Last spring, he was a bright-eyed true freshman experiencing spring football for the first time. This spring, the Red Raiders’ offensive future rests upon his shoulders.
“I might not have guys breathing down my neck competing for a job, but I’m treating it like that,” Webb told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.
The Red Raiders better hope so.
Webb is coming off a stellar first season in which he ranked among the Big 12’s best in Adjusted QBR (82.6, third in Big 12), passing yards (2,718, second in Big 12) and completion percentage (62.6, second in Big 12). He started six games, including his Holiday Bowl MVP performance in Tech’s 37-23 win over Arizona State so he has plenty of game experience and should handle everything as a veteran.
Even though Webb appears to have the starting spot in hand, he still needs to continue to develop if TTU hopes to make a Big 12 title run in 2014. His strong individual performance as a true freshman resulted in only a .500 record as a starter, with wins over ASU, Iowa State, West Virginia and losses to Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Kansas State.
Webb’s development this spring is critical to the Red Raiders’ future success, and it won’t happen unless the sophomore pushes himself to excellence. Davis’ 403 passing yards and four touchdowns against the Sun Devils was a glimpse of his potential, and his goal is to consistently mimic that performance in the future.
“I don’t want that to be the highlight of my Texas Tech career,” Webb told the LAJ. “The Holiday Bowl championship is awesome, but I want more than that.”
Those words should be music to the Red Raiders' ears.
- Over the weekend, Texas Tech landed a verbal commitment from Jarrett Stidham, the No. 1 dual-threat QB in the country for 2015.
- Texas coach Charlie Strong would welcome playing Texas A&M again. The Longhorns offered Jordan and Jaxon Shipley's a cousin a scholarship. Hanner Shipley is currently committed to LSU.
- The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Stephen J. Nesbitt explores whether West Virginia is returning to a 3-3-5 defense under new coordinator Tony Gibson.
- The Oklahoman's Berry Tramel writes that Barry Switzer lacks a filter. The former Oklahoma coach made all sorts of headlines last week. The paper's Jason Kersey interviewed Sooners QB Trevor Knight, who is hoping to carry the Sugar Bowl momentum into next season.
- Iowa State picked up its first commitment for 2015.
- The Dallas Morning News' Chuck Carlton thinks TCU could have one of the best defenses in the country next season.
- Oklahoma State fullback Teddy Johnson, a former walk-on, is grateful to get a scholarship. Freshman Cowboys QB Mason Rudolph is adjusting to college life.
The Sooners are well ahead of where they were at this time last year but still have work to do if they hope to build off their 2013 season. Here are five things that need to happen for a successful spring in Norman, Okla.
A backup quarterback emerges: OU and Blake Bell are all in on the senior’s move to tight end. Thus, redshirt freshman Cody Thomas or early enrollee freshman Justice Hansen need to show they can handle the pressure of running the offense during spring practice. They are a pair of young, inexperienced quarterbacks who could find themselves thrown into the fire if anything happens to Knight. Heading into a season with one proven quarterback is never a good idea, so the Sooners are hopeful Thomas or Hansen can erase concerns about the backup QB spot.
Competition in the trenches: The Sooners return several veteran offensive and defensive linemen, including DE Charles Tapper, OT Daryl Williams and DE/DT Chuka Ndulue. Thus, if playing time and the overall rotation remains up in the air heading into the summer, that means young players like DE Mike Onuoha, DT Charles Walker and OT Derek Farniok are amping up the competition in the trenches. If that is happening, the Sooners could dominate games with their depth and versatility on the lines.
Skill position players step up: The best-case scenario for offensive coordinator Josh Heupel and the rest of the offensive staff is to spend the summer trying to figure out ways to get several players involved. The only way that would happen is if youngsters at running back and receiver look like playmakers this spring because simply having starters emerge at those positions is not enough. OU lost its top two rushers and three of its top four receivers from last season, but if only two or three players seize the opportunity for more playing time, its depth at both positions would be in doubt. A two-deep full of playmakers is always better than a sizable drop off after the starters.
The defense appears to be faster and deeper: One reason the Sooners surprised in 2013 was their speed and versatility on defense. It’s a scary proposition for Big 12 offenses if OU gets more athletic and deeper in 2014. This spring will tell if increased depth and athleticism in the secondary is a certainty. Young players along the defensive line and at linebacker could upgrade the athleticism at both spots if they are ready to make an impact.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- One of the most common questions asked by Texas A&M fans upon the start of spring football practice is related to the health of receiver Ricky Seals-Jones.
A prized recruit from the 2013 class, Seals-Jones got a chance to show Aggies fans only a brief glimpse of what could be, catching three passes last season -- including a 71-yard touchdown -- in the season opener before a knee injury derailed the rest of his season.
After undergoing season-ending surgery, Seals-Jones has been a participant in all five practices for Texas A&M this spring and shows no limitations, though coach Kevin Sumlin is taking a cautious approach with his budding young star and holding him out of a live scrimmage on Thursday.
Sumlin joked that he'll probably get a call from Seals-Jones and his parents during spring break, but he doesn't feel the need to rush the 6-foot-5, 230-pound receiver back into live action. After spring break concludes, Sumlin said he'll have team doctors check on his knee again.
"I just wanted to make sure," Sumlin said. "I don't think it's ready yet and we'll assess him when he comes back."
Fortunately for the Aggies, there is still more than five months until their first game, so he'll have plenty of time to be rested and ready. The Aggies are also still waiting for word from the NCAA on the status of the medical hardship waiver that they applied for to regain the year of eligibility Seals-Jones lost to the knee injury.
Sumlin said the necessary paperwork has been filed and he expects to get an answer before the 2014 season begins. He said he fully anticipates that Seals-Jones will get the eligibility restored because the time he missed falls within the guidelines the bylaw calls for (that the player's injury occurred prior to the start of the second half of the season and that he did not participate in more than three contests or 30 percent of the team's games, whichever is greater). Seals-Jones appeared in only two of Texas A&M's 13 games before undergoing the season-ending surgery.
"We've filed for it," Sumlin said. "I don't see why there's going to be a problem."
With the Aggies looking to replace three starting receivers, there is flexibility to where Seals-Jones could line up this fall. Most of his work in preseason training camp last season came as an inside receiver, but he did get some practice time as an outside receiver in the Aggies' offense.
"He's a big target inside," Sumlin said. "He's really easy to see in there with other guys and he's comfortable in there. We're dual-training a lot of our receivers this year instead of just keeping them in one spot, which is helping them and helping our offense and helping them understand spacing and what's going on."
Offensive coordinator/offensive line
Mention to Wickline that he’s one of the nation’s best offensive line coaches, and you’ll get a shrug.
He’ll say his résumé of success was a byproduct of the Oklahoma State’s consistent offensive success. But the results -- seven All-Big 12 offensive linemen, three of them All-Americans -- are undisputable. Their success has to, in many ways, be a byproduct of his philosophy.
So let’s dig into that philosophy. What does he look for when recruiting linemen?
"As far as measurables, I like guys that are really athletic, smart and tough," Wickline said. "If they can get those three things, they’ve probably got a chance."
Once they get to campus, they quickly learn one of Wickline’s overarching beliefs about offensive linemen: You must be versatile, capable of playing nearly any role on a line. There are three reasons why he wholeheartedly believes in cross-training.
"No. 1, I want to make sure there’s always competition in the room and on the field," Wickline said. "If the second-team right tackle thinks at any given time the first-team right tackle can never lose his job, he just quits trying. If the first-team right tackle thinks he’ll never lose his job, he’ll just quit trying. It needs to be a day-to-day deal.
"Secondly, they need to be sure they can switch. The left guard needs to know the right guard can go take his place. So it’s all about competition, and it’s a daily deal. The other thing about switching guys, it forces them to learn the entire offense and entire scheme from a protection standpoint and running scheme. If you leave him locked it at one place the whole time, he can’t really feel how does this whole thing go together."
And part three? Injuries can force you to change the plan. Take Oklahoma State's Parker Graham for example.
Wickline planned to move his starting left tackle of 2012 to guard last offseason, with Devin Davis taking over left tackle. Then Davis was lost for the season in August. Graham went back to left tackle, started five games and then returned to right guard for the rest of the season. He finished with first-team All-Big 12 honors.
"Well, it worked out," Wickline said. "Because he moved around a bunch, it wasn’t a big deal to him."
That’s why, when Wickline surveys his roster of Texas linemen for 2014, absolutely nothing is set in stone. He wants to find five starters. And then he’ll keep tweaking the plan, moving new guys in and out, shifting some to other spots, until it works.
He’ll eventually find his starting five for the season opener, but Wickline won’t stop there. If you want to start, you better earn your job every single day.
"This will continue to game five, game eight," Wickline said. "It’s week-by-week. I understand chemistry and I understand continuity.
"But in my world, all that’s important is the quarterback doesn’t get hit, you can run the football and you win football games."
Assistant head coach/quarterbacks
The battle has been going on for more than a decade: Who is Shawn Watson’s favorite pupil?
You can credit Joel Klatt for starting the debate back in 2003 with his record-setting sophomore season at Colorado. By the time his days at CU were over, Watson swore Klatt was the best quarterback he’d coached.
"He was the greatest competitor I’ve ever been around and a great student of the game," Watson said.
So then he went to Nebraska, and another scrappy, underrated quarterback earned his affection. Joe Ganz went on to break 21 school records under Watson’s watch.
"Joe, at the end, he says, 'Wats, did I overcome Klatt?' Watson recalled. "I said, eh, I tell you what, flip a coin. He really chased Joel."
This is the standard Watson will hold his Longhorns quarterbacks to because these are the guys he covets: Gamers. Leaders. Passers with intangibles.
He’s trained the prototypical pocket passers such as Klatt and the explosive dual-threats such as Taylor Martinez. No matter who’s running the show at Texas, Watson will help tailor the offense to his signal-caller’s sensibilities.
"I’m a grinder. My first hobby is football,” Watson said. "I’m not kidding you. I’ve done this 33 years, and this is not a corny statement, but I’ve been Peter Pan. I’ve gotten to do what I love. I love the game of football, and I love to teach.
"The grinder part comes because I don’t want anybody to catch me. I want to be the best at what I do. I enjoy studying the game."
And his former quarterbacks have studied the game enough to know who’s now No. 1 on Watson’s list. Teddy Bridgewater can claim the title belt when he becomes a first-round draft pick in May.
Bridgewater has heard all of Watson’s stories about Klatt and Ganz. The Louisville star did eventually ask who’s the best. Watson has a new answer: All of them.
Watson chuckles when he tells these stories. He knows Klatt and Ganz won’t accept that non-answer.
"They’d say, 'Wats, we know who the best one is,'" Watson joked. "'Just remember us.'"
That is probably more true at safety than any other position. It’s a spot the Aggies have found challenges when trying to maintain or add talent and depth, with the latest hurdle coming recently as spring practice opened.
The loss of safety Kameron Miles, whom the Aggies announced officially on Thursday had been dismissed from the team for unspecified reasons, isn’t cause for panic because as head coach Kevin Sumlin pointed out, Miles didn’t see the field at all last season.
Safety is certainly a position where they need to see on-field improvement, both from the 2013 contributors who are returning this season (Clay Honeycutt, Howard Matthews and Floyd Raven) and the new bodies that could step in.
So while Miles -- an ESPN 300 recruit who signed in the 2013 class -- didn’t play (he redshirted after missing all of preseason training camp recovering from a knee injury), he certainly was a candidate to do so this season. Losing him is impactful, especially considering his potential and the rough end to Class of 2014 recruiting at the position.
Texas A&M had an ESPN 300 safety committed to them for months in Dylan Sumner-Gardner, but he switched his commitment to Boise State in early January after former secondary coach Marcel Yates left his post in Aggieland to accept the defensive coordinator position at Boise State. Even before Sumner-Gardner’s switch, the Aggies were still trying to add another safety to the 2014 recruiting class.
The loss made finding a safety even more urgent in the class. The Aggies long recruited ESPN 300 safety Steven Parker II (who signed with Oklahoma) and made a late run at ESPN 300 safety Mattrell McGraw (who signed with Oregon), not to mention other ESPN 300 prospects whom they recruited earlier in the process but decided on other programs.
The Aggies were able to land a safety late in the 2014 recruiting cycle when three-star athlete Donovan Wilson (Shreveport, La./Woodlawn) committed four days before national signing day and inked a letter of intent with the Aggies. He will enroll at Texas A&M for the fall semester, but whether he will be able to have an impact this fall is unknown until he arrives on campus.
Texas A&M has commitments from two elite safeties in the 2015 recruiting class in ESPN Junior 300 prospects Justin Dunning and Larry Pryor Jr., but that has no bearing on this fall.
What is known is that the Aggies need the three who played the most last season to improve and for others to contribute. One name Sumlin mentioned on Thursday was junior safety Devonta Burns, a 6-foot, 214-pounder who contributed mostly on special teams last season.
“Devonta Burns is having a really, really good camp,” Sumlin said. “He’s been around here a long time and really was a good special teams player for us from game three, four, five, on. It’s about time for him to start showing up and he has. You’ve got three guys back there [Honeycutt, Matthews and Raven] who have played a lot, not always well, but have played and are experienced and need to step up. I think Devonta is right in the mix with the other three guys.”
The Aggies also have the services of 6-3, 213-pound sophomore Jonathan Wiggins, a 2013 signee who saw most of his time on special teams last season. Beyond him, the options consist of mostly walk-ons such as Sam Moeller (last year’s 12th Man) or perhaps even someone like Shane Huhn, a transfer from UTEP who sat out last season per NCAA transfer rules.
Another potential option is using the secondary’s best player, senior cornerback Deshazor Everett, at safety. Everett has flip-flopped between cornerback and safety before, including on certain occasions last season when the Aggies needed the help. However, it appears that Everett is working exclusively at cornerback, and Sumlin said he doesn’t anticipate that changing, at least “Not right now.”
Everett said last week that he has seen improvement from the safety returnees, especially Matthews.
“He’s a different player now,” Everett said of Matthews. “He’s not lagging around or doing it his way. He’s playing hard, he’s going hard every play, he’s being vocal. That’s what we need at the back end from the safeties, because they have to communicate to everybody on the defense. He’s definitely changed.”
“Floyd is definitely understanding the defense more, and Clay has always been a smart player. With the new coaching change and the way we’re running it, it’s set up so that you can always make plays and always be in the right position, and that’s what we’re looking forward to.”
The Aggies’ secondary also have new blood in the form of Joseph, the former Nebraska secondary coach. The reviews for Joseph have been positive thus far, including from defensive coordinator Mark Snyder, who called Joseph a “technician” and “fundamentalist.”
Everett also has noticed his new position coach’s impact thus far.
“He’s a real vocal coach and he wants you to do it exactly the way he wants you to do it, and there’s no other way about it,” Everett said. “If you’re not going to do it his way, you’re not going to play, so you have to adjust to that and you have to go out there and do it his way.”
If Joseph has it his way, there will be more answers than questions at safety come August. Fortunately for the Aggies, three weeks remain in spring practice to find some.
The battle for that No. 1 pick will continue in the coming months, and ESPN NFL draft guru Todd McShay has already made a change at the top of his mock draft. In his recent Mock Draft 3.0, McShay now has UCF quarterback Blake Bortles going to the Houston Texans with the first pick. In his last mock draft, McShay had Jadeveon Clowney going to the Texans. Now, he has South Carolina's terrorizing defensive end going second to the St. Louis Rams. While Clowney delivered an impressive 40-yard dash time of 4.47 at the combine, he didn't go through all the drills in Indianapolis, causing some eyes to roll.
But McShay isn't knocking down Clowney, who is still the top-rated overall player on his draft board, because of the combine. No, Clowney moved down a spot because McShay believes Bortles is the top quarterback on the Texans' board, and they desperately need to get a top-flight signal-caller in this draft.
Clowney moving down to No. 2 isn't bad. He'll still make a ton of money, and my guess is he won't drop out of the top five come draft day. He might not have had as dazzling a 2013 season, like he did in his first two years in Columbia, S.C., but there's no doubting Clowney is a certified beast. He was NFL-ready before he took any snaps last season, and you better believe that any drive he might have lost going into his final year on campus will be resurrected by his future NFL coaching staff.
Passing on him early could be a big mistake.
As for the rest of the SEC, McShay has four more SEC players going within the first 10 picks, including a trio of Texas A&M Aggies -- quarterback Johnny Manziel (No. 4, Cleveland Browns), offensive tackle Jake Matthews (No. 9, Buffalo Bills) and wide receiver Mike Evans (No. 10, Detroit Lions).
In all, McShay has nine SEC players going in the first round.
Don’t like that metaphor? No worries, that’s one of many. Engage the new Texas defensive coordinator in an extended conversation and you’re likely to hear all sorts of comparisons, boasts and tales.
Here’s another: Bedford’s reasoning for why his high-energy personality blends so well with Strong’s even-keeled approach on a coaching staff.
“Now, if you want a German chocolate cake, you put German chocolate in there. Now you’ve got a good mixture. You look at a coaching staff, everybody can’t be the same.”
Maybe that makes Bedford the sugar. Or is he the coconut-pecan frosting? He isn’t vanilla, that’s for sure.
Set aside the antics and anecdotes and restaurant recs -- he likes the St. Louis ribs and creamed corn at Rudy’s -- and you get an unmistakably passionate coach who’s serious about restoring the glory of his alma mater.
This is a dream-come-true opportunity for Bedford, a defensive back for the Longhorns from 1977-81. For as much as he loved what he’d helped build at Louisville, coming home was easy.
“The wind blew and I was here,” Bedford said. “It was a no-brainer for me.”
This is his big moment, but nothing Bedford does at Texas will be a one-man job. He’ll help Chris Vaughn oversee the secondary while also staying involved with Chris Rumph’s defensive linemen and Brian Jean-Mary’s linebackers.
As for the involvement of the head coach, himself a defensive guru, Bedford doesn’t just ask for Strong’s input – he demands it. This is their seventh year coaching together, and that collaboration has brought big results.
“He’s one of the best defensive coordinators in the country with two national championships. Why would you not want him to be part of everything that you do? Of all the game-planning that you do?” Bedford said. “I think that is important. He has great suggestions because the biggest thing that he believes in is keeping it simple. So do I, so we get along just fine. If it is simple, they can play fast. If they play fast, you have a chance to win a lot of games.”
He holds up the record at Louisville -- the 22 wins in their last 25 games -- as proof this process can work at Texas. And if you want to dismiss those results by saying the Cardinals didn’t play anyone, Bedford offers a suggestion: Ask Florida and Miami about that.
Bedford is Texas’ third defensive coordinator in six months, and he and Strong intend to ask things of this group that their predecessors did not. Chief among those changes: Texas will experiment with both the 4-3 and 3-4 base defenses this spring. The personnel will dictate the plan.
“Then we’ll configure, and that’s the beauty of the defense,” said Rumph, who previously coached a 3-4, two-gap scheme at Alabama. “We want those guys to line up, get their cleats in the ground and play fast.”
No matter the scheme, Longhorns defenders are about to learn a thing or two about Bedford’s infectious attitude.
He’s wearing his T-Ring from his college days again and can fire off stories about playing with the likes of Earl Campbell, Johnnie Johnson, Kenneth Sims and Russell Erxleben. Bedford had visited Austin just once since 1984 -- last year, in fact -- but this was always where he wanted to coach.
What can he achieve in Year 1 against these Big 12 offenses? Bedford sees no reason not to be optimistic. He says Mack Brown could have won the league last year if not for injuries, that this program is in far better shape than some might fear.
And nothing would bring Bedford more pride than helping Texas get back where he knows the program belongs.
“We've just got to continue to take it to the next step, to the new millennium,” he said. “Things have changed, kids have changed, and we’ve got to adjust to the change and hopefully we can do some of the things [Brown] did and get this place back to national championship contenders.”
An exceptional Sugar Bowl performance, a young and talented defense and renewed confidence in quarterback Trevor Knight has the Sooners eyeing a national title run in 2014. Yet that won’t happen without growth at several key positions, starting this spring. This week we made five spring predictions during a series which concludes with No. 1:
No. 1: The backup quarterback spot remains a concern heading into the summer.
Why it matters: Projected starter Trevor Knight was knocked out of two of the five games he started in 2013. Exceptional performances against Kansas State and Alabama as his redshirt freshman season came to a close has overshadowed the fact injuries forced him to leave games against West Virginia and Oklahoma State. The sophomore is likely to be more mindful of protecting himself in 2014, but it takes only one play for OU’s destiny to change. The Sooners need a quality backup quarterback they are confident can step in without a major drop-off if called upon this fall.
What it would mean: If this prediction becomes reality, it could be the biggest concern heading into the summer. It wouldn’t be time to panic because the summer months, particularly 7-on-7 workouts, provide opportunity for growth and improvement, but it would force preparations for the worst-case scenario to commence.
Redshirt freshman Cody Thomas and true freshman Justice Hansen stepped on campus with All-American accolades, but that will mean nothing when it comes time to run the Sooners' offense.
Thomas, who will play baseball this spring, might have the edge over Hansen, an early enrollee who arrived in January. Both quarterbacks should get plenty of opportunities to prove themselves this spring, and offensive coordinator Josh Heupel will push them to be ready to play if needed.
Neither guy is likely to separate himself with his physical ability because they both have terrific physical tools, so their decision-making, command of the offense and mental approach should decide whether one of them becomes a legitimate backup quarterback behind Knight.
To the 'bag:
Rusty in Denver writes: Thanks for totaling the position rankings at the end last week. I thought that was a good summary. I do think you missed out on two key aspects for the coming season: schedule and coaching. As a K-State fan, I would push us up for the coaching staff, but take us back down for our schedule. Thoughts?
Trotter: Glad you enjoyed the series, Rusty. But I wasn’t trying to predict records, which obviously coaching and schedule play a big part into. I only wanted to focus on the position groups, and where every team stood relative to the rest of the league. When we try to predict how each team will finish in the league down the line, coaching and schedule obviously will be factored in.
Trotter: OU could be favored in every game on its schedule, which obviously would give them a decent chance of running the regular-season table. But the Sooners also have a recent history of dropping games as double-digit favorites, as well (TCU ’05, Colorado ’07, BYU ’09, Texas Tech ’11, Texas ’13). This has a chance to be OU’s best team since 2008. And they are a legitimate threat to make the College Football Playoff. But they won’t get there unless they can avoid the double-digit land mine.
Trotter: I disagree with your put down of the Iowa State WR corps. Bundrage has proven he can make big plays, Lazard was one of the top-rated WR recruits in the country and Bibbs is the Big 12’s best returning receiving tight end. But the point about the QBs is very valid. Iowa State always seems to find its answer at QB at the end of a season, only to restart its search the next. I don’t know if Rohach is the answer. Maybe he is. Or maybe it’s a healthy Richardson. Or perhaps it’s Joel Lanning. Whoever it is, that quarterback will have some weapons to work with next season. The key will be finding -- and sticking with -- that right quarterback.
Trotter: Well, there’s no doubt that getting through that first year in coordinator Matt Wallerstedt’s 3-4 scheme is going to help. But I don’t know that I’d term the Tech defense underrated at this point. The Red Raiders gave up 41 points or more in their final four regular-season games, and while the Holiday Bowl showing was impressive, losing the likes of Kerry Hyder, Dartwan Bush, Will Smith, Terrance Bullitt, Tre' Porter and Bruce Jones is going to hurt. I do like the potential athleticism of this defense, though. And they do have the chance to surprise, particularly if some of the juco transfers up front pan out.
Trotter: It’s possible receivers Ian Sadler or Byron Daniels work their way into the rotation, but I think cornerback Nigel Bethel II will make the biggest impact. The Red Raiders just don’t have a corner on their roster with the speed or playmaking potential of Bethel. He might not start right way, but he will play. And ultimately he will end up starting, perhaps sooner rather than later.
Trotter: Basically, Gibson was a partial qualifier last season, which means he can’t join the team in an official capacity until this summer. Ultimately, since Gibson redshirted, it won’t matter much. Provided he keeps his grades up, he will still have four years of eligibility left once he joins the team.
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.
“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.”
Moving on: Anthony Fera, who leaves as the most decorated kicker in Longhorns history after a remarkable 2013 season. Fera was the first consensus All-America selection and Lou Groza Award finalist in school history and also one of the Big 12’s best punters. Texas fans figured replacing Justin Tucker would be impossible, but Fera was arguably better in his second and final season in burnt orange.
The contenders: Despite losing Fera, the Longhorns do bring back one experienced placekicker in Nick Jordan and a junior-to-be in Nick Rose who has handled kickoffs for two seasons.
Texas also brings back William Russ, who will be a senior this fall, as well as junior Ben Pruitt, sophomore Michael Davidson and redshirt freshman Mitchell Becker.
Moving forward: After years of divvying up the duties among the staff, Texas finally has a designated special teams coach in Chris Vaughn. He’ll also coach the secondary with Vance Bedford, but is responsible for finding the next Fera on this roster.
This time, though, it seems more likely Texas will go back to having a two- or three-man unit for handling kicks this season. At least, that seems like a likely outcome because of Rose’s specialty -- booming kickoffs. He raised his touchback rate from 36 percent as a freshman to 42 percent in 2013 and should be given an opportunity to earn another role in year three.
Jordan did not appear in a game last season but hit on 9-of-15 field goal attempts as a true freshman in 2012, holding down that job for 10 games while Fera dealt with a groin injury. He hit seven of his final 10 attempts that year and was understandably inconsistent for a rookie. The job should be there for the taking for Jordan this spring.
But Vaughn wants competition. He says he’ll put all his options on the field this spring, put them in pressure situations and find out who stands out.
Russ is a bit of a dark horse in this race, a scholarship player who has dealt with injuries during his career. He and Becker might be the best options at the moment for finding a punter, but there’s no reason to count out Pruitt, Davidson (who recorded one kickoff last season) or anyone else at this point.
Prediction: A too-close-to-call battle in spring ball. Seems like a safe bet right now would be that Jordan is the placekicker, Russ and Becker are battling for punter duties, and Rose continues to hold down the kickoffs. But if someone is good enough to do multiple roles, the staff won't be afraid to consolidate responsibilities.
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