Dallas Colleges: Cortez Johnson
Offensive returner ready to take next step: Sophomore running back Keith Ford could be ready to take the next step in the Sooners' offense. OU needs someone to fill the void left by departed running backs Brennan Clay, Damien Williams and Roy Finch, who combined for 4,824 career rushing yards in crimson and cream. Ford earned himself some carries as a freshman, but fumble troubles put him in the doghouse for a portion of his first season. This spring, Ford could lock down a major role in the offense with his power, decisiveness and quickness.
Redshirt freshman to watch: Defensive tackle Charles Walker was an unknown with an underwhelming offer list when he signed with OU in February 2013. But Walker was one of the guys who repeatedly earned praise during discussions of scout-team stars last fall. At 6-2 and 289 pounds, Walker moves like a much smaller man and could force his way onto the field with his play this spring and provide young, quality depth along the defensive line.
Most significant position battle: The battle to replace two-time All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin should be entertaining. There is no clear favorite among a group of talented cornerbacks that includes Stanvon Taylor, Cortez Johnson and Dakota Austin. This spring provides the opportunity for someone to step up in Colvin’s absence and become a trustworthy cover man on the perimeter of OU’s defense. If that doesn’t happen, the Sooners could be forced to account for a weak link in the secondary, particularly if none of the freshman arrivals in the summer (Tito Windham, Jordan Thomas, Marcus Green) proves they can slide into Colvin’s spot.
Key midterm enrollee: Linebacker Devante Bond already is making an impression during his short time at OU. An outside linebacker with pass rush skills, Bond isn’t going to replace Eric Striker in the Sooners lineup. Yet if he proves to be one of the best pass rushers on the squad this spring, Stoops could pair him with Striker to give Big 12 quarterbacks headaches this fall.
Question that could be answered: Will Trevor Knight build on his Sugar Bowl MVP performance? The sophomore ended his first season with a bang, leading OU to a upset win over Alabama. This spring will show if Knight is hungry for more and striving to play at a championship level every Saturday this fall, or if he could return to the inconsistency that hampered his play in 2013.
Question that won’t be answered until fall: Who will get the majority of the carries in OU’s backfield this fall? Even if Ford has an exceptional spring, there’s no guarantee he can hold off the talents of incoming freshmen Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine in the summer. The lone certainty is that there will be a bunch of talented options for running backs coach Cale Gundy.
No. 2: Cornerback
Why it’s important: The Sooners need someone to step into Aaron Colvin’s starting spot. Colvin was one of the Big 12’s top cover men in the past two seasons and helped a young defense exceed expectations in 2013. Replacing the three-year starter is easier said than done and the Sooners’ defensive system counts on its defensive backs to be able to hold their own in coverage.
Sophomore Stanvon Taylor: He started one game as a true freshman but will need to take his game to another level if he hopes to step into Colvin’s spot. He was groomed to be the guy but it won’t be given to him.
Sophomore Dakota Austin: He plays with a chip on his shoulder and has strong coverage skills but his lack of size (5-foot-11, 151 pounds) will always be a burden.
Freshman Tito Windham: The Sooners might have found a hidden gem in SEC country with the Mississippi native. He has the physical tools to insert himself into the competition.
Freshman Jordan Thomas: OU swooped in late to land Thomas but the key will be how quickly he transitions to college football. He’s a versatile defensive back who can play multiple positions.
Freshman Marcus Green: He could end up at cornerback, nickelback or safety in the Sooners’ system so it could take a while for him to settle in at one spot.
Best-case scenario: The Sooners use the spring to find a capable replacement, even if that means shuffling around the current secondary. Or Taylor rises to the occasion and locks down the position during the spring. He was Colvin’s protégé, has exceptional talent and probably the highest upside of any cornerback on campus.
Worst-case scenario: Johnson, Taylor and Austin have a competition that drags into the summer with none of them giving the Sooners confidence they can handle the starting spot. That would force the Sooners to search for ways to solidify the cornerback spot, which will be critical if they hope to have any success this fall.
Here's a look at the battle to replace Colvin:
Spring contenders: Sophomore Stanvon Taylor; sophomore Dakota Austin; junior Cortez Johnson.
Summer contenders: Freshman Tito Windham; freshman Jordan Thomas.
The skinny: The Sooners won’t be able to replace Colvin, who was the best player in the secondary for the past three seasons.
Nonetheless OU needs someone to step up at the cornerback position opposite Zack Sanchez, a FWAA Freshman All-American who started all 13 games in 2013. Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops depends heavily on his defensive backs to be able to hold up in man coverage so he can come up with creative ways to terrorize opposing quarterbacks. That game plan falls apart if there’s a weak link in the secondary that is consistently being exposed.
Taylor, who started one game as a true freshman, spent the 2013 season as Colvin’s protégé, watching in the background while preparing to slide into his spot in 2014. That won’t happen if Taylor doesn’t take his game to another level, beginning this spring. The starting spot is there for the taking, but he’ll have to earn it with several other talented cornerbacks on campus.
Johnson, who started against Kansas State and Iowa State in Colvin’s absence, would bring an upgrade in size at the cornerback spot. At 6-foot-2, 201 pounds, he brings a physical presence that is unmatched by any of the other competitors.
Austin could be the most competitive of the contenders, but his lack of size (5-11, 151) is a major concern. The sophomore will be able to hold up in man-to-man coverage, but he’ll have to prove he can overcome his size limitations and play like he’s twice his size if he hopes to earn the starting spot.
Windham and Thomas arrive in the summer and could throw themselves into the competition as true freshman. Taylor and Austin escaped redshirt seasons in 2013 so there’s no reason to think Windham and Thomas can’t battle for immediate playing time.
Prediction: Don’t be surprised if there is some shuffling among some of the returning players in the secondary to help fill this void. If not, Johnson emerges as the front runner after spring. He passed Taylor on the depth chart during the 2013 season, so unless Taylor takes his game to another level, Johnson will emerge atop the depth chart. But, with two talented freshmen on the way, the lone certainty is that this battle will wage on deep into August.
ISU’s 2.5 yards per play on third down: Mike Stoops defense was dominant on third down, allowing just 35 yards on 14 third-down plays while holding ISU to 5 of 14 third down conversions. Frank Shannon, Gabe Lynn and Eric Striker each recorded sacks and safety Quentin Hayes grabbed his interception on third-down plays. OU’s defense stepped up in those clutch moments on Saturday.
OU’s 212-yard margin in the third quarter: The Sooners gained 231 yards in the third quarter compared to the Cyclones' 19 yards as OU pulled away after halftime. Brennan Clay had a 63-yard touchdown run and Williams added a 69-yard touchdown run as OU put the game away by averaging 14.93 yards per carry during the third quarter. OU came out of the locker room with a different focus and execution, allowing it to impose its will on ISU in the final half.
OU’s pass defense expected points added: The Sooners pass defense finished with 7.38 expected points added, an ESPN metric which essentially means that OU's pass defense contributed 7.38 points to the win. They rallied after ending the first quarter at minus-3.14 expected points added. They added 2.39 points in the second quarter, 3.35 points in the third and capped it off by adding 4.79 points in the fourth. Playing without All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin, the Sooners' secondary was solid with Cortez Johnson and Stanvon Taylor each playing well in Colvin’s absence.
OU’s 3.73 points per drive: The Sooners averaged 3.73 points per drive against the Cyclones, including a game-high six points per drive in the third quarter. OU is averaging 2.21 points per drive this season and the Big 12 average is 2.06. Florida State leads the nation with a 3.84 points per drive average. It was the second-most points per drive for the OU offense this season behind its 4.64 average against Tulsa. Seeing OU’s offense be so prolific with Knight, a redshirt freshman, behind center could be an encouraging sign for the future.
In his first official game in a Sooners’ uniform, Metoyer was in a similar situation and, again, outfought the defender to make the catch in the 2012 season opener against UTEP. But the would-be reception went down as an incompletion instead as Metoyer was out-of-bounds when he made the catch after not running his route with the precision required along the sidelines.
In his first 18 months at OU, the sophomore receiver starred during the spring of 2012, struggled during his true freshman season and heads into this season looking to help replace Kenny Stills and Justin Brown in OU’s lineup.
“Success wasn’t coming to him the way he wanted,” receivers coach Jay Norvell said. “He was frustrated. He’s used to playing well at a really high level. When you walk in that door [at OU], you better come in here expecting to come and play, or you’re not really at the right place. That’s the kind of mentality he had walking in the door and when he didn’t have that kind of success, it was frustrating."
Metoyer entered the 2012 season as the Big 12’s preseason newcomer of the year and started his first four games in crimson and cream. Then, after Fresno State transfer Jalen Saunders was cleared to play before the Texas game, Metoyer tumbled down the depth chart, finishing with just 17 receptions for 148 yards and a touchdown. Ten of those catches came before Saunders’ was cleared in mid-October.
Yet, Saunders and Metoyer have become close friends, even spending time after practice during the spring to hone their skills. Saunders, a senior, has made a point to take the youngster under his wing.
“Last fall he was starting then kind of faded away from the offense,” Saunders said. “It hurt him a little bit because he was expecting a lot of things. He was taking himself out of the picture because he had high expectations and was feeling bad about himself. This spring me and him sat down and talked a lot, I kind of took him under my wing like a younger brother. I treat him like my younger brother because I want him to be the best out there.”
Heading into his second season in Norman, Metoyer is battling fellow sophomore Durron Neal, senior Lacoltan Bester and others to earn a starting spot at outside receiver for the Sooners. Metoyer's talent is readily apparent and his consistency is slowly starting to come to the forefront.
“I think it’s coming together for Trey,” Norvell said. “I think he understands our offense, I think he has been around our players and quarterbacks. He is getting to the point where he becomes more confident in what he’s doing.”
If Metoyer progresses to the point that Norvell considers him among the Sooners’ most consistent receivers and puts him in the starting lineup, Big 12 defenses might have to take notice.
“He’s going to be one of the best receivers, probably, to ever come through OU,” cornerback Cortez Johnson said. “Trey Metoyer has the best hands on the team, that’s why every play [during practice] I’m trying to go against him, trying to get myself better and get myself reps against an opponent like that.”
As the projected starter at cornerback opposite Aaron Colvin for the Sooners, Johnson should know what Metoyer brings to the table. He has had several one-on-one battles with Metoyer during the spring, summer and early in preseason camp, resulting in his high praise for the Whitehouse, Texas, native.
“He runs good routes, he knows how to get in your cushion, open you up,” Johnson said. “[He] has good footwork, great hands, he’s just a great player. He has a lot to work on still, but he’s going to be pretty good.”
2012 record: 10-3
2012 conference record: 8-1 (tied for first, Big 12)
Returning starters: Offense: 7; defense: 4; kicker/punter: 1
RB Damien Williams, FB Trey Millard, WR Jalen Saunders, WR Sterling Shepard, C Gabe Ikard, DE/DT Chuka Ndulue, LB Corey Nelson, CB Aaron Colvin
QB Landry Jones, WR Justin Brown, WR Kenny Stills, OT Lane Johnson, DE David King, CB Demontre Hurst, FS Tony Jefferson, SS Javon Harris
2012 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Damien Williams* (946 yards)
Passing: Landry Jones (4,267yards)
Receiving: Kenny Stills (959 yards)
Tackles: Tony Jefferson (119)
Sacks: Chuka Ndulue* (5)
Interceptions: Javon Harris (6)
1. Playmakers abound: The Sooners might have lost leading receivers Kenny Stills and Justin Brown, but there’s plenty of firepower back to support whoever wins the starting quarterback job. Jalen Saunders was actually Oklahoma’s most efficient receiver the second half of last season and seems primed to take over as the go-to target. The Sooners also have several talented up-and-coming receivers who had good springs, led by slot extraordinaire Sterling Shepard. The backfield is even deeper, with leading rushers Damien Williams and Brennan Clay back, to go along with Trey Millard, one of the top all-around fullbacks in the country.
2. Cortez will flank Colvin: The secondary was decimated by graduation and Tony Jefferson’s early entry into the NFL draft. One of those voids was cornerback, where Demontre Hurst had started the previous years. That void at least, however, appears to have been filled. Arizona transfer Cortez Johnson seized the job from the first day of spring drills, and has given the Sooners every indication to believe they’ll have a big, physical corner to pair with All-American candidate Aaron Colvin in the fall.
3. The linebackers will play: In a desperate move to slow down the high-powered passing attacks of the Big 12, defensive coordinator Mike Stoops pulled his linebackers off the field. The plan backfired, as opposing offenses ran at will over the linebacker-less Sooners. This spring, Stoops has renewed his commitment to the linebacker, which, ironically, could be the strength of the defense. Corey Nelson, Frank Shannon and Aaron Franklin are all athletic and capable of generating negative plays, something Oklahoma’s defense sorely lacked last season.
1. Who the QB will be in October: Bob Stoops said he would wait until the fall before naming a starter, and so far, he’s made good on his word. Junior Blake Bell took a lead in the competition during the spring, as expected. But sophomore Kendal Thompson and redshirt freshman Trevor Knight, who both got equal reps as Bell, played well at times, too. It’s hard to see Bell not starting the first game. But if he struggles against a tough September schedule, it’s not unthinkable one of the younger QBs would be given a shot.
2. How the new offense will fare: Looking to utilize the skill sets of their mobile quarterbacks, the Sooners will be running a very different offense from the one Sam Bradford and Landry Jones both operated. Offensive coordinator Josh Heupel kept most of these new plays - including loads of read option -- in his hip pocket during the spring game. But it will be interesting to see how the Sooners -- and just as important, opposing defenses -- adjust to this new era of offense in Norman.
3. Defensive line play: The Sooners went into spring ball with just three defensive tackles on the roster, and little experience at defensive end. The unit showed strides during the spring, with Chuka Ndulue making a smooth transition from end to tackle, and tackle Jordan Phillips coming up big in the spring game. But that was the spring. The defensive line will have to continue to grow rapidly in the fall for the Sooners to have any hope of improving from last year defensively.
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Schlabach has Texas as the Big 12's top team at No. 13.
"(Mack) Brown also believes UT's defense, which ranked 73rd nationally in scoring defense (29.2 points per game) last season, will be more equipped to defend hurry-up offenses after seeing one in practice every day," Schlabach writes.
Maybe Texas ends up winning the league, but that defense has to show me something more and the offense has to be more consistent before I really believe the league's best team is the Longhorns. Two spots later, my Big 12 favorite, Oklahoma State, makes its appearance.
"(Defensive coordinator Glenn) Spencer inherits an experienced defense -- 13 of the top 27 players on the defensive depth chart are seniors," Schlabach writes.
Good points there, and one that gets overlooked. It'll pay off for the Pokes, who actually moved up five spots from No. 20 since Schlabach's last update. Texas had moved up one spot, from No. 14.
Oklahoma, though, is at No. 17, down two spots from the last update.
"The Sooners have to settle on a starting quarterback (all signs point to Blake Bell replacing record-setting passer Landry Jones), but their biggest concerns are still on the defensive side of the ball," Schlabach writes. "OU coach Bob Stoops admitted this spring that defensive coordinator Mike Stoops (his brother) might have underestimated the strength of Big 12 offenses in his first season back in the league."
Very interesting revelation from Schlabach there, who made a visit to Norman this spring. I definitely agree about the defense being a bigger issue, but Stoops sounded optimistic last week about the progress of some younger players like Frank Shannon and Cortez Johnson.
The fourth Big 12 team is right at No. 18, down from No. 17. That's my Big 12 No. 2: TCU.
"The Horned Frogs learned plenty while finishing 7-6 in their first season in the Big 12. They know defense is still their strength, after leading the Big 12 in total defense, allowing 323.9 yards per game," he writes.
That's no small accomplishment, especially considering how their fellow Big 12 newcomer, West Virginia, handled the offenses. TCU had to deal with tons of injuries and a whole lot of youth on defense, and still had the league's best defense. Amazing stuff.
Schlabach's much higher on Kansas State than I am, keeping the Wildcats at No. 20 coming off their Big 12 title season.
"Kansas State is renovating Bill Snyder Family Stadium this spring, and the Wildcats' venerable coach is rebuilding his football team, too," he writes.
Certainly seems like we have differing opinions on just how well that rebuilding project will go.
That's quite a logjam, and you can see why the league looks so wide open. That's five Big 12 teams in seven spots from No. 13 to No. 20. There's just not much separation between the league's No. 1 team and No. 7 team. Baylor and Texas Tech won't have to do much to crack the Top 25 this season, but I still see the Big 12 with four major contenders and three teams who could definitely get in the mix.
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