Oklahoma Sooners: Aaron Franklin

During the summer, ESPN.com is taking a closer look at each scholarship player on Oklahoma’s 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. 25 Aaron Franklin, linebacker, 6-foot-1, 226 pounds, senior

Impact thus far: Franklin hasn’t made a major impact but he hasn’t been a complete bust either. He’s played a special teams role for the past three seasons and saw spot duty on defense as a sophomore. Heading into his final season Franklin has 31 career tackles in 34 games played. He’s never started a game for the Sooners.

Impact in 2014: Expect a similar role for Franklin, who should play a special teams’ role and provide depth at linebacker. It would be a surprise to see him get major time on defense after Dominique Alexander and Jordan Evans each played bigger roles in 2013.

Long-term upside: If Franklin makes an unforeseen leap forward as a senior, OU’s linebacker group gets even deeper.

Evaluation grade for Franklin: C. While Franklin has never started a game and you’d expect more from a signee, he has been a contributor every single year since his redshirt freshman season and he doesn’t create negative press for the program with off-the-field miscues. Not the ideal evaluation but not horrible either.

Development grade for Franklin: A. Franklin has been given opportunities, particularly during his first two seasons on the field. OU gave him chances to carve himself a role on defense, particularly in 2012, but he never cemented himself a spot in the lineup.

State of the position: Linebacker

January, 27, 2014
The next few weeks leading into signing day is 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 Monday, we take a closer look at the linebacker position.

Starters/contributors: Dominique Alexander (So.), Frank Shannon (Jr.)

[+] EnlargeFrank Shannon
AP Photo/Darron CummingsFrank Shannon and the Oklahoma linebackers have a bright future.
Shannon led the defense with 92 tackles and provided a consistent, durable presence in the middle of the OU defense throughout the season, as the faces seemed to change around him with injuries hitting the unit. Playing with injuries of his own, Shannon recorded at least five tackles in nine of 13 games. He was easily OU’s most consistent, durable and overlooked defender in 2013.

Alexander was the surprise of the season on defense. He was thrown into the fire after having to replace Corey Nelson as a starter. Alexander had his ups-and-downs, but his natural instincts and playmaking ability earned Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year honors for the Tulsa, Okla., native. He finished with 80 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and one sack. The sky is the limit for Alexander as a sophomore.

On the cusp: Jordan Evans (So.), Aaron Franklin (Sr.)

Evans' performance against Texas Tech was a glimpse of his tremendous upside. When an injury knocked Shannon out of the game, Evans responded with an eight-tackle performance. It was an amazing game for a freshman who had seen minimal action on defense to that point. His athleticism and versatility will make him a valuable piece at the disposal of the Sooners’ coaching staff in 2014 and beyond.

Franklin has played spot duty for the Sooners for the past three seasons and should provide quality veteran depth as a senior. He has been a core member of OU’s special teams and can fill in at linebacker in a pinch.

On the recruiting trail: Devante Bond (Roseville, Calif./Sierra College), Tay Evans (Allen, Texas/Allen)

Bond is a junior-college signee who can play several spots on OU’s defense. He could fill in at the middle linebacker spots or slide in alongside or opposite Eric Striker as a pass rush specialist in 2014. It wouldn’t be a surprise for the Sooners to use him and Striker on opposite sides in passing situations to terrorize quarterbacks in 2014.

Evans is a solid prospect who probably could use a redshirt season to maximize his impact. He has the good size and athleticism, but the depth at the position provides a roadblock between Evans and immediate playing time.

Overall Grade: A

Alexander and Shannon could be the Big 12’s best duo in 2014. Add Striker and Bond, and OU could have a linebacker group that rivals any in America. Strong starters, good depth and a solid future earns this group an A.
NORMAN, Okla. -- A statement from Oklahoma guard Adam Shead explains it all.

“Everybody is on edge.”

[+] EnlargeDemarco Cobbs
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireOklahoma knows it will face a higher intensity level in the Cotton Bowl Saturday.
Those words came from the mouth of the Sooners’ junior when he was asked how things change in the halls of the Switzer Center during OU-Texas week. The Sooners football facility is full of anticipation each October as OU prepares to battle its rival at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.

“Everyone knows this is a big game, a big week and what this rivalry means to each one of these programs,” Shead said. “We all know the meaning of this game to Oklahoma fans, to this university, to recruitment and to Texas fans.”

The Sooners insist their focus and intensity is high every week but that’s just coaches’ speak. OU turns it up for the Longhorns and it has helped the Sooners win three straight Red River Rivalry contests. It’s been complete domination as the Sooners’ offense is averaging 48.7 points and 496.7 yards per game while holding UT to 19.3 points and 307 yards per game in the last three meetings.

“… You could say we’re a little more focused, because we know who it is and we don’t want to lose,” linebacker Aaron Franklin said.

This year’s senior class is trying to become the eighth senior class from either school to go 4-0 in the Red River Rivalry since 1970 and the sixth group of Sooners seniors to accomplish that feat. Yet that same group of seniors has suffered home losses to Texas Tech and Kansas State along with a road setback at Baylor, in games the Sooners were expected to win.

But the lead up to those games simply doesn’t compare to OU-Texas week. The atmosphere outside the facility among fans and students can’t help but seep into the halls of the Switzer Center.

“Five times today I had random people stop me and say things to me,” defensive end Geneo Grissom said earlier this week. “This game might as well be a bowl game for us. It’s one of the biggest games of the year. It’s a game where we practice at a different level, and it’s always an exciting week.”

Said Franklin: “It changes a lot, you see on social media and you feel it in the community. People just want us to beat Texas.”

And they have under Bob Stoops, with a 9-5 record against the Longhorns during the veteran head coach’s time in Norman. The Sooners insist their preparation remains consistent throughout the year but nothing is like OU-Texas week.

“We go hard every week but Texas-OU we go hard times ten,” Grissom said. “It’s Texas, our biggest rival, every year we come in and Texas is the underlined team. We want to play our very best against Texas. Texas-OU is a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
NORMAN, Okla. -- With 2:34 left in the third quarter, Corey Nelson lay prone on the Oklahoma Memorial Stadium turf. Just two minutes earlier, the Oklahoma senior linebacker had stuffed TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin with a open-field tackle inside the Sooners’ 10-yard line, forcing the Horned Frogs to settle for a field goal.

In less than five minutes the Sooners went from leaning on Nelson as the playmaking anchor of a revived OU defensive to searching for a permanent replacement.

Nelson tore his pectoral muscle during OU's 20-17 win last Saturday against the Horned Frogs, an injury that will force him to miss the remainder of the season. True freshman Dominique Alexander is slated to replace Nelson in the OU defense but it is a devastating loss. Nelson was arguably the Sooners’ best defender through the first five games with 27 tackles including three tackles for loss, five passes defended, three quarterback hurries and one interception.

“He’s a big leader for us and he’s had a spectacular year,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “His big play ability and ability to find the football, those are things we’ll miss but other guys will have to pick up the slack and this will be a good opportunity for Dominique.”

[+] EnlargeDominique Alexander
Robin Alam/Icon SMIDominique Alexander says he was hesitant against Notre Dame but is ready to take on a larger role.
Alexander has seen extensive action in backup duty during the first five games of his college career and the buzz about his playmaking ability began as soon as he arrived on campus this summer. The Sooners have high hopes for the Tulsa, Okla. native, starting with the Red River Rivalry against Texas on Saturday.

“He’s going to be an unbelievable player, hopefully it [happens] Saturday,” Stoops said. “Those are some big shoes to fill but it’s good that Dominique Alexander has [played] some games for us already this season. He knows what it feels like, obviously he’ll play more than previous games but we feel very confident in his abilities.”

Some people shudder to think of leaning on a true freshman against the Longhorns but Alexander could be better prepared than most youngsters. He’s been a member of the Sooners’ 3-4 personnel grouping throughout the season, playing alongside Nelson, Eric Striker and Frank Shannon when opponents go to bigger personnel. He saw significant snaps against Notre Dame, recording four tackles against the Irish but also making a mental mistake that contributed to a long Irish touchdown run.

Alexander stepped in for Nelson and played the entire fourth quarter with the starting defense against TCU. He got much-needed experience in a little over a quarter of action as Nelson’s replacement.

“Being able to play every snap like that, it really helped me,” Alexander said. “The tempo, it’s not like you play one play then go to the sideline so I got to see what the tempo is like, the line moving faster, the ball coming out quicker, it really helped. I’m going to be ready.”

There’s no reason to think otherwise. When he’s gotten the opportunity to play, Alexander has consistently been around the football. He’s getting more and more comfortable with the demands of college football with each snap and insists he’s no longer thinking when he’s on the field, just playing.

“I’m playing on instinct,” he said. “Against TCU, I was playing on instinct, against Notre Dame, I hesitated a lot. I’m playing on instinct because if you’re playing slow you’re not playing fast and you can’t play good football if you’re not playing fast.”

The Sooners’ coaches have admitted the loss of Nelson is a significant blow but they have a next man up mentality and confidence in Alexander despite his youth.

“He’s got to play, nobody cares how many games you’ve played,” Stoops said. “If he lines up he’s got an expectation and a confident way about him.”

With Aaron Franklin giving OU additional options at linebacker, don’t expect the freshman to shoulder the entire load of replacing Nelson but he will definitely be in the crosshairs at the Cotton Bowl.

“It’s not really a lot more pressure, you just have to continue doing what you’re doing,” Alexander said. “Corey told me it’s my time now and he’ll be there with me every step of the way.”
[+] EnlargeCorey Nelson
J.P. Wilson/Icon SMISooners linebacker Corey Nelson is preparing for a bounce-back senior season.

NORMAN, Okla. -- It’s a good thing Corey Nelson spent his final summer in Norman working out.

A lot will be placed on the shoulders of the Oklahoma linebacker this season. His future in football, the Sooners’ chances of defensive success and the perception of the role of the linebackers in Mike Stoops' defense could be directly impacted by the performance of Nelson in 2013.

“This is a very big year for me; it’s my last year,” Nelson said. “I feel like I have a lot to prove since last year was a down year.”

Nelson drew a lot of criticism as a junior as the role of the linebackers decreased during Mike Stoops’ first season running the defense after his stint as head coach at Arizona. As Stoops leaned more on defensive backs, questions about why linebackers weren’t on the field ran rampant. Was it a bad decision by OU’s defensive coordinator or was his hand forced by lackluster play from OU's linebackers, including Nelson?

It was probably a combination of both. The linebackers were far from dominant as a whole and Nelson finished with 47 tackles, including 3.5 tackles for loss, as a junior. It was a significant drop in production from his 58 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks as a sophomore.

Nelson felt disappointment and blame in the weeks following the 2012 season. But that disappointment eventually wore off, thanks in part to conversations with linebackers coach Tim Kish, and Nelson turned his focus toward 2013.

“I really refocused my whole situation,” he said. “I understood the situation could have been worse. After that I was able to accept and buy in to what Coach Kish and Coach Stoops wanted. That change happened instantly. I was able to give everything I had to this program.”

The Sooners hope that what Nelson is able to give is more than they’ve seen from him in previous seasons. Oklahoma's coaches have plans to involve the linebackers much more this season and will be counting on Nelson, the lone senior of the group, to lead the way.

“He’ll have a big role in what we’re doing,” Mike Stoops said.

Nelson is the Sooners’ top linebacker with sophomore Frank Shannon and junior Aaron Franklin set to be key contributors. Add in true freshmen Dominique Alexander and Jordan Evans, who Bob Stoops expects to play, and Nelson’s leadership will be critical this fall.

“Corey has been awesome,” Bob Stoops said. “His attitude, and the way he’s been working and speaking up. He is definitely filling that [leadership role] in all kinds of ways.”

The attitude change from Nelson is a sign of mended fences between Nelson and the coaching staff after a few rough moments last season. And the senior is excited the coaches now view him as a core leader.

“They look at me as a leader, one of the guys they have to trust because I’m a senior this year,” he said. “With that comes great responsibility.”

Ranking Oklahoma's position groups 

August, 12, 2013
Damien WilliamsAP Photo/Cal Sport MediaSenior Damien Williams is one of a deep stable of Oklahoma running backs that are capable of making an impact for the Sooners this season.
It's an unusual role for Bob Stoops' program as Oklahoma prepares for 2013 season with minimal expectations to insert itself into the BCS title hunt. The Sooners have several talented, deep position groups and other position groups full of uncertainty. Here's a look at OU's position groups ranked from strongest to weakest.

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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Ranking Oklahoma's position groups 

June, 17, 2013
The last several days, ESPN Insider Phil Steele has been rolling out the rankings of his top individual position units in the country. In that vein, SoonerNation has ranked OU’s position units for the upcoming season, from best to worst:

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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. 25 Aaron Franklin
Linebacker, 6-foot-1, 217 pounds, junior

Impact thus far: Franklin has been a solid role player during his first two seasons and should see his impact increase over the next two years. He’s played in 22 career games amassing 23 tackles including one tackle for loss and one sack. Franklin played a special teams role both seasons and saw his role on defense expand as a sophomore.

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Oklahoma Sooners spring wrap

May, 1, 2013

2012 record: 10-3

2012 conference record: 8-1 (tied for first, Big 12)

Returning starters: Offense: 7; defense: 4; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners

RB Damien Williams, FB Trey Millard, WR Jalen Saunders, WR Sterling Shepard, C Gabe Ikard, DE/DT Chuka Ndulue, LB Corey Nelson, CB Aaron Colvin

Key losses

QB Landry Jones, WR Justin Brown, WR Kenny Stills, OT Lane Johnson, DE David King, CB Demontre Hurst, FS Tony Jefferson, SS Javon Harris

2012 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Damien Williams* (946 yards)
Passing: Landry Jones (4,267yards)
Receiving: Kenny Stills (959 yards)
Tackles: Tony Jefferson (119)
Sacks: Chuka Ndulue* (5)
Interceptions: Javon Harris (6)

Spring answers

1. Playmakers abound: The Sooners might have lost leading receivers Kenny Stills and Justin Brown, but there’s plenty of firepower back to support whoever wins the starting quarterback job. Jalen Saunders was actually Oklahoma’s most efficient receiver the second half of last season and seems primed to take over as the go-to target. The Sooners also have several talented up-and-coming receivers who had good springs, led by slot extraordinaire Sterling Shepard. The backfield is even deeper, with leading rushers Damien Williams and Brennan Clay back, to go along with Trey Millard, one of the top all-around fullbacks in the country.

2. Cortez will flank Colvin: The secondary was decimated by graduation and Tony Jefferson’s early entry into the NFL draft. One of those voids was cornerback, where Demontre Hurst had started the previous years. That void at least, however, appears to have been filled. Arizona transfer Cortez Johnson seized the job from the first day of spring drills, and has given the Sooners every indication to believe they’ll have a big, physical corner to pair with All-American candidate Aaron Colvin in the fall.

3. The linebackers will play: In a desperate move to slow down the high-powered passing attacks of the Big 12, defensive coordinator Mike Stoops pulled his linebackers off the field. The plan backfired, as opposing offenses ran at will over the linebacker-less Sooners. This spring, Stoops has renewed his commitment to the linebacker, which, ironically, could be the strength of the defense. Corey Nelson, Frank Shannon and Aaron Franklin are all athletic and capable of generating negative plays, something Oklahoma’s defense sorely lacked last season.

Fall questions

1. Who the QB will be in October: Bob Stoops said he would wait until the fall before naming a starter, and so far, he’s made good on his word. Junior Blake Bell took a lead in the competition during the spring, as expected. But sophomore Kendal Thompson and redshirt freshman Trevor Knight, who both got equal reps as Bell, played well at times, too. It’s hard to see Bell not starting the first game. But if he struggles against a tough September schedule, it’s not unthinkable one of the younger QBs would be given a shot.

2. How the new offense will fare: Looking to utilize the skill sets of their mobile quarterbacks, the Sooners will be running a very different offense from the one Sam Bradford and Landry Jones both operated. Offensive coordinator Josh Heupel kept most of these new plays - including loads of read option -- in his hip pocket during the spring game. But it will be interesting to see how the Sooners -- and just as important, opposing defenses -- adjust to this new era of offense in Norman.

3. Defensive line play: The Sooners went into spring ball with just three defensive tackles on the roster, and little experience at defensive end. The unit showed strides during the spring, with Chuka Ndulue making a smooth transition from end to tackle, and tackle Jordan Phillips coming up big in the spring game. But that was the spring. The defensive line will have to continue to grow rapidly in the fall for the Sooners to have any hope of improving from last year defensively.

Oklahoma 10: Post-spring rankings 

April, 16, 2013
NORMAN, Okla. -- Following Saturday's spring game, SoonerNation has updated the "Oklahoma 10" -- a composite ranking of the 10 best players on the team. The list:

1. FB Trey Millard (Last ranking: 1): Millard was held out of the spring game as a precaution, something Bob Stoops usually does with his stars. Despite manning an unheralded position, Millard certainly fits the bill of a star. You wouldn’t know it by the number of touches he gets, but Josh Heupel’s new option-oriented offense -- which, like Millard, was kept on the shelf Saturday -- could get the ball in Millard’s hands more often. That’s always good for the Sooners – and bad for opposing defenses.

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Spring game storylines: Oklahoma 

April, 11, 2013
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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Oklahoma 10: Mid-spring update 

April, 1, 2013
NORMAN, Okla. -- Many faces are gone from final 2012, SoonerNation “Oklahoma 10” -- a composite ranking of the 10 best players on the squad.

Through the first half of spring ball, we’ve updated the “Oklahoma 10,” which – you guessed it – features many new faces:

[+] EnlargeAaron Colvin
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireSenior cornerback Aaron Colvin is one of the top defensive backs in the nation.
1. FB Trey Millard (Last ranking: 2): Perhaps no one stands to benefit more from the ongoing tweaks offensively this spring than Millard -- and that’s a good thing for the overall team, too. Millard averaged 6 yards per carry and more than 11 per reception in 2012, despite touching the ball just 63 the entire season. With a renewed emphasis on the running game featuring a heavy dose of read, midline and triple option, Millard figures to be a bigger part of the attack next season.

2. CB Aaron Colvin (4): Where would the Sooners be if Colvin had joined Tony Jefferson and left early for the draft? He is the best player on this defense by a mile. What’s just as encouraging for a unit with so many young players is the leadership role Colvin appears to be seizing. Mike Stoops has plenty to worry about as he retools his defense. But he doesn’t have to worry about having someone the rest of his guys can look up to. Nor does he have to worry about Colvin locking up the receiver on his side of the field.

3. WR Jalen Saunders (6): By last season’s end, Saunders might have been the best receiver on the roster. The stats certainly support that notion, as he topped all OU receivers in yards after the catch and completion percentage on balls thrown his way. With Kenny Stills gone, there’s no doubt who the Sooners’ No. 1 option in the passing game will be next season, and Saunders looks ready to take on the burden of being the team’s definitive go-to receiver.

4. RB Damien Williams (NR): Who knows what kind of season Williams would have finished with had he been able to stay healthy? Despite a midseason ankle injury, Williams still rushed for 946 yards, which included four touchdown runs of 60 yards or more in OU’s first five games. The home-run threat put in the work over the offseason, and now weighs close to 215 pounds, which should only enhance his durability. If he can stick on the field and avoid the training room, Williams is more than capable of producing an All-Big 12 season.

5. C Gabe Ikard (9): Bob Stoops said he isn’t worrying about his center missing contact in the spring with a broken hand, and neither should you. Ideally, Ikard would be out there developing a rapport with new line coach Bill Bedenbaugh. But Ikard has 37 career starts, and two All-Big 12 seasons behind him. He’ll be ready to go when it counts.

6. WR Sterling Shepard (NR): Shepard has been dynamic since he stepped on campus, and has continued to get better this spring. Shepard has firmly entrenched himself as the offense’s No. 2 passing option behind Saunders, and is in line to be a No. 1 guy later in his career.

7. LB Corey Nelson (NR): Two springs ago, Bob Stoops said Nelson called the best player on the defense. That honor belongs to Colvin, but Nelson is the only other two-year contributor. The plan at the moment is to utilize Nelson is more ways than one, which is a step in the right direction considering he wasn’t utilized at all last season. The only chance for this defense to be more than mediocre is if Nelson plays – and plays at a high level.

8. OG Bronson Irwin (NR): The “War Daddy” has taken on a greater leadership role on the line with Ikard sidelined for the moment. Irwin, quietly coming off a banner junior season in which he played through multiple injuries, is one major reason why the offensive line has been controlling the trenches this spring.

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NORMAN, Okla. -- It’s hard to remember now, but just two springs ago, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops called then-sophomore linebacker Corey Nelson the “best player” on his defense and said “it’s not close.”

Nelson is a senior now. And, finally, it appears the Sooners are going to give him the opportunity to deliver on Stoops’ proclamation.

[+] EnlargeCorey Nelson
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsCorey Nelson had just 45 tackles for the Sooners in 2012, down from his 2011 total.
“I’m really looking forward to playing again,” Nelson said. “(Not playing) has ignited a fire under me.”

Nelson has reason to have fire in his belly this spring.

After a promising freshman campaign followed by that dominating spring, Nelson figured to be on the cusp of stardom two seasons ago.

Sporadic playing time since, though, has stymied Nelson’s development -- to the point he thought of joining fellow linebacker Tom Wort and leaving Oklahoma.

“We had conversations, multiple conversations, just throughout the season, just talking about how frustrated he was, and how frustrated I was at times,” Nelson said.

Those frustrations stemmed from the Sooners’ defensive regime change from Brent Venables to Mike Stoops.

While Venables built his defenses around his linebackers, Mike Stoops consigned Wort and Nelson to plugging gaps and funneling tackles to the safeties.

(Read full post)

Position breakdown: Linebacker 

February, 27, 2013
NORMAN, Okla. -- Today, SoonerNation examines the linebacker position.

Wait, Oklahoma uses linebackers?

That would be the sentiment of anyone who watched the Sooners after October last season. OU went largely with six- and even seven-defensive back sets, which did little to combat the spread offenses the Sooners saw late last season.

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Stoops, Players Want To Effect Change
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops sits down with Gene Wojciechowski to discuss his team's stand against racism.