Oklahoma Sooners: Hatari Byrd

Spring football has come to a close at Oklahoma.

[+] EnlargeDakota Austin
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesOklahoma's Dakota Austin ended the spring as the starter at cornerback opposite Zack Sanchez.
The Sooners' 15 practices answered some questions, but others still remain. Now is the perfect time to update the some of the position battles that made this spring intriguing in Norman, Okla. On Tuesday we took a look at the offense. Today, all eyes turn to the defense.

Cornerback

Pre-spring: A trio of Sooners entered the spring set to battle to replace Aaron Colvin. Sophomores Stanvon Taylor and Dakota Austin joined junior Cortez Johnson in the competition. None of the three entered the spring as the clear favorite to secure the spot.

Post-spring: Austin had the best spring of the bunch, taking the field with the Sooners’ first-team defense in the spring game and holding his own. The sophomore is undersized (5-foot-11, 162 pounds) but good in coverage and has a chip on his shoulder. Injuries hampered Johnson’s spring, and Taylor didn’t make the move you would expect from a guy who stepped on campus with lofty expectations.

Summer outlook: Someone needs to seize the opportunity by taking their game to another level. Austin sent a message with a strong spring, but a few incoming recruits, including Tito Windham and Jordan Thomas, arrive in the summer with an eye on stepping up if nobody else makes it their spot to lose.

Free safety

Pre-spring: Sophomores Ahmad Thomas and Hatari Byrd each saw action as freshmen in 2013. With Quentin Hayes comfortably manning the other safety spot, letting the Class of 2013 signees compete for a starting spot was the plan.

Post-spring: Both guys look like they could be solid, trustworthy options at the position. Thomas has emerged as a player who should see the field regardless thanks to his versatility and athleticism, while Byrd has progressed as a playmaker.

Summer outlook: Depth, not the starters, is the main concern at safety. Thomas or Byrd could do the job, and Steven Parker arrives in the summer with a unique skill set that could make him tough to keep on the sidelines. Though the name of the starter at free safety remains unclear, the position doesn’t look like a potential weak link in the defense this fall.

Linebacker depth

Pre-spring: OU returned its two leading tacklers at the linebacker spot with Dominique Alexander and Frank Shannon, along with pass-rushing dynamo Eric Striker. It was a unit full of playmakers but questionable depth.

Post-spring: The depth questions remain and could get worse if Shannon, whose status is unclear after missing the spring game for personal reasons, does not return. Fortunately for OU, Jordan Evans looks ready to step in and fill the void if needed. Additionally, Devante Bond should provide another option for Mike Stoops’ defense, and defensive end Geneo Grissom even spent time at linebacker this spring. Alexander is a terrific foundation and Evans is unusually athletic at linebacker, so developing more depth is the lingering question.

Summer outlook: Shannon’s status is the main storyline of the summer. If he returns it's a big boost for the Sooners. If not, OU will likely turns to Evans, which is another hit to its depth. Incoming recruits Curtis Bolton and Tay Evans might be called upon sooner than anticipated.
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Oklahoma held its spring game on Saturday with excitement around the program continuing to build this offseason. Here are some postgame thoughts, defense only, on OU’s spring finale. To be clear, this is an informal collection of my thoughts and observations after the spring game. For a more formal and general spring game review, check out this post from earlier today.

  • Linebacker Frank Shannon’s absence is disappointing, but Jordan Evans filled in at linebacker without looking like a weak link, much as he did against Texas Tech during his true freshman season a year ago. Evans is very athletic and comfortable in coverage. If Shannon, who is dealing with personal issues, is unable to return, OU can feel good about Evans’ spring-game production.
  • Ahmad Thomas looks like a potential difference-maker. He can play multiple positions in the secondary and he was consistently around the ball. A breakout sophomore campaign could be on the horizon.
  • The defensive line should be deep, athletic and productive. This unit could spark a special season if everyone continues to develop. From Charles Tapper to Jordan Wade to Charles Walker, it’s a very solid group of defensive linemen from top to bottom. Games are won in the trenches, so the Sooners should feel good about their chances this fall.
  • [+] EnlargeQuentin Hayes
    Mark D. Smith/USA TODAY SportsQuentin Hayes is a returning starter at safety, but depth is a concern there.
    Cornerback Zack Sanchez is another Sooner who looks as if he’s taken a step forward. If he continues to progress, Sanchez could become a player who opponents think twice about testing. He was competitive and active on Saturday and played like OU's best cornerback.
  • Sophomore Dakota Austin looked solid opposite Sanchez, but the search for the other half of OU’s cornerback duo should carry deep into preseason camp. Stanvon Taylor and Cortez Johnson are also in the mix, but nobody has taken the job and run away with it. The Sooners need to shore up this spot, as this concern could be considered the top priority on the defensive side of the ball heading into the summer.
  • Linebacker Eric Striker is on the road to making several appearances on "SportsCenter" this fall. The pass-rushing dynamo was terrific as a sophomore and it looks like he could be even better as a junior. He's exceptionally quick off the edge and has a knack for getting to the quarterback.
  • The safety position looks like it is in good hands with Quentin Hayes and Hatari Byrd, but the depth behind them is a major summer storyline. Thomas and Julian Wilson, who sat out the spring, could help at the position and incoming freshman Steven Parker has the talent to step in immediately. It’s not a problem if OU remains injury-free, but it’s football, so heading into the season without a Plan B is fool’s gold.
  • Kicker Michael Hunnicutt has earned his nickname “Munnicutt” and his leg strength has improved. He made two 40-plus-yard field goals, one with the wind at his back and one into the wind. He’s one of the nation’s most consistent kickers, so increased long-range production is a major bonus.
  • Final thought: The excitement surrounding the Sooners program heading into 2014 is well-earned. This team could find itself in the College Football Playoff if Trevor Knight is consistent and efficient under center and the defense takes another step forward this fall. But don't lock them into the national title conversation quite yet, as several young players need to continue to develop and take their games to another level and show they are ready to perform at a championship level, week in and week out.
Oklahoma begins its spring football drills on Saturday.

An exceptional Sugar Bowl performance, a young and talented defense and renewed confidence in quarterback Trevor Knight has the Sooners eyeing a national title run in 2014. Yet that won’t happen without growth at several key positions, starting this spring. This week we’ll make five spring predictions, continuing with No. 2:

[+] EnlargeStanvon Taylor
John Rivera/Icon SMIStanvon Taylor looks ready to make a leap in his sophomore season and become another stalwart in Oklahoma's 2013 class.
No. 2: The Sooners’ Class of 2013 shows signs it was vastly underrated.

Why it matters: OU fans were less than impressed when the Sooners inked ESPN.com’s No. 17 recruiting class in February 2013. While the Sooners coaching staff swooped in to land a few late bloomers and potential hidden gems, OU fans were lamenting the recruits they had missed out on. Now, one year later, that class appears poised to have a significant impact on the program.

What it would mean: First off, it would underscore the value of evaluation and development. Secondly, it would mean the Sooners have a bright future ahead.

Linebacker Dominique Alexander was the Big 12 newcomer of the year, while running back Keith Ford, cornerback Stanvon Taylor, safety Ahmad Thomas, safety Hatari Byrd, receiver K.J. Young and guard Dionte Savage are on the verge of locking up starting spots. Cornerback Dakota Austin, receiver Austin Bennett, receiver Jordan Smallwood, defensive tackle Charles Walker, linebacker Jordan Evans, defensive end Matt Dimon and quarterback Cody Thomas are among several members of the class who could be contributors.

Over half the class appears ready to make an impact (or already has made an impact) heading into their second season on campus. This spring provides the opportunity for the majority of this class to prove they are ready and able to help spark a successful 2014 season in Norman, Okla.

While the class is appearing to develop quickly, OU has its fingers crossed that its development continues. OU’s hopes of competing for a Big 12 title and national title this fall rests on several members of this class. It’s critical for sophomores such as Ford, Taylor, Byrd and Young to become key pieces of the 2014 squad, otherwise the Sooners could be forced to turn to true freshmen.

Big 12 pre-spring breakdown: DBs

February, 26, 2014
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As we await the start of spring ball, we’re examining and ranking the positional situations of every team in the Big 12, continuing Wednesday with defensive backs. Some of these outlooks will look different after the spring. But here’s how we see the defensive back groups going into the spring:

1. TCU: TCU has been tenacious defending the pass since joining the league, and even without potential first-round pick Jason Verrett, that shouldn’t change in 2014. Sam Carter was the only non-senior to earn first-team or second-team All-Big 12 honors in the secondary last season, and Chris Hackett was one of the best underclassman defensive backs in the league last year. Derrick Kindred is primed to step into TCU’s third safety spot after playing a key role in the rotation. The Horned Frogs also add the nation’s No. 3 juco safety in Kenny Iloka. Throw in senior Geoff Hooker, and the Horned Frogs have an impressive five-man rotation at safety. At corner, Kevin White was honorable mention All-Big 12 last year, and will take over for Verrett as the primary corner. The Horned Frogs have several options at the other corner, including incoming three-star recruit Nick Foster.

2. Texas: After playing the nickel role last year, Quandre Diggs will settle back at cornerback in place of Carrington Byndom. Opposite Diggs will be the ultra-athletic Duke Thomas, who was so good in spring ball last year, he forced the coaches to move Diggs to nickelback. Together, Diggs and Thomas could give the Longhorns the best cornerback tandem in the league. Antwuan Davis, who redshirted in his first year, was an ESPN 300 signee and figures to play a big role somewhere in the secondary. Josh Turner (37 appearances) and Mykkele Thompson (12 starts in 2013) each bring a lot of experience at safety.

3. Oklahoma: Oklahoma graduates the heart and soul of the secondary in cornerback Aaron Colvin, who gutted his way through an array of injuries last year. But if the Sooners can find an adequate replacement for him, the Big 12’s best pass defense statistically in 2013 should be stout again. Julian Wilson (nickelback), Zack Sanchez (cornerback) and Quentin Hayes (strong safety) all return as starters, though Hayes could be pushed by Ahmad Thomas and incoming freshman Steven Parker for time. Hatari Byrd, an ESPN 300 signee last year, should step into the vacant spot at free safety. Cortez Johnson will try to fend off Stanvon Taylor, who played as a true freshman, for Colvin’s spot in the only real uncertain area of this secondary.

4. Kansas State: The Wildcats will miss All-Big 12 performer Ty Zimmerman, but his cohort, Dante Barnett, was one of the best young safeties in the league last year. Barnett was third on the team with 75 tackles and first with four interceptions. Randall Evans also returns after leading the team in pass breakups and gives the Wildcats a versatile defensive back. As usual, Bill Snyder will also be looking for some juco impact. He should get it in Danzel McDaniel, who was the No. 4 juco CB recruit in the country. Cornerback Jesse Mack also could prove to be a key juco signee. If both players pan out, this could become one of the better defensive backfields in the league.

5. West Virginia: The bad news is the Mountaineers had the Big 12’s worst pass defense last year. The good news is they bring back three starters. Karl Joseph has started the last two seasons at free safety, though he could slide to the strong side with Darwin Cook gone. Joseph has All-Big 12 potential, and he needs to elevate his game for the West Virginia defense to take another step forward. Veteran K.J. Dillon could be the front-runner for the job alongside Joseph, though Jeremy Tyler and Jarrod Harper will also be in the mix. West Virginia also brings back both starting cornerbacks in senior Ishmael Banks and Daryl Worley, who started as a freshman. The Mountaineers also signed Keishawn Richardson, the No. 8 juco CB, and Jaylon Myers, the No. 9 juco safety, for depth. Cornerback Dravon Henry, an ESPN 300 signee who had offers from Alabama, Florida State and Ohio State, could play immediately if one of West Virginia’s veterans struggle.

6. Kansas: The Jayhawks return all five starters from their secondary, including last year’s Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year, strong safety Isaiah Johnson. Returning cornerbacks Dexter McDonald and JaCorey Shepherd, a converted wide receiver, were both honorable mention All-Big 12 selections and give the Jayhawks one of the better corner duos in the league. Free safety Cassius Sendish started every game and had 12 tackles in Kansas’ only Big 12 victory in 2013, over West Virginia. Nickelback Courtney Arnick started in six games as a redshirt freshman. If this group collectively improves, Kansas could field a solid defense in 2014.

7. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys lose All-Big 12 cornerback Justin Gilbert, who might be selected high in the first round of the NFL draft after a stellar combine performance. The Cowboys welcome back one of the best young corners in the league in Kevin Peterson, who was terrific as a sophomore in coverage opposite Gilbert. Ashton Lampkin has experience, and he will likely fill the other corner spot unless someone else emerges. Lyndell Johnson, who made a transition from linebacker to safety last season, will take over full time at strong safety. The Cowboys will need someone else to emerge at the other safety in place of departed veteran starter Daytawion Lowe. Deric Robertson, Tre Flowers, Jordan Sterns, Taylor Lewis and Darius Curry, all from the 2013 recruiting class, are possibilities.

8. Texas Tech: How the Red Raiders retool here will be on one of the bigger spring storylines in Lubbock. Keenon Ward and Justis Nelson were thrown in the fire as freshmen last year, and they will be counted on to fill bigger roles. The gem of the incoming recruiting class, four-star cornerback Nigel Bethel II, could be asked – and has the capability – to play right away. The Red Raiders have to replace both starting safeties, including freshman Tanner Jacobson, who is going on a Mormon mission. To compensate, Tech signed six safeties, including Josh Keys, the No. 5 juco safety in the country, who had offers from Auburn, Georgia and Oklahoma State. Getting strong safety J.J. Gaines back from a season-ending injury will be a boost, too.

9. Baylor: The Bears are one of several teams in the league that were decimated in the secondary by graduation. Baylor loses four of its five starters, including All-American safety Ahmad Dixon. Safety Terrell Burt is the only returning starter, leaving the other four spots up for grabs. The Bears signed juco corners Tion Wright and Chris Sanders to help fill the void. Both are already on campus and will be battling Xavien Howard, Ryan Reid and Tyler Stephenson for a starting job. Orion Stewart, who backed up Dixon as a redshirt freshman, will likely step in his role, and fellow sophomore Kiante’ Griffin will be the favorite to take over at the nickel.

10. Iowa State: Cornerback Nigel Tribune was the only true freshman to play for the Cyclones last year, and he received votes as Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year. Tribune, however, is the only returning starter. Veteran safety mainstays Jacques Washington and Deon Broomfield are gone. In response, the Cyclones will look for Devron Moore and Qujuan Floyd, the Nos. 6 and 7 juco safety recruits, respectively, to step in immediately.

OU spring position battles: No. 4

February, 25, 2014
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Spring football provides the opportunity for players to put themselves in the driver’s seat when it comes to position battles. Several Oklahoma Sooners will have chances to make a statement and make themselves the favorite to start or become a significant contributor during spring drills with several starting spots open heading into 2014. This week we’ll review the top five position battles to keep an eye on this spring, continuing with safety.

No. 4: Safety

[+] EnlargeHatari Byrd
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsHatari Byrd made three tackles as a freshman, all in the same game.
Why it’s important: OU has a bunch of youth at the safety spot and will need one of those young players to step up to replace veteran safety Gabe Lynn. The safety position has grown into one of the most important positions on the Sooners defense as Sooners safeties are asked to hold their own in coverage and make an impact on the running game. They are the most versatile players on OU’s defense.

Competitors

Sophomore Hatari Byrd: He filled in early in the 2013 season when Lynn was injured against Tulsa, so he does have some experience at the position. His action was limited, but he was in the Sooners’ two-deep for the majority of the year.

Sophomore Ahmad Thomas: Thomas played extensively on special teams as a true freshman, finishing with nine tackles in 2013. He’s an aggressive, athletic defensive back.

Summer arrivals

Freshman Steven Parker: He could step on campus as the Sooners’ most versatile defensive back. He’ll be hard to keep off the field.

Freshman Vontre McQuinnie: He excels around the line of scrimmage, so he’s unlikely to end up in a deep safety spot until he improves his coverage skills.

Potential outcomes

Best-case scenario: Thomas and Byrd have an intense battle to start alongside Quentin Hayes. Both sophomores are talented and can help the Sooners defense in 2014. Having Thomas and Byrd each make a step up in competition is a perfect scenario for OU, as they would push each other to get better. Having Parker join in the summer to make it a three-man competition would make the Sooners’ safety group stronger and deeper than it was in 2013. The best-case scenario does not include Thomas or Byrd winning the job in the spring; OU should want this competition to last well into August.

Worst-case scenario: The coaches end the spring longing for Parker’s arrival. That means neither Thomas or Byrd appear ready to start. It’s an unlikely scenario, but a possibility if neither make a jump from their freshman to sophomore years.

The list

No: 5: Backup quarterback

State of the position: Safety

January, 30, 2014
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In the next few weeks leading into signing day it’s a great time to take a position-by-position glance at Oklahoma’s returning roster. This series, called State of the Position, will look at the playmakers, up-and-comers and current commitments or targets at each position for the Sooners as recruiting really heats up during these final weeks before signing day on Feb. 5. On Thursday, we take a closer look at the safety position.

[+] EnlargeTexas Tech tight end Jace Amaro
Brett Deering/Getty ImagesQuentin Hayes (10) proved this season that he can hold down the back end of the Sooners' defense.
Starter/contributors: Quentin Hayes (Sr.)

Hayes brought terrific versatility to the Sooners secondary during his first season as a starter. His coverage ability was an upgrade at the safety spot and he was consistently around the ball, finishing with 80 tackles including 3.5 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, two quarterback hurries and one interception. His consistency and excellence was a pleasant surprise in the secondary.

On the cusp: Hatari Byrd (So.), Ahmad Thomas (So.)

Thomas was a mainstay on OU’s special teams and saw spot duty on defense. He’s an aggressive, athletic safety who should be a superb playmaker for the Sooners in the future. He played in 12 games, finishing with nine tackles as a role player on special teams.

Byrd is another solid young player with good upside. His performance against Tulsa, when he filled in after Gabe Lynn was injured, was a glimpse at his potential. He could combine with Thomas to give OU a pair of solid bookend safeties in the future.

On the recruiting trail: Jordan Thomas (Klein, Texas/Klein Collins), Vontre McQuinnie (DeSoto, Texas)

Thomas is a good example of the progression of the safety position. He has the athleticism and versatility to play several positions, including cornerback, yet the Sooners have him slated to line up at safety as they aim to fill the roster with versatile safeties that can hold their own in coverage and still be factor in the run game.

McQuinnie is a physical player who could be a terrific fit in a Tony Jefferson-like role or even as a linebacker. His size (6-foot-1, 204 pounds) and aggressive nature will make him a solid run support safety, and he has the athleticism to grow and improve as a coverage man.

Overall Grade: B+

Hayes is a star, Byrd and Thomas are talented but inexperienced, and the Sooners have two quality, yet different, commitments at the position. From top to bottom this is a good group, but the inexperience behind Hayes drops the grade below an A.

Big 12 mailbag

November, 22, 2013
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In today’s mailbag, Baylor’s schedule is compared to Ohio State’s, Iowa State fans yearn for the second coming of Bill Snyder and Texas fans want a louder stadium, Tyrone Swoopes at QB and a certain coach to be fired.

To the ‘bag:

[+] EnlargeBryce Petty
AP Photo/LM OteroOklahoma State will need to force some turnovers, but Baylor QB Bryce Petty has thrown just one interception all year.
Brenna in Stillwater, Okla., writes: It doesn’t seem like anyone is giving Oklahoma State a chance against Baylor. I know you predicted Baylor would win, but do you think the Pokes have a legitimate chance to get the win in convincing fashion?

Jake Trotter: The win, yes. But in convincing fashion? That’s asking a lot. That would require Oklahoma State forcing a bunch of turnovers, which the Cowboys have been terrific at. Problem is, Baylor doesn’t turn the ball over. Bryce Petty has thrown just one interception all year. The Cowboys are more than capable of winning this game. I almost picked them. But I don’t see a scenario in which Baylor gets blown out. That offense is just too good to let that happen.

Isaac in Waukee, Iowa, writes: Aside from hiring their own “Wizard” what needs to happen at Iowa State to reach Kansas State's level of consistent success? They seem to be similar schools with agricultural roots, true college towns, isolated from bigger TV markets.

Trotter: Bill Snyder didn’t build K-State in a day. The Wildcats had only one winning season in Snyder’s first four years. Yes, the Cyclones have taken a step back this year. But Paul Rhoads has proven to be a solid coach, underscored by the fact he took the Cyclones to bowls in three of his four years. Iowa State needs to give him more time. Way more time. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither was Manhattan. Neither will Ames.

Josh Brown in Dallas writes: In all these hypothetical debates about Baylor and Ohio State, I hear a lot about both teams playing a weak schedule. But I never hear about the one team they played in common, Buffalo. Ohio State won 40-20, while Baylor was up 56-13 at HALF! Any reason this doesn't get more attention as it is the obvious best point of comparison?

Trotter: I think a more powerful argument favoring Baylor is this: Ohio State has four road wins over teams (Cal, Illinois, Northwestern, and Purdue) who are a combined 0-26 in league play. Contrast that with a potential road win for Baylor at No. 10 Oklahoma State, and the case would be closed, in my opinion. Of course, the Bears have to win that game first.

James Fulton in El Paso, Texas, writes: Jake, with only two games plus a bowl game left, do you see David Ash sitting out the rest of the season? I assume he is eligible for a redshirt, and can come back as a junior next year.

Trotter: Ash would only be eligible for a medical redshirt if doctors didn’t clear him the rest of the season (sitting him while he’s cleared doesn’t count). But assuming he’s not cleared, which is doesn’t look like he will be, then yes, a medical redshirt is a very good possibility.

David in Richmond, Va., writes: During the Kansas-West Virginia game, the announcers kept talking about how many West Virginia players were injured. So I have to wonder, how many players are out for each team in the Big 12?

Trotter: I don’t have enough space here to list every injury for every team. But just about every team in the Big 12 has been hit with major injuries. Texas lost Johnathan Gray, David Ash and Chris Whaley. TCU lost Devonte Fields for the year and Casey Pachall for several games. Oklahoma lost Corey Nelson, Jordan Phillips and Trey Millard. Baylor lost Tevin Reese and now Spencer Drango. Oklahoma State lost Devin Davis during the preseason and has been without Josh Stewart. Texas Tech is missing several key defensive players. Iowa State has been beat up offensively pretty much all year. Injuries are part of football, and West Virginia is hardly exclusive to them.

James in Overland Park, Kan., writes: Will Tyrone Swoopes start for Texas against Texas Tech? Also will Mack Brown be fired after the Baylor game?

Trotter: Swoopes could play more, but McCoy is going to get the start. It’s possible that Brown resigns after the Baylor game, but he’s not going to be fired Lane Kiffin style.

Scott in Edgewater, Md., writes: What does Dana Holgorsen have to do to right the ship? Better recruits? More experience? Better coaches? I understand that the Big 12 is not the Big East, and that we have lost Stedman Bailey, Geno Smith and Tavon Austin. But this is getting unacceptable to me. At what point does Holgorsen have to worry about his job?

Trotter: I don’t think Holgorsen is in danger yet, even after that disappointing performance in Lawrence. The man who hired him (Oliver Luck) is still there, and this was always going to be a rebuilding year. But the Mountaineers better show improvement in 2014, or things could get tense real fast in Morgantown.

 

Freshmen impact in the Big 12

September, 25, 2013
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Having a highly ranked recruiting class and a bunch of four-star signees sounds good in the spring and summer, but it's a different story when the season begins. The freshmen who are game-ready are the ones who get the playing time, no matter their star rating. Here's a look at the five Big 12 schools getting the most from their true freshmen:

[+] EnlargeBaker Mayfield
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesFreshman Texas Tech signal-caller Baker Mayfield, a walk-on, has been the surprise of the Big 12 thus far.
1. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders practically earn this top spot by default by relying on two true freshmen at quarterback. Baker Mayfield made a big first impression, but it seems the battle is opening back up after two solid games from freshman Davis Webb, and the imminent return of Michael Brewer. Still, going 4-0 with two rookies behind center makes coach Kliff Kingsbury’s bunch a worthy No. 1 on this list.

Tech has played eight other true freshmen in 2013, and a few are making solid contributions. Receiver Dylan Cantrell has six catches for 56 yards, linebacker Malik Jenkins has recorded five tackles and a pass breakup and receiver Carlos Thompson already has a 73-yard kick return and 35-yard punt return.

2. Oklahoma: Is it possible Oklahoma’s best running back is its fourth-string freshman? Keith Ford, the gem of the Sooners’ class, has rushed for 66 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries and wowed in OU’s last game against Tulsa.

Fellow freshman Stanvon Taylor earned his first career start against Tulsa, and he’s one of several newcomers contributing in the secondary along with Hatari Byrd, Ahmad Thomas, L.J. Moore and Dakota Austin. Linebacker Dominique Alexander has also chipped in six tackles through three games.

3. West Virginia: Of all the new skill players who joined West Virginia’s offense this year, who would’ve expected Daikiel Shorts would be the Mountaineers’ leading receiver and Wendell Smallwood would be their No. 2 back? Shorts has 12 catches for 151 yards and two touchdowns, and Smallwood has 139 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries thus far.

A total of seven true freshmen have played for WVU this season, and four of them are defensive backs. Corner Daryl Worley is off to a nice start with six tackles, a tackle for loss and a pass breakup.

4. Oklahoma State: Many expected Ra’Shaad Samples to be OSU’s breakout true freshman receiver, but so far that distinction belongs to Marcell Ateman. He has hauled in eight passes for 92 yards, good for fourth-best on the team.

Freshman kicker Ben Grogan has hit all 19 of his extra-point attempts and is 1-for-2 on field goals, and defensive backs Jordan Sterns and Deric Robertson have combined for eight tackles this season.

5. Baylor: Baylor might have two of the conference’s most talented true freshmen in receiver Robbie Rhodes and defensive tackle Andrew Billings, but they haven’t had to do much so far. Rhodes has 65 receiving yards and Billings has recorded three tackles, including one tackle for loss. Kiante’ Griffin is also contributing at linebacker with three tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss.

TCU can also make a case for the No. 5 spot. The Frogs don’t have a Devonte Fields-caliber breakout star yet, but receiver Ty Slanina has two reception and is currently listed as a starter, and former ESPN 300 prospect Tevin Lawson is breaking into the rotation at defensive tackle with two stops already.

Charting Sooners' impact freshmen

September, 25, 2013
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NORMAN, Okla. -- Bob Stoops was praising Oklahoma’s freshmen before the season even began, calling them one of the more talented groups the Sooners have signed during his tenure.

They haven’t disappointed, with nine players from the 2013 recruiting class playing in the first three games. Cornerback Stanvon Taylor made his first career start and running back Keith Ford scored his first career touchdown against Tulsa. Here’s a look at the true freshmen who could have a significant impact on the Sooners during their final nine games:

[+] EnlargeKeith Ford
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiKeith Ford is one of many OU RBs competing for carries this spring.
Running back Keith Ford: Defenders beware -- approach any opportunity to tackle Ford with aggression. Otherwise, the 5-foot-11, 205-pound running back won’t hesitate to run you over. Ford has been impressive with his physical running style and relentless leg drive during his limited opportunities in the Sooners’ backfield. He has 11 carries for 66 yards and one touchdown. He’s forced himself onto the field in a matter of two months in pads for the Sooners, so there’s no reason to think he can’t carve out a permanent role in OU’s offense during conference play.

Defensive end Matt Dimon: He has seen spot duty in the Sooners’ first three games and could provide depth for the Sooners’ defensive line this season. He stepped on campus ready to play with his physical stature and maturity. Don’t expect him to force his way into the starting lineup, but he should be able to provide solid contributions in spot duty. His ability to play defensive tackle and defensive end will help him earn opportunities.

(Linebacker Dominique Alexander: The Tulsa, Okla., native has already played with the Sooners' starting defense and continues to come on thanks to his versatility at linebacker. As the former safetycontinues to progress and improve, he should give OU quality depth at linebacker and the ability to rotate with Corey Nelson and Frank Shannon. He has six tackles, including half a tackle for loss this season.

Linebacker Jordan Evans: Much like Alexander, Evans' versatility could help him earn increased playing time. The Norman, Okla., native already has secured himself a spot on OU’s special teams and played some at linebacker in mop-up duty. He brings a size/speed ratio that is unmatched at linebacker, but he’ll have to continue to progress as he learns the nuances of the position in OU’s defensive system. Evans has four tackles, including half a tackle for loss.

Cornerback Stanvon Taylor: The Tulsa, Okla., native has already started a game in crimson and cream less than a month into the season. He was solid against Tulsa with All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin sidelined by injury. Taylor also has played a role on the Sooners' special teams in all three games. His continued development is critical for the Sooners as he would allow OU to go two-deep at the cornerback spot.

Safety Hatari Byrd: The Fresno, Calif., native had his ups and downs after replacing an injured Gabe Lynn during the second quarter of OU’s 51-20 win over Tulsa on Sept. 14. Byrd showed his willingness to be physical but also showed some inexperience in coverage against the Golden Hurricane. Don’t expect him to take Lynn’s starting spot, but he will provide quality depth behind Lynn if he continues to develop throughout his freshman season.

Safety Ahmad Thomas: Another freshman who has been a constant on special teams, Thomas is another defender who is helping to create depth. He’s already making an impact on multiple special teams units and should continue to be an important chess piece for special teams coach Jay Boulware. Don’t expect him to force his way into the starting lineup on defense, but he will continue to be an impact player on special teams.

What we learned: Week 3

September, 15, 2013
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Here’s what we learned after Oklahoma’s 51-20 win over Tulsa.

The quarterback competition is over, for now. Sooners coach Bob Stoops said it best after Blake Bell’s record-setting starting debut: “So much for your controversy right now.” Bell threw for 413 yards, an OU record for a quarterback starting his first game, and four touchdowns in the blowout win over TU. And in doing so, he cemented himself as the starter when the Sooners face Notre Dame on Sept. 28.

OU’s offense must have passing success to be explosive. The Sooners' offense looked much more comfortable and finally found a rhythm as OU focused on kick-starting its passing game following two disappointing passing performances in its first two games. Offensive coordinator Josh Heupel used several screens and short passes to help Bell find a rhythm, and once he did, the offense looked like the explosive attack we’ve come to expect. The ability to have a balanced offensive attack will be critical against the Fighting Irish.

The young defenders have potential. Freshman cornerback Stanvon Taylor, freshman safety Hatari Byrd and freshman linebacker Dominique Alexander are among several OU freshman who saw significant playing time against Tulsa. They weren't perfect, but they showed signs they could be impact players at some point this season -- if they continue to gain valuable experience. Seven different true freshman defenders recorded a tackle against the Golden Hurricane, led by Alexander and Jordan Evans, who had four stops apiece.
The lights are about to get bright. Game 1 is fast approaching, and the touted true freshmen of the Big 12 are about to get a dose of reality.

Their recruiting hype doesn’t matter anymore. Some will play right away, and many others won’t. We’ll soon know which ones are difference-makers, and which ones are better off spending a year on the sidelines.

Several rookies are already establishing themselves as the cream of the crop through nearly three weeks of fall practices, but there are a lot of good ones ready to crack this list after they make their debuts. Here’s a look at five true freshman who are earning buzz coming out of fall camp, plus several more who could garner attention soon.

WR Robbie Rhodes, Baylor

The hype just keeps building. Rhodes enjoyed another breakout performance in Baylor’s second scrimmage, going for 112 yards on four catches. He was the No. 4 ranked receiver in the country coming out of Fort Worth (Texas) Southwest and brings elite speed and size to the position. He chose Baylor because he knew he could play any receiver spot for the Bears and get on the field right away. He was right. “He’s just a talented guy. He’s good, and that’s why he’s here,” Baylor coach Art Briles said after his second scrimmage. “We’re a good place for receivers to go, without any question.”

S Hatari Byrd, Oklahoma

The strong majority of Oklahoma’s 2013 signees have a chance to play in their first year, and defensive coordinator Mike Stoops has acknowledged Byrd is the one “we’ll probably lean on the heaviest.” He’s worked out at multiple positions in the secondary during camp and has a legitimate chance to establish himself in the lineup early in his Sooner career. A 6-foot-1, 198-pound ESPN 300 signee from Fresno, Calif., Byrd was told throughout his recruitment he’d start right away in Norman.

QB Davis Webb, Texas Tech

The prosper Prosper (Texas) arrived early in the spring and is now in position to start the season opener vs. SMU with Michael Brewer sidelined. A 6-foot-4, 195-pound gunslinger, he threw for 224 yards in the Tech spring game and seriously pushed Brewer, the projected starter. Now he’s competing with walk-on Baker Mayfield, and having that extra semester under his belt could make the difference.

WR Marcell Ateman, Oklahoma State

There’s no Justin Blackmon or Dez Bryant on this Oklahoma State team, just a handful of potentially really good ones. Ateman has flown under the radar a bit compared to the more touted Ra'Shaad Samples, but he’s got a big frame at 6-foot-4 and 190 pounds and has impressed the OSU staff in fall camp. Don’t be surprised if he contributes early.

DT Andrew Billings, Baylor

Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Bennett has already come right out and said it: Billings is competing for a starting job right now. He’s 6-foot and 305 pounds, and you won’t find a more powerful freshman in the country. The Waco native broke Texas state powerlifting records last year and can squad 805 pounds and bench press 500. Billings matches that strength with surprising quickness and could become a menace up the middle right away for the Bears. “We knew he was strong and we knew he was passionate,” Briles told the Waco Tribune last week. “I just didn’t know he was that agile and dedicated. He’s a guy that wants to be great.”

Keep an eye on: CB Ranthony Texada, TCU; S Ahmad Thomas, Oklahoma; QB Baker Mayfield, Texas Tech; WR Daikiel Shorts, West Virginia; WR D.J. Polite-Bray, Texas Tech; WR Tre' Parmalee, Kansas; DE Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, Oklahoma; RB Keith Ford, Oklahoma; DE Jordan Willis, Kansas State; LB Alton Meeks, Iowa State; WR Jacorey Warrick, Texas; LB Al-Rasheed Benton, West Virginia; OL Patrick Morris, TCU; RB Rennie Childs, Oklahoma State; QB Tyrone Swoopes, Texas
NORMAN, Okla. -- It was like a tidal wave.

As the 2012 season came to a close, the Oklahoma defense was battered and bruised by offenses from West Virginia then Oklahoma State then Texas A&M. Yet as the 2013 season approaches, there are reasons to hope for success from the Sooners’ defense, but that hope doesn’t come without concerns. Here’s a look at three reasons for hope and three reasons for concern for the Sooners’ defense this fall.

Hope

More versatile: Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops has repeatedly said his goal is to make the Sooners defense more versatile in 2013. Expect more three-man fronts, more athleticism on the field and more creative use of the Sooners’ personnel in 2013. The key for OU as it transforms into a more versatile defense will be to make sure the defense transforms into a tougher and more aggressive defense as well.

[+] EnlargeAaron Colvin
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireCornerback Aaron Colvin is a proven player who gives the Sooners defense a lot of reason for hope.
Aaron Colvin: The senior cornerback returned to the Sooners after an All-Big 12 season in 2012. If he hadn’t returned, things would look really bleak in OU’s secondary. Now, the Sooners have a proven anchor to lean on during rough times, and Colvin has made a point to increase his leadership as a senior as well with several talented true freshman in the Sooners' defensive backfield.

The defense wasn’t near as bad in 2012 as it may seem: Even in the Sooners’ three losses, the defense shouldn't shoulder all of the blame. Turnovers doomed OU against Kansas State, a lackluster running game hurt them against Notre Dame, and an inability to capitalize in the red zone helped Texas A&M embarrass OU in the Cotton Bowl.

In 2012, opponents averaged 30.4 yards per drive, second in the Big 12 behind TCU, and opposing quarterbacks had a Big 12-worst 108.4 passer efficiency rating, according to ESPN Stats & Info. The Sooners defense had its moments but struggled to stop the run in the final few games, making things look worse than they actually were and catapulting its run defense atop its priority list in 2013. Things could have been a lot worse.

Concern

Lack of experience: Just four starters return to a defense that disappointed last season. The Sooners will, undoubtedly, use multiple true freshman on defense this season with safeties Hatari Byrd and Ahmad Thomas already looking ready to make an impact and other February signees like defensive end Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and linebacker Dominique Alexander putting themselves in position to push for playing time. And junior college defensive tackle Quincy Russell needs to live up to the hype. There will be a learning curve for the newcomers, so the Sooners just have to hope the good outweighs the bad.

Lack of playmakers along the defensive line: Stoops has preached the need for playmakers up front since the spring. OU badly needs someone to emerge along the defensive line. The Sooners’ pass rush was subpar in 2012, and their general lack of aggressiveness led to a Big 12-worst 53 tackles for loss. Russell's arrival brings some hope, and Jordan Phillips is very talented but must not be content to simply be on the field. He needs to strive to dominate. The Sooners have some talented youngsters but no proven game-changers.

Depth and the ability to adapt on the fly: OU will need to create some type of depth to give Stoops options as he tries to stop Big 12 defenses. The Sooners generally rotate their defensive front but could also rotate their linebackers and defensive backs to give those guys opportunities to impress in games, give the starters rest and create a competitive atmosphere each week. Then, as those backups emerge and push for bigger roles, Stoops can come up with various packages to matchup better with Big 12 offenses on a weekly basis or even during games.
NORMAN, Okla. -- Halfway through preseason camp is a terrific time to look at some unknown Sooners who could end up being a significant contributors in 2013. Here are five guys who could make a difference in crimson and cream in 2013.

RB Alex Ross: The redshirt freshman almost played his way out of a redshirt season in 2012 but eventually used the year off to get better prepared to be an impact runner. Even though the Sooners return three seniors at running back, Ross brings a combination of size and speed that is difficult to duplicate.

[+] EnlargeAlex Ross
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesAfter redshirting in 2012, former ESPN 300 running back Alex Ross will likely make an impact for the Sooners this fall.
Coach Bob Stoops even singled out Ross after the Sooners’ first scrimmage on Aug. 10. Look for Ross to get some carries this season as he strives to set himself up to be the main in the backfield in 2014.

“Ross was a guy who really stood out in the scrimmage with speed and being powerful,” Stoops said.

WR Lacoltan Bester: A junior college signee in the Class of 2012, Bester barely made waves as a newcomer last fall. This season, he’s poised to earn some playing time, possibly even start, during his final year in crimson and cream.

He’s another player coming off a solid scrimmage on Saturday and he started the spring game last April. One of the most competitive receivers on the roster, Bester’s name consistently comes off the tongue of Aaron Colvin when the Sooners’ cornerback is asked which receiver could surprise in 2013.

S Hatari Byrd: The true freshman from Fresno, Calif., has been the buzz of preseason camp. His college-ready size and focused mentality should help him carve himself a role in the defense this fall. Byrd has impressed with his versatility -- he actually lined up at three different spots in the first three days of camp.

He’s very knowledgeable,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “He’s easy to coach. He wants to be great. His maturity level is one of the highest I’ve seen this early on in a career. That’s a very unique set of tools to work with in a kid this young. He may be the biggest, fastest guy we’ve seen at this age.”

DE Ogbonnia Okoronkwo: It won’t be easy for the true freshman to see the field this season with several talented youngsters alongside him in the defensive line meeting room. Yet the Sooners desperately need a pass rush. And Okoronkwo might be the answer.

He has impressed with his pass rushing skills during his first few months on campus and even though he’s a tad undersized at 6-foot-3, 214 pounds, don’t be surprised to see him play his way out of a redshirt season.

S Ahmad Thomas: Pretty much every time Byrd’s name comes up among his teammates, that Sooner will add Thomas’ name into the mix. People tend to forget about the true freshman from Miami, Fla., but he was one of the stars of spring after enrolling early.

With the Sooners looking to add additional depth and overall talent in the secondary, Thomas should be able to help OU immediately. His size and willingness to play physical are unusual for a true freshman.

Oklahoma season preview

August, 14, 2013
8/14/13
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Today we take a closer look at Oklahoma, which enters the season looking to win its ninth Big 12 title under Bob Stoops.

OKLAHOMA SOONERS

Coach: Bob Stoops (149-37 overall record, 14 seasons; 149-37 at OU, 14 seasons)

2012 record: 10-3 (8-1 in Big 12, co-champions)

[+] EnlargeBlake Bell
Michael C. Johnson/US PresswireBlake Bell, who has rushed for 24 touchdowns in his career, is the favorite to start at quarterback for the Sooners in 2013.
Key losses: QB Landry Jones, LT Lane Johnson, WR Kenny Stills, S Tony Jefferson, CB Demontre Hurst, S Javon Harris

Key returnees: WR Jalen Saunders, CB Aaron Colvin, RB Damien Williams, C Gabe Ikard, RT Daryl Williams, DT Chuka Ndulue, LB Corey Nelson.

Newcomer to watch: S Hatari Byrd. The California native was so impressive early in camp that the Sooners played him at three different positions in three days, clearly looking to find a way to get the true freshman on the field this season.

Biggest games in 2013: A three-game stretch could define the Sooners' season as they travel to Notre Dame (Sept. 28) before hosting TCU (Oct. 5) and battling Texas in the Red River Rivalry (Oct. 12). Road games at Baylor (Nov. 7) and Oklahoma State (Dec. 7) are the biggest games down the stretch as OU plays three of its final four games away from Norman.

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: It’s easy to assume replacing Landry Jones is the No. 1 priority. But the Sooners have three quality candidates in Blake Bell, Trevor Knight and Kendal Thompson, making the defensive line the biggest question mark at OU.

A lot of the Sooners’ defensive struggles in 2012 were rooted in their lack of a pass rush. OU doesn’t have proven playmakers at defensive tackle or defensive end but several youngsters like Jordan Phillips and Charles Tapper have plenty of upside.

Forecast: Watching OU's offense struggle to score touchdowns while Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel ran circles around the defense in the Cotton Bowl didn’t sit well in Norman. Coach Bob Stoops replaced three assistant coaches, adding new faces in the trenches with offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh and defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery joining the program.

Bell is the favorite to start at quarterback and could bring a run-pass threat at the position that was absent during Jones’ tenure. A veteran offensive line and a bevy of talented ball carriers, led by Damien Williams, should provide a strong running game that makes the transition easier for whoever is named the starter at quarterback. And top receiver Jalen Saunders is one of the Big 12’s most explosive players.

Defensively, the Sooners will need several young players to grow up quickly with just four starters returning. All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin provides a foundation for the secondary and will be counted on to slow the Big 12’s top pass catchers. Linebacker Corey Nelson hopes to have a breakout senior season and junior Geneo Grissom could finally fulfill his potential at defensive end.
It’s midway through Oklahoma’s preseason camp, so there’s no better time to update the position battles that could define the Sooners season.

[+] EnlargeBlake Bell
Alonzo Adams/USA TODAY SportsBlake Bell remains favored to start at quarterback for the Sooners, but the competition is far from over.
Quarterback: Blake Bell remains the favorite to start the season opener, but the quarterback competition rages on in Norman. Bell continues to work on playing mistake-free football, while redshirt freshman Trevor Knight has been impressive in the preseason even though he hasn’t knocked Bell out of his favorite status. The Sooners’ coaching staff has been diligent about keeping the competition open, and nobody has stepped up and won the job at this point. This competition could continue into the season, particularly with Kendal Thompson set to return early in the year.

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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