Oklahoma Sooners: Zack Sanchez

It was a quiet and productive spring at Oklahoma. The Sooners emerged relatively free of injuries and were able to tinker with their systems on both sides of the ball. This week we'll review OU's spring. On Monday, we began with five questions that were answered during the Sooners' 15 practices. On Tuesday, we reviewed five questions that remain unanswered. Today, we look at five players who surprised this spring.

Running back Alex Ross: The sophomore made it clear he plans to be a part of OU’s offense this fall. He had a solid spring and was consistently mentioned as a playmaker after Sooners’ scrimmages. It was an important spring for Ross, who was passed on the depth chart by Keith Ford last season and will watch highly touted signees Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon arrive this summer. Ross needed to seize the opportunity to remind people he was a highly touted signee as well and that’s exactly what he did.

“He’s playing explosively,” quarterback Trevor Knight said. “He’s just having fun playing. He gets the ball in his hands and he’s down the field real quick. It’s good to watch.”

[+] EnlargeHatari Byrd
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsSophomore safety Hatari Byrd looks poised to make an impact in the secondary this season.
Safety Hatari Byrd: The sophomore moved seamlessly into the Sooners’ secondary and looks ready to be a key contributor, even if he doesn’t end up starting. He brings a hungry attitude and a will to succeed to OU’s secondary. Byrd saw limited time on defense as a true freshman but he sure looked at home alongside Quentin Hayes at the safety spot and joins Ahmad Thomas to give OU a pair of quality young safeties to compete for playing time this fall. Byrd’s smooth transition into the defensive system was a pleasant surprise for Sooners’ fans.

“He’s stepping up, coming down and making plays,” linebacker Eric Striker said.

Receiver K.J. Young: Fellow redshirt freshman Jordan Smallwood has gotten a lot of the accolades but Young looks poised to be a contributor in OU’s offense in the fall. He’s a smooth operator in the slot and can make plays when he gets the ball in his hands. Young didn’t separate himself in the spring game but he has all the tools to emerge as a quality receiving option for Knight in 2014. He’s gets overlooked at times but has the type of playmaking skills that can separate him from the competition.

Linebacker Jordan Evans: The sophomore is poised to provide depth and add athleticism to the Sooners linebacker corps. The Norman (Okla.) native played several positions in high school and his versatility shines through at linebacker. He’s very comfortable in space yet is willing to play physical if needed. If Evans continues to perform like he did this spring, the Sooners could end up having to find a place for him in their defensive system.

“He has played great,” coach Bob Stoops said. “Jordan has really improved and is much more sound and disciplined in schemes and where he needs to be. He has got great range and great athleticism.”

Cornerback Dakota Austin: The sophomore didn’t enter the spring as the favorite to replace Aaron Colvin but the job could be his to lose after a strong spring showing. He’s undersized but competitive and solid in coverage, which helped him surpass Stanvon Taylor and Cortez Johnson, a pair of returning cornerbacks who started games in 2013. Austin hasn’t locked down the starting spot but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him team with Zack Sanchez as OU’s starting cornerbacks for the season opener.
Spring football has come to a close at Oklahoma.

The Sooners 15 practices answered some questions, but others remain. Now is the perfect time to update the some of the position battles that made this spring intriguing in Norman. We took a look at offense and defense earlier this week. We end the series on Friday with special teams.

[+] EnlargeSterling Shepard
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsSterling Shepard should be able to step up and fill the void left in OU's return game by the departure of Jalen Saunders.
Kicker

Pre-spring: Already considered among the nation’s best, Michael Hunnicutt is locked in as the Sooners’ starting kicker.

Post-spring: Not only should the Sooners feel great about Hunnicutt, he showed increased kicking prowess in the spring game. Long-range field goals have not been a strength for the 2013 Lou Groza Award semifinalist during his first three years, but he nailed two 40-plus yard field goals in the spring game, including a 53-yarder, although it was wind-aided.

Summer outlook: OU heads into the summer knowing it has one of the nation’s best kickers.

Punter

Pre-spring: Jed Barnett returns after his first season as OU’s punter, averaging 41.7 yards per punt.

Post-spring: Much like kicker, there's not much to see here. Barnett was solid during his first season and returns to give OU solid punting in his final year on campus. OU should exit the spring feeling good about both kicking positions.

Summer outlook: Barnett is a very solid punter and heads into the summer as the clear No. 1 guy. There’s no reason to think that will change.

Returners

Pre-spring: The Sooners lose all of their returners. Receiver Jalen Saunders was dynamic on punt returns and running backs Roy Finch and Brennan Clay were very productive kick returners. With that, there are plenty of questions about who will return kicks.

Post-spring:Receiver Sterling Shepard is in line to return punts. He was a superb punt returner in high school and has proven playmaking ability. Cornerback Zack Sanchez could also be an option as a punt returner this fall. Kick returns could be a good fit for running back Alex Ross or running back Daniel Brooks among several other young and talented options.

Summer outlook: OU will start finalizing its return game in August. Plenty of talented freshmen could get the opportunity, with Shepard looking like the lone frontrunner for any of the return positions.

“When we get our whole football team on here in the summer, that’s when I’ll identify and make final decisions on that,” special teams coordinator Jay Boulware said of potential punt and kick returners. “We have a lot of freshmen coming in and we have a lot of guys who are busting their butts right now. We won’t make any final decisions until towards the end of fall camp.”

Punt/kick coverage

Pre-spring: OU’s coverage teams could improve after allowing 15.6 yards per punt return and 23.28 yards per kick return in 2013. But OU’s coverage overall was pretty solid and its coverage units allowed then-freshmen like Ahmad Thomas, Dakota Austin and Keith Ford to get their feet wet and contribute during their first seasons.

Post-spring: Much like the returners, Boulware will be looking to finalize these units after the freshmen arrive. One key to keep an eye on will be OU’s attempt to replace Trey Millard, who was a special teams monster during his four seasons. Freshman Dimitri Flowers appears ready to help replace Millard on offense but Boulware said he’s not certain if the early enrollee can match Millard’s contributions on special teams as well.

Summer outlook: Special teams coverage units can be a way for true freshmen to get their foot in the door. Boulware likes the overall speed and athleticism on the roster this spring, so adding additional, hungry freshmen into the mix should help OU be able to field some of the quickest and more athletic coverage units in the Big 12 in 2014. The battle for special teams spots should be interesting to watch and could provide a glimpse at the young guys who could be the future on offense and defense.
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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, defense only, on OU’s spring finale. To be clear, this is an informal collection of my thoughts and observations after the spring game. For a more formal and general spring game review, check out this post from earlier today.

  • Linebacker Frank Shannon’s absence is disappointing, but Jordan Evans filled in at linebacker without looking like a weak link, much as he did against Texas Tech during his true freshman season a year ago. Evans is very athletic and comfortable in coverage. If Shannon, who is dealing with personal issues, is unable to return, OU can feel good about Evans’ spring-game production.
  • Ahmad Thomas looks like a potential difference-maker. He can play multiple positions in the secondary and he was consistently around the ball. A breakout sophomore campaign could be on the horizon.
  • The defensive line should be deep, athletic and productive. This unit could spark a special season if everyone continues to develop. From Charles Tapper to Jordan Wade to Charles Walker, it’s a very solid group of defensive linemen from top to bottom. Games are won in the trenches, so the Sooners should feel good about their chances this fall.
  • [+] EnlargeQuentin Hayes
    Mark D. Smith/USA TODAY SportsQuentin Hayes is a returning starter at safety, but depth is a concern there.
    Cornerback Zack Sanchez is another Sooner who looks as if he’s taken a step forward. If he continues to progress, Sanchez could become a player who opponents think twice about testing. He was competitive and active on Saturday and played like OU's best cornerback.
  • Sophomore Dakota Austin looked solid opposite Sanchez, but the search for the other half of OU’s cornerback duo should carry deep into preseason camp. Stanvon Taylor and Cortez Johnson are also in the mix, but nobody has taken the job and run away with it. The Sooners need to shore up this spot, as this concern could be considered the top priority on the defensive side of the ball heading into the summer.
  • Linebacker Eric Striker is on the road to making several appearances on "SportsCenter" this fall. The pass-rushing dynamo was terrific as a sophomore and it looks like he could be even better as a junior. He's exceptionally quick off the edge and has a knack for getting to the quarterback.
  • The safety position looks like it is in good hands with Quentin Hayes and Hatari Byrd, but the depth behind them is a major summer storyline. Thomas and Julian Wilson, who sat out the spring, could help at the position and incoming freshman Steven Parker has the talent to step in immediately. It’s not a problem if OU remains injury-free, but it’s football, so heading into the season without a Plan B is fool’s gold.
  • Kicker Michael Hunnicutt has earned his nickname “Munnicutt” and his leg strength has improved. He made two 40-plus-yard field goals, one with the wind at his back and one into the wind. He’s one of the nation’s most consistent kickers, so increased long-range production is a major bonus.
  • Final thought: The excitement surrounding the Sooners program heading into 2014 is well-earned. This team could find itself in the College Football Playoff if Trevor Knight is consistent and efficient under center and the defense takes another step forward this fall. But don't lock them into the national title conversation quite yet, as several young players need to continue to develop and take their games to another level and show they are ready to perform at a championship level, week in and week out.

Spring game review: Oklahoma

April, 14, 2014
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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

Video: Oklahoma CB Zack Sanchez

April, 12, 2014
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Brandon Chatmon talks with Oklahoma cornerback Zack Sanchez about the spring game, his developing leadership and his development as a player.
Zack Sanchez grew a lot during his redshirt freshman season at Oklahoma.

The Sooners cornerback was thrown into the fire, starting his first collegiate game after Cortez Johnson was suspended for the first game of 2013. Sanchez seized the opportunity and never let go, starting 13 games and earning FWAA Freshman All-American honors while leading the team with 13 pass breakups.

[+] EnlargeZack Sanchez
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiZack Sanchez led Oklahoma in pass breakups as a redshirt freshman and will be counted on as a leader in the Sooners' secondary.
This spring, OU’s defense is counting on Sanchez to continue to exceed expectations. Despite preparing for his sophomore season, he’s become the veteran of the Sooners cornerback group with Aaron Colvin heading to the NFL. The eyes that turned to Colvin during tough times in 2013 will now turn Sanchez’s way when adversity hits this fall.

With the mantle passed to him, Sanchez began to try to step up his leadership during winter workouts.

“I had to take essentially the same role as [Colvin],” Sanchez said. “Being the oldest guy or most experienced guy at corner, I had to take the leadership role through winter workouts and spring. I have to be more vocal to the younger guys and lead by example so they see that I’m doing it right and not just talking about it.”

Sophomores Stanvon Taylor and Dakota Austin fill the bill as young guys who could learn from Sanchez’s experience in 2013 even though they’re in the same boat eligibility-wise. Sanchez had ups and downs but, thanks in part to Colvin, was able to prevent the valleys of his freshman season from becoming canyons.

“He went through a learning process a year ago and has become a better player,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “I think you learn from your experiences and that’s what playing does for you, it gives you a lot of experience to fall back on, and I think that’s what he’ll do this year. He’ll be a much more complete player than he was a year ago. Hopefully he’ll be much bigger and stronger player, he needs to become that.”

OU is turning to him to become a leader, but he needs to become a better cornerback as well. Teams picked on Sanchez in 2013, but he competed well enough to win his share of battles. But this season he’ll be asked to do even more for OU’s defense, including trying to slow the likes of Baylor’s Antwan Goodley and Kansas State’s Tyler Lockett as the Sooners’ top cornerback.

Sanchez is hopeful the experience and mentality he gained as a redshirt freshman will pay off in 2014, not only for himself but for his teammates as well.

“I grew up really fast,” he said “I think I had to. Being young can’t be an excuse for that long or you’ll get pulled off the field. I learned from a lot of things and I feel really strong going into spring and I’m excited for what the future holds.”
Over the next two weeks, we’ll be breaking down the 10 best players at the moment on every team in the Big 12.

These lists won’t include junior college or freshman signees who haven’t arrived on campus yet. Rather, they will include only the players on their teams this spring. Some of these rankings might look different after the spring, but this is how we see them now.

On Tuesday, we continue with Allstate Sugar Bowl champion Oklahoma.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Knight
Chuck Cook/USA TODAY SportsA more consistent Trevor Knight easily would rise on this list.
1. Linebacker Frank Shannon: The Sooners' leading tackler finished with 92 stops including seven for loss as a sophomore. He fought through injuries to become OU’s most consistent and productive player on a defense that was the foundation of the program’s success in 2013. There’s no reason to think Shannon will take a step backward as a junior.

2. Linebacker Eric Striker: One of the Big 12’s top pass rushers, Striker showed what he can do during his three-sack performance in the Sugar Bowl. His relentlessness on the edge should continue to terrorize quarterbacks this fall.

3. Defensive end Charles Tapper: The former basketball player is coming off an All-Big 12 season, but he still hasn’t scratched the surface of his potential in a lot of ways. He’s continuing to grow as a football player, but his natural instincts and exceptional physical ability to cement himself near the top of this list until he leaves Norman, Okla.

4. Receiver Sterling Shepard: Shepard has been a key piece of the offense since he stepped on campus two years ago. His tendency to play his best in OU’s biggest games, particularly against Alabama, Oklahoma State and Notre Dame, is what makes him a special player.

5. Safety Quentin Hayes: He goes somewhat unnoticed, but Hayes' versatility is a critical piece in OU’s defense. He has the ability to cover receivers yet always remains active and around the ball. This spring Hayes needs to emerge as a leader in the secondary as the veteran in the group.

6. Quarterback Trevor Knight: If Knight can consistently play like he did in the Sugar Bowl, he’ll rise to the top of this list quickly. Even with several stellar performances by teammates, Knight was easily the Sooners' best player against Alabama, but the same cannot be said for the other seven appearances of his redshirt freshman season.

7. Linebacker Dominique Alexander: The Big 12 defensive freshman of the year joins Shannon and Striker to give the Sooners one of the Big 12’s top linebacker units. Alexander had 80 tackles while recording double-digit stops in four of the nine games he started as a true freshman. The sky is the limit for Alexander, who should be even better as a sophomore.

8. Tackle Daryl Williams: Injuries are the only thing that have kept Williams from being productive during his time in crimson and cream. He earned second-team All-Big 12 honors as a junior and should be the veteran anchor of the offensive line in 2014.

9. Defensive end Geneo Grissom: He finally started to realize his upside as a junior, capping it off with an outstanding performance against Alabama. Much like Knight, if he can consistently play at that level, he would skyrocket up this list.

10. Cornerback Zack Sanchez: He stepped up in a big way during his redshirt freshman year. Sanchez had major ups and downs but his competitiveness rose to the forefront on several occasions. He finished with a team-high 13 pass breakups along with 46 tackles and two interceptions. He’ll need to become a leader as a sophomore.
NORMAN, Okla. -- It was a single play in a single game that signaled the imminent return of the Oklahoma defense to levels of its former glorious past.

With one minute to go in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, Sooner linebacker Eric Striker came barreling around the line. After beating left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, who might be a first-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft, Striker leveled Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron and stripped the ball loose. Flying in from the other side, Sooner end Geneo Grissom scooped up the fumble and rumbled in for the game-clinching touchdown.

After several seasons of relative mediocrity, the Oklahoma defense finally rediscovered its swagger in that 45-31 Sugar Bowl win over the two-time defending national champs.

[+] EnlargeEric Striker
Sean Gardner/Getty ImagesEric Striker celebrated after sacking AJ McCarron in the Sugar Bowl.
And buoyed by nine returning starters, several rising stars and one giant feather in a houndstooth cap, the Sooners have carried that swagger into the spring.

“The Sugar Bowl gave us a good boost,” said defensive end Charles Tapper, who was the only defensive underclassman to earn first-team All-Big 12 honors last year. “Knowing we kinda dominated Alabama’s offensive line, that the whole defense just dominated Alabama a little bit -- just a great way to come into the 2014 season.”

It wasn’t long ago the swagger of the Selmon Brothers and “Superman” Roy Williams and “The Boz” seemed lost forever.

The Sooners ended the 2012 season capitulating to Heisman winner Johnny Manziel, who humiliated them in the Cotton Bowl while becoming just the second player ever to rush and pass for more than 200 yards in a bowl game (Vince Young in the 2006 Rose Bowl was the other). The final month that season, Oklahoma couldn’t pressure the passer. Couldn’t stop the run. And couldn’t win without getting a half-a-hundred from its offense.

But thanks a scheme change from four to three down linemen last offseason that commanded a more blitz-oriented style, as well as a successful bid to bring Michigan defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery to Norman, the Sooners rapidly improved defensively last season despite playing several new starters.

Spurred by the emergence of underclassmen like Striker, Tapper and the Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year, linebacker Dominique Alexander, that improvement finally culminated in New Orleans.

The Sooners didn’t play perfectly against Alabama. But they sacked the Heisman runner-up seven times, and forced three turnovers that all led to Oklahoma touchdowns, capped with Grissom’s fumble return.

“As a team, things started to come together,” said coordinator Mike Stoops, who resuscitated the Sooner defense at the turn of the millennium 14 years ago and has done it again in the present in his second stint in Norman. “I think our team came together in that last game. That let us play with more confidence and swagger in the second half. Even when things got tough, I felt like our players were in control.”

With the return of almost all those players, the Sooners figure to storm into 2014 with one of the best defenses in the country.

Who knows, maybe the best.

Virtually the entire defensive line comes back, including Grissom and Tapper, who team up to give the Sooners a destructive duo off the edge.

Inside, Oklahoma will also welcome back Jordan Phillips, who was playing at an All-Big 12 level before suffering a season-ending back injury, and redshirt freshman Charles Walker, who has been turning heads for months during closed practices. During the winter, Walker ran the 40-yard dash in 4.67 seconds, shattering the Bob Stoops-era defensive tackle record at Oklahoma set by All-American Tommie Harris (4.80) in 2003.

“We’re starting to gain quality players in our backup positions that can play a lot of different places trying to earn their way onto the field,” Mike Stoops said.

That hasn’t just manifested along the defensive line, either.

Oklahoma’s entire linebacking corps returns, including Striker, who has become the Big 12 version of Lawrence Taylor. The secondary is brimming with young talent, too, led by cornerback Zack Sanchez, who intercepted McCarron in the Sugar Bowl to set up a late Oklahoma touchdown at the end of the first half and give the Sooners a 31-17 lead.

“We’re so far ahead from where we were last year,” Striker said. “We got chemistry with each other. We know how to play off each other.”

That’s a scary thought for the rest of the Big 12, and maybe all of college football.

Especially if Oklahoma can keep getting to the quarterback the way it did late last season. In their final four games, the Sooners sacked opposing quarterbacks 16 times. According to ESPN Stats & Info, South Alabama’s was the only FBS defense with more during the same stretch.

“We like to get to that quarterback,” Tapper said. “On third down, we let the dogs loose. Like the cops let the dogs loose to get them bad guys, we let the dogs loose on third down.”

Though it wasn’t a third down, that’s exactly what Oklahoma did to McCarron at the end of the Sugar Bowl.

The play won the game for the Sooners. While sending a message that defensive swagger is finally back at Oklahoma.

“I feel like this is going to be a big year for us,” Tapper said. “Dominating every team in the Big 12 and just all over the country.”

Big 12 pre-spring breakdown: DBs

February, 26, 2014
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As we await the start of spring ball, we’re examining and ranking the positional situations of every team in the Big 12, continuing Wednesday with defensive backs. Some of these outlooks will look different after the spring. But here’s how we see the defensive back groups going into the spring:

1. TCU: TCU has been tenacious defending the pass since joining the league, and even without potential first-round pick Jason Verrett, that shouldn’t change in 2014. Sam Carter was the only non-senior to earn first-team or second-team All-Big 12 honors in the secondary last season, and Chris Hackett was one of the best underclassman defensive backs in the league last year. Derrick Kindred is primed to step into TCU’s third safety spot after playing a key role in the rotation. The Horned Frogs also add the nation’s No. 3 juco safety in Kenny Iloka. Throw in senior Geoff Hooker, and the Horned Frogs have an impressive five-man rotation at safety. At corner, Kevin White was honorable mention All-Big 12 last year, and will take over for Verrett as the primary corner. The Horned Frogs have several options at the other corner, including incoming three-star recruit Nick Foster.

2. Texas: After playing the nickel role last year, Quandre Diggs will settle back at cornerback in place of Carrington Byndom. Opposite Diggs will be the ultra-athletic Duke Thomas, who was so good in spring ball last year, he forced the coaches to move Diggs to nickelback. Together, Diggs and Thomas could give the Longhorns the best cornerback tandem in the league. Antwuan Davis, who redshirted in his first year, was an ESPN 300 signee and figures to play a big role somewhere in the secondary. Josh Turner (37 appearances) and Mykkele Thompson (12 starts in 2013) each bring a lot of experience at safety.

3. Oklahoma: Oklahoma graduates the heart and soul of the secondary in cornerback Aaron Colvin, who gutted his way through an array of injuries last year. But if the Sooners can find an adequate replacement for him, the Big 12’s best pass defense statistically in 2013 should be stout again. Julian Wilson (nickelback), Zack Sanchez (cornerback) and Quentin Hayes (strong safety) all return as starters, though Hayes could be pushed by Ahmad Thomas and incoming freshman Steven Parker for time. Hatari Byrd, an ESPN 300 signee last year, should step into the vacant spot at free safety. Cortez Johnson will try to fend off Stanvon Taylor, who played as a true freshman, for Colvin’s spot in the only real uncertain area of this secondary.

4. Kansas State: The Wildcats will miss All-Big 12 performer Ty Zimmerman, but his cohort, Dante Barnett, was one of the best young safeties in the league last year. Barnett was third on the team with 75 tackles and first with four interceptions. Randall Evans also returns after leading the team in pass breakups and gives the Wildcats a versatile defensive back. As usual, Bill Snyder will also be looking for some juco impact. He should get it in Danzel McDaniel, who was the No. 4 juco CB recruit in the country. Cornerback Jesse Mack also could prove to be a key juco signee. If both players pan out, this could become one of the better defensive backfields in the league.

5. West Virginia: The bad news is the Mountaineers had the Big 12’s worst pass defense last year. The good news is they bring back three starters. Karl Joseph has started the last two seasons at free safety, though he could slide to the strong side with Darwin Cook gone. Joseph has All-Big 12 potential, and he needs to elevate his game for the West Virginia defense to take another step forward. Veteran K.J. Dillon could be the front-runner for the job alongside Joseph, though Jeremy Tyler and Jarrod Harper will also be in the mix. West Virginia also brings back both starting cornerbacks in senior Ishmael Banks and Daryl Worley, who started as a freshman. The Mountaineers also signed Keishawn Richardson, the No. 8 juco CB, and Jaylon Myers, the No. 9 juco safety, for depth. Cornerback Dravon Henry, an ESPN 300 signee who had offers from Alabama, Florida State and Ohio State, could play immediately if one of West Virginia’s veterans struggle.

6. Kansas: The Jayhawks return all five starters from their secondary, including last year’s Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year, strong safety Isaiah Johnson. Returning cornerbacks Dexter McDonald and JaCorey Shepherd, a converted wide receiver, were both honorable mention All-Big 12 selections and give the Jayhawks one of the better corner duos in the league. Free safety Cassius Sendish started every game and had 12 tackles in Kansas’ only Big 12 victory in 2013, over West Virginia. Nickelback Courtney Arnick started in six games as a redshirt freshman. If this group collectively improves, Kansas could field a solid defense in 2014.

7. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys lose All-Big 12 cornerback Justin Gilbert, who might be selected high in the first round of the NFL draft after a stellar combine performance. The Cowboys welcome back one of the best young corners in the league in Kevin Peterson, who was terrific as a sophomore in coverage opposite Gilbert. Ashton Lampkin has experience, and he will likely fill the other corner spot unless someone else emerges. Lyndell Johnson, who made a transition from linebacker to safety last season, will take over full time at strong safety. The Cowboys will need someone else to emerge at the other safety in place of departed veteran starter Daytawion Lowe. Deric Robertson, Tre Flowers, Jordan Sterns, Taylor Lewis and Darius Curry, all from the 2013 recruiting class, are possibilities.

8. Texas Tech: How the Red Raiders retool here will be on one of the bigger spring storylines in Lubbock. Keenon Ward and Justis Nelson were thrown in the fire as freshmen last year, and they will be counted on to fill bigger roles. The gem of the incoming recruiting class, four-star cornerback Nigel Bethel II, could be asked – and has the capability – to play right away. The Red Raiders have to replace both starting safeties, including freshman Tanner Jacobson, who is going on a Mormon mission. To compensate, Tech signed six safeties, including Josh Keys, the No. 5 juco safety in the country, who had offers from Auburn, Georgia and Oklahoma State. Getting strong safety J.J. Gaines back from a season-ending injury will be a boost, too.

9. Baylor: The Bears are one of several teams in the league that were decimated in the secondary by graduation. Baylor loses four of its five starters, including All-American safety Ahmad Dixon. Safety Terrell Burt is the only returning starter, leaving the other four spots up for grabs. The Bears signed juco corners Tion Wright and Chris Sanders to help fill the void. Both are already on campus and will be battling Xavien Howard, Ryan Reid and Tyler Stephenson for a starting job. Orion Stewart, who backed up Dixon as a redshirt freshman, will likely step in his role, and fellow sophomore Kiante’ Griffin will be the favorite to take over at the nickel.

10. Iowa State: Cornerback Nigel Tribune was the only true freshman to play for the Cyclones last year, and he received votes as Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year. Tribune, however, is the only returning starter. Veteran safety mainstays Jacques Washington and Deon Broomfield are gone. In response, the Cyclones will look for Devron Moore and Qujuan Floyd, the Nos. 6 and 7 juco safety recruits, respectively, to step in immediately.
Spring practice is just over the horizon for Oklahoma. The Sooners defense could develop into the Big 12’s best in 2014. It won’t reach those heights without replacing two-time All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin.

Here's a look at the battle to replace Colvin:

[+] EnlargeStanvon Taylor
John Rivera/Icon SMIStanvon Taylor could be poised to take over for All-Big 12 corner Aaron Colvin in Oklahoma's secondary.
Departed (2013 stats): Colvin was fifth on the team with 55 tackles in 2013. He added three pass breakups, one sack, one interception and one fumble recovery. His competitive nature and leadership example will be missed.

Spring contenders: Sophomore Stanvon Taylor; sophomore Dakota Austin; junior Cortez Johnson.

Summer contenders: Freshman Tito Windham; freshman Jordan Thomas.

The skinny: The Sooners won’t be able to replace Colvin, who was the best player in the secondary for the past three seasons.

Nonetheless OU needs someone to step up at the cornerback position opposite Zack Sanchez, a FWAA Freshman All-American who started all 13 games in 2013. Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops depends heavily on his defensive backs to be able to hold up in man coverage so he can come up with creative ways to terrorize opposing quarterbacks. That game plan falls apart if there’s a weak link in the secondary that is consistently being exposed.

Taylor, who started one game as a true freshman, spent the 2013 season as Colvin’s protégé, watching in the background while preparing to slide into his spot in 2014. That won’t happen if Taylor doesn’t take his game to another level, beginning this spring. The starting spot is there for the taking, but he’ll have to earn it with several other talented cornerbacks on campus.

Johnson, who started against Kansas State and Iowa State in Colvin’s absence, would bring an upgrade in size at the cornerback spot. At 6-foot-2, 201 pounds, he brings a physical presence that is unmatched by any of the other competitors.

Austin could be the most competitive of the contenders, but his lack of size (5-11, 151) is a major concern. The sophomore will be able to hold up in man-to-man coverage, but he’ll have to prove he can overcome his size limitations and play like he’s twice his size if he hopes to earn the starting spot.

Windham and Thomas arrive in the summer and could throw themselves into the competition as true freshman. Taylor and Austin escaped redshirt seasons in 2013 so there’s no reason to think Windham and Thomas can’t battle for immediate playing time.

Prediction: Don’t be surprised if there is some shuffling among some of the returning players in the secondary to help fill this void. If not, Johnson emerges as the front runner after spring. He passed Taylor on the depth chart during the 2013 season, so unless Taylor takes his game to another level, Johnson will emerge atop the depth chart. But, with two talented freshmen on the way, the lone certainty is that this battle will wage on deep into August.
Spring football is just over the horizon.

Oklahoma is coming off a banner 2013 campaign, featuring an 11-win season and a Sugar Bowl victory over SEC power Alabama, but the Sooners have several position groups they need to address if they hope to make a national title run in 2014. This week, we’ll take a closer look at the top five position groups that need to improve during OU’s spring practices. On Wednesday, we continue the series with the Sooners cornerbacks at No. 3.

The breakdown

On campus: Zack Sanchez, So.; Stanvon Taylor, So.; Cortez Johnson, Jr.; Dakota Austin, So.; L.J. Moore, So.; Daniel Brooks, So.

[+] EnlargeZack Sanchez
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiTeams tried to attack redshirt freshman cornerback Zack Sanchez in 2013.
Summer arrivals: Tito Windham, Fr.; Jordan Thomas, Fr.

Summary: Similar to the running back position, the Sooners are loaded with talent at cornerback. But outside of Sanchez, Oklahoma is largely inexperienced. Aaron Colvin, a two-time All-Big 12 cornerback and three-year starter, and Kass Everett have moved on, leaving a void that will be difficult to fill. That void also means plenty of opportunity and competition this spring.

Sanchez showed his competitiveness and playmaking ability during a redshirt freshman campaign. He was picked on week after week with teams unwilling to challenge Colvin. Sanchez responded with 46 tackles and a team-high 13 pass breakups, as he started in all 13 games. Now, he needs to take on a mentor role as the most experienced cornerback on the roster.

Taylor was groomed to step in for Colvin during his first season with the Sooners. He started one game and played a key special teams role as a freshman. He has a strong hunger to succeed, which could push him into starting lineup as a sophomore. The spring will be his opportunity to show the coaches he’s ready to step up and try to fill Colvin’s shoes.

Austin arguably was the most surprising freshman to play his way out of a redshirt season in 2013. He’s undersized at 5-foot-11 and 151 pounds, but has exceptional feet and quickness. Don’t be surprised if he uses the spring to earn some type of role in the Sooners defense with his coverage skills.

Johnson started against Kansas State and played a backup role during his first season in crimson and cream after transferring from Arizona. He brings a terrific size/athleticism combination to the cornerback group, which could help distinguish him in the cornerback competition.

Moore is another talented sophomore who has the talent to earn a starting spot during the spring. He played the least of OU’s true freshman trio at the position, but he brings good height (6-1) and versatility.

Brooks didn’t play much on defense or special teams during his redshirt freshman season. He’ll have to use the spring to make an impression if he hopes to earn playing time in 2014.

Windham went from unknown to Semper Fidelis All-American after the Sooners unearthed what they hope will be a hidden gem. A Mississippi native, he has terrific speed, playmaking ability and ball skills, making an immediate impact well within the realm of possibility.

The Sooners hope Thomas develops into a versatile cover cornerback. He has good size (6-1, 175). Thomas joined the recruiting class late in the process, but he could insert himself into the cornerback competition immediately with his quickness and athleticism.

The list

Grading the class: 2012

February, 6, 2014
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Oklahoma added several recruits into the fold on Wednesday with an eye on creating the foundation of a future championship squad. Yet recruiting is an inexact science as some projected stars rise to meet those high expectations while others struggle to make a difference in the Big 12. Thus it’s the perfect time to look back at OU’s last five recruiting classes. On Thursday we begin with a review of the Class of 2011 including recruits who exceeded expectations, recruits who were solid signees and complete busts.

OU landed 11 four-star recruits in 2012, including five members of the ESPN 150, and while it’s relatively early in their careers, several signees, including defensive end Charles Tapper, linebacker Eric Striker, quarterback Trevor Knight and receiver Sterling Shepard, have already made major contributions. The class was ranked No. 11 nationally by ESPN.com.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCharles Tapper (right) was a raw talent when he arrived at Oklahoma, but has developed into an All-Big 12 defender.
Transcendent figures

Defensive end Charles Tapper: He was the rawest signee in the class. Now, two years later, he’s an All-Big 12 defensive end with an NFL future. OU deserves a ton of credit for finding this hidden gem and Tapper deserves just as much credit for pushing himself to greatness and turning his potential into on-field production. Not bad for the nation’s No. 74-ranked defensive end.

Quarterback Trevor Knight: The sophomore quarterback was showing unique traits before he even stepped on campus, organizing fellow recruits and displaying leadership ability before he signed with OU. The No. 22-ranked quarterback in the nation, Knight won the starting job last August and, after some ups and downs during the regular season, lifted up the Sugar Bowl MVP trophy in early January after leading OU to an impressive win over Alabama. OU will build its offense around his talents this offseason and if he plays like he did in the Sugar Bowl, the sky is the limit for the Sooners in 2014.

Receiver Sterling Shepard: As soon as the Under Armour All-American stepped on campus everyone knew Shepard would be a key part of the Sooners’ plans. He was one reason OU went to a four-receiver base package in 2012 as they aimed to get their top 11 players on the field and he hasn’t disappointed with 96 receptions for 1,224 yards and 10 touchdowns in his first two seasons. The No. 60 player in the ESPN 150, Shepard should be Knight’s primary target in 2014.

Linebacker Eric Striker: Sooners running backs were complaining about having to try to block Striker during his freshman year but he rarely saw the field on defense in 2012. That changed in 2013 as he became one of the Big 12’s most feared pass rushers. His acceleration and knack for getting to the quarterback made him a critical part of the defense as a sophomore and earned him All-Big 12 second team honors after stepping on campus as the No. 62 safety in the nation.

Cornerback Zack Sanchez: The No. 64 cornerback in the nation, Sanchez has started every game of his young career and has displayed the competitiveness required to excel at cornerback. He’s already exceeding expectations.

Bull's-eye

Center Ty Darlington: He could be the anchor of OU’s offensive line as a junior after two quality years behind All-Big 12 center Gabe Ikard. Darlington was No. 148 in the ESPN 150.

Receiver Lacoltan Bester: A late junior college signee, Bester did exactly what he was brought in to do. He provided veteran depth and competition to the receiving corps during his two seasons.

Receiver Durron Neal: His junior year is a big one for Neal. He’s seen spot duty during his first two seasons but needs to step up and secure a spot in the starting lineup this fall. Neal was No. 64 in the ESPN 150.

Receiver Derrick Woods: Woods made an impact on special teams as a redshirt freshman and his Sugar Bowl catch was a glimpse at his potential to make an impact on offense. Woods was No. 137 in the ESPN 150.

Running back Damien Williams: Williams did what he was brought in to do, provide competition and big plays at the running back spot for two seasons. Even though his Sooners’ career ended with his dismissal, he gave the program two productive seasons.

Tight end Brannon Green: Green was a valuable blocker and overlooked key to OU’s running success during his two years in Norman, Okla.

Completely missed the mark

Offensive lineman John Michael McGee: It always was odd for the Sooners to sign McGee, who said he didn’t love football during the recruiting process. Therefore, it really was no surprise when he quit the team before his freshman season even began.

Overall grade: A+

This class has been on campus for two years and already features an All-Big 12 first teamer, All-Big 12 second teamer, a freshman All-American and a Sugar Bowl MVP. Anyone expecting more from a recruiting class that has been on campus for 18 months needs to re-think their expectations.

State of the position: Cornerback

January, 28, 2014
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In the 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 really heats up during these final weeks before signing day on Feb. 5. On Tuesday, we take a closer look at the cornerback position.

[+] EnlargeZack Sanchez
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiCornerback Zack Sanchez, who earned a starting spot as a freshman, has a bright future for the Sooners.
Starter/contributors: Zack Sanchez (So.), Stanvon Taylor (So.), Cortez Johnson (Jr.)

Sanchez had ups and downs during his redshirt season but started all 13 games as his competitiveness never wavered. He gave up big plays against Kansas State and Alabama, then bounced back to make key interceptions against both squads. He was picked on throughout the season but matured into a key player on at the end of his first college season. Sanchez led the squad with 13 pass breakups, twice as many as any other Sooner.

Taylor started the third game of his college career against Tulsa and held up well. The Sooners will be looking for him to help fill the void left by two-time All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin. Taylor mentored under Colvin in 2013 and should be ready for a bigger role in the defense.

Johnson started against Kansas State and played a backup role in 2013, finishing with 16 tackles. He should compete to replace Colvin and earn more playing time as a junior.

On the cusp: Dakota Austin (So.)

Austin saw limited duty as a freshman, playing in four games and recording four tackles. He’s undersized but competitive with good coverage skills, so he could factor into the plans in 2014.

Daniel Brooks, a sophomore, is a small, quick prospect who has played multiple positions and bounced around from offense to defense during his first two years on campus, but he has the talent to work himself into a role.

On the recruiting trail: Tito Windham (Gulfport, Miss./Harrison Central)

The Sooners are confident they’ve found a hidden gem in Windham. They ventured into SEC country to find the Mississippi native. He can play a lot of different positions but appears destined to play cornerback. He’ll need some time to get used to playing corner, but he has the physical gifts to excel as early as 2014.

Overall Grade: A-

It will be impossible to replace Colvin, but the Sooners do return three cornerbacks who started games in 2013. Taylor, who has arguably the best upside of the group, was placed under Colvin’s wing as a freshman and gives OU a potential star at the spot. Johnson, Austin and Windham are talented and can provide quality depth.

Season wrap: Oklahoma

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Wasn’t this supposed to be a rebuilding year in Norman, Okla.?

Oklahoma entered the season counting on inexperienced players at quarterback, along the defensive line and in the secondary. Yet the Sooners finished the season with 11 wins, including a Sugar Bowl victory over SEC power Alabama.

The Sooners overcame inconsistency at quarterback thanks to young players such as defensive end Charles Tapper, linebacker Eric Striker, linebacker Dominique Alexander and cornerback Zack Sanchez, who emerged as key cogs in OU’s defense.

Offensive MVP: Gabe Ikard. It’s rare for an offensive lineman to be the clear MVP of an offense, but Ikard’s consistency, durability and leadership were critical. The senior center was one reason OU overcame uncertainty at quarterback and finished second in the Big 12 in rushing (223.92 yards per game).

Defensive MVP: Aaron Colvin. The senior cornerback was outstanding, as he earned All-Big 12 honors for the second straight year. His coverage skills, leadership and confidence rarely went unnoticed when he was healthy and on the field. His experience and excellence are one reason the Sooners finished first in the Big 12 in total yards (350.2) and passing yards (212.54) per game.

Best moment: OU’s 45-31 win in the Sugar Bowl was the best moment in recent memory for the Sooners. Bob Stoops' squad proved to the world that it can play with anyone after entering the game as the clear underdog. Quarterback Trevor Knight was the MVP with a four-touchdown performance that left Sooners fans dreaming about the future.

Worst moment: Things got ugly during OU’s 41-12 loss at Baylor. The Sooners' offense looked overmatched and inept against the Big 12 champions as the Bears pulled away from OU in the second half of a nationally televised Thursday night battle.
Big plays changed the destiny of Oklahoma football in 2013. Without several key plays in key moments, the Sooner could have stumbled down the Big 12 standings. Instead, OU was a BCS bowl winner. Here are the top five plays of the 2013 season in terms of their impact on games and overall impact on how this season will be remembered:

[+] EnlargeJalen Saunders, Lyndell Johnson
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiJalen Saunders made a number of clutch plays this season, but none bigger than his touchdown catch late against Oklahoma State.
1. Receiver Jalen Saunders' Bedlam touchdown. This was the defining moment of the 2013 season for Oklahoma. No single play represents this season better than Saunders’ seven-yard touchdown with 19 seconds remaining in the Sooners’ 33-24 win over Oklahoma State on Dec. 7. The play capped an improbable game-winning drive and improbable Bedlam win which knocked OSU out of the Big 12 title hunt and thrust OU into the Sugar Bowl.

2. Defensive end Geneo Grissom’s touchdown in the Sugar Bowl. As Grissom dove toward the end zone, arm outstretched to score OU’s final touchdown, Sooners fans erupted with the realization that OU was going to beat Alabama by double digits, 45-31. It was the best moment of the year for Sooner Nation and meant validation for Bob Stoops on many levels. And the actual play represented the foundation of OU’s win, an opportunistic defense forcing four turnovers.

3. Linebacker Corey Nelson’s touchdown at Notre Dame. Nelson’s 24-yard interception return for a touchdown was the first sign this could be a special year for Stoops’ group. It got the Sooners off to a terrific start in their first road game of the season and sparked OU to the best nonconference win by a Big 12 team -- 35-21 over Notre Dame -- during the regular season. This play was also the first sign that linebacker Eric Striker was going to be a terror for opposing quarterbacks and a major playmaker for OU’s defense this season.

4. Receiver Lacolton Bester’s Sugar Bowl touchdown. OU’s first touchdown of the Sugar Bowl sent a message that the Sooners weren’t going to back down against the Crimson Tide and weren’t hesitant to place the game on the shoulders of redshirt freshman quarterback Trevor Knight. His perfect throw to Bester sent waves of confidence throughout the Sooners sidelines and OU rode that wave to a Sugar Bowl victory.

5. Cornerback Zack Sanchez interception return for touchdown against Kansas State. Not only did it seal the Sooners’ 41-31 road win, it is a good representation of the growth of the Sooners and how they turned that growth into on-field production. Sanchez had his struggles as a redshirt freshman but his competitiveness never wavered and his interception return against the Wildcats is an example of his development as a player. Several young Sooners, like Sanchez, grew a lot during the season and turned their development into on-field success as OU won three straight huge games against Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Alabama to end the season.

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