Oklahoma Sooners: Sam Grant

During the summer, ESPN.com is taking a closer look at each scholarship player on the Oklahoma Sooners' roster in our Crimson Countdown series. Each day, we analyze each player’s impact on the program since arriving on campus, his potential impact this fall, and his long-term projection. Starting with No. 1 Dominique Alexander, the series follows the roster numerically through No. 98 Chuka Ndulue.

No. 76 Sam Grant, tackle, 6-foot-7, 281 pounds, sophomore

Impact thus far: None. Grant shifted to tackle during the spring of 2014 after lining up at tight end during his first two years on campus. He redshirted in 2012 and didn’t play in 2013.

Impact in 2014: Grant’s best case scenario is to provide depth behind starters Tyrus Thompson and Daryl Williams this fall. The Sooners could have an deep group at tackle with Josiah St. John, Christian Daimler and the freshman also in the mix at the position.

Long-term upside: Even when he was lining up at tight end, blocking has always been Grant’s strength. His length and physical mindset could make him an asset at the position but he will have plenty of competition at the spot and will kind of be behind the eight ball as a guy at a new position.

Evaluation grade for Grant: C. Even though he has never played in a game despite being on campus for two years, Grant could end up being a terrific evaluation as he looked like a tight end who projected to tackle when the Sooners signed him. They gave him the chance to play tight end initially then he made the move to tackle after the 2013 season and his potential at tackle is much higher than at tight end.

Development grade for Grant: B. Outside of just throwing Grant onto the field in short yardage or special teams to get his feet wet in 2013, there’s not much else to ask from the Sooners.
The injury bug has hit Norman, Okla. this spring.

Oklahoma will be without several players during its spring game on Saturday but none of the injuries are major.

Nickelback Julian Wilson, defensive lineman Rashod Favors, defensive tackle Quincy Russell, receiver Sterling Shepard, receiver Durron Neal, tight end Blake Bell, guard Adam Shead, tackle Tyrus Thompson, guard Nila Kasitati and guard Tyler Evans will miss the action due to various injuries but none of them require surgery and head coach Bob Stoops said he expects all of them to return after a short hiatus.

Those injuries have opened the door for several young players on the roster.

“They’re getting more snaps and having to step up,” Stoops said.

Here’s a closer look at how those injuries could open up spring game opportunities for several players on the roster.

[+] EnlargeEric Striker
Robin Alam/Icon SMIOLB Eric Striker has been taking some reps at nickelback this spring.
Wilson: The senior has missed the spring anyway, allowing Ahmad Thomas, Eric Striker and others to get the reps at nickelback. Thomas is showing great versatility and carving himself a role on the defense. Striker, a returning All-Big 12 second teamer, will be on the field regardless, it’s just a matter of where. Both guys get the chance to prove they can fill a variety of roles on Saturday.

Favors: Several young defensive ends including Mike Onuoha are showing good upside this spring and Favors' injury gives them more chances to impress in the spring game. Onuoha was right alongside returning Big 12 first teamer Charles Tapper as the future at the position before a shoulder injury forced him to miss his sophomore season while Tapper starred. He could be hungry to prove he could have made a similar impact. Matt Dimon and D.J. Ward are other young defensive ends who could end up providing quality depth this fall.

Russell: This injury hurts Russell in the race to earn playing time in 2014 and opens up additional opportunities for redshirt freshman Charles Walker to show he’s ready to make an impact in the fall. It also gives the opportunity for another redshirt freshman, Matt Romar, to show Walker isn’t the only youngster looking to force his way into the lineup along a veteran defensive line.

Bell: More than anything Bell’s injury robs us of the opportunity to see the Belldozer play tight end before the fall. And, quite frankly, that’s all anyone is going to think about when it comes to Bell’s absence on Saturday. The overriding question about Bell is not if he can win the starting tight end job, it's can he prove to be one of the best 11 players on offense? That answer will define his playing time and it won't come until the fall.

Shepard and Neal: Redshirt freshman Jordan Smallwood, K.J. Young and Dannon Cavil could have lost all right to complain about a lack of opportunities with these injuries. Don’t be surprised if Smallwood is one of the stars of the spring game, Young is silky smooth and Cavil brings a unique size and athleticism to the receiving corps. Sophomores Derrick Woods and Austin Bennett will also get the chance to shine after limited duty as freshmen in 2013.

Offensive line: Injuries have hammered the offensive line throughout the spring, so being thrown into duty in the spring game will be nothing new for guys like tackle Sam Grant, tackle Christian Daimler and guard Kyle Marrs. They’ll get the chance to get a bunch of reps against a deep defensive line and potentially secure a reputation for themselves before a talented group of offensive line signees arrive in the summer looking to rise past them on the Sooners' depth chart.
Oklahoma had one of the nation’s best running games in 2013. The Sooners rode their ground game to an Allstate Sugar Bowl win and 11-2 record.

[+] EnlargeTy Darlington
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsTy Darlington will take the reins at center for the Sooners in 2014.
OU’s offensive line was the foundation of the team's success a season ago but it will be retooled in 2014.

Gabe Ikard won’t be around to anchor Oklahoma’s offensive line for the first time in four years, but the overall depth and quality of the group could take the unit to new heights.

Injuries at the end of the season have sidelined guard Adam Shead and tackle Tyrus Thompson, both of whom have extensive playing experience, giving several younger linemen the opportunity to get additional practice snaps this spring.

“We’re missing a guy or two but we have some guys that have played a lot of football,” offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. “We have some backups that haven’t played a ton but have seen some action and they’re going to get a bulk of the work in spring ball. It’s an opportunity for them to grow and mature and prove they belong on the football field.”

Tackle Daryl Williams is the experienced veteran of the group and guards Nila Kasitati and Dionte Savage along with tackle Derek Farniok return after starting games in 2013. This spring is the chance for guys like tackles Sam Grant, after a recent move from tight end, and Josiah St. John to make an impression before six offensive line signees arrive this summer.

“I think we’re definitely light-years ahead of where we were last year,” junior center Ty Darlington said. “We’re getting to get a lot of guys reps, which is awesome -- a lot of guys that probably normally wouldn’t get reps are getting reps, and that’s good. I think we’re definitely making some progress.”

As the guy slated to replace Ikard, Darlington is clearly the man in the spotlight. He saw spot duty behind the All-American and three-time All-Big 12 interior lineman during his first two seasons on campus and is excited for the next step in his career.

“I’m excited for the opportunity,” he said. “This is why I came here, to be able to step into a role. Gabe was great to me for two years. He really took me under his wing and taught me everything he knew. He was a great friend on and off the field. Now he’s gone, and I’ve got to step up and fill that void as the center and in a leadership position. I’m excited for it.”

It went largely overlooked but Ikard was the main reason the Sooners could play musical chairs at quarterback n in 2013. The senior handled all the calls and brought a calm and consistent voice to the offense while Trevor Knight, Blake Bell and Kendal Thompson took turns behind center. It’s those areas where Ikard could be missed most.

But Darlington feels his mentorship under Ikard and offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh will pay off as he steps into the starting lineup.

“I’m more confident than I’ve ever been as far as just understanding the whole scheme of football,” Darlington said. “I learned so much in the past year with Coach [Bill] Bedenbaugh. I’m continuing to learn a lot more. From fronts to coverages and blitzes, we’re learning so much as a group. I feel like I’m definitely better than I’ve ever been as far as the mental part of the game.”

If Darlington can step in for Ikard without a letdown, the Sooners offensive line could cement its spot among the Big 12’s best for the second straight season and be the foundation of what might be a special season.
In the next few weeks leading into signing day it’s a great time to take a position-by-position glance at Oklahoma’s returning roster. This series, called State of the Position, will look at the playmakers, up-and-comers and current commitments or targets at each position for the Sooners as recruiting heats up during these final weeks before signing day on Feb. 5. On Thursday, we take a closer look at the tight end/fullback position, a spot that has essentially become interchangeable thanks to the talents of departing senior Trey Millard.

[+] EnlargeRipkowski
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsThe Sooners return Aaron Ripkowski, and not much else, at fullback/tight end.
Starter/contributors: FB Aaron Ripkowski (Jr.)

Ripkowski was a critical replacement when Millard was sidelined midway through the season. The former walk-on has been an impact player since his freshman season and should continue to play a major role in OU’s offense while lining up all over the field.

On the cusp: TE Taylor McNamara (So.)

McNamara actually saw the field during OU’s 45-31 Sugar Bowl victory and (gasp!) caught a pass. OU’s tight ends finished the season with three receptions for 33 yards, including McNamara’s 4-yard reception against Alabama. But, McNamara’s Sugar Bowl performance aside, don’t expect OU’s tight ends to become a big part of the offense until it actually happens. The coaching staff has been talking about it for years.

Sophomore tight end Sam Grant is another option at the position but didn't become a key contributor during his redshirt freshman year.

On the recruiting trail: ATH Dimitri Flowers (San Antonio/Churchill), TE Carson Meier (Tulsa, Okla./Union), TE Isaac Ijalana (Mount Holly, N.J./Pierce College)

Ijalana is a junior college signee who is a solid prospect at the tight end position. He should give the Sooners an immediate option as they try to replace Millard and Brannon Green.

Millard’s excellence and versatility sent the Sooners on a search for a player who could aim to mimic his ability. Flowers is the result of that search and OU hopes Flowers can develop into a player who can line up at fullback and tight end with equal effectiveness. The question is how soon can he start to slide into a similar role.

Meier, the No. 277 player in the ESPN 300, is a prototypical tight end. He brings good size, good ball skills and the ability to block effectively. He’s the exact type of well-rounded tight end prospect the Sooners will need to have if they hope to make the tight end position a productive part of their offense.

Overall Grade: D

Ripkowski kept this grade from being an F. He’s physical, experienced and talented, so the Sooners would really be up a creek without him returning. OU has minimal experience and no proven playmakers after Ripkowski. Neither McNamara nor Grant have never made a significant impact and the rest are newcomers. But if Flowers, a unique prospect, can develop into a Millard clone, it might not matter what else happens with the rest of the group. One of those prospects emerging as one of OU’s top 11 offensive players and forcing their way on to the field next season is the best case scenario for the Sooners.
Recruiting season is about to kick into high gear. As soon as Bedlam is over on Dec. 7, Oklahoma will hit the recruiting trails hard looking to secure the future.

[+] EnlargeDominique Alexander
William Purnell/Icon SMIOU didn't offer Dominique Alexander a scholarship until last October. Now he's a starting linebacker.
OU has been superb at finding late hidden gems in recent seasons, with cornerback Zack Sanchez, a redshirt freshman from the Class of 2012, and linebacker Dominique Alexander, a true freshman from the Class of 2013, already making an impact on the program after getting relatively late offers from the Sooners.

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.

Crimson Countdown: TE Sam Grant 

July, 1, 2013
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During the summer months, SoonerNation will take a closer look at each player on Oklahoma’s roster in our Crimson Countdown series. Each day, we will analyze each player’s impact on the program since arriving on campus, his potential impact this fall and his long-term impact. Starting with No. 1 Kendal Thompson, the series will follow the roster numerically through our final analysis of No. 99 Chaz Nelson.

No. 81 Sam Grant
Tight end, 6-foot-7, 250 pounds, redshirt freshman


You’ve seen them while prepping your fantasy football team. Or reading ESPN Insider Chad Ford while getting ready for the NBA Draft. The “tier system” is an effective way of making sense, differentiating and analyzing a cluster of players. Everyone from pro sport general managers to college coaches out on the trail recruiting employ this method.

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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NORMAN, Okla. -- While the summer heat engulfs Norman, the opportunity to quietly change their roles sits in the lap of several Sooners. The summer session at the University of Oklahoma, and the corresponding summer workouts, are getting underway for the defending Big 12 co-champions, with several unanswered questions lingering from the spring.

Who will be the starting quarterback? Will any defensive linemen step up and become playmakers? How will an infusion of youth impact the secondary? Those are just a few of the questions that will surround the program in June and July.

Here’s a look at a few key players who need to have a strong summer if they expect to make a major impact for the Sooners this fall.


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NORMAN, Okla. -- One look at Oklahoma’s offense in 2008, the year of the Sooners’ last BCS title game appearance, provides a revealing look at that squad’s success.

St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford triggered the offense with Pro Bowl tight end Jermaine Gresham of the Cincinnati Bengals and three NFL draft picks (Ryan Broyles, Juaquin Iglesias and Manuel Johnson) at receiver. Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray lined up alongside Bradford with Pro Bowl offensive lineman Trent Williams and Minnesota Vikings tackle Phil Loadholt up front. The defense, meanwhile, was led by Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy of Tampa Bay and Detroit Lions linebacker Travis Lewis.


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Returning the tight end position to a strength of the offense and cementing Oklahoma’s special teams among the nation’s best are two goals high atop the priority list of Jay Boulware. The Sooners’ new tight ends and special teams coach has hit the ground running after joining the program on March 1.

The Sooners have relatively low numbers at tight end with senior Brannon Green, redshirt freshman Sam Grant and redshirt freshman Taylor McNamara as the lone scholarship tight ends on the roster. Adding tight ends will be key for the Sooners in the Class of 2014.


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NORMAN, Okla. -- In Bob Stoops’ first season in 1999, Oklahoma spread everyone out and threw it around.

In 2004, the Sooners put Jason White under center and handed off to Adrian Peterson.

As Stoops pointed out last week, the Sooners have often "played to their personnel." That includes last season, when, after it became abundantly clear the Sooners’ fourth-best receiver was better than any tight end, OU went almost exclusively with four-wide formations.

[+] EnlargeTaylor McNamara
J.P. Wilson/Icon SMIThe Sooners need redshirt freshman Taylor McNamara to become a passing-game threat in 2013.
“We had some young [tight ends], a new guy from junior college,” Stoops said. “We weren’t the same with them on the field. Our best grouping was with wide receivers, which was quite obvious to anybody who watched us.”

In recent weeks, the Sooners have taken criticism from ESPN analysts Trent Dilfer and Jon Gruden for not using tight ends. They say it put too much pressure on quarterback Landry Jones to throw the ball downfield.

In several OU victories, Jones’ arm was good enough to overcome the limitations of not having a tight end checking off a route underneath the coverage, streaking down the middle of the field or helping to block in the run game.

But in the Sooners’ three 2012 losses, not having a tight end came back to haunt them, as OU was unable to maintain balance with the run or attack the Kansas State, Notre Dame and Texas A&M defenses off play-action.

The OU coaching staff recognized this liability and tried to lure another junior-college tight end to Norman before signing day. But after losing out on Beau Sandland and Emmanuel Bibbs -- the two juco tight ends they thought could provide an immediate impact -- the Sooners were forced to go with what they have.

Only this time, they won’t have Jones’ arm to fall back on. To be successful in 2013, the Sooners will have to run the ball with better efficiency. And they’ll have to also be lethal with play-action. Which means Sam Grant, Taylor McNamara and Brannon Green, whom the Sooners deemed weren’t ready last year, had better be ready to play this time around.

“I feel much better about it,” Stoops said. “The two freshmen [Grant and McNamara] have come along, are stronger blockers, have a stronger presence about what they’re trying to do. Same thing with Brannon Green, more experience in what we want him to do.

“I believe they’ll have more opportunities.”

Despite losing Kenny Stills and Justin Brown, the Sooners figure to be strong at wideout again. Jalen Saunders and Sterling Shepard should be prolific, and Trey Metoyer, Durron Neal, Dannon Cavil, Jaz Reynolds and others have big-play ability. But as OU transitions to an offense more reliant on the ground game -- as well as the running ability of its inexperienced quarterbacks -- tight end play will be paramount.

It’s no coincidence that when the Sooners have run the ball best, they’ve had stellar tight end play.

Quentin Griffin had Trent Smith.

Chris Brown and DeMarco Murray had Brody Eldridge and Jermaine Gresham.

Even Adrian Peterson had James "Bubba" Moses and Joe Jon Finley.

Stoops says he likes what he saw from the tight ends in the spring. After redshirting last year, Grant showed promise as a blocking specialist. McNamara has put on weight and is finally healthy after undergoing shoulder surgery last season, then tweaking a hamstring after being cleared for spring ball. Green has come along, too.

They’ll never be confused with the 2007 tight end grouping of Gresham, Eldridge and Finley. But if they can be just solid enough to be used, that might be adequate.

The Sooners are always going to play to their personnel. But OU has always been better when the tight ends are included.
NORMAN, Okla. -- Spring is the time when young players can serve notice that they are ready to take on a bigger role on the team at the University of Oklahoma. It’s also a time when players lack of progression leaves an opening for them to be passed on the depth chart.

Here’s a look at the winners and losers of spring for the Sooners:

Winners


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Spring game storylines: Oklahoma 

April, 11, 2013
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NORMAN, Okla. -- Saturday, the Sooners will put the finishing touches on spring ball with the Red-White spring game.

With a quarterback derby, three first-year assistants and several new starters on defense, this has been one of the most storyline-rich springs of the Bob Stoops era. Of them all, here the seven most compelling storylines to watch for Saturday:


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Position breakdown: Tight end 

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NORMAN, Okla. -- Tight end was the position that wasn’t for the Sooners in 2012.

OU’s first-year tight end triplets did not develop as rapidly as the coaches had hoped. Then Jalen Saunders was cleared, and the Sooners went almost exclusively with four-wide sets without a tight end.


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Not only did the Sooners seldom use the tight end position in 2012, they altogether abandoned it. Offensive coordinator Josh Heupel leaned on four-wide sets and lined up fullback Trey Millard at tight end whenever the situation called for it.

[+] EnlargeBrannon Green
Jim Cowsert/US PresswireTight end Brannon Green had three catches for the Sooners in 2012.
The Sooners scoured the recruiting trail for a junior college tight end but struck out with their top two targets, Beau Sandland and Emmanuel Bibbs.

Despite not landing a juco tight end, Bob Stoops said he wants the tight end packages to be a bigger part of the offense next season. And he feels that, with an extra year in the program, freshman Taylor McNamara and Sam Grant could be ready to hold down the position, along with juco transfer Brannon Green.

“I see it being a bigger part,” Stoops said. “I think it was more the inexperience. We tried it and there were too many, just overall, we didn’t feel they were quite ready to play at the level we needed.”

Coupled with the tight end inexperience, Stoops added that the emergence of transfer receivers Jalen Saunders and Justin Brown swayed the Sooners to run more four-wide sets, too.

“I think [that's the case] more than anything, and the experience that the wide receivers all had,” Stoops said. “As odd as it sounds to say, considering where we started with all of them, they were so productive and doing so well, we felt that was taking advantage of our personnel and experience the best.”

But with Brown and Kenny Stills gone, Stoops said he sees the Sooners returning to more tight end sets in 2013.

“We like our young guys and our guys coming up,” Stoops said. “We want our tight end packages to be more involved, definitely.”

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