Oklahoma Sooners: Frank Shannon
2. Texas: This will be as deep as any linebacking corps in the league, with starters Peter Jinkens, Dalton Santos and Steve Edmond all returning off a unit that improved dramatically after the rocky nonconference start. After allowing a school-record 550 yards rushing to BYU, Texas had the Big 12’s fourth-best rush defense in conference games. Whether this group can take another step up will depend on what happens with Jordan Hicks, who enters his fifth year in the program after suffering season-ending injuries in back-to-back years. Hicks was the No. 1 linebacker in the country coming out of high school and has played well when healthy.
3. West Virginia: This will be the strength of the defense, as Brandon Golson, Isaiah Bruce, Jared Barber and Nick Kwiatkoski all return with significant starting experience. Kwiatkoski was West Virginia’s leading tackler last season, and Bruce was a freshman All-American the season before. Wes Tonkery and Jewone Snow also have starting experience, and Shaq Petteway, who missed last season with a knee injury, was a key rotation player the previous year. This level of experience and production with give the new defensive regime of Tony Gibson and Tom Bradley a foundation to build around.
4. Baylor: Bryce Hager is one of the best returning linebackers in the league. He was a second-team all-conference pick two years ago and would have earned similar honors last season had he not missed the final three games of the regular season with a groin injury. Grant Campbell, a three-star juco signee, is already on campus and will vie for the vacancy of departing All-Big 12 linebacker Eddie Lackey. Kendall Ehrlich and Aiavion Edwards are the only other players at the position with any meaningful experience, but Raaquan Davis, a former four-star recruit who redshirted last season, could be a factor.
5. Kansas: Middle linebacker Ben Heeney was a second-team All-Big 12 selection after finishing fourth in the league in tackles per game. His wingman, Jake Love, got beat out by juco transfer Samson Faifili during the preseason but took over when Faifili suffered an injury and was solid. As long as Heeney remains healthy, the Jayhawks will be solid here.
6. TCU: Projected to be the Achilles’ heel of the TCU defense last season, Paul Dawson, Marcus Mallet and Jonathan Anderson actually gave the position stability. Dawson led the Horned Frogs with 91 tackles, Mallet was third with 70 and Anderson was fourth with 66. All three will be seniors in 2014 and should give the Horned Frogs a solid, reliable linebacking unit again.
7. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders and their 3-4 scheme graduate two very productive players in Will Smith and Terrance Bullitt. Smith was second in the Big 12 in tackles, and Bullitt led all Big 12 linebackers in pass breakups. Austin Stewart and Micah Awe go into the spring as the favorites to replace Bullitt and Smith, respectively. Two starters do return in Sam Eguavoen and Pete Robertson, who was honorable mention All-Big 12 thanks to his impact off the edge. Tech also has several intriguing young players, including Jacarthy Mack, Malik Jenkins and Kahlee Woods, who will all be second-year players.
8. Kansas State: The Wildcats lose two stalwarts to graduation in captains Blake Slaughter and Tre Walker. The only returner is former walk-on Jonathan Truman, who was second on the team in tackles from the weak side. The Wildcats will be hoping for big things from D'Vonta Derricott, an ESPN JC 50 signee who had offers from Miami and Wisconsin, among many others. Will Davis, who was Slaughter’s backup as a freshman last season, could thrive if he secures the starting role in the middle.
9. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys are somewhat decimated here with the graduations of all-conference veterans Shaun Lewis and Caleb Lavey. The only returning starter, Ryan Simmons, could move inside, which would open the door for hard-hitting jucos D'Nerius Antoine and Devante Averette to start on either side of him. Seth Jacobs, who was a four-star recruit two years ago, should jump into the rotation, and the Cowboys could get an instant boost from freshman Gyasi Akem, who was an ESPN 300 signee. The potential ascension of this group, though, hinges on what Antonie and Averette accomplish.
10. Iowa State: The Cyclones graduate their defensive cornerstone in Jeremiah George, who was a first-team all-conference performer after leading the Big 12 with 133 tackles. Replacing George won’t come easy. But there’s reason to believe that Luke Knott can become Iowa State’s next cornerstone at the position. The younger brother of Cyclone LB great Jake Knott, Luke Knott started five games as a freshman and quickly racked up 45 tackles before suffering a season-ending hip injury, which required surgery. If he makes a full recovery, Knott has the talent to become the next in a growing line of All-Big 12 Iowa State linebackers. Seniors Jevohn Miller and Jared Brackens, who combined for 19 starts last season, flank Knott with experience.
There was a lot of hope for this class when these players signed in February 2011, but the class as a whole has let down the Sooners. The class was ranked No. 11 nationally by ESPN.com.
Linebacker Franklin Shannon: The No. 48 safety in the nation, Shannon made an immediate impact after a redshirt season. He forced his way onto the field as a redshirt freshman in 2012 and led OU in tackles as a sophomore in 2013. Shannon started in 15 games in his first two seasons and has 132 tackles, including 10.5 tackles for loss, heading into his junior year.
Defensive tackle Jordan Wade: He replaced the other Jordan after a grayshirt season, and then redshirted in 2012. As a redshirt freshman in 2013, Wade was one of the heroes of OU’s 11-win season as he stepped in for Phillips and held his own in the middle of OU’s defense. The No. 103 player in the ESPN 150, Wade has a bright future ahead of him.
Completely missed the mark
Offensive lineman Nathan Hughes: The No. 101 player in the ESPN 150, Hughes played several positions before leaving the program before the 2013 season.
Running back Brandon Williams: The No. 35 player in the ESPN 150, Williams made an impact as a freshman but elected to transfer to Texas A&M after his first season.
Running back Danzel Williams: The No. 64 player in the ESPN 150, Williams redshirted in 2011, then left the program before the 2013 season. He never made an impact for the Sooners.
Overall grade: D-
More than half of this class is no longer in the program, including both Williams, Hughes, receiver Trey Metoyer, receiver Kameel Jackson, quarterback Kendal Thompson, linebacker Kellen Jones and defensive back Bennett Okotcha. Only Shannon and a pair of Jordans kept this class from being an F in one of the worst classes of the Bob Stoops era.
Starters/contributors: Dominique Alexander (So.), Frank Shannon (Jr.)
Alexander was the surprise of the season on defense. He was thrown into the fire after having to replace Corey Nelson as a starter. Alexander had his ups-and-downs, but his natural instincts and playmaking ability earned Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year honors for the Tulsa, Okla., native. He finished with 80 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and one sack. The sky is the limit for Alexander as a sophomore.
On the cusp: Jordan Evans (So.), Aaron Franklin (Sr.)
Evans' performance against Texas Tech was a glimpse of his tremendous upside. When an injury knocked Shannon out of the game, Evans responded with an eight-tackle performance. It was an amazing game for a freshman who had seen minimal action on defense to that point. His athleticism and versatility will make him a valuable piece at the disposal of the Sooners’ coaching staff in 2014 and beyond.
Franklin has played spot duty for the Sooners for the past three seasons and should provide quality veteran depth as a senior. He has been a core member of OU’s special teams and can fill in at linebacker in a pinch.
On the recruiting trail: Devante Bond (Roseville, Calif./Sierra College), Tay Evans (Allen, Texas/Allen)
Bond is a junior-college signee who can play several spots on OU’s defense. He could fill in at the middle linebacker spots or slide in alongside or opposite Eric Striker as a pass rush specialist in 2014. It wouldn’t be a surprise for the Sooners to use him and Striker on opposite sides in passing situations to terrorize quarterbacks in 2014.
Evans is a solid prospect who probably could use a redshirt season to maximize his impact. He has the good size and athleticism, but the depth at the position provides a roadblock between Evans and immediate playing time.
Overall Grade: A
Alexander and Shannon could be the Big 12’s best duo in 2014. Add Striker and Bond, and OU could have a linebacker group that rivals any in America. Strong starters, good depth and a solid future earns this group an A.
This morning, we took a look at 10 Big 12 offensive players to watch in 2014. Now it’s time to spotlight 10 possible breakout defenders.
As a reminder, these lists include players who can take that step into greatness next season, much as Baylor’s Ahmad Dixon and Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert did in 2013. Players who have earned first-team or second-team All-Big 12 honors from either the coaches or the media were not eligible for this list, as the focus is limited to guys who have yet to make that leap. In other words, players such as TCU's Chris Hackett or Oklahoma's Eric Striker weren't eligible, as they were both second-team selections this year.
Below are 10 players to watch on the defensive side of the ball in 2014 (in alphabetical order):
Texas DT Malcom Brown: Often confused with the Texas running back with the same name, Brown was a force in the middle as a sophomore. With more improvement, the former blue-chipper who was the No. 2 DT in the nation coming out of high school has a chance to be Texas’ first All-Big 12 defensive tackle since Roy Miller in 2008.
Oklahoma State DT James Castleman: The last two seasons, Castleman has operated in the shadows of All-Big 12 DT Calvin Barnett. With Barnett – and virtually the rest of the Oklahoma State defense – gone, Castleman will be the Cowboys’ top returning defensive player next season. Castleman has the talent to be an all-conference tackle, and will need to be for the Cowboys to avoid a significant defensive drop-off.
Oklahoma DE Geneo Grissom: Last year, Grissom was so dubious on his prospects of making the rotation at end that he asked to play tight end. That experiment failed, and the Sooners have to be glad that it did. The switch finally flipped for Grissom in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. In that game, he played like a man possessed and finished with two sacks and two fumble recoveries. He returned the second eight yards for a game-clinching touchdown. Grissom has only year left, but it could be a special one if he plays the way he did against Alabama.
West Virginia S Karl Joseph: After starting every game at safety as a true freshman in 2012 and leading the team in tackles, Joseph didn’t make the kind of leap the Mountaineers hoped he would as a sophomore. Still, there’s no denying the talent here. Joseph has the skill to be an all-conference safety, something that might need to happen for West Virginia to avoid another disappointing season in the Big 12.
Iowa State LB Luke Knott: Knott started five games as a redshirt freshman this year before suffering a season-ending hip injury that should keep him out of spring ball as well. But if he can make a healthy return, look out. Knott came to Iowa State as a quarterback but has made a seamless transition to linebacker, showing plenty of instinct with 11 tackles in Iowa State’s 31-30 loss to Texas. His older brother Jake was an All-Big 12 linebacker for the Cyclones. As long as that hip doesn’t get in the way, Knott could become one an all-conference selection as well.
Baylor DE Shawn Oakman: The Penn State transfer has the tools to become a dominant player in the league. Oakman had his moments as a rotation player in 2013, finishing sixth in the Big 12 in tackles for loss. But the potential is there for so much more from the 6-foot-9, 275-pound Oakman. If he can put it all together in 2014, he could become one of the league’s most disruptive defenders.
Texas LB Dalton Santos: After Jordan Hicks went down with yet another season-ending injury, Santos elevated his game at linebacker. The sophomore finished fourth on the team with 74 tackles, including 10 for loss. It will be interesting to see what happens with the Longhorns at linebacker. The entire group of linebackers will return, including Hicks. But the way Santos played late in the year, the new Texas regime will have to find a way to get him on the field.
Oklahoma LB Frank Shannon: Even though injuries plagued Shannon the second half of the season, he still led the Sooners with 92 tackles as a sophomore. In Shannon, blitzer extraordinaire Eric Striker and Big 12 defensive freshman of the year Dominique Alexander all back, Oklahoma might have the best linebacker corps in the country next season.
Oklahoma's defense was the foundation of the team's drive to the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Mike Stoops' unit finished atop the Big 12 in passing yards allowed and total yards allowed while making sure the Sooners had the chance to win every game they played, even with constant uncertainty at quarterback. The defensive line was surprisingly good, the linebackers were much more productive than in 2012 and the secondary replaced several starters with relative ease.
Here are the position-by-position grades for the Sooners' defense.
Linebackers: A-. OU’s linebackers showed terrific improvement in 2013. Junior Frank Shannon and freshman Dominique Alexander, the Big 12 defensive newcomer of the year, finished 1-2 in tackles. Shannon played through nicks and bruises to finish with 85 tackles while Alexander finished with 75 stops after being thrust into the starting role against Texas. Add linebacker/defensive end hybrid Eric Striker to the mix and the linebackers were among the most productive groups on the squad. The versatility of Shannon and Alexander and Striker’s pass rushing skills are one reason the Sooners finished second in the Big 12 and No. 13 among FBS teams in third-down conversion percentage at 32.5 percent.
Cornerbacks: A-. Two-time All-Big 12 performer Aaron Colvin is an “A+++” performer. He showed toughness, leadership and exceptional coverage skills as a senior. With Colvin on the other side, redshirt freshman Zack Sanchez was constantly picked on by opponents but held up well and, most importantly, displayed the competitive nature every cornerback needs to succeed. Behind Colvin and Sanchez, freshman Stanvon Taylor and sophomore Cortez Johnson both made starts and earned valuable experience while providing quality depth. And nickelback Julian Wilson was stellar in his first season as a starter while tying for the team lead with three interceptions. OU led the Big 12 with 198 passing yards allowed per game, largely because of quality play from its cornerbacks and Wilson.
Safeties: A-. As good as the cornerbacks were, the safeties held their own in the defensive backfield. OU’s safeties were better in coverage this season than in 2012 while limiting big plays in the running and passing game. Gabe Lynn and Quentin Hayes weren’t dominant forces in the secondary but they were very good and played key roles while helping the Sooners to their 10-2 record.
Here are five stats that defined OU's season, what they mean and how OU can improve or maintain those trends in 2014.
OU averaged 5.35 yards per carry this season, ranking second in the Big 12 and No. 16 among FBS teams.
What it means: The first year of Bill Bedenbaugh was a success. OU’s offensive line did a terrific job of creating running lanes for whoever was in the backfield. True enough the Sooners had three quality veterans at running back but Brennan Clay (5.78), Damien Williams (4.78) and Roy Finch (5.88) each averaged at least 4.5 yards on at least 59 carries this season thanks to the big uglies up front.
How OU can maintain in 2014: It’s going to be tough as the Sooners lose Clay, Finch, Williams and center Gabe Ikard. But the Sooners have some solid young backs, including Keith Ford, who had 20 carries for 119 yards and one touchdown but dealt with fumble troubles as a true freshman. With the young talent in place and poised to replace the departed seniors, there’s no reason to believe the Sooners can’t match this year’s production in 2014.
Third down conversion defense
OU allowed opponents to convert just. 32.5 percent of their third down attempts, ranking second in the Big 12 and No. 13 among FBS teams.
What it means: The Sooners defense was among the best in the nation on third down. OU’s coaching staff focuses on third down plays and it’s clear they had the defense ready to step up in those key moments. In fact, eight of OU’s 14 interceptions came on third down, including all three interceptions by Julian Wilson.
How OU can maintain in 2014: Well, Mike Stoops returns, so that’s half the battle. OU should be even better on third down in 2014. Most of its key contributors return but replacing All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin won’t be easy. The Sooners defense was littered with youngsters this season and still ranked among the nation’s best. So expect even better in 2014.
Percentage of opponent drives without a first down or touchdown
The Sooners held opponents without a first down or touchdown on 40.8 percent of their drives, ranking second in the Big 12 and No. 13 among FBS teams.
What it means: OU did a terrific job of getting off the field and stopping offenses before they could gain momentum. While the Sooners offense was leaning on the running game and controlling the ball, OU’s defense came onto the field fresh and with a purpose to get off the field quickly. That combination made it hard for opposing offenses to find their rhythm against OU.
How OU can maintain in 2014: It won’t be easy because the Sooners offense should have better balance, resulting in more plays and opportunities for opponents as OU turns to the pass more often. Yet, OU’s defense should be talented enough to come close to matching that percentage.
Opponent rushes of 10 yards or more
OU allowed 46 runs of 10 yards or more to opponents, leading the Big 12 and tying Stanford and Utah for 16th among FBS teams.
What it means: One key reason the Sooners won five games by single digits was the defense’s ability to keep OU in games while the offense was struggling, particularly in the first quarter. If opponents were making big plays in the running game that wouldn’t have been possible. It also points to the increased quickness, speed and athleticism of OU’s 3-4 approach this season.
How OU can maintain in 2014: It will take a combination of good coaching and on-field leadership. And since the Sooners return several key players, including linebackers Frank Shannon and Dominique Alexander, they should be able to match that number.
Passing yards in the first quarter
OU averaged 32.75 passing yards in the first quarter, ranking last in the Big 12 and No. 112 among FBS teams.
What it means: The Sooners’ inability to pass (186.67 passing yards per game) made things difficult for OU’s offense. And their struggles to pass in the first quarter often impacted games by forcing the Sooners to lean on the running game simply because they didn’t have a lot of confidence in their passing game. Fortunately for OU, its running game was one of the conference’s best.
How OU can improve in 2014: Find stability at the quarterback position. Blake Bell played well at times, struggled at other times. Trevor Knight flashed big-time ability and displayed his inexperience as well. No matter who emerges as the No. 1 guy for 2014, he’ll have to consistently play well to help OU’s offense regain the balance that helped make it one of the nation’s best in previous years.
NORMAN, Okla. -- Mike Stoops’ decision to make Oklahoma’s defense more versatile, athletic and faster has paid off this season.
The Sooners’ defensive coordinator has OU among the nation’s top 20 in points allowed (No. 19 at 20.1), yards per game (No. 13 at 326.4), passing yards per game (No. 10 at 182.8) and passing yards per attempt (No.10 at 5.8).
But this defense wasn’t built for Kansas State.
OU’s offseason changes were made with the spread offensive attacks run by the Baylors, Texas Techs and Oklahoma States of the Big 12 in mind.
“We’re seeing more bigger sets this year than we have in a long time,” Stoops said. “Compared to last year, it’s almost like a  the reemerging of the tight end is becoming the focal point of all offenses, now you have to bring bigger people in. We’ll have to make some adjustments to their big people and physical sets. It’s something we need to look at.”
OU will have to alter its base three-man front, bringing in bigger bodies like defensive end P.L. Lindley to help make the Sooners’ defense bigger and more physical, essentially making it a four-man defensive set to try to offset the size disadvantage.
“P.L. is a guy that we have to continue to define, he’s a good player,” Stoops said. “He’s a guy that makes us more physical at the point of attack in bigger sets. That’s where we try to implement a more physical player and that’s what we need to do. He’s going to be a guy that’s able to do those things as we move forward with what we’re doing.”
More importantly the Sooners will need to play solid, assignment football and must have freshman linebacker Dominique Alexander to continue to exceed expectations and fellow linebacker Frank Shannon to play well. Alexander and Shannon will need to show their versatility. Two weeks ago, they were dealing with the space and athletes that make Baylor so potent. Saturday, they’ll have to deal with fundamentally sound KSU offensive linemen looking to drive them deep into the Sooners’ defensive backfield.
“It’s not a 180. Football is football,” Alexander said. “They’re either going to run or pass it, and they’re going to do both on Saturday. They’re a strong and powerful team, but we’re going to prepare well for them and execute.”
Adding to the quandary is K-State’s use of quarterbacks Daniel Sams and Jake Waters. Both quarterbacks can make you pay with their arms and legs, yet are quite different in their approaches. Sams is the better runner, Waters the better passer but both have the proven ability to take advantage of defensive game plans that focus on stopping one or the other.
“It gives you a lot more to work on,” Stoops said of the two-quarterback approach. “It’s like they have two different offenses. It will take a lot more practice time and attention to detail to get familiar with the two different ways that they are trying to move the ball.”
OU’s defense has been the foundation of the majority of the Sooners’ success this season. If they hope to continue that trend, they will have to prove they could be more versatile than ever.
“It’s going to be fun,” Alexander said. “I like physical play. I like smashmouth football. That’s how I was raised playing. So it’s going to be fun playing the run and the pass. Like I said, it’s just football.”
Quarterback Trevor Knight: The redshirt freshman replaced Blake Bell and helped spark the 48-point outburst from the Sooners’ offense. Knight had 10 carries for 123 yards including a 56-yard touchdown gallop as the Sooners had three touchdown runs of 56 yards or more. Knight was 8-of-14 through the air for 61 yards and finished with a 70 raw QBR.
OU’s offensive line: The Sooners had three different rushers average at least 12 yards per carry with seven carries or more. Knight was joined by Damien Williams (10 carries, 128 yards, 12.8 avg, 2 touchdowns) and Brennan Clay (7 carries, 86 yards, 12.29 avg, touchdown). Overall the Sooners had 44 carries for 405 yards and four touchdowns, averaging 9.2 yards per carry. None of that is possible without a strong game from an offensive line that struggled against Baylor.
Linebacker Frank Shannon: The sophomore has been incredibly productive despite not being 100 percent healthy for the past two games. He had eight tackles including 2.5 tackles for loss and two sacks after recording 15 stops against Baylor.
Receiver Jalen Saunders: The senior was one of the few Sooners who stepped up to make big plays against the Bears. His 55-yard kickoff return gave the squad early hope and he led OU with six receptions for 74 yards. He continues to be one of the few bright spots on an otherwise lackluster offense.
Linebacker Frank Shannon: The sophomore led the Sooners with 13.5 tackles including 12 solo stops against the Bears. He added two tackles for loss and was active in the middle of OU’s defense throughout the night.
Running back Roy Finch: The senior continues to perform in his limited opportunities while the Sooners offense continues to stumble around. Finch had seven carries for 36 yards, averaging 5.1 yards per carry and added a 10-yard touchdown reception.
Yet, realistically, a 5-1 record at this point in the season could be considered a lofty preseason expectation for a Sooners squad that entered 2013 with a handful of new starters on defense and a new quarterback under center.
OU’s hopes of a Big 12 title aren’t completely dashed as long as it starts to get consistent play from the quarterback position and a game-changing playmaker emerges among its skill position players. Saturday’s loss to Texas proved what we knew already -- OU can’t just lean on its defense and expect to cruise through conference play even though defensive coordinator Mike Stoops' unit appears improved this season.
The Sooners have suffered two big injuries with Phillips, a defensive tackle, and Nelson, a linebacker, out for the season. Nonetheless, the Sooners still feature the talent to jump back into the Big 12 title race in the second half of the season. But it won’t happen until OU develops consistent playmakers in its passing game to supplement a solid running attack.
Offensive MVP: Center Gabe Ikard. The senior has been a consistent, calm presence in the middle with the unrest at the quarterback position, which has seen Blake Bell and Trevor Knight both start multiple games. Ikard has been the anchor of an offensive line that has paved the way for OU’s running game, which is averaging 226.7 yards per game, second in the Big 12. Ikard's leadership and experience might be his most important contribution in the second half of the season.
Defensive MVP: Linebacker Frank Shannon. Phillips or Nelson could easily be considered the first-half MVP but Shannon has been just as consistent and OU will count on him even more in the second half of the season. The sophomore has 50 tackles, 18 more than any other Sooner, three quarterback hurries, one interception and a forced fumble.
Linebacker Eddie Lackey, Baylor: Overshadowed by Bryce Hager’s 18-tackle performance, Lackey had a solid game in the Bears’ 35-25 win over Kansas State. He finished with 10 tackles, including eight solo stops, and a forced fumble. His active play is one of the reasons the Bears’ defense is playing better in 2013.
Cornerback JaCorey Shepherd, Kansas: Shepherd did it all in the Jayhawks’ 27-17 loss to TCU. He had seven tackles, one sack, one forced fumble and a 32-yard interception return for a touchdown. It was a terrific performance in his return home for the former Mesquite (Texas) Horn standout.
Running back John Hubert, Kansas State: An overlooked aspect of Daniel Sams’ explosive day was Hubert’s increased production. The senior had 15 carries for 90 yards to provide a solid 1-2 running punch alongside Sams. Hubert clearly becomes a more productive player with a running threat at quarterback.
Linebacker Frank Shannon, Oklahoma: The sophomore had the quietest 16-tackle performance in recent memory. Shannon continued to be a consistent playmaker on OU’s defense, recording those 16 tackles and forcing a fumble in the Sooners’ 36-20 loss to Texas. He’s proving to be a player the Sooners can count on, week in and week out.
Linebacker Dalton Santos, Texas: The Longhorns were stout against the run in their 36-20 win over OU, and Santos played a key role. The sophomore made plays from sideline to sideline and was consistently around the football. He finished with six tackles including 1.5 tackles for loss. Santos has helped offset the loss of Jordan Hicks for the Longhorns’ defense.
Running back B.J. Catalon, TCU: Catalon continues to be a playmaker for the Horned Frogs, accounting for a team-high 122 yards. The sophomore averaged 9.38 yards per touch in TCU’s 27-17 win over Kansas. On an offense searching for playmakers, it seems like the Horned Frogs can’t get the ball in Catalon’s hands enough, particularly if he can take better care of the football.
Running back Sadale Foster, Texas Tech: One of three Red Raiders to rush for more than 80 yards, Foster averaged 9.7 yards per carry in Tech’s 42-35 win over Iowa State. He had nine carries for 87 yards and one touchdown. He averaged 14.8 yards per carry on first down (five carries, 74 yards), including a 38-yard touchdown scamper in the fourth quarter to put the game away.
Note: Oklahoma State and West Virginia did not play in Week 7.
AP Photo/Darron CummingsFrank Shannon is part of a defensive unit that is one of the best in the nation this season.
Oklahoma is back to playing the kind of defense that can win a championship. The Sooners are allowing 13 points per game, sixth fewest in the FBS and on pace with the Sooners’ 2001 team for the fewest points per game during the Bob Stoops tenure.
They rank ninth in the nation in total defense (282 yards per game) and are one of seven FBS teams that have not allowed more than 21 points in a game this season.
Last season, Oklahoma allowed nearly 26 points per game, its most under Stoops. The Sooners finished the season ranked 64th in total defense and 90th in rush yards per game.
They allowed at least 30 points in four of their last five games. Oklahoma’s defense hit rock bottom when it allowed a Cotton Bowl record 516 total yards to Johnny Manziel and lost to the Aggies by 28 points.
Oklahoma had -32.9 expected points added on defense last season.
That means that the Sooners defense contributed -33 points to its scoring margin for the season.
If their defense played average, they would have won against both Texas A&M and Kansas State. This season, the defense has added at least six expected points in every game by controlling field position, forcing turnovers and stopping its opponents.
How has Oklahoma improved its defense?
Getting off the field on third down
Oklahoma has forced a three-and-out on 52 percent of its opponents’ drives this season, tied for third best in the FBS and 19 percentage points higher than how it fared last season.
The Sooners rank 10th in the FBS in third-down conversion defense (27 percent) this season. That is a 15-point improvement from last season, when they ranked 74th in the FBS and had the team’s worst third-down conversion percentage in the last 10 seasons.
Opponents have posted a 10.8 Total QBR on third down against Oklahoma this season, tied with Stanford for eighth best in the nation and 30.1 points better than last season when they ranked 41st.
Controlling the line of scrimmage
Oklahoma allowed 1,658 rush yards before contact last season, third most for an AQ defense behind Indiana and Colorado.
The Sooners allowed 22 percent of opponents’ runs to gain at least five yards before first contact. This season, they are allowing 77 fewer yards before contact per game, and they have allowed the fewest runs (19) in the Big 12 that gain five yards or more without contact.
After struggling last season, the Sooners are committed to stopping the run this season. They are averaging 6.9 defenders in the box on designed runs this season, after average an AQ-low 6.1 last season.
Defending the deep ball
Oklahoma is allowing opponents to complete 26 percent of their passes thrown 15 yards or longer this season, second lowest by a Big 12 defense and ninth lowest by an AQ school.
None of the Sooners’ five opponents have completed more than half of such passes in a game.
In their four losses last season, opponents completed 41 percent of their passes thrown 15 yards or longer against the Sooners, which is 5 percentage points higher than the AQ average.
Who have been the biggest keys?
Three players in particular have come up big for this year’s defense.
Linebacker Frank Shannon leads the team with 34 tackles, including six that were within two yards of the line of scrimmage that saved a first down.
Defensive linemen Charles Tapper ranks fourth in the Big 12 in total pressures (hurries and knockdowns).
Eric Striker leads the Sooners and ranks third in the Big 12 with 11 total pressures.
Oklahoma plays its rival Texas on Saturday at the Cotton Bowl.
The Longhorns have scored more than 30 points in each of their last two games, both Big 12 wins. They are 11-1 since the start of last year when they score at least 25 points and 1-5 when they do not.
Here are some storylines, players to watch and a prediction.
Will OU continue its dominance? The Sooners are coming off back-to-back blowout victories over the Longhorns, winning 63-21 in 2012 and 55-17 in 2011. OU’s offense has averaged 7.02 yards per play during the two games while holding UT to 3.89 yards per play. Expect OU to lean on its defense again as the Sooners hope to continue its win streak.
Can Texas get it together? The Longhorns have the talent to cause problems for OU. A big play here from Johnathan Gray, a big play there from Daje Johnson and things could get real interesting at the Cotton Bowl. Add in a turnover or two and the Longhorns could pull a shocker on Saturday. Lack of talent is not the issue in Austin.
Which quarterback will spark a win? OU quarterback Blake Bell and UT quarterback Case McCoy each have experience in the Red River Rivalry, so they shouldn’t be completely bug-eyed on Saturday. Bell is looking to rebound after throwing just 152 yards against TCU; McCoy wants to prove the Longhorns still have a chance with him under center.
Players to watch
OU quarterback Blake Bell: The Sooners quarterback has played well while leading his squad to a 3-0 record during his time as a starter. Bell’s third-down efficiency has been outstanding as a starter; he’s 17 of 28 for 324 yards and three touchdowns on third down. If the Sooners expect to win their fourth Red River Rivalry in a row, Bell will need to play well.
Texas running back Johnathan Gray: The Longhorns running back can be a game-changing playmaker if he gets the ball. Gray has carried the ball at least 20 times twice during his career and the Longhorns won both games (at Texas Tech in 2012, vs Kansas State in 2013). Feeding Gray the ball should be the game plan, as he makes things happen for a UT offense void of playmakers.
OU linebacker Frank Shannon: A lot of eyes will be on Dominique Alexander as the Sooners look to replace Corey Nelson. Yet Shannon will shoulder a good portion of the burden. The sophomore will need to take on a more vocal role with Nelson out while continuing to make plays all over the field.
Prediction: Oklahoma 34, Texas 24. The Sooners take a early lead and play with a double-digit advantage for the majority of the game. UT starts to find a rhythm on offense late in the second half to score some late points, but this one is never really in doubt after three quarters.
Corralling Trevone Boykin: Oklahoma’s defense is better prepared to handle a quarterback with the running skills of TCU quarterback Boykin than last year’s group. Linebacker Eric Striker has brought aggressiveness and relentlessness to the Sooners’ defense, while fellow linebackers Corey Nelson and Frank Shannon are playing better than they did in 2012.
Continued success on the ground: The Sooners are outrushing opponents by an average of more than 120 yards per game as 59 of their 98 first downs have come on the ground. Senior running backs Brennan Clay, Damien Williams and Roy Finch have played well as OU has used the trio to keep defenses off balance this season.
Another test for Blake Bell: The junior has passed every test thus far with flying colors so there’s every reason to believe he can excel against the best secondary he has faced this season. The windows and passing lanes will be smaller on Saturday, but Bell has shown the ability to hit receivers in stride on short passes. If the Horned Frogs take the short passing game away he will have to make them pay with accurate deep throws as well.
Special teams battle: TCU already has two kickoff returns for touchdowns this season and averages 19.57 yards per punt return. The Sooners coverage teams can’t afford any slipups that could get returners Brandon Carter or B.J. Catalon into the open field. A big return could give the Horned Frogs confidence and change the game.
Protecting Bell and the football: The Horned Frogs lead the Big 12 in sacks and turnovers forced so protecting Bell and continuing to limit their turnovers is critical for OU. Mental mistakes and negative plays are the foundation of TCU’s defensive success so the Sooners should be just fine if they can protect Bell and the football.
Last Saturday in South Bend, that tradition came back to life. Spearheaded by their linebackers, the Sooners jumped out to a two-touchdown lead, then held off Notre Dame, 35-21.
“That’s how it’s supposed to be here,” senior linebacker Corey Nelson said. “Linebackers taking charge, leading the defense and making plays.
“That’s how it’s always been at Oklahoma.”
Well, not always exactly.
In 2012, linebacker became almost a foreign word.
In his first year back as defensive coordinator, Mike Stoops became so disenchanted with how his linebackers matched up with the fast pace offenses of the Big 12, he yanked them off the field altogether the last month of the season.
The ploy hardly worked.
To West Virginia’s Tavon Austin, Oklahoma surrendered 344 yards on the ground in a narrow November shootout victory in Morgantown.
In the following weeks, Oklahoma State’s Joseph Randle and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel ran wild over the Sooners, too, prompting Stoops to shelve the no-linebacker defense and go back to the drawing board during the offseason.
“Last year was a whole lot different,” Nelson said.
Especially for the linebackers.
During the summer, Stoops installed a 3-3-5 defensive scheme that so far has worked wonders, largely because he’s unleashed a corps of speedy linebackers who have proven to have a nose for the football. And opposing quarterbacks.
On the third play from scrimmage in South Bend, Oklahoma outside linebacker Eric Striker came peeling around the edge and slammed into the blindside of quarterback Tommy Rees. The ball popped in the air into the arms of Nelson, who dashed 24 yards for the defensive touchdown.
“They let me free and I had to kill ‘em,” said Striker, with a quote so brash the “Boz” would be proud.
On Notre Dame’s next offensive play, Frank Shannon backpedaled into coverage, intercepted a tipped pass despite wearing a cast on his right wrist and bounded along the sidelines to set up another touchdown.
Less than three minutes into the game, Oklahoma’s linebackers frenetically had propelled the Sooners to a 14-0 lead.
“The coaches are doing a good job of putting us in the right spots,” Shannon said. “Giving us good opportunities and chance to show what we got.”
And they've been doing it all season. Through four games, OU is giving up just 299.5 yards and 12 points per game.
And, so far, these linebackers are quickly showing they can hang with some of the best OU has produced. That’s no small feat.
Dating back to the days of Bud Wilkinson, every Sooners dynasty has included top-flight linebacking corps.
In 1956, Jerry Tubbs nearly won the Heisman Trophy as a linebacker and center. That tradition continued under Barry Switzer, who coached two-time, first-team All-American linebackers Rod Shoate (1972-74), Daryl Hunt (1975-78), George Cumby (1975-79) and Bosworth (1984-86), who also remains the only two-time winner of the Butkus Award, given annually to college football’s top linebacker.
Bob Stoops has coached two Butkus Award winners (Rocky Calmus and Lehman) and a host of slobber-knocking linebacking units. Calmus and Torrance Marshall formed the backbone of Oklahoma’s 2000 national championship defense. Lehman (2003), Rufus Alexander (2006) and Curtis Lofton (2007) earned Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors.
“You see linebackers all over the wall in this place,” Striker said. “These guys were for real. Real serious back when.”
But as Oklahoma defenses slipped in recent years, so did the position. The Sooners scavenged the country for linebacker help in their most recent recruiting class, but came up empty. Suddenly, a school with one of college football’s proudest traditions couldn’t sign a linebacker. But the way Nelson, Shannon and Striker are playing, that should no longer be a problem.
Oklahoma is playing some defense again. And one of college football’s Linebacker U’s appears to be on its way back in Norman.
“We’re trying to keep that going,” Striker said. “You want to keep that going.
“We want to keep it great here.”
Top Returning Players: Big 12
BIG 12 SCOREBOARD
Final Washington State 45 Colorado State 48 Final 20 Fresno State 20 25 USC 45 Final Buffalo 24 San Diego State 49 Final Tulane 21 Louisiana-Lafayette 24
Final Pittsburgh 30 Bowling Green 27 Final Utah State 21 23 Northern Illinois 14
Final Marshall 31 Maryland 20 Final Syracuse 21 Minnesota 17 Final Brigham Young 16 Washington 31
Final Rutgers 16 Notre Dame 29 Final Cincinnati 17 North Carolina 39 Final Miami (FL) 9 18 Louisville 36 Final Michigan 14 Kansas State 31
Final Middle Tennessee 6 Navy 24 Final Ole Miss 25 Georgia Tech 17 Final 10 Oregon 30 Texas 7 Final 14 Arizona State 23 Texas Tech 37
Final Arizona 42 Boston College 19 Final Virginia Tech 12 17 UCLA 42 Final Rice 7 Mississippi State 44 Final 24 Duke 48 21 Texas A&M 52
Final Nebraska 24 22 Georgia 19 Final UNLV 14 North Texas 36 Final Iowa 14 16 LSU 21 Final 19 Wisconsin 24 9 South Carolina 34 Final 5 Stanford 20 4 Michigan State 24 Final 15 UCF 52 6 Baylor 42
Final 13 Oklahoma State 31 8 Missouri 41 Final 12 Clemson 40 7 Ohio State 35