Oklahoma Sooners: Alex Ross
An exceptional Sugar Bowl performance, a young and talented defense and renewed confidence in quarterback Trevor Knight has the Sooners eyeing a national championship run in 2014. Yet, that won’t happen without growth at several key positions, starting Saturday when OU kicks off spring practice. This week we’ll make five spring predictions.
Why it matters: Ford could be the key to OU’s offense in 2014. At 5-foot-11, 205 pounds, Ford packs a punch even when he doesn’t have the football in his hands. His physical style of play earned notice on special teams immediately last season, and he showed he combines that mindset with determination when he has the ball in his hands. He didn’t have a stellar freshman season (23 carries, 134 yards, one touchdown), but the limited glimpses of Ford running the ball gave Sooners fans hope for the future.
What it would mean: It wouldn’t matter how quickly the Sooners' true freshman running backs, Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine, transition into college football, and Alex Ross' development would not need to be hurried. Mixon appears ready to make an immediate impact, but it would be nice to allow him to develop at his own pace. Perine could bring a physical, slashing style to the offense but, much like Mixon, his development as a complete running back will determine his role. And Ross is continuing to progress but hasn’t proved he should be a major part of the offense heading into his sophomore year.
Thus, Ford’s continued development is key for an OU offense that will need to be balanced if the Sooners plan to compete for a Big 12 title and national championship this fall. The way he forced his way onto the field as a true freshman, earning carries despite the Sooners returning three senior running backs, is a sign Ford could be a special player in crimson and cream. If he starts to fulfill that potential this spring, OU’s offense could be deadly as long as Knight continues to develop as well.
No. 1: Running back
Why it’s important: It’s critical for the Sooners offense to be balanced. Lack of balance hampered OU’s offense in 2013 but Trevor Knight’s Sugar Bowl performance gives the passing game hope. Now it’s important to find a quality running back who can keep defenses honest.
Sophomore Alex Ross: He brings a terrific size/speed ratio at 6-foot-1, 209 pounds, but he needs to improve his performance in all aspects of the position. This spring is his opportunity to show he deserves some carries in 2014.
Sophomore David Smith: This spring is Smith’s opportunity to prove he can make an impact as a running back. With two top freshmen poised to join the program in the summer, it could be the most important spring of Smith’s career.
Freshman Joe Mixon: The ESPN 300 running back is extremely versatile and could end up being used a lot of different ways in the fall.
Freshman Samaje Perine: Another ESPN 300 running back, Perine will bring a physical, slashing style to the program in the summer.
Best-case scenario: Ford and Ross wage a competitive battle to sit atop the depth chart after the spring. The duo could complement each other well and this spring might be the first glimpse at their potential together. Ideally all three running backs show they can help the Sooners because you can never have too many running backs.
Worst-case scenario: Ford continues to fumble, Ross continues to struggle to be a complete running back and Smith doesn’t look like he can make an impact. That opens the door for Mixon and/or Perine to skyrocket up the depth chart in August.
1. TCU: Honorable mention All-Big 12 place-kicker Jaden Oberkrom was 13 of 14 on field goals inside the 50 last season and drilled a 56-yarder late in the fourth quarter at Kansas State. B.J. Catalon was second in the league in kickoff returns and took one to the house in the opener against LSU. Freshman Cameron Echols-Luper took his first punt return 51 yards and had a 41-yarder in the season finale against Baylor. Brandon Carter has had moments in the return game in the past as well. Ethan Perry will be a three-year starter at punter, rounding out a formidable special teams unit.
2. Baylor: Corey Coleman led the league in kick returns, and Levi Norwood scored twice off punt returns. The Bears are loaded with potential game-breakers in the return game and welcome back All-Big 12 punter Spencer Roth. If Kyle Peterson proves to be a reliable replacement for departing kicker Aaron Jones, this special teams unit will have no weakness.
4. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders will feature a lethal one-two punch in the return game in Jakeem Grant and Reginald Davis, who took a kick back for a touchdown in the bowl game. Receiver Jordan Davis also has return experience. Kicker Ryan Bustin returns after garnering honorable mention All-Big 12 honors last year.
5. Oklahoma: The Sooners lose the most explosive return duo in the league in Jalen Saunders and Roy Finch. Sterling Shepard and Alex Ross could be among the players who replace them. Oklahoma boasts the league’s most efficient returning place-kicker in Michael Hunnicutt, who nailed 24 of 27 field goal tries last season. The Sooners have a secret weapon in Nick Hodgson, who led the league in touchback kickoffs last season. Jed Barnett, fifth in the Big 12 in punting average last season, returns as well.
6. Iowa State: The Cyclones had four players make first- or second-team All-Big 12 last season, and departing punter Kirby Van Der Kamp was one of them. Replacing his production won’t be easy, though incoming three-star freshman Colin Downing will try. DeVondrick Nealy, Jarvis West and Aaron Wimberly all had several dynamite moments returning kicks. Cole Netten was 13-of-18 on field goals as a freshman,
7. West Virginia: Nick O'Toole leads the Mountaineers on special teams. The “Boomstache” was 15th nationally in punting last season. The Mountaineers have all their returners back in Wendell Smallwood, Mario Alford and Jordan Thompson, though more big plays are needed from this group -- the Mountaineers ranked last in the league in both punt and kick returns in 2013. Josh Lambert comes back after making 17 of 23 field goals as a freshman. The Mountaineers also enjoy a luxury in Michael Molinari, who can do a little bit of everything.
8. Texas: The Longhorns lose their punter and their kicker in consensus All-American Anthony Fera. That hurts. Nick Jordan, who made nine of 15 field goals in 2012, could reclaim his job. Daje Johnson -- who returned a punt for a TD against Oklahoma -- Duke Thomas, Quandre Diggs, Marcus Johnson, Kendall Sanders and Jaxon Shipley all have experience returning.
9. Kansas: Return men Connor Embree (punts) and JaCorey Shepherd (kicks) both come back. The Jayhawks also return kicker Matthew Wyman, who connected on a game-winning 52-yard field goal to beat Louisiana Tech. The freshman, however, only made two field goals after that and eventually lost that job to departing senior Ron Doherty. Trevor Pardula was third in the Big 12 in punting as a junior and received votes for Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Year.
10. Oklahoma State: After enjoying All-Americans Dan Bailey and Quinn Sharp the last few years, the Cowboys were finally mediocre in the kicking game last season. Ben Grogan struggled as a freshman, making just 11 of 18 field goals while missing two critical attempts in the early-season loss at West Virginia. The Cowboys were also last in the league in punting. Oklahoma State signed three-star kicker Zach Sinor with hopes of curing some of those ills. The Cowboys were still dynamic in the return game, but with Justin Gilbert and Josh Stewart both gone, Oklahoma State could lean on juco transfer and track star Tyreek Hill for a jolt on returns.
Here's a team-by-team look at what to watch in the Big 12 this spring:
Spring start: Feb. 28
Spring game: April 5
What to watch: Who will replace Lache Seastrunk? The Bears' running back was the engine that helped keep the Baylor offense balanced and defenses honest. Shock Linwood will step in, but is he ready to handle the burden of keeping the offense balanced? . . . Baylor, the 2013 regular-season champion, has to find key replacements on a defense that is losing half of its starters. But several second-teamers -- including Jamal Palmer, Shawn Oakman, Andrew Billings and Orion Stewart -- are poised to fill the void . . . The Bears need to replace guard Cyril Richardson along the offensive line. Several candidates, including junior college transfer Jarell Broxton, will battle for the job. Baylor has arguably the league's best group of skill position players, but that will mean nothing if its offensive line takes a step backward.
Spring start: March 10
Spring game: April 12
What to watch: New offensive coordinator Mark Mangino arrives in Ames to bring more points and creativity to the Cyclones’ offense. The spring is the first opportunity for Mangino to get a feel for the playmakers and the players to get a feel for Mangino’s expectations . . . The quarterback competition is another thing to keep an eye on. Grant Rohach ended the season as the starter, but Sam B. Richardson could take his job back with a strong spring. And there are other young quarterbacks on campus who could insert themselves into the mix . . . Defensively, the Cyclones need to replace linebacker Jeremiah George and safety Jacques Washington, who finished 1-2 in tackles in the Big 12 in 2013 and finished their careers with 59 career starts combined. Iowa State seems to always have quality linebackers, so finding a replacement for Washington could be the defense’s top priority in the spring.
Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12
What to watch: Shuffling the offensive coaching staff has been the theme of the offseason. New offensive coordinator John Reagan, who was a KU assistant from 2005 to 2009, returns to the Jayhawks after running Rice’s offense last season. The spring is Reagan’s first chance to identify the playmakers who will be the foundation of his offense this fall. Expect wide-open competition across the board after KU finished 115th in the FBS in points scored ... The quarterback position will grab the headlines, with T.J. Millweard joining the competition with Jake Heaps and Montell Cozart, who each started games in 2013. Millweard transferred to KU from UCLA before the 2013 season.
Spring start: April 2
Spring game: April 26
What to watch: Finding John Hubert’s replacement sits high on the Wildcats’ priority list. The former running back carried the ground attack for the past three seasons, and there’s no clear favorite to step into his shoes. Will someone step up during spring football? . . . What will happen with quarterback Daniel Sams? The Wildcats have a proven Big 12 playmaker in Sams, a junior, and another proven quarterback in Jake Waters. Sams is an exceptional open-field runner who started two games in 2013, but look for Kansas State to start exploring ways to have both on the field together this spring . . . Replacing Ty Zimmerman’s playmaking and leadership on defense is another key this spring. The defense has to replace several starters in the secondary and at linebacker. Keep an eye on junior college defensive back Danzel McDaniel, who has the versatility to step in at several different spots.
Spring start: March 8
Spring game: April 12
What to watch: With Trevor Knight poised to start at quarterback in 2014, Blake Bell moves to tight end after starting eight games under center in 2013. Bell’s transition to tight end will be the talk of the spring, with the senior’s commitment to the program and OU's need for help at the position . . . The battle to be the starting running back is another storyline, with sophomores Keith Ford and Alex Ross hoping to make a statement this spring before ESPN 300 running backs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine arrive in the summer. Ford forced his way into the lineup as a freshman before an injury slowed him . . . The Sooners will be looking to shore up the secondary after the departure of All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin and starting safety Gabe Lynn. Sophomore Stanvon Taylor could be set to replace Colvin, while sophomores Hatari Byrd and Ahmad Thomas will battle to replace Lynn.
Spring start: March 10
Final spring practice: April 5
What to watch: Incoming freshman Mason Rudolph enrolled early to participate in spring football with the hope of replacing quarterback Clint Chelf. J.W. Walsh has won a lot of games in a Cowboys uniform, but will have to hold off stern competition to earn the starting spot as a junior . . . The Cowboys lose seven seniors off one of their best defenses in recent memory. The overall quality might be upgraded, but spring football will be the first chance to see if those talented yet inexperienced defenders are ready to step into the fire. Defensive end Jimmy Bean, linebacker Ryan Simmons and cornerback Kevin Peterson could emerge as the foundation of the defense . . . Who will step up at receiver? The Cowboys lose three of their top four receivers, with Jhajuan Seales as the lone returnee. But several youngsters appear poised to step in, including sophomore Marcell Ateman and redshirt freshman Ra'Shaad Samples.
Spring start: March 1
Final spring practice: April 5
What to watch: Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie have arrived to take over as co-offensive coordinators at TCU. The Horned Frogs need a jump start and could get it from the “Air Raid”-style offense the duo will bring to the table. This spring will be an important first step in improving the offense . . . Who will be the quarterback? Trevone Boykin started several games in 2013 but might actually be TCU’s top receiver. Tyler Matthews, a redshirt freshman, also saw time under center, but he faces stiff competition. Don’t expect the battle to end until fall camp . . . TCU needs someone to step up in the secondary, with Jason Verrett NFL-bound after spending the past two seasons as one of the Big 12’s top coverage cornerbacks. Ranthony Texada and Travoskey Garrett are among several young defensive backs who could try to fill the void.
Spring start: March 18
Spring game: April 19
What to watch: David Ash's health will be one of the main storylines of Texas’ first spring under coach Charlie Strong. Ash has the talent to be a key piece of the puzzle, but head injuries are always tough to overcome. If Ash is 100 percent healthy, the Longhorns will feel better about the overall status at quarterback . . . Strong has talked of instilling a tough mindset in Austin since he arrived in January, and spring football will be the first real taste of what the Longhorns’ new coach is trying to bring to the program . . . Where are the playmakers? Texas has a talent-laden roster, but didn’t have the exceptional talent who could consistently change games. This spring gives several returning skill players, including receiver Jaxon Shipley and all-purpose standout Daje Johnson, the chance to become the foundation of the offense in 2014.
Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 12
What to watch: Davis Webb's health is the No. 1 priority for the Red Raiders, who have seen three quarterbacks leave the program since the beginning of the 2013 season. Coach Kliff Kingsbury could have the toughest job of the spring as he tries to manage the lack of quarterbacks with the desire to have a productive spring for the roster as a whole . . . The Red Raiders have some consistency among the defensive coaching staff, meaning they could improve in 2014 despite losing multiple starters, including defensive tackle Kerry Hyder, linebacker Will Smith and safety Tre' Porter. Tech could start seeing dividends of that continuity . . . The Red Raiders have to replace Jace Amaro and Eric Ward, who combined to catch 189 passes for 2,299 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. Jakeem Grant and Bradley Marquez made a bunch of plays in 2013 and Devin Lauderdale, a junior college transfer and early enrollee, will get the chance to show why he had Texas Tech fans buzzing when he initially signed in February 2013.
Spring start: March 2
Spring game: April 12
What to watch: Finding a quarterback is critical for the Mountaineers, who have talent at the skill positions but won’t transform into an explosive offense without efficient quarterback play. Clint Trickett is recovering from shoulder surgery, meaning Paul Millard, junior college transfer Skyler Howard and former receiver Logan Moore will run the offense this spring . . . Tony Gibson takes over as WVU’s defensive coordinator after coaching the safeties in 2013. His promotion allows some continuity on the defense after former DC Keith Patterson left for Arizona State after the season . . . Replacing defensive tackle Shaq Rowell and defensive end Will Clarke, who started 56 combined career games for WVU, won’t be easy. The Mountaineers will lean heavily on veteran juniors Isaiah Bruce and Karl Joseph, who have started since their freshman seasons.
1. Texas: The three-headed monster of Johnathan Gray, Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron gives Texas the best 1-2-3 punch in the league. Whether this group goes from good to great hinges on a healthy return for Gray, who is coming back from an Achilles injury and will sit out spring drills. Either way, this will be the backbone of Charlie Strong’s first offense.
3. Oklahoma: The potential of this running back crop has no bounds. But it will be young and inexperienced after seniors Brennan Clay, Roy Finch and Damien Williams (until he was kicked off the team) hoarded the carries last season. Keith Ford, who was the nation’s No. 3 running back recruit in the 2013 class, will take over the starting role. Joe Mixon, this year’s No. 6 RB recruit, won’t get to Norman until the summer, but he should supply the lightning to Ford’s thunder. Alex Ross, who was the nation’s No. 7 RB recruit in the 2012 class, rounds out a fearsome threesome with tremendous pedigree.
4. West Virginia: The Mountaineers lose All-Big 12 performer Charles Sims, but still claim a glut of capable rushers. Dreamius Smith and Wendell Smallwood thrived playing behind Sims last year. West Virginia also has Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie, its leading rushers from 2011 and 2012, respectively. (Buie is back after leaving school for a semester.) On top of all that, Pittsburgh transfer Rushel Shell figures to be in the mix. Shell was the No. 26 overall recruit in the country coming out of high school after becoming the all-time leading rusher in Pennsylvania high school history. If that weren’t enough, the gem of the incoming recruiting class, Donte Thomas-Williams, is also a running back. Suffice to say, the competition for carries will be fierce in the league’s deepest backfield.
5. Oklahoma State: Desmond Roland helped fuel Oklahoma State’s midseason turnaround after seizing a starting role. Roland was great in short yardage and led the Big 12 with 13 touchdowns, but he wasn’t a big-play runner, with an average of only 4.6 yards per carry (14th in the league). The Cowboys are banking that Rennie Childs can complement Roland as the breakaway back. Childs showed flashes as a true freshman. Roland and Childs can form a solid combo, but four-star freshman Devon Thomas, who is enrolled for the spring, should not be discounted, nor should Sione Palelei, who has the good hands that past Oklahoma State running backs also possessed.
6. Texas Tech: The returning duo of Kenny Williams and DeAndre Washington won’t do much damage between the tackles. Both, however, are excellent pass-catchers, making them supreme fits for Kliff Kingsbury’s spread attack. Together they combined for 64 receptions, and that number should go up in 2014 as quarterback Davis Webb settles in as a sophomore.
7. TCU: The Horned Frogs were a disaster offensively last year, but the potential at running back is a reason why TCU could be equipped for a bounce-back season. Aaron Green, Kyle Hicks and incoming freshman Shaun Nixon were all ESPN 300 recruits. That doesn’t include B.J. Catalon, either, who led the Frogs with 569 yards and six touchdowns last season. With a new regime making the play calls, there’s reason to believe this could become one of the better units in the league.
9. Kansas: The Jayhawks gradated their heart and soul in James Sims, who was an all-conference selection even though Kansas won only one Big 12 game. Tony Pierson returns as an electric playmaker, but he has never been a full-time running back, often flexing out as a receiver. It will be interesting to see who emerges in Sims’ shoes. Brandon Bourbon (191 yards) will have the first crack in the spring, but newcomers De'Andre Mann and Traevohn Wrench could vie for time once they arrive in the summer.
10. Kansas State: It’s difficult to believe K-State will be at the bottom here once the season starts, but running back is a major hole for the Wildcats going into the spring. That’s because longtime starter John Hubert is gone. Hubert, senior backup Robert Rose and QBs Jake Waters and Daniel Sams combined for 492 carries last season. Nobody else had more than five. Rising senior DeMarcus Robinson, who has only 11 career carries, will probably be atop the depth chart going into the spring. It’s also possible that Sams will get a look at running back with Waters having nailed down the full-time QB job. But the player to watch here is freshman Dalvin Warmack, who rushed for more than 4,500 yards and 70 touchdowns his final two seasons in Blue Springs, Mo. Warmack isn’t big at 5-foot-8 and 185 pounds. But his size fits the mold of past K-State running backs Hubert and Darren Sproles.
Some Sooners will prove they are ready to make a major impact in 2014 while others could show they might need more seasoning before they earn a place in OU’s plans for the future. This week we will look at five players to keep an eye on during spring football, continuing with No. 3.
Why: The Sooners have to replace three senior running backs including Brennan Clay and Roy Finch, who had been the foundation of OU’s running game for the past three seasons. Ford is the favorite to be the guy in the backfield after making a strong impression as a true freshman. His physical, relentless running style will make him tough to beat out in the battle for carries this fall.
Incoming freshmen Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine bring their own unique traits, and sophomore Alex Ross has a combination of size and speed that is difficult to match. The quality competition at running back makes this spring an important group of practices for Ford, who will have the chance to cement himself a role in the offense before the freshmen arrive in the summer.
Best-case scenario: Ford looks like a three-down back who can handle the rigors of being an every-down running back while displaying the versatility to do anything the coaching staff asks of him. And, most importantly, he shows his struggles with fumbling the football are over. If that happens, the Sooners coaches can spend the summer coming up with ways to involve him in the offense.
Worst-case scenario: Ford continues to have trouble taking care of the football and loses his favorite status heading into the summer. Realistically, the Sooners have enough talent at the position to overcome any struggles Ford might have, but he’s an exceptional talent who should play regardless how many other talented backs are on the roster. So curing his fumble woes is a priority so he can help provide a quality running option alongside quarterback Trevor Knight.
No. 4: Center Ty Darlington
No. 5: Tight end Blake Bell
Oklahoma is coming off a banner 2013 campaign featuring an 11-win season and a Sugar Bowl win over SEC power Alabama. Yet, the Sooners have several position groups they need to address if they hope to make a national title run in 2014. This week, we’ll take a closer look at the top-five position groups that need to improve during OU’s spring practices. On Tuesday, we continue the series with the Sooners running backs at No. 4.
Summer arrivals: Joe Mixon, Fr.; Samaje Perine, Fr.
Summary: Oklahoma is replacing three departed seniors -- Damien Williams, Brennan Clay and Roy Finch -- who rushed for 4,824 yards during their careers in crimson and cream with a group full of sophomores and freshmen. The Sooners built their running game on the shoulders of the departed seniors for the past three seasons, a realization which brings concern and hope. The concern is about the lack of experience on the current roster, while the hope is from the understanding that Finch and Clay handled the burden of OU’s running game as sophomores.
Ford is the favorite to win the job after forcing himself into the lineup as a true freshman despite sitting alongside three veteran runners in the film room. Ford issues with fumbling the ball, but he averaged 5.8 yards per carry as a freshman and brings a tough, slashing running style to the table. Ford can prove his fumble troubles are behind him this spring and remove all doubt, while making himself the clear favorite to get the bulk of the carries in 2014.
Ross has a size/speed ratio that is difficult to match but has struggled with the miscellaneous duties of lining up at the running back position for the Sooners. If he ever begins to excel in his duties without the football, he’ll get more opportunities to show his special skills with the ball in his hands. And if it happens this spring, he could secure himself a role before elite recruits Mixon and Perine arrive in the summer.
Smith, who is well-liked by his teammates and respected for his commitment to the program, faces a long road to making a major impact in the backfield. This spring provides him the opportunity to change that.
Mixon will step on campus as the most versatile running back on the roster. He can run like an elite running back and catches the ball like a receiver. He could make an immediate impact.
Perine brings a tough, physical runner into the mix. He’s been quietly overlooked since committing to the Sooners last spring, but he joined Mixon in the ESPN 300 and could be the perfect complement to his fellow 2014 signee.
No. 5: Tight ends
Starter/contributors: Keith Ford (sophomore)
The lone non-senior to see significant carries in OU’s backfield in 2013, Ford could have been a bigger contributor if he hadn’t suffered a case of fumblitis as he was starting to get into the rotation. He had at least five carries against Texas and Kansas and was emerging as a main threat at running back until his fumble against the Jayhawks. He never regained the coaches' trust until the Allstate Sugar Bowl when he resurfaced with the starters. He should be a main contributor in 2014 with his physical running style and decisive cuts. He had 23 carries for 134 yards and one touchdown.
On the cusp: Alex Ross (sophomore), David Smith (sophomore)
Ross is another talented youngster who could play a major role in OU’s backfield in 2014, although it’s clear Ford passed him on the depth chart last season. Ross brings a combination of size and speed that is hard to duplicate but he needs to bring consistency and gain the trust of the coaching staff before he becomes a guy the coaches can build a game plan around.
Smith didn’t have a carry as a redshirt freshman so he’ll have to take his game to another level to carve himself a role in the offense.
On the recruiting trail: Joe Mixon (Oakley, Calif./Freedom), Samaje Perine (Pflugerville, Texas/Hendrickson)
Mixon and Perine, two members of the ESPN 300, could become a nightmare duo for Big 12 defenses. Perine is a physical runner who will make defenders pay while running the ball and Mixon’s slippery running style and versatility could get him on the field alongside his fellow running backs. If both freshmen are ready to play -- meaning they’re ready to handle pass blocking responsibilities and everything outside of carrying the football -- the Sooners could have a deeply talented and young group.
Overall Grade: C
It’s going to be nice for running backs coach Cale Gundy to have a meeting room full of potential stars this fall. But none of them have accomplished anything as a Big 12 running back. Can they carry the load? Can they bring durability, dependability and versatility to OU’s offense? Can they make game-changing plays when the Sooners need a spark? Those questions are unanswered. Upside has never gained a first down but it would be a surprise to watch the Sooners’ grade remain below a B at this time next year. There’s too much talent on the roster.
Here are some priority spots for the Sooners to address in their 2014 class during the final two months of this recruiting cycle. Keep in mind, this list has everything to do with the young players on campus at each position, not necessarily the guys who are playing at that position each Saturday in 2013.
Offensive tackle: Derek Farniok and Christian Daimler are the lone underclassmen at offensive tackle. OU badly needs depth at the position and should be aiming to land at least two offensive tackle prospects in this class. If redshirt freshman tight end Sam Grant ends up at tackle, that would help the cause and lessen the urgency, but its a high priority position in this year's class. Worse yet, there doesn't seem to be a lot of hope at the position with top prospects mentioning OU on their lists. Finding a hidden gem in December could be the top priority for offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh.
Defensive tackle: This position looks a lot better right now than it did a year ago with the early play of Jordan Phillips, a sophomore, and the emergence of Jordan Wade, a redshirt freshman. Nevertheless, there is no such thing as too many quality defensive tackles. The Sooners have one commit in Irving (Texas) Ranchview's Brandon Glenn, but that's not enough. OU needs to secure at least one more defensive tackle prospect to join Glenn and redshirting freshmen Matthew Romar and Charles Walker as the future at the position.
Linebacker: OU rallied to bring in two quality linebackers late in last year’s recruiting cycle with Alexander and Jordan Evans. Each committed to OU late in the process and became impact freshmen this fall. The Sooners need to supplement that duo with a least one more playmaker to join Allen (Texas) linebacker Tay Evans and Murrieta (Calif.) Vista Murrieta linebacker Curtis Bolton on their commit list. Several linebackers could be in play and keep in mind the Sooners did secure Alexander and Evans late in the process.
Running back: You can never have too many running backs. And OU loses three quality ball carriers in Brennan Clay, Roy Finch and the recently dismissed Damien Williams. Redshirt freshman Alex Ross has a good size/speed ratio, true freshman Keith Ford has terrific upside, and commitment Samaje Perine (Pflugerville, Texas/Hendrickson) is a member of the ESPN 300. But the Sooners need to add another quality runner into the mix. Oakley (Calif.) Freedom running back Joe Mixon, No. 72 in the ESPN300, would be an outstanding addition to this class.
Receiver: Even though the Sooners seem to have some solid youngsters already on campus, they don't have a proven game-breaking receiver outside of Sterling Shepard returning in 2014. But, and this is critical, they can't just use a scholarship to bring in another guy. With Tulsa (Okla.) Union receiver Jeffery Mead and La Mirada (Calif.) receiver Dallis Todd already committed, receivers coach Jay Norvell should think elite receiver or bust. Norvell should join Mike Stoops in doing whatever it takes to land Michiah Quick (Fresno, Calif/Central East), then fight for him to end up on the offensive side of the ball.
NORMAN, Okla -- Alex Ross was one of the buzz-worthy names for Oklahoma during the Sooners’ preseason preparations last August. The true freshman was making noise as a player who could play himself out of a redshirt season despite OU’s depth at running back.
That didn’t happen.
The 2012 season came and went without Ross stepping on the field. Yet the redshirt freshman wasn’t too disappointed.
“I kind of knew I was going to redshirt when I got here,” Ross said.
A stellar prospect with excellent speed and good size at 6-foot-1, 217 pounds, Ross understood why he was redshirted. Juniors Damien Williams, Brennan Clay and Roy Finch were in line to get the bulk of the carries, leaving nothing more than potential spot duty for Ross. And limited action wasn’t worth losing a full year of eligibility.
Still, it was a struggle to watch from the sidelines.
“It was kind of tough sometimes,” Ross said. “Every day I came out to practice knowing I wasn’t going to play. I just still tried to make the other guys who were playing better by just going hard. That was the only thing I could do.”
He hopes to do more in 2013. But his road to getting playing time hasn’t gotten any easier. Williams, Clay and Finch return and coach Bob Stoops said he expects true freshman Keith Ford to play this season.
Five different running backs, limited opportunities.
“It’s not that hard, you’re just working hard,” Ross said of competing with so many different backs. “We’re all just out there working. So regardless of how many people it is we’re all there for the same reason. We want to get better for the team.”
Fortunately for Ross, Stoops has singled him out as a top performer after at least one scrimmage this August and has plenty of praise for the No. 70 player in the Class of 2012.
“I’m excited about Alex,” Stoops said. “He’s physical and a big guy and he can run. Watching him out there now, there are fewer mistakes and he’s getting comfortable and knows what to do.”
Additional weight and an belief that he belongs are key traits Ross added during his redshirt season. Last season, he was hopeful he belonged. This season, he knows he does.
“I probably just wasn’t as confident as I am this year because I was just young and I didn’t know what I was doing out there,” Ross said. “This year is different because I’m older and just trying to get better. I just got more practice, more carries, knowing what I am doing, just getting better than last year.”
And he’ll need to be if he hopes to see a bulk of carries in a loaded OU backfield.
RB Alex Ross: The redshirt freshman almost played his way out of a redshirt season in 2012 but eventually used the year off to get better prepared to be an impact runner. Even though the Sooners return three seniors at running back, Ross brings a combination of size and speed that is difficult to duplicate.
“Ross was a guy who really stood out in the scrimmage with speed and being powerful,” Stoops said.
WR Lacoltan Bester: A junior college signee in the Class of 2012, Bester barely made waves as a newcomer last fall. This season, he’s poised to earn some playing time, possibly even start, during his final year in crimson and cream.
He’s another player coming off a solid scrimmage on Saturday and he started the spring game last April. One of the most competitive receivers on the roster, Bester’s name consistently comes off the tongue of Aaron Colvin when the Sooners’ cornerback is asked which receiver could surprise in 2013.
S Hatari Byrd: The true freshman from Fresno, Calif., has been the buzz of preseason camp. His college-ready size and focused mentality should help him carve himself a role in the defense this fall. Byrd has impressed with his versatility -- he actually lined up at three different spots in the first three days of camp.
“He’s very knowledgeable,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “He’s easy to coach. He wants to be great. His maturity level is one of the highest I’ve seen this early on in a career. That’s a very unique set of tools to work with in a kid this young. He may be the biggest, fastest guy we’ve seen at this age.”
DE Ogbonnia Okoronkwo: It won’t be easy for the true freshman to see the field this season with several talented youngsters alongside him in the defensive line meeting room. Yet the Sooners desperately need a pass rush. And Okoronkwo might be the answer.
He has impressed with his pass rushing skills during his first few months on campus and even though he’s a tad undersized at 6-foot-3, 214 pounds, don’t be surprised to see him play his way out of a redshirt season.
S Ahmad Thomas: Pretty much every time Byrd’s name comes up among his teammates, that Sooner will add Thomas’ name into the mix. People tend to forget about the true freshman from Miami, Fla., but he was one of the stars of spring after enrolling early.
With the Sooners looking to add additional depth and overall talent in the secondary, Thomas should be able to help OU immediately. His size and willingness to play physical are unusual for a true freshman.
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He committed at OU’s second junior day and never entertained the thought of looking elsewhere. Other schools tried to make a push, but Ford remained solid to the Sooners.
OU is solid at running back for 2013, but Ford has fans salivating for what can be in the future and believe he might even be good enough to see the field in the fall.
Prior to his arrival on campus, Ford spoke to SoonerNation one more time to discuss his expectations.
Keith Ford: No. 21. They gave me 21, 27, 31 and 35, so I picked the lowest number I could.
SN: Who is your roommate going to be?
Ford: Austin Bennett. I actually played against him last year in the playoffs. I didn’t really know who he was during the season. But then we played against each other and went on the official visit at the same time and got to know each other a lot. We call each other a lot.
SN: What have you been working on since the end of your senior season?
Ford: I run a lot. Working out five days a week and eating the right foods. My mom is not going to be able to cook for me in college so I’m teaching myself now. Most of the time I’m cooking my own meals and learning to eat right. Nutrition is important.
SN: When did you know in your heart OU was the place for you?
Ford: I felt comfortable there. My parents felt comfortable. I love the coaching staff. Coach [Cale]Gundy sold me on more than the team and the school. He sold me on the people.
SN: What have the coaches told you about your potential role this season?
Ford: I don’t really talk about that. For me, it all starts with discipline. I never ask the coaches about playing time. My goal is to play next year as a true freshman, but it’s up to me to make that happen.
SN: What’s the biggest difference of going from high school to college?
Ford: The speed of the game. It’s going to be a lot of faster. You have to make real quick decisions. I feel like I have a good feel of what it’s going to be like.
SN: You met Class of 2014 running back commit Samaje Perine at the spring game. What was that like?
Ford: It was great. He’s huge. We text from time to time. He’s another Texas running back coming here, too. Like him, I’m just ready to play football in that stadium. Not too many people get that chance.
SN: Who are some of the players you’ve been talking to the most on the team?
Ford: Sooner Dave [David Smith]. I talk to him a lot. I talk to Alex Ross and Roy Finch, too, and Kendal Thompson. I feel very comfortable with all of them.
SN: When you leave OU, what do you want your legacy to be?
Ford: To be the best running back to ever come out of OU. That’s what I’m striving for. I won’t accept anything else.
With this is mind, SoonerNation has parsed out Oklahoma’s roster into 10 separate tiers. Here they are:
Tier 1: The Elite (Guys who could play for almost anyone)
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Top Returning Players: Big 12
BIG 12 SCOREBOARD
Final Washington State 45 Colorado State 48 Final 20 Fresno State 20 25 USC 45 Final Buffalo 24 San Diego State 49 Final Tulane 21 Louisiana-Lafayette 24
Final Pittsburgh 30 Bowling Green 27 Final Utah State 21 23 Northern Illinois 14
Final Marshall 31 Maryland 20 Final Syracuse 21 Minnesota 17 Final Brigham Young 16 Washington 31
Final Rutgers 16 Notre Dame 29 Final Cincinnati 17 North Carolina 39 Final Miami (FL) 9 18 Louisville 36 Final Michigan 14 Kansas State 31
Final Middle Tennessee 6 Navy 24 Final Ole Miss 25 Georgia Tech 17 Final 10 Oregon 30 Texas 7 Final 14 Arizona State 23 Texas Tech 37
Final Arizona 42 Boston College 19 Final Virginia Tech 12 17 UCLA 42 Final Rice 7 Mississippi State 44 Final 24 Duke 48 21 Texas A&M 52
Final Nebraska 24 22 Georgia 19 Final UNLV 14 North Texas 36 Final Iowa 14 16 LSU 21 Final 19 Wisconsin 24 9 South Carolina 34 Final 5 Stanford 20 4 Michigan State 24 Final 15 UCF 52 6 Baylor 42
Final 13 Oklahoma State 31 8 Missouri 41 Final 12 Clemson 40 7 Ohio State 35