Senior running back Damien Williams leads the Sooners' best position group.
1. Running backs: The Sooners are loaded in the backfield with talent, depth and versatility. Big-play back Damien Williams leads the way after rushing for more than 900 yards last season despite missing one game due to injury and getting only backup carries in September. Williams is a one-cut runner with excellent vision and should top the 1,000-yard mark if he can stay healthy. Fellow senior Brennan Clay has proven to be a savvy and reliable wingman to Williams. Clay is capable of carrying the load if need be. The same can be said of the intriguing, yet forgotten Roy Finch. Finch is a game-changer when he’s on the field, and the Sooners seem committed to involving him more. The Sooners have several explosive, up-and-comers, too, in Alex Ross, David Smith and freshman Keith Ford, the gem of the incoming recruiting class. What pushes this unit to the top is Trey Millard, who is the best all-around fullback in college football.
2. Special teams: New special teams coach Jay Boulware couldn’t stop raving about his return men during the spring, comparing them to the likes of former LSU star Patrick Peterson. Indeed, the Sooners figure to field one of the most explosive return units in the nation, with Finch and Clay back to man kickoffs and Jalen Saunders stepping in full time on punts. It was Saunders’ fourth-quarter touchdown return that ultimately ignited OU’s comeback win over Oklahoma State. Finch and Clay had several key kickoff returns, as well. Michael Hunnicutt, who has connected on 36 of 43 field goal attempts the last two years, has stabilized the place-kicking position. The biggest question is at punter, where the Sooners are replacing four-year starter Tress Way. But they signed junior-college transfer Jed Barnett to fill that role. If Barnett is adequate, this could prove to be OU’s best overall special teams unit since the days of Antonio Perkins.
3. Wide receivers/Tight ends: Position coach Jay Norvell has recruited as well as any assistant on the staff, and the talent here speaks to that. Saunders appears ready to become the go-to guy after a monster second half to the 2012 season. The Sooners will be moving Saunders from the slot to the outside, which will enable him to utilize his speed even more downfield. OU has the perfect complement on the inside in sophomore Sterling Shepard, who was terrific as a true freshman. Shepard will go from being the fourth option to the second, but, like Saunders, he looks ready to assume a greater role. After those two, Norvell has plenty of options to fill out the rest of his rotation. Spring game stars Trey Metoyer and Durron Neal will battle Lacoltan Bester for the other starting spot, but regardless of who starts, all three should play. The “X” factor is Jaz Reynolds, who is coming off a season-long suspension. If Reynolds continues to stay out of trouble, he has big-play capability to supplement the unit. Five freshmen, including last year's scout-team star Derrick Woods and early enrollee Dannon Cavil, will fight it out for the remaining one or two spots.
Standing on its own, the tight end position would probably rank last on this list. The Sooners are hoping that Taylor McNamara, Sam Grant and Brannon Green will be able to contribute in their second years on campus. McNamara, as a dual-threat; Grant, a blocker; and Green, a blend of both. If not, the Sooners can always swing Millard to tight end, which is something they’ll probably do plenty of anyway.
4. Offensive line: James Patton might be gone, but he exited the program with the offensive line in solid shape. The Sooners have excelled at protecting the passer. Now, the job of new line coach Bill Bedenbaugh is to give them the mentality to excel at run blocking, too. Bedenbaugh has pieces to work with. All-Big 12 center Gabe Ikard returns to anchor a unit that also includes returning starters Bronson Irwin, Adam Shead and Daryl Williams. Tackle Tyrus Thompson started three games, too, in place of an injured Williams late last season. The key to this group, as always, will be health. Ikard had a concussion last season and a broken hand in the spring. Shead averted offseason back surgery, but it’s still an issue. Irwin had offseason hand surgery and has dealt with ankle problems. Williams is coming back from the knee injury. If the o-line can stay healthy, it could very well finish ascend up this list. If not, it could very well too finish lower.
Senior center Gabe Ikard is the leader of the Sooners' offense.
5. Linebackers: If it feels a bit disconcerting that no defensive unit is in the top four of this list, well, it should. That said, the linebackers have a chance to be a standout position group – even if they barely played last season. Corey Nelson has All-Big 12-caliber ability. The problem for him has been playing time (Travis Lewis in 2011; the scheme in 2012). Coordinator Mike Stoops has committed to playing two linebackers regularly again, which means Nelson will be on the field. So too will Frank Shannon, who split time with Tom Wort last year. Shannon seemingly made plays every time he stepped on the field, which wasn’t often enough. Workout warrior Aaron Franklin can play either inside or outside, and gives the defense a third playmaking linebacker that can really run. Franklin said in the spring he believes the linebackers will be the strength of the team. They should, at the very least, be the strength of the defense.
6. Quarterbacks: There is talent there. The experience is not. Still, the Sooners like what they have at the position in terms of leadership, mobility and, yes, throwing. Until the quarterbacks show what they can do, it’s impossible to rank them any higher. Then again, if Blake Bell or Kendal Thompson or Trevor Knight performs like the sixth-best unit on the team, it could be a long year for the Sooners.
7. Defensive backs: The best player on the defense – and maybe the team – resides in the secondary. After that, lots of uncertainty. Cortez Johnson impressed the coaching staff with his play-to-play competitiveness in the spring, and all but locked up the starting cornerback job opposite All-American candidate Aaron Colvin. But Johnson is largely untested. So is everyone else in the secondary. Gabe Lynn has starting experience, but not at free safety, where he is currently penciled in. Current starting strong safety Quentin Hayes, meanwhile, was set to be OU’s third safety last season before incurring a season-long suspension. Such ambiguity could open the door for someone like newcomers Ahmad Thomas or Hatari Byrd to snatch away a spot. It’s a bit unsettling to think OU could be starting a pair of true freshmen at back safety. But also not unthinkable, either – which is why the secondary can’t rank high even with Colvin.
8. Defensive line: OU’s weakest position last season appears to be its weakest again. Chuka Ndulue is the closest thing the unit has to being a proven performer, and he is at a different position. Ndulue and Rashod Favors were moved from end to tackle during the offseason to compensate for OU’s paltry number of bodies in the middle. Jordan Wade, Torrea Peterson and especially Jordan Phillips progressed through the spring, suggesting OU could have a competent rotation inside. But even if junior-college transfer Quincy Russell ever makes it to campus (he hasn’t yet), it’s unlikely to be dominant. The Sooners are in a little better shape at end, which is why they felt they could slide Ndulue inside. Sophomores Charles Tapper and Mike Onuoha are athletic talents, and incoming freshmen D.J. Ward and Matt Dimon are highly touted. Whether the group thrives, though, hinges heavily on the development of Geneo Grissom, who is back on defense after spending half of last season at tight end.