Dallas Colleges: Frank Shannon
NORMAN, Okla. -- Mike Stoops’ decision to make Oklahoma’s defense more versatile, athletic and faster has paid off this season.
The Sooners’ defensive coordinator has OU among the nation’s top 20 in points allowed (No. 19 at 20.1), yards per game (No. 13 at 326.4), passing yards per game (No. 10 at 182.8) and passing yards per attempt (No.10 at 5.8).
But this defense wasn’t built for Kansas State.
OU’s offseason changes were made with the spread offensive attacks run by the Baylors, Texas Techs and Oklahoma States of the Big 12 in mind.
“We’re seeing more bigger sets this year than we have in a long time,” Stoops said. “Compared to last year, it’s almost like a  the reemerging of the tight end is becoming the focal point of all offenses, now you have to bring bigger people in. We’ll have to make some adjustments to their big people and physical sets. It’s something we need to look at.”
OU will have to alter its base three-man front, bringing in bigger bodies like defensive end P.L. Lindley to help make the Sooners’ defense bigger and more physical, essentially making it a four-man defensive set to try to offset the size disadvantage.
“P.L. is a guy that we have to continue to define, he’s a good player,” Stoops said. “He’s a guy that makes us more physical at the point of attack in bigger sets. That’s where we try to implement a more physical player and that’s what we need to do. He’s going to be a guy that’s able to do those things as we move forward with what we’re doing.”
More importantly the Sooners will need to play solid, assignment football and must have freshman linebacker Dominique Alexander to continue to exceed expectations and fellow linebacker Frank Shannon to play well. Alexander and Shannon will need to show their versatility. Two weeks ago, they were dealing with the space and athletes that make Baylor so potent. Saturday, they’ll have to deal with fundamentally sound KSU offensive linemen looking to drive them deep into the Sooners’ defensive backfield.
“It’s not a 180. Football is football,” Alexander said. “They’re either going to run or pass it, and they’re going to do both on Saturday. They’re a strong and powerful team, but we’re going to prepare well for them and execute.”
Adding to the quandary is K-State’s use of quarterbacks Daniel Sams and Jake Waters. Both quarterbacks can make you pay with their arms and legs, yet are quite different in their approaches. Sams is the better runner, Waters the better passer but both have the proven ability to take advantage of defensive game plans that focus on stopping one or the other.
“It gives you a lot more to work on,” Stoops said of the two-quarterback approach. “It’s like they have two different offenses. It will take a lot more practice time and attention to detail to get familiar with the two different ways that they are trying to move the ball.”
OU’s defense has been the foundation of the majority of the Sooners’ success this season. If they hope to continue that trend, they will have to prove they could be more versatile than ever.
“It’s going to be fun,” Alexander said. “I like physical play. I like smashmouth football. That’s how I was raised playing. So it’s going to be fun playing the run and the pass. Like I said, it’s just football.”
Yet, realistically, a 5-1 record at this point in the season could be considered a lofty preseason expectation for a Sooners squad that entered 2013 with a handful of new starters on defense and a new quarterback under center.
OU’s hopes of a Big 12 title aren’t completely dashed as long as it starts to get consistent play from the quarterback position and a game-changing playmaker emerges among its skill position players. Saturday’s loss to Texas proved what we knew already -- OU can’t just lean on its defense and expect to cruise through conference play even though defensive coordinator Mike Stoops' unit appears improved this season.
The Sooners have suffered two big injuries with Phillips, a defensive tackle, and Nelson, a linebacker, out for the season. Nonetheless, the Sooners still feature the talent to jump back into the Big 12 title race in the second half of the season. But it won’t happen until OU develops consistent playmakers in its passing game to supplement a solid running attack.
Offensive MVP: Center Gabe Ikard. The senior has been a consistent, calm presence in the middle with the unrest at the quarterback position, which has seen Blake Bell and Trevor Knight both start multiple games. Ikard has been the anchor of an offensive line that has paved the way for OU’s running game, which is averaging 226.7 yards per game, second in the Big 12. Ikard's leadership and experience might be his most important contribution in the second half of the season.
Defensive MVP: Linebacker Frank Shannon. Phillips or Nelson could easily be considered the first-half MVP but Shannon has been just as consistent and OU will count on him even more in the second half of the season. The sophomore has 50 tackles, 18 more than any other Sooner, three quarterback hurries, one interception and a forced fumble.
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.
Here are some storylines, players to watch and a prediction.
Will OU continue its dominance? The Sooners are coming off back-to-back blowout victories over the Longhorns, winning 63-21 in 2012 and 55-17 in 2011. OU’s offense has averaged 7.02 yards per play during the two games while holding UT to 3.89 yards per play. Expect OU to lean on its defense again as the Sooners hope to continue its win streak.
Can Texas get it together? The Longhorns have the talent to cause problems for OU. A big play here from Johnathan Gray, a big play there from Daje Johnson and things could get real interesting at the Cotton Bowl. Add in a turnover or two and the Longhorns could pull a shocker on Saturday. Lack of talent is not the issue in Austin.
Which quarterback will spark a win? OU quarterback Blake Bell and UT quarterback Case McCoy each have experience in the Red River Rivalry, so they shouldn’t be completely bug-eyed on Saturday. Bell is looking to rebound after throwing just 152 yards against TCU; McCoy wants to prove the Longhorns still have a chance with him under center.
Players to watch
OU quarterback Blake Bell: The Sooners quarterback has played well while leading his squad to a 3-0 record during his time as a starter. Bell’s third-down efficiency has been outstanding as a starter; he’s 17 of 28 for 324 yards and three touchdowns on third down. If the Sooners expect to win their fourth Red River Rivalry in a row, Bell will need to play well.
Texas running back Johnathan Gray: The Longhorns running back can be a game-changing playmaker if he gets the ball. Gray has carried the ball at least 20 times twice during his career and the Longhorns won both games (at Texas Tech in 2012, vs Kansas State in 2013). Feeding Gray the ball should be the game plan, as he makes things happen for a UT offense void of playmakers.
OU linebacker Frank Shannon: A lot of eyes will be on Dominique Alexander as the Sooners look to replace Corey Nelson. Yet Shannon will shoulder a good portion of the burden. The sophomore will need to take on a more vocal role with Nelson out while continuing to make plays all over the field.
Prediction: Oklahoma 34, Texas 24. The Sooners take a early lead and play with a double-digit advantage for the majority of the game. UT starts to find a rhythm on offense late in the second half to score some late points, but this one is never really in doubt after three quarters.
Last Saturday in South Bend, that tradition came back to life. Spearheaded by their linebackers, the Sooners jumped out to a two-touchdown lead, then held off Notre Dame, 35-21.
“That’s how it’s supposed to be here,” senior linebacker Corey Nelson said. “Linebackers taking charge, leading the defense and making plays.
“That’s how it’s always been at Oklahoma.”
Well, not always exactly.
In 2012, linebacker became almost a foreign word.
In his first year back as defensive coordinator, Mike Stoops became so disenchanted with how his linebackers matched up with the fast pace offenses of the Big 12, he yanked them off the field altogether the last month of the season.
The ploy hardly worked.
To West Virginia’s Tavon Austin, Oklahoma surrendered 344 yards on the ground in a narrow November shootout victory in Morgantown.
In the following weeks, Oklahoma State’s Joseph Randle and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel ran wild over the Sooners, too, prompting Stoops to shelve the no-linebacker defense and go back to the drawing board during the offseason.
“Last year was a whole lot different,” Nelson said.
Especially for the linebackers.
During the summer, Stoops installed a 3-3-5 defensive scheme that so far has worked wonders, largely because he’s unleashed a corps of speedy linebackers who have proven to have a nose for the football. And opposing quarterbacks.
On the third play from scrimmage in South Bend, Oklahoma outside linebacker Eric Striker came peeling around the edge and slammed into the blindside of quarterback Tommy Rees. The ball popped in the air into the arms of Nelson, who dashed 24 yards for the defensive touchdown.
“They let me free and I had to kill ‘em,” said Striker, with a quote so brash the “Boz” would be proud.
On Notre Dame’s next offensive play, Frank Shannon backpedaled into coverage, intercepted a tipped pass despite wearing a cast on his right wrist and bounded along the sidelines to set up another touchdown.
Less than three minutes into the game, Oklahoma’s linebackers frenetically had propelled the Sooners to a 14-0 lead.
“The coaches are doing a good job of putting us in the right spots,” Shannon said. “Giving us good opportunities and chance to show what we got.”
And they've been doing it all season. Through four games, OU is giving up just 299.5 yards and 12 points per game.
And, so far, these linebackers are quickly showing they can hang with some of the best OU has produced. That’s no small feat.
Dating back to the days of Bud Wilkinson, every Sooners dynasty has included top-flight linebacking corps.
In 1956, Jerry Tubbs nearly won the Heisman Trophy as a linebacker and center. That tradition continued under Barry Switzer, who coached two-time, first-team All-American linebackers Rod Shoate (1972-74), Daryl Hunt (1975-78), George Cumby (1975-79) and Bosworth (1984-86), who also remains the only two-time winner of the Butkus Award, given annually to college football’s top linebacker.
Bob Stoops has coached two Butkus Award winners (Rocky Calmus and Lehman) and a host of slobber-knocking linebacking units. Calmus and Torrance Marshall formed the backbone of Oklahoma’s 2000 national championship defense. Lehman (2003), Rufus Alexander (2006) and Curtis Lofton (2007) earned Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors.
“You see linebackers all over the wall in this place,” Striker said. “These guys were for real. Real serious back when.”
But as Oklahoma defenses slipped in recent years, so did the position. The Sooners scavenged the country for linebacker help in their most recent recruiting class, but came up empty. Suddenly, a school with one of college football’s proudest traditions couldn’t sign a linebacker. But the way Nelson, Shannon and Striker are playing, that should no longer be a problem.
Oklahoma is playing some defense again. And one of college football’s Linebacker U’s appears to be on its way back in Norman.
“We’re trying to keep that going,” Striker said. “You want to keep that going.
“We want to keep it great here.”
Team of the week: Oklahoma. With their victory over Oklahoma State, the Mountaineers deserved strong consideration here. But by winning in South Bend, the Sooners delivered the Big 12 its best win of the year while vanquishing past demons. OU, which fell to 1-9 all-time against Notre Dame last season, controlled this game wire-to-wire in a 35-21 win. QB Blake Bell operated the Sooners' offense like a veteran in just his second career start. And the OU defense took it to QB Tommy Rees to force three first-half interceptions that allowed the Sooners to pad their lead. OU might have been one of the most overlooked teams during the preseason. After Saturday, the Sooners won’t be overlooked anymore.
Disappointment of the week: Oklahoma State. The Cowboys fell in Morgantown 31-21, despite being 18-point favorites. OSU sputtered all day offensively across the board. J.W. Walsh had a QBR of just 38.1 (scale of 0 to 100) and the Cowboys averaged just 2.8 yards per carry. The defense didn’t fare much better, allowing a West Virginia offense that had been completely inept to rack up 21 first downs. Dating to last year, the Cowboys have now lost three consecutive Big 12 games.
Big (offensive) men on campus: Sterling Shepard and Aaron Wimberly. Both the Oklahoma receiver and Iowa State running back sparked their offenses to big wins on the road. Shepard had five catches for 83 yards, and delivered the nail in the coffin to Notre Dame with a 54-yard touchdown reception to put OU back up by two scores in the fourth quarter.
In a 38-21 win at Tulsa, Wimberly produced Iowa State’s first 100-yard rushing game in more than a year with 137 yards on 19 carries. He added a 31-yard reception as the Cyclones came alive in their first win of the season.
Big (defensive) men on campus: The Oklahoma linebackers, and Sam Carter. Corey Nelson, Frank Shannon and Eric Striker came up with huge plays in the first quarter to set the tone for the OU defense the rest of the way against the Irish. On Notre Dame’s first series, Striker blindsided Rees from behind, popping the ball loose into the arms of Nelson, who returned it 24 yards for a TD. On Notre Dame's next play from scrimmage, Shannon caught a tipped pass and returned the interception 17 yards to the Notre Dame 32. The Sooners scored again four plays later on an 11-yard run by Damien Williams. OU rode the defensive flurry all the way to the win.
Carter, TCU’s junior safety, had a huge day against SMU. Carter had two interceptions, forced a fumble and recorded a sack in the Horned Frogs’ 48-17 victory over the Mustangs. For his efforts, Carter was named the Walter Camp national defensive player of the week. With cornerback Jason Verrett ailing with a shoulder injury, Carter might have to take an even bigger leadership role in the TCU secondary moving forward.
Special-teams player of the week: Jaden Oberkrom. In a complete downpour, TCU’s place-kicker nailed two field goals to help the Horned Frogs pull away from SMU in the second half. As the rain began to fall in droves early in the third quarter, TCU had the ball on the SMU 5-yard line trailing 10-7. Because of the rain, a botched shotgun snap resulted in a loss of 20. But Oberkrom made sure the Frogs came away with points with the 35-yard field goal conversion. Had Oberkrom missed, who knows how the game would have gone for TCU? Instead, buoyed in part by getting points off the drive, the Frogs dominated the rest of the way.
Stat of the week: Oklahoma State running back Jeremy Smith rushed for just 1 yard on 15 carries at West Virginia. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Smith’s rushing total was the second worst by an FBS running back with that many carries in any game in the past 10 years.
Quote of the week: "No doubt in my mind that we're a national championship-type of team." – OU running back Brennan Clay, after the Notre Dame win
It was over when: Facing a third-and-3 from his own 46 early in the fourth quarter, Blake Bell hit Sterling Shepard for a 54-yard touchdown pass in which Shepard simply outran Irish linebacker Jarrett Grace. Shepard then caught the two-point conversion pass to give the Sooners a 35-21 lead.
Game ball goes to: Oklahoma's defense gets to share this honor today. The Sooners picked off Tommy Rees three times and brought pressure early and often. Oklahoma was able to convert all three turnovers into touchdowns, including a 24-yard pick-six by Corey Nelson on the game's first drive. Frank Shannon's interception on the next Notre Dame offensive play helped set the Sooners up with a 14-0 lead not even three minutes into the game.
Stat of the game: During a contest in which Notre Dame finally established its ground game and got creative on offense by sprinkling in backup quarterback Andrew Hendrix here and there, the easy answer is turnovers. Notre Dame gave the ball away three times; Oklahoma gave it away zero times. It is sometimes that simple, as we saw last week in an ugly offensive game that the Irish were able to pull out against Michigan State thanks in large part to forcing the game's only turnover, which they turned into a touchdown.
What it means: At 4-0, Oklahoma has to feel good about its chances in the Big 12, especially after seeing Oklahoma State lose to West Virginia earlier Saturday. Notre Dame, meanwhile, will likely have to win out to make a BCS bowl game after falling to 3-2 on the season. The Irish's next test comes next week against Arizona State in Arlington, Texas.
The Sooners get the chance to prove it on Saturday when they travel to South Bend, Ind., for a rematch with Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish won the battle in the trenches during their 30-13 win over OU in 2012.
"If you go to the University of Oklahoma, you have a sense of pride," defensive lineman Chuka Ndulue said. "Last year, what happened in the fourth quarter, they flat out beat us. It's in the back of our minds, because we're prideful players."
Yet they haven't been tested like the Irish's offense can test them.
This year's Sooners defense was built with stopping Big 12 spread offenses in mind while remaining versatile enough to adapt to power running attacks if needed. Mike Stoops' vision for his defense will be put to the test by Notre Dame, which can spread defenses with multiple receivers and line up with bigger personnel to employ a power running attack.
So don't be surprised if OU debuts a four-man front for the first time in 2013. The Sooners have relied on a three-man front for the first three games, getting more speed and versatility on the field with linebacker/pass rush specialist Eric Striker. It makes sense for Stoops to bring Ndulue or another Sooners' defensive lineman to get bigger in those situations when Notre Dame decides to try to lean on its power running attack.
"We can get in and out of a three- or four-man front, that's not a problem for us," said Stoops, who spent the offseason talking about his desire for the Sooners' defense to become more versatile in 2013.
No matter what personnel or scheme changes the Sooners utilize, they will need better play from their defensive line and linebackers in the rematch. Better play could start with a different mindset. Asked what he learned from playing the Irish in 2012, Ndulue's answer was revealing.
"Dominate the man in front of you," Ndulue said. "You have to have the mindset that you're going to embarrass them, just be a dawg, be a D-lineman."
OU hopes to have a pack full of dawgs along its defensive front on Saturday, and defensive tackle Jordan Phillips could be in the spotlight. The redshirt sophomore is emerging as a quality defensive lineman and finally fulfilling the promise he showed during his first two years on campus, when teammate Gabe Ikard called him "the next Gerald McCoy". He has been a force in the middle of OU's defense to start the season.
"He's maturing, he knows he can be a very productive and good player," Stoops said. "Taking that next step has become more important to him. He's become a more prideful player who works harder and is becoming more consistent. You can see the light starting to go on, so we certainly hope he continues to work like he has, because he's perfect for what you're trying to do in there."
OU's linebackers entered the season with redemption on their minds after having a minimal impact on the Sooners' defense in 2012. This season, linebackers Corey Nelson (20) and Frank Shannon (19) rank 1-2 in tackles. They'll need to show their versatility and toughness against the Irish, as they'll find themselves in coverage situations on one play, then facing an offensive lineman in the running game on the next.
"I feel like they've showed that [versatility] the first three games," cornerback Aaron Colvin said. "Of course, this will be on a bigger stage, but I feel like they've done a great job all year, and I don't expect anything different this week."
Those questions will start to get answered on Saturday when the Sooners visit South Bend, Ind., to take on Notre Dame.
Rush attempts: OU will want to establish the running game and be much more balanced than it was during its 30-13 loss to ND in Norman last season. The Sooners passed the ball 52 times and ran 24 times in that defeat.
Why it matters: If OU’s rushing attempts surpass 35, that likely means the Sooners are having success on the ground, particularly on first down. Four- or five-yard gains on first down will increase the chances of second down rushes. One- or two-yard gains will not. If the Sooners can run the ball, their odds of winning increase significantly.
Tackles for loss: The Sooners need to play the majority of the game on Notre Dame’s side of the line of scrimmage. OU had two tackles for loss against the Fighting Irish in 2012 as Notre Dame was never really taken out of its comfort level despite starting a redshirt freshman quarterback in Everett Golson.
Why it matters: Mike Stoops’ defense has been much more aggressive this season with more blitzing and a one-gap scheme along the defensive line. Those moves were made to get more penetration into opponent’s backfield. If OU has five or more tackles for loss on Saturday, that’s a great sign. If not, its defense could be losing the battle in the trenches.
Tackles recorded by Sooners’ linebackers: OU’s leading tacklers after three games are Corey Nelson and Frank Shannon. Last season, the Sooners’ leading tacklers were safeties Tony Jefferson and Javon Harris. Jefferson and cornerback Aaron Colvin combined for 21 tackles in OU’s loss to ND last year, a sign that the defensive line and linebackers were subpar at best.
Why it matters: Nelson and Shannon have played extremely well, along with pass rush specialist Eric Striker. If Nelson and Shannon are making plays sideline-to-sideline and Striker is getting pressure on ND quarterback Tommy Rees, the Sooners defense will have the chance to dominate the game. If OU safeties Gabe Lynn and Quentin Hayes are making the majority of the tackles, that means Nelson and Shannon aren’t stepping up their game against the run or pass.
Red zone efficiency: People often talk about how the Irish came into OU’s house and dominated the Sooners in their last meeting. OU was 1 of 5 in the red zone in that loss, a negative state in a game that was tied 13-13 with just under 12 minutes left in regulation. Clearly, the Sooners weren’t that far away from leaving Memorial Stadium with a win. Worse yet, they were 1 of 3 in goal-to-go situations that evening.
Why it matters: Scoring points and capitalizing on opportunities decide games, particularly games between two quality opponents. The Sooners can’t expect to win if they make consistent trips into the red zone and don’t come away with points like they did in 2012. Blake Bell scored OU’s lone touchdown last season, so the Sooners should be able to come up with ways to use Bell's skill set to make things harder on ND's defense. OU was 4 of 7 in the red zone and 3 of 4 on goal-to-go situations against Tulsa on Sept. 14 -- Bell’s lone start this season -- but they’ll need to be even more efficient against the Irish.
Time of possession: There are several games where time of possession is irrelevant in this era of college football. This game will not be one of them. ND won the time of possession battle in 2012, as the Irish generally controlled the pace of the game.
Why it matters: If OU can control the ball and maintain possession, it'll help take the crowd out of the game, potentially making things a lot easier in Bell’s first collegiate road start. Obviously, if the Sooners can score five touchdowns on drives of two minutes or less to start the game, they’ll take it. But the much more realistic scenario is to try to control the pace of the game by maintaining possession, much like the Irish did a year ago.
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.
NORMAN, Okla. -- It’s hard to remember now, but just two springs ago, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops called then-sophomore linebacker Corey Nelson the “best player” on his defense and said “it’s not close.”
Nelson is a senior now. And, finally, it appears the Sooners are going to give him the opportunity to deliver on Stoops’ proclamation.
Nelson has reason to have fire in his belly this spring.
After a promising freshman campaign followed by that dominating spring, Nelson figured to be on the cusp of stardom two seasons ago.
Sporadic playing time since, though, has stymied Nelson’s development -- to the point he thought of joining fellow linebacker Tom Wort and leaving Oklahoma.
“We had conversations, multiple conversations, just throughout the season, just talking about how frustrated he was, and how frustrated I was at times,” Nelson said.
Those frustrations stemmed from the Sooners’ defensive regime change from Brent Venables to Mike Stoops.
While Venables built his defenses around his linebackers, Mike Stoops consigned Wort and Nelson to plugging gaps and funneling tackles to the safeties.
LUBBOCK, Texas – Coming off a disappointing loss against Kansas State, Landry Jones and the Sooners bounced back Saturday to destroy Texas Tech 41-20.
It was over when: OU safety Javon Harris intercepted a tipped Seth Doege pass and returned it 46 yards for a touchdown to put the Sooners up 38-13 early in the third quarter. OU led 24-13 at halftime, but dominated the third quarter to put the game away.
Game ball goes to: Jones, who rebounded with his best performance since losing receiver Ryan Broyles to injury last November. Jones completed 25 of 40 passes for 259 yards and two touchdowns. Most importantly, he took care of the ball and didn't turn it over once.
Stat of the game: Going into the weekend, OU ranked last in the FBS with just one forced turnover. But in Lubbock, the Sooners forced three turnovers, including Harris’ touchdown return. Aaron Colvin picked off a Doege pass at the line of scrimmage at the end of the first half to set up an OU field goal that gave the Sooners a two-score lead at halftime.
Best call: In its first three games, OU went with a time-share at running back, splitting carries between Damien Williams, Dominique Whaley and Brennan Clay. Against Tech the Sooners rode Williams, who’s been OU’s best running back. Williams finished with 126 yards of total offense on 14 carries and had six receptions.
Turning point: The Red Raiders took the opening drive of the second half to the OU 36 with a chance to cut the Sooners’ lead to a single possession. But on fourth-and-5, middle linebacker Frank Shannon sacked Doege, and Blake Bell punched the ball into the end zone out of the "Belldozer" formation six plays later.
Unsung hero: Shannon, who replaced three-year starter Tom Wort in the first half. Wort struggled again covering the pass, prompting the Sooners to go with Shannon instead. The redshirt freshman finished with a team-high six tackles and had the huge fourth-down sack.
What it means: The Sooners could hop right back in the Big 12 title race with a victory over rival Texas next weekend. And after that, who knows? The schedule is difficult enough to vault the Sooners back into the national championship conversation down the line, should they reel off a few wins in a row. Texas Tech faces a gantlet going forward in Big 12 play with four ranked teams, starting next Saturday against unbeaten West Virginia.
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