- Brandon Chatmon, ESPN Staff Writer
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Oklahoma has reached the midpoint of its season, yet plenty of questions still remain for, particularly after the injury bug has hit Norman. Defensive tackle Jordan Phillips and linebacker Corey Nelson are out for the season, forcing the Sooners to turn to their depth to help push them back into Big 12 title contention.
Here are five players who will have to raise their game to another level if OU hopes to win another Big 12 championship this season:
Linebacker Dominique Alexander: The freshman held his own in his first collegiate start, recording 19 tackles in the 36-20 loss to Texas on Saturday. Was he perfect? No. But he gained a lot of game experience and showed he belonged against the Longhorns. It’s easy to see why the coaching staff is so high on the Oklahoma native. With Corey Nelson out for the rest of the season, it will be critical for Alexander to get better every game and use the experience he's gathering to keep from making the same mistakes twice.
Quarterback Blake Bell. The Sooners' coaching staff is convinced Bell is the man for the job. If OU wants to get back into the Big 12 title race, Bell will need to prove them right. Or, if he can’t, either Kendal Thompson or Trevor Knight will have to improve OU’s quarterback play. The Sooners cannot compete for a Big 12 title unless their signal-caller becomes consistently good for a solid month of action. Before the season even began, offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said the starting quarterback will be expected to perform at championship level this season. Thus, the roller coaster production at the position must stop.
Receiver Jalen Saunders: OU needs a game-breaking threat on offense. And Saunders is that guy. The unrest at quarterback plays a role in Saunders’ lack of production and the coaching staff shoulders a share of the blame as well. But Saunders also shares some of the responsibility for the Sooners’ search for big plays in the passing game. The senior has caught just 25 of 51 passes thrown his way, a completion percentage of less than 50 percent. By comparison, Sterling Shepard has caught 21 of 31 passes thrown his way. Thus, Saunders needs to play better and the coaches need to be more creative in finding ways to get him the ball. If they do, Saunders has the skills to change games with his speed, quickness and elusiveness.
Defensive end Charles Tapper: Tapper has been one of the Sooners’ top defenders this season yet he needs to take his game to an even higher level in the second half of the season by becoming a pass rushing terror who makes offenses think twice before running his way. The sophomore has the talent to be one of the Big 12’s most disruptive defensive linemen but OU needs him more than ever with Nelson and Phillips out. He cannot regress at all during his first season as a core member of the defense.
Defensive tackle Jordan Wade: The redshirt freshman held up against TCU in his first start but recorded just two assisted tackles against Texas. With Jordan Philips set to miss the season, Wade needs to step up in the middle if the Sooners hope to get back into the conference title race. True enough, it doesn’t all fall on the shoulders of the 6-foot-4, 296-pound tackle, but Wade’s teammates along the offensive line have always praised the sheer strength of Wade so he may be best equipped to anchor OU’s defensive interior like Phillips did earlier this season.
4dBrandon Chatmon and Jake Trotter