Oklahoma Sooners: Blake Bell

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.
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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.
NORMAN, Okla. -- Trevor Knight still remembers attending University of Texas football games with his father and twin brother.

The Knights were in Austin for nearly every UT home game, and Trevor fondly remembers going to Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium the week before the Longhorns played Oklahoma in the Red River Rivalry game in Dallas.

“I hated 'em,” Knight said of the Sooners. “I did. Going to Texas games, I’d go to the one right before the Red River Rivalry game and yell, ‘OU sucks!’”

[+] EnlargeTrevor Knight
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesTrevor Knight led Oklahoma past Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, but his performance didn't surprise his coach.
Knight, who was ranked as a four-star recruit by ESPN RecruitingNation as a senior at Reagan High School in San Antonio in 2011, dreamed of playing quarterback for the Longhorns. His father, George Knight, attended UT, and so did several other family members.

But the day before Knight was scheduled to make his official visit to UT in February 2012, the Longhorns received a verbal commitment from quarterback Connor Brewer of Scottsdale, Ariz. Knight never made a visit to Austin and verbally committed to play at Texas A&M before flipping to Oklahoma after an official visit to Norman.

Instead of playing quarterback for Texas, he ended up playing for the team the Longhorns dislike the most.

“It was a blessing in disguise,” Knight said. “Going through the recruiting process, you realize you have to pick the best place for you. The whole fan aspect goes out [the window]. I grew up a huge Texas fan and hated A&M and OU but committed to A&M and ended up at OU. It’s how it works out. It’s funny because I grew up hating OU and now I love it.”

After two years at OU, it seems pretty clear that Knight made the correct decision. Heading into his sophomore season, Knight is the Sooners’ undisputed starting quarterback after throwing for a career-high 348 yards with four touchdowns on 32-for-44 passing in a 45-31 victory over Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

“I think a lot of positives came from it,” Knight said. “Obviously, recognition came from it. It’s a good thing to play well and be recognized for playing well. People have been saying, ‘It’s one game.’ You’ve got to build off of it and continue to move in the right direction.”

Before Knight’s breakout performance against the Crimson Tide, he had endured an up-and-down first season as Oklahoma’s quarterback in 2013. He won a tight quarterback competition and started the first two games before spraining his knee in a 16-7 win over West Virginia on Sept. 7. Blake Bell replaced Knight and kept the starting job for eight games until suffering an injury late in the season.

Knight’s performance against Alabama ended any speculation about who would be OU’s quarterback in 2014. So much so that Bell decided to move to tight end during the offseason and Kendal Thompson, another backup quarterback, transferred to Utah.

OU coach Bob Stoops said he wasn’t surprised Knight played well against Alabama. In fact, it’s what Stoops expected from his quarterback all along.

“When you go through the entire spring and two-a-days, we saw a lot of great throws and his ability to run and do things,” Stoops said. “It’s why he started the season. We don’t name a starter haphazardly.”

Added Knight: “I think there was a light switch for our whole team. Just the confidence we had and focus we had was different. We were carrying a chip on our shoulders. Nobody gave us a chance. They were fighting to keep us from trying to run out of the tunnel because we were so ready to play.”

Now it’s up to Knight to build on the Sugar Bowl and continue to get better. As good as he looked against Alabama, Knight was still wildly inconsistent last season. In eight games, Knight completed 59 percent of his passes for 819 yards with nine touchdowns and five interceptions. He also ran for 445 yards with two scores and was sacked four times.

“He is definitely coming along,” Stoops said. “It’s easy to say it’s because of the Sugar Bowl, but I think it’s because of natural maturity and the number of snaps he’s taken. He’s progressed. I think the Sugar Bowl allowed him to be a leader and take over the team.”

Moving Bell to another position also allowed Knight to take ownership of OU’s offense, according to Stoops.

“I think it helps so much now that he’s 'the guy,’” said OU center Ty Darlington, Knight’s roommate. “He’s not looking over his shoulder.”

Since setting an OU bowl record with four touchdown passes against Alabama, Knight has been the center of attention around campus. Darlington said it’s rare that Knight isn’t asked to take a photograph or sign an autograph when they attend sporting events or go out for late-night meals.

“Trevor hasn’t changed a ton,” Darlington said. “I would say the way people treat Trevor has changed. It’s different. We’ve always gone everywhere together. Now it’s like we can’t go anywhere. He’s done a good job of embracing it but hasn’t let it go to his head.”

Not that Darlington or Knight’s fraternal twin brother would let his head get too big. Connor Knight is a sophomore tight end for the Sooners and played on special teams last season.

“He hasn’t changed at all,” Connor Knight said.

OU fans will have to wait until the Aug. 30 season opener against Louisiana Tech to find how much better he’ll be this season. They hope to see the quarterback who lit up Alabama’s vaunted defense instead of the one who struggled to keep the starting job.

“It was refreshing to play well and obviously to win a big game like that,” Knight said. “That is what you dream of doing. Internally, it wasn’t a surprise to us. We really did come together and peak at the right time. I think it’s a vote of confidence. It’s nice to play that way in your last game because it carries into the offseason. We just want to build on it and ride the wave and be the best we can be.”
The injury bug has hit Norman, Okla. this spring.

Oklahoma will be without several players during its spring game on Saturday but none of the injuries are major.

Nickelback Julian Wilson, defensive lineman Rashod Favors, defensive tackle Quincy Russell, receiver Sterling Shepard, receiver Durron Neal, tight end Blake Bell, guard Adam Shead, tackle Tyrus Thompson, guard Nila Kasitati and guard Tyler Evans will miss the action due to various injuries but none of them require surgery and head coach Bob Stoops said he expects all of them to return after a short hiatus.

Those injuries have opened the door for several young players on the roster.

“They’re getting more snaps and having to step up,” Stoops said.

Here’s a closer look at how those injuries could open up spring game opportunities for several players on the roster.

[+] EnlargeEric Striker
Robin Alam/Icon SMIOLB Eric Striker has been taking some reps at nickelback this spring.
Wilson: The senior has missed the spring anyway, allowing Ahmad Thomas, Eric Striker and others to get the reps at nickelback. Thomas is showing great versatility and carving himself a role on the defense. Striker, a returning All-Big 12 second teamer, will be on the field regardless, it’s just a matter of where. Both guys get the chance to prove they can fill a variety of roles on Saturday.

Favors: Several young defensive ends including Mike Onuoha are showing good upside this spring and Favors' injury gives them more chances to impress in the spring game. Onuoha was right alongside returning Big 12 first teamer Charles Tapper as the future at the position before a shoulder injury forced him to miss his sophomore season while Tapper starred. He could be hungry to prove he could have made a similar impact. Matt Dimon and D.J. Ward are other young defensive ends who could end up providing quality depth this fall.

Russell: This injury hurts Russell in the race to earn playing time in 2014 and opens up additional opportunities for redshirt freshman Charles Walker to show he’s ready to make an impact in the fall. It also gives the opportunity for another redshirt freshman, Matt Romar, to show Walker isn’t the only youngster looking to force his way into the lineup along a veteran defensive line.

Bell: More than anything Bell’s injury robs us of the opportunity to see the Belldozer play tight end before the fall. And, quite frankly, that’s all anyone is going to think about when it comes to Bell’s absence on Saturday. The overriding question about Bell is not if he can win the starting tight end job, it's can he prove to be one of the best 11 players on offense? That answer will define his playing time and it won't come until the fall.

Shepard and Neal: Redshirt freshman Jordan Smallwood, K.J. Young and Dannon Cavil could have lost all right to complain about a lack of opportunities with these injuries. Don’t be surprised if Smallwood is one of the stars of the spring game, Young is silky smooth and Cavil brings a unique size and athleticism to the receiving corps. Sophomores Derrick Woods and Austin Bennett will also get the chance to shine after limited duty as freshmen in 2013.

Offensive line: Injuries have hammered the offensive line throughout the spring, so being thrown into duty in the spring game will be nothing new for guys like tackle Sam Grant, tackle Christian Daimler and guard Kyle Marrs. They’ll get the chance to get a bunch of reps against a deep defensive line and potentially secure a reputation for themselves before a talented group of offensive line signees arrive in the summer looking to rise past them on the Sooners' depth chart.
Oklahoma fans yearn for the time when Jermaine Gresham was catching long touchdown passes to help knock off Oklahoma State and Texas. Or even James Hanna keeping defenses honest with his forays down the hash mark.

It has been two years since a tight end caught more than three passes in a season at OU, although Trey Millard filled a tight end/fullback role in 2012 and 2013, catching 30 passes in 2012 and 11 passes in 2013.

When you're young you want to blame it on other things. As I've matured I've realized, anywhere you go, they want to play the best players, get the best 11 on the field. And I think I can be one of those [eleven] here.

-- Oklahoma TE Taylor McNamara
The Sooners are hopeful a strong receiving threat emerges this season with Blake Bell, Taylor McNamara, Connor Knight and Isaac Ijalana competing for time at tight end. OU has used players in the role of tight ends, with Millard and Aaron Ripkowski filling the void, during the past two seasons. But a passing threat like Gresham has escaped its grasp.

“There’s just not a lot of Jermaine Greshams running around,” coach Bob Stoops said. “You have to have the right people and they have to be experienced, so when they go on the field they have to be better than another personnel grouping you might have out there.”

The Sooners’ depth at receiver made wideout-heavy personnel groupings in passing situations the right move during the past two seasons with OU preferring to have Jalen Saunders and Sterling Shepard working the middle of the field instead of a bigger threat.

As OU builds the offense around Trevor Knight, the desire for a versatile threat at tight end increases thanks to Knight’s run-pass skills.

“It makes it more versatile as an offense,” McNamara said of the use of versatile tight ends. “If you have them in there and don’t know what personnel to put out there, you can run it and throw it so it’s a benefit, for sure.”

And McNamara is hoping to be that guy.

The junior’s development has been overshadowed by Bell’s move to tight end and Ijalana’s recent arrival from the junior college ranks but the California native stepped on campus with plenty of accolades of his own. A four-star signee and Army All-American, a lot was expected from McNamara but he will enter his redshirt sophomore season without much fanfare. Yet, after briefly wondering if OU was the right place for him, McNamara decided he was willing to shoulder the blame for his lack of an impact during his first two years in Norman, Okla.

“When you’re young you want to blame it on other things,” he said. “As I’ve matured I’ve realized, anywhere you go, they want to play the best players, get the best 11 on the field. And I think I can be one of those [11] here.”

His progress as a redshirt freshman brings hope that he can fulfill the promise he brought with him as an early enrollee in the spring of 2012. After a strong showing in bowl preparations, McNamara’s lone catch in crimson and cream is a four-yard reception in the Sooners’ Allstate Sugar Bowl win over Alabama.

“The whole year I was working to get better,” he said. “Eventually I got good enough to help the team and get to play a little bit. Getting to play at all was a blessing, it’s a lot more fun when you’re involved.”

This spring is a critical time for McNamara, who at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds brings good size and could become the receiving threat the Sooners have been searching for in recent years.

“I’m here to play,” McNamara said. “I don’t want to sit my whole career here. I want to make an impact.”
His voice sounds the same but the weight of his words land differently throughout the halls of the Switzer Center.

Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight is growing into his role as “the man” behind center this spring. His leadership in the hallways and meeting rooms of OU’s football building could be a key to the 2014 season.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Knight
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesTrevor Knight's performance in the Sugar Bowl solidified his status at Oklahoma.
“Building off of last year and being the oldest guy, it kind of forces you to step up and be that leader,” Knight said. “I feel like guys are looking at me to be that guy and I think I’ve done a good job of being that and they’re following pretty well.”

For the majority of the 2013 season the quarterback spot remained unclear as Knight was joined by Kendal Thompson and Blake Bell as options at the position. Now, after Knight’s stellar Allstate Sugar Bowl, the sophomore is the unquestioned starter and the guy the offense will turn to for leadership when adversity hits.

“[It’s] his ability to speak with a louder stick in the weight room and locker room,” offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. “For him to [show] more of his personality and [put his] stamp on the offense.”

Yet, Knight’s role has undertaken a bigger change than his daily approach. Heupel often praised his work ethic and habits while he was redshirting in 2012, saying Knight was preparing as if he was the starter despite being the scout team quarterback at the time.

That part of Knight’s personality is as present as ever.

“I don’t know if it’s necessarily a change in his demeanor,” Heupel said. “He’s a great leader, a great kid on and off the field. He’s extremely competitive. He’s the same guy every day, in the meeting room or on the field, he doesn’t change. Hopefully that will transcend through entire football team.”

Those traits are one of the reasons the coaching staff didn’t think twice about naming him the opening day starter a year ago.

“I don’t notice it being much different,” coach Bob Stoops said. “Because he always did what you wanted him to do.”

It’s easy to forget that Knight is still a young player with three years to play and plenty of improvement to make. He’s the oldest player in the quarterback room with Baker Mayfield (who is ineligible for 2014 after transferring from Texas Tech after his true freshman season), redshirt freshman Cody Thomas and true freshman Justice Hansen alongside him.

“It’s nice to be the oldest guy and be that leader,” Knight said. “But I know that I haven’t accomplished much yet. I’m still a young guy so I want to build off of that and get better and better every day.”

This spring isn’t just about becoming comfortable as the focal point and leader of the offense. Knight needs to become a better quarterback.

“He continues to progress,” Heupel said. “We think he has a great command of what we’re doing and he’s understanding defenses better. He should only get better at every practice with every rep.”
Blake Bell is quickly ascending to hero status in Norman, Okla.

[+] EnlargeBlake Bell
AP Photo/Darron CummingsOklahoma is hoping Blake Bell's athleticism and physical style translates to his move to tight end.
The Oklahoma senior saved the day, quarterbacking the Sooners on a game-deciding touchdown drive to win Bedlam, giving OU fans bragging rights over Oklahoma State supporters while robbing the Cowboys of their second Big 12 championship in three seasons. Bell started eight games at quarterback in 2013, passing for 1,648 yards and 12 touchdowns as a major contributor to OU’s 11-2 campaign.

Yet, after Trevor Knight's Sugar Bowl MVP performance, there was no question who would be the Sooners’ starting quarterback in 2014. Thus, Bell had a choice to make: Stay at Oklahoma or search for greener pastures elsewhere.

Bell chose to return to OU, cementing his legacy in the minds of several Sooners fans by asking to move to tight end, a clear sign of his commitment to the program.

“It was a tough decision,” Bell said. “Obviously playing quarterback was my dream, but another dream of mine was to play at OU. And I didn’t want to leave, I didn’t want to go anywhere, so that’s why I stayed around. I love these guys, love my teammates. I just wanted to get on the field somehow.”

This spring is Bell’s first taste of his new position. The blue “don’t hit” quarterback jersey has been abandoned for a crimson No. 10 jersey, bigger shoulder pads and more time battling the big boys in the trenches.

“It’s just a different mindset, and it’ll take me a little bit to get used to, but it’s been fun,” Bell said. “It’s a mentality. You’ve got to flip the switch from quarterback to tight end, and I think that’s the main deal.”

Everything is different, from the physical nature of the position to the intricacies of blocking schemes. He’s gone from being a prime target in the pocket to being able to dish out some punishment of his own on linebackers and defensive linemen. It’s going to take a while before Bell’s athleticism and talent can be on full display at the position, but the senior is slowly but surely becoming more comfortable at tight end.

“It’s a brand new world for Blake,” co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. “It’s fun to watch because he’s a good athlete and he’s got long arms. It’s a different workload for him and he’s beat up and sore. He’s got parts of his body that are bruised that have never been bruised before.”

Bell’s experience as a quarterback could make the transition much smoother for him. He won’t have to spend time trying to understand plays and concepts, allowing him to focus on technique, blocking assignments and route running instead.

“It’s helped me a lot to know the offense,” he said, while noting the ability to read defenses is also a useful asset.

Bell earned the nickname “Belldozer” with his physical running style as a freshman and sophomore behind former quarterback Landry Jones. At 6-foot-6, 264 pounds, he gave as much punishment as he received while becoming a short-yardage specialist in 2011 and 2012. OU hopes that physical nature and playmaking ability can transfer to the tight end position.

“Blake’s got soft hands, good hands,” Sooners coach Bob Stoops said. “He’s running around really well. He’s a huge target. I’m sure blocking is something we’ll have to work hard on, but Blake’s athletic, Blake’s tough. He’s got size, he’s got strength, he’s got the things you need to do it.”

OU has been searching for a receiving threat at tight end since James Hanna moved on to the NFL after the 2011 season. The Sooners are hopeful that Bell will be the answer to their woes at the spot.

“It’s really fun to watch him compete and make plays for us,” Norvell said. “I think he’s really going to help us as a tight end.”
No true freshman quarterback has ever stepped on campus with a better opportunity than Oklahoma early enrollee Justice Hansen.

A vacant sign would be the best representation of the Sooners backup quarterback spot with Blake Bell's move to tight end and Kendal Thompson's decision to transfer to Utah.

[+] EnlargeJustice Hansen
Mark LoMoglio/Icon SMIFrom UA All-American to OU backup QB? The Sooners are hoping Justice Hansen makes the most of his spring reps.
The departure of two of the three quarterbacks who took snaps behind center for the Sooners in 2013 leaves an opportunity for Hansen and redshirt freshman Cody Thomas to fill the void. Hansen, an Under Armour All-American, will get more quality reps than most true freshmen as OU tries to prepare the duo behind starter Trevor Knight.

“It’s opened that window of opportunity for him to get those reps, and I’m sure it will be the most a guy like that’s been able to get [at OU],” head coach Bob Stoops said. “But watching Justice work out, he fits the part of being here and belonging, so we’ll be excited to get him those snaps and seeing how he does.”

Questions about Thomas tend to revolve around his ability to juggle his football and baseball duties. He was solid while running the scout team last fall but will have to manage his time well to excel behind center this spring.

“Coach Pete [Hughes] and Josh [Heupel], they’ve already communicated really well through the winter,” Stoops said. “We want him to have success at both and I know they want him to have it too. So we’ll do the best we can to manage it. So far, it hasn’t been a problem.”

Three practices into the spring, the Sooners feel positive about the progress of Hansen and Thomas alongside Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield, who is ineligible to play this fall but has already made a strong impression in crimson and cream.

“Justice being here, Cody being involved in spring practice, those guys have done a lot of good things,” co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. “They’ve taken their understanding to a new level and [are] spreading the ball around. We’re going to need more than one quarterback to play well for us to win games. Those guys have made some good strides in three days.”

No battle for a backup spot on the depth chart is more important in Norman, Okla., this spring. The nightmare scenario for the Sooners would be watching an injury to Knight derail what could have been a national title run in the fall.

“It’ll be a big part our team’s success, is those guys coming around and getting a really good and consistent feel of what we want them to do at the quarterback position,” Stoops said. “It’ll really important that we do a good job with them and make sure they work hard in the spring.”
Oklahoma kicked off spring practice over the weekend.

The Sooners are well ahead of where they were at this time last year but still have work to do if they hope to build off their 2013 season. Here are five things that need to happen for a successful spring in Norman, Okla.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Knight
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesSophomore signal-caller Trevor Knight must show more consistency for Oklahoma in 2014.
Trevor Knight builds on his Sugar Bowl performance: After watching Knight complete 72.7 percent of his passes for 348 yards and four touchdowns in the 45-31 win over Alabama, it's easy to assume Knight will consistently match that performance in 2014. But what if he doesn’t? There’s no reason to expect the sophomore to take a step backward this spring but, even though his name is already being mentioned among the Big 12’s best quarterbacks, he won’t earn that spot until he consistently plays at a championship level. If Knight looks better than ever this spring, it’s a great sign for 2014.

A backup quarterback emerges: OU and Blake Bell are all in on the senior’s move to tight end. Thus, redshirt freshman Cody Thomas or early enrollee freshman Justice Hansen need to show they can handle the pressure of running the offense during spring practice. They are a pair of young, inexperienced quarterbacks who could find themselves thrown into the fire if anything happens to Knight. Heading into a season with one proven quarterback is never a good idea, so the Sooners are hopeful Thomas or Hansen can erase concerns about the backup QB spot.

Competition in the trenches: The Sooners return several veteran offensive and defensive linemen, including DE Charles Tapper, OT Daryl Williams and DE/DT Chuka Ndulue. Thus, if playing time and the overall rotation remains up in the air heading into the summer, that means young players like DE Mike Onuoha, DT Charles Walker and OT Derek Farniok are amping up the competition in the trenches. If that is happening, the Sooners could dominate games with their depth and versatility on the lines.

Skill position players step up: The best-case scenario for offensive coordinator Josh Heupel and the rest of the offensive staff is to spend the summer trying to figure out ways to get several players involved. The only way that would happen is if youngsters at running back and receiver look like playmakers this spring because simply having starters emerge at those positions is not enough. OU lost its top two rushers and three of its top four receivers from last season, but if only two or three players seize the opportunity for more playing time, its depth at both positions would be in doubt. A two-deep full of playmakers is always better than a sizable drop off after the starters.

The defense appears to be faster and deeper: One reason the Sooners surprised in 2013 was their speed and versatility on defense. It’s a scary proposition for Big 12 offenses if OU gets more athletic and deeper in 2014. This spring will tell if increased depth and athleticism in the secondary is a certainty. Young players along the defensive line and at linebacker could upgrade the athleticism at both spots if they are ready to make an impact.

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As a college basketball fan, I'm really looking forward to this 30 for 30.
NORMAN, Okla. -- Oklahoma’s Sugar Bowl win over Alabama could end up being a blessing or a curse.

The nation watched with eyebrows raised as the Sooners throttled the two-time reigning BCS champions 45-31 in January then rode the momentum from that victory to a strong finish on the recruiting trail. The win could be a blessing as it showed the Sooners their potential, bringing visions of a national championship run into focus.

The downside? Those same players could hear the praise showered upon them in the offseason while forgetting the little steps and hard work that helped the Sooners overcome their inconsistent passing game to win 11 games.

[+] EnlargeKeith Ford
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiSophomore running back Keith Ford is one of many hungry young Sooners that are eager to build on last season's success.
OU coach Bob Stoops is confident that won’t happen to his team. The veteran coach is convinced his team is as hungry as ever as OU’s spring football gets under way on Saturday.

“Talking to Jerry Schmidt, our strength coach, and all of our coaches who have been working and developing our guys out of season really believe that it’s been our best or one of our best years,” he said. “We’re really excited about the overall attitude and preparation and the way our guys are working.”

OU needs that dedication to continue, as the Sooners could be counting on several young players to fill critical roles in 2014, including sophomore running back Keith Ford, sophomore cornerback Stanvon Taylor and sophomore safety Ahmad Thomas. Those three are just a few signees from the Sooners' Class of 2013 who need to step up if a national title run is realistic.

Those young players get their chance to shine, as the start of spring marks the beginning of an intriguing time of year for Stoops.

“It’s really exciting,” Stoops said. “Probably my most exciting time of the year because you get to see the young guys that we’ve seen in practice now in a more competitive setting and fighting for jobs and making plays.”

OU’s closed-practice policy means those young players start to make their move out of the public eye. Nonetheless, those players who make names for themselves in March and April often become contributors in the fall. Defensive end Charles Tapper’s strong spring in 2013 was a precursor of his All-Big 12 performance as a sophomore last season.

“Not everybody in the outside world gets to see it,” Stoops said. “As a coach, [you] get to see it in scrimmages or when we go good against good, we start to see them make those kind of plays. It’s exciting when guys start to really figure it out and get ready to play.”

Ford, Taylor and Thomas are among several Sooners who played limited roles as true freshman as OU went 11-2 during their first season. But making an impact on special teams and proving themselves ready to become regulars in their second season are two different things. Those special teams duties can give them a taste of performing on the big stage while making them hungry to make an even bigger impact in the future. It’s one reason Stoops expects a hungry team to take the field this weekend.

“It’s always that way,” Stoops said. “Guys who have played a little bit or haven’t played at all are really champing at the bit to show they’re ready for it and that it’s their time now. That’s why it’s always so exciting.”

The Sooners' reaction to last season's success could be a concern because the majority of the roster had never won 11 games or a BCS bowl before last season. Safety Quentin Hayes, nickelback Julian Wilson, tight end Blake Bell and defensive lineman Chuka Ndulue are among several Sooners who were redshirting when OU last accomplished both of those feats in 2010, but nobody had been a core contributor on a Sooners squad that had that type of success before the 2013 campaign.

Yet Stoops seemed unconcerned during his pre-spring media session on Thursday.

“We’ve had probably the best winter we’ve ever had,” he said. “So, they’re not sitting back thinking about that and not doing what they need to do to move forward. I think more than anything, it’s made them hungrier to build on and to keep improving.”

OU spring position battles: No. 5

February, 24, 2014
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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’ll review the top five position battles to keep an eye on this spring, starting with the backup quarterback spot.

[+] EnlargeJustice Hansen
Courtesy of IntersportUnder Armour All-American Justice Hansen enrolled early at Oklahoma to compete for the backup quarterback spot.
No. 5: Backup quarterback

Why it’s important: The Sooners need someone to step up as a quality backup to Trevor Knight. Blake Bell started eight games at quarterback in 2013, but he is fully committed to his move to tight end, making the search for a backup quarterback critical this spring. Normally having Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield on campus would provide some insurance but he’s ineligible to play in 2014, removing that safety net.

The Competitors

Redshirt freshman Cody Thomas: Thomas redshirted last season after signing with OU in the Class of 2013. The two-sport standout will play football and baseball this spring but the Sooners aren’t concerned it will negatively impact his development.

True freshman Justice Hansen: Hansen enrolled early with a eye on competing for seeing the field soon. Kendal Thompson's transfer and Bell’s position change opened the door for Hansen to arrive in the spring with the opportunity to secure a spot on the depth chart.

Potential outcomes

Best-case scenario: Thomas proves the promise he showed during the fall was not a fluke. The former ESPN 300 member has the talent to be a starting quarterback at OU but nobody knows if he’s ready to step into that scenario if disaster hits this fall. And Hansen, an Under Armour All-American, shows he’s ready to step in to compete for a spot as the backup quarterback despite trying to find his footing during his first semester on campus. It doesn’t matter which freshman steps up, OU just needs one of them to show they can run the offense if called upon.

Worst-case scenario: Neither freshmen step up. Physical limitations are unlikely to hold Thomas or Hansen back, but if the requirements of running the Sooners’ offense prove too much for the duo, OU could be left searching for answers at the backup quarterback position in 2014.

Spring preview capsules: Big 12

February, 24, 2014
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Spring football is rapidly approaching.

Here's a team-by-team look at what to watch in the Big 12 this spring:

Baylor

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.

Iowa State

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.

Kansas

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.

Kansas State

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.

Oklahoma

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.

Oklahoma State

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.

TCU

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.

Texas

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.

Texas Tech

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.

West Virginia

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.
Spring football could be a critical time for several Oklahoma football players.

Some Sooners will prove they are ready to make a major impact in 2014, while others could show they may need more seasoning before they earn a permanent place in OU’s plans for the future. This week we will look at five players to keep an eye on during spring football, finishing with No. 1.

No. 1: Quarterback Cody Thomas

[+] EnlargeCody Thomas
AP Photo/Alonzo AdamsCody Thomas hopes to emerge as Trevor Knight's backup this spring for Oklahoma.
Why:With Blake Bell's move to tight end and Kendal Thompson's transfer, the Sooners need someone to step up and emerge as Trevor Knight's backup. Thomas will be splitting his time with the baseball team, making his development and ability to focus even more important this spring.

“I think he’s going to get, out of the football side of it, everything that he needs to,” OU offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said.

Thomas has the skills to be Knight’s backup and had a solid showing during his redshirt season.

“He’s a hard worker,” head coach Bob Stoops said. “He’s had a great fall with us. He’ll be OK.”

Watching how Thomas is progressing will be important for the Sooners, who will need a quality backup for Knight this fall. The coaching staff clearly has confidence Thomas can handle everything thrown at him, but the spring is his chance to prove it.

Best case scenario: Thomas handles his two-sport responsibilities with ease and proves ready to run the Sooners' offense if called upon. He shows the potential to be a starting quarterback in the near future and even provides strong competition for Knight, who is essentially entering the spring as the unquestioned starter.

Worst case scenario: Thomas doesn’t develop as quickly as necessary, leaving true freshman Justice Hansen as the top option as Knight’s backup. Uncertainty behind Knight could result in disaster this fall if the Sooners starting quarterback is forced to miss any time.

No. 2: Cornerback Stanvon Taylor

No. 3: Running back Keith Ford

No. 4: Center Ty Darlington

No. 5: Tight end Blake Bell
Spring football could be a critical time for several Oklahoma football players.

Some Sooners will prove they are ready to make a major impact in 2014 while others could show they may need more seasoning before they earn a permanent place in OU’s plans for the future. This week we will look at five players to keep an eye on during spring football.

[+] EnlargeStanvon Taylor
John Rivera/Icon SMIBig things are expected from Stanvon Taylor this season.
No. 2: Cornerback Stanvon Taylor

Why: Taylor is the first in line to replace Aaron Colvin, a two-time All-Big 12 cornerback. Colvin was at the heart of a lot of things the Sooners did to create problems for opposing offenses during the past two seasons. Taylor spent his freshman season as an understudy to Colvin, trying to soak in as much as he could from the Sooners’ top cornerback. This spring is his first opportunity to show what he learned.

Taylor started one game in 2013 and was a consistent presence on OU’s special teams, playing in all 13 games.

Best-case scenario: Taylor looks ready to start and be a consistent playmaker. The sophomore showed he was ready for college football during his first semester on campus but questions remain about his readiness to step into the starting lineup. The Tulsa (Okla.) native can remove all doubt with a strong spring that locks up a starting spot.

Worst-case scenario: Taylor isn’t ready to be a major part of the defense. He has a subpar spring and the Sooners are forced to turn to someone else to fill Colvin’s shoes. OU will have several other talented options on campus but Taylor was stamped with the heir apparent label for a reason.

No. 3: Running back Keith Ford

No. 4: Center Ty Darlington

No. 5: Tight end Blake Bell

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