Oklahoma Sooners: Durron Neal
The Sooners defense was tired of hearing about TCU’s defense. The Horned Frogs entered the season considered the best defense in the Big 12 thanks to their performance in 2012. Oklahoma made its case to be considered the league’s top defensive unit against TCU on Saturday. The Horned Frogs opened the game with seven straight three-and-outs, not recording a first down until the third quarter. That’s called pure domination by the Sooners defense. TCU finished with 210 yards, averaging 4 yards per play.
OU’s running game is the real deal. The Sooners rushed for 203 yards on 38 carries against the Horned Frogs and, for the second straight week, turned to the running game and ran out the clock in the final minutes. Quarterback Blake Bell had runs of 17 and 13 yards on the final drive to secure the victory. OU's 194 rushing yards against Tulsa is the lone game under 200 rushing yards during the Sooners' 5-0 start.
The Sooners passing game still has a ways to go. OU passed for 156 yards against the best secondary Bell has seen thus far this season. Sophomore Durron Neal led the squad with 42 receiving yards as OU’s passing game was far from explosive. However, Bell continued to do a terrific job avoiding a game-changing interception. And, with the way the Sooners’ defense is playing, OU will be tough to beat if Bell continues to protect the ball in a similar fashion.
Here are five things we’ve learned about OU’s offense in the first three games.
Oklahoma’s offense is more explosive when the passing game clicks: The Sooners looked like two different offenses from Week 2 to Week 3. Blake Bell took over the quarterback duties from Trevor Knight and the Sooners passing game finally clicked. But was that because they were playing Tulsa and the Golden Hurricane had watched the Sooners struggle for two straight weeks? Or was Bell just that much better than Knight? We’ll found out as the season progresses but one thing is pretty clear: OU’s offense has too many talented pass-catchers to lean solely on its running game this season. The Sooners’ use of four-receiver sets should continue if they hope to challenge defenses this fall.
The more receivers involved, the better: Bell spread the ball around much better than Knight did in his start against Tulsa. He targeted 11 different receivers and completed passes to 10 different pass-catchers as OU reeled off 51 points with ease. He didn’t really have a “favorite” receiver, instead finding the open man and even looking off defenders to create seams in the secondary. He looked like the veteran he is and took advantage of the talents of Sterling Shepard, Jaz Reynolds and Durron Neal, who were largely quiet when Knight was under center. If Bell continues to spread the ball around, OU’s offense continues to be dangerous.
The Sooners have a deep group of running backs: They have three senior running backs who have proven to be playmakers, yet true freshman Keith Ford has generated all the buzz in Norman with his physical running style. That’s how deep the Sooners are at running back. Brennan Clay has been outstanding with 262 yards in three games and OU is averaging 5.4 yards per carry in 2013. Their depth will allow them to keep Clay, Roy Finch and Damien Williams from getting banged up as they split carries without sacrificing production.
Still no tight ends: Raise your hand if you’re surprised. Anyone? The Sooners don’t use a tight end instead, opting to use Trey Millard. And it’s the right move and a natural progression for a coaching staff looking to put its best 11 players on the field. So while there’s no player listed as a tight end on the field, Millard is playing that role on a significant portion of snaps. And playing it well.
Finch might actually touch the ball more, Millard will not: Seeing Finch on the field is awe-inspiring, if only because he’s actually on the field. The senior is making the same plays he’s always made but clearly is doing the right thing off the field as well since he’s getting consistent chances to make plays. Millard, meanwhile, will never have to worry about opportunities to step on the field. In fact he’s too valuable, that’s why OU doesn’t want the ball in his hands to limit his bumps and bruises. Millard is averaging 3.3 touches per game, Finch is averaging 6 offensive touches per game. Millard averaged 4.9 touches per game and Finch averaged 0.69 offensive touches per game in 2012.
Whoever wins the job will have plenty of talent around him and should be protected by a veteran group of offensive linemen. Yet plenty of potential concerns still remain. Here is a look at three reasons for hope for the Sooners' offense and three reasons to be concerned.
New offensive approach: Whoever wins the quarterback job will bring a running aspect to the quarterback position that was never a factor with Jones under center. There will be times this season when receivers are covered and the Sooners' quarterback will make the defense pay with his feet. It brings an added element to the offense that Big 12 defenses will have to prepare for and should mean additional big-play opportunities for the Sooners' skill players.
Depth at the skill positions: OU will enter the season with a veteran group of playmaking running backs alongside youthful talent at the position, one of the Big 12's most explosive, and a group of talented, yet somewhat inexperienced, receivers. Running backs Damien Williams and Brennan Clay should be one of the league's top running duos, and Jalen Saunders proved he can make game-altering plays in 2012.
Unknowns at receiver: There is a bunch at talent at receiver but limited experience. Inside receivers Saunders and Sterling Shepard are proven playmakers, but OU needs playmaking at outside receiver as well. Trey Metoyer might be the most talented candidate but needs to mature into a consistent producer. Durron Neal has ability, and Lacoltan Bester is one of the most competitive receivers on the roster. OU has receivers with the potential to produce, but that means nothing until they actually make plays on Saturdays.
Inability to run the ball when needed: The Sooners averaged 4.83 yards per carry in 2012 yet struggled to run the football at key times. According to ESPN Stats and Info, OU averaged 2.65 yards per rush against teams that won 70 percent of their games last season (losses to Kansas State, Notre Dame and Texas A&M). OU is looking to regain the toughness and ability to run the football whenever they want that propelled the Sooners into the BCS title hunt in recent years. For example, the Sooners averaged 3.94 yards per carry against teams that won 70 percent of their games during the 2008 season, the year of OU's last BCS title game appearance.
Left tackle: Quite frankly it appears this was more of a competition last August than it is this August. Tyrus Thompson is the clear favorite to replace Lane Johnson after battling Johnson to start at left tackle during last year’s preseason camp. Thompson brings versatility and immense talent to the table, making him difficult to supplant. Derek Farniok and Josiah St. John are in the mix at the position and are looking to join the Sooners’ tackle rotation alongside Thompson and starting right tackle Daryl Williams.
Safety: The coaches really like Gabe Lynn's veteran presence at safety and have Quentin Hayes, another player with at least three years on campus, at the other safety spot. But both players will have to hold off a strong push from true freshmen Hatari Byrd and Ahmad Thomas. The duo arrived on campus with college-ready bodies and undoubtedly will see the field as freshman. Don’t be surprised if one or both show up in the starting lineup at some point this season.
Defensive end: With Chuka Ndulue moving to defensive tackle, OU is looking to replace both defensive ends. Geneo Grissom started the Cotton Bowl and appears solid at one defensive end slot. At the other position, Charles Tapper has been running with the starters but will have to hold off a strong push from other talented youngsters, including true freshman Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, who is drawing rave reviews for his pass-rushing skills.
Receiver: Jalen Saunders and Sterling Shepard are locked in as playmakers for the Sooners' offense. Both players can be difference makers with the ball in their hands and should get the majority of the snaps at inside receiver. On the outside, Lacoltan Bester is making a strong push this preseason to be in the starting lineup in the opener. Trey Metoyer could be the most talented of the bunch, and Durron Neal displayed playmaking ability in the spring game. Even though Neal and Metoyer have more fanfare, Bester is setting himself up to see plenty of playing time as a senior.
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In his first official game in a Sooners’ uniform, Metoyer was in a similar situation and, again, outfought the defender to make the catch in the 2012 season opener against UTEP. But the would-be reception went down as an incompletion instead as Metoyer was out-of-bounds when he made the catch after not running his route with the precision required along the sidelines.
In his first 18 months at OU, the sophomore receiver starred during the spring of 2012, struggled during his true freshman season and heads into this season looking to help replace Kenny Stills and Justin Brown in OU’s lineup.
“Success wasn’t coming to him the way he wanted,” receivers coach Jay Norvell said. “He was frustrated. He’s used to playing well at a really high level. When you walk in that door [at OU], you better come in here expecting to come and play, or you’re not really at the right place. That’s the kind of mentality he had walking in the door and when he didn’t have that kind of success, it was frustrating."
Metoyer entered the 2012 season as the Big 12’s preseason newcomer of the year and started his first four games in crimson and cream. Then, after Fresno State transfer Jalen Saunders was cleared to play before the Texas game, Metoyer tumbled down the depth chart, finishing with just 17 receptions for 148 yards and a touchdown. Ten of those catches came before Saunders’ was cleared in mid-October.
Yet, Saunders and Metoyer have become close friends, even spending time after practice during the spring to hone their skills. Saunders, a senior, has made a point to take the youngster under his wing.
“Last fall he was starting then kind of faded away from the offense,” Saunders said. “It hurt him a little bit because he was expecting a lot of things. He was taking himself out of the picture because he had high expectations and was feeling bad about himself. This spring me and him sat down and talked a lot, I kind of took him under my wing like a younger brother. I treat him like my younger brother because I want him to be the best out there.”
Heading into his second season in Norman, Metoyer is battling fellow sophomore Durron Neal, senior Lacoltan Bester and others to earn a starting spot at outside receiver for the Sooners. Metoyer's talent is readily apparent and his consistency is slowly starting to come to the forefront.
“I think it’s coming together for Trey,” Norvell said. “I think he understands our offense, I think he has been around our players and quarterbacks. He is getting to the point where he becomes more confident in what he’s doing.”
If Metoyer progresses to the point that Norvell considers him among the Sooners’ most consistent receivers and puts him in the starting lineup, Big 12 defenses might have to take notice.
“He’s going to be one of the best receivers, probably, to ever come through OU,” cornerback Cortez Johnson said. “Trey Metoyer has the best hands on the team, that’s why every play [during practice] I’m trying to go against him, trying to get myself better and get myself reps against an opponent like that.”
As the projected starter at cornerback opposite Aaron Colvin for the Sooners, Johnson should know what Metoyer brings to the table. He has had several one-on-one battles with Metoyer during the spring, summer and early in preseason camp, resulting in his high praise for the Whitehouse, Texas, native.
“He runs good routes, he knows how to get in your cushion, open you up,” Johnson said. “[He] has good footwork, great hands, he’s just a great player. He has a lot to work on still, but he’s going to be pretty good.”
In 2004, the Sooners put Jason White under center and handed off to Adrian Peterson.
As Stoops pointed out last week, the Sooners have often "played to their personnel." That includes last season, when, after it became abundantly clear the Sooners’ fourth-best receiver was better than any tight end, OU went almost exclusively with four-wide formations.
In recent weeks, the Sooners have taken criticism from ESPN analysts Trent Dilfer and Jon Gruden for not using tight ends. They say it put too much pressure on quarterback Landry Jones to throw the ball downfield.
In several OU victories, Jones’ arm was good enough to overcome the limitations of not having a tight end checking off a route underneath the coverage, streaking down the middle of the field or helping to block in the run game.
But in the Sooners’ three 2012 losses, not having a tight end came back to haunt them, as OU was unable to maintain balance with the run or attack the Kansas State, Notre Dame and Texas A&M defenses off play-action.
The OU coaching staff recognized this liability and tried to lure another junior-college tight end to Norman before signing day. But after losing out on Beau Sandland and Emmanuel Bibbs -- the two juco tight ends they thought could provide an immediate impact -- the Sooners were forced to go with what they have.
Only this time, they won’t have Jones’ arm to fall back on. To be successful in 2013, the Sooners will have to run the ball with better efficiency. And they’ll have to also be lethal with play-action. Which means Sam Grant, Taylor McNamara and Brannon Green, whom the Sooners deemed weren’t ready last year, had better be ready to play this time around.
“I feel much better about it,” Stoops said. “The two freshmen [Grant and McNamara] have come along, are stronger blockers, have a stronger presence about what they’re trying to do. Same thing with Brannon Green, more experience in what we want him to do.
“I believe they’ll have more opportunities.”
Despite losing Kenny Stills and Justin Brown, the Sooners figure to be strong at wideout again. Jalen Saunders and Sterling Shepard should be prolific, and Trey Metoyer, Durron Neal, Dannon Cavil, Jaz Reynolds and others have big-play ability. But as OU transitions to an offense more reliant on the ground game -- as well as the running ability of its inexperienced quarterbacks -- tight end play will be paramount.
It’s no coincidence that when the Sooners have run the ball best, they’ve had stellar tight end play.
Quentin Griffin had Trent Smith.
Chris Brown and DeMarco Murray had Brody Eldridge and Jermaine Gresham.
Even Adrian Peterson had James "Bubba" Moses and Joe Jon Finley.
Stoops says he likes what he saw from the tight ends in the spring. After redshirting last year, Grant showed promise as a blocking specialist. McNamara has put on weight and is finally healthy after undergoing shoulder surgery last season, then tweaking a hamstring after being cleared for spring ball. Green has come along, too.
They’ll never be confused with the 2007 tight end grouping of Gresham, Eldridge and Finley. But if they can be just solid enough to be used, that might be adequate.
The Sooners are always going to play to their personnel. But OU has always been better when the tight ends are included.
No. 5 Durron Neal
Sophomore receiver, 5-11, 201 pounds
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1. FB Trey Millard (Last ranking: 1): Millard was held out of the spring game as a precaution, something Bob Stoops usually does with his stars. Despite manning an unheralded position, Millard certainly fits the bill of a star. You wouldn’t know it by the number of touches he gets, but Josh Heupel’s new option-oriented offense -- which, like Millard, was kept on the shelf Saturday -- could get the ball in Millard’s hands more often. That’s always good for the Sooners – and bad for opposing defenses.
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NORMAN, Okla. -- With nothing open from his initial reads, quarterback Blake Bell abandoned the pocket. But instead of attempting to truck his way into the end zone, the artist formerly known as the "Belldozer" rolled right.
Near the sidelines, he waited, and waited. And then when he couldn’t wait any longer, Bell stuck a pass into the chest of receiver Durron Neal for a three-yard touchdown.
And sling it he did, demonstrating that the power running that made him a fan-favorite the past two seasons is just one facet of his arsenal.
Bell completed 14 of 23 passes for 213 yards and two touchdowns -- with no turnovers -- Saturday. He also showed the most poise and precision among the quarterbacks to seize momentum in the QB competition heading into the summer.
"I missed a couple throws," Bell said, "But overall, I thought I made some good plays, and was pretty accurate with the ball."
Bell displayed that accuracy from the opening possession, quickly moving the offense down the field with three completions to Jalen Saunders. The drive ultimately ended in a touchdown, when wide receiver Lacoltan Bester scooped up a Damien Williams fumble and raced 35 yards for the score.
Today's question: Jalen Saunders and Sterling Shepard are locks to start at receiver for the Sooners in 2013. Who will be OU's third starting wideout?
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Gone are Kenny Stills and Justin Brown – or 155 receptions, 1,838 yards and 16 touchdowns – creating a huge void several players are vying to fill.
“There’s been a lot of competition at the receiver position,” said receivers coach Jay Norvell. “Several guys are doing a lot of good things. We’re just trying to find guys who can be accountable and trustworthy -- who can be dependable day in and day out.”
Those fighting for a starting role, or at a spot in the rotation, include seniors Jaz Reynolds and Lacoltan Bester, sophomores Trey Metoyer and Durron Neal and freshmen Derrick Woods and Dannon Cavil. While none so far has assured himself of playing time, these next two weeks of spring ball will go a long way in determining who plays -- and who doesn’t -- next season.
“We have a lot of guys that are in that range right now in that they show flashes, but haven’t been able to show that consistency to line up in that first unit,” Norvell said. “But that is what spring practice is all about, though, and we’ve had guys show up every day and compete and execute. The guys that do that at the end of spring usually win those spots for the fall.”
Going into the spring, Bester, who transferred in from junior college last year, seemed like the least likely emerge out of the competition. After playing sporadically early, Bester fell completely out of rotation as younger players passed him on the depth chart; he finished with only three catches all season.
Bester, however, has brought a new attitude to spring ball, which has helped him make the plays in practice he didn’t last year.
Through the first half of spring ball, we’ve updated the “Oklahoma 10,” which – you guessed it – features many new faces:
2. CB Aaron Colvin (4): Where would the Sooners be if Colvin had joined Tony Jefferson and left early for the draft? He is the best player on this defense by a mile. What’s just as encouraging for a unit with so many young players is the leadership role Colvin appears to be seizing. Mike Stoops has plenty to worry about as he retools his defense. But he doesn’t have to worry about having someone the rest of his guys can look up to. Nor does he have to worry about Colvin locking up the receiver on his side of the field.
3. WR Jalen Saunders (6): By last season’s end, Saunders might have been the best receiver on the roster. The stats certainly support that notion, as he topped all OU receivers in yards after the catch and completion percentage on balls thrown his way. With Kenny Stills gone, there’s no doubt who the Sooners’ No. 1 option in the passing game will be next season, and Saunders looks ready to take on the burden of being the team’s definitive go-to receiver.
4. RB Damien Williams (NR): Who knows what kind of season Williams would have finished with had he been able to stay healthy? Despite a midseason ankle injury, Williams still rushed for 946 yards, which included four touchdown runs of 60 yards or more in OU’s first five games. The home-run threat put in the work over the offseason, and now weighs close to 215 pounds, which should only enhance his durability. If he can stick on the field and avoid the training room, Williams is more than capable of producing an All-Big 12 season.
5. C Gabe Ikard (9): Bob Stoops said he isn’t worrying about his center missing contact in the spring with a broken hand, and neither should you. Ideally, Ikard would be out there developing a rapport with new line coach Bill Bedenbaugh. But Ikard has 37 career starts, and two All-Big 12 seasons behind him. He’ll be ready to go when it counts.
6. WR Sterling Shepard (NR): Shepard has been dynamic since he stepped on campus, and has continued to get better this spring. Shepard has firmly entrenched himself as the offense’s No. 2 passing option behind Saunders, and is in line to be a No. 1 guy later in his career.
7. LB Corey Nelson (NR): Two springs ago, Bob Stoops said Nelson called the best player on the defense. That honor belongs to Colvin, but Nelson is the only other two-year contributor. The plan at the moment is to utilize Nelson is more ways than one, which is a step in the right direction considering he wasn’t utilized at all last season. The only chance for this defense to be more than mediocre is if Nelson plays – and plays at a high level.
8. OG Bronson Irwin (NR): The “War Daddy” has taken on a greater leadership role on the line with Ikard sidelined for the moment. Irwin, quietly coming off a banner junior season in which he played through multiple injuries, is one major reason why the offensive line has been controlling the trenches this spring.
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At one point last summer it appeared the Sooners would lean on Neal to make an immediate impact as a freshman. Then Brown joined the program in August after transferring from Penn State and Jalen Saunders became eligible after four games of the 2012 season following his transfer from Fresno State, allowing Stills to move back outside after spending the first month of the season at slot receiver.
Suddenly OU had two veteran receivers on the outside and Neal was left to watch and learn despite playing himself out of a redshirt season with a strong preseason camp. Neal and the Sooners are hoping his learning experience will pay off during his sophomore season.
“Every day last year I took in all I could,” Neal said. “I came in and was ready to learn. I knew I didn’t know as much as I thought I knew. Coming in, I really used Kenny as a resource because I knew that’s who I’d be backing up.”
Even though he saw limited action, Neal flashed some playmaking ability.
“When Durron was in games he did a great job,” OU coach Bob Stoops said. “He's a big play type guy, and strong.”