Oklahoma Sooners: Corey Nelson

Last weekend, the Big 12 had 17 players get taken in the NFL draft. Wonder how they got there? Well, we went back and pulled the ESPN scouting reports on those players while they were still just in high school. Some were highly touted, and lived up to their potential. Some defied the odds.

CB Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State: Cleveland Browns (No. 8 overall)
Ranking: No. 39 ATH
What our scouts said then: “Gilbert is a dual-threat quarterback. ... is a player that will likely be moved to wide receiver or safety. He is a gifted athlete with good football awareness and an athlete that has his best football ahead of him. ... once he commits to the position full time at the next level.”
What happened: Gilbert quickly found a new position at cornerback, and was one of the best at that position in the country last year.

[+] EnlargeJason Verrett
AP Photo/Craig RuttleTCU CB Jason Verrett had no offers coming out of high school but developed into the Chargers' first-round pick
CB Jason Verrett, TCU: San Diego Chargers (No. 25)
Ranking: Unranked
What our scouts said then: No report
What happened: Verrett graduated high school as a running back with no stars and no offers. At juco, the coaching staff moved him to the secondary, setting the stage for him to become one of the best cornerbacks in college football.

TE Jace Amaro, Texas Tech: New York Jets (No. 49)
Ranking: No. 28 TE
What our scouts said then: “Amaro is a productive receiving tight end. He has good size and appears on film to have the frame to be able to add more good bulk with time in a college weight program. He will play and block from an in-line position, but at this point it seems the strength of his game is a receiver. Can be a productive receiver.”
What happened: Well, Amaro added 30 pounds of bulk and became one of the most productive receiving tight ends in college football history.

RB Charles Sims, West Virginia: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (No. 69)
Ranking: No. 114 RB
What our scouts said then: “If a college program is patient with Sims' development, they are going to get a future workhorse in the backfield. Hands are soft adding to his upside as a future featured back. Potential sleeper on the national scene as well and could blow up with a big senior season and added size prior to next fall.”
What happened: At Houston, Sims was named the Conference USA Freshman of the Year after rushing for nine touchdowns. His final year, he transferred to West Virginia to raise his pro profile. Displaying those “soft hands” out of the backfield, Sims led all Big 12 running backs in receiving.

DE Will Clarke, West Virginia: Cincinnati Bengals (No. 88)
Ranking: Unranked
What our scouts said then: No report
What happened: Clarke committed to rival Pitt, but never signed there. Instead, in late March, he faxed his letter-of-intent to West Virginia. Clarke became a three-year starter at defensive end, and the first and only Big 12 defensive lineman to get taken in the draft.

WR Jalen Saunders, Oklahoma: New York Jets (No. 104)
Ranking: Unranked
What our scouts said then: No report
What happened: After two banner seasons at Fresno State, Saunders transferred to OU and became one of the Sooners’ top playmakers. He had 1,136 all-purpose yards as a senior, and helped fuel OU’s late surge to the 2013 season.

CB Aaron Colvin, Oklahoma: Jacksonville Jaguars (No. 114)
Ranking: No. 40 S
What our scouts said then: “Colvin should be a very solid safety at the next level especially from the strong position and be a very solid zone pass defender.”
What happened: Colvin played a key part in the OU secondary for four seasons. He would have been a higher pick had it not been for a knee injury he suffered in the Senior Bowl.

OG Cyril Richardson, Baylor: Buffalo Bills (No. 153)
Ranking: No. 64 OT
What our scouts said then: “Great size and a large wing span which can be beneficial especially in pass protection. Wins most battles at the line of scrimmage when base and drive blocking. Richardson should develop into a very good tackle at the next level.”
What happened: Richardson actually settled in as one of the elite power-blocking guards in college football, and became an Outland finalist as a senior. Richardson didn’t have the best pre-draft workouts, but he’ll have a chance to play in Buffalo.

ILB Jeremiah George, Iowa State: New York Jets (No. 154)
Ranking: No. 55 OLB
What our scouts said then: “George plays inside linebacker but is a little undersized for the position at the major level of competition. However this is a very active, hard-hitting player with the athleticism we like to see in second level defenders.”
What happened: George never let his size be a hindrance, and had a spectacular senior season, leading the Big 12 in tackles and earning all-conference honors.

[+] EnlargeLache Seastrunk
Casey Sapio/USA TODAY SportsLache Seastrunk was considered one of the nation's best RBs out of high school and lived up to that billing at Baylor.
RB Lache Seastrunk, Baylor: Washington Redskins (No. 186)
Ranking: No. 6 RB (ESPN 150)
What our scouts said then: “Fast, explosive, electric, either way you slice it, Seastrunk is arguably one of this class' biggest game-breakers at the running back position.”
What happened: Seastrunk signed with Oregon, but took off after transferring to Baylor. Despite missing two games to injury, Seastrunk led the Big 12 with 1,117 rushing yards last year.

CB Demetri Goodson, Baylor: Green Bay Packers (No. 197)
Ranking: No. 11 point guard (ESPN 100)
What our scouts said then: “Demetri is a true leader, and has the proper mentality to play the point and run a team. He can really push the ball down the court and he gets wherever he wants with it.”
What happened: After starting two seasons of hoops at Gonzaga, Goodson transferred to Baylor, and found his new calling on the gridiron. He finally broke out as a senior last season, earning the starting nod at cornerback, where he improved with every appearance.

OL Tavon Rooks, Kansas State: New Orleans Saints (No. 202)
Ranking: Unranked
What our scouts said then: No report
What happened: After transferring in from Navarro Junior College, Rooks instantly became a two-year starter at right tackle for K-State.

OLB Will Smith, Texas Tech: Dallas Cowboys (No. 238)
Ranking: Unranked
What our scouts said then: “Smith has large frame and shows promise on film. His taller frame and lack of ideal top-end speed and elusiveness may see him get recruited more at outside linebacker; his measurables could eventually be better suited on defense if his body continues to physically develop. Could be a late bloomer on the recruiting trail.”
What happened: Smith went to Riverside (Calif.) Community College, and indeed became a late bloomer. This past season, he finished second in the league behind George with 120 tackles, and was one of Texas Tech’s most consistent defensive performers all year.

WR Tevin Reese, Baylor: San Diego Chargers (No. 240)
Ranking: Unranked
What our scouts said then: No report
What happened: Reese played for plenty of scouts at Temple (Texas) High School, but only because they came to see his teammate, Seastrunk. Even though Reese was incredibly slight at less than 160 pounds, the Baylor coaching staff loved his explosiveness. He started four games as a true freshman, and eventually became a star in the league.

OLB Corey Nelson, Oklahoma: Denver Broncos (No. 242)
Ranking: No. 3 OLB (ESPN 150)
What our scouts said then: “Nelson may be a bit raw and inexperienced in linebacker play but after watching film on this guy it's hard not to see a special linebacker prospect. A defensive playmaker with the quick-twitched burst and striking short-area power you just can't coach.”
What happened: Nelson played a true freshman, but never really became a full-time starter until his senior year. He had a great first month, then suffered a season-ending pectoral injury.

FB Trey Millard, Oklahoma: San Francisco 49ers (No. 245)
Ranking: No. 59 ATH
What our scouts said then: “Overall, Millard brings a lot to the table physically for a program to mold and develop. Not going to wow you on film ... but grows on you the more you watch and just does a lot of the little things right.”
What happened: On his way to earning all-conference honors three times, Millard did many little things right at OU, whether it was blocking, catching passes or even carrying the ball himself. A senior injury hurt his draft stock, but he’ll have a chance to stick in San Fran.

SS Ahmad Dixon, Baylor: Dallas Cowboys (No. 248)
Ranking: No. 3S (ESPN 150)
What our scouts said then: “Dixon is an exceptional defensive back that really is a prototype free safety. A real hitter that is a true leader by the effort he gives every play.”
What happened: After flirting with Tennessee, Dixon became one of the most high-profile recruits ever to sign with Baylor during the Art Briles era. He became a three-year starter, and last season as an All-American was a key piece on Baylor’s first Big 12 title team.
Oklahoma won that Red River battle.

The NFL draft came and went last weekend without a player from University of Texas being taken for the first time since 1937. Meanwhile, OU had four Sooners selected on Saturday, including two fourth-round picks in Jalen Saunders and Aaron Colvin.

Here’s a breakdown of the Sooners selected and how they could fit with their new teams.

WR Jalen Saunders, 4th round, N.Y. Jets

The fit: The Jets should be a good fit for Saunders as they badly need guys who can change a game in one play. Expect him to help the Jets immediately on special teams.

Best-case scenario: Saunders takes over as the punt returner and finds a role in the offense as a slot receiver to complement Eric Decker and Stephen Hill.

Worst-case scenario: Questions about his size come to fruition as he’s manhandled by bigger cornerbacks, or worse yet, the injury bug hits.

CB Aaron Colvin, 4th round, Jacksonville Jaguars

The fit: It’s probably not the best fit for Colvin to go to a franchise that has struggled for years. The Jaguars’ probable on-field struggles could put a damper on a rookie season that will be spent on the sideline. That said, Jacksonville is trying to rebuild with young players and Colvin fits the bill.

Best-case scenario: At the organization’s request, Colvin takes his time rehabbing his ACL injury, which he suffered at the Senior Bowl in January, and returns to 100 percent before he gets on the field for the first time. Ideally, he could return late in his rookie season and get his feet wet down the home stretch.

Worst-case scenario: Colvin has some type of setback that puts his 2015 season in question, particularly if it is sparked by any type of impatience from the organization.

LB Corey Nelson, 7th round, Denver Broncos

The fit: The Broncos could end up with a steal in Nelson, who looked poised for a superb senior season before a pectoral injury. For Nelson, it’s a good situation because he has to potential to fill multiple linebacker spots and help on special teams for a team that needs to fill roster spots as cheaply as possible after a high-spending offseason.

Best-case scenario: Nelson becomes a staple on special teams while becoming someone the coaching staff thinks can help on defense in the future.

Worst-case scenario: Nelson doesn’t make the roster.

FB Trey Millard, 7th round, San Francisco 49ers

The fit: Much like Colvin, Millard is coming off an ACL injury. But the 49ers are the perfect fit for Millard, who is physical and versatile and should become a useful piece in San Francisco’s offense.

Best-case scenario: Millard takes his time returning to 100 percent. Once he returns the field, he essentially becomes Colin Kaepernick’s bodyguard in the backfield while becoming a key special team player.

Worst-case scenario: Millard never returns to the player he was before an ACL injury ended his senior season.

Undrafted Sooners signees

S Gabe Lynn, Detroit Lions: Lynn should get an opportunity on a Lions team in need of defensive backs.

C Gabe Ikard, Tennessee Titans: Ikard’s versatility could help him make the Titans roster, as he can play three spots in the interior.

WR Jaz Reynolds, Tennessee Titans: If Reynolds can maximize his physical ability, he could earn a spot on the roster or practice squad.

G Bronson Irwin, Green Bay Packers: Irwin, much like Ikard, could find himself on the Packers roster if he shows the versatility he did in crimson and cream.

RB Roy Finc, New England Patriots: If Finch can show his big-play ability as a returner, his chances of sticking in New England increase.

RB Brennan Clay, Denver Broncos: The Broncos are a solid fit for Clay, who was easily OU’s most complete running back last season and could earn himself a spot on the roster by being dependable at running back and making an impact on special teams.

RB Damien Williams, Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins have several young running backs who could make things tough on Williams, but he has NFL ability.

WR Lacoltan Bester, Houston Texans: Bester will have to impress on special teams first if he hopes to make the roster.

Big 12 draft recap

May, 10, 2014
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Below is a recap of how the Big 12 fared this weekend in the NFL draft. Baylor led the league with five picks, and Texas failed to have a selection for the first time since 1937.

Round 1

[+] EnlargeJustin Gilbert
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesFormer Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert was the top Big 12 player drafted, going at No. 8 to the Cleveland Browns.
CB Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State: Cleveland Browns (8th overall)
Should start immediately opposite Pro Bowl CB Joe Haden.

CB Jason Verrett, TCU: San Diego Chargers (25th)
His aggressive cover corner skills will instantly boost an ailing San Diego secondary.

Round 2

TE Jace Amaro, Texas Tech: New York Jets (49th)
The Jets needed weapons for their passing game, and they got a big one here.

Round 3

RB Charles Sims, West Virginia: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (69th)
Pass-catching skills makes him the likely third-down back in Tampa.

DE Will Clarke, West Virginia: Cincinnati Bengals (88th)
If he can develop his frame, he could be a factor down the line.

Round 4

WR Jalen Saunders, Oklahoma: New York Jets (104th)
Brings major playmaking to the slot and the return teams.

CB Aaron Colvin, Oklahoma: Jacksonville Jaguars (114th)
Would have been a second-round pick if not for the Senior Bowl injury.

Round 5

OG Cyril Richardson, Baylor: Buffalo Bills (153rd)
A mauler who will probably need to trim down to succeed at the next level.

ILB Jeremiah George, Iowa State: New York Jets (154th)
Tackling skills could make him a force on special teams.

Round 6

RB Lache Seastrunk, Baylor: Washington Redskins (186th)
Had to wait a while, but gets to join former Bear RG III in the backfield.

CB Demetri Goodson, Baylor: Green Bay Packers (197th)
The former basketball player has upside that intrigued the Packers.

OL Tavon Rooks, Kansas State: New Orleans Saints (202nd)
It's a mild surprise that he was the first and only K-State alum drafted.

Round 7

OLB Will Smith, Texas Tech: Dallas Cowboys (238th)
Big-time college tackler who will contribute on coverage teams.

WR Tevin Reese, Baylor: San Diego Chargers (240th)
Will be interesting to see if San Diego can take advantage of Reese’s top-end speed.

OLB Corey Nelson, Oklahoma: Denver Broncos (242nd)
Has a nose for the ball and probably would’ve gone higher had it not been for the pectoral injury.

FB Trey Millard, Oklahoma: San Francisco 49ers (245th)
A typical talented 49ers draft pick coming off an injury.

SS Ahmad Dixon, Baylor: Dallas Cowboys (248th)
Brings a physical presence, but improvement in coverage will determine whether he sticks on the defense.

Grading Oklahoma's class: 2010

February, 4, 2014
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Oklahoma is poised to add several recruits into the fold on Wednesday, with its eye on creating the foundation of a future championship squad. Yet, recruiting is an inexact science, as some projected stars rise to meet those high expectations while others struggle to make a difference in the Big 12. Thus, it’s the perfect time to look back at OU’s past five recruiting classes. On Tuesday, we continue the series with a review of the Class of 2010, including recruits who exceeded expectations, those who were solid signees and complete busts.

This class featured seven players in the ESPN 150 and a ton of star power led by the “Cali Trio” of Kenny Stills, Brennan Clay and Tony Jefferson. The class was ranked No. 5 nationally by ESPN.com.

Transcendent figures

[+] EnlargeTrey Millard
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiTrey Millard earned first-team All-Big 12 honors during his final three seasons in Norman.
Fullback Trey Millard: The No. 59-ranked athlete in this class, Millard was exceptional during his four seasons in Norman. He was a mainstay on special teams, a devastating blocker from his fullback spot and a nightmare with the ball in his hands. He exceeded expectations and earned first-team All-Big 12 honors during his final three seasons.

Cornerback Aaron Colvin: An afterthought on signing day, but he was arguably the best player in this class. He started his first-ever Red River Rivalry as a freshman and started three straight seasons at two different positions, earning All-Big 12 honors twice. The nation’s No. 40 safety prospect coming out of Owasso, Okla., Colvin finished with 234 tackles, including 15 tackles for loss and five interceptions in 50 career games (36 starts).

Tackle Daryl Williams: The No. 53 tackle in the nation, Williams has performed like a highly-regarded offensive line prospect. He started his first college game as a redshirt freshman before injury derailed his first season. Nonetheless, Williams became a anchor on OU’s offensive line during his sophomore and junior seasons and enters his final season as one of the Big 12’s best offensive linemen.

Safety Tony Jefferson: The No. 21-ranked player in the ESPN 150, Jefferson stepped on campus with high expectations. He didn’t disappoint, earning Big 12 freshman-of-the-year honors in 2010 and All-Big 12 honors in 2012 before leaving early for the NFL. Jefferson finished with 258 tackles, eight interceptions and seven sacks in 40 career games (34 starts). He’s currently a safety for the Arizona Cardinals after going undrafted last spring.

Receiver Kenny Stills: The No. 36-ranked receiver prospect, Stills started every game he played in crimson and cream. His speed and football IQ separated him from the competition, as he finished with 204 receptions for 2,594 yards and 24 touchdowns in 38 career games (38 starts) before leaving early for the NFL. He’s currently one of Drew Brees’ main targets with the New Orleans Saints.

Bull's-eye

Running back Brennan Clay: Ranked No. 129 in the ESPN 150, Clay overcame injuries to become a key performer. He never emerged as a star, but he was the type of consistent, productive player who helps teams win games. He had 1,913 yards and 13 touchdowns in 46 career games (18 starts).

Linebacker Corey Nelson: The No. 62 player in the ESPN 150, Nelson had a solid career. A three-year starter, he had 153 tackles, including 17.5 tackles for loss in 45 career games (27 starts).

Completely missed the mark

Receiver Justin McCay: McCay never made an impact with the Sooners, transferring after his redshirt freshman season. The No. 142 player in the ESPN 150, McCay transferred to Kansas and currently plays for the Jayhawks.

Receiver Sheldon McClain: Much like McCay, McClain had a higher ranking than Stills as the No. 22-ranked receiver nationally but never made an impact before transferring.

Overall grade

A-minus. Even though this recruiting class featured multiple disappointments, it was littered with stars and contributors. Tyrus Thompson, Julian Wilson, Roy Finch, Blake Bell and Chuka Ndulue are just a few of the other Sooners in the Class of 2010 who became starters or major contributors alongside Colvin, Millard and the rest of the playmakers signed in February 2010.
As we close in on national signing day, it’s an appropriate time to look back at how the top Big 12 recruits from four years ago performed.

2010 was a banner year for the Big 12 in recruiting, as the league collectively landed 23 from the ESPN 150.

A few, such as Jackson Jeffcoat, Ahmad Dixon and Shaun Lewis, became stars. Others washed out before their careers ever got off the ground.

[+] EnlargeSterling Shepard and Jackson Jeffcoat
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsFormer five-star prospect Jackson Jeffcoat finished his career as the best defensive end in the Big 12.
Below is a closer look at what happened to ESPN 150 players who signed with Big 12 schools:

No. 2: Jackson Jeffcoat, DE, Texas – Though he never reached a high level of team success, Jeffcoat had a great individual end to his career, earning Big 12 co-Defensive Player of the Year honors and leading the league with 13 sacks.

No. 4: Jordan Hicks, LB, Texas – Hicks has been good when he has played. Because of multiple injuries, that hasn’t been often. Hicks missed most of last season with a torn Achilles, just a year after also being knocked out with a hip flexor injury. After getting a medical redshirt from his 2012 season, Hicks has one more year of eligibility remaining.

No. 13: Mike Davis, WR, Texas – Davis finished in the Big 12’s top 10 in receiving the last two seasons, compiling 200 career catches and 18 touchdown receptions.

No. 14: Taylor Bible, DT, Texas – Bible never played a down at Texas, leaving after his redshirt freshman season because of issues with grades. Bible ended up at Carson-Newman.

No. 15: Ahmad Dixon, S, Baylor – Dixon had a tremendous tenure with his hometown school, earning All-Big 12 and All-American honors as a senior as Baylor captured its first Big 12 title in 2013.

No. 18: Demarco Cobbs, ATH, Texas – The Tulsa, Okla., native has appeared in 29 games on special teams and as a defensive reserve. He missed all of the 2013 season with a knee injury.

No. 20: Darius White, WR, Texas – After making just six catches his first two seasons, White transferred to Missouri. He caught just seven passes this season for the Tigers, but has another year of eligibility left.

No. 21: Tony Jefferson, S, Oklahoma – In his first season, Jefferson was the Big 12 co-Defensive Freshman of the year, and he was a three-year starter before leaving early to go pro.

No. 46: Ashton Dorsey, DT, Texas – After serving as a reserve throughout his career, Dorsey was projected to start this season, but he transferred out days before Texas’ season opener.

No. 48: Austin Haywood, TE, Oklahoma – After getting playing time as a third tight end early in his career, Haywood unexpectedly quit in the middle of the season, tried to earn his way back on the team, failed and ended up transferring to Central Arkansas. After getting suspended there, Haywood gave up football.

No. 62: Corey Nelson, LB, Oklahoma – Nelson shined early this season after finally getting a chance to be a full-time starter. That, however, was short-lived, as Nelson tore his pectoral muscle in an early October win over TCU and sat out the rest of his final season.

No. 65: Blake Bell, QB, Oklahoma – The “Belldozer” starred his first two seasons as a situational, short-yardage QB. But in the preseason, Bell was beaten out by Trevor Knight for the starting job. Bell, however, still had his moments this season because of injuries to Knight. He led OU to a win at Notre Dame, then quarterbacked OU’s game-winning touchdown drive at Oklahoma State.

No. 72: Reggie Wilson, DE, Texas – He appeared in 51 games as a defensive reserve. Wilson had 19 tackles and a sack as a senior.

No. 73: Chris Jones, WR, Texas – Jones transferred out after one year, and never played.

No. 75: Shaun Lewis, LB, Oklahoma State – Lewis made an immediate impact, earning Big 12 co-Defensive Freshman of the Year honors along with Tony Jefferson. Lewis was a four-year starter and a big piece in Oklahoma State’s defensive turnaround this season.

[+] EnlargeBrennan Clay
Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY SportsFormer ESPN 150 recruit Brennan Clay was a solid, not spectacular, tailback for the Sooners.
No. 77: Quentin Hayes, S, Oklahoma – After serving a year-long suspension, Hayes returned to win a starting job this past season. He has another year left.

No. 86: Tevin Jackson, LB, Texas – Jackson has been a backup linebacker for the Longhorns and will be part of the team’s great depth there in 2014.

No. 103: Adrian White, CB, Texas – Played in 17 games, then joined the mass transfer exodus from this Texas class.

No. 109: Ivan McCartney, WR, West Virginia – McCartney never became a No. 1 receiver, though he did contribute on West Virginia’s explosive offenses in 2011-12. He only had 12 catches this past season as a senior, however.

No. 114: Aaron Benson, LB, Texas – The cousin of former Texas running back great Cedric Benson has only been a contributor on special teams.

No. 122: Carrington Byndom, S, Texas – One of the few players from this Texas class to pan out. Byndom made 39 career starts and was a second-team All-Big 12 selection this past season.

No. 129: Brennan Clay, RB, Oklahoma – Clay proved to be a reliable and steady force in the OU backfield. He finished his career with 1,913 rushing yards, including 957 in 2013.

No. 134: Adrian Philips, ATH, Texas – Phillips settled in the Texas secondary, collecting 28 career starts there. He was second on the team this past season with 82 tackles.

No. 141: Trey Hopkins, OG, Texas – Hopkins became a stalwart up front, making 42 career starts along the offensive line. He was a two-time, second-team All-Big 12 selection.

No. 142: Justin McCay, ATH, Oklahoma – McCay transferred to Kansas after two years in Norman. He had nine receptions and a touchdown, which also was the first scoring catch by a Kansas wide receiver in almost two full seasons.
Our series on the 25 best players in the Big 12 comes to an end today when we reveal the conference's three best players.

We hope this list hasn't been too terribly controversial, but yes, there have certainly been some quality players who did not make the cut. Several can make a solid case for why they should've made our Top 25, including Texas defensive end Cedric Reed, Texas Tech defensive lineman Kerry Hyder, West Virginia safety Darwin Cook, Kansas linebacker Ben Heeney and Kansas State running back John Hubert.

We did not forget about you, guys. We tip our caps to your strong showings in 2013.

And let's not forget the many Big 12 players who would've been among the conference's 25 best had they stayed healthy. Here's a closer look at five big-time players who missed out due to injuries.

Devonte Fields, DE, TCU: The No. 3 player in the blog's preseason Top 25 did not have a sophomore season to remember. TCU shut him down for the season on Oct. 9 due to a foot injury that required surgery. He ended up appearing in just three games due to suspension and injury. The Horned Frogs were wise to end his season early and seek a medical redshirt, and let's hope Fields is back to his dominant self when he returns in 2014.

[+] EnlargeJohnathan Gray
Cooper Neill/Getty ImagesJohnathan Gray was well on his way to an all-Big 12-caliber season before succumbing to injury in early November.
Johnathan Gray, RB, Texas: A torn right Achilles suffered in a road win at West Virginia ended a sophomore season that could've ended with Gray earning All-Big 12 honors. He emerged as the workhorse of Texas' offense after David Ash was lost for the season and, at 780 yards and four touchdowns, was one pace to become the Longhorns' first 1,000-yard rusher since 2007. If he can get healthy in time for the start of the 2014 season, he'll be on the league's best rushers again.

Trey Millard, FB/RB/TE, Oklahoma: Millard, who ranked No. 11 in our preseason Top 25, brought so many things to the Sooners' offense both in production and intangibles. He was pretty much guaranteed a spot in our postseason list until Oct. 26, when a torn ACL suffered against Texas Tech ended his season and his OU career five games too early. It's a shame we only got to see him touch the ball 28 times is his final season, but Millard and his many niche contributions won't soon be forgotten by Sooners fans.

Jordan Phillips, DT, Oklahoma: Sure, you can argue that OU linebacker Corey Nelson deserves this spot as the Sooners' captain and possible defensive MVP prior to his injury. But losing Phillips to a season-ending back injury in the middle of October was just as damaging, not only to the middle of the Sooners line but also because he seemed on pace to developing into an All-Big 12 caliber talent. He played in four games, missed two, and then was done. Let's hope he can get healthy and back in track as a junior.

Tevin Reese, WR, Baylor: Reese came very close to making our Top 25 despite missing five games this season with a broken wrist. He was one of several Baylor players who went down during the stretch run, and arguably the most critical one. He finished the year with 867 receiving yards and eight touchdowns and only needed 38 receptions to get there. His 22.8 yards per catch average ranked No. 2 nationally, and three of his scores came from 60-plus yards.
Big plays changed the destiny of Oklahoma football in 2013. Without several key plays in key moments, the Sooner could have stumbled down the Big 12 standings. Instead, OU was a BCS bowl winner. Here are the top five plays of the 2013 season in terms of their impact on games and overall impact on how this season will be remembered:

[+] EnlargeJalen Saunders, Lyndell Johnson
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiJalen Saunders made a number of clutch plays this season, but none bigger than his touchdown catch late against Oklahoma State.
1. Receiver Jalen Saunders' Bedlam touchdown. This was the defining moment of the 2013 season for Oklahoma. No single play represents this season better than Saunders’ seven-yard touchdown with 19 seconds remaining in the Sooners’ 33-24 win over Oklahoma State on Dec. 7. The play capped an improbable game-winning drive and improbable Bedlam win which knocked OSU out of the Big 12 title hunt and thrust OU into the Sugar Bowl.

2. Defensive end Geneo Grissom’s touchdown in the Sugar Bowl. As Grissom dove toward the end zone, arm outstretched to score OU’s final touchdown, Sooners fans erupted with the realization that OU was going to beat Alabama by double digits, 45-31. It was the best moment of the year for Sooner Nation and meant validation for Bob Stoops on many levels. And the actual play represented the foundation of OU’s win, an opportunistic defense forcing four turnovers.

3. Linebacker Corey Nelson’s touchdown at Notre Dame. Nelson’s 24-yard interception return for a touchdown was the first sign this could be a special year for Stoops’ group. It got the Sooners off to a terrific start in their first road game of the season and sparked OU to the best nonconference win by a Big 12 team -- 35-21 over Notre Dame -- during the regular season. This play was also the first sign that linebacker Eric Striker was going to be a terror for opposing quarterbacks and a major playmaker for OU’s defense this season.

4. Receiver Lacolton Bester’s Sugar Bowl touchdown. OU’s first touchdown of the Sugar Bowl sent a message that the Sooners weren’t going to back down against the Crimson Tide and weren’t hesitant to place the game on the shoulders of redshirt freshman quarterback Trevor Knight. His perfect throw to Bester sent waves of confidence throughout the Sooners sidelines and OU rode that wave to a Sugar Bowl victory.

5. Cornerback Zack Sanchez interception return for touchdown against Kansas State. Not only did it seal the Sooners’ 41-31 road win, it is a good representation of the growth of the Sooners and how they turned that growth into on-field production. Sanchez had his struggles as a redshirt freshman but his competitiveness never wavered and his interception return against the Wildcats is an example of his development as a player. Several young Sooners, like Sanchez, grew a lot during the season and turned their development into on-field success as OU won three straight huge games against Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Alabama to end the season.

Season report card: Oklahoma

January, 7, 2014
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Well, well, well. Look who ends the season as the Big 12’s top-ranked team. It appeared the Sooners were facing a rebuilding season heading into 2013, yet Oklahoma finished the year No. 6 in both the AP and coaches polls after an 11-2 season that was capped off by a 45-31 win over Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

Offense: B

The Sooners' bowl performance catapulted this grade up to a B. They were a very average offense for the majority of the season, lacking balance and consistency in the passing attack. Their running game was terrific, averaging 223.92 yards, second in the Big 12 and No. 18 nationally among FBS teams. Senior running back Brennan Clay had the best season of his career with 175 carries for 957 yards and six touchdowns. He was OU’s most consistent skill player.

But Oklahoma's passing game was inconsistent and didn’t create fear for any defense it faced with a passing attack that surpassed 200 yards just three times during the regular season. The Sooners' Sugar Bowl offense was the one the offensive coaching staff had envisioned when they named Trevor Knight the starter before the season began, so the Sooners enter this offseason with hope. OU’s quarterback situation is clearer now than it was at any point during the regular season.

The Sooners' offensive line deserves an A. The group didn’t dominate every single game but rarely had bad outings and was the main reason for the offensive success OU did achieve in the regular season. Center Gabe Ikard was the best player on the team and his leadership was one reason this squad overachieved.

[+] EnlargeHead coach Bob Stoops of the Oklahoma Sooners
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAn 11-2 record and Allstate Sugar Bowl win means a lot of high marks for the Sooners.
Defense: A-

OU’s defense was the foundation of its BCS berth. The defense entered the season with a huddle full of questions, yet was the driving force behind another 10-win regular season in Norman, Okla.

The defensive line was very good, overachieving with a lot of inexperienced players. Sophomore Charles Tapper became an impact player, and the development of several other defensive linemen, including Jordan Wade and Geneo Grissom, cannot be understated. New defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery did a terrific job.

The linebackers redeemed themselves as the most productive position group after a shaky 2013. Despite losing senior leader Corey Nelson, OU’s linebackers were solid throughout the year and Big 12 defensive freshman of the year Dominique Alexander looks like a future star.

Cornerback Aaron Colvin joined Ikard as one of the leaders and best players on the squad. He was the anchor of a defense that finished atop the Big 12 in yards allowed per game (350.2 ypg). OU’s secondary was relatively inexperienced but more than held its own even with some rough patches against Alabama and Kansas State.

Special teams: A

Special teams play won the Sooners some games in 2013. Those units had a major impact in wins over Iowa State, Oklahoma State and West Virginia. Jalen Saunders was one of the nation’s top punt returners and kicker Michael Hunnicutt was money for the majority of the season.

Overall: A+

This OU squad had no business going 11-2 as injury after injury crippled the team, but it still found a way to keep winning games. The Sooners' pride, competitiveness and undeterred expectations for success rose them to another level and was never more apparent than in the Sugar Bowl win over the Crimson Tide. OU entered the season with muted expectations and ended it alongside the best teams in college football.

Allstate Sugar Bowl: Three thoughts

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Oklahoma pulled off one of the great upsets of this bowl season Thursday with a 45-31 victory over heavily favored and No. 3 Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. Three things we learned about the No. 11 Sooners following their biggest win in a long time.

1. Knight’s big moment: Redshirt freshman quarterback Trevor Knight got the start, his fifth this season, and absolutely shined. Knight threw for 348 yards and four touchdowns to guide an Oklahoma offense that put up 45 points on one of the nation’s toughest defenses. The knock on Knight in his inconsistent debut season was his accuracy, but you wouldn’t have known that on Thursday. He hit on a career-best 32 of his 44 attempts and was as sharp as he was aggressive. Too often we can make too much of a bowl-game performance and what it means, but this was a legitimate breakthrough. The Sooners, it seems, have finally found their triggerman.

2. Big 12 tempo pays off: In the battle of Big 12 vs. SEC, who would’ve figured Alabama would have a hard time keeping up with a Sooner offense that went surprisingly high tempo? We saw the effects Auburn’s quick attack had on confusing Tide defenders, and Bob Stoops and Josh Heupel deserve plenty of praise for turning up their speed in bowl practices and unleashing a much faster offense, one that gave the Tide fits and got plenty of big plays. Remember, one year ago Oklahoma was the one that couldn’t keep up with Johnny Manziel and the frenetic Texas A&M offense. This time, the Sooners dropped 31 in the first half and Bama couldn’t stop them.

3. What can Oklahoma do in 2014? On paper, the Big 12 looks about as wide open in 2014 as it was going into this season, when four teams all could’ve made legitimate claims they were the league’s best. The Sooners made their case in New Orleans. While they’ll lose several key cogs to graduation -- including Gabe Ikard, Aaron Colvin, Jalen Saunders, Brennan Clay, Trey Millard and Corey Nelson -- this defense could be loaded next fall and Knight will break in some exciting new weapons at the skill spots. Calling them the league’s runaway favorite for 2014 might be premature, but Oklahoma will definitely be in the title hunt again.
One play here, one play there.

Oklahoma finished the season with 10 wins but could have lost several close games without big plays in key moments from several different players. Jalen Saunders' punt returns, Brennan Clay touchdown runs and key defensive plays played a role in OU's 10-2 record while two key plays in the Sooners' losses also pushed them down the road to a loss.

Here are the top 10 plays that helped define OU’s season.

1. Jalen Saunders' game-winning touchdown catch in Bedlam. Blake Bell made a perfect throw and Saunders ran a terrific route on the 7-yard touchdown that vaulted OU into the Sugar Bowl with a 33-24 win. It capped off a improbable drive in one of the best Bedlam games in recent memory. This play completely cemented the quality job done by Bob Stoops as his squad reached the 10-win mark in a season that was billed as a rebuilding campaign.

[+] EnlargeCorey Nelson
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsCorey Nelson got the Sooners off to a big start against Notre Dame with an early interception return for a touchdown.
2. Corey Nelson's interception return for touchdown against Notre Dame. The Sooners might not have knocked off the Fighting Irish, 35-21, without Nelson’s big play. The senior linebacker’s return for a score allowed OU to play with a lead from the start, a scenario that cannot be overlooked in Bell’s first road start of his career. That key play helped the Sooners start 5-0 and remind the nation that they can still win high-profile games on the road.

3. Saunders' punt return in Bedlam. There wasn’t a lot going right for OU’s offense when Saunders returned a punt 64 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter against Oklahoma State to tie the game 7-7. OU had gained 54 yards in the first quarter, yet entered the second quarter tied with the Cowboys thanks to Saunders. It was an important play in the win that transformed OU’s season from good to great.

4. Red zone disappointments against Baylor. It’s not one play, but this sequence completely changed the game in OU’s 41-12 blowout loss to the Bears. The Sooners were inside the Bears’ 10-yard line on back-to-back drives yet came away with three total points. BU’s headline-making offense had just three points early in the second quarter, so if the Sooners could have punched in at least one touchdown they could have played with a lead against that explosive offense. Instead they were forced to try to score to keep up with the Bears.

5. Brennan Clay's 76-yard run against TCU. The senior running back’s long touchdown run helped create a cushion against the Horned Frogs in a game that saw the Sooners offense struggle to put points on the scoreboard. Clay’s scoring gallop with under five minutes left gave OU an two-possession lead which it ended up needing when the Horned Frogs scored a touchdown late in the 20-17 win. A loss in this game could have transformed OU's season into the rebuilding campaign that many expected.

6. Trevor Knight's touchdown pass to Sterling Shepard against K-State. It wasn’t a game-changing score but it sent a clear message that Knight had brought his “A” game in OU's 41-31 win over Kansas State. The redshirt freshman played the best game of his season, finishing with a 90 adjusted QBR against the Wildcats after opening the game with a 12-yard touchdown pass to Shepard. And it was clear Knight was going to play at a high level after the first drive and touchdown to Shepard.

7. Shepard’s catch-and-run against the Irish. With the Irish threatening to make a comeback bid, Shepard caught a short pass and turned on the afterburners to pull away from the ND defense for a 54-yard touchdown to give the Sooners a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter. Notre Dame had outscored OU 14-6 in the second half before the sophomore scored that momentum-changing touchdown.

8. Chris Whaley's interception return for touchdown in the Red River Rivalry. The Texas defensive tackle changed the momentum of the Longhorns’ 36-20 win over OU with a key first quarter interception of Bell and return for touchdown. Bell never really looked the same after the play, lacking confidence as the Sooners offense struggled to get anything going throughout the afternoon and Bell finished with a 6.4 adjusted QBR. Whaley's interception made it clear the Longhorns weren't going to get blown out as many expected heading into the game and OU appeared shell-shocked from that point forward.

9. Saunders' punt return against Iowa State. There seems to be a theme here. It’s Saunders, yet again, with a game-changing play for the Sooners. OU trailed Iowa State 10-3 late in the second half and looked ready to head into the locker room trailing a team that was winless in the Big 12. Instead they went into the locker room tied and the Cyclones watched as the Sooners scored 38 second-half points to cruise to a 48-10 win. His punt return pretty much sucked the life out of the ISU locker room.

10. Lacoltan Bester's touchdown pass to Shepard against Kansas. Another theme here ... With OU’s offense struggling, Bester found Shepard for a 49-yard touchdown that gave the Sooners their first lead of the game. It looked like the Sooners might fall in Lawrence, Kan., before Bester’s perfect throw to a wide-open Shepard. OU took it from there and secured the 34-19 win.

Stats reveal Stoops' excellence at OU

November, 27, 2013
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Bob Stoops became the all-time winningest coach in Oklahoma history on Saturday. The Sooners’ veteran coach won his 158th game at OU with a 41-31 victory over Kansas State to pass Barry Switzer on the school’s win list.

His list of accomplishments reveal the standard of success Stoops has set in Norman, Okla. since he took over in 1999. He has reached all four BCS games and the BCS national title game with 14 bowl appearances, eight Big 12 titles, eight BCS bowls, four BCS title game appearances, one BCS national title.

With the help of the OU SID department and ESPN Stats & Information, a closer look at five key stats during the Stoops era points to the priorities of a program run by the 15-year coach and the foundation of his 158-39 record.

[+] EnlargeBob Stoops
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezBob Stoops has been a defensive-minded coach with explosive offenses.
Third-down defense: OU’s defense has been the among the nation’s best under Stoops. The Sooners have held opponents to a 31.5 percent conversion rate on third down. OU ranks No. 2 among FBS teams in that category since Stoops took over. Making plays and winning individual battles on clutch plays have become trademarks of Stoops’ squads. The Sooners understand the importance of getting off the field on third down and have been able to consistently be among the nation’s best in those situations.

Third-down conversions: OU has 1,283 total third down conversions under Stoops, which is tied for first among FBS teams. OU consistently has a solid plan on third down attempts and secures the players -- like Heisman winners Sam Bradford and Jason White — to execute that plan consistently. Since 2004, the Sooners have converted 44.9 percent of their third down conversion attempts. The national average during that span is 39.8 percent.

Forced turnovers: Stoops knows the value of turnovers and he instills that belief into his teams. Since 1999, OU has forced 428 turnovers which is tied for third among FBS teams. That’s an average of 28.5 per season. OU has forced at least one turnover in 170 of 197 games (86.3 percent) in the last 15 years. Games between two evenly matched teams are often decided by turnovers but Stoops’ crew also uses them to dominate lesser opponents. A combination of talented defenders and aggressive schemes have put opponents into positions to make mistakes and OU tends to take advantage.

Defensive touchdowns: OU has scored 46 defensive touchdowns and has scored at least one defensive TD in each of Stoops’ 15 seasons. Thus, not only do the Sooners make a concerted effort to take the ball away, they have the ability to turn it into points. Cornerback Zack Sanchez did it last weekend with his 74-yard interception return against Kansas State. He joined defensive end Geneo Grissom and linebacker Corey Nelson as Sooners with a defensive touchdown this season. The Sooners’ 28 defensive touchdowns since 2004 are tied for eighth among FBS teams.

Points per drive: While Stoops is a defensive-minded coach, the offenses have placed among the nation’s scoring leaders throughout his tenure. Since 2004, the Sooners have averaged 2.56 points per drive, ranking No. 8 among FBS teams. It’s a sign OU’s offenses under Stoops not only move the ball with success but also finish drives with points. The Sooners have brought in stars like Bradford, running back Adrian Peterson and receiver Ryan Broyles to help them become one of the most explosive offenses in college football during the past 15 years. Their 2.56-point per drive average is a full 0.5 point more than the national average of 2.02 during that span.

In the 15 seasons with Stoops in charge, his teams rank among the nation’s best in key moments on third down, finish offensive drives with points and force game-changing turnovers.

Sounds like a winning combination.

Roundtable: Debating Big 12 storylines

November, 25, 2013
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With only two weeks left to the regular season, we debate some pressing questions, including the Big 12’s most underrated player and which of many injuries to key players had the biggest impact on the conference season:

Is there anyone else who should be considered for Big 12 offensive player of the year and/or All-Big 12 quarterback, other than Baylor's Bryce Petty?

[+] EnlargeKye Staley, Clint Chelf
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesOklahoma State's Clint Chelf got a late start, but is finishing strong.
Jake Trotter: Oklahoma State quarterback Clint Chelf should be considered. Chelf has been on fire here down the stretch. Will it be enough to unseat Petty, who has put up big numbers all year? Probably not. After all, Chelf watched two-and-a-half Big 12 games from the sidelines. But the fact he’s even entered this conversation underscores just how phenomenal he’s been since taking over the starting job in mid-October.

Brandon Chatmon: His strongest competition for offensive player of the year is Kansas State’s Tyler Lockett. Imagine the Wildcats' season if Lockett was healthy and available for games against Oklahoma State and Baylor. He combined for 25 receptions for 515 yards against Texas and Oklahoma, so I’m guessing he would have stepped up against the Cowboys and Bears as well.

Max Olson: A case can be made for Chelf, who ranks No. 4 nationally in adjusted QBR since becoming Oklahoma State’s starting quarterback. He might be the favorite had Mike Gundy given him the job earlier. But Petty is still No. 1 for now. If Texas Tech hadn’t fallen into its four-game slump and was just a game or two back in the Big 12 race, Jace Amaro would merit consideration.

Who at this moment is your Big 12 defensive player of the year?

Trotter: Oklahoma State middle linebacker Caleb Lavey has been the heart and soul of the top defense in the Big 12. He’s also had a fabulous season, ranking fifth in the league in tackles and tackles for loss and tied for second in interceptions. To me, he’s been the defensive player of the year in this league.

Chatmon: No player has clearly cemented himself as the favorite for this award, but I’m going with Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert. He’s taken his game to another level as a senior with six interceptions, returning two for scores against Iowa State and Texas. After a subpar junior year, he’s been all business as a senior.

Olson: There’s still time for a new favorite to rise to the top of the heap, but right now I’d go with the best player of the best defense in the Big 12. To me, that’s Gilbert. Not just because of his six interceptions, but because he’s playing at an elite level against elite competition this month. If Gilbert shuts down the Sooners, I’m fine with him winning the honor.

Who is the most underrated player in the league?

[+] EnlargeTyler Lockett
Jasen VinloveUSA TODAY SportsKansas State's Tyler Lockett averages 162.2 all-purpose yards per game.
Trotter: Kansas State wide receiver Tyler Lockett might not get any votes for Big 12 offensive player of the year, but he should be on everyone’s ballot for All-Big 12 wide receiver alongside Baylor’s Antwan Goodley. Lockett has always been a tremendous returner. But he’s developed into a tremendous receiver, too. He leads the Big 12 with 162.2 all-purpose yards per game. Nobody else even comes close to that.

Chatmon: His team struggled, but West Virginia’s Charles Sims did not. The Houston transfer has been one of the Big 12’s toughest players to defend with his ability to gain tough yards, break the big run and catch the ball out of the backfield from his running back spot. He’s averaged 5.8 yards per touch from the line of scrimmage this season.

Olson: He’s one of the Big 12’s best, but I can’t help but think that Ryan Mueller doesn’t get enough attention. The Kansas State defensive end now has 10.5 sacks and 17 tackles for loss, and he’ll likely finish in the top 10 nationally in both categories. He’s a worthy candidate for DPOY, but because K-State fell off the national radar early on this season, he still seems a bit underappreciated.

Which one injury had the biggest impact on this Big 12 season?

Trotter: I don’t think Baylor would have won at Oklahoma State with just one of its injured players, and I doubt the Bears will lose again without any of them, either. So I’ll go with Oklahoma linebacker Corey Nelson. The Sooners were playing great defense early in the season with Nelson leading the way. After he suffered the season-ending pectoral tear, they were never the same on that side of the ball, especially the following week against Texas.

Chatmon: It would have been interesting to see if Baylor could have finished off its dream season with a healthy Lache Seastrunk. I think Saturday’s result proved the Bears running back, not Petty, was the foundation that the Bears’ offense was built upon. Shock Linwood is a superb player and appears to be a future star, but he’s not Lache Seastrunk.

Olson: I agree with Brandon on Seastrunk for the same reasons he laid out. Two more worth mentioning: Losing the always reliable and speedy Tevin Reese has been a setback for Baylor. The way he can stretch a defense and stress a defense created lots of opportunities all over the field for the Bears. And we'll never know how much David Ash could have helped Texas, as he seemed poised for a big year.
NORMAN, Okla. -- It seemed like all hope was lost.

Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops had just announced defensive tackle Jordan Phillips would miss the remainder of the season with a back injury during his weekly press conference in mid-October. One week earlier, Stoops had announced linebacker Corey Nelson would miss the rest of the year with a pectoral injury.

Just that quickly, the Sooners were eyeing the bulk of their Big 12 conference schedule without two of their top defenders. Phillips had been emerging as a force in the middle after the season opened with lots of questions about OU’s defensive interior, and Nelson had become the anchor of OU’s defense after the season began with major concerns about the lack of production from the linebackers.

[+] EnlargeDominique Alexander
William Purnell/Icon SMIFreshman Dominique Alexander is one of many Sooners who have stepped up on defense in the wake of injuries.
The Sooners were back to square one. And with limited options. Defensive tackles Jordan Wade and Torrea Peterson stepped up to replace Phillips and linebacker Dominique Alexander filled in for Nelson.

A clear step backward was expected.

But it hasn’t really happened. For all intents and purposes, this Sooners defense has proven to have much better depth than anyone would have anticipated when the season began.

“No one thought we had any D-Linemen, now we’re two-deep,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “Dominique was a pleasant surprise, coming in and playing at the level he’s played at. We needed that or we couldn’t have survived. Guys have really come through.”

The stats have jumped in the last five games since Phillips and Nelson were lost for the year, with points allowed per game, yards per play and yards per game increasing. But so has the quality of the competition. And OU’s defense has remained the best and most consistent unit on the team, even without Nelson and Phillips.

“Some of the younger guys are playing are playing above their age,” defensive end Chuka Ndulue said. “They’re playing at a higher level than most young guys are expected to play.”

Alexander has 52 tackles in the last five games, averaging 10.4 tackles per game while becoming one of the most productive players on the defense. Wade and Peterson haven’t done much to be noticed, which is a good thing. As the anchors of a 3-man front, they aren’t expected to get numbers as much as they’re counted on not to get pushed around. The fact Alexander and fellow linebacker Frank Shannon usually sit atop the postgame tackle list speaks to solid contributions by Wade and Peterson, who are allowing the linebacker duo the freedom to make plays.

“We have a lot of positives our guys are taking away, even though you lose players it’s helping us transition,” Mike Stoops said. “Those are good things.”

The Sooners defensive coordinator points to the expectation of being a Sooner and the mental approach as the foundation of OU’s ability to handle the injuries without complete and total disaster.

“Consistently being tough and having pride about the way we play, that’s where it all starts,” Mike Stoops said. “That’s the most important element of defense, your attitude about it, regardless of who is in there, nobody cares who is playing. It’s how you play and how you attack each preparation each week. Our guys have been really consistent in those departments and that’s given us a chance.”

The ability to overcome those injuries has OU excited about the future, particularly with Alexander and Wade each in their freshman seasons and several other freshman, like cornerbacks Zack Sanchez and Stanvon Taylor, showing good long-term upside.

“You lose two leaders and two impact players, but at the same time it shows you what we can do with the players we have right now,” Ndulue said. “We’re playing at a high level with those two guys gone, so imagine the possibility if they were still here. We’re Oklahoma. We have pride. We have good players. Whoever is up to play has to be ready to step out there and make plays.”

The Sooners defense isn’t littered with five-star talent, a trend that’s led to some unrest by the Sooner faithful, yet the defense seems littered with plenty of young talent that has upgraded the overall speed and athleticism of the unit. Seeing young players like Alexander and Sanchez step up this season has validated the Sooners’ ability to evaluate somewhat overlooked recruits who can make an impact early in their careers.

“Watching some of our younger players play Saturday, we have a lot of good players that just haven’t had the opportunities,” Mike Stoops said.

But most importantly it’s been the expectation to excel which seems to have allowed OU to handle the loss of two critical pieces in the middle of the season and continue to field a defense that’s played well enough to win every game this season.

“If they’re at Oklahoma, they’re expected to play at a high level,” Mike Stoops said. “That’s all there is to it.”
How can No. 6 Baylor survive its first big test and improve to 8-0? What must No. 10 Oklahoma achieve in order to be the first to defeat these Bears? Here’s our take on what it’s going to take for either team to emerge victorious on Thursday night.

Three keys to beating Oklahoma

1. Run the ball right at the Sooners. Texas used this blueprint to hand OU its lone loss this season as two Longhorn running backs (Johnathan Gray, Malcolm Brown) rushed for more than 100 yards. While the Sooners rank third in the Big 12 in rushing yards allowed (134.75), they’ve allowed 200 rushing yards or more to Kansas, Notre Dame and Texas. Baylor has the talent with Lache Seastrunk and depth with Glasco Martin and Shock Linwood to test the Sooners, particularly with Jordan Phillips and Corey Nelson no longer manning the middle of OU’s defense.

2. Make Blake Bell uncomfortable in the pocket. The Longhorns defense harassed Bell into mental mistakes in the Sooners’ lone loss. Bell’s 4.3 adjusted QBR was the 13th worst QBR by a quarterback and the worst in the Big 12 this season. The junior never looked comfortable or confident in the pocket as he completed just 46.2 percent of his passes with two interceptions. If Baylor can get similar pressure on Bell, it could force similar mistakes.

3. Make the Sooners play from behind. Oklahoma’s offense is considerably better when playing with a lead. The Sooners can remain committed to their running game while using their success on the ground to make teams pay with play action passes. Running backs Brennan Clay, Damien Williams and Roy Finch give the Sooners one of the deepest groups of runners in the Big 12. And Bell can make defenses pay with his legs as well. OU’s passing attack has been the most inconsistent part of the squad in 2013, so if the Bears make the Sooners have to throw to get back in the game, they have to like their odds on coming out on top.

-- Brandon Chatmon

Three keys to beating Baylor

1. Put the defense to the test. Baylor takes immense pride in the progress its defense has made in 2013. But that defense has faced just one top-50 scoring offense (Kansas State, 49th) and four that rank 92nd or worse. Maybe this Oklahoma offense (ranked 55th) isn’t the great unit that finally tests just how sturdy this Bear defense really is, but it has enough firepower at running back and receiver to challenge Baylor’s back seven. Baylor’s defense has pitched a first-quarter shutout in five of its seven wins. If Oklahoma finds a way to get on the scoreboard early, how will its opponent respond?

2. Slow Seastrunk and the rushing attack. Three of the five teams that beat Baylor last held the offense to less than 120 rushing yards. Kansas State, the only team to play the Bears close this year, held them to 114 rushing yards and Seastrunk to 59 on 12 carries. Baylor has the luxury of throwing the more than capable duo of Martin and Linwood in if Seastunk can’t get going, but that would be a victory for OU’s defense and greatly help its chances. That unit must find ways to make Bryce Petty’s job more difficult and get Art Briles and playcaller Phil Montgomery out of their run-pass rhythm.

3. Take it to the fourth quarter. Petty has attempted four passes in fourth quarters this season. Seastrunk has two rushing attempts. The average score of a Baylor game after three quarters is 55-10. These guys have not been tested. The Sooners have to prey on that and try to wear out the Bears if they get the opportunity. Maybe those run lanes start opening up more late. Maybe Petty, after 30 throws, starts losing some accuracy. OU needs an advantage in this department. But, really, the simple truth about beating Baylor is this: The Bears won’t lose unless they show up flat, make mistakes and start beating themselves. Oklahoma is going to need an excellent game plan and, probably, a lot of help.

-- Max Olson

OU runs over Tech with eyes to Baylor

October, 27, 2013
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NORMAN, Okla. – Oklahoma’s game plan coming out of halftime Saturday night didn’t include tailback passes, onside kicks or punt-return decoys.

[+] EnlargeBlake Bell
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiBlake Bell and the Sooners found an offensive identity -- less than two weeks from a showdown at Baylor.
The Sooners’ scheme was sublimely simple. Get behind all-everything fullback Trey Millard and pound the ball between the tackles.

That wham-bam offensive style topped Kliff Kingsbury’s wily bag of tricks in a 38-30 victory over Texas Tech, and it reestablished the Sooners as big a threat as any to unbeaten Baylor for the Big 12 title.

“I love our team and their attitude,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. “Are we in great shape? No. Am I excited about our team and our opportunity and our willingness to fight and all of that? Yeah, I am.”

The Sooners suffered yet another devastating injury, as Millard tore his ACL covering a kickoff in the fourth quarter. The Sooners had already lost their best linebacker (Corey Nelson) and best defensive lineman (Jordan Phillips) for the year. Now, they’ll go to Baylor without their most valuable offensive player, too.

But even with more injury adversity, the Sooners also, for the first time in a month, looked like a team that could challenge for the Big 12 crown.

When he had to, quarterback Blake Bell delivered confident completions to convert third downs. The defense continued to batten down the hatches, even while having to resort to playing true freshmen Jordan Evans and Dominique Alexander at linebacker.

And the Sooners ran the ball at will.

Oklahoma racked up 277 yards on the ground, featuring the trio of Damien Williams (101 yards), Roy Finch (55 yards) and Brennan Clay (42 yards).

“When you’re blocking it that way and running it that way,” Stoops said, “you have got to keep calling it until they can stop it.”

Tech couldn’t stop it.

In fact, on the first possession out of halftime, Oklahoma called 10 runs and one pass and marched right down the field to take a 21-7 lead.

“That was the game plan,” Finch said. “We wanted to play Oklahoma football, get our run game going, and open up shots down field.”

The run did exactly that.

Early in the second quarter, after three inept weeks of offense, the Sooners rediscovered their stride offensively. In its longest drive of the season in plays, yards and time, Oklahoma ground out an effective -- if aesthetically displeasing -- 16-play, 97-yard touchdown drive covering almost eight minutes.

“I thought that drive was really good,” Stoops said. “When you can run a bunch of plays, and stick it in the end zone, it makes a big difference.”

On the first play of the following possession, with Tech’s safeties creeping up to the line of scrimmage, Bell faked a handoff, then uncorked his best pass since the Notre Dame game over the top to Jalen Saunders, who coasted in for a 76-yard touchdown to give Oklahoma its first lead, 14-7.

The Red Raiders were on their heels defensively the rest of the way.

“We controlled the line of scrimmage,” center Gabe Ikard said. “We ran power a lot. I don’t know how many times we ran it, but we ran it over and over and over again. We had a lot of success with it.”

Even without Millard, who has been an integral piece of the running attack, the Sooners are sure to heave the same game plan at Baylor in two weeks.

These Sooners can’t outscore the Bears through the air. Who can? But as they did with Tech, they can run the ball at Baylor, control the clock and keep the Bears off the field. After all, a team far less imposing than Oklahoma almost beat the eighth-ranked Bears with that formula two weeks ago.

With little semblance of a passing game, Kansas State still racked up 327 yards on the ground, while keeping Bryce Petty and Lache Seastrunk on the sidelines. As a result, the Wildcats took a lead into the fourth quarter but couldn’t make enough plays to hold on.

The Sooners made enough plays to topple one of the Big 12’s last two unbeatens on Saturday. A week from Thursday, they’ll see if they can do the same to the other.

“I feel good about what we’re doing,” Stoops said. “I’m excited.

“And we’re excited.”

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