Dallas Colleges: Charles Tapper
OU finished the season 10-2 including a 7-2 Big 12 record as some likely and unlikely candidates stepped up to make a difference during a season that was initially billed as a rebuilding year but will end with the Sooners playing in a BCS bowl.
Here is a regular season review of the standout players and coaches during OU’s BCS journey.
Offensive MVP: Center Gabe Ikard. It’s not often that an offensive lineman is the clear MVP of a 10-win team. But Ikard’s not your normal offensive lineman. A four-year starter, Ikard’s experience and intelligence helped the Sooners overcome an season-ending injury to fullback Trey Millard, a quarterback carousel and multiple running backs taking turns as the lead ball carrier. Through it all the offensive line helped the Sooners average 235.83 rushing yards per game and allowed 15 sacks with Ikard’s leadership and example.
Defensive MVP: Linebacker Frank Shannon. The sophomore fought off injuries to play in all 12 games and lead the squad with 85 tackles along with seven tackles for loss, two sacks and one interception. When senior linebacker Corey Nelson was lost for the season in early October, Shannon went from an understudy to a on-field leadership role. His presence also helped true freshman Dominique Alexander excel in Nelson’s absence.
Special teams MVP: Jalen Saunders. The senior receiver changed the game with punt returns for touchdowns against Iowa State and Oklahoma State during the Sooners’ three-game win streak to end the regular season. Without those two returns, who knows how those games could have turned out. He averaged 16.78 yards per punt return and had five punt returns for more than 20 yards.
Assistant coach of the year: Defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery. The season began with a defensive line full of unknowns and inexperience. Yet, it performed like a veteran group and even shook off an season-ending injury to Jordan Phillips to finish No. 1 in the Big 12 in yards allowed per game. Several inexperienced players including Charles Tapper and Jordan Wade played important roles under Montgomery's coaching.
Undervalued contributor on offense: Receiver Sterling Shepard. The sophomore wasn’t the No. 1 guy like Saunders, but when he wasn’t involved OU’s passing attack wasn’t as potent. He finished with 44 receptions for 540 yards and six touchdowns. His 67.7 completion percentage (44 receptions in 65 targets) led the squad. Shepard stepped up in key games and provided a quality big play threat when teams focused on Saunders.
Undervalued contributor on defense: Linebacker Eric Striker. The Florida native helped transform the Sooners’ defense with his relentlessness and quickness off the edge. Playing a standup linebacker who consistently blitzed on passing downs, Striker proved to be one of OU’s top pass rushing threats with 3.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss. He wasn't among the team leaders in tackles but he was always active when he was on the field.
Newcomer of the year: Alexander. The coaching staff had raved about Alexander since the preseason but his opportunities were limited until Nelson’s injury. He had 10 tackles in his first four games but had 19 tackles in his first start against Texas after Nelson was sidelined. He finished with 75 tackles, second on the squad.
Most improved player: Tapper. The defensive end stepped on campus as a raw former basketball star with plenty of potential. He ends his sophomore season leading the Sooners in sacks (5.5) and tackle for losses (9). His size, speed and quickness will make him one of the Big 12’s most feared defenders in 2014.
The true freshman has come a long way since preseason camp opened in August.
"I'm playing faster since my first start; I'm seeing things," Alexander said. "My coaches said my vision has gotten a lot better, seeing the whole play. I can see things a lot better with the more games I've played. I have a lot more confidence since my first game."
Alexander has been one of the most productive players on the Sooners' defense since Corey Nelson was injured against TCU. He has stepped into Nelson's role and recorded double-digit tackles in two of the four games, including an 11-tackle effort against Baylor last Thursday. He ranks third on the squad with 51 tackles.
"For a guy who has not been in the system at all until this summer he has shown great maturity on and off the field," defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. "He's a guy we can lean on and will be a strong player in this system."
Alexander has been a shining light during some cloudy days for the Sooners, who have lost two of their last four contests. And he isn't the only reason for hope for the future on the defensive side of the football.
OU entered the season with an inexperienced defensive unit, yet thanks in part to strong contributions from young, inexperienced players like Alexander, the defense has emerged as the strongest unit on the team. Alexander, linebacker Eric Striker, cornerback Zack Sanchez, defensive tackle Jordan Wade and defensive end Charles Tapper are among several freshmen and sophomores who have shown they can be the foundation of the Sooners defense in the future.
"All those guys show signs of building for the future," Stoops said. "I'm excited about all of our young players."
Striker is the Sooners' top pass rusher and has been terrorizing quarterbacks throughout the season. He has proven very difficult to block with one blocker in passing situations, and the sophomore is tied for the team lead with seven quarterback hurries to go with his 2.5 sacks.
Tapper has looked like one of the best defenders on the team at various times during his sophomore season. His strength, athleticism, quickness and speed could make him the nest great defensive end in Norman. He leads the team with 4.5 sacks and seven tackles for loss along with his seven hurries to tie Striker.
Sanchez has had ups-and-downs during his redshirt freshman campaign but has displayed the competitive nature that many stellar cornerbacks possess. He went from afterthought to starting every game of his first season on the field and should be a key contributor for years to come. He has been picked on throughout the season and has responded with a team-high 10 pass breakups.
Wade has stepped in for Jordan Phillips, who was lost for the season with a back injury. The redshirt freshman hasn't been the anchor or disruptive force that Phillips was becoming, but he has shown signs he could be a quality defensive tackle for the Sooners during his career. He has blocked two kicks and recorded one sack this season.
Several other youngsters, including cornerback Stanvon Taylor, defensive end Matt Dimon and linebacker Jordan Evans have had their moments, as well, during their true freshmen seasons and look like they could become the foundation of what the Sooners hope can be a championship defense in the future.
"I couldn't be more excited about what we are doing with a lot of these guys," Stoops said. "They show a strong desire to want to be good. They show a very competitive element. There's a lot to build on."
Here are five players who will have to raise their game to another level if OU hopes to win another Big 12 championship this season:
Quarterback Blake Bell. The Sooners' coaching staff is convinced Bell is the man for the job. If OU wants to get back into the Big 12 title race, Bell will need to prove them right. Or, if he can’t, either Kendal Thompson or Trevor Knight will have to improve OU’s quarterback play. The Sooners cannot compete for a Big 12 title unless their signal-caller becomes consistently good for a solid month of action. Before the season even began, offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said the starting quarterback will be expected to perform at championship level this season. Thus, the roller coaster production at the position must stop.
Receiver Jalen Saunders: OU needs a game-breaking threat on offense. And Saunders is that guy. The unrest at quarterback plays a role in Saunders’ lack of production and the coaching staff shoulders a share of the blame as well. But Saunders also shares some of the responsibility for the Sooners’ search for big plays in the passing game. The senior has caught just 25 of 51 passes thrown his way, a completion percentage of less than 50 percent. By comparison, Sterling Shepard has caught 21 of 31 passes thrown his way. Thus, Saunders needs to play better and the coaches need to be more creative in finding ways to get him the ball. If they do, Saunders has the skills to change games with his speed, quickness and elusiveness.
Defensive end Charles Tapper: Tapper has been one of the Sooners’ top defenders this season yet he needs to take his game to an even higher level in the second half of the season by becoming a pass rushing terror who makes offenses think twice before running his way. The sophomore has the talent to be one of the Big 12’s most disruptive defensive linemen but OU needs him more than ever with Nelson and Phillips out. He cannot regress at all during his first season as a core member of the defense.
Defensive tackle Jordan Wade: The redshirt freshman held up against TCU in his first start but recorded just two assisted tackles against Texas. With Jordan Philips set to miss the season, Wade needs to step up in the middle if the Sooners hope to get back into the conference title race. True enough, it doesn’t all fall on the shoulders of the 6-foot-4, 296-pound tackle, but Wade’s teammates along the offensive line have always praised the sheer strength of Wade so he may be best equipped to anchor OU’s defensive interior like Phillips did earlier this season.
AP Photo/Darron CummingsFrank Shannon is part of a defensive unit that is one of the best in the nation this season.
Oklahoma is back to playing the kind of defense that can win a championship. The Sooners are allowing 13 points per game, sixth fewest in the FBS and on pace with the Sooners’ 2001 team for the fewest points per game during the Bob Stoops tenure.
They rank ninth in the nation in total defense (282 yards per game) and are one of seven FBS teams that have not allowed more than 21 points in a game this season.
Last season, Oklahoma allowed nearly 26 points per game, its most under Stoops. The Sooners finished the season ranked 64th in total defense and 90th in rush yards per game.
They allowed at least 30 points in four of their last five games. Oklahoma’s defense hit rock bottom when it allowed a Cotton Bowl record 516 total yards to Johnny Manziel and lost to the Aggies by 28 points.
Oklahoma had -32.9 expected points added on defense last season.
That means that the Sooners defense contributed -33 points to its scoring margin for the season.
If their defense played average, they would have won against both Texas A&M and Kansas State. This season, the defense has added at least six expected points in every game by controlling field position, forcing turnovers and stopping its opponents.
How has Oklahoma improved its defense?
Getting off the field on third down
Oklahoma has forced a three-and-out on 52 percent of its opponents’ drives this season, tied for third best in the FBS and 19 percentage points higher than how it fared last season.
The Sooners rank 10th in the FBS in third-down conversion defense (27 percent) this season. That is a 15-point improvement from last season, when they ranked 74th in the FBS and had the team’s worst third-down conversion percentage in the last 10 seasons.
Opponents have posted a 10.8 Total QBR on third down against Oklahoma this season, tied with Stanford for eighth best in the nation and 30.1 points better than last season when they ranked 41st.
Controlling the line of scrimmage
Oklahoma allowed 1,658 rush yards before contact last season, third most for an AQ defense behind Indiana and Colorado.
The Sooners allowed 22 percent of opponents’ runs to gain at least five yards before first contact. This season, they are allowing 77 fewer yards before contact per game, and they have allowed the fewest runs (19) in the Big 12 that gain five yards or more without contact.
After struggling last season, the Sooners are committed to stopping the run this season. They are averaging 6.9 defenders in the box on designed runs this season, after average an AQ-low 6.1 last season.
Defending the deep ball
Oklahoma is allowing opponents to complete 26 percent of their passes thrown 15 yards or longer this season, second lowest by a Big 12 defense and ninth lowest by an AQ school.
None of the Sooners’ five opponents have completed more than half of such passes in a game.
In their four losses last season, opponents completed 41 percent of their passes thrown 15 yards or longer against the Sooners, which is 5 percentage points higher than the AQ average.
Who have been the biggest keys?
Three players in particular have come up big for this year’s defense.
Linebacker Frank Shannon leads the team with 34 tackles, including six that were within two yards of the line of scrimmage that saved a first down.
Defensive linemen Charles Tapper ranks fourth in the Big 12 in total pressures (hurries and knockdowns).
Eric Striker leads the Sooners and ranks third in the Big 12 with 11 total pressures.
Oklahoma plays its rival Texas on Saturday at the Cotton Bowl.
The Longhorns have scored more than 30 points in each of their last two games, both Big 12 wins. They are 11-1 since the start of last year when they score at least 25 points and 1-5 when they do not.
Defensive end Nick Kron, Iowa State: The sophomore wasn’t dominant nor did he have eye-popping numbers. Yet he recovered two fumbles in the Cyclones’ 38-21 win over Tulsa. He was consistently around the football and ready to pounce when Golden Hurricane quarterback Cody Green got sloppy with his ball handling on Thursday night. Kron added one tackle and one tackle for loss as ISU secured its first win of the season.
Linebacker Marcus Mallet, TCU: Teammate Sam Carter grabbed the headlines with his two interceptions but Mallet was a beast in the middle of the Horned Frogs’ defense. The junior had 10 tackles including four tackles for loss, one sack and one fumble forced in TCU’s 48-17 win over SMU. If Mallet is a consistent, productive player in the middle for the Horned Frogs, they should be one of the Big 12's top defenses.
Running back Charles Sims, West Virginia: The Houston transfer was overshadowed by the gutsy performance from quarterback Clint Trickett but led the Mountaineers with 157 all-purpose yards. Sims had 82 receiving yards, 60 rushing yards and 15 kick return yards in WVU’s 31-20 win over Oklahoma State. Sims averaged 6.17 yards per touch on offense. He's been the Mountaineers most consistent and explosive offensive player this season.
Safety Shamiel Gary, Oklahoma State: The Cowboys safety has looked like a different player this season. He’s been solid in OSU’s secondary and made several key open field tackles against WVU to keep the Pokes in the game. The senior finished with nine tackles, one tackle for loss and one pass breakup. Improved safety play is critical for the Cowboys as they look to rebound against Kansas State this weekend and insert themselves back into the Big 12 title hunt.
Defensive end Geneo Grissom, Oklahoma: The most overlooked starting defensive lineman on the Sooners’ squad, Grissom has been solid throughout the season. He lead OU defensive linemen with six tackles including 0.5 tackles for loss in OU’s 35-21 win over Notre Dame. Grissom has joined Charles Tapper and Jordan Phillips to give the Sooners a much improved defensive front in 2013. Now that they have gained respect, it will be critical for Grissom and company to continue to improve throughout the season if OU wants to make a BCS bowl appearance.
Note: Baylor, Kansas, Kansas State, Texas and Texas Tech had byes in Week 5.
September is the time when new names start to emerge in the Big 12 and prove themselves as players who will be key components of their teams' success. Here's a look at one player from each school whose season-opening performance might have been overlooked, yet they could become important playmakers for their teams this fall:
Defensive end Shawn Oakman, Baylor: The Penn State transfer could end up being a terror for Big 12 offenses this fall. At 6-foot-9, 275 pounds, he brings terrific size and athleticism to the Bears’ defensive front. He was extremely disruptive against Wofford, recording six tackles including 3.5 tackles for loss in Baylor’s 69-3 win.
Linebacker Jared Brackens, Iowa State: Against Northern Iowa, Brackens was one of the few bright spots in a disappointing loss for the Cyclones. He recorded 10 tackles and one sack,as he is trying to help Cyclone fans forget about A.J. Klein and Jake Knott. If Brackens continues to play like he did against UNI, the Cyclones should fell terrific about their linebacking corps with Brackens alongside Jeremiah George and Jevohn Miller.
Safety Dante Barnett, Kansas State: Lining up alongside preseason All-Big 12 safety Ty Zimmerman, Barnett could give the Wildcats the conference’s top safety duo if he continues to play like he did against North Dakota State. The sophomore finished with seven tackles including one tackle for loss and an interception. He was a shining light in the upset loss to NDSU.
Defensive end Charles Tapper, Oklahoma: Sooners’ coach Bob Stoops has been consistent in his praise of Tapper leading up to the season opener. The sophomore didn’t disappoint on Saturday as he was able to consistently get pressure on Louisiana-Monroe quarterback Kolton Browning in OU’s 34-0 win. Tapper had three tackles and one quarterback hurry in his first collegiate start.
Running back Desmond Roland, Oklahoma State: The junior could emerge as a solid No. 2 option in the Cowboys backfield this season. The buzz in Stillwater says he’s matured and found a renewed focus that should help him be an impact player in OSU’s offense. He had 10 carries for 46 yards against Mississippi State and saw extensive time alongside Smith and quarterback J.W. Walsh in the Pokes’ diamond formation.
Running back Jalen Overstreet, Texas: The Longhorns have so many explosive skill position players it’s unfair. Add Overstreet to the mix after his nine-carry, 92-yard, two-touchdown performance against New Mexico State. UT moved Overstreet from quarterback because the coaches recognized he was too talented to be standing on the sidelines, and now Overstreet gives the Longhorns another weapon to allow offensive coordinator Major Applewhite to be creative with his play calling.
Cornerback Kevin White, TCU: Returning All-Big 12 cornerback Jason Verrett gets all the headlines, but White was consistently around the ball against LSU. With the Tigers picking on him, he won some individual battles and lost some individual battles but held his own with four tackles, four pass breakups and a fumble recovery. White made a strong case that the Horned Frogs have the Big 12’s top cornerback duo.
Linebacker Micah Awe, Texas Tech: Awe could emerge as one of the key players in the Red Raider defense as a sophomore. He’s an athletic, quick linebacker who plays with a physicality that belies his size. He was consistently around the ball against SMU with 5.5 tackles including 0.5 tackles for loss. If Awe can make plays from sideline to sideline in the Big 12, he’ll become more than just the other No. 18 for the Red Raiders.
Receiver Daikiel Shorts, West Virginia: The true freshman had been the buzz of WVU’s preseason camp and backed up the praise he received by leading the Mountaineers in receptions in his first collegiate game. He had seven receptions for 63 yards in their 24-17 victory over William and Mary.
Coach: Bob Stoops (149-37 overall record, 14 seasons; 149-37 at OU, 14 seasons)
2012 record: 10-3 (8-1 in Big 12, co-champions)
Key returnees: WR Jalen Saunders, CB Aaron Colvin, RB Damien Williams, C Gabe Ikard, RT Daryl Williams, DT Chuka Ndulue, LB Corey Nelson.
Newcomer to watch: S Hatari Byrd. The California native was so impressive early in camp that the Sooners played him at three different positions in three days, clearly looking to find a way to get the true freshman on the field this season.
Biggest games in 2013: A three-game stretch could define the Sooners' season as they travel to Notre Dame (Sept. 28) before hosting TCU (Oct. 5) and battling Texas in the Red River Rivalry (Oct. 12). Road games at Baylor (Nov. 7) and Oklahoma State (Dec. 7) are the biggest games down the stretch as OU plays three of its final four games away from Norman.
Biggest question mark heading into 2013: It’s easy to assume replacing Landry Jones is the No. 1 priority. But the Sooners have three quality candidates in Blake Bell, Trevor Knight and Kendal Thompson, making the defensive line the biggest question mark at OU.
A lot of the Sooners’ defensive struggles in 2012 were rooted in their lack of a pass rush. OU doesn’t have proven playmakers at defensive tackle or defensive end but several youngsters like Jordan Phillips and Charles Tapper have plenty of upside.
Forecast: Watching OU's offense struggle to score touchdowns while Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel ran circles around the defense in the Cotton Bowl didn’t sit well in Norman. Coach Bob Stoops replaced three assistant coaches, adding new faces in the trenches with offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh and defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery joining the program.
Bell is the favorite to start at quarterback and could bring a run-pass threat at the position that was absent during Jones’ tenure. A veteran offensive line and a bevy of talented ball carriers, led by Damien Williams, should provide a strong running game that makes the transition easier for whoever is named the starter at quarterback. And top receiver Jalen Saunders is one of the Big 12’s most explosive players.
Defensively, the Sooners will need several young players to grow up quickly with just four starters returning. All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin provides a foundation for the secondary and will be counted on to slow the Big 12’s top pass catchers. Linebacker Corey Nelson hopes to have a breakout senior season and junior Geneo Grissom could finally fulfill his potential at defensive end.
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