I have a feeling that's going to show itself on Saturday as the Irish make Bell uncomfortable in the pocket and force a couple of mental mistakes from the junior during his first road start. OU's defense will hold up and play well, giving the Sooners the chance to remain in the game no matter what happens offensively. But turnovers will be the difference and ND will win the turnover battle and win a close, hard-fought game at home.

Stats to keep an eye on during OU-ND

September, 23, 2013
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NORMAN, Okla. -- Is Oklahoma a BCS title contender? Or a pretender?

Those questions will start to get answered on Saturday when the Sooners visit South Bend, Ind., to take on Notre Dame.

[+] EnlargeBlake Bell
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsIf Blake Bell can help the Sooners control tempo and execute in the red zone, OU's chance of winning at Notre Dame increases.
Turnovers, third down efficiency and sacks are obvious statistics that point to the eventual winner. But here are five overlooked stats to keep on eye on if the Sooners hope to knock off the Fighting Irish.

Rush attempts: OU will want to establish the running game and be much more balanced than it was during its 30-13 loss to ND in Norman last season. The Sooners passed the ball 52 times and ran 24 times in that defeat.

Why it matters: If OU’s rushing attempts surpass 35, that likely means the Sooners are having success on the ground, particularly on first down. Four- or five-yard gains on first down will increase the chances of second down rushes. One- or two-yard gains will not. If the Sooners can run the ball, their odds of winning increase significantly.

Tackles for loss: The Sooners need to play the majority of the game on Notre Dame’s side of the line of scrimmage. OU had two tackles for loss against the Fighting Irish in 2012 as Notre Dame was never really taken out of its comfort level despite starting a redshirt freshman quarterback in Everett Golson.

Why it matters: Mike Stoops’ defense has been much more aggressive this season with more blitzing and a one-gap scheme along the defensive line. Those moves were made to get more penetration into opponent’s backfield. If OU has five or more tackles for loss on Saturday, that’s a great sign. If not, its defense could be losing the battle in the trenches.

Tackles recorded by Sooners’ linebackers: OU’s leading tacklers after three games are Corey Nelson and Frank Shannon. Last season, the Sooners’ leading tacklers were safeties Tony Jefferson and Javon Harris. Jefferson and cornerback Aaron Colvin combined for 21 tackles in OU’s loss to ND last year, a sign that the defensive line and linebackers were subpar at best.

Why it matters: Nelson and Shannon have played extremely well, along with pass rush specialist Eric Striker. If Nelson and Shannon are making plays sideline-to-sideline and Striker is getting pressure on ND quarterback Tommy Rees, the Sooners defense will have the chance to dominate the game. If OU safeties Gabe Lynn and Quentin Hayes are making the majority of the tackles, that means Nelson and Shannon aren’t stepping up their game against the run or pass.

Red zone efficiency: People often talk about how the Irish came into OU’s house and dominated the Sooners in their last meeting. OU was 1 of 5 in the red zone in that loss, a negative state in a game that was tied 13-13 with just under 12 minutes left in regulation. Clearly, the Sooners weren’t that far away from leaving Memorial Stadium with a win. Worse yet, they were 1 of 3 in goal-to-go situations that evening.

Why it matters: Scoring points and capitalizing on opportunities decide games, particularly games between two quality opponents. The Sooners can’t expect to win if they make consistent trips into the red zone and don’t come away with points like they did in 2012. Blake Bell scored OU’s lone touchdown last season, so the Sooners should be able to come up with ways to use Bell's skill set to make things harder on ND's defense. OU was 4 of 7 in the red zone and 3 of 4 on goal-to-go situations against Tulsa on Sept. 14 -- Bell’s lone start this season -- but they’ll need to be even more efficient against the Irish.

Time of possession: There are several games where time of possession is irrelevant in this era of college football. This game will not be one of them. ND won the time of possession battle in 2012, as the Irish generally controlled the pace of the game.

Why it matters: If OU can control the ball and maintain possession, it'll help take the crowd out of the game, potentially making things a lot easier in Bell’s first collegiate road start. Obviously, if the Sooners can score five touchdowns on drives of two minutes or less to start the game, they’ll take it. But the much more realistic scenario is to try to control the pace of the game by maintaining possession, much like the Irish did a year ago.

Big 12's unsung heroes: Week 2

September, 9, 2013
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Here's a look at some of the Big 12's unsung heroes in Week 2.

Entire offensive line, Baylor: Anytime you gain 781 yards -- including 329 rushing yards with just 13 yards lost rushing -- the big guys up front deserve a lot of credit. Led by All-America candidate Cyril Richardson, the Baylor offensive line is better than people think and has been for several seasons. As explosive as BU’s offense is, it would struggle to get off the ground without a quality group of linemen.

Running back Darrian Miller, Kansas: Looks like the Jayhawks found another one. KU already features terrific running backs in James Sims and Tony Pierson, but Miller showed he’s a name to watch with 14 carries for 72 yards in the Jayhawks’ 31-14 win over South Dakota. If Miller continues to emerge, it will allow Charlie Weis to get even more creative when divising ways to get the ball to his various playmakers in Lawrence.

Receiver Tramaine Thompson, Kansas State: His two-reception, 46-yard performance on offense wasn’t earth-shattering. Yet Thompson single-handedly sparked the Wildcats in KSU’s 48-27 win over Louisiana-Lafayette. He opened the third quarter with a 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown., then returned ULL’s next punt 79 yards to the ULL 3-yard line. Thompson finished with 234 all-purpose yards.

Safety Quentin Hayes, Oklahoma: Sooners defensive coordinator Mike Stoops has praised the athleticism and range of Hayes in the OU secondary. The junior finished with eight tackles and a forced fumble in OU’s 16-7 victory over West Virginia. His versatility and coverage skills could help make the Sooners’ secondary even better than last year’s unit.

Safety Zack Craig, Oklahoma State: The senior safety quietly played a key role in the Cowboys' 56-35 win over Texas San-Antonio. Craig, a backup safety, finished with seven tackles and two pass breakups, including a pass breakup that led to a Shaun Lewis interception. At one point, the Pokes were without both starting safeties because of injury and Craig stepped in to fill the void. He brings a veteran presence to OSU’s secondary and special teams.

Receiver Mike Davis, Texas: Overshadowed by the Longhorns' defensive collapse in Provo, Davis is off to a superb start in his senior season. He had eight receptions for 114 yards and two touchdowns in UT’s 40-21 loss to BYU. If Davis continues to consistently produce, it should open up opportunities for UT’s running backs.

Defensive tackle Terrell Lathan, TCU: Lathan stepped in and stepped up after Chucky Hunter was injured during TCU’s 38-17 win over Southeastern Louisiana. The sophomore had four tackles, including two tackles for loss and one sack. If the backup defensive lineman continues to progress, he could provide quality depth along the defensive front for TCU.

Receiver Bradley Marquez, Texas Tech: The junior had just two receptions for 94 yards and one touchdown in the Red Raiders’ 61-13 victory over Stephen F. Austin. But Marquez could be a key piece in Kliff Kingsbury’s offense with defenses focusing on Eric Ward, Jace Amaro and Jakeem Grant. Marquez has the speed and athleticism to make defenses pay if they leave him one-on-one.

Receiver Kevin White, West Virginia: He didn’t play a perfect game in his first outing in a WVU uniform, but the junior college transfer showed signs he could emerge as a playmaker who will test Big 12 defenses this season. He finished with seven receptions for 80 yards and one fumble in WVU’s 16-7 loss to Oklahoma. White is big, athletic and physical, so it won’t be easy for Big 12 defenses to match up with him, giving Dana Holgorsen another one-on-one mismatch to exploit in 2013.

Note: Iowa State did not play in Week 2.

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