Oklahoma Sooners: Jordan Phillips
If that dream turns into reality, the Sooners will likely have their defensive line to thank. As the defensive line went, so went the Sooners in 2013, as the group sparked the Sugar Bowl win yet faltered in OU’s losses to Baylor and Texas.
“It has a chance to be one of our deeper and better ones,” Stoops said. “Imagine that, in a year's period of time.”
Every significant contributor returns along the defensive line, including All-Big 12 end Charles Tapper, and the group should be boosted even more if tackle Jordan Phillips, who was playing at an all-conference level early last season, returns to full health after a back injury ended his sophomore season early. From top to bottom, it’s one of the deepest units in years.
“Yeah, no question,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said when asked if this would be one of the deepest defensive lines he has coached.
“You get Jordan Phillips back and we can go two deep and not really slide much. Tapper and Geneo [Grissom] are difference-makers, and the other guys will be difference makers as they continue to grow too. Chuka [Ndulue] is the old, reliable horse in there that holds down the fort, he pushes things to the other guys. They all work together extremely well. We have a unique group and they play hard.”
The bowl win over Alabama was a glimpse at just how good OU's defensive line could be. Crimson Tide quarterback AJ McCarron, who was sacked seven times, probably still has nightmares of defenders setting up camp in the backfield. Make no mistake, OU won the game in the trenches and hopes to continue that trend in 2014.
The returnees have proven to be quality Big 12 defensive linemen, yet their playing time is far from secure. The development and growth of several young defensive linemen has spurred Mike Stoops' belief they can go two deep without a drop off. Matt Dimon, Mike Onuoha, Charles Walker and Matt Romar are just a few of the young defensive linemen on the roster who have increased the competition.
“There’s a huge competition,” Ndulue said. “There’s a bunch of great guys out there, and any one of them could be the starting man. There’s just more drive because you want to play, so we just know that your job is on the line each snap so it just makes you play to the best of your ability. As the defensive line, we know that there’s competition every day. It makes our [meeting] room a lot better.”
At the center of it all is defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery, who joined the Sooners in February 2013 to jump start a disappointing defensive front. He has done that and more, proving to be stellar position coach after arriving from Michigan with a reputation as an elite recruiter.
“The defensive line is where the game is played,” Mike Stoops said. “They are very disruptive and that is what you need to have. [Montgomery] is very good with technique and he has a great relationship with the players, and that has all been very positive. They play hard and they play with technique, and that is where it all starts up front. They have been a catalyst for us.”
Few envisioned the Sooners’ defensive line becoming one of the Big 12’s best in 2013. Yet it was.
“It wasn’t supposed to be a very strong group for us a year ago, but they really flipped it and now it is one of the best groups in the country,” Mike Stoops said. “Again, hopefully we can get [Phillips] back and make this group even stronger. It can be a dominating group if we can get him back healthy and playing at the level he was playing at a year ago.”
Now the defensive line is looking to be called the nation’s best, with the goal of being the driving force behind a College Football Playoff berth.
“It all starts with the big guys,” Ndulue said. “If we’re not being dominant, getting driven back into the linebackers, it’s going to be a long day for us. If we’re playing on their side of the line of scrimmage, we can do something great.”
Jordan Phillips appears in line for a healthy return after his redshirt sophomore season was cut short. Jordan Wade was pleasantly productive in the middle in Phillips’ absence, and Chuka Ndulue can slide inside at a moment’s notice.
Yet Charles Walker might be the most physically gifted of the bunch.
The redshirt freshman had Sooners fans buzzing when he posted his 4.7 time in the 40-yard dash on social media during winter workouts. It was an early sign of the sheer physical talent of the 6-foot-2, 289-pound Walker. This spring, he has continued to impress.
The definition of a hidden gem, Walker was a late addition to the Sooners’ Class of 2013. The Sooners battled New Mexico, Houston, New Mexico State and North Texas for his signature. His underwhelming offer list didn’t stop him from making an immediate impression when he arrived last summer, with the coaching staff recognizing his long-term upside right away.
But as talented as Walker is, it is far from a certainty for him to see the field in 2014.
“It is a learning progression for Charles,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “We are not seeing his full ability yet, and I don’t anticipate we will until next fall or he gets some more repetitions in this system. It is hard for your skill set to really show up when you are thinking all the time.”
Having veterans at the position helps the Sooners and Walker. Watching and learning from players who have proven to be productive Big 12 defensive tackles is a luxury for Walker, and one the Sooners did not have last spring. For OU, Walker’s presence ensures the veterans won’t get complacent with a talented youngster nipping at their heels for playing time.
“I think he is a guy that continues to improve, and hopefully by next fall, he will be part of the rotation,” Mike Stoops said. “But we have got all of those other guys back, so he is going to have to work his way, but he has shown great promise up until this point.”
The inexperience and lack of technique hasn’t stopped him from drawing raves from teammates, who consistently speak his name when asked about talented unknowns on the roster.
“Charles Walker is a beast,” said guard Dionte Savage, who battles Walker in practice. “He’s going to have a great career. He’s a great player, definitely a good player to go up against -- his moving ability and the way he moves his hips.”
We might not see it this season, but all signs are pointing toward Walker being a name to know in Norman, Okla., and, quite possibly, across the Big 12 region.
“Anyone that big and strong and fast, I think he will be a dynamic player,” Mike Stoops said. “Again, you are talking about a guy that has not even been here a year, so, you are asking a lot. Eric Striker was not Eric Striker until this year, if you remember right. Maybe that was our fault not playing him more the year before, but it takes a while, and hopefully with Charles that light will turn on and you will see him start to make more plays.”
With one minute to go in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, Sooner linebacker Eric Striker came barreling around the line. After beating left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, who might be a first-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft, Striker leveled Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron and stripped the ball loose. Flying in from the other side, Sooner end Geneo Grissom scooped up the fumble and rumbled in for the game-clinching touchdown.
After several seasons of relative mediocrity, the Oklahoma defense finally rediscovered its swagger in that 45-31 Sugar Bowl win over the two-time defending national champs.
“The Sugar Bowl gave us a good boost,” said defensive end Charles Tapper, who was the only defensive underclassman to earn first-team All-Big 12 honors last year. “Knowing we kinda dominated Alabama’s offensive line, that the whole defense just dominated Alabama a little bit -- just a great way to come into the 2014 season.”
It wasn’t long ago the swagger of the Selmon Brothers and “Superman” Roy Williams and “The Boz” seemed lost forever.
The Sooners ended the 2012 season capitulating to Heisman winner Johnny Manziel, who humiliated them in the Cotton Bowl while becoming just the second player ever to rush and pass for more than 200 yards in a bowl game (Vince Young in the 2006 Rose Bowl was the other). The final month that season, Oklahoma couldn’t pressure the passer. Couldn’t stop the run. And couldn’t win without getting a half-a-hundred from its offense.
But thanks a scheme change from four to three down linemen last offseason that commanded a more blitz-oriented style, as well as a successful bid to bring Michigan defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery to Norman, the Sooners rapidly improved defensively last season despite playing several new starters.
Spurred by the emergence of underclassmen like Striker, Tapper and the Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year, linebacker Dominique Alexander, that improvement finally culminated in New Orleans.
The Sooners didn’t play perfectly against Alabama. But they sacked the Heisman runner-up seven times, and forced three turnovers that all led to Oklahoma touchdowns, capped with Grissom’s fumble return.
“As a team, things started to come together,” said coordinator Mike Stoops, who resuscitated the Sooner defense at the turn of the millennium 14 years ago and has done it again in the present in his second stint in Norman. “I think our team came together in that last game. That let us play with more confidence and swagger in the second half. Even when things got tough, I felt like our players were in control.”
With the return of almost all those players, the Sooners figure to storm into 2014 with one of the best defenses in the country.
Who knows, maybe the best.
Virtually the entire defensive line comes back, including Grissom and Tapper, who team up to give the Sooners a destructive duo off the edge.
Inside, Oklahoma will also welcome back Jordan Phillips, who was playing at an All-Big 12 level before suffering a season-ending back injury, and redshirt freshman Charles Walker, who has been turning heads for months during closed practices. During the winter, Walker ran the 40-yard dash in 4.67 seconds, shattering the Bob Stoops-era defensive tackle record at Oklahoma set by All-American Tommie Harris (4.80) in 2003.
“We’re starting to gain quality players in our backup positions that can play a lot of different places trying to earn their way onto the field,” Mike Stoops said.
That hasn’t just manifested along the defensive line, either.
Oklahoma’s entire linebacking corps returns, including Striker, who has become the Big 12 version of Lawrence Taylor. The secondary is brimming with young talent, too, led by cornerback Zack Sanchez, who intercepted McCarron in the Sugar Bowl to set up a late Oklahoma touchdown at the end of the first half and give the Sooners a 31-17 lead.
“We’re so far ahead from where we were last year,” Striker said. “We got chemistry with each other. We know how to play off each other.”
That’s a scary thought for the rest of the Big 12, and maybe all of college football.
Especially if Oklahoma can keep getting to the quarterback the way it did late last season. In their final four games, the Sooners sacked opposing quarterbacks 16 times. According to ESPN Stats & Info, South Alabama’s was the only FBS defense with more during the same stretch.
“We like to get to that quarterback,” Tapper said. “On third down, we let the dogs loose. Like the cops let the dogs loose to get them bad guys, we let the dogs loose on third down.”
Though it wasn’t a third down, that’s exactly what Oklahoma did to McCarron at the end of the Sugar Bowl.
The play won the game for the Sooners. While sending a message that defensive swagger is finally back at Oklahoma.
“I feel like this is going to be a big year for us,” Tapper said. “Dominating every team in the Big 12 and just all over the country.”
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. 3:
Why it matters: Games are won in the trenches; just ask Alabama. At this time last year, questions about OU’s defensive line sat atop the list of concerns heading into spring. Now the Sooners return a defensive line full of playmakers, including All-Big 12 defensive end Charles Tapper. How well that group continues to develop will have a major impact on OU’s national title hopes.
What it would mean: If the Sooners defensive front takes another step forward, it could become the foundation of a national title run. Tapper has NFL talent and a hunger to be great, Geneo Grissom played one of the best games of his career in the Sugar Bowl, and the two Jordans (Jordan Phillips and Jordan Wade) are a terrific potential duo in the defensive interior. Add in Chuka Ndulue and OU has all the making for an exceptional defensive line.
Yet how well the depth behind that group develops could be the key. Charles Walker's name repeatedly came up as a stellar scout teamer during his redshirting freshman season and could earn himself some playing time this spring. At defensive end, Matt Dimon, Mike Onuoha and D.J. Ward could show they are ready to play as well, which would make the Sooners three-deep at all three positions on the front.
It’s a talent-laden group that returns playmaking starters while still featuring several youngsters with terrific upside. If the competition for playing time raises the overall level of play of the entire group, they should provide nightmares for Big 12 offensive coordinators this fall while becoming one of the best defensive line groups in Stoops' tenure.
2. TCU: DE Devonte Fields, the Associated Press’ Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year as a freshman in 2012, had an empty season in 2013 thanks to a suspension, then a season-ending foot injury. If Fields can return to the player he was, TCU will be formidable up front. Chucky Hunter was a second-team All-Big 12 pick inside last season, and he’ll be flanked by an array of experienced tackles in Davion Pierson and Tevin Lawson, who were all part of the rotation last season. Ends Terrell Lathan, James McFarland and Mike Tuaua, who combined for 11 sacks in 2013, all return as well. Even with DT Jon Lewis giving up football, TCU's D-line figures to be as deep as any in the league.
3. Texas: Cedric Reed, one of the best sack men in the Big 12 last season, returns after giving the NFL a cursory thought. The Longhorns have to replace Big 12 co-Defensive Player of the Year Jackson Jeffcoat on the other side, but ESPN 300 recruit Derick Roberson, the No. 8 DE in the Class of 2014, could help right away. The Longhorns should also be stout inside, with run-stuffing tackles Malcom Brown and Desmond Jackson back to clog the middle.
4. Kansas State: Ryan Mueller, who was eighth nationally with 11.5 sacks last season, comes back after a breakout All-Big 12 season. Travis Britz is an all-conference-caliber tackle and gives K-State one of the better one-two punches on the D-line in the league. Joining them will be Terrell Clinkscales, who was the No. 4 junior college DT in the 2014 class. The Wildcats pried Clinkscales away from Nebraska, and at 315 pounds he could be the perfect complement to Britz, who relies more on quickness.
6. Baylor: The Bears feature two of the more intriguing defensive linemen in the league. DE Shawn Oakman, a former Penn State transfer with tremendous length at 6-foot-9, finished sixth in the league with 12.5 tackles for loss last season, but he tailed off in Big 12 play. Baylor will ask him to play a much bigger role along the line, and he has the potential to give the Bears a unique playmaker there. On the inside, Baylor will lean more on Andrew Billings, who was part of the DT rotation as a freshman. If both Billings and Oakman play up to their vast potential, Baylor could be a handful up front.
7. West Virginia: The Mountaineers lose two of three starters along the D-line, including second-team All-Big 12 end Will Clarke. West Virginia is hoping for big things from DE Kyle Rose, who played a lot as a sophomore. Dontrill Hyman will likely fill a starting role on the other side, though he could get pushed for time by Eric Kinsey and Noble Nwachukwu, who both will be in their third year in the program. The Mountaineers will lean on Christian Brown and Darrien Howard at nose guard. Howard was an ESPN 300 recruit last year and played as a freshman. There’s some talent and potential here.
8. Iowa State: Like Texas Tech, Iowa State loaded up on immediate defensive line help, signing three juco defensive ends in Dalyou Pierson, Terry Ayeni and Gabe Luna, who is enrolled already for spring ball. Those three together with All-Big 12 honorable-mention selection Cory Morrissey and sophomore Mitchell Meyers should give Iowa State a solid rotation at end. Rodney Coe, who started the last four games, will anchor the Cyclones inside.
9. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders lose their two best defensive linemen in Kerry Hyder and Dartwan Bush, and Tech got pushed around up front anyway last season. Coach Kliff Kingsbury recognized this deficiency and signed four juco defensive linemen, all of whom have a chance to play immediately. Of the returning linemen, Branden Jackson was by far the most productive, totaling nine tackles for loss and four sacks as a starter.
10. Kansas: Despite also losing two starters, the Jayhawks have experience up front. Defensive captain Keon Stowers is back after manning the middle in 2013. Ben Goodman returns as well in Kansas’ “buck” role, and he is coming off a very solid sophomore season. Goodman’s backup, Michael Reynolds, and rotation players Tedarian Johnson and Ty McKinney give the Jayhawks depth.
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.
We hope this list hasn't been too terribly controversial, but yes, there have certainly been some quality players who did not make the cut. Several can make a solid case for why they should've made our Top 25, including Texas defensive end Cedric Reed, Texas Tech defensive lineman Kerry Hyder, West Virginia safety Darwin Cook, Kansas linebacker Ben Heeney and Kansas State running back John Hubert.
We did not forget about you, guys. We tip our caps to your strong showings in 2013.
And let's not forget the many Big 12 players who would've been among the conference's 25 best had they stayed healthy. Here's a closer look at five big-time players who missed out due to injuries.
Devonte Fields, DE, TCU: The No. 3 player in the blog's preseason Top 25 did not have a sophomore season to remember. TCU shut him down for the season on Oct. 9 due to a foot injury that required surgery. He ended up appearing in just three games due to suspension and injury. The Horned Frogs were wise to end his season early and seek a medical redshirt, and let's hope Fields is back to his dominant self when he returns in 2014.
Trey Millard, FB/RB/TE, Oklahoma: Millard, who ranked No. 11 in our preseason Top 25, brought so many things to the Sooners' offense both in production and intangibles. He was pretty much guaranteed a spot in our postseason list until Oct. 26, when a torn ACL suffered against Texas Tech ended his season and his OU career five games too early. It's a shame we only got to see him touch the ball 28 times is his final season, but Millard and his many niche contributions won't soon be forgotten by Sooners fans.
Jordan Phillips, DT, Oklahoma: Sure, you can argue that OU linebacker Corey Nelson deserves this spot as the Sooners' captain and possible defensive MVP prior to his injury. But losing Phillips to a season-ending back injury in the middle of October was just as damaging, not only to the middle of the Sooners line but also because he seemed on pace to developing into an All-Big 12 caliber talent. He played in four games, missed two, and then was done. Let's hope he can get healthy and back in track as a junior.
Tevin Reese, WR, Baylor: Reese came very close to making our Top 25 despite missing five games this season with a broken wrist. He was one of several Baylor players who went down during the stretch run, and arguably the most critical one. He finished the year with 867 receiving yards and eight touchdowns and only needed 38 receptions to get there. His 22.8 yards per catch average ranked No. 2 nationally, and three of his scores came from 60-plus yards.
The argument could be made that Wade was the best freshman on a Sooners defense that featured Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year Dominique Alexander. Wade stepped in after Phillips was injured and more than held his own as an anchor for OU’s defense, particularly in the final month of the season. He has a big future ahead of him.
Ndulue made a pretty smooth transition to the defensive interior after spending his first two seasons at defensive end. His versatility is an important asset and he brought experienced play to the defense in 2013. Ndulue will continue to be a critical piece in 2014.
If Phillips returns to his September 2013 form, OU’s defense could secure itself a place among the nation’s best. He was a disruptive force who was finally starting to match the hype with production before a back injury derailed his sophomore year.
On the cusp: Charles Walker (redshirt freshman), Matthew Romar (redshirt freshman), Quincy Russell (Sr.), Torrea Peterson (Sr.)
Asked about who impressed during their redshirt season, Sooners coaches and players consistently mentioned Walker. His teammates on OU’s offensive line lauded his explosiveness after going against Walker on the scout team last fall. He could be poised to make an impact.
Romar joins Walker as another guy who could help after a redshirt season. With so many quality options at the position, OU won’t be in a hurry to throw Romar into the fire.
Russell saw spot duty as a junior and never really could secure himself a consistent role on OU’s defense after joining the program in the middle of preseason drills. Nonetheless, he has the ability to be a contributor as a senior.
Peterson played in seven games in 2013, even starting against Iowa State, but never really distanced himself from the competition at the position. He’s a solid guy to have in the fold but hasn’t proven to be irreplaceable with his on-field production.
On the recruiting trail: Brandon Glenn (Irving, Texas/Ranchview)
Glenn may or may not make it on campus with academic concerns standing in his way. But OU has made a hard push for Courtney Garnett (New Orleans/Saint Augustine) and could land the defensive tackle, which would be a clear upgrade on the hype-o-meter.
Realistically it might not matter what happens on the recruiting trail with Walker and Romar appearing to pan out as potential hidden gems in last year’s class and OU’s move to a three-man front.
Overall Grade: A
Three significant returning contributors, multiple others who have played in games and two freshmen with solid upside? The only reason this isn’t a A+ is the lack of a top-notch defensive tackle commitment. This position looks 100 times better right now than it did in late January 2013. Sure seems like defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery deserves a raise.
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 some priority spots for the Sooners to address in their 2014 class during the final two months of this recruiting cycle. Keep in mind, this list has everything to do with the young players on campus at each position, not necessarily the guys who are playing at that position each Saturday in 2013.
Offensive tackle: Derek Farniok and Christian Daimler are the lone underclassmen at offensive tackle. OU badly needs depth at the position and should be aiming to land at least two offensive tackle prospects in this class. If redshirt freshman tight end Sam Grant ends up at tackle, that would help the cause and lessen the urgency, but its a high priority position in this year's class. Worse yet, there doesn't seem to be a lot of hope at the position with top prospects mentioning OU on their lists. Finding a hidden gem in December could be the top priority for offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh.
Defensive tackle: This position looks a lot better right now than it did a year ago with the early play of Jordan Phillips, a sophomore, and the emergence of Jordan Wade, a redshirt freshman. Nevertheless, there is no such thing as too many quality defensive tackles. The Sooners have one commit in Irving (Texas) Ranchview's Brandon Glenn, but that's not enough. OU needs to secure at least one more defensive tackle prospect to join Glenn and redshirting freshmen Matthew Romar and Charles Walker as the future at the position.
Linebacker: OU rallied to bring in two quality linebackers late in last year’s recruiting cycle with Alexander and Jordan Evans. Each committed to OU late in the process and became impact freshmen this fall. The Sooners need to supplement that duo with a least one more playmaker to join Allen (Texas) linebacker Tay Evans and Murrieta (Calif.) Vista Murrieta linebacker Curtis Bolton on their commit list. Several linebackers could be in play and keep in mind the Sooners did secure Alexander and Evans late in the process.
Running back: You can never have too many running backs. And OU loses three quality ball carriers in Brennan Clay, Roy Finch and the recently dismissed Damien Williams. Redshirt freshman Alex Ross has a good size/speed ratio, true freshman Keith Ford has terrific upside, and commitment Samaje Perine (Pflugerville, Texas/Hendrickson) is a member of the ESPN 300. But the Sooners need to add another quality runner into the mix. Oakley (Calif.) Freedom running back Joe Mixon, No. 72 in the ESPN300, would be an outstanding addition to this class.
Receiver: Even though the Sooners seem to have some solid youngsters already on campus, they don't have a proven game-breaking receiver outside of Sterling Shepard returning in 2014. But, and this is critical, they can't just use a scholarship to bring in another guy. With Tulsa (Okla.) Union receiver Jeffery Mead and La Mirada (Calif.) receiver Dallis Todd already committed, receivers coach Jay Norvell should think elite receiver or bust. Norvell should join Mike Stoops in doing whatever it takes to land Michiah Quick (Fresno, Calif/Central East), then fight for him to end up on the offensive side of the ball.
Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops had just announced defensive tackle Jordan Phillips would miss the remainder of the season with a back injury during his weekly press conference in mid-October. One week earlier, Stoops had announced linebacker Corey Nelson would miss the rest of the year with a pectoral injury.
Just that quickly, the Sooners were eyeing the bulk of their Big 12 conference schedule without two of their top defenders. Phillips had been emerging as a force in the middle after the season opened with lots of questions about OU’s defensive interior, and Nelson had become the anchor of OU’s defense after the season began with major concerns about the lack of production from the linebackers.
A clear step backward was expected.
But it hasn’t really happened. For all intents and purposes, this Sooners defense has proven to have much better depth than anyone would have anticipated when the season began.
“No one thought we had any D-Linemen, now we’re two-deep,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “Dominique was a pleasant surprise, coming in and playing at the level he’s played at. We needed that or we couldn’t have survived. Guys have really come through.”
The stats have jumped in the last five games since Phillips and Nelson were lost for the year, with points allowed per game, yards per play and yards per game increasing. But so has the quality of the competition. And OU’s defense has remained the best and most consistent unit on the team, even without Nelson and Phillips.
“Some of the younger guys are playing are playing above their age,” defensive end Chuka Ndulue said. “They’re playing at a higher level than most young guys are expected to play.”
Alexander has 52 tackles in the last five games, averaging 10.4 tackles per game while becoming one of the most productive players on the defense. Wade and Peterson haven’t done much to be noticed, which is a good thing. As the anchors of a 3-man front, they aren’t expected to get numbers as much as they’re counted on not to get pushed around. The fact Alexander and fellow linebacker Frank Shannon usually sit atop the postgame tackle list speaks to solid contributions by Wade and Peterson, who are allowing the linebacker duo the freedom to make plays.
“We have a lot of positives our guys are taking away, even though you lose players it’s helping us transition,” Mike Stoops said. “Those are good things.”
The Sooners defensive coordinator points to the expectation of being a Sooner and the mental approach as the foundation of OU’s ability to handle the injuries without complete and total disaster.
“Consistently being tough and having pride about the way we play, that’s where it all starts,” Mike Stoops said. “That’s the most important element of defense, your attitude about it, regardless of who is in there, nobody cares who is playing. It’s how you play and how you attack each preparation each week. Our guys have been really consistent in those departments and that’s given us a chance.”
The ability to overcome those injuries has OU excited about the future, particularly with Alexander and Wade each in their freshman seasons and several other freshman, like cornerbacks Zack Sanchez and Stanvon Taylor, showing good long-term upside.
“You lose two leaders and two impact players, but at the same time it shows you what we can do with the players we have right now,” Ndulue said. “We’re playing at a high level with those two guys gone, so imagine the possibility if they were still here. We’re Oklahoma. We have pride. We have good players. Whoever is up to play has to be ready to step out there and make plays.”
The Sooners defense isn’t littered with five-star talent, a trend that’s led to some unrest by the Sooner faithful, yet the defense seems littered with plenty of young talent that has upgraded the overall speed and athleticism of the unit. Seeing young players like Alexander and Sanchez step up this season has validated the Sooners’ ability to evaluate somewhat overlooked recruits who can make an impact early in their careers.
“Watching some of our younger players play Saturday, we have a lot of good players that just haven’t had the opportunities,” Mike Stoops said.
But most importantly it’s been the expectation to excel which seems to have allowed OU to handle the loss of two critical pieces in the middle of the season and continue to field a defense that’s played well enough to win every game this season.
“If they’re at Oklahoma, they’re expected to play at a high level,” Mike Stoops said. “That’s all there is to it.”
Three keys to beating Oklahoma
1. Run the ball right at the Sooners. Texas used this blueprint to hand OU its lone loss this season as two Longhorn running backs (Johnathan Gray, Malcolm Brown) rushed for more than 100 yards. While the Sooners rank third in the Big 12 in rushing yards allowed (134.75), they’ve allowed 200 rushing yards or more to Kansas, Notre Dame and Texas. Baylor has the talent with Lache Seastrunk and depth with Glasco Martin and Shock Linwood to test the Sooners, particularly with Jordan Phillips and Corey Nelson no longer manning the middle of OU’s defense.
2. Make Blake Bell uncomfortable in the pocket. The Longhorns defense harassed Bell into mental mistakes in the Sooners’ lone loss. Bell’s 4.3 adjusted QBR was the 13th worst QBR by a quarterback and the worst in the Big 12 this season. The junior never looked comfortable or confident in the pocket as he completed just 46.2 percent of his passes with two interceptions. If Baylor can get similar pressure on Bell, it could force similar mistakes.
3. Make the Sooners play from behind. Oklahoma’s offense is considerably better when playing with a lead. The Sooners can remain committed to their running game while using their success on the ground to make teams pay with play action passes. Running backs Brennan Clay, Damien Williams and Roy Finch give the Sooners one of the deepest groups of runners in the Big 12. And Bell can make defenses pay with his legs as well. OU’s passing attack has been the most inconsistent part of the squad in 2013, so if the Bears make the Sooners have to throw to get back in the game, they have to like their odds on coming out on top.
-- Brandon Chatmon
Three keys to beating Baylor
1. Put the defense to the test. Baylor takes immense pride in the progress its defense has made in 2013. But that defense has faced just one top-50 scoring offense (Kansas State, 49th) and four that rank 92nd or worse. Maybe this Oklahoma offense (ranked 55th) isn’t the great unit that finally tests just how sturdy this Bear defense really is, but it has enough firepower at running back and receiver to challenge Baylor’s back seven. Baylor’s defense has pitched a first-quarter shutout in five of its seven wins. If Oklahoma finds a way to get on the scoreboard early, how will its opponent respond?
2. Slow Seastrunk and the rushing attack. Three of the five teams that beat Baylor last held the offense to less than 120 rushing yards. Kansas State, the only team to play the Bears close this year, held them to 114 rushing yards and Seastrunk to 59 on 12 carries. Baylor has the luxury of throwing the more than capable duo of Martin and Linwood in if Seastunk can’t get going, but that would be a victory for OU’s defense and greatly help its chances. That unit must find ways to make Bryce Petty’s job more difficult and get Art Briles and playcaller Phil Montgomery out of their run-pass rhythm.
3. Take it to the fourth quarter. Petty has attempted four passes in fourth quarters this season. Seastrunk has two rushing attempts. The average score of a Baylor game after three quarters is 55-10. These guys have not been tested. The Sooners have to prey on that and try to wear out the Bears if they get the opportunity. Maybe those run lanes start opening up more late. Maybe Petty, after 30 throws, starts losing some accuracy. OU needs an advantage in this department. But, really, the simple truth about beating Baylor is this: The Bears won’t lose unless they show up flat, make mistakes and start beating themselves. Oklahoma is going to need an excellent game plan and, probably, a lot of help.
-- Max Olson
That wham-bam offensive style topped Kliff Kingsbury’s wily bag of tricks in a 38-30 victory over Texas Tech, and it reestablished the Sooners as big a threat as any to unbeaten Baylor for the Big 12 title.
“I love our team and their attitude,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. “Are we in great shape? No. Am I excited about our team and our opportunity and our willingness to fight and all of that? Yeah, I am.”
The Sooners suffered yet another devastating injury, as Millard tore his ACL covering a kickoff in the fourth quarter. The Sooners had already lost their best linebacker (Corey Nelson) and best defensive lineman (Jordan Phillips) for the year. Now, they’ll go to Baylor without their most valuable offensive player, too.
But even with more injury adversity, the Sooners also, for the first time in a month, looked like a team that could challenge for the Big 12 crown.
When he had to, quarterback Blake Bell delivered confident completions to convert third downs. The defense continued to batten down the hatches, even while having to resort to playing true freshmen Jordan Evans and Dominique Alexander at linebacker.
And the Sooners ran the ball at will.
Oklahoma racked up 277 yards on the ground, featuring the trio of Damien Williams (101 yards), Roy Finch (55 yards) and Brennan Clay (42 yards).
“When you’re blocking it that way and running it that way,” Stoops said, “you have got to keep calling it until they can stop it.”
Tech couldn’t stop it.
In fact, on the first possession out of halftime, Oklahoma called 10 runs and one pass and marched right down the field to take a 21-7 lead.
“That was the game plan,” Finch said. “We wanted to play Oklahoma football, get our run game going, and open up shots down field.”
The run did exactly that.
Early in the second quarter, after three inept weeks of offense, the Sooners rediscovered their stride offensively. In its longest drive of the season in plays, yards and time, Oklahoma ground out an effective -- if aesthetically displeasing -- 16-play, 97-yard touchdown drive covering almost eight minutes.
“I thought that drive was really good,” Stoops said. “When you can run a bunch of plays, and stick it in the end zone, it makes a big difference.”
On the first play of the following possession, with Tech’s safeties creeping up to the line of scrimmage, Bell faked a handoff, then uncorked his best pass since the Notre Dame game over the top to Jalen Saunders, who coasted in for a 76-yard touchdown to give Oklahoma its first lead, 14-7.
The Red Raiders were on their heels defensively the rest of the way.
“We controlled the line of scrimmage,” center Gabe Ikard said. “We ran power a lot. I don’t know how many times we ran it, but we ran it over and over and over again. We had a lot of success with it.”
Even without Millard, who has been an integral piece of the running attack, the Sooners are sure to heave the same game plan at Baylor in two weeks.
These Sooners can’t outscore the Bears through the air. Who can? But as they did with Tech, they can run the ball at Baylor, control the clock and keep the Bears off the field. After all, a team far less imposing than Oklahoma almost beat the eighth-ranked Bears with that formula two weeks ago.
With little semblance of a passing game, Kansas State still racked up 327 yards on the ground, while keeping Bryce Petty and Lache Seastrunk on the sidelines. As a result, the Wildcats took a lead into the fourth quarter but couldn’t make enough plays to hold on.
The Sooners made enough plays to topple one of the Big 12’s last two unbeatens on Saturday. A week from Thursday, they’ll see if they can do the same to the other.
“I feel good about what we’re doing,” Stoops said. “I’m excited.
“And we’re excited.”
Yet his Oklahoma teammates already had a feeling the young defensive lineman could help them during his first season in crimson and cream.
One person who wasn’t convinced? Dimon himself.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen in fall camp,” Dimon said. “But I knew if I played with great effort, good things would happen for me.”
Things didn’t change immediately once preseason camp began, and one play in particular left Dimon with the feeling he had a ways to go before he could be an contributor in OU's defense.
“The second day, Dionte Savage put me on my behind,” he said. "That was kind of an eye opener -- it’s not high school.”
But the Katy, Texas, native kept working to improve, and his teammates’ belief in him has helped push him to greater heights.
“I’ve had really good days where I felt like I belonged out there and I’ve had days I didn’t feel like I belonged out there,” Dimon said. “The main thing is I’ve had teammates that have said, ‘Hey, you belong out here,’ Honestly that’s been the biggest eye-opener that I can do this.”
Now, seven games into his true freshman season, not only is Dimon confident he can make an impact, the Sooners need him to make an impact with defensive tackle Jordan Phillips set to miss the remainder of the season. The freshman, who has the versatility and strength to play defensive tackle or defensive end in OU’s system, will provide quality depth down the home stretch of Big 12 play.
“I thought Matt Dimon really came on and gives us another guy that is reliable and can play physical for a true freshman,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “So he just adds depth to our interior defensive line.”
Dimon has emerged as a rotation player on the Sooners' defense and is coming off one of his best games to date with two tackles and a blocked punt in spot duty against Kansas. He's impressed teammates with his ability to impact games thus far.
“[He has the] ability to make plays as a freshman,” safety Quentin Hayes said. “Most freshmen they get in there and they don’t play like he’s been playing. [He has] strength and the ability to find the ball.”
He hasn't been a dominant force but he hasn't been overmatched either, as Dimon has recorded five tackles while seeing action in all seven games for the Sooners. His strength has been his No. 1 asset and is an uncommon asset for a freshman who was in high school just a few months earlier.
“He’s so stout, he just doesn’t move,” Grissom said. “Once he puts his hands on you, good luck, especially for a freshman.”
Dimon has improved during the first half of the season and his increased playing time is a sign he continues to improve, which has been his goal since preseason camp began.
“As a player you want to be better than that last game,” Dimon said. “I feel like I’ve done that every game so far. I’ve had great encouragement from the coaching staff and my teammates. Everybody has their bad days, and they’ve always been there to pick me up on those bad days.”
My name is Colin, and I’m an '08 Baylor alum. I work offshore on an oil-rig. My job has a lot of downtime, which I find myself using to constantly visit the Big 12 blog for any new I story I can read. I thought I could use all this down time productively and pick Big 12 games, and I would really enjoy being the Guest Picker one week. Thanks and keep up the good work.
I’m coming off an undefeated week, and I’m planning on going undefeated the rest of the season. Colin will be coming along for the ride, since he picked the same sides I did this week (which include a pair of upsets).
On Saturday, Brandon and I will be in Norman, Okla., as “Suns Up, Guns Up” meets “Boomer Sooner” in a key Big 12 matchup. Max is headed up to Fort Worth, Texas, to monitor whether TCU will actually score a first-half touchdown, and whether the Longhorns can play at a high level for more than one game.
To the Week 9 picks:
Trotter last week: 4-0 (1.000)
Guest Picker (wedding Tyler) last week: 3-1 (.759)
Trotter overall: 37-11 (.770)
Guest Picker overall: 22-9 (.709)
OKLAHOMA STATE at IOWA STATE
Oklahoma State 33, Iowa State 14: In their past eight trips to Ames, the Cowboys are 2-5-1, including a stunning loss late in 2011 that knocked the Pokes out of the national championship game. But Oklahoma State might have figured out some things offensively last week, with Clint Chelf at QB and Rennie Childs at running back. Plus, the Cyclones are still on the mat after getting smoked week in Waco.
Colin’s pick: OSU’s QBs and, team as a whole, have not impressed me, but the Iowa State confidence will be shot after that Baylor game. Mike Gundy reminds us all "he is a man" after reporters ask who his best QB is. OSU, 24-17
TEXAS TECH at OKLAHOMA
Texas Tech 29, Oklahoma 28: Nobody has played the Sooners tougher in recent years than Texas Tech. The Red Raiders have won four of the past eight in the series. And in their most recent trip to Norman, they stunned the third-ranked Sooners 41-38 to snap OU’s 39-game home winning streak. This season, OU has been heading the wrong direction since losing Corey Nelson and Jordan Phillips defensively. The young Red Raiders, meanwhile, seem to be improving every week. OU has the nation’s No. 1 pass defense, but that’s a bit of a mirage. The Sooners have faced only one offense ranked in the top 50 nationally in passing (Texas, which is 49th). Like they did in ’11, the Red Raiders make plays after the catch, and force Blake Bell into a couple of bad decisions to secure the program’s biggest win since knocking off top-ranked Texas in 2008.
Colin’s pick: Texas Tech pulls out a tough road win against a top-25 team. Bell throws an INT in the last minute after seeing Kliff Kingsbury on the sidelines with his girlfriend. Texas Tech, 35-34
WEST VIRGINIA at KANSAS STATE
Kansas State 27, West Virginia 21: The loser of this game could be in serious trouble for qualifying a bowl game. The Mountaineers have begun to show life offensively with QB Clint Trickett, scoring 27 last week against Texas Tech. But Bill Snyder with two weeks to prepare is almost unfair. The return of receivers Tyler Lockett and Tramaine Thompson gives the league’s best running QB, Daniel Sams, someone to throw to downfield, too.
Colin’s pick: Kansas State gets a much-needed home win; Dana Holgorsen tears his fragile hair out in frustration when his throw-deep-every-play offense doesn't work with Trickett. Kansas State, 31-24
BAYLOR at KANSAS
Baylor 79, Kansas 3: The only drama in this game is whether Baylor gets to 100. I say they don’t. But I’ve been wrong before.
Colin’s pick: Baylor continues its 60-plus-point dominance, as Lache Seastrunk runs for 150-plus and QB Bryce Petty adds another three TDs. Kansas fans start a "basketball season" chant in the second quarter. Baylor, 70-10
TEXAS at TCU
Texas 17, TCU 13: At 3-4, the Horned Frogs are off to their worst start in 14 years, and in many ways this is TCU’s last stand. If the Horned Frogs drop this game, they could be in for their worst season of the Gary Patterson era, and even miss out on a bowl game. The defense continues to play tough, but the offense is a catastrophe of epic proportion. Saturday, Texas generates enough offense by slugging it out in the trenches with Johnathan Gray and Malcolm, and the Longhorns stealthily move to 4-0 in the conference with Kansas coming to Austin next weekend.
Colin’s pick: Texas' running game gets going and once again the TCU offense looks inept. TCU's stadium has more orange than purple in it. Texas, 31-13
Spring Game Wrap-Up
BIG 12 SCOREBOARD
TBD North Dakota State Iowa State TBD Louisiana Tech Oklahoma TBD North Texas Texas TBD Stephen F. Austin Kansas State TBD Samford TCU TBD Central Arkansas Texas Tech 3:30 PM ET West Virginia Alabama 8:00 PM ET Florida State Oklahoma State