Oklahoma Sooners: Keith Ford

Spring football has come to a close at Oklahoma.

The Sooners’ 15 practices answered some questions but others still remain. Now is the perfect time to update the some of the position battles that made this spring intriguing in Norman, Okla. beginning with the offense.

Backup quarterback

Pre-spring: This was arguably the biggest offensive concern heading into the spring. Two freshmen, Cody Thomas and Justice Hansen, are behind projected starter Trevor Knight and preparing them for the backup role was one of the spring’s most important goals.

Post-spring: Those questions still remain. Thomas, who was splitting time with OU’s baseball team during the spring, is clearly ahead of Hansen, who threw two interceptions in the spring game after enrolling early to participate in spring drills. Even though Thomas performed better in the spring game he hasn’t appeared to run away with the job.

Summer outlook: The four months until August are the best news for the Sooners. That extra time to develop could be critical for Thomas and Hansen because one of them will need to be the No. 2 quarterback. Either way, OU must have its fingers crossed that Knight stays healthy.

Starting running back

Pre-spring: Keith Ford was considered the favorite to take over as OU’s starting running back after a solid freshman debut. His determination and physical running style earned him carries in a senior-laden backfield in 2013.

Post-spring: Even though he had a lackluster spring game (three carries, six yards), Alex Ross made a move during spring drills. Coach Bob Stoops consistently praised the sophomore, who continually made plays during spring scrimmages. Fellow sophomore Daniel Brooks also looked healthy for the first time in a Sooners’ uniform during the spring game, giving OU more options at the position. The spring left the position murkier than ever but it’s a good problem because the Sooners have several talented options to carry the ball, much like they did in 2013.

Summer outlook: February signees Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine are expected to arrive in the summer, kicking up the competition at the position to an even higher level. Stoops expects multiple running backs to get carries this fall, so expect this competition to rage on into the season.

No. 2 receiver

Pre-spring: Sterling Shepard is a proven playmaker and emerging leader. Junior Durron Neal was the clubhouse favorite to emerge alongside Shepard with sophomore Derrick Woods and others ready to battle to become key contributors.

Post-spring: This battle is far from over but redshirt freshman Jordan Smallwood could join Shepard as one of Knight’s favorite targets. The buzz surrounding Smallwood has been unrelenting since he stepped on campus last summer, only to be muffled after a foot injury forced him to redshirt. He returned for bowl practices and the buzz wasn’t far behind. With three receptions for 60 yards and one touchdown in the spring game, the redshirt freshman showed his size, athleticism, route running and ball skills could make him a consistent part of OU’s offense.

Summer outlook: Several receivers could become receiving targets this fall but outside of Smallwood, nobody looks like they’ve cemented a role in the offense. Thus, the competition continues and four freshmen, including potential game-breaker Michiah Quick, will arrive in the summer with an eye on surpassing their older teammates on the depth chart.
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Oklahoma held its spring game on Saturday with excitement around the program continuing to build this offseason. Here are some postgame thoughts, offense only, on OU’s spring finale. Check back later today for a defense only post. To be clear, this is an informal collection of my observations after the spring game. For a more formal and general spring game review, check out this post from earlier today.

  • Undoubtedly some Sooners fans left the stadium disappointed with what they saw from Trevor Knight. He finished 5-of-14 for 53 yards with one interception. Yet it’s not time to panic, for several reasons. First, Sterling Shepard was on the sidelines. The junior will be Knight’s go-to receiver and could become one of the Big 12’s best playmakers. Two, Knight was going against a solid and athletic defense while using a relatively vanilla offense. Three, injuries along the offensive line didn’t make things any easier, with multiple projected starters out of the spring game. Finally, Knight's ability to make plays with his feet was taken away with his blue, no-hit jersey limiting his impact in the running game.
  • [+] EnlargeTrevor Knight
    Mark D. Smith/USA TODAY SportsTrevor Knight had a rough outing on Saturday.
    Nonetheless, Knight must play better. Period. Some people have been quick to insert his name among the nation’s best after his Allstate Sugar Bowl performance. He’s still young, relatively inexperienced and has been inconsistent at times early in his career. Let’s wait until he’s consistently efficient before we anoint him as one of the nation’s, or even the Big 12’s, top quarterbacks.
  • Anyone who was surprised by Baker Mayfield’s performance must have missed the rest of the Big 12 in 2013. The former Texas Tech quarterback was the Big 12 offensive freshman of the year for a reason.
  • Mayfield seemed genuinely excited to be a Sooner. He grew up an OU fan and said he would have decided to join the Sooners even if Blake Bell had not changed positions and Kendal Thompson did not transfer. While he is ineligible to play this fall, his presence could pay off big time. OU’s defense will be tested in ways you normally wouldn’t expect from a scout-team quarterback and the Sooners defense should make Mayfield a much better player with its overall talent and playmakers all over the field.
  • Tight end Taylor McNamara had two touchdown catches in the spring game. Could a pass-catching tight end return to OU’s weekly game plans this fall? Maybe. A wait-and-see approach would be wise, as adding a big receiving threat has been a goal for the past two seasons. McNamara and former quarterback Bell, who missed the spring game with an injury, appear to be the most likely candidates at tight end if it does happen.
  • Speaking of receiving threats, true freshman Dimitri Flowers should make an impact this fall. He spent a lot of time with the first-team offense before a hyper-extended knee ended his day. He can block, he can catch and he’s picked up the offense as if he’s entering his junior season. It appears OU has found a hidden gem in the three-star Class of 2014 signee. Don’t be surprised if he emerges as the big-bodied receiving threat OU’s offense has been lacking as his blocking and overall versatility could secure a key role in the offense, allowing the Sooners to adapt on the fly.
  • OU has talented receivers but will miss Jalen Saunders, a likely NFL draft pick. K.J. Young and Austin Bennett, Jordan Smallwood and Derrick Woods each showed flashes of ability but need to develop quickly if the Sooners hope to provide quality receiving options for Knight this fall.
  • Nobody seized the starting running back spot with a eye-opening day. Daniel Brooks led the way with eight carries for 67 yards and Keith Ford finished with nine carries for 29 yards. Alex Ross, who had been praised throughout the spring, added three carries for six yards. The door is wide open for Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine, two ESPN 300 running back signees, to make an immediate impression on the coaching staff and earn carries this fall. The Sooners need someone to step up and make defenses account for them from the running back position this fall. It doesn’t matter who it is.
  • OU could end up looking back at this spring as a critical time for developing depth along the offensive line. Several linemen, including guards Adam Shead and Nila Kasitati and tackle Tyrus Thompson, sat out the spring game, allowing backups such as tackles Josiah St. John and Sam Grant to get plenty of chances. The offensive line struggled at times.
  • The backup quarterback position remains up in the air, but Cody Thomas, a redshirt freshman, looked solid, going 5-of-9 for 52 yards and a touchdown. Justice Hansen, a true freshman, struggled with the speed of the game at times, finishing 4-of-8 for 58 yards and one touchdown but with some good moments.

Spring game review: Oklahoma

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14
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The excitement surrounding Oklahoma’s football program is night and day compared to a year ago. The Sooners announced 43,500 fans in attendance for their spring game on Saturday, a school record. Last year’s announced crowd was 29,200. With the Trevor Knight era fully underway, here’s a recap of OU’s spring game.

[+] EnlargeMayfield
Mark D. Smith/USA TODAY SportsFormer Texas Tech quarterback Baker Mayfield was impressive in the spring game.
Best offensive performance: Baker Mayfield stole the show, completing 9 of 9 pass attempts for 125 yards and two touchdowns. The former Texas Tech quarterback, who transferred to OU in January after earning Big 12 offensive freshman of the year honors last season, is ineligible for the 2014 season. Nonetheless, Mayfield outshined Knight, the Sooners’ projected starter this fall, with his flawless outing. Mayfield has Big 12 game experience, and it showed throughout the spring game. He’ll spend this fall giving OU’s defense fits while leading the scout team.

Best defensive performance: Linebacker Eric Striker looked like he was in midseason form with two sacks and one tackle for loss. Striker, who starred in OU’s Allstate Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama, picked up right where he left off. He continually got into the offensive backfield and appeared unblockable at times coming off the edge. He could be poised for a dominant junior season.

Best debut: True freshman Dimitri Flowers looks ready to help the offense immediately. One of the scariest scenes of the spring game was Flowers lying on the ground, clutching his knee. Fortunately for the Sooners, it was just a hyper-extended knee for the fullback/tight end hybrid. Flowers has impressed with his football IQ and receiving skills during his short time on campus as an early enrollee. He tied for the team high with four receptions and finished with 40 receiving yards. He should be a key contributor this fall.

Notable play: Sophomore linebacker Jordan Evans had the hit of the day against K.J. Young on a receiver screen. Evans’ hit popped the ball up in the air, allowing defensive tackle Jordan Wade to secure Knight’s lone interception of the day. It was a key play because Evans played with the No. 1 defense after returning starter Frank Shannon, OU's leading tackler in 2013, missed the game for personal reasons. Shannon's status remains unclear, so the Sooners could turn to Evans to be the man alongside Dominique Alexander this fall if Shannon is unable to return. Evans looked ready for the task on Saturday.

Developing storyline: OU’s defense clearly won the day. The Sooners are young, talented and versatile on that side of the ball, led by Striker and returning All-Big 12 defensive end Charles Tapper. OU’s secondary, a potential concern with the loss of two-time All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin, had a strong day in coverage, particularly the starting unit. Sophomore Dakota Austin was solid sliding into Colvin’s former spot opposite Zack Sanchez. If this unit continues to develop, it could be one of the best and more versatile defenses in the nation.

Biggest question answered: Few, if any, questions got answered. The defense was dominant, but that wasn't surprising, and nobody separated themselves in the running back derby or backup quarterback race. Keith Ford and Alex Ross will welcome true freshmen Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine into the running back competition this summer. At quarterback, Cody Thomas outperformed Justice Hansen, but didn’t put a stranglehold on the backup quarterback position heading into the summer. The best development of the game was a relatively injury-free outing.

Biggest question emerging: Which Knight will lead the Sooners in 2014? He didn't look like the Allstate Sugar Bowl MVP, going 5-of-14 for 53 yards and one interception. Evans' hit led to his lone pick, but he was inefficient and unproductive. The defense carries a large portion of the blame and the receiving corps, without top target Sterling Shepard and potential starter Durron Neal, also contributed to Knight's underwhelming spring finale. Knight knows he will have to perform much better for OU's national title dreams to approach reality.

Quotable: “I don’t know that you ever get anything answered in 15 practices. What I feel like is there has been improvement. Players that haven’t had a ton of experience have more now. We’ll build on it.” -- OU coach Bob Stoops
The Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s captured three Super Bowls on the backs of their triplets. Running back Emmitt Smith churned out yardage between the tackles. Wide receiver Michael Irvin hauled in receptions downfield. And quarterback Troy Aikman captained the unstoppable attack.

Like with the Cowboys, big-time triplets usually translate to big-time offense. And the Big 12 over the years has showcased several notable ones. Oklahoma’s Jason White, Adrian Peterson and Mark Clayton in 2004. Oklahoma State’s Brandon Weeden, Joseph Randle and Justin Blackmon in 2011. West Virginia’s Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey in 2012. Even last season, Baylor boasted one of the best triplets in the country in Bryce Petty, Lache Seastrunk and Antwan Goodley.

So which Big 12 teams will feature the most prolific offensive triplets in 2014? We rank them below:

1. Baylor

QB Bryce Petty, RB Shock Linwood, WR Antwan Goodley

The Bears remain atop this list, even with Seastrunk bolting early for the NFL draft. Despite being Baylor’s third-string running back last season, Linwood still finished sixth in the Big 12 in rushing and shined as the featured back while Seastrunk and Glasco Martin were injured. After totaling 46 touchdowns throwing and rushing, Petty should be even better in his second season as a starter. Goodley is an All-American-caliber wideout.

2. Oklahoma

QB Trevor Knight, RB Keith Ford, WR Sterling Shepard

Knight finally live up to his preseason billing with a sparkling Sugar Bowl performance against Alabama. Knight has the talent and potential to be one of the best dual-threat QBs in the country. Ford was one of the top running back recruits in 2013, and would have played more as a freshman had the Sooners not also had four senior running backs on the roster. Shepard has been a dependable starter the last two seasons, and he already has 96 career receptions going into his junior season. He seems ready to take over for Jalen Saunders as the go-to receiver.

3. Texas Tech

QB Davis Webb, RB Kenny Williams, WR Jakeem Grant

Webb broke out with a tremendous performance in the National University Holiday Bowl, throwing for 403 yards and four touchdowns in an upset of Arizona State. He had his moments during the regular season, too, and could be in for a monster sophomore campaign in Kliff Kingsbury’s air-it-out offense. Williams is a solid pass-catching running back out of the backfield, and he led the Red Raiders with 497 rushing yards and eight touchdowns last season. Williams has been taking first-team snaps at outside linebacker this spring, so he could wind up deferring carries to DeAndre Washington, who has been a capable backup. Grant is electric with the ball, burning Arizona State with a pair of touchdown catches. Grant was sixth in the Big 12 last season in receiving, and with Jace Amaro and Eric Ward gone, should take on an expanded role offensively.

4. Texas

QB David Ash, RB Malcolm Brown, WR Jaxon Shipley

The possibilities of this threesome hinges heavily on the health of Ash, who missed virtually all of the 2013 season with concussion issues. Ash is back with the team this spring, and he has had moments before of performing at a high level. After Johnathan Gray’s Achilles injury, Brown took over as the starting running back and performed admirably, rushing for more than 100 yards in each of Texas’ final three games. Shipley has sure hands, is a precise route runner and is capable of catching 70-plus passes in the right quarterback situation.

5. Kansas State

QB Jake Waters, RB DeMarcus Robinson, WR Tyler Lockett

The Wildcats would be ranked second here if John Hubert had another season of eligibility. But running back is a major question, with no back on the roster holding much experience. Robinson might be the favorite to win the job, but he’ll have to fend off Jarvis Leverett and incoming freshman Dalvin Warmack. Lockett is the best receiver in the Big 12 and one of the best in the country. Waters improved dramatically in his first season as the starter in 2013. If a running back emerges, the Wildcats could surge up this list.

6. Iowa State

QB Grant Rohach, RB Aaron Wimberly, WR Quenton Bundrage

Rohach first must win the starting quarterback derby this spring over Sam B. Richardson. But he played well down the stretch while leading Iowa State to a pair of wins to finish last year. Wimberly was banged up for much of last season, but he can be dynamic when healthy. Bundrage was third in the Big 12 in receiving touchdowns in 2013, and with a little more consistency, could be an all-league receiver. This could be the best triplet combination coach Paul Rhoads has enjoyed in Ames.

7. Oklahoma State

QB J.W. Walsh, RB Desmond Roland, WR Jhajuan Seales

Walsh was fifth in college football in Adjusted Total QBR as a redshirt freshman, but he took a step back as a sophomore and eventually lost the starting gig back to Clint Chelf. If he plays like he did as a freshman, Walsh could be one of the five-best QBs in the league. If he performs like his sophomore season, he could lose the job again. Roland is a touchdown machine and is as good as any back in the league in short-yardage situations. Seales could be on the verge of breaking out in a big way after starting as a freshman.

8. West Virginia

QB Clint Trickett, RB Dreamius Smith, WR Kevin White

The Mountaineers have plenty of weapons, but they will only score more points with more consistent QB play. Trickett tops the projected depth chart for now, but he’ll have to outperform Paul Millard, Skyler Howard and William Crest to stick there. Smith was very impressive at times last season backing up Charles Sims. He’ll get the first crack at starting, but Pittsburgh transfer Rushel Shell will be looming if Smith sputters. White gets the nod as the No. 1 wideout, but Daikiel Shorts and Mario Alford are not far behind as part of a deep and balanced wide receiving corps.

9. TCU

QB Trevone Boykin, RB B.J. Catalon, WR Josh Doctson

Boykin is back at quarterback again after splitting time at receiver the last two seasons. Boykin struggled as the starting QB last season but got little help from his offensive line or receivers. Reports are that he has been sharp this spring in the new Doug Meacham/Sonny Cumbie offense. Catalon is a solid cog at running back, and he averaged 5.3 yards per carry despite playing in an anemic attack last year. Brandon Carter was supposed to be the No. 1 receiver last season -- and still could be in 2014 -- but he wasn’t reliable on or off the field. In Carter’s stead, Doctson surfaced after transferring in from Wyoming, and led the Horned Frogs with 36 receptions and 440 receiving yards.

10. Kansas

QB Jake Heaps, RB Brandon Bourbon, WR Nick Harwell

Harwell should give Kansas what it hasn’t had in a long time -- a go-to receiver. Harwell was the nation’s second-leading receiver in 2011 at Miami (Ohio), and he should give the Kansas offense a much needed shot in the arm. Heaps lost time to freshman Montell Cozart last fall, but he has reasserted himself this spring amid a three-way competition with Cozart and UCLA transfer T.J. Millweard. Bourbon is battling Taylor Cox and Darrian Miller to see who replaces All-Big 12 running back James Sims.
Big 12 teams rejoice.

For the first time in four years, Oklahoma faces the proposition of a season without Trey Millard as a critical piece of its offense and special teams.

[+] EnlargeDimitri Flowers
Tom Hauck for Student SportsWhile only a 3-star recruit, Dimitri Flowers' versatility stood out to scouts.
The former Sooner earned a reputation as one of the conference’s most physical and versatile players as a four-year starter and could easily be considered the hardest player to replace in the Big 12. Millard ran like a running back, blocked like an offensive lineman and covered kicks like a linebacker. Locating guys like Millard is nearly an impossible task.

The Sooners hope they found a similar hidden gem in early enrollee Dimitri Flowers. He starred all over the field at San Antonio Churchill, making plays as a running back, tight end and defensive end. Flowers, at 6-foot-1, 234 pounds, has been earmarked for a Millard-type role as a hybrid tight end and running back and is already impressing coaches and teammates with his versatility.

“He’s one of the most skilled, well-rounded guys that I’ve seen come into our program,” offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. “His ability to play in line and in space as an H-back, motion guy, [and] he does a great job of catching the football and he’s extremely bright for a young kid coming into your program.”

Flowers was called “as versatile as any player in high school” by ESPN.com recruiting experts, who rated him as a three-star athlete with “above average” size, speed and strength.

It would be asking a lot for Flowers to step right into the Sooners plan and have a similar impact as Millard, who essentially forced the coaching staff to find an immediate role for him as a true freshman. Fortunately for OU, it doesn’t need him to make an similar impact with former walk-on Aaron Ripkowski already proving he can be a core contributor as a fullback/tight end after Millard missed the end of the 2013 season with a knee injury.

Nonetheless, Flowers still could provide superb depth and play a special teams role this fall, particularly if he makes a smooth transition to college football and can handle the little details that can be the difference between seeing the field or watching from the sideline.

“He came in [as] a really good [player],” sophomore running back Keith Ford said. “He’s adjusted to the speed and the things I’ve seen with the catching the ball and pass blocking, he’s picking it up fast.”

OU used Millard and Ripkowski together at various times in 2012 and 2013 so it’s not out of the question for Flowers to have a role in the Sooners’ offensive plans with a strong showing this spring.

“He’s a really versatile player, very young, but a lot of great qualities,” co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. “A lot of our best players can do a lot of things and he’s showing a lot of versatility on the field. He’s green as grass, he doesn’t know much but he’s a good athlete and he can play for us so we’re excited to have him.”
Finding a running back isn’t a concern that immediately comes to mind when projecting the 2014 Sooners' offense, mainly because of the many options on the fingertips of running backs coach Cale Gundy.

Yet someone needs to step up and become the face of the running game.

“They’re doing a really good job of competing,” quarterback Trevor Knight said. “They come in every day working extremely hard. I’m really excited about them. I feel like everyone’s just got a little juice under them right now. It’s fun to work with guys like that.”

[+] EnlargeKeith Ford
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiKeith Ford is one of many OU RBs competing for carries this spring.
Sophomores Keith Ford and Alex Ross spent the 2013 season in the shadows of OU’s three senior running backs, with Ford seeing limited action before fumble troubles returned him to the sideline. Ford took steps to correcting his fumble problems during Sugar Bowl preparations and is focused on ball security this spring.

“It’s just one of those learning curves for me,” Ford said. “It’s just one of those things adjusting to the college game style and the gameplay, and the speed and how everybody is bigger, faster and stronger than high school.”

Ford already got a small level of redemption with three carries for 15 yards in the Sugar Bowl after going five straight games without a carry after his fumble against Kansas.

“He didn’t fumble it in the bowl game, he’s taking care of it,” coach Bob Stoops said. “Keith is an excellent player.”

The Sooners are hopeful he’s not the only quality running back on the roster. OU has leaned on multiple backs for the past three seasons, so it would take someone running away with the job for OU to put the entire focus of its running game on one running back.

Thus, the competition for carries should be fierce and ongoing throughout the year.

“We’re all good backs,” Ford said. “We all work hard each day. We all have each other’s backs, we’re all competing and we’re all a family, and that’s the most important. We work hard every day and we just grind. That’s all we can do, take it day by day.”

This could be a do-or-die spring for Ross, who could watch multiple younger running backs rise by him on the depth chart if he doesn’t begin to fulfill his playmaking potential and remain healthy. His talent is not in question so he could be ready to finally have a breakout spring and set himself up to make an impact in his redshirt sophomore season.

“I believe he is,” Stoops said when asked if Ross could be ready to contribute. “He’s had a really good winter, he had good bowl practices. So, I believe he is ready for that to happen.”

David Smith and Daniel Brooks round out the spring competitors who are aiming to secure a role before ESPN 300 running backs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine arrive in the summer.

“Those guys will have their opportunities, and a lot of them here through the spring,” said Stoops of the running back competition.
In 2013, Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty was the overwhelming pick as Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year after leading the conference in passing while guiding the Bears to their first Big 12 championship.

As a result, Petty will go into his senior season as the clear-cut favorite to repeat.

But is there anyone else in the league capable of threatening his reign?

SportsNation

Who is the biggest threat to stopping Baylor QB Bryce Petty from repeating as Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year?

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    12%
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    35%
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    18%
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    23%
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    12%

Discuss (Total votes: 6,320)

There might be, including a couple of budding young quarterbacks, a tough veteran runner and one of the best playmaking wide receivers in the country.

That receiver -- Kansas State’s Tyler Lockett -- could become Petty’s biggest challenger, especially if the Wildcats emerge as contenders for the Big 12 title. Despite missing two games because of injury, Lockett finished third in the conference in receiving yards (1,262) and receptions (81) last season. He led the league in receiving yards per game and became virtually uncoverable late in the season, when quarterback Jake Waters also found his passing stride. Lockett torched Oklahoma for 278 receiving yards and three touchdowns, then hauled in another three touchdowns two games later in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl against Michigan.

Lockett, however, isn’t the only player who could push for the award, especially if quarterbacks Trevor Knight and Davis Webb build on the way they played at the end of their freshman seasons.

In the Allstate Sugar Bowl, Knight shredded two-time defending national champ Alabama while leading Oklahoma to a stunning 45-31 victory. Knight threw for 348 yards and four touchdowns and finally performed the way the Sooners thought he would when he beat out favorite Blake Bell for the starting job before the season.

Webb was just as impressive in Texas Tech's victory over double-digit favorite Arizona State in the National University Holiday Bowl. Webb completed 28 of 41 passes and threw for four touchdowns, tying a Holiday Bowl record. He finished with the league’s third-best Adjusted QBR behind Petty and second-team All-Big 12 performer Clint Chelf.

The league’s top five rushers from last season are out of eligibility. But after taking over for injured starter Johnathan Gray, Texas' Malcolm Brown showed he could be a reliable workhorse running back able to move the chains. In his final three games last season, Brown rushed for 128, 131 and 130 yards. With Gray’s health in question as he attempts to return from a ruptured Achilles' tendon, Brown could open the 2014 season as the primary back again.

In addition to Petty, Baylor has two other big-time playmakers coming back in receiver Antwan Goodley, who led the Big 12 in receiving touchdowns last season with 13, and running back Shock Linwood, who was sixth in the Big 12 in rushing in 2013 with 881 yards despite being Baylor’s third-team running back.

There are several dark horses to watch as well, including Gray, Oklahoma running back Keith Ford and West Virginia running back Rushel Shell.

But we put the question to you via a poll: Who is the biggest threat to Petty repeating as Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year?
Oklahoma began its spring practices last weekend with back-to-back practices Saturday and Sunday. The Sooners get back to work today with an eye on capturing another Big 12 title under Bob Stoops. Here are some things to watch this spring:

Offensive returner ready to take next step: Sophomore running back Keith Ford could be ready to take the next step in the Sooners' offense. OU needs someone to fill the void left by departed running backs Brennan Clay, Damien Williams and Roy Finch, who combined for 4,824 career rushing yards in crimson and cream. Ford earned himself some carries as a freshman, but fumble troubles put him in the doghouse for a portion of his first season. This spring, Ford could lock down a major role in the offense with his power, decisiveness and quickness.

[+] EnlargeAhmad Thomas
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsAhmad Thomas' blend of size and athleticism makes him a candidate to step in at safety as a sophomore.
Defensive returner ready to take the next step: Safety Ahmad Thomas didn’t get major time on the Sooners' defense as a freshman. But the versatile defensive back appears poised to become a key piece of OU’s defensive plan as a sophomore. At 6-foot and 218 pounds, Thomas brings terrific size, athleticism and aggressiveness to the Sooners secondary. If he continues to improve and develop, he could be too good to leave on the sidelines, forcing defensive coordinator Mike Stoops to find ways to get him involved.

Redshirt freshman to watch: Defensive tackle Charles Walker was an unknown with an underwhelming offer list when he signed with OU in February 2013. But Walker was one of the guys who repeatedly earned praise during discussions of scout-team stars last fall. At 6-2 and 289 pounds, Walker moves like a much smaller man and could force his way onto the field with his play this spring and provide young, quality depth along the defensive line.

Most significant position battle: The battle to replace two-time All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin should be entertaining. There is no clear favorite among a group of talented cornerbacks that includes Stanvon Taylor, Cortez Johnson and Dakota Austin. This spring provides the opportunity for someone to step up in Colvin’s absence and become a trustworthy cover man on the perimeter of OU’s defense. If that doesn’t happen, the Sooners could be forced to account for a weak link in the secondary, particularly if none of the freshman arrivals in the summer (Tito Windham, Jordan Thomas, Marcus Green) proves they can slide into Colvin’s spot.

Key midterm enrollee: Linebacker Devante Bond already is making an impression during his short time at OU. An outside linebacker with pass rush skills, Bond isn’t going to replace Eric Striker in the Sooners lineup. Yet if he proves to be one of the best pass rushers on the squad this spring, Stoops could pair him with Striker to give Big 12 quarterbacks headaches this fall.

Question that could be answered: Will Trevor Knight build on his Sugar Bowl MVP performance? The sophomore ended his first season with a bang, leading OU to a upset win over Alabama. This spring will show if Knight is hungry for more and striving to play at a championship level every Saturday this fall, or if he could return to the inconsistency that hampered his play in 2013.

Question that won’t be answered until fall: Who will get the majority of the carries in OU’s backfield this fall? Even if Ford has an exceptional spring, there’s no guarantee he can hold off the talents of incoming freshmen Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine in the summer. The lone certainty is that there will be a bunch of talented options for running backs coach Cale Gundy.
NORMAN, Okla. -- Oklahoma’s Sugar Bowl win over Alabama could end up being a blessing or a curse.

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.

[+] EnlargeKeith Ford
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiSophomore running back Keith Ford is one of many hungry young Sooners that are eager to build on last season's success.
OU coach Bob Stoops is confident that won’t happen to his team. The veteran coach is convinced his team is as hungry as ever as OU’s spring football gets under way on Saturday.

“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.”
Oklahoma begins its spring football drills on Saturday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An exceptional Sugar Bowl performance, a young and talented defense and renewed confidence in quarterback Trevor Knight has the Sooners eyeing a national championship run in 2014. Yet, that won’t happen without growth at several key positions, starting Saturday when OU kicks off spring practice. This week we’ll make five spring predictions.

[+] EnlargeKeith Ford
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiIf Keith Ford can lock down the running back spot, the Sooners could be national title contenders in 2014.
No. 5: Sophomore running back Keith Ford cements himself as a part of the offense.

Why it matters: Ford could be the key to OU’s offense in 2014. At 5-foot-11, 205 pounds, Ford packs a punch even when he doesn’t have the football in his hands. His physical style of play earned notice on special teams immediately last season, and he showed he combines that mindset with determination when he has the ball in his hands. He didn’t have a stellar freshman season (23 carries, 134 yards, one touchdown), but the limited glimpses of Ford running the ball gave Sooners fans hope for the future.

What it would mean: It wouldn’t matter how quickly the Sooners' true freshman running backs, Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine, transition into college football, and Alex Ross' development would not need to be hurried. Mixon appears ready to make an immediate impact, but it would be nice to allow him to develop at his own pace. Perine could bring a physical, slashing style to the offense but, much like Mixon, his development as a complete running back will determine his role. And Ross is continuing to progress but hasn’t proved he should be a major part of the offense heading into his sophomore year.

Thus, Ford’s continued development is key for an OU offense that will need to be balanced if the Sooners plan to compete for a Big 12 title and national championship this fall. The way he forced his way onto the field as a true freshman, earning carries despite the Sooners returning three senior running backs, is a sign Ford could be a special player in crimson and cream. If he starts to fulfill that potential this spring, OU’s offense could be deadly as long as Knight continues to develop as well.
Spring ball kicked off in the Big 12 over the weekend, as Baylor, TCU and West Virginia all had their first practices. This week, most of the other Big 12 schools will join them.

With spring practice off and rolling, plenty of questions surround the league’s programs. And while many of those won’t be fully answered until the season begins in the fall, here are some of the biggest ones Baylor, Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State and Oklahoma will face this spring:

How will Baylor replenish its secondary?

[+] EnlargeQuarterback Bryce Petty #14 of the Baylor Bears
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images Bryce Petty is back so Baylor's offense should be in good shape. Its defense, however, has some question marks heading into the spring.
The Bears won their first Big 12 championship last season, thanks in part to a secondary that ranked second in the league in pass defense. Safety Terrell Burt, however, is the only returning starter from that defensive backfield, meaning rebuilding the secondary will be priority No. 1 for the Bears this spring. But as if that job wasn’t going to be challenging enough, both Burt and juco cornerback Chris Sanders, who is supposed to vie for a starting role, will miss the spring following shoulder surgeries. With QB Bryce Petty back, the Bears figure to be formidable again offensively in 2014. But to defend its Big 12 title, Baylor will need several inexperienced players to begin emerging in the secondary this spring.

Can Mangino turn Iowa State’s offense around?

As a big part of their disappointing 3-9 record last season, the Cyclones ranked ahead of only Kansas in Big 12 scoring offense. As a result, Paul Rhoads fired offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham and brought in Mark Mangino to revive the Iowa State attack. Mangino was offensive coordinator during Oklahoma’s national championship season, and he took Kansas to the Orange Bowl. His track record as an offensive mind is not in dispute. But can he turn around an offense that hasn’t ranked higher than ninth in the Big 12 in scoring since 2005? Mangino will have some pieces to work with. Wideout Quenton Bundrage, running back Aaron Wimberly and quarterback Grant Rohach all had moments in 2013. Whether Mangino can put them in position to produce a lot more of those moments will go a long way in determining if Iowa State can bounce back.

Can Harwell fill Kansas’ go-to WR need?

Kansas’ lack of production at receiver the past few seasons has been astounding. Justin McCay caught a touchdown pass in the 2013 opener to become the first Kansas receiver to catch a touchdown in almost two full seasons. But Kansas receivers would catch only two more touchdowns the rest of the season (for context, Baylor receivers totaled 35 such grabs). Senior transfer Nick Harwell, however, could be the answer to that woeful drought. Two years ago at Miami (Ohio), Harwell led the Mid-American Conference with 7.6 receptions and 96.7 receiving yards per game while earning All-MAC honors. Going into his final college season, Harwell already has 229 receptions for 3,166 yards in his career. Oh yeah, he has 23 touchdowns over those three years, too. The Jayhawks have desperately been in search of a go-to receiver. They’ll find out this spring whether they can stop that search.

What will K-State do with Sams?

Daniel Sams proved to be one of the league’s best playmakers last season, leading all Big 12 quarterbacks with 807 rushing yards and 15 total touchdowns. Sams’ role, however, diminished late in the season, as Jake Waters emerged as the majority-of-the-time quarterback. Sams is too dynamic with the ball in his hands to watch games from the sidelines. But Waters isn’t going anywhere at quarterback, either. Before the bowl, Sams hinted that he’d like to try another position to get onto the field more. K-State whiffed on signing a quarterback last month, so Sams will still have to keep ties with his old position for depth purposes. But the spring will also give the Wildcats the opportunity to experiment using Sams elsewhere -- like receiver -- if they so choose.

How will Oklahoma build on the Sugar Bowl?

By beating Alabama, the Sooners notched arguably the program’s most significant win since defeating Florida State all the way back in the 2000 national championship game. After struggling at times during the 2013 season, the Sooners suddenly have the look of a preseason top-five team going into 2014. Yet, in many ways, this is still a very young team. QB Trevor Knight has only five career starts, two of which he left early due to injury. Projected starting running back Keith Ford has loads of potential, but only 23 carries in his college career. And of the returning receivers, only Sterling Shepard delivered more than 13 catches last season. In the Sugar Bowl, OU flashed its capability. And the Sooners have tons of momentum, underscored by their furious recruiting finish. But to be a legitimate national title contender this fall, the Sooners can’t rest on their laurels of besting the Tide. And OU’s young players have to continue building off that experience.

OU spring position battles: No. 1

February, 28, 2014
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Spring football provides the opportunity for players to put themselves in the driver’s seat when it comes to position battles. Several Oklahoma Sooners will have the chance to make a statement and make themselves the favorite to start or become a significant contributor during spring drills with several starting spots open heading into 2014. This week we reviewed the top five position battles to keep an eye on this spring. On Friday, we finish the series with the running back position.

No. 1: Running back

Why it’s important: It’s critical for the Sooners offense to be balanced. Lack of balance hampered OU’s offense in 2013 but Trevor Knight’s Sugar Bowl performance gives the passing game hope. Now it’s important to find a quality running back who can keep defenses honest.

Competitors

[+] EnlargeKeith Ford
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiKeith Ford looks like the favorite to be the No. 1 RB, but he'll have plenty of competition this spring.
Sophomore Keith Ford: The Texas native started making a name for himself on special teams before carving out a role on offense early in Big 12 play. Fumble problems placed him in the doghouse but he finished his freshman season with 23 carries for 134 yards and one touchdown. He’s the favorite to sit atop the depth chart after spring.

Sophomore Alex Ross: He brings a terrific size/speed ratio at 6-foot-1, 209 pounds, but he needs to improve his performance in all aspects of the position. This spring is his opportunity to show he deserves some carries in 2014.

Sophomore David Smith: This spring is Smith’s opportunity to prove he can make an impact as a running back. With two top freshmen poised to join the program in the summer, it could be the most important spring of Smith’s career.

Summer arrivals

Freshman Joe Mixon: The ESPN 300 running back is extremely versatile and could end up being used a lot of different ways in the fall.

Freshman Samaje Perine: Another ESPN 300 running back, Perine will bring a physical, slashing style to the program in the summer.

Potential outcomes

Best-case scenario: Ford and Ross wage a competitive battle to sit atop the depth chart after the spring. The duo could complement each other well and this spring might be the first glimpse at their potential together. Ideally all three running backs show they can help the Sooners because you can never have too many running backs.

Worst-case scenario: Ford continues to fumble, Ross continues to struggle to be a complete running back and Smith doesn’t look like he can make an impact. That opens the door for Mixon and/or Perine to skyrocket up the depth chart in August.

Spring preview capsules: Big 12

February, 24, 2014
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Spring football is rapidly approaching.

Here's a team-by-team look at what to watch in the Big 12 this spring:

Baylor

Spring start: Feb. 28

Spring game: April 5

What to watch: Who will replace Lache Seastrunk? The Bears' running back was the engine that helped keep the Baylor offense balanced and defenses honest. Shock Linwood will step in, but is he ready to handle the burden of keeping the offense balanced? . . . Baylor, the 2013 regular-season champion, has to find key replacements on a defense that is losing half of its starters. But several second-teamers -- including Jamal Palmer, Shawn Oakman, Andrew Billings and Orion Stewart -- are poised to fill the void . . . The Bears need to replace guard Cyril Richardson along the offensive line. Several candidates, including junior college transfer Jarell Broxton, will battle for the job. Baylor has arguably the league's best group of skill position players, but that will mean nothing if its offensive line takes a step backward.

Iowa State

Spring start: March 10

Spring game: April 12

What to watch: New offensive coordinator Mark Mangino arrives in Ames to bring more points and creativity to the Cyclones’ offense. The spring is the first opportunity for Mangino to get a feel for the playmakers and the players to get a feel for Mangino’s expectations . . . The quarterback competition is another thing to keep an eye on. Grant Rohach ended the season as the starter, but Sam B. Richardson could take his job back with a strong spring. And there are other young quarterbacks on campus who could insert themselves into the mix . . . Defensively, the Cyclones need to replace linebacker Jeremiah George and safety Jacques Washington, who finished 1-2 in tackles in the Big 12 in 2013 and finished their careers with 59 career starts combined. Iowa State seems to always have quality linebackers, so finding a replacement for Washington could be the defense’s top priority in the spring.

Kansas

Spring start: March 4

Spring game: April 12

What to watch: Shuffling the offensive coaching staff has been the theme of the offseason. New offensive coordinator John Reagan, who was a KU assistant from 2005 to 2009, returns to the Jayhawks after running Rice’s offense last season. The spring is Reagan’s first chance to identify the playmakers who will be the foundation of his offense this fall. Expect wide-open competition across the board after KU finished 115th in the FBS in points scored ... The quarterback position will grab the headlines, with T.J. Millweard joining the competition with Jake Heaps and Montell Cozart, who each started games in 2013. Millweard transferred to KU from UCLA before the 2013 season.

Kansas State

Spring start: April 2

Spring game: April 26

What to watch: Finding John Hubert’s replacement sits high on the Wildcats’ priority list. The former running back carried the ground attack for the past three seasons, and there’s no clear favorite to step into his shoes. Will someone step up during spring football? . . . What will happen with quarterback Daniel Sams? The Wildcats have a proven Big 12 playmaker in Sams, a junior, and another proven quarterback in Jake Waters. Sams is an exceptional open-field runner who started two games in 2013, but look for Kansas State to start exploring ways to have both on the field together this spring . . . Replacing Ty Zimmerman’s playmaking and leadership on defense is another key this spring. The defense has to replace several starters in the secondary and at linebacker. Keep an eye on junior college defensive back Danzel McDaniel, who has the versatility to step in at several different spots.

Oklahoma

Spring start: March 8

Spring game: April 12

What to watch: With Trevor Knight poised to start at quarterback in 2014, Blake Bell moves to tight end after starting eight games under center in 2013. Bell’s transition to tight end will be the talk of the spring, with the senior’s commitment to the program and OU's need for help at the position . . . The battle to be the starting running back is another storyline, with sophomores Keith Ford and Alex Ross hoping to make a statement this spring before ESPN 300 running backs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine arrive in the summer. Ford forced his way into the lineup as a freshman before an injury slowed him . . . The Sooners will be looking to shore up the secondary after the departure of All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin and starting safety Gabe Lynn. Sophomore Stanvon Taylor could be set to replace Colvin, while sophomores Hatari Byrd and Ahmad Thomas will battle to replace Lynn.

Oklahoma State

Spring start: March 10

Final spring practice: April 5

What to watch: Incoming freshman Mason Rudolph enrolled early to participate in spring football with the hope of replacing quarterback Clint Chelf. J.W. Walsh has won a lot of games in a Cowboys uniform, but will have to hold off stern competition to earn the starting spot as a junior . . . The Cowboys lose seven seniors off one of their best defenses in recent memory. The overall quality might be upgraded, but spring football will be the first chance to see if those talented yet inexperienced defenders are ready to step into the fire. Defensive end Jimmy Bean, linebacker Ryan Simmons and cornerback Kevin Peterson could emerge as the foundation of the defense . . . Who will step up at receiver? The Cowboys lose three of their top four receivers, with Jhajuan Seales as the lone returnee. But several youngsters appear poised to step in, including sophomore Marcell Ateman and redshirt freshman Ra'Shaad Samples.

TCU

Spring start: March 1

Final spring practice: April 5

What to watch: Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie have arrived to take over as co-offensive coordinators at TCU. The Horned Frogs need a jump start and could get it from the “Air Raid”-style offense the duo will bring to the table. This spring will be an important first step in improving the offense . . . Who will be the quarterback? Trevone Boykin started several games in 2013 but might actually be TCU’s top receiver. Tyler Matthews, a redshirt freshman, also saw time under center, but he faces stiff competition. Don’t expect the battle to end until fall camp . . . TCU needs someone to step up in the secondary, with Jason Verrett NFL-bound after spending the past two seasons as one of the Big 12’s top coverage cornerbacks. Ranthony Texada and Travoskey Garrett are among several young defensive backs who could try to fill the void.

Texas

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 19

What to watch: David Ash's health will be one of the main storylines of Texas’ first spring under coach Charlie Strong. Ash has the talent to be a key piece of the puzzle, but head injuries are always tough to overcome. If Ash is 100 percent healthy, the Longhorns will feel better about the overall status at quarterback . . . Strong has talked of instilling a tough mindset in Austin since he arrived in January, and spring football will be the first real taste of what the Longhorns’ new coach is trying to bring to the program . . . Where are the playmakers? Texas has a talent-laden roster, but didn’t have the exceptional talent who could consistently change games. This spring gives several returning skill players, including receiver Jaxon Shipley and all-purpose standout Daje Johnson, the chance to become the foundation of the offense in 2014.

Texas Tech

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 12

What to watch: Davis Webb's health is the No. 1 priority for the Red Raiders, who have seen three quarterbacks leave the program since the beginning of the 2013 season. Coach Kliff Kingsbury could have the toughest job of the spring as he tries to manage the lack of quarterbacks with the desire to have a productive spring for the roster as a whole . . . The Red Raiders have some consistency among the defensive coaching staff, meaning they could improve in 2014 despite losing multiple starters, including defensive tackle Kerry Hyder, linebacker Will Smith and safety Tre' Porter. Tech could start seeing dividends of that continuity . . . The Red Raiders have to replace Jace Amaro and Eric Ward, who combined to catch 189 passes for 2,299 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. Jakeem Grant and Bradley Marquez made a bunch of plays in 2013 and Devin Lauderdale, a junior college transfer and early enrollee, will get the chance to show why he had Texas Tech fans buzzing when he initially signed in February 2013.

West Virginia

Spring start: March 2

Spring game: April 12

What to watch: Finding a quarterback is critical for the Mountaineers, who have talent at the skill positions but won’t transform into an explosive offense without efficient quarterback play. Clint Trickett is recovering from shoulder surgery, meaning Paul Millard, junior college transfer Skyler Howard and former receiver Logan Moore will run the offense this spring . . . Tony Gibson takes over as WVU’s defensive coordinator after coaching the safeties in 2013. His promotion allows some continuity on the defense after former DC Keith Patterson left for Arizona State after the season . . . Replacing defensive tackle Shaq Rowell and defensive end Will Clarke, who started 56 combined career games for WVU, won’t be easy. The Mountaineers will lean heavily on veteran juniors Isaiah Bruce and Karl Joseph, who have started since their freshman seasons.
Spring football could be a critical time for several Oklahoma football players.

Some Sooners will prove they are ready to make a major impact in 2014, while others could show they may need more seasoning before they earn a permanent place in OU’s plans for the future. This week we will look at five players to keep an eye on during spring football, finishing with No. 1.

No. 1: Quarterback Cody Thomas

[+] EnlargeCody Thomas
AP Photo/Alonzo AdamsCody Thomas hopes to emerge as Trevor Knight's backup this spring for Oklahoma.
Why:With Blake Bell's move to tight end and Kendal Thompson's transfer, the Sooners need someone to step up and emerge as Trevor Knight's backup. Thomas will be splitting his time with the baseball team, making his development and ability to focus even more important this spring.

“I think he’s going to get, out of the football side of it, everything that he needs to,” OU offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said.

Thomas has the skills to be Knight’s backup and had a solid showing during his redshirt season.

“He’s a hard worker,” head coach Bob Stoops said. “He’s had a great fall with us. He’ll be OK.”

Watching how Thomas is progressing will be important for the Sooners, who will need a quality backup for Knight this fall. The coaching staff clearly has confidence Thomas can handle everything thrown at him, but the spring is his chance to prove it.

Best case scenario: Thomas handles his two-sport responsibilities with ease and proves ready to run the Sooners' offense if called upon. He shows the potential to be a starting quarterback in the near future and even provides strong competition for Knight, who is essentially entering the spring as the unquestioned starter.

Worst case scenario: Thomas doesn’t develop as quickly as necessary, leaving true freshman Justice Hansen as the top option as Knight’s backup. Uncertainty behind Knight could result in disaster this fall if the Sooners starting quarterback is forced to miss any time.

No. 2: Cornerback Stanvon Taylor

No. 3: Running back Keith Ford

No. 4: Center Ty Darlington

No. 5: Tight end Blake Bell

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