Oklahoma Sooners: Julian Wilson
Those, among others, will be the storylines to watch in Week 12 of the Big 12:
Iowa State at No. 18 Oklahoma, 11 a.m. CT (FS1): Coach Bob Stoops said he would be sticking with Blake Bell as his starting QB, but also indicated backup Trevor Knight could get more playing time. The Sooners are beat up after last week’s loss at Baylor, with receiver Sterling Shepard, linebacker Jordan Evans and defensive backs Julian Wilson and Aaron Colvin all dealing with an assortment of injuries. Iowa State is still looking for its first Big 12 victory and guaranteed to have its worst record since Paul Rhoads became coach in 2009.
West Virginia at Kansas, 11 a.m. CT (FSN): Despite a deflating overtime loss to Texas last weekend, the Mountaineers are still on track for a bowl berth. But they have to win here. Behind freshman QB Montell Cozart, who is expected to get more playing time if not the start over Jake Heaps, Kansas will attempt to snap its 27-game losing streak in Big 12 games. If the Mountaineers don’t take better care of the ball -- they turned it over five times against Texas -- the Jayhawks just might have a shot.
No. 12 Oklahoma State at No. 24 Texas, 2:30 p.m. CT (FOX): Both teams enter this showdown on a roll. Texas has won six straight while Oklahoma State has reeled off five in a row. The Longhorns, however, will be without running back Johnathan Gray and defensive tackle Chris Whaley, who both suffered season-ending injuries last weekend. This game carries major Big 12 title repercussions, though Texas could still win the league with a loss. This is the fifth time Oklahoma State and Texas have met as BCS-ranked teams. The Longhorns won the previous four meetings.
TCU at Kansas State, 2:30 p.m. CT (FSN): K-State is one of the hottest teams in the Big 12, coming off three straight wins and a 49-26 victory at Texas Tech. QBs Daniel Sams and Jake Waters have been incredibly efficient during the win streak, completing 73 percent of their passes without an interception. Senior running back John Hubert has had the hot hand, too, rushing for more than 100 yards the last two games. TCU has to win this game to keep its slim bowl hopes alive. The good news is that Brandon Carter is beginning to perform like the No. 1 wideout the Horned Frogs thought he would be at the beginning of the season. Carter had six receptions for 93 yards in last week’s win at Iowa State.
Texas Tech at No. 5 Baylor, 6 p.m. (FOX): Baylor is in the thick of the national championship conversation, but remains on the outside looking in on the title game and could use some more style points. The Bears, however, will be without star wideout Tevin Reese, who suffered a dislocated wrist last week. Running backs Lache Seastrunk (groin) and Glasco Martin (knee) are banged up, too, and questionable for this game. Texas Tech is 1-10 in the month of November, and desperately needs a victory to stave off another late-season collapse. That won’t be easily achieved here. The Bears are four-touchdown favorites.
His name is Jace Amaro. And he’s a matchup problem for any defense.
“He’s a big target,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “He’s very experienced, he reads coverages very well, he knows how to get open. Those are all important characteristics and he has great hands. He is a very complete player and there are no holes in his game.”
At 6-foot-5, 260 pounds, Amaro brings great size and athleticism to Texas Tech’s offense. He’s too big and physical for most defensive backs and too quick and athletic for most linebackers. Those traits allow coach Kliff Kingsbury to design plays to take advantage of Amaro’s skills in the passing game while also being able to count on him to help pave the way when the Red Raiders attempt to run.
“[He’s] great receiver, blocker and they feed it to him,” coach Bob Stoops said. “So he’s a big part of what they do.”
Yet the Sooners have had success against Amaro, allowing him just three receptions for 29 yards in OU’s 41-20 win in Lubbock last season. And OU is even more equipped to handle the junior this season. Nickelback Julian Wilson, if healthy, can deal with Amaro better than most defenders with his size and speed. Backup cornerback Cortez Johnson also has the size and converage skills to try to match-up with Amaro, along with safeties Gabe Lynn and Quentin Hayes who could match up with Tech's top target at times.
Amaro’s consistency is one reason the Red Raiders offense has continued to hum despite uncertainty at quarterback. Amaro's size and ball skills provide the ideal safety net for freshmen quarterbacks Davis Webb and Baker Mayfield so the Sooners will have to have a detailed plan to try to corral the stellar tight end.
“He (Amaro) is big target in the middle and that helps out the quarterback tremendously,” Mike Stoops said. “He understands leverage very well; he has very good knowledge of his space on the field and how to get to his spaces on the field, those are important elements. He is a very complete player.”
Ball skills. Toughness. Very ornery. Likes to compete.
“He knew what he needed to do,” cornerback Aaron Colvin said. “He knew the expectations placed on him and he’s just been balling. I always knew he was a baller and now he’s just showing it.”
After ending the spring as an afterthought, Sanchez has started all six games for the Sooners and cemented the cornerback position opposite Colvin, a returning All-Big 12 performer. Teams have picked on him throughout the season but he has responded with a team-high nine passes defended, ranking fourth in the Big 12, and 21 tackles.
“It gets to the point now where some teams stop attacking him after he gets a couple of pass breakups,” nickelback Julian Wilson said. “He’s really coming out there and stepping up well as a redshirt freshman.”
Being tested is something Sanchez expected as the starter opposite Colvin and he expects it to continue.
“I’m still a freshman,” he said. “So regardless of how many times I prove myself, especially when No. 14 [Colvin] is on the other side, they are still going to come at me. I’m ready for it. As a defensive back, that’s what you want because then you’re in a position to make plays. So when they come at me I just try the best I can to make a play.”
Yet none of this was expected. With limited numbers at cornerback in the spring, the opportunity to step up and secure a spot was staring Sanchez in the face. Yet spring football ended with him as a relative afterthought and many assuming true freshman Stanvon Taylor or L.J. Moore would come in and surpass him on the depth chart.
That all changed this summer.
“You could just tell he had a whole different mindset,” Wilson said of the change in saw in Sanchez during summer workouts. “He was way more focused and he really just proved he wanted to be on the field.”
Then as preseason camp began and position battles opened, Sanchez’s name kept coming up when Bob Stoops and Mike Stoops were asked who was making waves during August practices. Sanchez started the season opener after Cortez Johnson was suspended for the game and he never looked back.
“Zack’s confidence has grown a lot,” Colvin said. “When you have confidence as a corner it allows you to make a lot of plays. He has good feet, he has good quickness and he is really smart; really aware of things. When he goes out there he makes plays and he always finds a way of getting a hand on at least two or three balls.”
Sanchez, who played mostly offense in high school before moving to cornerback at OU, is far from a finished product but his competitiveness, willingness to learn and self-confidence has helped him become the Sooners' biggest surprise impact player midway through the season.
“He’s learning and he’s gaining confidence as he goes along,” Mike Stoops said. “There’s a process to elevating your game and he seems to be embracing that process and it seems to be working. He was a great receiver in high school so I think it compliments him doing the secondary stuff that he can do. You see him going up for the ball and he knows how to time and go up for it.”
Now, after six games, Sanchez is a proven playmaker in OU’s secondary, a guy the coaches are confident they can count on and consider a veteran despite his youth.
“Zack knows that with Aaron Colvin on the other side he is going to get a lot of work,” Mike Stoops said. “His technique needs to continue to improve but everyone has tried him and he has held up. He’s halfway through the season now so he’s a veteran. That’s how I look at it.”
He’s taken a leadership role for the Sooners and, after OU’s impressive win over Notre Dame, this week that leadership will be tested as Colvin and the rest of the leaders on the Sooners’ squad aim to keep their team focused when TCU visits Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on Saturday.
Sandwiched between Notre Dame and Texas, it’s a classic trap-game scenario for the Sooners.
The Sooners suffered upset home losses to Kansas State (24-19 in 2012) and Texas Tech (41-38 in 2011) during the past two seasons. They won 39 consecutive home contests from 2005-11.
Colvin and the Sooners are determined to avoid any letdowns.
“It felt good,” Colvin said of beating the Irish on the road. “We beat a good Notre Dame team at their place. After a win like that, guys do get excited. As a leader, as a senior, I have to show those guys that we have a long season ahead.”
While the Horned Frogs offense has struggled mightly in 2013, TCU enters the game with a defense that leads the conference in sacks (15) and forced turnovers (12). If OU doesn’t play with focus and execute well, the Horned Frogs have the ability to make them pay.
“Our goals are in front of us,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “Our players are smart enough. They know what kind of game we’re in for. They have our full attention. They have a great coach and will make us execute in everything we do.”
It’s the overriding theme, if you ask Sooners coaches and players about the potential of looking past TCU with an eye on the Longhorns.
“You know, I always laugh at that because it happens every year,” head coach Bob Stoops said. “I don’t look at it that way. This is not the first big nonconference game that we’ve had. We’ve played a lot of them and we play Texas the same time every year. It’s always the same story, with the letdown before and after, and that hasn’t happened to us. We’re going to do our business like we always do.”
In other words, the standard is the standard. The Sooners coaches expect their players to play at a certain level, regardless of opponent, date or location.
Not to mention, the Sooners are going out of their way to remember the disrespect they felt before the season, when the praise and accolades they’ve received this week was hard to find.
“Now everybody wants to say we’re good and can compete for a national championship,” nickelback Julian Wilson said. “But before the season, we weren’t predicted to win anything. We didn’t pay attention before the season, so there’s no reason to start now.”
The stated goal at Oklahoma is to compete for national championships and win Big 12 championships. If they hope to acheive one or both, they’ll have to defend their home field better than they have in the previous two years.
“The focus this week has to be 10 times better than it was last week,” linebacker Corey Nelson said. “We have to be even more focused than we were against Notre Dame because we cannot let TCU come in here and beat us. That’s when teams get beat – when you take teams lightly.”
Colvin believes this year’s team is different, so he’s hoping the results are different as well.
“This season, I feel like we’ve been dialed in to the team we’re playing,” said the All-Big 12 cornerback.
So Colvin’s message to his teammates this week will be quite simple.
“As long as we continue to get better, we can be one of the best,” he said. “Why not do that?”
Three turnovers: Make no mistake, the Sooners won the game thanks to their plus-3 turnover margin. Linebacker Corey Nelson immediately turned the momentum in the Sooners’ favor with his 24-yard interception return for touchdown to start the scoring and OU never looked back. The Sooners weren’t great on third down (5-of-14) or in the red zone (1 of 4 touchdown conversions), yet they were able to overcome it because they won the turnover battle. Since 2004, OU has forced three turnovers on 45 occasions, winning 40 of those games.
First down yards per play average: OU averaged 6.76 yards per play on first down. The Sooners did it with terrific balance, averaging 5.89 yards per carry while quarterback Blake Bell was 13 of 16 for 124 yards and one touchdown on first down against the Irish. Heading into the game it was clear first-down success would be important, and the Sooners excelled with 18 carries for 106 yards and 7.8 yards per pass attempt on first-down plays. Their success on first down made second and third down a lot easier.
Blake Bell 12 carries: The Sooners quarterback had the second-most carries on the squad in the win over the Irish. Not all of those runs were planned. Regardless, Bell’s ability to be a threat running the ball -- 12 carries for 59 yards -- made OU’s offense harder to stop.
Notre Dame’s 4.16 yards per pass attempt: The Sooners' secondary was superb against ND. Cornerback Aaron Colvin returned after missing the Tulsa game and played like an All-Big 12 performer, cornerback Zack Sanchez held up well in his first career road game, and nickelback Julian Wilson and safety Quentin Hayes each had solid performances. OU’s secondary has gone from question mark to strength during September.
Sooners’ time of possession in the fourth quarter: OU had the ball for 12:11 in the final quarter. The Sooners emphasized the fourth quarter throughout the week and clearly came out on top in the final 15 minutes, including 16 carries for 52 yards. While not stellar rushing numbers, OU did enough on the ground to keep ND off the field and limit the home team's chance to mount a comeback.
On Saturday, Oklahoma will make its first trip to Notre Dame Stadium in 14 years. The Irish won that 1999 contest, 34-30, and have won eight others against the Sooners, as they hold a 9-1 all-time mark in the series. Last season's game turned on several big Notre Dame plays on both sides of the ball, lifting the Irish to a 30-13 road win and an 8-0 record.
What will happen this time around? We turn to Big 12 reporter Brandon Chatmon and Notre Dame reporter Matt Fortuna to preview this weekend's tilt in South Bend, Ind.
Matt: Brandon, Blake Bell earned the noble distinction last year of becoming the first player to rush for a touchdown against Notre Dame. That was eight games into the Irish's season, and this year they have already given up two scores on the ground. Obviously, Bell has a lot more on his plate this time around. And he is making his first career road start, in a stadium where the Irish have won 10 straight games. What can Notre Dame's defense expect to see from Bell on Saturday?
Brandon: The Irish will actually have to account for the possibility they will see No. 10 throw the ball when he's behind center. Notre Dame will have to be prepare for Bell to test its secondary with his arm more than his feet, and he showed he might be a better passer than people think in his first start against Tulsa. Undoubtedly, the windows will shrink against ND but the fact remains that the Irish will have to prepare for Bell, who could test them with his arm and feet, unlike their preparations for Landry Jones, who doesn't put fear into the heart of any defense with his legs. The overriding question in Norman is: how have the Irish changed in the trenches after manhandling OU in Norman last season? Can they do that again?
Matt: The depth of Notre Dame's defensive line took some hits this offseason -- first with the transfer of Eddie Vanderdoes to UCLA, then with the ACL tear suffered by Tony Springmann. Still, the front-line guys remain very dangerous, though the numbers have not exactly depicted that through four games. The Irish's opponents have done a good job of establishing a quick-strike passing game, effectively negating the strengths of the Irish's defensive linemen. A mobile quarterback like Bell will likely present more challenges Saturday, and it us up to the Irish to continue to adjust. The other side is a bit of a mystery as well. Notre Dame has struggled to establish much of a run game so far, but its offensive line has done a tremendous job of keeping Tommy Rees standing up straight through four games, and the offense has again limited the turnovers. Rees and this year's group of running backs just don't pose the kind of threat that Everett Golson and last year's backfield did, so it's hard to imagine the Irish running to set up the deep pass in the same way they were able to last year, when they connected with Chris Brown for a game-changing 50-yard strike in the fourth quarter. They may have more weapons at receiver this year, though. How does Oklahoma's pass coverage match up with TJ Jones, DaVaris Daniels and company?
Brandon: Well, Matt, the Sooners' secondary would like to think it's ready for the challenge against Rees and Notre Dame's receivers. All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin won't be a concern, but the rest of the secondary is somewhat untested. Senior Gabe Lynn is starting at safety, a new position, after spending his first three seasons at nickelback and corner, and he has played well. OU's three new starters, nickelback Julian Wilson, cornerback Zack Sanchez and safety Quentin Hayes, have looked good but haven't yet played a quarterback who will capitalize on their mistakes. That said, the OU secondary, without question, is faster and better in coverage than the 2012 version. Whether it will it hold up mentally in a hostile environment is the unanswered question, so I can't wait to see how it all plays out. Anyway, who do you like this weekend?
Matt: Notre Dame's defense played its best game Saturday, responding to Brian Kelly's mid-week challenge. But I'm just not sure it has completely turned the corner yet. I think the Irish are getting Oklahoma at a more opportune time, as Bell is making just his second start and the Sooners have yet to really be tested. But I have not seen enough so far that makes me believe Notre Dame will be able to handle everything Oklahoma will throw at it offensively. Oklahoma has had one more week to prepare, and I sense a bit of wounded pride coming from the Sooners after the Irish out-muscled them late last year and, eventually, ended up ruining the their BCS-bowl hopes. How do you see this one unfolding?
Brandon: I think everything falls on the shoulders of the quarterbacks. Rees is much more experienced than Bell and I have a feeling that's going to show itself on Saturday as the Irish make Bell uncomfortable in the pocket and force a couple of mental mistakes from the junior during his first road start. OU's defense will hold up and play well, giving the Sooners the chance to remain in the game no matter what happens offensively. But turnovers will be the difference and ND will win the turnover battle and win a close, hard-fought game at home.
Yet, that’s just about the only part that the Sooners have experienced major struggles with in the first two victories. Here’s a look at five stats that represent OU’s strong start in 2013.
Special teams expected points: 9.66. Even though the Sooners special teams have been a strength for the past few seasons, new special teams coach Jay Boulware still deserves a pat on the back. OU’s 9.66 special teams expected points added leads the Big 12 by a wide margin. The league average is 2.17. (Note: Here’s an explanation of ESPN.com’s expected points metric)
Expected points added on opponent pass plays: The Sooners lead the Big 12 in expected points added on opponent pass attempts and sacks at 28.99. OU has three new starters in the secondary with Zack Sanchez, Julian Wilson and Quentin Hayes, but it looks even better than last season's group. The league average is 7.98.
Win probability added by defense and special teams: Don’t believe the Sooners are 2-0 thanks to their defense and special teams? OU leads the Big 12 in defense win probability added (0.56) and special teams win probability added (0.22). It’s helped OU overcome a league-worst minus-0.43 win probability added on Sooners’ passing plays.
Rushing yards per game: The Sooners lead the Big 12 with 310.5 rushing yards per game. OU wanted to become more physical and run the football better in Bill Bedenbaugh’s first season as offensive line coach. The Sooners are averaging 5.8 yards per carry through two games.
Points per drive allowed: OU ranks No. 4 nationally in points allowed per drive at 0.24. Wisconsin, which began the season with back-to-back shutout wins, is the lone team to play two games yet surrender less points per drive. OU’s defense entered the season with a chip on its shoulder and has been dominant in two games.
NORMAN, Okla.--It’s been one of the few instances where Oklahoma players are willing to talk about last year.
“[We] definitely still think about last year,” Sooners safety Gabe Lynn said. “It was just horrible on our part. Giving up almost 800 yards on defense is ridiculous. We definitely are excited about this game.”
Ridiculous is the perfect word.
The Sooners gave up 778 offensive yards to West Virginia in the OU’s 50-49 win in Morgantown, W. Va., last season. Tavon Austin looked like a man among boys while running around, between and right by the Sooners defense on his way to 572 all-purpose yards, including 344 rushing yards.
Fortunately for the Sooners, Austin now calls St. Louis home, but the mastermind of that offensive outburst, Dana Holgorsen, will be on the sidelines when the Mountaineers visit Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on Saturday.
OU’s defense showed signs that things might have changed in its season-opening 34-0 win over Louisiana-Monroe. The Sooners looked aggressive and disruptive while allowing just 166 total yards against the Warhawks.
West Virginia’s first game was a different story. The Mountaineers didn’t tip their hand offensively and almost paid for it, escaping with a 24-17 win over William and Mary. Quarterback Paul Millard was 19-of-25 for 237 yards and one touchdown but WVU struggled on clutch situations, converting only 2 of 10 third down attempts.
Even though the Mountaineers offense was low-scoring in Week 1, the Sooners are expecting things to be different on Saturday as WVU starts to throw in the offensive wrinkles that have made Holgorsen successful for the past few seasons.
“They really didn’t show a lot,” nickelback Julian Wilson said. “But we know what they did last year and we know what they did to our defense last year so really we’re going in there with a chip on our shoulder and trying to play a better game than we did.”
Expect the Sooners to have new wrinkles of their own as they come up with ways to slow Holgorsen's offense. This year's defense is much more versatile, allowing Mike Stoops to come up with a creative plan of attack this week.
Even if the Sooners’ defense comes up with a better performance against the Mountaineers this season, OU still needs to work out the kinks that caused its offense to sputter in the season opener. Quarterback Trevor Knight rushed for 103 yards and passed for three touchdowns but just 85 yards through the air. That won’t get it done against a Big 12 Conference foe that promises to put some points on the board.
“He probably just had a few jitters,” center Gabe Ikard said. “It was his first game out there. We fully expect him to perform even better than he did last week and use his arm, throw all the throws we have seen him make in practice and continue to use his legs as a weapon.”
The Sooners' nickel back will step into a starting role as a junior and OU hopes he can develop into a consistent playmaker in 2013. Wilson had 31 tackles, including two tackles for loss, five pass breakups, five passes defensed and three hurries in spot duty last season.
Much more is expected this year.
The added confidence comes from Wilson’s better understanding of requirements of the Sooners' defensive system and how to succeed under Stoops.
“[I'm] understanding the defense more,” Wilson said. “Last year I knew what [responsibilities] I had but didn’t know what everyone else had. In college football the little things are so important, athleticism can only take you so far, the mental aspect is part of the game too.”
His role will be an expanded one as the Sooners’ defense transforms into a more versatile unit. Wilson could be asked to blitz on one play, cover a quick slot receiver on the next play then fill a gap in the running game a few plays later. At 6-foot-2, 199 pounds, Wilson has the size and speed to become a critical component in OU’s defense.
“Julian is doing an excellent job,” head coach Bob Stoops said. “He’s much more confident and sure of himself. He’s a big, physical guy in the secondary that I’m excited about. I think he has a chance to have a really good year.”
Yet Wilson will have to play much more physical to truly become one of the Sooners’ top defenders. He’ll have to be willing to use his size to make an impact on running downs or the Sooners, who allowed a Big 12 worst 5.15 yards per carry in 2012, could risk being susceptible to the run for the second straight year.
Developing his body with a focus on becoming more physical became a priority for Wilson this summer. He made sure he ate healthy with a focus on gaining quality weight, not just packing on pounds. The resulting 10 to 12 pounds he gained should help him as a junior.
“I had to pick up some weight during the offseason to become more physical,” he said.
Teammates have noticed the change. And not just the change in his physique.
“He’s more physical now,” linebacker Corey Nelson said. “Just watching him out there on the field, he’s way more physical now. He’s playing more like a linebacker whenever he has to roll into the box.”
With the Sooners counting on him for the first time in his career, Wilson is focused on making sure he doesn’t let his teammates or the coaching staff down.
“I have to make way more plays, last year there were plays I could have made,” Wilson said. “I just have to compete more and be a playmaker on the defense.”
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With this is mind, SoonerNation has parsed out Oklahoma’s roster into 10 separate tiers. Here they are:
Tier 1: The Elite (Guys who could play for almost anyone)
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The Sooners have a reason to return with Class of 2014 wide receiver Jalen Adams. He has made several unofficial visits to OU, including last month for the spring game.
Already with an offer from Tulsa, Adams said schools such as Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Stanford are showing constant interest. Adams, who had 39 receptions for 766 yards and eight touchdowns last season, will be at OU’s football camp in two weeks.
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No. 2 Julian Wilson
Redshirt junior nickelback, 6-foot-2, 191 pounds
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1. FB Trey Millard (Last ranking: 1): Millard was held out of the spring game as a precaution, something Bob Stoops usually does with his stars. Despite manning an unheralded position, Millard certainly fits the bill of a star. You wouldn’t know it by the number of touches he gets, but Josh Heupel’s new option-oriented offense -- which, like Millard, was kept on the shelf Saturday -- could get the ball in Millard’s hands more often. That’s always good for the Sooners – and bad for opposing defenses.
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The lone freshman early enrollees who have fully participated in spring football, Cavil and Thomas are already making an impression on their teammates and coaches. It started with their smooth transition into the program during winter workouts.
Thomas was the same way.
“He handled winter workouts like someone who’s been around for a couple of years,” nickelback Julian Wilson said. “He didn’t handle them like a freshman.”
The duo continued to impress this spring by displaying playmaking ability that could earn them on role on the Sooners’ offense and defense this fall. Thomas is a hard hitter who is displaying terrific instincts at safety. The departures of Jefferson and Javon Harris, OU’s starters last season, leaves a hole in the secondary and Thomas is making a case to slide into that gap.
“I’ve never seen a freshman like him,” cornerback Cortez Johnson said. “He’ll play a big part in our defense, most likely this year.”
Senior safety Gabe Lynn is taking on a mentoring role with Thomas but has already noticed his natural ability. Thomas' instincts have impressed along with his hunger to learn.
“He has good instincts,” Lynn said. “You really can’t tell he just came in, it fits right in. Ahmad wants to learn more so it’s very easy to help him, he’s asking questions all the time.”