Oklahoma Sooners: Keith Ford
Here are some priority spots for the Sooners to address in their 2014 class during the final two months of this recruiting cycle. Keep in mind, this list has everything to do with the young players on campus at each position, not necessarily the guys who are playing at that position each Saturday in 2013.
Offensive tackle: Derek Farniok and Christian Daimler are the lone underclassmen at offensive tackle. OU badly needs depth at the position and should be aiming to land at least two offensive tackle prospects in this class. If redshirt freshman tight end Sam Grant ends up at tackle, that would help the cause and lessen the urgency, but its a high priority position in this year's class. Worse yet, there doesn't seem to be a lot of hope at the position with top prospects mentioning OU on their lists. Finding a hidden gem in December could be the top priority for offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh.
Defensive tackle: This position looks a lot better right now than it did a year ago with the early play of Jordan Phillips, a sophomore, and the emergence of Jordan Wade, a redshirt freshman. Nevertheless, there is no such thing as too many quality defensive tackles. The Sooners have one commit in Irving (Texas) Ranchview's Brandon Glenn, but that's not enough. OU needs to secure at least one more defensive tackle prospect to join Glenn and redshirting freshmen Matthew Romar and Charles Walker as the future at the position.
Linebacker: OU rallied to bring in two quality linebackers late in last year’s recruiting cycle with Alexander and Jordan Evans. Each committed to OU late in the process and became impact freshmen this fall. The Sooners need to supplement that duo with a least one more playmaker to join Allen (Texas) linebacker Tay Evans and Murrieta (Calif.) Vista Murrieta linebacker Curtis Bolton on their commit list. Several linebackers could be in play and keep in mind the Sooners did secure Alexander and Evans late in the process.
Running back: You can never have too many running backs. And OU loses three quality ball carriers in Brennan Clay, Roy Finch and the recently dismissed Damien Williams. Redshirt freshman Alex Ross has a good size/speed ratio, true freshman Keith Ford has terrific upside, and commitment Samaje Perine (Pflugerville, Texas/Hendrickson) is a member of the ESPN 300. But the Sooners need to add another quality runner into the mix. Oakley (Calif.) Freedom running back Joe Mixon, No. 72 in the ESPN300, would be an outstanding addition to this class.
Receiver: Even though the Sooners seem to have some solid youngsters already on campus, they don't have a proven game-breaking receiver outside of Sterling Shepard returning in 2014. But, and this is critical, they can't just use a scholarship to bring in another guy. With Tulsa (Okla.) Union receiver Jeffery Mead and La Mirada (Calif.) receiver Dallis Todd already committed, receivers coach Jay Norvell should think elite receiver or bust. Norvell should join Mike Stoops in doing whatever it takes to land Michiah Quick (Fresno, Calif/Central East), then fight for him to end up on the offensive side of the ball.
Competing for national championships is the stated goal in Norman, so here are five things the Sooners can do to salvage the season with that ultimate goal in mind.
Figure out the vision of what the Sooners offense should be. What is OU's identity on offense? At this point last season, the offense had progressed into a four-receiver attack that forced defenses to account for several talented targets in the passing game, with a solid supplementary running attack. This season OU can run the ball, but that's about it. It's clear the Sooners wanted to make running the football a priority, but they appear to have emphasized that goal to the point their passing game isn't anything worth worrying about. They're much closer to the goal of becoming a physical running team, but that doesn't do any good if they can't be balanced. OU must find a middle ground between its 2012 offense and this 2013 version, then aim to make that the starting point in 2014. There needs to be a baseline starting point that coaches, players and the rest of the staff are comfortable with to begin each cycle.
Get young players plenty of game experience. Coach Bob Stoops raved about his freshman class in August. It's time for those freshmen, like receiver Austin Bennett or safety Ahmad Thomas, who aren't in the midst of a redshirt year, to see the field much more often. If they're going to use a year of eligibility, why not use it by getting them prepared to make an impact as sophomores? True enough, there will be ups and downs to deal with, and the potential for opponents to take advantage of them, but it would pay off in 2014, show them what it takes to be successful at this level and could give them confidence heading into the offseason. One series here or there and those guys can gain some game experience while the Sooners remain committed to their starting lineup and veterans.
Find out who are the most competitive, mentally tough players on the roster. Adversity can be educating. The Sooners can use some of their current struggles to learn which players could be the foundation of a title run in the future. OU should be willing to put some of its younger players, not just freshman, into adverse situations down the stretch, even at the risk of making a game harder to win. Can Keith Ford respond when he's tired from carrying the load and OU needs to convert a key short-yardage situation in the red zone? Will Zack Sanchez accept the challenge if asked to cover the opponent's top receiver for a quarter? Would Derrick Woods flash some potential if he gets some snaps at receiver? Creating little scenarios like that will challenge the players and help the coaches learn some things about the roster they might not know otherwise heading into the offseason.
Find some confidence. Win or lose, OU needs to play well in every game the rest of the way. This team rarely has played to its potential in 2013 and doesn't seem to play with any confidence until something good happens. And if good things don't happen, the confidence to dig out of a hole seems sorely lacking. This squad, particularly offensively, seems to question its ability to get the job done any time adversity hits. OU needs to find the players who have the unyielding confidence that they can make plays, like receiver Jalen Saunders, and build around them for the next three games. The Sooners need to find some way to get back to the belief that they can excel against anyone if they execute and focus on themselves, not the opponent. If they do, it could help lift the program to greater heights in 2014.
OU is averaging 435 total yards per game with 201 yards coming through the air this season. In the four previous seasons, the Sooners averaged 478.9 yards per game including 149.02 rushing yards (4.02 ypc) and 329.87 passing yards.
Yards before contact: The Sooners yards before contact numbers are impressive and that’s a sign the offensive line has consistently done its job this season. Blake Bell and Keith Ford are the only two Sooners ball carriers who have gained more yards after contact than before contact. Brennan Clay and Damien Williams, the Sooners top two rushers, have each gained at least half of their yardage before contact. Clay has 379 yards before contact and 159 yards after contact while Williams had 247 yards before contact and 165 yards after contact.
Undoubtedly these numbers will take a hit with the injury to fullback Trey Millard, who paved the way on the majority of these carries. Nonetheless the Sooners offensive line remains intact and has been solid and consistent throughout the season.
Yards inside the tackles: The Sooners main rushers have 147 carries for 673 yards (4.57 ypc) on designed runs inside the tackles. Clay has had the most success between the tackles with 227 rushing yards. OU’s interior offensive line of Gabe Ikard, Bronson Irwin and Adam Shead is a veteran group with Nila Kasitati bringing nastiness to the unit. A lot of this success rests on their shoulders. The Sooners have shown the ability to run the ball right down the throat of opponents and if they can continue to have that success it would help them greatly in November, particularly when try travel to Baylor on Nov. 7.
The use of tight ends: While the majority of their rushes have come without a tight end on the field -- 181 rushes for 1,017 yards and five touchdowns to be exact -- the Sooners use of a double tight end package has proved successful. With Millard and Aaron Ripkowski often playing the role of tight ends, OU has 26 carries for 161 yards (6.2 yards per rush) and two touchdowns. (Note: When these stats are recorded, a versatile player like Millard is considered a fullback when lined up in the backfield and a tight end when lined up along the line of scrimmage). OU's success with "big" packages is a drastic change from the high-flying Sooners offense that was commonplace in recent years.
Running at will: One of the reasons the Sooners made a change in offensive line coaches was their struggles to run the football in key moments in 2012. That hasn’t seemed to be a problem for OU this year.
Even though the passing game has struggled, OU is averaging 6.7 yards per carry with seven defenders in the box. In that scenario, the Sooners have 128 carries for 854 yards and four touchdowns. They’ve even had measurable success with eight defenders in the box (45 carries, 161 yards, 3.6 yards per carry).
Having this ability makes life easier for quarterback Blake Bell and has lessened the pressure for the Sooners’ passing game to find a consistent rhythm. If OU can continue to have running success regardless of how the defense tries to stop them, the odds of its inconsistent passing attack costing them another game, like it did against Texas, will decrease.
Fourth quarter success: The Sooners have bled the clock with a fourth-quarter lead in several games this season including last week’s 38-30 win over Texas Tech. OU is averaging 12 carries for 68.58 yards and 5.4 yards per carry in the fourth quarter this season.
This was one of the top priorities for OU’s offense heading into the season, so the Sooners ability to consistently run the ball in the fourth quarter when they need to must be encouraging for Bob Stoops’ squad. Having that ability could definitely come into play down the home stretch of the season with several potential close games including Baylor and Oklahoma State remaining in November.
Oklahoma is a program that has consistently had success running the ball, averaging 176.05 rushing yards per game since 2004, but these numbers reveal the Sooners may have accomplished their offseason goal of greatly improving their running game in 2013.
1. Baylor (5-0, 2-0 Big 12, last week 2): Kansas State coach Bill Snyder had the right game plan to slow Baylor. Run the ball, chew up clock, bottle up Lache Seastrunk, take away the quick passing attack and hope you can somehow survive Baylor’s vertical speed downfield. But that’s what makes the Bears so prolific. Take away the short stuff, and Bryce Petty will beat you deep with Tevin Reese & Co. Back off, and Baylor will tear you apart with quick passes and a heavy dose of Seastrunk with a side of Glasco Martin. K-State proved the Bears could be slowed. But can they be stopped?
2. Texas Tech (6-0, 3-0 Big 12, last week 3): In 2012, West Virginia was 5-0 when it traveled the 1,500 miles to Lubbock, Texas, where its season began to go the wrong direction. Can the Red Raiders avoid a similar fate against a likewise backloaded schedule? There’s reason to believe Tech is better equipped to do so than last year's Mountaineers. At the moment, the Red Raiders’ balanced offense claims four of the top eight receivers in the Big 12, while the defense has been tremendous at getting off the field on third down. The next two games, on the road at West Virginia and Oklahoma, will determine whether Tech is a contender or pretender. If the Tech quarterbacks keep spreading the ball around and the defense continues to buck up in key situations, it very well might be the former.
3. Texas (4-2, 3-0 Big 12, last week 5): The 1989 Longhorns and 1996 Sooners also pulled off big upsets in the Red River Rivalry. Both teams, however, went just 2-4 the rest of the season. The biggest question for Texas coming off its most impressive victory in four years is whether it can keep it going. At 3-0 in the Big 12 standings, the Longhorns have plenty to play for. If Texas keeps running its offense through running backs Johnathan Gray and Malcolm Brown and its veteran offensive line, and defensive ends Jackson Jeffcoat and Cedric Reed keep wreaking havoc, it’s not unthinkable that Texas could be playing for the Big 12 title in Waco, Texas, on Dec. 7.
4. Oklahoma (5-1, 2-1 Big 12, last week 1): Quarterback Blake Bell was completely off in his first Red River start, but he didn’t get a lot of help from Josh Heupel, either. The offensive coordinator kept Oklahoma’s designed quarterback running plays that had been so effective on the shelf even though Texas had been vulnerable all year to stopping the quarterback run game. While Texas finally elected to ride Gray in the running game, the Sooners are the ones that now seem confused about who to ride. Is it Brennan Clay? Damien Williams? True freshman Keith Ford? The good news is that Bob Stoops is 14-0 the game after Texas, with an average winning margin of 27 points; OU visits Kansas on Saturday, too. But if the Sooners don’t figure out who they are offensively soon, they could be staring down yet another second-half swoon.
5. Oklahoma State (4-1, 1-1 Big 12, last week 4): An interesting question to think about: Had he not transferred to Illinois, would Wes Lunt be Oklahoma State’s starting quarterback this weekend against TCU? My hunch is he would. Spotty downfield passing is restricting the potential of this Cowboys offense, which still has the playmakers at receiver to form the the basis of a prolific attack. Problem is, J.W. Walsh can’t consistently get them the ball. And now the best pass defense in the conference comes to town. If the Cowboys sputter again, they’ll have to give serious thought to giving Clint Chelf another shot to open up an offense that has looked shockingly mediocre against Big 12 competition.
6. TCU (3-3, 1-2 Big 12, last week 6): Announced attendance of Saturday’s home game against Kansas was almost 42,000. But based on photos taken of the stands, it looked like there was less than half that. As one of the preseason favorites, the Horned Frogs carried plenty of hype into the season. But after three early-season losses, apparently the excitement surrounding the program for this season has completely evaporated. It might be too soon, however, to give up on TCU. Nobody has played a tougher schedule thus far. And few teams have been bit harder by the injury bug. If the Frogs can pull off the upset in Stillwater, Okla., they could fight their way back into the Big 12 race, especially if quarterback Casey Pachall can return to the field from a broken forearm before month’s end.
7. West Virginia (3-3, 1-2 Big 12, last week 7): The West Virginia defense has had a week to recover from the TKO it suffered in Waco. No matter who Dana Holgorsen goes with at quarterback this week, the Mountaineers’ best chance of getting bowl eligible is with solid defense. But is this a solid defense? It’s hard to tell. The Mountaineers have had two good defensive performances (Oklahoma, Oklahoma State) and two bad ones (Maryland, Baylor). What West Virginia does against Texas Tech this weekend will be revealing about where this defense really is.
8. Kansas State (2-4, 0-3 Big 12, last week 8): The Wildcats have been in every game, and yet don’t have much to show from it. This still could be a bowl team, however. Getting starting receivers Tyler Lockett and Tramaine Thompson back from injury after the open week would be a boost. But the real key will be limiting turnovers. The Wildcats are last in the Big 12 in turnover margin, a year after they led the conference in the category. If quarterback Daniel Sams can take better care of the ball, K-State is good enough and well coached enough to get to six wins despite the tough start.
9. Iowa State (1-4, 0-2 Big 12, last week 9): With a bounce here or there, the Cyclones could easily be 2-0 in the conference. This young team is making plays, but it still has to figure out how to win games in the fourth quarter. Now, the Cyclones find themselves in a tough spot this week. They face a Baylor offense looking to prove it’s better than it showed over the weekend. The Bears also haven’t forgotten about losing in Ames, Iowa, last year. If Iowa State is still in the game at halftime, that will be a victory in and of itself.
10. Kansas (2-3, 0-2 Big 12, last week 10): You have to give it up to the Jayhawks for showing some fight at TCU. The early start, the paltry crowd, the loss of running back Tony Pierson -- there were many reasons for Kansas to mail it in. Instead, the Jayhawks took TCU to the brink and had the ball three different times in the fourth quarter with a chance to tie the game. The Jayhawks might not win a Big 12 game this season, but if they keep scrapping and clawing like they did Saturday, they'll have more chances.
Running back Keith Ford: One of the lone bright spots on a gloomy day for the Sooners’ offense, the true freshman finished with six carries for 34 yards, averaging 5.7 yards per carry. And he added a bone-crushing hit on special teams as he continued to play a key role in the Sooners’ kickoff coverage unit. He has made it clear he is the future at running back for OU and the future could be coming sooner than people think.
Running back Roy Finch: Raise your hand if you think he should touch the ball more. Better yet, raise your hand if you don’t because counting is not my forte. Finch had a 73-yard kickoff return to set up OU’s lone offensive touchdown and the senior averaged 31.5 yards per touch while leading the Sooners with 114 all-purpose yards. I don’t know why the Sooners would want to get him the ball, though.
Linebacker Dominique Alexander: Things could have been a lot worse if the true freshman had frozen up in his first start as the replacement for Corey Nelson. Alexander had 19 tackles including 13 solo stops and one tackle for loss. If he had missed a lot of tackles or wasn’t around the ball for most of the game, UT could have rushed for 400 yards.
Having a highly ranked recruiting class and a bunch of four-star signees sounds good in the spring and summer, but it's a different story when the season begins. The freshmen who are game-ready are the ones who get the playing time, no matter their star rating. Here's a look at the five Big 12 schools getting the most from their true freshmen:
Tech has played eight other true freshmen in 2013, and a few are making solid contributions. Receiver Dylan Cantrell has six catches for 56 yards, linebacker Malik Jenkins has recorded five tackles and a pass breakup and receiver Carlos Thompson already has a 73-yard kick return and 35-yard punt return.
2. Oklahoma: Is it possible Oklahoma’s best running back is its fourth-string freshman? Keith Ford, the gem of the Sooners’ class, has rushed for 66 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries and wowed in OU’s last game against Tulsa.
Fellow freshman Stanvon Taylor earned his first career start against Tulsa, and he’s one of several newcomers contributing in the secondary along with Hatari Byrd, Ahmad Thomas, L.J. Moore and Dakota Austin. Linebacker Dominique Alexander has also chipped in six tackles through three games.
3. West Virginia: Of all the new skill players who joined West Virginia’s offense this year, who would’ve expected Daikiel Shorts would be the Mountaineers’ leading receiver and Wendell Smallwood would be their No. 2 back? Shorts has 12 catches for 151 yards and two touchdowns, and Smallwood has 139 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries thus far.
A total of seven true freshmen have played for WVU this season, and four of them are defensive backs. Corner Daryl Worley is off to a nice start with six tackles, a tackle for loss and a pass breakup.
4. Oklahoma State: Many expected Ra’Shaad Samples to be OSU’s breakout true freshman receiver, but so far that distinction belongs to Marcell Ateman. He has hauled in eight passes for 92 yards, good for fourth-best on the team.
Freshman kicker Ben Grogan has hit all 19 of his extra-point attempts and is 1-for-2 on field goals, and defensive backs Jordan Sterns and Deric Robertson have combined for eight tackles this season.
5. Baylor: Baylor might have two of the conference’s most talented true freshmen in receiver Robbie Rhodes and defensive tackle Andrew Billings, but they haven’t had to do much so far. Rhodes has 65 receiving yards and Billings has recorded three tackles, including one tackle for loss. Kiante’ Griffin is also contributing at linebacker with three tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss.
TCU can also make a case for the No. 5 spot. The Frogs don’t have a Devonte Fields-caliber breakout star yet, but receiver Ty Slanina has two reception and is currently listed as a starter, and former ESPN 300 prospect Tevin Lawson is breaking into the rotation at defensive tackle with two stops already.
They haven’t disappointed, with nine players from the 2013 recruiting class playing in the first three games. Cornerback Stanvon Taylor made his first career start and running back Keith Ford scored his first career touchdown against Tulsa. Here’s a look at the true freshmen who could have a significant impact on the Sooners during their final nine games:
Defensive end Matt Dimon: He has seen spot duty in the Sooners’ first three games and could provide depth for the Sooners’ defensive line this season. He stepped on campus ready to play with his physical stature and maturity. Don’t expect him to force his way into the starting lineup, but he should be able to provide solid contributions in spot duty. His ability to play defensive tackle and defensive end will help him earn opportunities.
(Linebacker Dominique Alexander: The Tulsa, Okla., native has already played with the Sooners' starting defense and continues to come on thanks to his versatility at linebacker. As the former safetycontinues to progress and improve, he should give OU quality depth at linebacker and the ability to rotate with Corey Nelson and Frank Shannon. He has six tackles, including half a tackle for loss this season.
Linebacker Jordan Evans: Much like Alexander, Evans' versatility could help him earn increased playing time. The Norman, Okla., native already has secured himself a spot on OU’s special teams and played some at linebacker in mop-up duty. He brings a size/speed ratio that is unmatched at linebacker, but he’ll have to continue to progress as he learns the nuances of the position in OU’s defensive system. Evans has four tackles, including half a tackle for loss.
Cornerback Stanvon Taylor: The Tulsa, Okla., native has already started a game in crimson and cream less than a month into the season. He was solid against Tulsa with All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin sidelined by injury. Taylor also has played a role on the Sooners' special teams in all three games. His continued development is critical for the Sooners as he would allow OU to go two-deep at the cornerback spot.
Safety Hatari Byrd: The Fresno, Calif., native had his ups and downs after replacing an injured Gabe Lynn during the second quarter of OU’s 51-20 win over Tulsa on Sept. 14. Byrd showed his willingness to be physical but also showed some inexperience in coverage against the Golden Hurricane. Don’t expect him to take Lynn’s starting spot, but he will provide quality depth behind Lynn if he continues to develop throughout his freshman season.
Safety Ahmad Thomas: Another freshman who has been a constant on special teams, Thomas is another defender who is helping to create depth. He’s already making an impact on multiple special teams units and should continue to be an important chess piece for special teams coach Jay Boulware. Don’t expect him to force his way into the starting lineup on defense, but he will continue to be an impact player on special teams.
Best player: Corey Nelson. Before the season began, All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin was touting Nelson as the Sooners’ potential breakout player. The senior linebacker hasn’t disappointed through three games, leading the squad with 20 tackles including three tackles for loss, three pass breakups, two quarterback hurries and one sack. He has been all over the field for Mike Stoops’ defense.
Best performance: No player has had a better individual performance than Bell did during his first collegiate start. He was poised, accurate, confident and efficient. Before he took the first snap against Tulsa, there were questions abound about his ability to throw the ball due to his success as OU’s short-yardage runner during his freshman and sophomore seasons. Those questions have disappeared since his Sept. 14 performance.
Best surprise: Charles Tapper. The sophomore defensive end has come into his own and will be a force to reckon with during his OU career. He has brought, strength, quickness, athleticism and relentlessness to the Sooners’ defensive front while leading all defensive linemen with 14 tackles, two quarterback hurries and half-a-sack. If he consistently wins his one-on-one battles during Big 12 play, it opens up all kinds of possibilities for Stoops’ blitz schemes.
Biggest disappointment: Damien Williams. The senior running back was expected to be a major part of the Sooners' offense but hasn’t been a difference maker so far. Brennan Clay has replaced him as the Sooners’ feature back while Williams’ 4.35 yards per carry is fourth on the squad behind Clay (5.8), Roy Finch (7.3) and Keith Ford (6). If he hopes to match preseason expectations, Williams have to turn things around quickly because OU’s depth at running back makes it unlikely he will be missed if he doesn’t.
Here are five things we’ve learned about OU’s offense in the first three games.
Oklahoma’s offense is more explosive when the passing game clicks: The Sooners looked like two different offenses from Week 2 to Week 3. Blake Bell took over the quarterback duties from Trevor Knight and the Sooners passing game finally clicked. But was that because they were playing Tulsa and the Golden Hurricane had watched the Sooners struggle for two straight weeks? Or was Bell just that much better than Knight? We’ll found out as the season progresses but one thing is pretty clear: OU’s offense has too many talented pass-catchers to lean solely on its running game this season. The Sooners’ use of four-receiver sets should continue if they hope to challenge defenses this fall.
The more receivers involved, the better: Bell spread the ball around much better than Knight did in his start against Tulsa. He targeted 11 different receivers and completed passes to 10 different pass-catchers as OU reeled off 51 points with ease. He didn’t really have a “favorite” receiver, instead finding the open man and even looking off defenders to create seams in the secondary. He looked like the veteran he is and took advantage of the talents of Sterling Shepard, Jaz Reynolds and Durron Neal, who were largely quiet when Knight was under center. If Bell continues to spread the ball around, OU’s offense continues to be dangerous.
The Sooners have a deep group of running backs: They have three senior running backs who have proven to be playmakers, yet true freshman Keith Ford has generated all the buzz in Norman with his physical running style. That’s how deep the Sooners are at running back. Brennan Clay has been outstanding with 262 yards in three games and OU is averaging 5.4 yards per carry in 2013. Their depth will allow them to keep Clay, Roy Finch and Damien Williams from getting banged up as they split carries without sacrificing production.
Still no tight ends: Raise your hand if you’re surprised. Anyone? The Sooners don’t use a tight end instead, opting to use Trey Millard. And it’s the right move and a natural progression for a coaching staff looking to put its best 11 players on the field. So while there’s no player listed as a tight end on the field, Millard is playing that role on a significant portion of snaps. And playing it well.
Finch might actually touch the ball more, Millard will not: Seeing Finch on the field is awe-inspiring, if only because he’s actually on the field. The senior is making the same plays he’s always made but clearly is doing the right thing off the field as well since he’s getting consistent chances to make plays. Millard, meanwhile, will never have to worry about opportunities to step on the field. In fact he’s too valuable, that’s why OU doesn’t want the ball in his hands to limit his bumps and bruises. Millard is averaging 3.3 touches per game, Finch is averaging 6 offensive touches per game. Millard averaged 4.9 touches per game and Finch averaged 0.69 offensive touches per game in 2012.
NORMAN, Okla -- Alex Ross was one of the buzz-worthy names for Oklahoma during the Sooners’ preseason preparations last August. The true freshman was making noise as a player who could play himself out of a redshirt season despite OU’s depth at running back.
That didn’t happen.
The 2012 season came and went without Ross stepping on the field. Yet the redshirt freshman wasn’t too disappointed.
“I kind of knew I was going to redshirt when I got here,” Ross said.
A stellar prospect with excellent speed and good size at 6-foot-1, 217 pounds, Ross understood why he was redshirted. Juniors Damien Williams, Brennan Clay and Roy Finch were in line to get the bulk of the carries, leaving nothing more than potential spot duty for Ross. And limited action wasn’t worth losing a full year of eligibility.
Still, it was a struggle to watch from the sidelines.
“It was kind of tough sometimes,” Ross said. “Every day I came out to practice knowing I wasn’t going to play. I just still tried to make the other guys who were playing better by just going hard. That was the only thing I could do.”
He hopes to do more in 2013. But his road to getting playing time hasn’t gotten any easier. Williams, Clay and Finch return and coach Bob Stoops said he expects true freshman Keith Ford to play this season.
Five different running backs, limited opportunities.
“It’s not that hard, you’re just working hard,” Ross said of competing with so many different backs. “We’re all just out there working. So regardless of how many people it is we’re all there for the same reason. We want to get better for the team.”
Fortunately for Ross, Stoops has singled him out as a top performer after at least one scrimmage this August and has plenty of praise for the No. 70 player in the Class of 2012.
“I’m excited about Alex,” Stoops said. “He’s physical and a big guy and he can run. Watching him out there now, there are fewer mistakes and he’s getting comfortable and knows what to do.”
Additional weight and an belief that he belongs are key traits Ross added during his redshirt season. Last season, he was hopeful he belonged. This season, he knows he does.
“I probably just wasn’t as confident as I am this year because I was just young and I didn’t know what I was doing out there,” Ross said. “This year is different because I’m older and just trying to get better. I just got more practice, more carries, knowing what I am doing, just getting better than last year.”
And he’ll need to be if he hopes to see a bulk of carries in a loaded OU backfield.
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He committed at OU’s second junior day and never entertained the thought of looking elsewhere. Other schools tried to make a push, but Ford remained solid to the Sooners.
OU is solid at running back for 2013, but Ford has fans salivating for what can be in the future and believe he might even be good enough to see the field in the fall.
Prior to his arrival on campus, Ford spoke to SoonerNation one more time to discuss his expectations.
Keith Ford: No. 21. They gave me 21, 27, 31 and 35, so I picked the lowest number I could.
SN: Who is your roommate going to be?
Ford: Austin Bennett. I actually played against him last year in the playoffs. I didn’t really know who he was during the season. But then we played against each other and went on the official visit at the same time and got to know each other a lot. We call each other a lot.
SN: What have you been working on since the end of your senior season?
Ford: I run a lot. Working out five days a week and eating the right foods. My mom is not going to be able to cook for me in college so I’m teaching myself now. Most of the time I’m cooking my own meals and learning to eat right. Nutrition is important.
SN: When did you know in your heart OU was the place for you?
Ford: I felt comfortable there. My parents felt comfortable. I love the coaching staff. Coach [Cale]Gundy sold me on more than the team and the school. He sold me on the people.
SN: What have the coaches told you about your potential role this season?
Ford: I don’t really talk about that. For me, it all starts with discipline. I never ask the coaches about playing time. My goal is to play next year as a true freshman, but it’s up to me to make that happen.
SN: What’s the biggest difference of going from high school to college?
Ford: The speed of the game. It’s going to be a lot of faster. You have to make real quick decisions. I feel like I have a good feel of what it’s going to be like.
SN: You met Class of 2014 running back commit Samaje Perine at the spring game. What was that like?
Ford: It was great. He’s huge. We text from time to time. He’s another Texas running back coming here, too. Like him, I’m just ready to play football in that stadium. Not too many people get that chance.
SN: Who are some of the players you’ve been talking to the most on the team?
Ford: Sooner Dave [David Smith]. I talk to him a lot. I talk to Alex Ross and Roy Finch, too, and Kendal Thompson. I feel very comfortable with all of them.
SN: When you leave OU, what do you want your legacy to be?
Ford: To be the best running back to ever come out of OU. That’s what I’m striving for. I won’t accept anything else.
With this is mind, SoonerNation has parsed out Oklahoma’s roster into 10 separate tiers. Here they are:
Tier 1: The Elite (Guys who could play for almost anyone)
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As he prepared to arrive in Norman for summer workouts, Bennett checked with SoonerNation to talk about his future roommate, what he wants to major in and Texas making a run at him just before signing day:
SoonerNation: Who are you rooming with?
SN: What are you most looking forward to at OU?
Bennett: The experience of college. Getting on the field as quickly as possible, adjusting to the speed.
SN: What personal goals do you have?
Bennett: To try to earn a spot on the field and not be redshirted. If I do get redshirted, I’m not going to make a big deal about it, and [I will] take advantage of it. But short term, I want to help the team out as much as I can.
SN: What have the coaches told you about a potential role?
Bennett: Coaches have said my role is to be a slot receiver. Punt returner, kick returner, too. If my role is to play special teams, so be it.
OU has some good receivers. But I definitely think I have a shot to earn a position with my football knowledge. I think I can come in and make a big impact.
SN: What happened with Texas trying to get you to flip late?
Bennett: Well, a week to two weeks before signing day, they came to my school and told me they wanted a shot with me, that they had been looking at me my freshman year. Which was true, but they hadn’t really made a big impression on me. They haven’t produced a lot of great receivers in the last four, five years. Texas, it’s a great school to go to, but I chose Oklahoma over Texas.
SN: So you never gave it a second thought?
Bennett: I never thought about leaving Oklahoma. Once I make a commitment -- that’s where I wanted to be unless something major happened. Oklahoma is where I want to be.
SN: What are you planning to major in?
Bennett: Biology. I want to try to be a physical therapist.