Oklahoma Sooners: Julian Wilson
The nation watched with eyebrows raised as the Sooners throttled the two-time reigning BCS champions 45-31 in January then rode the momentum from that victory to a strong finish on the recruiting trail. The win could be a blessing as it showed the Sooners their potential, bringing visions of a national championship run into focus.
The downside? Those same players could hear the praise showered upon them in the offseason while forgetting the little steps and hard work that helped the Sooners overcome their inconsistent passing game to win 11 games.
“Talking to Jerry Schmidt, our strength coach, and all of our coaches who have been working and developing our guys out of season really believe that it’s been our best or one of our best years,” he said. “We’re really excited about the overall attitude and preparation and the way our guys are working.”
OU needs that dedication to continue, as the Sooners could be counting on several young players to fill critical roles in 2014, including sophomore running back Keith Ford, sophomore cornerback Stanvon Taylor and sophomore safety Ahmad Thomas. Those three are just a few signees from the Sooners' Class of 2013 who need to step up if a national title run is realistic.
Those young players get their chance to shine, as the start of spring marks the beginning of an intriguing time of year for Stoops.
“It’s really exciting,” Stoops said. “Probably my most exciting time of the year because you get to see the young guys that we’ve seen in practice now in a more competitive setting and fighting for jobs and making plays.”
OU’s closed-practice policy means those young players start to make their move out of the public eye. Nonetheless, those players who make names for themselves in March and April often become contributors in the fall. Defensive end Charles Tapper’s strong spring in 2013 was a precursor of his All-Big 12 performance as a sophomore last season.
“Not everybody in the outside world gets to see it,” Stoops said. “As a coach, [you] get to see it in scrimmages or when we go good against good, we start to see them make those kind of plays. It’s exciting when guys start to really figure it out and get ready to play.”
Ford, Taylor and Thomas are among several Sooners who played limited roles as true freshman as OU went 11-2 during their first season. But making an impact on special teams and proving themselves ready to become regulars in their second season are two different things. Those special teams duties can give them a taste of performing on the big stage while making them hungry to make an even bigger impact in the future. It’s one reason Stoops expects a hungry team to take the field this weekend.
“It’s always that way,” Stoops said. “Guys who have played a little bit or haven’t played at all are really champing at the bit to show they’re ready for it and that it’s their time now. That’s why it’s always so exciting.”
The Sooners' reaction to last season's success could be a concern because the majority of the roster had never won 11 games or a BCS bowl before last season. Safety Quentin Hayes, nickelback Julian Wilson, tight end Blake Bell and defensive lineman Chuka Ndulue are among several Sooners who were redshirting when OU last accomplished both of those feats in 2010, but nobody had been a core contributor on a Sooners squad that had that type of success before the 2013 campaign.
Yet Stoops seemed unconcerned during his pre-spring media session on Thursday.
“We’ve had probably the best winter we’ve ever had,” he said. “So, they’re not sitting back thinking about that and not doing what they need to do to move forward. I think more than anything, it’s made them hungrier to build on and to keep improving.”
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.
This class featured seven players in the ESPN 150 and a ton of star power led by the “Cali Trio” of Kenny Stills, Brennan Clay and Tony Jefferson. The class was ranked No. 5 nationally by ESPN.com.
Cornerback Aaron Colvin: An afterthought on signing day, but he was arguably the best player in this class. He started his first-ever Red River Rivalry as a freshman and started three straight seasons at two different positions, earning All-Big 12 honors twice. The nation’s No. 40 safety prospect coming out of Owasso, Okla., Colvin finished with 234 tackles, including 15 tackles for loss and five interceptions in 50 career games (36 starts).
Tackle Daryl Williams: The No. 53 tackle in the nation, Williams has performed like a highly-regarded offensive line prospect. He started his first college game as a redshirt freshman before injury derailed his first season. Nonetheless, Williams became a anchor on OU’s offensive line during his sophomore and junior seasons and enters his final season as one of the Big 12’s best offensive linemen.
Safety Tony Jefferson: The No. 21-ranked player in the ESPN 150, Jefferson stepped on campus with high expectations. He didn’t disappoint, earning Big 12 freshman-of-the-year honors in 2010 and All-Big 12 honors in 2012 before leaving early for the NFL. Jefferson finished with 258 tackles, eight interceptions and seven sacks in 40 career games (34 starts). He’s currently a safety for the Arizona Cardinals after going undrafted last spring.
Receiver Kenny Stills: The No. 36-ranked receiver prospect, Stills started every game he played in crimson and cream. His speed and football IQ separated him from the competition, as he finished with 204 receptions for 2,594 yards and 24 touchdowns in 38 career games (38 starts) before leaving early for the NFL. He’s currently one of Drew Brees’ main targets with the New Orleans Saints.
Running back Brennan Clay: Ranked No. 129 in the ESPN 150, Clay overcame injuries to become a key performer. He never emerged as a star, but he was the type of consistent, productive player who helps teams win games. He had 1,913 yards and 13 touchdowns in 46 career games (18 starts).
Linebacker Corey Nelson: The No. 62 player in the ESPN 150, Nelson had a solid career. A three-year starter, he had 153 tackles, including 17.5 tackles for loss in 45 career games (27 starts).
Completely missed the mark
Receiver Justin McCay: McCay never made an impact with the Sooners, transferring after his redshirt freshman season. The No. 142 player in the ESPN 150, McCay transferred to Kansas and currently plays for the Jayhawks.
Receiver Sheldon McClain: Much like McCay, McClain had a higher ranking than Stills as the No. 22-ranked receiver nationally but never made an impact before transferring.
A-minus. Even though this recruiting class featured multiple disappointments, it was littered with stars and contributors. Tyrus Thompson, Julian Wilson, Roy Finch, Blake Bell and Chuka Ndulue are just a few of the other Sooners in the Class of 2010 who became starters or major contributors alongside Colvin, Millard and the rest of the playmakers signed in February 2010.
The most underrated playmaker on the defense, Wilson raised his game to another level as a junior while few people noticed. He started 11 games, finishing with 26 tackles, including 4.5 tackles for loss and three interceptions. His Bedlam pick went unnoticed but was a key play which set up Michael Hunnicutt's touchdown that tied the game in the third quarter. He didn’t dominate but he more than held his own as a valuable piece of the Big 12’s top pass defense.
On the cusp: L.J. Moore (So.)
Moore saw very little time as a true freshman, playing during the Sooners’ nonconference schedule and recording one tackle against Tulsa. He needed a year in the program to add strength and get comfortable with the demands of playing in the secondary but brings good size, versatility and competitiveness to the table in 2014.
On the recruiting trail: Marcus Green (Cedar Hill, Texas/Cedar Hill)
Green’s size (6-foot-1, 176 pounds), athleticism and physicality make him a good fit for the nickelback spot, but he could play all three positions in OU’s secondary much like Gabe Lynn did during his time at OU. He’s not a shutdown corner but he’s a very versatile prospect.
Overall Grade: B
Wilson takes this grade higher than average with his experience and playmaking bringing a veteran presence to the position. Moore and Green bring two versatile, young prospects to the position, giving OU a veteran presence and hope for the future. Inexperience behind Wilson is the lone concern.
Oklahoma's defense was the foundation of the team's drive to the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Mike Stoops' unit finished atop the Big 12 in passing yards allowed and total yards allowed while making sure the Sooners had the chance to win every game they played, even with constant uncertainty at quarterback. The defensive line was surprisingly good, the linebackers were much more productive than in 2012 and the secondary replaced several starters with relative ease.
Here are the position-by-position grades for the Sooners' defense.
Linebackers: A-. OU’s linebackers showed terrific improvement in 2013. Junior Frank Shannon and freshman Dominique Alexander, the Big 12 defensive newcomer of the year, finished 1-2 in tackles. Shannon played through nicks and bruises to finish with 85 tackles while Alexander finished with 75 stops after being thrust into the starting role against Texas. Add linebacker/defensive end hybrid Eric Striker to the mix and the linebackers were among the most productive groups on the squad. The versatility of Shannon and Alexander and Striker’s pass rushing skills are one reason the Sooners finished second in the Big 12 and No. 13 among FBS teams in third-down conversion percentage at 32.5 percent.
Cornerbacks: A-. Two-time All-Big 12 performer Aaron Colvin is an “A+++” performer. He showed toughness, leadership and exceptional coverage skills as a senior. With Colvin on the other side, redshirt freshman Zack Sanchez was constantly picked on by opponents but held up well and, most importantly, displayed the competitive nature every cornerback needs to succeed. Behind Colvin and Sanchez, freshman Stanvon Taylor and sophomore Cortez Johnson both made starts and earned valuable experience while providing quality depth. And nickelback Julian Wilson was stellar in his first season as a starter while tying for the team lead with three interceptions. OU led the Big 12 with 198 passing yards allowed per game, largely because of quality play from its cornerbacks and Wilson.
Safeties: A-. As good as the cornerbacks were, the safeties held their own in the defensive backfield. OU’s safeties were better in coverage this season than in 2012 while limiting big plays in the running and passing game. Gabe Lynn and Quentin Hayes weren’t dominant forces in the secondary but they were very good and played key roles while helping the Sooners to their 10-2 record.
Here are five stats that defined OU's season, what they mean and how OU can improve or maintain those trends in 2014.
OU averaged 5.35 yards per carry this season, ranking second in the Big 12 and No. 16 among FBS teams.
What it means: The first year of Bill Bedenbaugh was a success. OU’s offensive line did a terrific job of creating running lanes for whoever was in the backfield. True enough the Sooners had three quality veterans at running back but Brennan Clay (5.78), Damien Williams (4.78) and Roy Finch (5.88) each averaged at least 4.5 yards on at least 59 carries this season thanks to the big uglies up front.
How OU can maintain in 2014: It’s going to be tough as the Sooners lose Clay, Finch, Williams and center Gabe Ikard. But the Sooners have some solid young backs, including Keith Ford, who had 20 carries for 119 yards and one touchdown but dealt with fumble troubles as a true freshman. With the young talent in place and poised to replace the departed seniors, there’s no reason to believe the Sooners can’t match this year’s production in 2014.
Third down conversion defense
OU allowed opponents to convert just. 32.5 percent of their third down attempts, ranking second in the Big 12 and No. 13 among FBS teams.
What it means: The Sooners defense was among the best in the nation on third down. OU’s coaching staff focuses on third down plays and it’s clear they had the defense ready to step up in those key moments. In fact, eight of OU’s 14 interceptions came on third down, including all three interceptions by Julian Wilson.
How OU can maintain in 2014: Well, Mike Stoops returns, so that’s half the battle. OU should be even better on third down in 2014. Most of its key contributors return but replacing All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin won’t be easy. The Sooners defense was littered with youngsters this season and still ranked among the nation’s best. So expect even better in 2014.
Percentage of opponent drives without a first down or touchdown
The Sooners held opponents without a first down or touchdown on 40.8 percent of their drives, ranking second in the Big 12 and No. 13 among FBS teams.
What it means: OU did a terrific job of getting off the field and stopping offenses before they could gain momentum. While the Sooners offense was leaning on the running game and controlling the ball, OU’s defense came onto the field fresh and with a purpose to get off the field quickly. That combination made it hard for opposing offenses to find their rhythm against OU.
How OU can maintain in 2014: It won’t be easy because the Sooners offense should have better balance, resulting in more plays and opportunities for opponents as OU turns to the pass more often. Yet, OU’s defense should be talented enough to come close to matching that percentage.
Opponent rushes of 10 yards or more
OU allowed 46 runs of 10 yards or more to opponents, leading the Big 12 and tying Stanford and Utah for 16th among FBS teams.
What it means: One key reason the Sooners won five games by single digits was the defense’s ability to keep OU in games while the offense was struggling, particularly in the first quarter. If opponents were making big plays in the running game that wouldn’t have been possible. It also points to the increased quickness, speed and athleticism of OU’s 3-4 approach this season.
How OU can maintain in 2014: It will take a combination of good coaching and on-field leadership. And since the Sooners return several key players, including linebackers Frank Shannon and Dominique Alexander, they should be able to match that number.
Passing yards in the first quarter
OU averaged 32.75 passing yards in the first quarter, ranking last in the Big 12 and No. 112 among FBS teams.
What it means: The Sooners’ inability to pass (186.67 passing yards per game) made things difficult for OU’s offense. And their struggles to pass in the first quarter often impacted games by forcing the Sooners to lean on the running game simply because they didn’t have a lot of confidence in their passing game. Fortunately for OU, its running game was one of the conference’s best.
How OU can improve in 2014: Find stability at the quarterback position. Blake Bell played well at times, struggled at other times. Trevor Knight flashed big-time ability and displayed his inexperience as well. No matter who emerges as the No. 1 guy for 2014, he’ll have to consistently play well to help OU’s offense regain the balance that helped make it one of the nation’s best in previous years.
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.”
Top Returning Players: Big 12
BIG 12 SCOREBOARD
Final Washington State 45 Colorado State 48 Final 20 Fresno State 20 25 USC 45 Final Buffalo 24 San Diego State 49 Final Tulane 21 Louisiana-Lafayette 24
Final Pittsburgh 30 Bowling Green 27 Final Utah State 21 23 Northern Illinois 14
Final Marshall 31 Maryland 20 Final Syracuse 21 Minnesota 17 Final Brigham Young 16 Washington 31
Final Rutgers 16 Notre Dame 29 Final Cincinnati 17 North Carolina 39 Final Miami (FL) 9 18 Louisville 36 Final Michigan 14 Kansas State 31
Final Middle Tennessee 6 Navy 24 Final Ole Miss 25 Georgia Tech 17 Final 10 Oregon 30 Texas 7 Final 14 Arizona State 23 Texas Tech 37
Final Arizona 42 Boston College 19 Final Virginia Tech 12 17 UCLA 42 Final Rice 7 Mississippi State 44 Final 24 Duke 48 21 Texas A&M 52
Final Nebraska 24 22 Georgia 19 Final UNLV 14 North Texas 36 Final Iowa 14 16 LSU 21 Final 19 Wisconsin 24 9 South Carolina 34 Final 5 Stanford 20 4 Michigan State 24 Final 15 UCF 52 6 Baylor 42
Final 13 Oklahoma State 31 8 Missouri 41 Final 12 Clemson 40 7 Ohio State 35