Oklahoma has a roster full of talented and experienced defensive tackles.

Jordan Phillips appears in line for a healthy return after his redshirt sophomore season was cut short. Jordan Wade was pleasantly productive in the middle in Phillips’ absence, and Chuka Ndulue can slide inside at a moment’s notice.

Yet Charles Walker might be the most physically gifted of the bunch.

The redshirt freshman had Sooners fans buzzing when he posted his 4.7 time in the 40-yard dash on social media during winter workouts. It was an early sign of the sheer physical talent of the 6-foot-2, 289-pound Walker. This spring, he has continued to impress.

[+] EnlargeCharles Walker, Quincy Russell
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiRedshirt freshman Charles Walker (left) has turned heads during spring practice and could figure into the DT rotation.
“He runs great,” coach Bob Stoops said. “He’s really picking things up. It’s too early to say he’s ready to go, but he physically is close. Now it’s just getting technique right and consistent on every snap.”

The definition of a hidden gem, Walker was a late addition to the Sooners’ Class of 2013. The Sooners battled New Mexico, Houston, New Mexico State and North Texas for his signature. His underwhelming offer list didn’t stop him from making an immediate impression when he arrived last summer, with the coaching staff recognizing his long-term upside right away.

But as talented as Walker is, it is far from a certainty for him to see the field in 2014.

“It is a learning progression for Charles,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “We are not seeing his full ability yet, and I don’t anticipate we will until next fall or he gets some more repetitions in this system. It is hard for your skill set to really show up when you are thinking all the time.”

Having veterans at the position helps the Sooners and Walker. Watching and learning from players who have proven to be productive Big 12 defensive tackles is a luxury for Walker, and one the Sooners did not have last spring. For OU, Walker’s presence ensures the veterans won’t get complacent with a talented youngster nipping at their heels for playing time.

“I think he is a guy that continues to improve, and hopefully by next fall, he will be part of the rotation,” Mike Stoops said. “But we have got all of those other guys back, so he is going to have to work his way, but he has shown great promise up until this point.”

The inexperience and lack of technique hasn’t stopped him from drawing raves from teammates, who consistently speak his name when asked about talented unknowns on the roster.

“Charles Walker is a beast,” said guard Dionte Savage, who battles Walker in practice. “He’s going to have a great career. He’s a great player, definitely a good player to go up against -- his moving ability and the way he moves his hips.”

We might not see it this season, but all signs are pointing toward Walker being a name to know in Norman, Okla., and, quite possibly, across the Big 12 region.

“Anyone that big and strong and fast, I think he will be a dynamic player,” Mike Stoops said. “Again, you are talking about a guy that has not even been here a year, so, you are asking a lot. Eric Striker was not Eric Striker until this year, if you remember right. Maybe that was our fault not playing him more the year before, but it takes a while, and hopefully with Charles that light will turn on and you will see him start to make more plays.”

Big 12's lunch links

April, 7, 2014
Apr 7
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This is pretty great. Bravo, Charlie Weis.
Justice Hansen could look back upon this spring as a turning point in his life.

The Oklahoma quarterback enrolled early to participate in spring football with his new team. And, with Kendal Thompson’s departure and Blake Bell’s shift to tight end, Hansen is getting plenty of opportunities to impress.

[+] EnlargeJustice Hansen
Max Olson/ESPNJustice Hansen, who was ranked No. 100 in the 2014 ESPN 300, could be the Sooners' backup QB this season.
The Edmond, Okla., native is showing slow but steady improvement during his first semester at OU, even though he’s being challenged in new ways on a daily basis.

“It’s extremely hard on every one of our players who come in here, but especially on our quarterbacks,” offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. “It’s extremely difficult. There’s so much thrown at you so quickly. Within six weeks of being here, you’re on the practice field going against guys that have been here, they’ve been through the system and understand the system.”

The Under Armour All-American and former ESPN 300 prospect's talent has been on display, but so has his inexperience.

“Justice coming right from high school has the biggest adjustment,” coach Bob Stoops said. “He’s really a talented guy with his arm and how he’s worked.”

Hansen is having the normal ups and downs of a freshman with good days and good throws alongside bad throws and mental mistakes. But, more importantly, he’s improving and learning from the setbacks.

“It’s overwhelming at times,” said Heupel, who also coaches the Sooners’ quarterbacks. “But the first four days before spring break you saw him get better each day. Since they've been back, he’s comprehended things even better.”

OU needs Hansen or redshirt freshman Cody Thomas to prove they’re ready to handle backup duties behind starter Trevor Knight. Saturday’s spring game could go a long way in showing if Hansen is ready to handle the task or if he’ll have to postpone his arrival as a impact player until a much later date. With some much to learn, Hansen would have to be considered the dark horse candidate to earn the No. 2 quarterback role as he joins Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield, who is ineligible for the 2014 season, as lone newcomers to the quarterbacks room. Yet, if his development continues or even accelerates, he could be ready sooner rather than later.

“I think by the time you finish spring ball, you get through summer and you come back into fall camp, he’ll be really comfortable with what we’re doing,” Heupel said. “I expect him to grow leaps and bounds by the time fall ends.”

No matter what happens, the early enrollee has impressed Knight, who is the veteran of the group even though he’s preparing for his redshirt sophomore season. One trait in particular has stood out to OU’s incumbent starter.

“His composure, he stays really composed, it’s not a 'rah, rah' thing,” Knight said. “He takes constructive criticism extremely well. He comes in the meeting room and works as hard as he can and he’s answering questions, he’s done a really good job.”

Houston NFTC notebook 

April, 6, 2014
Apr 6
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video

HOUSTON -- On-again, off-again rain couldn’t put a damper on the Houston Nike Football Training Camp on Sunday, and three athletes -- safety Deionte Thompson, tight end Jordan Davis and offensive tackle Jerry Tillery -- earned golden tickets to compete at The Opening this summer in Oregon.

Seven players left The Kinkaid School practice facility with MVP honors at their respective positions: Skyler Bonneau (quarterbacks), Remus Bulmer (running backs), Gary Haynes (wide receivers), Erik McCoy (offensive linemen), Nikolas Daniels (defensive linemen), Spencer Choka (linebackers) and Deontay Anderson (defensive backs).


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Allen (Texas) quarterback Kyler Murray punched his ticket to the Elite 11 finals with an MVP performance at the Nike Football Training Camp in Dallas. Murray spoke about his performance and commitment timetable with ESPN's Phil Murphy.

Dallas NFTC notebook 

April, 5, 2014
Apr 5
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video
DeSOTO, Texas -- Rain flirted with the Dallas Nike Football Training Camp on Saturday, but held off long enough for seven athletes to earn invitations to The Opening this summer.

Quarterback Kyler Murray, linebacker Malik Jefferson, wide receiver DaMarkus Lodge, offensive lineman Patrick Vahe (Texas commit) and defensive backs Justin Dunning (Texas A&M commit), Will Sunderland Jr and P.J. Mbanasor. all earned golden tickets after stellar performances at DeSoto High School. Murray, Jefferson, Lodge, Vahe and Sunderland were named camp MVPs of their respective positions.


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[+] EnlargeBlake Bell
Alonzo Adams/USA TODAY SportsBlake Bell, who is attempting to transition from quarterback to tight end, will miss the rest of Oklahoma's spring practice with a knee injury.

NORMAN, Okla. -- Blake Bell's transition to tight end has undergone a setback.

The former Oklahoma quarterback suffered a knee sprain this week and will miss the rest of the Sooners' practice, a source confirmed to ESPN.com.

The injury, however, is not expected to require surgery, and Bell should be ready to rejoin the Sooners on the field in time for the preseason in August.

Bell started eight games at quarterback as a junior last season but eventually lost the job to freshman Trevor Knight, who led the Sooners to a win over Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

Instead of transferring or backing up Knight, the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Bell asked to try out tight end this spring. Up until the injury, Bell had been impressing with his ability to get open down the field and catch the ball.

"Blake Bell has looked good," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops told reporters earlier this week. "He scored a touchdown in one of our team deals. He's got great hands."


(Read full post)


[+] EnlargeRed River Showdown
ESPNThe Oklahoma-Texas matchup will now be known as the AT&T Red River Showdown.

The annual game pitting Oklahoma and Texas is going through a rebranding.

The schools jointly announced Friday that the matchup formerly called the "Red River Rivalry" will now be referred to as the AT&T Red River Showdown.

Next season will be the 109th meeting between the Longhorns and Sooners, who have been playing each other at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas since 1929.

For years, the game had been dubbed the Red River Shootout, until it underwent its first name change in 2005 to the Red River Rivalry to commemorate the 100th meeting between the programs.

AT&T became a sponsor of the game the following year.


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Big 12 lunchtime links

April, 4, 2014
Apr 4
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A bad day for Ball State.
Spring football at Oklahoma provides opportunities for players to make a move and become names to know for the future. It's also a opportunity for us to decode what the coaches and players have to say. So let's take a shot at it. Here’s a look at some things that have been said, and what it could mean for the future:

[+] EnlargeTrevor Knight
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesHow good can Trevor Knight be for the Sooners in 2014?
Offensive coordinator Josh Heupel on the quarterback’s progress: “They’re all young. I mean Trevor [Knight] is heading into his second year. The rest of those guys have been out of high school less than 12 months. They’re all young so they make some mistakes, some simple things that you’d like them to make sometimes.”

What it could mean: Let’s settle down on the Trevor Knight hype. The Sooners, understandably, would want to slow down the hype machine on Knight, who has been called, in some circles, one of the best young quarterbacks in the nation. And it’s mostly based off one exceptional game.

Every time Heupel is asked about the quarterbacks behind Knight, he reminds everyone that Knight is approaching his redshirt sophomore season and is still a young player. It’s smart of Heupel to put a damper on expectations because it would be nearly impossible to match his Sugar Bowl performance on a weekly basis this fall, particularly since Knight is in line to make just the sixth start of his career against Louisiana Tech on Aug. 30.

Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops on the depth at safety: “We are playing a walk-on as our backup No. 2 safety, so there is going to be opportunities, and hopefully those guys will come in and produce for us. They are going to have to.”

What it could mean: Steven Parker, you better be ready to play. Parker, an ESPN 300 safety and one of the headliners of OU’s recruiting class, has the talent to make an immediate impact. Stoops' words show OU will need him to help right away. It’s not crazy to think he could work his way into the starting lineup but he should, at the very least, make an appearance on the two-deep this fall. Stoops didn't call Parker out by name, but Parker needs to be prepared.

Charles Tapper on the Sooners’ overall approach: “This is a new year, a new season and a new beginning. We have to keep that same chip we had on our shoulder all last year and just keep getting better.”

What it could mean: This could be the most important thing that was said so far this spring. The Sooners had a major chip on their shoulder heading into the Allstate Sugar Bowl, and Alabama paid the price in a 45-31 Sooners win. If OU players and coaches keep the same chip on their shoulder and same hunger they carried into the final stretch of 2013, they could make a national title run in 2014.

Mike Stoops on replacing Aaron Colvin at cornerback: “All three of them [Stanvon Taylor, Dakota Austin and Cortez Johnson] have improvement to make, but they are getting better. They are working at it and just need to be more consistent. There is too much up and down, one good play and one bad play.”

What it could mean: Freshmen Jordan Thomas and Tito Windham could have an opportunity to make an immediate impact, just like Parker. While the cornerback situation is not as dire at the safety spot, Thomas and Windham could play their way onto the field with strong summer and August performances. The three competitors this spring are inexperienced but talented, yet they clearly aren’t as consistent as Stoops would like to see.

Bob Stoops on leadership:Daryl [Williams] has been awesome with the whole team and offense and has really taken hold of that in the weight room and in our workouts and here at practice.”

What it could mean: Any time Stoops is asked about leadership, Williams comes to his mind immediately. The OU coach is hoping Williams takes a role similar to Gabe Ikard, whose leadership was critical during the Sooners’ Sugar Bowl run. The similarities are striking, with Williams entering his senior season with a ton of experience and being considered the cornerstone of the offensive line. Whether it’s Williams or someone else, it will be critical for the Sooners to have good leadership and veterans policing the locker room if they hope to be in title contention this fall.
We've done something different with Friday's Big 12 mailbag. From now on, we'll be including Twitter questions with the regular mailbag submissions. To send a mailbag question via Twitter going forward, simply include the hashtag #big12mailbag. You can also still send in questions and comments to the mailbag here, too.

To the 'bag...
Trotter: Right away? Very little chance. The TCU coaching staff seems to be relatively content with the way Trevone Boykin has performed in the new offense this spring. Down the line, Foster Sawyer or Grayson Muehlstein could get a shot, especially if Boykin struggles or the offense bogs down like it did last year. But I feel fairly confident Boykin will open as TCU's starter.
Trotter: I don't think there's any doubt that running back Alex Ross has created the most buzz this spring among the young offensive players not named Trevor Knight. The assumption around Norman was Keith Ford would swiftly win the starting job after contributing to the running back rotation ahead of Ross last season despite being a year younger. But Ross has turned heads in the Sooners' closed scrimmages, and is carving out a role in the OU backfield, whether he starts or not.
Trotter: I got out of the business of predicting verbal commitments a long time ago. But I will say this: having Jarrett Stidham, the nation's No. 1 dual-threat QB, already on board is going to make a huge difference for the Red Raiders in a bunch of these battles. He will prove to be an invaluable recruiter, and should sway several high-profile prospects out there to give Texas Tech a second and third look it might not get otherwise.
Trotter: Odds are the Cowboys lose to the defending national champs no matter who they start at quarterback. I doubt J.W. Walsh would lose the job (assuming he starts) based on that one game alone. Daxx Garman has been impressive this spring, and I love the potential of Mason Rudolph. But it could take a while for either to unseat Walsh, whose experience trumps all right now.
Trotter: The three guys I'd be watching for would be safety Steven Parker II, slot receiver Michiah Quick and running back Joe Mixon. The Sooners are in good shape at safety, but blue-chip true freshmen like Parker II have a history of playing immediately in the secondary in the Bob Stoops era. Sterling Shepard is going to need help at receiver, and Quick has the explosiveness to break into the rotation right away. Mixon was one of the best running back recruits in the country, and is probably too talented to redshirt.

YK Lee in Fort Wort, Texas, writes: On College Football Live, comments were made that the Big 12 champ (if OU or Baylor) would be in trouble for the playoffs due to non-conference schedules. But no mention was made of Alabama's non-conference schedule, which includes an FCS team. Why does ESPN seem to have a bone to pick against the Big 12?

Trotter: Are we seriously going to do this every week? To recap from last Friday, here's who else Alabama has scheduled out-of-conference the last five years: West Virginia, Virginia Tech, Michigan, Penn State and Clemson. Alabama also plays in the toughest conference in college football. There's just no comparison between Alabama's schedule and Baylor's. And while I didn't see it, I'm sure the gist of the College Football Live segment was to point out that a one-loss Baylor has virtually no shot of advancing to the College Football Playoff against, say, a second SEC team with the same record, due to the Bears' lackluster non-conference scheduling, which includes just one opponent (Duke) from the Pac-12, SEC, Big Ten or ACC up to 2019.

ImFasterThanYa writes: Will a Big 12 ref throw a flag when I run through the end zone after scoring a touchdown because it takes several steps for me to turn off the engines?

Trotter: Tyreek Hill could score as many touchdowns as Forest Gump did that one year for Alabama. As you imply, the Oklahoma State transfer can flat out fly.

Katie in Sugar Land, Texas, writes: I love the new Big 12, but I feel we need more rivalries. Texas-Oklahoma is a staple of the conference. But what else is there? After all, great rivalries are the major mark of a great conference.

Trotter: Bedlam has become a great rivalry. But you're right, conference realignment has pretty much destroyed all the other notable ones in the league (Texas-Texas A&M, Oklahoma-Nebraska, Kansas-Missouri, Texas Tech-Texas A&M, Kansas State-Nebraska). This has really hurt the league, but what can be done? College football rivalries aren't forged overnight.

Big 12 lunchtime links

April, 3, 2014
Apr 3
12:00
PM ET
He was onsides, right?
Mike Stoops wasn’t happy with the style of Oklahoma’s defense last season.

The Sooners created problems for Big 12 offenses with their speed and aggressiveness in 2013, but they didn’t bring the physical style that Stoops wanted at various times during the 11-2 season.

[+] EnlargeMike Stoops
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsOklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops wants the Sooners' 3-4 defense to be more physical.
“I think at times we weren’t as physical as we needed to be,” Stoops said. “And to learn how to become more physical is really what we needed to do in games we didn’t play well against the run.”

Run defense was a big factor in losses to Baylor and Texas last season. The Sooners allowed 510 combined rushing yards in those games, allowing 255 rushing yards in each loss and 4.47 yards per carry in those two outings. In the Sooners' 11 victories, the run defense allowed 116.27 rushing yards per game and 3.96 yards per rush.

Those struggles weren’t entirely unexpected. With the Sooners' move to a 3-4 defense, the natural move for the offense was to test the physicality of a defense that had one fewer defensive lineman on the field than it did in 2012.

A focus this spring has been on OU’s defense becoming more physical to handle the offenses that turn to their running game to help handle the speedy and aggressive Sooners defenders.

“There is some schematics, but I think a lot of it is just being more physical at the point of attack and learning how to play tight end sets,” Stoops said. “We never saw them two years ago, as you remember. It was all four and three wides; we never saw a tight end. Last year we probably saw a tight end 80 percent of the time, and the year before, 80 percent we did not see a tight end. So, it was a new evolution, learning how to play some of the power-run game in this defense.”

It’s all a part of the chess match. Tight ends make it easier to try to take advantage of OU’s 3-4 system and Stoops believes the position is starting to see a renaissance as defenses have adjusted to trying to defend the spread and get after the quarterback. A tight end adds another body along the offensive line, bringing more blocking power while at the same time pushing speedy pass rushers such as Eric Striker further from the quarterback.

“I think it is protecting the edges or along the edges and trying to know where you are coming from,” Stoops said about seeing more personnel packages that feature a tight end. “This defense gives you versatility and angles different in the ways that you can bring pressure. So, they were trying to widen the edges. Eric is such a good rusher and if you give him a small edge, as you saw in the bowl game, even against great players, he can create havoc. Now they try to push him out and make a little longer edges.”

Stoops expects to see more of the same this fall as offenses try to help offensive linemen who are at a disadvantage against OU’s pass rushers.

“That would be a thing that I would anticipate more of,” Stoops said. “I think a lot of football is evolving back to the tight ends. I may be wrong and I haven’t studied it, but we just try to defend what we get. It seems like the tight end is coming back.”

The chess match never ends.
Last year, just a pair of true freshmen received votes for Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year honors: Iowa State cornerback Nigel Tribune and the winner of the award, Oklahoma linebacker Dominique Alexander.

This year, the immediate impact from the incoming freshman class could be much greater. Collectively, the league signed 11 defensive players ranked in the ESPN 300. And several could vie for time from the moment they step on campus.

But who among them will make the biggest impact? There are some notable contenders.

Nigel Bethel II was the gem of the Texas Tech recruiting class, and he fits the profile of an instant-impact recruit. A four-star signee out of Miami whom Tech flipped from the University of Miami late in the recruiting window, Bethel II brings a level of speed the Red Raiders just don’t possess elsewhere on defense. Given that two-year starter Bruce Jones is gone, the opportunity for playing time at corner is there for Bethel, too.

Playing-time opportunities are also there for Oklahoma State linebacker Gyasi Akem. The Cowboys graduated three key linebackers, including starters Shaun Lewis and Caleb Lavey. With the lone returning starter, Ryan Simmons, moving to the middle this spring, the Cowboys have a hole on the weak side. Akem, who was Oklahoma State’s top defensive signee, has the closing speed and physicality to help fill it.

SportsNation

Which of these defenders will have the biggest impact as true freshmen?

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Discuss (Total votes: 4,720)

Steven Parker II, Oklahoma's top defensive recruit, also might carve out a role rather quickly. The safety out of Jenks, Okla., could help the Sooners replace another safety from Jenks (Gabe Lynn). Oklahoma has some other intriguing young defenders vying for time at the back end of their defense, notably Ahmad Thomas and Hatari Byrd. But Parker has the potential to make an immediate impression.

West Virginia, meanwhile, returns both its starting cornerbacks in Ishmael Banks and Daryl Worley, who started as a true freshman. But it won’t be easy keeping Dravon Henry off the field. Henry, the top-ranked player from the state of Pennsylvania this year, had offers from Alabama, Florida State and Ohio State before picking the Mountaineers. He is a ball hawk who will bring a playmaking reputation to the West Virginia secondary when he gets his chance. That might come sooner, rather than later.

Henry, Parker, Akem and Bethel are all elite prospects. But the top-rated defensive signee in the Big 12 this year is Texas defensive end Derick Roberson, who was the No. 78 overall recruit in the ESPN 300. Even though he’s still slight, Roberson can get after the quarterback. The Longhorns are in terrific shape at one end with returning All-Big 12 performer Cedric Reed. Roberson has the skill set to break into the rotation on the other side in the fall.

Among a few others, any of the five above could make a huge splash next season. So we put it to you in a poll: Of Akem, Bethel II, Henry, Parker II and Roberson, which true freshman defender will have biggest impact in 2014?
1. Texas athletic director Steve Patterson made a compelling case Tuesday for the value of participating in college athletics, echoing Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany. They both said, in so many words, if you want to go pro, go pro; let college athletics be college athletics. I hope the difference is maintained, too. There is room to provide more benefits to college athletes without professionalizing them. But once an employer-employee relationship is established, the rules will change. Whether they can change without rendering college athletics unrecognizable, ay, there’s the rub.

2. Oregon has won 60 consecutive games when leading at the half, the longest streak in the FBS. Oklahoma is second at 42. Both are perennial national contenders with explosive offenses that can quickly make a game one-sided. But here’s the surprise: Kansas State is third on the list at 39 games. In the five seasons since Bill Snyder returned to the sideline, Kansas State (42-22, .656) has been good, but not dominant. Without dominance, I’d guess the streak has a lot to do with Snyder, mental toughness and a lack of mistakes.

3. Speaking of Oklahoma, did you see the Sooners’ April Fool’s tweet that Blake Bell had returned to quarterback? The surprise is that Bell actually finished last season with a higher efficiency rating (132.20) than the player replacing him, freshman Trevor Knight (125.00). What that tells you is how much Knight improved over the course of the year. He shredded Alabama for 348 yards and four touchdowns in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. In the last three games, Knight went 49-of-71 for 547 yards with 2 interceptions and 5 touchdowns for an efficiency of 151.34. That’s why Bell is a tight end.

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