Oklahoma Sooners: Alex Ross

Early-season pros and cons for OU

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
4:00
PM ET
Quarterback Trevor Knight has command of the offense like never before, Oklahoma’s defense could be even better than expected and the Sooners have a terrific trio of running backs.

Nonconference play is over and we’ve learned a lot about the Sooners, good and bad. Here are three positives and three negatives for the Sooners as OU turns to Big 12 play against West Virginia with its visit to Morgantown, West Virginia, on Saturday.

Positives

Trevor Knight has continued to improve: Through three games, Knight has already surpassed his 2013 passing yardage total. The sophomore’s 860 yards has surpassed his 819 passing yards in eight games a year ago. His 286.7 passing yards per game average is a clear sign of his improvement during his second season in crimson and cream. More importantly, his pass yardage total has increased every week during the 2014 season and he’s been much more consistent after an up-and-down debut season.

The Sooners' defensive changes have made the unit even better: Linebacker Eric Striker spent the spring working at nickelback, defensive end Geneo Grissom moved to linebacker and Julian Wilson moved from nickelback to cornerback. All three moves have paid off for OU’s defense and helped the Sooners get their best 11 defenders on the field more often. Striker can make plays all over the field yet remains a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks and offensive tackles. Grissom looks comfortable in coverage yet still rushes like a defensive end and Wilson brings terrific size to the perimeter while solidifying the void created by the departure of All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin.

The running game will be able to carry the load again: Even with the progress of Knight, OU’s offense remains built upon its offensive line and running backs. The Sooners' offensive front has consistently won in the trenches while OU is able to deploy fresh legs at defenses, with Keith Ford, Alex Ross and Samaje Perine each averaging at least 5.5 yards per carry. Much like a year ago, the Sooners may not end up with a 1,000-yard rusher but could easily average 200 rushing yards per game in 2014.

Negatives

Third-down offense: If OU expects to win a national championship, its third-down offense must get better. The Sooners have converted 38.5 percent on their third-down conversion attempts, sixth in the Big 12 and tied for 83rd among FBS teams. It’s a clear sign Knight still has room to grow as the sophomore is 13-of-26 on third down. As OU enters Big 12 play, there will be times when a critical third-down conversion is needed so this is high on the priority list.

Another big-play receiver: Sterling Shepard has been everything expected as OU’s No. 1 receiver. The junior is averaging 5.7 receptions for 111.7 yards per game as the main man in OU’s passing game. But a consistent No. 2 target has yet to emerge. Durron Neal has been solid with 15 receptions for 183 yards and could end up being a terrific complement to Shepard. And converted quarterback Blake Bell should become a bigger part of the offense as the season progresses. Yet what will the Sooners do, and who will Knight turn to, when defenses take Shepard away during Big 12 play?

Punt returns: The Sooners rank dead last in punt returns at 4.1 yards per return. After seeing Justin Brown and Jalen Saunders change games with their punt return skills during the past two seasons, OU is counting on Shepard to impact games on punt returns. He has five returns for 35 yards (7 yards per return) through three games. Shepard was a stellar punt returner in high school and has proven his big-play ability with his run-after-catch skills on offense, so it could simply be a matter of time before he makes an bigger impact on punt returns.
During the summer, ESPN.com is taking a closer look at each scholarship player on Oklahoma’s roster in our Crimson Countdown series. Each day, we analyze each player’s impact on the program since arriving on campus, his potential impact this fall, and his long-term projection. Starting with No. 1 Dominique Alexander, the series follows the roster numerically through No. 98 Chuka Ndulue.

No. 28 Alex Ross, running back, 6-foot-1, 221 pounds, sophomore

Impact thus far: Ross hasn’t made a major impact despite impressing behind closed doors in practice. After a redshirt season in 2012, he played in 10 games in 2013, mostly on special teams, ending the season with three carries for 19 yards.

Impact in 2014: Ross had a strong spring, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him earn some carries this fall. It also wouldn’t be a surprise to see him duplicate his 2013 production with so many talented running backs on the roster. But, regardless of how much talent is on the roster, Ross will be hard to keep off the field if he starts to maximize his potential.

Long term upside: His size/speed combination is hard to match. If he's healthy, he could become a critical piece in the Sooners' offense in the next few years.

Evaluation grade for Ross: C. Even though he’s impressed in practice, Ross has yet to show that potential during his opportunities in spring games or last season. Until he starts to produce, this grade will rise no higher than average.

Development grade for Ross: C. It wouldn’t have been the worst idea to get him more carries in 2013, but he has to play his part in earning those opportunities. Keith Ford’s rise up the depth chart is a sign that the opportunity to play is there if someone is focused on grabbing it.

Quotable: “I paid my dues and waited my time. I felt like I needed time to get acclimated to everything around here. I feel like I’ve matured a little bit just in getting bigger and knowing what to do in my part," said Ross, on the chance to play in 2014.
Keith Ford, DeMarcus RobinsonUSA TODAY Sports, Icon SMIBoth OU's Keith Ford and Kansas State's DeMarcus Robinson are unproven and at the forefront of two RB battles.

It's Take Two Tuesday, when we give our opinions on a topic related to the Big 12.

Today's topic: Which is the Big 12’s most compelling running back competition?

Take 1: Brandon Chatmon -- Oklahoma

It will be fun to watch the battle to get the bulk of the carries at Oklahoma.

The Sooners’ running backs room is full of talent, but it’s largely unproven. Sophomore Keith Ford has shown toughness and a physical running style, fellow sophomore Alex Ross has exceptional physical gifts and the Sooners added a pair of true freshmen, Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine, who will be right in the thick of the battle for playing time.

If someone steps up during preseason camp and locks down the job, that would be ideal for the Sooners, but the best-case scenario is two or more running backs forcing the coaches to find a role for them this fall. And that’s not out of the question because Mixon is extremely versatile, Perine brings terrific size, Ross brings size and speed and Ford looks like the most complete back of the group.

Yet, even with all the talent, the Sooners will enter the season with Ford as the most productive returnee after recording 4.6 percent of OU’s total rushing yards (134 rushing yards) as a true freshman. There are unknowns abound at the position from Ford’s fumble troubles to Ross’ inconsistency to the freshmen’s transition into college football.

It could be a boom-or-bust situation. I can’t wait to see it play out in 2014.

Take 2: Jake Trotter -- Kansas State

Brandon opted to go with a running back competition loaded with intriguing options. I’ll go the other way.

The biggest hole on K-State’s roster going into the preseason is at running back. John Hubert manned the position for the Wildcats for the last three years, rushing for 2,965 yards and 28 touchdowns.

His departure has left K-State with virtually no experience returning at running back. DeMarcus Robinson, in fact, is the team’s most seasoned returning rusher with just 11 career carries for 45 yards.

During the spring, neither Robinson nor Jarvis Leverett showed they’re necessarily the answer at the position, making running back the position to watch in Manhattan this August. The rest of the offense appears to be in place. At quarterback, Jake Waters surged the end of last season and was sharp and confident again this spring. Tyler Lockett is one of the best receivers in the country and the offensive line should be stout with All-Big 12 performers BJ Finney and Cody Whitehair.

The Wildcats, however, likely won’t contend for a Big 12 title unless a playmaker emerges at running back.

Robinson and Leverett will get more chances to show what they can do. But so will incoming freshman Dalvin Warmack, who rushed for 4,500 yards and 70 touchdowns and averaged almost 9 yards per carry during his final two years in high school.

If the answer at running back emerges, this K-State offense will be complete. But until that happens, this competition will remain compelling.
With spring ball done, we’re reexamining and reranking the positional situations of every Big 12 team, continuing Tuesday with running backs. These outlooks will look different in August. But here’s how we see them post-spring:


1. West Virginia (pre-spring ranking: 4): West Virginia running backs coach JaJuan Seider has one of the best and most difficult jobs in the Big 12. Seider has an embarrassment of riches at his position in Dreamius Smith (the No. 1 juco back in 2013), Wendell Smallwood (who played last year as a true freshman), Rushel Shell (who before transferring from Pitt set the Pennsylvania state high school rushing record), Andrew Buie (the team’s leading rusher in 2012) and Dustin Garrison, West Virginia’s leading rusher from 2011, who, finally healthy again, enjoyed a resurgent spring. The Mountaineers also will add four-star signee Donte Thomas-Williams in the summer. The difficult part for Seider will be divvying up carries to so many capable backs. But if the Mountaineers can keep everyone happy and find the right combination, this could become a devastating and versatile running back stable.

2. Texas (1): Coach Charlie Strong delivered promising news on Monday in San Antonio, suggesting Johnathan Gray could be cleared from his Achilles injury by mid-June. Strong also said that Joe Bergeron will be rejoining the team shortly, too, after sitting out the spring to focus on academics. When healthy and eligible, the trio of Malcolm Brown, Gray and Bergeron is a formidable bunch and the backbone of the Texas offense.

3. Baylor (3): Shock Linwood and Devin Chafin exited spring as the co-starters, but Johnny Jefferson left the biggest impression in the spring game. The Bears have a track record of spreading carries around, which means Big 12 fans will become very acquainted with the talented redshirt freshman next season.

4. Oklahoma State (5): One of the biggest surprises of the spring was how much the Cowboys used Tyreek Hill at running back. Oklahoma State is planning to utilize the nation’s top juco playmaker the way West Virginia did Tavon Austin two years ago. In other words, Hill could line up in the backfield one play then slot receiver the next. Either way, arguably the fastest player in college football gives the Cowboys a dynamic lightning component to complement the thunderous running of senior Desmond Roland, who led all Big 12 backs in touchdowns last season.

5. Oklahoma (3): There might not be a Big 12 backfield with more upside than Oklahoma’s. Of course, with that upside comes little experience. Sophomore Keith Ford has the potential to be a punishing inside runner, but he had fumbling issues last season as a freshman that re-emerged during the spring. If he can’t hang onto the ball, he won’t play, no matter how tough he runs between the tackles. After getting passed by Ford on the depth chart last year, Alex Ross bounced back with an impressive spring. Early enrollee Dimitri Flowers was a revelation this spring as a powerful run-blocking fullback in the mold of Trey Millard. If fellow incoming freshman Joe Mixon lives up to his recruiting hype, the Sooners could feature their most potent rushing attack in years.

6. Iowa State (8): The most underrated one-two punch at running back in the league resides in Ames. According to first-year offensive coordinator Mark Mangino, Aaron Wimberly and DeVondrick Nealy were sharp all spring and will spearhead an offense that could surprise in 2014. The key will be keeping the slight but explosive Wimberly relatively healthy, which he never really was before and after rushing for 137 and 117 yards back to back against Tulsa and Texas. Wimberly, however, was 100 percent all spring, and it showed, as he racked up 68 yards on just nine touches in the spring game.

7. TCU (7): TCU had to make do without its three top backs in the spring due to injuries. Aaron Green suffered a broken collarbone, Kyle Hicks had a shoulder bruise, and returning leading rusher B.J. Catalon dealt with a nagging hamstring injury. All three, however, should be fine for the fall, and could form a reliable rotation at running back. Four-star recruit Shaun Nixon could help out, too, once he arrives on campus.

8. Texas Tech (6): The Red Raiders dropped two spots, largely because returning starter Kenny Williams played outside linebacker all spring and could remain there for good. But even if Williams becomes a full-time linebacker, Tech still could be solid at running back with veteran DeAndre Washington, sophomore Quinton White and incoming four-star freshman Justin Stockton, whom the Texas Tech coaching staff is very high on. Head coach and offensive play-caller Kliff Kingsbury wouldn’t have given Williams the go-ahead to move to defense if he didn’t feel optimistic about what remained in the backfield.

9. Kansas (9): Though they come in ninth here, running back could be a position of strength for the Jayhawks next season. Brandon Bourbon, the favorite to start, rushed for 96 yards on 12 carries in the spring game, but Taylor Cox (63 yards on 15 carries) and Darrian Miller (50 yards on seven carries) had nice outings, as well. The Jayhawks also will welcome De’Andre Mann, the nation’s fifth-best juco running back, in the summer, as well as four-star freshmen Traevohn Wrench and Corey Avery. Until they start winning more games, it’s difficult to give the Jayhawks the benefit of the doubt in these position rankings. But with this collection of runners, they might not miss All-Big 12 performer James Sims as much as first thought.

10. Kansas State (10): The spring brought little clarity about who John Hubert’s primary replacement will be. Jarvis Leverett and Charles Jones both ran hard in K-State’s spring game, though neither broke a run for longer than 11 yards. Meanwhile, DeMarcus Robinson, who has the most experience of the three, sat out the scrimmage with an injury. As a result, incoming freshman Dalvin Warmack, who rushed for 4,500 yards and 70 touchdowns while averaging almost 9 yards per carry his final two years in high school, will have an opportunity to be a factor once he joins the team this summer.
It was a quiet and productive spring at Oklahoma. The Sooners emerged relatively free of injuries and were able to tinker with their systems on both sides of the ball. This week we'll review OU's spring. On Monday, we began with five questions that were answered during the Sooners' 15 practices. On Tuesday, we reviewed five questions that remain unanswered. Today, we look at five players who surprised this spring.

Running back Alex Ross: The sophomore made it clear he plans to be a part of OU’s offense this fall. He had a solid spring and was consistently mentioned as a playmaker after Sooners’ scrimmages. It was an important spring for Ross, who was passed on the depth chart by Keith Ford last season and will watch highly touted signees Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon arrive this summer. Ross needed to seize the opportunity to remind people he was a highly touted signee as well and that’s exactly what he did.

“He’s playing explosively,” quarterback Trevor Knight said. “He’s just having fun playing. He gets the ball in his hands and he’s down the field real quick. It’s good to watch.”

[+] EnlargeHatari Byrd
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsSophomore safety Hatari Byrd looks poised to make an impact in the secondary this season.
Safety Hatari Byrd: The sophomore moved seamlessly into the Sooners’ secondary and looks ready to be a key contributor, even if he doesn’t end up starting. He brings a hungry attitude and a will to succeed to OU’s secondary. Byrd saw limited time on defense as a true freshman but he sure looked at home alongside Quentin Hayes at the safety spot and joins Ahmad Thomas to give OU a pair of quality young safeties to compete for playing time this fall. Byrd’s smooth transition into the defensive system was a pleasant surprise for Sooners’ fans.

“He’s stepping up, coming down and making plays,” linebacker Eric Striker said.

Receiver K.J. Young: Fellow redshirt freshman Jordan Smallwood has gotten a lot of the accolades but Young looks poised to be a contributor in OU’s offense in the fall. He’s a smooth operator in the slot and can make plays when he gets the ball in his hands. Young didn’t separate himself in the spring game but he has all the tools to emerge as a quality receiving option for Knight in 2014. He’s gets overlooked at times but has the type of playmaking skills that can separate him from the competition.

Linebacker Jordan Evans: The sophomore is poised to provide depth and add athleticism to the Sooners linebacker corps. The Norman (Okla.) native played several positions in high school and his versatility shines through at linebacker. He’s very comfortable in space yet is willing to play physical if needed. If Evans continues to perform like he did this spring, the Sooners could end up having to find a place for him in their defensive system.

“He has played great,” coach Bob Stoops said. “Jordan has really improved and is much more sound and disciplined in schemes and where he needs to be. He has got great range and great athleticism.”

Cornerback Dakota Austin: The sophomore didn’t enter the spring as the favorite to replace Aaron Colvin but the job could be his to lose after a strong spring showing. He’s undersized but competitive and solid in coverage, which helped him surpass Stanvon Taylor and Cortez Johnson, a pair of returning cornerbacks who started games in 2013. Austin hasn’t locked down the starting spot but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him team with Zack Sanchez as OU’s starting cornerbacks for the season opener.
It was a quiet and productive spring at Oklahoma. The Sooners emerged relatively free of injuries and were able to tinker with their systems on both sides of the ball. This week we'll review OU's spring. On Monday, we began with five questions that were answered during the Sooners' 15 practices. Today, we move on to five questions that remain unanswered.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Knight
Mark D. Smith/USA TODAY SportsTrevor Knight is already a good QB, as evidenced by his play last season but now he needs to take the next step in his development.
Which Trevor Knight will trigger the Sooners this fall? Knight left no doubt how good he could be after his MVP performance in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Now the OU quarterback needs to answer how good he is over the course of a season. It’s easy to forget Knight is just a sophomore with plenty of developing to do if he plans to become one of the Big 12’s top signal-callers. His subpar spring game is an example, as he finished with 53 passing yards and one interception during a disappointing showing. Transforming from a good quarterback to a great quarterback is the next step in Knight’s progression.

Who will be the starting running back? The competition promises to continue into August, but don't be surprised if it continues deep into the season. OU has plenty of good options including sophomores Keith Ford and Alex Ross, but this competition could be decided by what the Sooners' running backs do without the ball in their hands. Ross had an excellent spring but didn’t star in the spring game while Ford showed he can play at a Big 12 level as a freshman. The running back battle could be the most exciting battle to monitor this fall.

How will Ahmad Thomas be used? The sophomore has really come on since the middle of last season. He saw time against Alabama and held his own, then built upon that performance with a strong spring. It would be a surprise if he’s not a major contributor on OU’s defense; it’s just a matter of where he plays. Thomas is a versatile defensive back who can play safety or nickelback. He’s the type of guy the Sooners can leave on the field -- regardless of the offense they’re facing -- and feel confident he will make an positive impact against the run or pass.

Who will back up Knight? Baker Mayfield is the obvious choice … in 2015. The former Texas Tech quarterback was the standout of the spring game and will have Knight feeling like his starting spot is never secure when he becomes eligible to play for the Sooners after sitting out the 2014 season. This fall, however, Knight’s backup remains a question mark. Redshirt freshman Cody Thomas looks like he could develop into a quality quarterback, and the new NCAA rules will allow the Sooners to quicken his development like never before. Thomas should be considered the favorite to win the No. 2 job but Justice Hansen's decision to enroll early has allowed him to get one spring under his belt and he could arrive in the fall much more comfortable than the average freshman. This is another battle that could last deep into August.

Who will make big plays in the passing game? Austin Bennett. Blake Bell. Jordan Smallwood. Durron Neal. K.J. Young. Those names could emerge as key targets for Knight this fall but none of them have locked down a spot in the offense quite yet. Smallwood, who probably had the best spring of the bunch, will undoubtedly play a role but OU needs someone to emerge as a legit, consistent threat alongside Sterling Shepard or risk watching one of the Big 12’s top returning receivers be double teamed constantly.
Spring football has come to a close at Oklahoma.

The Sooners 15 practices answered some questions, but others remain. Now is the perfect time to update the some of the position battles that made this spring intriguing in Norman. We took a look at offense and defense earlier this week. We end the series on Friday with special teams.

[+] EnlargeSterling Shepard
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsSterling Shepard should be able to step up and fill the void left in OU's return game by the departure of Jalen Saunders.
Kicker

Pre-spring: Already considered among the nation’s best, Michael Hunnicutt is locked in as the Sooners’ starting kicker.

Post-spring: Not only should the Sooners feel great about Hunnicutt, he showed increased kicking prowess in the spring game. Long-range field goals have not been a strength for the 2013 Lou Groza Award semifinalist during his first three years, but he nailed two 40-plus yard field goals in the spring game, including a 53-yarder, although it was wind-aided.

Summer outlook: OU heads into the summer knowing it has one of the nation’s best kickers.

Punter

Pre-spring: Jed Barnett returns after his first season as OU’s punter, averaging 41.7 yards per punt.

Post-spring: Much like kicker, there's not much to see here. Barnett was solid during his first season and returns to give OU solid punting in his final year on campus. OU should exit the spring feeling good about both kicking positions.

Summer outlook: Barnett is a very solid punter and heads into the summer as the clear No. 1 guy. There’s no reason to think that will change.

Returners

Pre-spring: The Sooners lose all of their returners. Receiver Jalen Saunders was dynamic on punt returns and running backs Roy Finch and Brennan Clay were very productive kick returners. With that, there are plenty of questions about who will return kicks.

Post-spring:Receiver Sterling Shepard is in line to return punts. He was a superb punt returner in high school and has proven playmaking ability. Cornerback Zack Sanchez could also be an option as a punt returner this fall. Kick returns could be a good fit for running back Alex Ross or running back Daniel Brooks among several other young and talented options.

Summer outlook: OU will start finalizing its return game in August. Plenty of talented freshmen could get the opportunity, with Shepard looking like the lone frontrunner for any of the return positions.

“When we get our whole football team on here in the summer, that’s when I’ll identify and make final decisions on that,” special teams coordinator Jay Boulware said of potential punt and kick returners. “We have a lot of freshmen coming in and we have a lot of guys who are busting their butts right now. We won’t make any final decisions until towards the end of fall camp.”

Punt/kick coverage

Pre-spring: OU’s coverage teams could improve after allowing 15.6 yards per punt return and 23.28 yards per kick return in 2013. But OU’s coverage overall was pretty solid and its coverage units allowed then-freshmen like Ahmad Thomas, Dakota Austin and Keith Ford to get their feet wet and contribute during their first seasons.

Post-spring: Much like the returners, Boulware will be looking to finalize these units after the freshmen arrive. One key to keep an eye on will be OU’s attempt to replace Trey Millard, who was a special teams monster during his four seasons. Freshman Dimitri Flowers appears ready to help replace Millard on offense but Boulware said he’s not certain if the early enrollee can match Millard’s contributions on special teams as well.

Summer outlook: Special teams coverage units can be a way for true freshmen to get their foot in the door. Boulware likes the overall speed and athleticism on the roster this spring, so adding additional, hungry freshmen into the mix should help OU be able to field some of the quickest and more athletic coverage units in the Big 12 in 2014. The battle for special teams spots should be interesting to watch and could provide a glimpse at the young guys who could be the future on offense and defense.
Spring football has come to a close at Oklahoma.

The Sooners’ 15 practices answered some questions but others still remain. Now is the perfect time to update the some of the position battles that made this spring intriguing in Norman, Okla. beginning with the offense.

Backup quarterback

Pre-spring: This was arguably the biggest offensive concern heading into the spring. Two freshmen, Cody Thomas and Justice Hansen, are behind projected starter Trevor Knight and preparing them for the backup role was one of the spring’s most important goals.

Post-spring: Those questions still remain. Thomas, who was splitting time with OU’s baseball team during the spring, is clearly ahead of Hansen, who threw two interceptions in the spring game after enrolling early to participate in spring drills. Even though Thomas performed better in the spring game he hasn’t appeared to run away with the job.

Summer outlook: The four months until August are the best news for the Sooners. That extra time to develop could be critical for Thomas and Hansen because one of them will need to be the No. 2 quarterback. Either way, OU must have its fingers crossed that Knight stays healthy.

Starting running back

Pre-spring: Keith Ford was considered the favorite to take over as OU’s starting running back after a solid freshman debut. His determination and physical running style earned him carries in a senior-laden backfield in 2013.

Post-spring: Even though he had a lackluster spring game (three carries, six yards), Alex Ross made a move during spring drills. Coach Bob Stoops consistently praised the sophomore, who continually made plays during spring scrimmages. Fellow sophomore Daniel Brooks also looked healthy for the first time in a Sooners’ uniform during the spring game, giving OU more options at the position. The spring left the position murkier than ever but it’s a good problem because the Sooners have several talented options to carry the ball, much like they did in 2013.

Summer outlook: February signees Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine are expected to arrive in the summer, kicking up the competition at the position to an even higher level. Stoops expects multiple running backs to get carries this fall, so expect this competition to rage on into the season.

No. 2 receiver

Pre-spring: Sterling Shepard is a proven playmaker and emerging leader. Junior Durron Neal was the clubhouse favorite to emerge alongside Shepard with sophomore Derrick Woods and others ready to battle to become key contributors.

Post-spring: This battle is far from over but redshirt freshman Jordan Smallwood could join Shepard as one of Knight’s favorite targets. The buzz surrounding Smallwood has been unrelenting since he stepped on campus last summer, only to be muffled after a foot injury forced him to redshirt. He returned for bowl practices and the buzz wasn’t far behind. With three receptions for 60 yards and one touchdown in the spring game, the redshirt freshman showed his size, athleticism, route running and ball skills could make him a consistent part of OU’s offense.

Summer outlook: Several receivers could become receiving targets this fall but outside of Smallwood, nobody looks like they’ve cemented a role in the offense. Thus, the competition continues and four freshmen, including potential game-breaker Michiah Quick, will arrive in the summer with an eye on surpassing their older teammates on the depth chart.

Oklahoma held its spring game on Saturday with excitement around the program continuing to build this offseason. Here are some postgame thoughts, offense only, on OU’s spring finale. Check back later today for a defense only post. To be clear, this is an informal collection of my observations after the spring game. For a more formal and general spring game review, check out this post from earlier today.

  • Undoubtedly some Sooners fans left the stadium disappointed with what they saw from Trevor Knight. He finished 5-of-14 for 53 yards with one interception. Yet it’s not time to panic, for several reasons. First, Sterling Shepard was on the sidelines. The junior will be Knight’s go-to receiver and could become one of the Big 12’s best playmakers. Two, Knight was going against a solid and athletic defense while using a relatively vanilla offense. Three, injuries along the offensive line didn’t make things any easier, with multiple projected starters out of the spring game. Finally, Knight's ability to make plays with his feet was taken away with his blue, no-hit jersey limiting his impact in the running game.
  • [+] EnlargeTrevor Knight
    Mark D. Smith/USA TODAY SportsTrevor Knight had a rough outing on Saturday.
    Nonetheless, Knight must play better. Period. Some people have been quick to insert his name among the nation’s best after his Allstate Sugar Bowl performance. He’s still young, relatively inexperienced and has been inconsistent at times early in his career. Let’s wait until he’s consistently efficient before we anoint him as one of the nation’s, or even the Big 12’s, top quarterbacks.
  • Anyone who was surprised by Baker Mayfield’s performance must have missed the rest of the Big 12 in 2013. The former Texas Tech quarterback was the Big 12 offensive freshman of the year for a reason.
  • Mayfield seemed genuinely excited to be a Sooner. He grew up an OU fan and said he would have decided to join the Sooners even if Blake Bell had not changed positions and Kendal Thompson did not transfer. While he is ineligible to play this fall, his presence could pay off big time. OU’s defense will be tested in ways you normally wouldn’t expect from a scout-team quarterback and the Sooners defense should make Mayfield a much better player with its overall talent and playmakers all over the field.
  • Tight end Taylor McNamara had two touchdown catches in the spring game. Could a pass-catching tight end return to OU’s weekly game plans this fall? Maybe. A wait-and-see approach would be wise, as adding a big receiving threat has been a goal for the past two seasons. McNamara and former quarterback Bell, who missed the spring game with an injury, appear to be the most likely candidates at tight end if it does happen.
  • Speaking of receiving threats, true freshman Dimitri Flowers should make an impact this fall. He spent a lot of time with the first-team offense before a hyper-extended knee ended his day. He can block, he can catch and he’s picked up the offense as if he’s entering his junior season. It appears OU has found a hidden gem in the three-star Class of 2014 signee. Don’t be surprised if he emerges as the big-bodied receiving threat OU’s offense has been lacking as his blocking and overall versatility could secure a key role in the offense, allowing the Sooners to adapt on the fly.
  • OU has talented receivers but will miss Jalen Saunders, a likely NFL draft pick. K.J. Young and Austin Bennett, Jordan Smallwood and Derrick Woods each showed flashes of ability but need to develop quickly if the Sooners hope to provide quality receiving options for Knight this fall.
  • Nobody seized the starting running back spot with a eye-opening day. Daniel Brooks led the way with eight carries for 67 yards and Keith Ford finished with nine carries for 29 yards. Alex Ross, who had been praised throughout the spring, added three carries for six yards. The door is wide open for Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine, two ESPN 300 running back signees, to make an immediate impression on the coaching staff and earn carries this fall. The Sooners need someone to step up and make defenses account for them from the running back position this fall. It doesn’t matter who it is.
  • OU could end up looking back at this spring as a critical time for developing depth along the offensive line. Several linemen, including guards Adam Shead and Nila Kasitati and tackle Tyrus Thompson, sat out the spring game, allowing backups such as tackles Josiah St. John and Sam Grant to get plenty of chances. The offensive line struggled at times.
  • The backup quarterback position remains up in the air, but Cody Thomas, a redshirt freshman, looked solid, going 5-of-9 for 52 yards and a touchdown. Justice Hansen, a true freshman, struggled with the speed of the game at times, finishing 4-of-8 for 58 yards and one touchdown but with some good moments.

Spring game review: Oklahoma

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14
9:00
AM ET

The excitement surrounding Oklahoma’s football program is night and day compared to a year ago. The Sooners announced 43,500 fans in attendance for their spring game on Saturday, a school record. Last year’s announced crowd was 29,200. With the Trevor Knight era fully underway, here’s a recap of OU’s spring game.

[+] EnlargeMayfield
Mark D. Smith/USA TODAY SportsFormer Texas Tech quarterback Baker Mayfield was impressive in the spring game.
Best offensive performance: Baker Mayfield stole the show, completing 9 of 9 pass attempts for 125 yards and two touchdowns. The former Texas Tech quarterback, who transferred to OU in January after earning Big 12 offensive freshman of the year honors last season, is ineligible for the 2014 season. Nonetheless, Mayfield outshined Knight, the Sooners’ projected starter this fall, with his flawless outing. Mayfield has Big 12 game experience, and it showed throughout the spring game. He’ll spend this fall giving OU’s defense fits while leading the scout team.

Best defensive performance: Linebacker Eric Striker looked like he was in midseason form with two sacks and one tackle for loss. Striker, who starred in OU’s Allstate Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama, picked up right where he left off. He continually got into the offensive backfield and appeared unblockable at times coming off the edge. He could be poised for a dominant junior season.

Best debut: True freshman Dimitri Flowers looks ready to help the offense immediately. One of the scariest scenes of the spring game was Flowers lying on the ground, clutching his knee. Fortunately for the Sooners, it was just a hyper-extended knee for the fullback/tight end hybrid. Flowers has impressed with his football IQ and receiving skills during his short time on campus as an early enrollee. He tied for the team high with four receptions and finished with 40 receiving yards. He should be a key contributor this fall.

Notable play: Sophomore linebacker Jordan Evans had the hit of the day against K.J. Young on a receiver screen. Evans’ hit popped the ball up in the air, allowing defensive tackle Jordan Wade to secure Knight’s lone interception of the day. It was a key play because Evans played with the No. 1 defense after returning starter Frank Shannon, OU's leading tackler in 2013, missed the game for personal reasons. Shannon's status remains unclear, so the Sooners could turn to Evans to be the man alongside Dominique Alexander this fall if Shannon is unable to return. Evans looked ready for the task on Saturday.

Developing storyline: OU’s defense clearly won the day. The Sooners are young, talented and versatile on that side of the ball, led by Striker and returning All-Big 12 defensive end Charles Tapper. OU’s secondary, a potential concern with the loss of two-time All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin, had a strong day in coverage, particularly the starting unit. Sophomore Dakota Austin was solid sliding into Colvin’s former spot opposite Zack Sanchez. If this unit continues to develop, it could be one of the best and more versatile defenses in the nation.

Biggest question answered: Few, if any, questions got answered. The defense was dominant, but that wasn't surprising, and nobody separated themselves in the running back derby or backup quarterback race. Keith Ford and Alex Ross will welcome true freshmen Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine into the running back competition this summer. At quarterback, Cody Thomas outperformed Justice Hansen, but didn’t put a stranglehold on the backup quarterback position heading into the summer. The best development of the game was a relatively injury-free outing.

Biggest question emerging: Which Knight will lead the Sooners in 2014? He didn't look like the Allstate Sugar Bowl MVP, going 5-of-14 for 53 yards and one interception. Evans' hit led to his lone pick, but he was inefficient and unproductive. The defense carries a large portion of the blame and the receiving corps, without top target Sterling Shepard and potential starter Durron Neal, also contributed to Knight's underwhelming spring finale. Knight knows he will have to perform much better for OU's national title dreams to approach reality.

Quotable: “I don’t know that you ever get anything answered in 15 practices. What I feel like is there has been improvement. Players that haven’t had a ton of experience have more now. We’ll build on it.” -- OU coach Bob Stoops
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.
The final days of spring are rapidly approaching at Oklahoma. Instead of searching for the foundation of its squad, this spring has been a period of tinkering and polishing. Here’s a look at five players who need to finish the spring strong or risk leaving the door open for younger players and/or freshman arrivals.

Running back Alex Ross: The opportunity to play is there for the taking if Ross wants to grab it. He joins Keith Ford as the main competitors for carries this spring. Coach Bob Stoops has singled out Ross as a playmaker in scrimmages thus far but it’s critical for Ross to make a strong impression before February signees Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine arrive in the summer.

“I paid my dues and waited my time,” Ross said. “I felt like I needed time to get acclimated to everything around here. I feel like I’ve matured a little bit just in getting bigger and knowing what to do in my part.”

Defensive tackle Torrea Peterson: The senior played a solid role and contributed to OU’s success in 2013, even starting a game against Iowa State. Oklahoma is looking at one of its deepest defensive line units in years. If Jordan Phillips returns to good health and Jordan Wade continues to develop, OU has one of the best two-deep depth chart in the nation. Add Charles Walker, the star of the scout team last fall, and the defensive tackle spot is getting crowded. If Peterson continues to mature and improve, he could be able to secure himself a role but his margin of error is minimal.

Receiver Dannon Cavil: This spring is the 6-foot-4 Cavil’s chance to shine as the lone tall target in the receivers’ room. That changes this summer when three February receiver signees (Jeffery Mead, Mark Andrews and Dallis Todd) who stand 6-5 or taller will arrive.

Cavil is smooth and athletic and this spring will bring more opportunities than the summer or preseason camp. Now is the time for the redshirt freshman to lock down a spot in before other options begin arriving on campus and limiting his reps.

Cornerback Cortez Johnson: The junior headed into the summer of 2013 as an projected starter opposite Aaron Colvin. His sophomore season didn’t go as expected after Zack Sanchez started in his place due to Johnson’s suspension for the season opener and Sanchez never relinquished the starting spot. Johnson shouldered the blame for his subpar showing, saying he is focused on “taking more coaching and less talking” this spring. It’s important for Johnson to show he’s serious about changing his commitment to getting better because he brings excellent size (6-2, 205 pounds) to the cornerback spot.

“I’m just trying to bounce back from last year,” Johnson said. “I didn’t do so well and I’m just trying to be more consistent.”

Offensive lineman Josiah St. John: The senior is one player who was singled out by Stoops for his improvement during the offseason. A junior college transfer, St. John needs to show he can be solid competition for returning starters Daryl Williams and Tyrus Thompson at the tackle positions with an eye on being a solid third tackle. If he falters, Christian Daimler and Sam Grant are young tackles lurking with three additional tackle signees (Orlando Brown, Joseph Paul and Kenyon Frison) poised to arrive in the summer.
Finding a running back isn’t a concern that immediately comes to mind when projecting the 2014 Sooners' offense, mainly because of the many options on the fingertips of running backs coach Cale Gundy.

Yet someone needs to step up and become the face of the running game.

“They’re doing a really good job of competing,” quarterback Trevor Knight said. “They come in every day working extremely hard. I’m really excited about them. I feel like everyone’s just got a little juice under them right now. It’s fun to work with guys like that.”

[+] EnlargeKeith Ford
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiKeith Ford is one of many OU RBs competing for carries this spring.
Sophomores Keith Ford and Alex Ross spent the 2013 season in the shadows of OU’s three senior running backs, with Ford seeing limited action before fumble troubles returned him to the sideline. Ford took steps to correcting his fumble problems during Sugar Bowl preparations and is focused on ball security this spring.

“It’s just one of those learning curves for me,” Ford said. “It’s just one of those things adjusting to the college game style and the gameplay, and the speed and how everybody is bigger, faster and stronger than high school.”

Ford already got a small level of redemption with three carries for 15 yards in the Sugar Bowl after going five straight games without a carry after his fumble against Kansas.

“He didn’t fumble it in the bowl game, he’s taking care of it,” coach Bob Stoops said. “Keith is an excellent player.”

The Sooners are hopeful he’s not the only quality running back on the roster. OU has leaned on multiple backs for the past three seasons, so it would take someone running away with the job for OU to put the entire focus of its running game on one running back.

Thus, the competition for carries should be fierce and ongoing throughout the year.

“We’re all good backs,” Ford said. “We all work hard each day. We all have each other’s backs, we’re all competing and we’re all a family, and that’s the most important. We work hard every day and we just grind. That’s all we can do, take it day by day.”

This could be a do-or-die spring for Ross, who could watch multiple younger running backs rise by him on the depth chart if he doesn’t begin to fulfill his playmaking potential and remain healthy. His talent is not in question so he could be ready to finally have a breakout spring and set himself up to make an impact in his redshirt sophomore season.

“I believe he is,” Stoops said when asked if Ross could be ready to contribute. “He’s had a really good winter, he had good bowl practices. So, I believe he is ready for that to happen.”

David Smith and Daniel Brooks round out the spring competitors who are aiming to secure a role before ESPN 300 running backs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine arrive in the summer.

“Those guys will have their opportunities, and a lot of them here through the spring,” said Stoops of the running back competition.
Oklahoma's hopeful journey toward national title contention status begins this coming weekend.

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.

[+] EnlargeKeith Ford
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiIf Keith Ford can lock down the running back spot, the Sooners could be national title contenders in 2014.
No. 5: Sophomore running back Keith Ford cements himself as a part of the offense.

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.

OU spring position battles: No. 1

February, 28, 2014
Feb 28
11:00
AM ET
Spring football provides the opportunity for players to put themselves in the driver’s seat when it comes to position battles. Several Oklahoma Sooners will have the chance to make a statement and make themselves the favorite to start or become a significant contributor during spring drills with several starting spots open heading into 2014. This week we reviewed the top five position battles to keep an eye on this spring. On Friday, we finish the series with the running back position.

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.

Competitors

[+] EnlargeKeith Ford
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiKeith Ford looks like the favorite to be the No. 1 RB, but he'll have plenty of competition this spring.
Sophomore Keith Ford: The Texas native started making a name for himself on special teams before carving out a role on offense early in Big 12 play. Fumble problems placed him in the doghouse but he finished his freshman season with 23 carries for 134 yards and one touchdown. He’s the favorite to sit atop the depth chart after spring.

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.

Summer arrivals

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.

Potential outcomes

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.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

College Football Minute
The single-game rushing record was broken again, Florida State left it late again, and the SEC keeps beating up on itself. It's all ahead in the College Football Minute.
VIDEO PLAYLIST video