NCF Nation: Brandon Caleb
Two have established themselves as starters just weeks into their first fall camps.
Kenny Stills, a freshman receiver from San Diego, has earned a starting spot over senior Brandon Caleb at one of the three receiver positions. Elsewhere, Trey Millard, a freshman fullback who played tight end back home in Columbia, Mo., has taken the starting spot away from 241-pound redshirt freshman Marshall Musil, who rumbled for 92 yards in the spring game.
Stills is hardly a surprise. He was one of the spring standouts for a receiving corps that struggled outside of Ryan Broyles in 2009, and Stills finished with six catches for 84 yards in the spring game.
Elsewhere, two more freshmen cracked the two deep on offense.
Joe Powell will back up Ryan Broyles at the SL receiver position and Bronson Irwin, who joined Stills as an early enrollee this spring, will step in behind Tyler Evans at right guard.
Three showed up on defense.
Safety Tony Jefferson, a 5-foot-11, 198-pounder who is competing to start as the Sooners' situational hybrid safety/linebacker spot, is listed as a co-No. 2 behind Jonathan Nelson at strong safety.
Nelson's move from cornerback to safety -- a formality for some time -- freed up a spot for Aaron Colvin behind Demontre Hurst at one of Oklahoma's two cornerback spots.
And Corey Nelson -- the nation's No. 3 linebacker and No. 62 on the ESPNU 150 -- who Oklahoma ripped from Texas A&M shortly before signing day, is behind one of the conference's best linebackers in Travis Lewis, who told local reporters last week that Nelson would eventually become better than him.
That's significantly more freshmen than you'd usually find on Oklahoma's depth chart this time of year. If any of the backups are forced to play, Oklahoma would surely deal with the inconsistencies that come with relying on freshmen, but Stoops also has to be encouraged by the potential his young talent has shown early in camp.
Each freshman should see at least some spot duty in relief of the starters, and any experience should make the future look even brighter than it already does for Oklahoma, who also currently has the No. 3 recruiting class for 2011, based on current commitments.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
As Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford surveyed his available offensive weapons last week , it was impossible for him to miss his large former target in sweats along the bench, propped up by a pair of crutches.
The loss of preseason All-American tight end Jermaine Gresham has altered how the Sooners have played and explain some of their offensive shortcomings during a disappointing 3-2 start.
Gresham was expected to be Bradford’s go-to target and the player who will help bridge the gap as a young but talented group of wide receivers developed confidence in the offense as the season progressed.
|J.P. Wilson/Icon SMI|
|The Oklahoma offense hasn’t been the same without tight end Jermaine Gresham.|
But Gresham’s preseason knee injury has ended all of that. It’s made the Sooners’ lack of productive receivers and tight ends their biggest liability as they prepare for Saturday’s game against Texas.
“Obviously, this is a different team,” Bradford said. “With Jermaine not in the lineup, it is a little bit of a different offense from last year.”
At this time last season, Oklahoma had scored 26 touchdowns on 27 trips inside the red zone. One of the biggest reasons was Gresham, a tall, productive receiver with the knack for getting into the end zone.
In Oklahoma’s first five games this season, the Sooners have converted only 15 touchdowns on 25 red zone trips. The Sooners' scoring average is down from a nation-leading 51.1 points last season to 35 points per game this season.
“Not having Jermaine impacts everything,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. “You’re talking about somebody who arguably is one of the top 10 to 15 players in the country. He’s a special player who was very important in the red zone. It’s tough because he’s a special player.”
And with Gresham gone, tight end has almost become a forgotten part of the Sooners’ offensive arsenal. The Sooners’ tight ends have combined for seven catches so far this season. Gresham had eight or more catches in each of his final three games of the 2008 season.
It’s caused the Sooners to look to their young group of wide receivers for production. And Ryan Broyles was one of the nation’s best early in the season before he sustained a fractured scapula early in the Sooners’ 21-20 loss to Miami.
That led to one of the youngest receiving corps in Stoops’ tenure playing last week against Baylor.
Brandon Caleb was Bradford’s primary target against the Bears, grabbing seven catches for 139 yards. And sophomore Dejuan Miller (five catches, 67 yards) and freshman Jaz Reynolds (three catches, 39 yards) both had their best games against Baylor.
“We’re getting better with more confidence,” Caleb said. “We’re getting a chance to play more and it’s coming a little easier for all of us.”
But the young receivers also had their struggles, combining for 11 dropped passes, including three in the Baylor end zone.
"I was disappointed in the drops, but again, I think a lot of that is just inexperience," Stoops said. "We've got all kinds of yardage and big plays if we'd just catch the ball better. I'm hopeful and I believe that the ability is there. It's just time, time on the field for those guys to make improvement and make those plays when they're there to make."
Broyles, who is tied for the national lead with seven TD grabs despite missing nearly two games, has returned to practice. Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said Broyles' shoulder blade has improved enough that there isn't a concern he could do more damage by playing Saturday against the Longhorns.
"I know there's not a sense that they feel like he's going to injure it worse," Wilson said. "It's range of motion and pain tolerance, how productive can he play."
Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp is preparing like Broyles will be back for Saturday’s game.
“He’s an electric player who is really special with the ball in his hands,” Muschamp said. “He’s a guy you have to account for when he’s on the field.”
His return is crucial, considering he is one of only two wide receivers, along with Caleb, with substantial experience in previous Texas-Oklahoma games.
But the young Sooners receivers say they are more comfortable after working with Bradford for another week.
“We’re just trying to get better,” Caleb said. “This is the kind of situation where guys are going to have to step up. One play builds on the next. It’s something we’re all going to try to do.”
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Here are five lessons we learned in the Big 12 this week:
1. Baylor's rush defense better improve. For all of the talk about Baylor’s offensive weapons, the Bears were beaten Saturday by a recipe that could prove worrisome once Big 12 play begins. Being gashed for 235 rushing yards by a Big East middle-feeder like Connecticut doesn’t sound good considering the Bears will have to stop backs like DeMarco Murray, Roy Helu Jr., Kendall Hunter, Derrick Washington and Alexander Robinson -- all in their first five conference games. Suddenly, all that talk about a bowl berth doesn’t sound quite so promising if the Bears can’t fix their rush defense.
2. Nebraska's killer lost opportunity. Bo Pelini will be kicking himself every time he watches the 12-second scramble by Tyrod Taylor on Virginia Tech’s game-winning play. But upon close examination, he’ll look back on a drive late in the third quarter that turned the game around. An apparent Nebraska touchdown pass from Zac Lee to Mike McNeill was wiped out by a Nebraska penalty. Two more penalties and a dropped pass led to a punt on a drive that should have finished with a makeable field goal attempt at worst. It was a possession the Cornhuskers couldn’t overcome in the end.
3. Landry Jones might be more ready for a Hurricane warning than we think. If you would have asked me late last Thursday night if Landry Jones could lead Oklahoma to a victory over Miami at Land Shark Stadium in two weeks, I would have been extremely dubious. Miami and Jacory Harris looked that good to me against Georgia Tech. But after watching Jones torch a good Tulsa team for six touchdown passes, I’m thinking he might be able to surprise people when the Sooners visit Miami -- particularly as Brandon Caleb develops into a productive No. 2 receiving threat behind Ryan Broyles.
4. Colorado's simpler defense pays off. There's a message in how Colorado played defense Saturday against Wyoming. After the game, Colorado coach Dan Hawkins said that the Buffaloes made things easier by running fewer personnel groups and fewer specialized situations. The result was Colorado’s first shutout in two years, punctuated by only five Wyoming plays of 10 yards or more. Sometimes limiting defensive demands works out better.
5. Texas A&M's receiving depth will have to carry the Aggies the next several games. Jeff Fuller’s cracked fibula will likely rob Texas A&M of its primary receiving playmaker for the next four to six weeks. But the Aggies have other options -- starting with Ryan Tannehill, who transitioned back to receiver and grabbed a team-high five receptions, including a big fourth-quarter TD grab against Utah State. And Uzoma Nwachukwu scored four touchdowns the four times he touched the ball. Fuller is the most talented and explosive of the Aggies’ receivers, but Tannehill and Nwachukwu provide them with pass-catching threats to get through Fuller's absence.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
NORMAN, Okla. -- Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops thinks that Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford has come back noticeably improved for his junior season.
Bradford broke Oklahoma single-season records with 50 touchdown passes and 4,720 passing yards last season, but he appears to have more confidence and a better deep arm after the first week of Oklahoma's practices.
|AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki|
|Sam Bradford has added 10 pounds on his frame since last season.|
"He's strong, he's quicker and the ball comes out that much faster," Stoops said. "With another year of experience out on the field, he'll think much quicker, too."
Bradford appears noticeably bigger after adding 10 pounds of muscle since the end of last year.
"Sam is getting better each and every day," senior wide receiver Adron Tennell said. "Throwing the ball, rolling out of the pocket, he's done it all. You can tell he's better than before."Stoops said there's little separation between his backups who are playing behind Bradford at quarterback.
"Those guys are still splitting their reps," Stoops said. "We keep snapping the ball and giving them experience. They are working well together and doing a nice job."
- Sophomore defensive back Jamell Fleming has been hobbled by a back injury and sophomore defensive back Desmond Jackson "has an issue with academic misconduct" that he's working through, Stoops said.
- Oklahoma's special teams have looked strong in recent practices. Kicker Jimmy Stevens showed improved range at Thursday's open practice with field goals of 50 and 53 yards.
Stevens' length is a big development for the Sooners. His longest kick last season was 42 yards and he shanked five extra points.
Stoops playfully chided about 300 fans who attended the Sooners' open workout Thursday night that they weren't cheering loud enough for Stevens' big kicks.
"They only cheer when there's an offensive play," Stoops said. "When the defense intercepts the ball they are quiet over there or when the kicker gets a nice 53-yard field goal."
- One of the early revelations of fall practice has been wide receiver/punter Cameron Kenney, a transfer from Garden City Community College.
Kenney has jumped into the mix at wide receiver and also is challenging for the punting position against Tress Way. It's a weird combination of a speedy wide receiver who also is a strong punter.
"He's pretty good," Stoops said. "He's shows a lot of signs (as a receiver), but he needs to be more consistent, but he's doing a lot of good things.
"He's punted well, too. It's very rare because you don't see a lot of wide receivers who can punt the ball 40 yards like he can."
Oklahoma receivers coach Jay Norvell said that Kenney reminds him of former Oklahoma wide receiver Juaquin Iglesias because of his combination of size and strength.
"It's because of his quickness, his way of getting in and out of plays and the fact he's very strong to the ball," Norvell said. "Cameron can also run well after the catch. He's a hard worker and the guys who work the hardest get better faster."
- Despite the loss of key playmakers like Iglesias, Manny Johnson and Quentin Chaney from last season, Norvell thinks his current group has the chance to be better than last year's productive group.
"I think we're more athletic and explosive than we were last year," Norvell said. "Whether that will correlate into productiveness, I'm not sure. But we have athletes and in that respect we probably have more deep threats than we did last year."
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
NORMAN, Okla. -- Considering all of the key receivers that left Oklahoma's team after last season, it's understandable why some aren't sold on the Sooners' returning talent at the position.
Leading returning receiver Ryan Broyles doesn't mind that at all. In fact, Broyles actually likes that many are considering his receiving corps as one of the Sooners' biggest positional question marks.
|Stephen Brashear/Icon SMI|
|Ryan Broyles will be one of quarterback Sam Bradford's go-to guys in 2009.|
"We've all been doubted around here before," Broyles said. "We just want to rise to the occasion and show what we can do when we get the chance."
The Sooners must replace playmakers Manuel Johnson, Juaquin Iglesias and Quentin Chaney from last season. That trio combined to produce 145 receptions, 2,368 yards and 21 touchdowns to spark an explosive passing game that catapulted Sam Bradford to the Heisman Trophy.
Their departure is expected to hamstring the Sooners' vertical passing game in Bradford's third season as a starter. But it's also bolstered the confidence of several players who are figuring that it's now their time to shine.
No player has been more vociferous this spring as 6-foot-4 senior wide receiver Adron Tennell, a senior who is poised to emerge as one of the Sooners' likely deep threats.
"I feel like I'm back in high school. I'm unstoppable and nobody can touch me," said Tennell, who has produced only 16 catches in the first three seasons at Oklahoma after struggling with a knee injury and talented teammates in front of him.
Tennell, known as "Pooh" by his relatives since childhood, arrived at Oklahoma as the most-heralded receiving recruit in recent history. One scouting service had him ranked as the third-highest recruit in the 2006 recruiting class, behind only Florida's Percy Harvin and USC's Vidal Hazelton.
But Tennell's development was stunted after he injured his knee on special teams late in his sophomore season against Texas Tech. The injury caused him to miss all of winter conditioning and spring practice before last season.
As the other players developed, Tennell's playing time diminished. He produced only nine catches for 68 yards last season.
"Being behind all of those guys who were here before me, I was hoping I'd get to play," Tennell said. "But when I didn't, I got anxious about having to sit and watch. Now, I'm trying to shine when I get my chance."