Dallas Colleges: Mike Onuoha

NORMAN, Okla. -- Oklahoma is dreaming of a national title run that would make its Allstate Sugar Bowl destruction of Alabama an afterthought.

If that dream turns into reality, the Sooners will likely have their defensive line to thank. As the defensive line went, so went the Sooners in 2013, as the group sparked the Sugar Bowl win yet faltered in OU’s losses to Baylor and Texas.

[+] EnlargeGeneo Grissom
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesOklahoma's Geneo Grissom is hoping to build off a two-sack performance in the Sugar Bowl win over Alabama.
It’s hard to imagine the defensive line taking a step backward in 2014. In fact, the group could end up becoming one of the best defensive lines of Bob Stoops' tenure after entering the spring of 2013 as one of the biggest question marks on the roster.

“It has a chance to be one of our deeper and better ones,” Stoops said. “Imagine that, in a year's period of time.”

Every significant contributor returns along the defensive line, including All-Big 12 end Charles Tapper, and the group should be boosted even more if tackle Jordan Phillips, who was playing at an all-conference level early last season, returns to full health after a back injury ended his sophomore season early. From top to bottom, it’s one of the deepest units in years.

“Yeah, no question,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said when asked if this would be one of the deepest defensive lines he has coached.

“You get Jordan Phillips back and we can go two deep and not really slide much. Tapper and Geneo [Grissom] are difference-makers, and the other guys will be difference makers as they continue to grow too. Chuka [Ndulue] is the old, reliable horse in there that holds down the fort, he pushes things to the other guys. They all work together extremely well. We have a unique group and they play hard.”

The bowl win over Alabama was a glimpse at just how good OU's defensive line could be. Crimson Tide quarterback AJ McCarron, who was sacked seven times, probably still has nightmares of defenders setting up camp in the backfield. Make no mistake, OU won the game in the trenches and hopes to continue that trend in 2014.

The returnees have proven to be quality Big 12 defensive linemen, yet their playing time is far from secure. The development and growth of several young defensive linemen has spurred Mike Stoops' belief they can go two deep without a drop off. Matt Dimon, Mike Onuoha, Charles Walker and Matt Romar are just a few of the young defensive linemen on the roster who have increased the competition.

“There’s a huge competition,” Ndulue said. “There’s a bunch of great guys out there, and any one of them could be the starting man. There’s just more drive because you want to play, so we just know that your job is on the line each snap so it just makes you play to the best of your ability. As the defensive line, we know that there’s competition every day. It makes our [meeting] room a lot better.”

At the center of it all is defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery, who joined the Sooners in February 2013 to jump start a disappointing defensive front. He has done that and more, proving to be stellar position coach after arriving from Michigan with a reputation as an elite recruiter.

“The defensive line is where the game is played,” Mike Stoops said. “They are very disruptive and that is what you need to have. [Montgomery] is very good with technique and he has a great relationship with the players, and that has all been very positive. They play hard and they play with technique, and that is where it all starts up front. They have been a catalyst for us.”

Few envisioned the Sooners’ defensive line becoming one of the Big 12’s best in 2013. Yet it was.

“It wasn’t supposed to be a very strong group for us a year ago, but they really flipped it and now it is one of the best groups in the country,” Mike Stoops said. “Again, hopefully we can get [Phillips] back and make this group even stronger. It can be a dominating group if we can get him back healthy and playing at the level he was playing at a year ago.”

Now the defensive line is looking to be called the nation’s best, with the goal of being the driving force behind a College Football Playoff berth.

“It all starts with the big guys,” Ndulue said. “If we’re not being dominant, getting driven back into the linebackers, it’s going to be a long day for us. If we’re playing on their side of the line of scrimmage, we can do something great.”
Oklahoma kicked off spring practice over the weekend.

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.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Knight
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesSophomore signal-caller Trevor Knight must show more consistency for Oklahoma in 2014.
Trevor Knight builds on his Sugar Bowl performance: After watching Knight complete 72.7 percent of his passes for 348 yards and four touchdowns in the 45-31 win over Alabama, it's easy to assume Knight will consistently match that performance in 2014. But what if he doesn’t? There’s no reason to expect the sophomore to take a step backward this spring but, even though his name is already being mentioned among the Big 12’s best quarterbacks, he won’t earn that spot until he consistently plays at a championship level. If Knight looks better than ever this spring, it’s a great sign for 2014.

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.

Opening camp: Oklahoma Sooners

August, 1, 2013
8/01/13
3:00
PM CT
Oklahoma is one of three Big 12 teams to open up camp today. With grass and sweat officially in the air, you know football isn't far off. Let's take a closer look at the Sooners.

Schedule: Oklahoma opens camp later today in preparation for its Aug. 31 opener at home against Louisiana-Monroe. The Sooners will host a fan day on Saturday, too.

Setting the scene: The story of the offseason for the Sooners is replacing quarterback Landry Jones and a host of defensive players from a unit that started 2012 strong but finished in disastrous fashion with rough outings against West Virginia, Oklahoma State and a blowout loss to Texas A&M. The quarterback competition heated up a bit more than expected during the spring, but Blake Bell separated himself a bit in the spring game, though he hasn't been officially named the starter ahead of Trevor Knight and Kendal Thompson.

All eyes on: Bell. That's going to be the story for a lot of Big 12 teams this fall. Everybody knows Bell is a physical presence, but there seems to be a lot of skepticism around the league about his ability to throw the ball. That skepticism seems to be rooted in an ignorance regarding his high school career. He's still got a lot to prove despite rushing for 24 touchdowns in the past two seasons, but Bell threw for 69 touchdowns and 15 interceptions along with just under 6,000 yards in his last two years of high school. Kansas high school ball isn't the Big 12, but the point is, Bell was recruited because of his passing acumen, and his ability to get some tough yards was simply a bonus. "Blake is a guy that does throw the football well. We have a history in my going on 15 years of having guys in quarterbacks that are really excellent throwers, and Blake fits that mold," coach Bob Stoops said at Big 12 media days last week. "We would never recruit a guy that we didn't feel would be a great passer."

Outlook: Oklahoma finds itself in an odd position of being something of an underdog. Not a big one, but this is the first time since the Big 12 went to 10 teams that the Sooners haven't been picked to win the league. Oklahoma did get eight first-place votes from 43 voters, and is second in the league's media preseason poll, but Oklahoma is not used to starting the season outside the top 15, which might happen.

Stepping up: The Sooners need major help on the defensive line, and might need even more with the lone returning starter, Chuka Ndulue, likely suspended for the season opener after an offseason DUI arrest. Last season was one of the worst defensive lines at Oklahoma in a long time, which was painfully evident in the Cotton Bowl loss to the Aggies. Oklahoma needs promising prospects like Geneo Grissom, Jordan Phillips, Charles Tapper and Mike Onuoha to start turning the corner. Getting juco transfer Quincy Russell officially eligible as soon as possible would be a huge help, too.

Breaking out: Jalen Saunders is likely to emerge as Bell's top target, but keep an eye on Sterling Shepard. He showed tons of promise as a true freshman a year ago, catching 45 balls for 621 yards and three scores. He caught multiple passes in 11 games last season, and drew comparisons to Ryan Broyles along the way.

Quotable: Stoops, on fixing the defense that returns just four starters -- "Definitely, in some of our schemes a year ago, we were more coverage-conscious, and it hurt us in the run game. We'll have to make some adjustments there. And personnelwise, we do lose quite a few guys, but we are very excited about the talent and ability of some of the young players coming up that we're still developing, still polishing, still trying to improve skills."

Weak and Strong: Oklahoma Sooners

March, 25, 2013
3/25/13
11:00
AM CT
Turnover is an annual tradition in college football, but with that, teams' strengths and weaknesses constantly shift, too. Today, we'll continue our look at the biggest strengths and weaknesses for each Big 12 team.

Next up: Oklahoma.

Strongest position: Offensive line.

Don't discount Landry Jones' experience and decision-making, but Oklahoma threw the ball 571 times last year -- more than everyone in the Big 12 but Texas Tech -- and gave up just 15 sacks, third-fewest in the Big 12. The Sooners have good depth at running back but not a true gamebreaker, and the offense still averaged 4.85 yards a carry, third-most in the Big 12. Oklahoma dealt with a ton of injuries on the offensive line and at the end of the season, was basically reduced to five guys who could play and depended on true freshman Ty Darlington at times, too. The unit loses tackle Lane Johnson, but Gabe Ikard is the Big 12's best offensive lineman and returns alongside Adam Shead, Bronson Irwin and Tyrus Thompson. This unit perhaps could have been better than it was in 2011, which is part of the reason you saw position coach James Patton shown the door in favor of WVU's Bill Bedenbaugh, but it should be a big strength yet again in 2013. I'd say it's definitely the Sooners' best overall position. The Sooners fought through the loss of center Ben Habern and guard Tyler Evans in preseason camp last year, and Evans is out again after injuring his knee this spring. Here's betting Oklahoma fills the void yet again.

Weakest position: Defensive line

If you watched the Cotton Bowl, you know all you need to know about this position for the Sooners. Texas A&M had arguably the nation's best offensive line, but the Sooners D-line looked like a bunch of high schoolers for much of the game, applying zero pressure to Johnny Manziel and letting him get loose for a record-breaking game in a blowout loss. The Sooners lose four seniors along the line, leaving behind just Chuka Ndulue, Jordan Phillips and Mike Onuoha as contributors from last year's D-line that helped Oklahoma rank just 108th nationally in tackles for loss and 94th nationally in run defense. Oklahoma needs a big upgrade at this position to return to prominence, and I'm not sure the answer to the Sooners being as good along the front line of the defense is coming anywhere but on the recruiting trail.

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