Dallas Colleges: Blake Bell
A vacant sign would be the best representation of the Sooners backup quarterback spot with Blake Bell's move to tight end and Kendal Thompson's decision to transfer to Utah.
“It’s opened that window of opportunity for him to get those reps, and I’m sure it will be the most a guy like that’s been able to get [at OU],” head coach Bob Stoops said. “But watching Justice work out, he fits the part of being here and belonging, so we’ll be excited to get him those snaps and seeing how he does.”
Questions about Thomas tend to revolve around his ability to juggle his football and baseball duties. He was solid while running the scout team last fall but will have to manage his time well to excel behind center this spring.
“Coach Pete [Hughes] and Josh [Heupel], they’ve already communicated really well through the winter,” Stoops said. “We want him to have success at both and I know they want him to have it too. So we’ll do the best we can to manage it. So far, it hasn’t been a problem.”
Three practices into the spring, the Sooners feel positive about the progress of Hansen and Thomas alongside Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield, who is ineligible to play this fall but has already made a strong impression in crimson and cream.
“Justice being here, Cody being involved in spring practice, those guys have done a lot of good things,” co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. “They’ve taken their understanding to a new level and [are] spreading the ball around. We’re going to need more than one quarterback to play well for us to win games. Those guys have made some good strides in three days.”
No battle for a backup spot on the depth chart is more important in Norman, Okla., this spring. The nightmare scenario for the Sooners would be watching an injury to Knight derail what could have been a national title run in the fall.
“It’ll be a big part our team’s success, is those guys coming around and getting a really good and consistent feel of what we want them to do at the quarterback position,” Stoops said. “It’ll really important that we do a good job with them and make sure they work hard in the spring.”
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.
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.”
Here's a team-by-team look at what to watch in the Big 12 this spring:
Spring start: Feb. 28
Spring game: April 5
What to watch: Who will replace Lache Seastrunk? The Bears' running back was the engine that helped keep the Baylor offense balanced and defenses honest. Shock Linwood will step in, but is he ready to handle the burden of keeping the offense balanced? . . . Baylor, the 2013 regular-season champion, has to find key replacements on a defense that is losing half of its starters. But several second-teamers -- including Jamal Palmer, Shawn Oakman, Andrew Billings and Orion Stewart -- are poised to fill the void . . . The Bears need to replace guard Cyril Richardson along the offensive line. Several candidates, including junior college transfer Jarell Broxton, will battle for the job. Baylor has arguably the league's best group of skill position players, but that will mean nothing if its offensive line takes a step backward.
Spring start: March 10
Spring game: April 12
What to watch: New offensive coordinator Mark Mangino arrives in Ames to bring more points and creativity to the Cyclones’ offense. The spring is the first opportunity for Mangino to get a feel for the playmakers and the players to get a feel for Mangino’s expectations . . . The quarterback competition is another thing to keep an eye on. Grant Rohach ended the season as the starter, but Sam B. Richardson could take his job back with a strong spring. And there are other young quarterbacks on campus who could insert themselves into the mix . . . Defensively, the Cyclones need to replace linebacker Jeremiah George and safety Jacques Washington, who finished 1-2 in tackles in the Big 12 in 2013 and finished their careers with 59 career starts combined. Iowa State seems to always have quality linebackers, so finding a replacement for Washington could be the defense’s top priority in the spring.
Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12
What to watch: Shuffling the offensive coaching staff has been the theme of the offseason. New offensive coordinator John Reagan, who was a KU assistant from 2005 to 2009, returns to the Jayhawks after running Rice’s offense last season. The spring is Reagan’s first chance to identify the playmakers who will be the foundation of his offense this fall. Expect wide-open competition across the board after KU finished 115th in the FBS in points scored ... The quarterback position will grab the headlines, with T.J. Millweard joining the competition with Jake Heaps and Montell Cozart, who each started games in 2013. Millweard transferred to KU from UCLA before the 2013 season.
Spring start: April 2
Spring game: April 26
What to watch: Finding John Hubert’s replacement sits high on the Wildcats’ priority list. The former running back carried the ground attack for the past three seasons, and there’s no clear favorite to step into his shoes. Will someone step up during spring football? . . . What will happen with quarterback Daniel Sams? The Wildcats have a proven Big 12 playmaker in Sams, a junior, and another proven quarterback in Jake Waters. Sams is an exceptional open-field runner who started two games in 2013, but look for Kansas State to start exploring ways to have both on the field together this spring . . . Replacing Ty Zimmerman’s playmaking and leadership on defense is another key this spring. The defense has to replace several starters in the secondary and at linebacker. Keep an eye on junior college defensive back Danzel McDaniel, who has the versatility to step in at several different spots.
Spring start: March 8
Spring game: April 12
What to watch: With Trevor Knight poised to start at quarterback in 2014, Blake Bell moves to tight end after starting eight games under center in 2013. Bell’s transition to tight end will be the talk of the spring, with the senior’s commitment to the program and OU's need for help at the position . . . The battle to be the starting running back is another storyline, with sophomores Keith Ford and Alex Ross hoping to make a statement this spring before ESPN 300 running backs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine arrive in the summer. Ford forced his way into the lineup as a freshman before an injury slowed him . . . The Sooners will be looking to shore up the secondary after the departure of All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin and starting safety Gabe Lynn. Sophomore Stanvon Taylor could be set to replace Colvin, while sophomores Hatari Byrd and Ahmad Thomas will battle to replace Lynn.
Spring start: March 10
Final spring practice: April 5
What to watch: Incoming freshman Mason Rudolph enrolled early to participate in spring football with the hope of replacing quarterback Clint Chelf. J.W. Walsh has won a lot of games in a Cowboys uniform, but will have to hold off stern competition to earn the starting spot as a junior . . . The Cowboys lose seven seniors off one of their best defenses in recent memory. The overall quality might be upgraded, but spring football will be the first chance to see if those talented yet inexperienced defenders are ready to step into the fire. Defensive end Jimmy Bean, linebacker Ryan Simmons and cornerback Kevin Peterson could emerge as the foundation of the defense . . . Who will step up at receiver? The Cowboys lose three of their top four receivers, with Jhajuan Seales as the lone returnee. But several youngsters appear poised to step in, including sophomore Marcell Ateman and redshirt freshman Ra'Shaad Samples.
Spring start: March 1
Final spring practice: April 5
What to watch: Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie have arrived to take over as co-offensive coordinators at TCU. The Horned Frogs need a jump start and could get it from the “Air Raid”-style offense the duo will bring to the table. This spring will be an important first step in improving the offense . . . Who will be the quarterback? Trevone Boykin started several games in 2013 but might actually be TCU’s top receiver. Tyler Matthews, a redshirt freshman, also saw time under center, but he faces stiff competition. Don’t expect the battle to end until fall camp . . . TCU needs someone to step up in the secondary, with Jason Verrett NFL-bound after spending the past two seasons as one of the Big 12’s top coverage cornerbacks. Ranthony Texada and Travoskey Garrett are among several young defensive backs who could try to fill the void.
Spring start: March 18
Spring game: April 19
What to watch: David Ash's health will be one of the main storylines of Texas’ first spring under coach Charlie Strong. Ash has the talent to be a key piece of the puzzle, but head injuries are always tough to overcome. If Ash is 100 percent healthy, the Longhorns will feel better about the overall status at quarterback . . . Strong has talked of instilling a tough mindset in Austin since he arrived in January, and spring football will be the first real taste of what the Longhorns’ new coach is trying to bring to the program . . . Where are the playmakers? Texas has a talent-laden roster, but didn’t have the exceptional talent who could consistently change games. This spring gives several returning skill players, including receiver Jaxon Shipley and all-purpose standout Daje Johnson, the chance to become the foundation of the offense in 2014.
Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 12
What to watch: Davis Webb's health is the No. 1 priority for the Red Raiders, who have seen three quarterbacks leave the program since the beginning of the 2013 season. Coach Kliff Kingsbury could have the toughest job of the spring as he tries to manage the lack of quarterbacks with the desire to have a productive spring for the roster as a whole . . . The Red Raiders have some consistency among the defensive coaching staff, meaning they could improve in 2014 despite losing multiple starters, including defensive tackle Kerry Hyder, linebacker Will Smith and safety Tre' Porter. Tech could start seeing dividends of that continuity . . . The Red Raiders have to replace Jace Amaro and Eric Ward, who combined to catch 189 passes for 2,299 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. Jakeem Grant and Bradley Marquez made a bunch of plays in 2013 and Devin Lauderdale, a junior college transfer and early enrollee, will get the chance to show why he had Texas Tech fans buzzing when he initially signed in February 2013.
Spring start: March 2
Spring game: April 12
What to watch: Finding a quarterback is critical for the Mountaineers, who have talent at the skill positions but won’t transform into an explosive offense without efficient quarterback play. Clint Trickett is recovering from shoulder surgery, meaning Paul Millard, junior college transfer Skyler Howard and former receiver Logan Moore will run the offense this spring . . . Tony Gibson takes over as WVU’s defensive coordinator after coaching the safeties in 2013. His promotion allows some continuity on the defense after former DC Keith Patterson left for Arizona State after the season . . . Replacing defensive tackle Shaq Rowell and defensive end Will Clarke, who started 56 combined career games for WVU, won’t be easy. The Mountaineers will lean heavily on veteran juniors Isaiah Bruce and Karl Joseph, who have started since their freshman seasons.
The offseason is when players start to emerge as potential stars of the future or contributors who will change the fortunes of their teams. Here are some names to keep an eye on during the offseason in the Big 12:
Receiver Robbie Rhodes, Baylor: At this time last season, people were talking about the Bears landing Rhodes, the No. 35 player in the 2013 ESPN 300. He finished with 10 receptions for 157 yards as a freshman. The sophomore has terrific speed, athleticism and big-play ability and could emerge as the replacement for Tevin Reese in Baylor’s explosive attack.
Quarterback Montell Cozart, Kansas: After an up-and-down freshman season, Cozart will have to compete hard to remain atop KU’s depth chart this offseason. UCLA transfer T.J. Millweard will enter the competition alongside Cozart and Jake Heaps, so it will be critical for Cozart to make a jump to another level during the offseason.
Quarterback Daniel Sams, Kansas State: This offseason provides an opportunity for coach Bill Snyder to decide the best way to use the dynamic Sams. Sams could be a playmaker at several different positions in the Wildcats’ attack so seeing where the junior ends up is intriguing.
Tight end Blake Bell, Oklahoma: It’s been an amazing first four years in Norman, Okla., for Bell, who went from making a name for himself as the Belldozer to leading the Sooners on a game-deciding drive against Oklahoma State, which changed the destination of the Big 12 title rings. Now he will make the transition to tight end for his final season.
Receiver Jhajuan Seales, Oklahoma State: The quarterback battle will garner its share of attention but Seales' continued development is just as important. Top receiver Josh Stewart is NFL-bound so whoever wins the quarterback derby will need a top target. Seales could be the perfect candidate with his size, athleticism and ball skills, but he needs to continue to develop if he hopes to become a consistent threat in 2014.
Quarterback Tyrone Swoopes, Texas: Swoopes saw spot duty as a freshman, never really making an impact during Mack Brown’s final season as coach. The offseason will be a critical time for the sophomore to start making an impression on new coach Charlie Strong and cement himself into the plans at quarterback.
Receiver LaDarius Brown, TCU: The junior combines terrific size (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) and exceptional athleticism. Brown tied for the team lead with 36 receptions as a sophomore but it’s time for Brown to take his game to another level and emerge as a consistent playmaker for the Horned Frogs' offense. His goal next season should be to make his 2013 game against Texas (7 receptions, 87 yards, TD) just another Saturday.
Receiver Jordan Davis, Texas Tech: With Eric Ward and Jace Amaro heading to the next level, the Red Raiders are searching for playmakers at the receiver spot. Davis can help fill the void. He stepped up at various times in 2013, finishing with 28 receptions for 243 yards and one touchdown, so he could be ready for a bigger role.
Running back Dreamius Smith, West Virginia: The Mountaineers’ second-leading rusher behind Charles Sims, Smith faces stiff competition to win the starting running back spot in 2014. Wendell Smallwood, Andrew Buie and Rushel Shell could emerge as the main in the WVU backfield so it’s important for Smith to have a strong offseason with quality competition nipping at his heels.
This class featured seven players in the ESPN 150 and a ton of star power led by the “Cali Trio” of Kenny Stills, Brennan Clay and Tony Jefferson. The class was ranked No. 5 nationally by ESPN.com.
Cornerback Aaron Colvin: An afterthought on signing day, but he was arguably the best player in this class. He started his first-ever Red River Rivalry as a freshman and started three straight seasons at two different positions, earning All-Big 12 honors twice. The nation’s No. 40 safety prospect coming out of Owasso, Okla., Colvin finished with 234 tackles, including 15 tackles for loss and five interceptions in 50 career games (36 starts).
Tackle Daryl Williams: The No. 53 tackle in the nation, Williams has performed like a highly-regarded offensive line prospect. He started his first college game as a redshirt freshman before injury derailed his first season. Nonetheless, Williams became a anchor on OU’s offensive line during his sophomore and junior seasons and enters his final season as one of the Big 12’s best offensive linemen.
Safety Tony Jefferson: The No. 21-ranked player in the ESPN 150, Jefferson stepped on campus with high expectations. He didn’t disappoint, earning Big 12 freshman-of-the-year honors in 2010 and All-Big 12 honors in 2012 before leaving early for the NFL. Jefferson finished with 258 tackles, eight interceptions and seven sacks in 40 career games (34 starts). He’s currently a safety for the Arizona Cardinals after going undrafted last spring.
Receiver Kenny Stills: The No. 36-ranked receiver prospect, Stills started every game he played in crimson and cream. His speed and football IQ separated him from the competition, as he finished with 204 receptions for 2,594 yards and 24 touchdowns in 38 career games (38 starts) before leaving early for the NFL. He’s currently one of Drew Brees’ main targets with the New Orleans Saints.
Running back Brennan Clay: Ranked No. 129 in the ESPN 150, Clay overcame injuries to become a key performer. He never emerged as a star, but he was the type of consistent, productive player who helps teams win games. He had 1,913 yards and 13 touchdowns in 46 career games (18 starts).
Linebacker Corey Nelson: The No. 62 player in the ESPN 150, Nelson had a solid career. A three-year starter, he had 153 tackles, including 17.5 tackles for loss in 45 career games (27 starts).
Completely missed the mark
Receiver Justin McCay: McCay never made an impact with the Sooners, transferring after his redshirt freshman season. The No. 142 player in the ESPN 150, McCay transferred to Kansas and currently plays for the Jayhawks.
Receiver Sheldon McClain: Much like McCay, McClain had a higher ranking than Stills as the No. 22-ranked receiver nationally but never made an impact before transferring.
A-minus. Even though this recruiting class featured multiple disappointments, it was littered with stars and contributors. Tyrus Thompson, Julian Wilson, Roy Finch, Blake Bell and Chuka Ndulue are just a few of the other Sooners in the Class of 2010 who became starters or major contributors alongside Colvin, Millard and the rest of the playmakers signed in February 2010.
To the 'bag:
Jake Trotter: Statically, he was a top five receiver this season. There are some big-time receivers returning in the league, notably Tyler Lockett and Antwan Goodley. But Grant is loaded with big-play talent and could become the top slot receiver in the league along with Sterling Shepard.
James in Overland, Kan., writes: With Charlie Strong's staff now in place what are the chances Texas wins 10-12 games in 2014?
Trotter: It all comes down to quarterback for Strong. The other pieces are pretty much in place for Texas to reach double-digit wins. If Strong gets better quarterback play than Mack Brown did the last four seasons, it’s conceivable. But if the quarterback play remains inconsistent and turnover prone, then it will be a long shot, given the strength of the Big 12 and the Longhorns’ tough nonconference schedule, which includes UCLA and BYU.
Hugh in Hot Springs Village, Ark., writes: Are there any tight ends available that could even be three-fourths of what Jace Amaro was, and could Texas Tech land that player?
Trotter: Sure. I also hear the Red Raiders are in on a slot receiver from Oklahoma City named Les Lelker and a stud wideout out of Dallas, as well, named Michael Treecrab.
Jesse in Lubbock, Texas, writes: I have to admit, I wasn't in favor of Davis Webb starting until his impressive showing in the Holiday Bowl. With the poise he showed against Arizona State, I'd be ok calling him the Webbslinger as Tech moves forward with him as the starter. Thoughts on the nickname?
Trotter: It must really be the offseason, since we’re back to spitballing nicknames for every player in the league. Paging Andy in Austin …
Blake Bell in Norman, Okla., writes: Help! What should I do? I've been told that you are all-knowing. Should I stay at OU or transfer? If I do stay, should I try and become a tight end?
Trotter: Since you asked, I think I would stay. Trevor Knight is the clear-cut No. 1 QB, but given his style of play, he’s prone to injury. Bell has thrived in the clutch as a quarterback off the bench, and could still serve a valuable role as the No. 2 QB. There’s also the possibility of playing time at tight end, given that OU is void of reliable options at that spot. If Bell stayed, I would expect him to dabble there in the spring while also getting reps at quarterback. On the flip side, there’s no guarantee Bell would get playing time if he did transfer. Look no further than former OU QB Drew Allen, who transferred to Syracuse for his final year, and sat the bench this season. Bell could give it a shot elsewhere. But because of his Bedlam performance and game-changing plays previously in the “Belldozer” package, Bell is beloved by Sooner fans. There are worse things to be in college.
Alex in Ames, Iowa, writes: Iowa State hasn't finished better than ninth in yards per play in the Big 12 since 2005. Despite awful offenses, Iowa State has found a way to win under Paul Rhoads. This year, Iowa State has more options than I can remember on offense and an offensive coordinator in Mark Man-genius, who is a proven wizard. How high is the ceiling for a Rhoads team with an offense?
Trotter: Iowa State is shaping up to be one of my sleeper teams in the Big 12 next season. You’re correct, the Cyclones have options offensively. Running back Aaron Wimberly, wideout Quenton Bundrage and tight end E.J. Bibbs can all make plays. Quarterbacks Grant Rohach and Sam Richardson have experience and will make each other better competing for the job. I agree, the Cyclones always play solid defense, even though they have to replace a couple of long-time stalwarts. Is this a team that will contend for the Big 12 title? No. But I could see Iowa State getting back to a bowl next year while also being a tough out in Ames all year.
Chris in Lubbock, Texas, writes: Baylor's offense (scoring) will probably be No. 1 in the Big 12 again next season. Who do you see as the second-best scoring offense next season and why?
Trotter: Because of their style of play I’m not sure it will be the second-highest scoring, but I would give the edge to Kansas State as the Big 12’s second-best offense going into 2014. The Wildcats have a superstar in Lockett, and a capable, consistent quarterback in Jake Waters. Oklahoma and Texas Tech could factor into the conversation because of their young quarterbacks, who both turned the corner in their respective bowl games. Oklahoma State will be a team to watch, too. The Cowboys lose a lot, but they always seem to reload offensively, and have featured one of the Big 12's top three offenses every year but once since 2006.
No. 1: Dec. 7 -- Oklahoma 33, Oklahoma State 24
In one of the coldest games either team had ever played in, Oklahoma stunned its Bedlam rival with two touchdowns in the final 19 seconds to pull off the upset.
What happened: Oklahoma State went into the game a double-digit favorite for the first time since Vegas began keeping track. But the Sooners were able to hang around utilizing a variety of unconventional scoring plays and three different quarterbacks.
The Sooners tied the game 7-7 at the end of the first quarter on Jalen Saunders’ 64-yard punt return touchdown. The Sooners tied the game late in the third quarter on a fake field goal, as holder Grant Bothun threw a touchdown pass to Michael Hunnicutt.
Oklahoma State, which struggled to pass the ball in the sub-10 degree temperatures, finally got going in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Clint Chelf completed four consecutive passes of 14, 27, 20 and 23 yards, setting up Desmond Roland’s go-ahead touchdown plunge to put the Cowboys up 24-20.
But Oklahoma State left too much time on the clock. And Blake Bell -- the third quarterback to enter the game for the Sooners -- led them back down the field in the final seconds.
Bell appeared to throw a jump-ball interception to Oklahoma State All-American cornerback Justin Gilbert. But as Gilbert landed on the ground, receiver Lacoltan Bester was able to swipe the ball away to turn the play into an incomplete pass.
Moments later, Bell hit Saunders in the corner of the end zone for a seven-yard, game-winning touchdown pass -- the Sooners’ first and only offensive touchdown of the game.
Oklahoma State’s desperation series of laterals resulted in Oklahoma linebacker Eric Striker scoring another touchdown, providing Bedlam with an exclamation point.
Player of the game: Bell was clutch but Oklahoma would have never been in the game without Saunders. His punt return touchdown changed the complexion of the game in the first quarter. Saunders’ 37-yard reverse also set up the fake field goal touchdown, when Oklahoma desperately needed a big play. Then, of course, there was the game-winning touchdown catch, too. It was the second time in his career that Saunders had a punt return touchdown and receiving touchdown in the same game. The other time came in Oklahoma’s overtime victory over the Cowboys in 2012.
Stat of the game: Though he was on point late in the fourth quarter, Chelf completed just 2 of 10 passes on third down. Neither of his completions resulted in a first down, and Oklahoma State’s ineffective third-down passing caused several promising drives to stall out.
Quotable: “The feeling in the locker room is a bad feeling right now.” -- Oklahoma State’s running back Roland, immediately after the loss.
The rest of the list:
- No. 2: Oklahoma 45, Alabama 31
- No. 3: Texas 47, West Virginia 40
- No. 4: Baylor 41, TCU 38
- No. 5: Iowa State 52, West Virginia 44
- No. 6: Texas 31, Iowa State 30
- No. 7: North Dakota State 24, Kansas State 21
- No. 8: West Virginia 30, TCU 27
- No. 9: Oklahoma 38, Texas Tech 30
- No. 10: Texas Tech 20, TCU 10
No. 9: Oct. 26 -- Oklahoma 38, Texas Tech 30
Despite a run of trick plays, No. 15 Oklahoma survived 10th-ranked Texas Tech in one of the league's most entertaining games.
What happened: After a disappointing loss to Texas, the Sooners rediscovered their ground game while quarterback Blake Bell regained his confidence during a pair of pivotal second quarter series.
After three inept weeks of offense, the Sooners went on the longest drive of the season to that point in plays, yards and time. The Sooners grounded out a 16-play, 97-yard touchdown drive covering almost eight minutes to tie the game, 7-7.
On the first play of OU's following possession with Tech’s safeties creeping up to stop the run, Bell faked a handoff then threw a pass over the top to Jalen Saunders for a 76-yard touchdown.
The Red Raiders, however, wouldn’t go down easily.
Utilizing a reverse, a halfback touchdown pass, a decoy punt returner play and an onside kick, Texas Tech stormed back to take a 24-21 lead.
But Oklahoma countered with some trickery of its own. Wideout Lacoltan Bester took a reverse and was supposed to pass it. When nobody was open, Bester tucked the ball and weaved through the Texas Tech defense for a 35-yard touchdown. The Sooners never trailed again.
Player of the game: Bell, who completed 14 of 22 passes for 249 yards and two touchdowns after struggling the previous two weeks. Texas Tech quarterback Davis Webb was good, too, throwing for 385 yards and a pair of scores. His second interception, however, led to a touchdown that put the Sooners up 35-24 in the fourth quarter.
Stat of the game: The Red Raiders committed three turnovers, which was a sign of things to come. Texas Tech finished No. 121 nationally in turnovers lost, which fueled Tech’s five-game losing streak to end the regular season.
Quotable: “I love our team and their attitude. Are we in great shape? No. Am I excited about our team and our opportunity and our willingness to fight and all of that? Yeah, I am.” -- Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, noting the season-ending injury to his All-Big 12 fullback, Trey Millard
Here’s a look back at the 2013 season with our Best of the Big 12:
Best player, offense: Even though he cooled off later in the year, Baylor’s Bryce Petty still finished fifth nationally in QBR in his first season as a starting quarterback. He threw 32 touchdown passes and did a masterful job taking care of the ball, tossing only three interceptions.
Best player, defense: There wasn’t really anyone who clearly stood out here. TCU cornerback Jason Verrett, Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State linebacker Caleb Lavey, Kansas State defensive end Ryan Mueller and Baylor linebacker Eddie Lackey all had their moments. Texas defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat, however, was the only defensive player from the league to win a national award. He was given the Ted Hendricks Award, which goes to the defensive end of the year in college football. Jeffcoat tied for third nationally with 13 sacks.
Best moment: The league has been waiting for a signature victory to hang its hat on. Oklahoma finally gave the Big 12 that victory in the Allstate Sugar Bowl with a stunning 45-31 win over Alabama. Behind freshman quarterback Trevor Knight, the Sooners controlled the game from the second quarter on. Defensively, linebacker Eric Striker and end Geneo Grissom were unblockable, combining for five sacks of Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron. Offensively, Knight carved up the Crimson Tide for 348 passing yards and four touchdowns. It wasn’t even that Alabama played poorly. It was that Oklahoma played terrifically.
Best rivalry game: Maybe new Texas coach Charlie Strong will bring some more juice to the Red River Rivalry. Lately, it’s been second fiddle to Bedlam. In quality. In drama. In impact. Once again, Bedlam carried major Big 12 title implications, and once again, the game delivered a thrilling ending. Backup quarterback Blake Bell found Jalen Saunders in the corner of the end zone with 19 seconds remaining for the Sooners’ first offensive touchdown of the game, lifting Oklahoma to a win and spoiling Oklahoma State’s shot at a Big 12 title.
Best play: Late in the third quarter of Kansas State’s game against Baylor, Mueller stripped Petty while simultaneously recovering the fumble near the sideline. The acrobatic play gave K-State good field position in Baylor territory, and the Wildcats would go on to take a 25-21 lead. Baylor ultimately outlasted the Wildcats, but Mueller, who also had two sacks in the game, was a big reason why the Bears' high-powered offense was held in check most of the afternoon.
Best individual defensive performance: Mueller against Baylor, Verrett shutting down Baylor wideout Antwan Goodley, and Gilbert picking off Texas twice all deserve honorable mention. But Striker gets the nod for wreaking havoc on the two-time defending national champ in New Orleans. Striker had three sacks and forced a fumble after barreling around the edge to slam into McCarron’s blind side. The ball popped loose and Grissom returned the fumble for the game-winning touchdown.
Best true freshman: Texas Tech quarterback Davis Webb had to split time with fellow true freshman Baker Mayfield for most of the season. When Mayfield left unexpectedly in December, the job was finally Webb’s to run with. And run he did. Actually, he threw. Against No. 14 Arizona State in the National University Holiday Bowl, Webb completed 28 of 41 passes for 403 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions in one of this year’s best bowl performances from a quarterback. Webb had a solid freshman season, leading the Red Raiders to fourth-quarter wins over TCU and West Virginia. But if the bowl was any indication, the best is yet to come.
Best quote: “So much for the big bad wolf, huh?” -- Bob Stoops, after the Sooners defeated Alabama.
Here’s a look at some of the Big 12’s top clutch players in 2013. For this stat-based list, any Big 12 players statistic recorded in the second half during a one-possession game is defined as a clutch statistic. Because sometimes it’s not about the gaudy numbers you’ve put up, it’s about when you put up those numbers.
Quarterback Bryce Petty, Baylor: The Bears didn’t have the same opportunities to be clutch as Sooners’ players did in 2013. Yet, Petty still was clutch and led the Big 12 in touchdowns with six scores in clutch scenarios. He finished 21 of 35 for 344 yards with four touchdown passes and two touchdown runs while finishing with a 76.3 raw QBR, second only to Bell in the Big 12. And he only turned the ball over once, which separated him from Kansas State’s Daniel Sams who also accounted for six touchdowns but turned the ball over an eye-popping seven times in clutch scenarios. Even though he spent the majority of his second halves thinking about his postgame plans, Petty’s 5 of 8 for 63 yards and two touchdowns to help BU secure the Big 12 title against Texas and pretty much cemented his spot on this list as a clutch performer.
Running back Brennan Clay, Oklahoma: The second Sooner on the list speaks to how many close games OU had to win this season. Clay led the Big 12 with 47 carries for 310 yards, 6.6 yards per carry, and two touchdowns in those clutch scenarios. His 76-yard touchdown with the Sooners holding a 13-10 lead over TCU in the fourth quarter helped secure his spot on this list. He also added six carries for 105 yards against West Virginia, helping OU win that close game while Knight struggled against the Mountaineers. He doesn’t come to mind when thinking of the Big 12’s top running backs but Clay could easily be considered the most overlooked contributor to OU’s success in 2013.
Tight end Jace Amaro, Texas Tech: Come on, now, you can’t be surprised to see the Big 12’s top tight end on this list. Amaro had 13 receptions for 232 yards and one touchdown in those clutch situations. His performance against West Virginia (4 receptions, 72 yards, TD) helped cement his spot on this list. In addition eight of those 13 receptions resulted in Red Raider first downs and his 17.85 yards per play from scrimmage led the Big 12. The NFL early entry will be missed in Lubbock, Texas in 2014.
Running back Charles Sims, West Virginia: His 291 yards from scrimmage in those clutch scenarios was third in the Big 12 behind Clay and OU’s Damien Williams. Sims averaged 5.02 yards per play with 240 rushing yards, one touchdown and 51 receiving yards with two scores. His key plays in key moments helped the Mountaineers earn their best wins of the season against OSU (10 touches for 60 yards) and TCU (14 touches for 72 yards, TD). He was easily the Mountaineers’ top offensive threat in 2013, things could have ended up a lot worse without the Houston transfer in WVU's backfield.
Other clutch players who barely missed earning a spot on the list: WR Sterling Shepard, Oklahoma (19 receptions, 244 yards, 3 TDs in 8 games); WR Tyler Lockett, Kansas State (12 receptions, 159 yards, 2 TDs in four games); RB Desmond Roland, Oklahoma State (171 rushing yards, 4 total TDs); QB/WR Trevone Boykin, TCU (5 total TDs, 516 yards of total offense); QB Davis Webb, Texas Tech (67.5 raw QBR, 522 passing yards, 5 TD, INT).
Great performances from multiple quarterbacks, special teams brilliance from an undersized but dynamic receiver and a pass rushing clinic on college football’s biggest stage. Here’s a look at the top five individual performances during the Sooners’ 11-2 campaign in 2013.
1. Trevor Knight, Allstate Sugar Bowl MVP. It’s amazing how exceptional quarterback play can transform a team. Watching Knight expose Alabama’s defense sent shockwaves of confidence throughout the OU sideline and transformed the Sooners into the story of the bowl season. His 94.7 adjusted QBR was the ninth best in bowl games as he finished 32 of 44 for 348 yards with four touchdowns and one interception. It was the Trevor Knight that Bob Stoops expected to see in 2013 when the Sooners head coach named the redshirt freshman quarterback his starter before the year began.
2. Jalen Saunders breaks Oklahoma State hearts in Bedlam. The frigid cold temps didn’t seem to bother the California native. Instead he exposed OSU defenders with cold-hearted efficiency. His 64-yard punt return sparked some confidence for the Sooners in the first quarter and prevented OSU from playing with a lead, then his game-deciding touchdown reception in the final seconds put OU into the Sugar Bowl. He finished with a season-high 157 all-purpose yards and averaged 17.4 yards per touch against the Cowboys.
3. Eric Striker terrorizes A.J. McCarron in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. The sophomore was a relentless pass rushing threat for most of the season but his three sacks against Alabama stand head and shoulders above any defensive performance in 2013. Going against an All-SEC tackle in Cyrus Kouandjio, Striker beat the future NFL draft pick on multiple occasions helping to contribute to OU’s seven Sugar Bowl sacks. Striker’s pass rushing prowess was immediately noticed when he stepped on campus in the summer of 2012 but he really came into his own in New Orleans.
4. Brennan Clay’s 200 yards against Kansas State. The senior running back made life a lot easier for Knight in his first road start in Manhattan, Kan. Clay had 31 carries for 200 yards and two touchdowns against the Wildcats as he continually found plenty of room to roam and took advantage. OU’s offensive line deserved a large share of the credit for Clay’s performance against KSU but he was a consistent, durable running option throughout the season and averaged 5.47 yards per carry, third in the Big 12.
5. Blake Bell’s record-setting performance against Tulsa. In his first start, Bell broke school records while leading OU to a 51-20 win over Tulsa. The junior was 27 of 37 for 413 yards, 11.2 yards per attempt and four touchdowns, setting a school record for most passing yards by a Sooner in his first start. His 96.4 adjusted QBR was the seventh-best nationally in Week 3 and one of the highest QBR’s in the Big 12 this season. Bell looked like a future star against the Golden Hurricane while starting to shed the “Belldozer” moniker that defined his first two seasons in crimson and cream. It was Bell’s best overall performance of the season.
The last time the Crimson Tide just missed out on a national championship game and ended up in the Sugar, they didn't seem to be very motivated. Will they be motivated this time?
Jake Trotter: I don’t think motivation will be a problem for Alabama. Then again, it could be. After all, the Crimson Tide have played in the national championship game in three of the last four years. Playing in the Sugar is a step down. One thing we do know is that Oklahoma will be motivated. This is the biggest bowl the Sooners have played in since the 2008 national championship game against Florida. As a double-digit underdog against the preeminent program in college football at the moment, it’s a guarantee Oklahoma will be fired up to play well.
For OU to pull off the upset, what is the one thing that has to happen?
Scarborough: Aside from Alabama surprising me and coming out flat, I think it comes down to the defense. McCarron, T.J. Yeldon and Amari Cooper will put up plenty of points on offense, but can Mosley and the secondary rebound after what was a testing season defensively? Alabama was excellent in terms of production this season, but our colleague Edward Aschoff was wise to focus on the importance of the Tide facing another zone-read team as both Auburn and Texas A&M had success moving the ball against them. Even Mississippi State had some success spreading the field and pushing the tempo. Alabama has to set the edge and stop the run early against Oklahoma, forcing Blake Bell, Trevor Knight or whoever plays quarterback for the Sooners into obvious passing situations. If Oklahoma finds itself in a lot of second-and-mediums and third-and-shorts, Alabama will be in trouble because while there's plenty of talent at safety with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Landon Collins, there's a significant drop off at cornerback once you look past Deion Belue.
Who is the player to watch in this game?
Scarborough: This is going to be a very interesting game for Alabama linebacker Trey DePriest. He's had a fairly solid junior season, but he hasn't done what many expected when the season began and there was speculation over whether he'd turn pro early. Well, he's already said he intends to return to school, and with Mosley moving on, he'll be the man leading and executing Kirby Smart’s and Nick Saban's defense in 2014. How he does against Oklahoma is an important step in that progression. He needs to show he can both lead his teammates, as well as show the sideline-to-sideline type of tackling that Mosley brought to the table. As more teams go to the zone-read offense, that part of the game becomes more and more important. And if I can add a second player to watch quickly, keep an eye on freshman tailback Derrick Henry. He's a talented big man at 6-foot-3, and the buzz is that he may be poised to pass Kenyan Drake for second on the depth chart.
Trotter: Receiver/returner Jalen Saunders is Oklahoma's X-factor. In the Sooners' upset victory over Oklahoma State, Saunders unleashed a 61-yard punt return touchdown, a 37-yard reverse rush that set up another score and a game-winning, 7-yard touchdown grab in the corner of the end zone in the final seconds. For the Sooners to have a chance, Saunders must deliver another monster performance.
Oklahoma can give the program -- and the Big 12 -- a landmark victory Thursday night over No. 3 Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Here are 10 reasons why the Sooners could pull off the upset against the two-time defending national champions:
1. Jalen Saunders’ playmaking: The most versatile playmaker in this game will be wearing OU’s shade of crimson. Saunders is capable of breaking off big plays on receptions, returns and rushes, as Oklahoma State found out in Bedlam. Saunders is the kind of game-breaker capable of carrying an underdog to an upset.
2. Alabama apathy: After playing in the national championship game three of the past four years, playing in the Sugar is a bit of a step down. The Crimson Tide fans seem to be unenthusiastic about this game. Will the players be, too? The Sooners, meanwhile, have everything to play for. There’s no doubt OU will come out fired up.
3. Alabama focus: The Crimson Tide have several underclassmen who could be early entries to the NFL draft. How many of them will be 100 percent focused on this game? The Sooners, conversely, might not have a single player leave early. Their focus should be fully on this game.
5. Special teams: The one area that the Sooners hold a decisive edge over Alabama is special teams. Saunders is an all-conference punt returner. Roy Finch leads the Big 12 in kickoff returns. And Michael Hunnicutt is a reliable placekicker, while the Crimson Tide don’t seem to have much confidence in Cade Foster, who missed three field goals in the Auburn game. A big play on special teams could swing this game the way of the Sooners. Which, after the Iron Bowl, is something Alabama fans understand all too well.
6. Eric Striker off the edge: The sophomore linebacker has been virtually unblockable on blitzes this season. Alabama has given up the fifth-fewest sacks in the country this season, so quarterback AJ McCarron is not accustomed to dealing with pressure. If Striker can get into the Alabama backfield, he could wreak havoc.
7. Colvin on Cooper: Alabama sophomore wideout Amari Cooper is one of the most explosive wide receivers in the country. In the Iron Bowl, Cooper gashed Auburn for 178 receiving yards on six catches. When McCarron looks downfield off play-action, Cooper is who he is looking for. Cooper said this week the Sooners didn’t have anyone in their secondary capable of covering him. But the fact is, the Sooners have one of the best cover corners in college football in Aaron Colvin. Colvin has been banged up all season, which has limited his effectiveness. But with the time off, he’s healthier than he’s been all season and is capable of blanketing Cooper, regardless of what Cooper says.
8. Sooner coyness: OU basically knows what Alabama will do and has been able to prepare accordingly. Because the Sooners haven’t revealed whether they’re starting Trevor Knight or Blake Bell at quarterback, the Crimson Tide have basically had to prepare for two different offensive schemes. Time spent working on one scheme is time not spent working on the other. This gives the Sooners some competitive edge.
9. Bama against the zone-read: Alabama had a difficult time slowing down Auburn’s zone-read attack in the Iron Bowl. If the Sooners go with Knight at quarterback, that’s pretty much the offense the Crimson Tide will be facing again. OU won’t have Nick Marshall or Tre Mason in its backfield. But the Tigers gave OU a blueprint on how to move the ball against the Tide.
10. Sign of the times: Before this week, only six bowl underdogs of at least two touchdowns had won outright since 1990. This week alone, Texas Tech and UCF became the seventh and eighth. The Sooners are heavy underdogs. But maybe this is the bowl season of the heavy underdog.
Charles Thompson knows what it’s like to be the quarterback at OU. Thompson experienced the mountains as a star quarterback for the Sooners during his freshman and sophomore seasons and experienced the valleys, as his off-the-field troubles made national headlines and sparked a premature end to his Sooners’ career. He knew the legacy he left in Norman, Okla., would be placed on his son’s shoulders if Kendal decided Oklahoma Memorial Stadium would be his home field during his college career.
Yet that’s not what made Charles Thompson uneasy.
A three-star prospect out of Southmoore High School in Moore, Okla., Kendal Thompson isn't like his father, who starred as a run-first quarterback during his time in crimson and cream but steered his son away from his own playing style.
“There’s always been this opinion across the board, although it’s changed throughout the years, that the black quarterback is an athlete and not a surgeon in terms of reading the defense and throwing the ball across the field,” Thompson said. “From 7 years old, I built him to be the opposite of those stereotypes. The Charlie Wards were starting coming out -- guys who could seriously throw the football -- who were not just the typical option quarterbacks who were run-first guys. I wanted Kendal to have that opportunity. As long as he was under my tutelage he was going to learn the game as a passer first.”
Charles Thompson’s plan resulted in the Sooners offering Kendal a scholarship to play quarterback, and his passing prowess was readily apparent to ESPN recruiting analysts. The ESPN scouting report about the younger Thompson refers to him as a multi-talented quarterback prospect, stating: “Make no mistake, he’s a passer first, runner second and a very dangerous athlete under center. He is the perfect spread-offense quarterback for these reasons.”
Thompson was alongside Trevor Knight and Blake Bell in the battle to replace Landry Jones last offseason. A preseason foot injury knocked him out of the race and the sophomore didn't resurface until a superb showing while leading OU to a touchdown in his lone series during a 48-10 win over Iowa State. Against Oklahoma State, Thompson saw the most action of his young career, finishing 2-of-9 for 17 yards and one interception after replacing Knight, who was knocked out of the game at the end of the first half.
"We stayed with Kendal to start the second half because for two weeks a big part of our game plan was obviously the zone read and option, and we felt like Kendal would operate in it a little better than Blake would," OU coach Bob Stoops said at the time.
Although a similar game plan makes sense against the Crimson Tide, the younger Thompson may or may not get an opportunity to play against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. But with nobody cementing themselves as the Sooners' quarterback of the future, Thompson could be in the middle of the competition to start at quarterback in 2014, as a transfer by the sophomore seems unlikely.
“In life, you take things as they come," Charles Thompson said of the prospect of his son leaving the program. "He’s excited about being an Oklahoma Sooner.”
OU has transformed to an offense that features more zone read plays and quarterback run options this season, meaning Thompson could be a quality option for the future.
“I think the coaches feel like all three guys are viable options to lead this team,” Thompson said. “Let’s say all three were healthy, I think he would have been giving the opportunity to play much earlier than he did. I think he can show he’s every bit as good as the other two if given the opportunity.”
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