Oklahoma Sooners: Aaron Ripkowski

Oklahoma fans yearn for the time when Jermaine Gresham was catching long touchdown passes to help knock off Oklahoma State and Texas. Or even James Hanna keeping defenses honest with his forays down the hash mark.

It has been two years since a tight end caught more than three passes in a season at OU, although Trey Millard filled a tight end/fullback role in 2012 and 2013, catching 30 passes in 2012 and 11 passes in 2013.

When you're young you want to blame it on other things. As I've matured I've realized, anywhere you go, they want to play the best players, get the best 11 on the field. And I think I can be one of those [eleven] here.

-- Oklahoma TE Taylor McNamara
The Sooners are hopeful a strong receiving threat emerges this season with Blake Bell, Taylor McNamara, Connor Knight and Isaac Ijalana competing for time at tight end. OU has used players in the role of tight ends, with Millard and Aaron Ripkowski filling the void, during the past two seasons. But a passing threat like Gresham has escaped its grasp.

“There’s just not a lot of Jermaine Greshams running around,” coach Bob Stoops said. “You have to have the right people and they have to be experienced, so when they go on the field they have to be better than another personnel grouping you might have out there.”

The Sooners’ depth at receiver made wideout-heavy personnel groupings in passing situations the right move during the past two seasons with OU preferring to have Jalen Saunders and Sterling Shepard working the middle of the field instead of a bigger threat.

As OU builds the offense around Trevor Knight, the desire for a versatile threat at tight end increases thanks to Knight’s run-pass skills.

“It makes it more versatile as an offense,” McNamara said of the use of versatile tight ends. “If you have them in there and don’t know what personnel to put out there, you can run it and throw it so it’s a benefit, for sure.”

And McNamara is hoping to be that guy.

The junior’s development has been overshadowed by Bell’s move to tight end and Ijalana’s recent arrival from the junior college ranks but the California native stepped on campus with plenty of accolades of his own. A four-star signee and Army All-American, a lot was expected from McNamara but he will enter his redshirt sophomore season without much fanfare. Yet, after briefly wondering if OU was the right place for him, McNamara decided he was willing to shoulder the blame for his lack of an impact during his first two years in Norman, Okla.

“When you’re young you want to blame it on other things,” he said. “As I’ve matured I’ve realized, anywhere you go, they want to play the best players, get the best 11 on the field. And I think I can be one of those [11] here.”

His progress as a redshirt freshman brings hope that he can fulfill the promise he brought with him as an early enrollee in the spring of 2012. After a strong showing in bowl preparations, McNamara’s lone catch in crimson and cream is a four-yard reception in the Sooners’ Allstate Sugar Bowl win over Alabama.

“The whole year I was working to get better,” he said. “Eventually I got good enough to help the team and get to play a little bit. Getting to play at all was a blessing, it’s a lot more fun when you’re involved.”

This spring is a critical time for McNamara, who at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds brings good size and could become the receiving threat the Sooners have been searching for in recent years.

“I’m here to play,” McNamara said. “I don’t want to sit my whole career here. I want to make an impact.”
Big 12 teams rejoice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s a really versatile player, very young, but a lot of great qualities,” co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. “A lot of our best players can do a lot of things and he’s showing a lot of versatility on the field. He’s green as grass, he doesn’t know much but he’s a good athlete and he can play for us so we’re excited to have him.”
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.
NORMAN, Okla. -- The look of despair and disappointment on the face of Oklahoma center Gabe Ikard spoke volumes.

It’s rare that a win over a Top 10 team feels so bittersweet.

[+] EnlargeTrey Millard
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiTrey Millard, who has played running back, fullback and tight end in his time at Oklahoma, has 13 career touchdowns.
Ikard was excited his team had just knocked off then-No. 10 Texas Tech, 38-30, last Saturday, yet the entire mood of the conversation changed when the senior was asked about the season-ending injury to fellow senior Trey Millard, who tore two knee ligaments -- including his ACL -- on special teams.

“My heart is just broken for him,” Ikard said. “He’s one of those guys who just loves the game, and for it to happen on something like getting rolled up on a kickoff, that’s tough to swallow for everyone on this team.”

It's heartbreaking because Millard returned for his senior season to finish his career with his teammates as a critical cog in the OU machine. His numbers --17 carries for 97 yards, 11 receptions for 78 yards and two touchdowns -- don’t come close to representing his value. Millard often paved the way for an OU rushing offense that averages 234 rushing yards per game, and he has been the Sooners’ top special teams player for the past three seasons, according to coach Bob Stoops.

“He’s the best player on our football team,” Ikard said. “He’s the most versatile person on our football team. He’s the heart and soul of this team, and he’s one of the leaders.”

Millard, who has played 48 career games for OU, had the ability to line up at fullback or tight end and excel during his four-year career.

“All you can say about Trey is he is the best in the country in doing what he does,” offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. “It’s been that way for a long time. We’re going to miss him. Other guys are going to have to step up and play well.”

As the Sooners strive to play without Millard it will be like trying to hang a picture without a hammer. It’s still doable but you’ll have to get creative to find a way to get the job done and your task just got much more difficult.

One player won’t be able to replace Millard. Tight end Brannon Green and fullback Aaron Ripkowski will be asked to fill the void on offense, with several candidates likely to fill his role on special teams. A huge portion of Millard’s value was in his ability to do so many things, thus allowing the Sooners to adapt without changing personnel.

And, with Baylor looming next on OU’s schedule, Millard’s injury couldn’t come at a worst time. The Sooners will undoubtedly try to control the ball against the Bears, leaning on its running game to help stop Baylor’s high-powered attack by keeping Bryce Petty and Lache Seastrunk on the sidelines.

“We’re going to miss him a lot,” Ikard said. “We’re going to have to make some serious adjustments on the offensive side of the football without No. 33 out there.”

The Sooners have used two tight end formations, featuring Millard and Ripkowski, to have running success this season. After Millard was injured early in the fourth quarter, OU used Green and Ripkowski in those two tight end formations and had success with 16 fourth-quarter rushes for 81 yards (5.06 yards per carry) against the Red Raiders.

Even with that success, Stoops isn’t looking forward to the task of replacing Millard.

“That’s tough because Trey is so versatile,” Stoops said. “We don’t have anybody else like that nor does anybody else. He’s pretty unique.”
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. 48 Aaron Ripkowski
Fullback, 6-foot-1, 260 pounds, junior



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Position breakdown: Running back 

February, 13, 2013
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NORMAN, Okla. -- One area where the Sooners will suffer little attrition from 2012 is running back. Yes, Dominique Whaley has graduated, but Whaley didn’t contribute to the backfield after the first three games as he struggled to regain his agility from a broken ankle he suffered in 2011.

The rest of the backfield returns intact, and that includes Damien Williams. The former juco transfer had a breakout first season in Norman, leading the Sooners with 946 rushing yards while scoring 11 touchdowns and averaging 5.4 yards per carry. Williams would have easily surpassed the 1,000-yard barrier had an ankle sprain not slowed him in November.

[+] EnlargeDamien Williams
Brandon Wade/Getty ImagesDamien Williams ran for nearly 1,000 yards in his first season at Oklahoma and will combine with Brennan Clay for much of OU's rushing production.
Williams gives the Sooners one of the top returning backs in the league. OU also returns Brennan Clay, who proved to be a solid No. 2 back during his junior season. Filling in for Williams at Iowa State, Clay rushed for 157 yards while averaging 6.5 yards a carry. Clay also scored the game-winning overtime touchdown against Oklahoma State.

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NORMAN, Okla. -- Overlooked in the aftermath of Texas A&M’s 41-13 thrashing of Oklahoma was a bit of good news for the Sooners.

[+] EnlargeTrey Millard
Brett Deering/Getty ImagesTrey Millard had 33 rushes and caught 30 passes for the Sooners in his junior season.
Fullback Trey Millard announced he would be returning to OU for his senior season after flirting with the idea of declaring for the 2013 NFL draft. The junior’s decision is great news for the Sooners as Millard should be one of the core members of the squad in 2013.

Since he stepped on campus as a freshman, Millard has been one of the most productive players on the team. He’s arguably the Sooners best special teams player and one of the best playmakers on offense although tends to be under utilized in the Sooners system.

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NORMAN, Okla. -- After the 2007 season, neither Malcolm Kelly, Curtis Lofton nor Reggie Smith were projected as first-round picks in the upcoming NFL draft.

But all three were top-three round picks. And that was enough to convince them to leave Oklahoma a year early and enter the draft.

This year, the Sooners again don’t appear to have any underclassmen that project as first-round picks. But up to four different underclassmen Sooners could be taken in the first three rounds if they to decide to come out in January. SoonerNation breaks down the four players who might be mulling their futures over the next month:

[+] EnlargeTony Jefferson
Jackson Laizure/Getty ImagesJunior safety leads the Sooners in tackles this season with 113.
Free safety Tony Jefferson

The case for leaving: Jefferson has indicated before that he might jump to the NFL if he projected to be a relatively high pick. Mel Kiper Jr. wrote earlier this month that both Jefferson and Florida safety Matt Elam “have a shot” to go in the first round. “Both can contribute all over the field. Cover, tackle, get into the backfield -- you name it,” Kiper wrote. Given that Texas’ Kenny Vaccaro ranks as Kiper’s top senior safety on the board, it’s not unthinkable that Jefferson could be the top safety taken. At the least, Jefferson figures to be one of the top five safeties in the draft coming off an All-Big 12 junior season, which would make him no worse than a third-rounder.

The case for staying: As good as Jefferson was this season, defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said two weeks ago that Jefferson still has much to work on before reaching his potential. “He does some things that really aggravate you, but he comes back and does so many good things,” Stoops said. “He has a chance to be special, and getting him to understand the little things — the finer things that make players great — has always been my struggle with Tony.” That doesn’t exactly sound like an endorsement that Jefferson is ready for the NFL. Scouts Inc. believes that Jefferson specifically needs to improve his instincts and recognition. With a strong senior season that improves on the little things like that, Jefferson could possibly lock up a place in the first round.

Who would replace him: If Jefferson left, the Sooners would be in a pickle at safety, considering senior Javon Harris is gone, too. Quentin Hayes was going to be OU’s third back safety this season, but that was before he was suspended indefinitely in the summer. Top backup Jesse Paulsen is gone after this season, too. The Sooners could bump Gabe Lynn to Jefferson’s spot, and move Julian Wilson to nickelback. Of course, they might need Wilson at safety, as well. With cornerback Demontre Hurst also graduating the secondary could face a major transition if Jefferson bolted, too.

Wide receiver Kenny Stills

The case for leaving: Like Jefferson, Stills has indicated that he might leave early if he projected relatively high pick. Stills doesn’t have a shot at the first round like Jefferson, but ESPN Insider currently projects Stills out to be a mid-to-late third-round pick. Stills has had a banner junior season, and has displayed tremendous hands around the end zone. Stills plays bigger than his 6-foot, 190-pound frame and would test well enough in the agility and speed drills at the combine. If he came back, he’s also have to deal with a QB transition that could affect his stats.

The case for staying: There’s no doubt that Stills could improve his stock with another year. Stills’ Scouts Inc. evaluation doesn’t give him an “exceptional” grade in any area, and gives him a “below average” intangibles grade. If Stills showed leadership next season with a new quarterback and improved his skills across the board, he could become one of the top receivers on the board.

Who would replace him: The Sooners have several young options at receiver. Trey Metoyer and Durron Neal could be ready to step into the starting lineup next season on the outside. OU also has Jalen Saunders and Sterling Shepard coming back in the slot next season.

Cornerback Aaron Colvin


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Film review: OU 51, OSU 48 

November, 25, 2012
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Many Sooners called it one of the best games of their careers. Others called it special. No matter what words are chosen to describe Bedlam, one thing is certain. This year's Bedlam was unlike any other.

Oklahoma knocked off Oklahoma State, 51-48, in overtime at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on Saturday to keep the Sooners' Big 12 championship hopes alive. Several big plays changed the game but here are five critical plays that helped decide Bedlam.

[+] EnlargeJalen Saunders
William Purnell/Icon SMIAfter missing the first few games of the season, Jalen Saunders has provided a spark for the Sooners.
Jamarkus McFarland’s first-down stop after OU’s turnover on downs

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videoIt would have been easy for Oklahoma to suffer a letdown against Kansas. Instead, Jayhawks fans wish the Sooners would would have let up in OU’s 52-7 win at Owen Field on Saturday. Quarterback Landry Jones was superb, the OU defense was dominant and the special teams did something that had never been done in program history.

Receiver Kenny Stills' 44-yard touchdown catch

The Sooners' first touchdown pretty much sums up the game. After a play-action fake to running back Damien Williams, Jones threw a beautiful pass to Stills right over the shoulder of KU cornerback JaCorey Shepherd. Three of Stills' six catches came on that scoring drive.

A closer look at the play shows why this game turned into a blowout:
[+] EnlargeCasey Walker
Jackson Laizure/Getty ImagesDefensive tackle Casey Walker scooped up a fumble and ran it 45 yards.

  • Shepherd gave Stills a 10-yard cushion and still got beaten deep.

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The Sooners used middle linebacker Jaydan Bird as a fullback in the Belldozer in their final two games last season after Aaron Ripkowski suffered a back injury. They apparently liked what they saw from Bird’s blocking because on Saturday, OU used Bird as a fullback in the “Diamond” formation along with fullback Trey Millard and a running back.

“Jaydan’s excellent in that,” Bob Stoops said. “Everyone forgets he’s a high school running back, and a good one. He does a good job in there. He did it last year for us, too. That’s why we had to change his number from 55 to 44, so we can throw the ball to him once in a while.”

Bird remains Tom Wort’s backup at middle linebacker, and has been getting his work at fullback on the side.

“Jaydan’s a bright guy. He handles it well,” Stoops said. “The times they get him in meetings or if he comes up during the day, they school him up on what they want him to do, what they’re looking to do that day. He goes over there during practice when they’re working on it.”
During the summer months, SoonerNation will take a closer look at each scholarship player on Oklahoma’s roster in our Crimson Countdown series. We'll analyze each player’s impact on the program since he arrived on campus, his potential impact this fall and his long-term impact. Starting with No. 1 Tony Jefferson, the daily series will go in numerical order until our final analysis of No. 98 Chuka Ndulue.

No. 48 Aaron Ripkowski
Fullback, 6-foot-2, 255 pounds


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Which youngster will be most improved?

June, 11, 2012
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Every Monday during the summer, the SoonerNation staff answers a roundtable question. Leave a comment or talk about it in our "There's Only One" forum.

Today's question: Who will be the Sooners' most improved redshirt freshman or sophomore?

In just a couple of plays during the Red-White spring game, defensive tackle Jordan Phillips showed what he's capable of. Phillips has already wowed teammates and coaches with freaky athleticism for a player of his size. Next season as a redshirt freshman, Phillips will begin wowing the rest of us. The Sooners need a difference-maker to emerge up front. Assuming he works his way into the tackle rotation, Phillips just might be that guy.

- Jake Trotter

Tackle Daryl Williams will make the biggest jump from his redshirt freshman to sophomore season. He was slated to start at right tackle for the Sooners as a redshirt freshman but an ankle injury in the season opener against Tulsa hampered him throughout the 2011 season. Expect Williams to progress from potential starter to a cornerstone of the Sooners offensive line this season after locking down the starting right tackle position during spring football.

- Brandon Chatmon

Ask me in February, and my clear answer was wide receiver Kameel Jackson. I do think Jackson is going to work himself back into the good graces, but it won't be easy. I'm staying on offense and saying fullback Aaron Ripkowski is going to make some noise in 2012. Because of the versatility of Trey Millard, I expect Ripkowski to get more chances at the traditional role of fullback. He turned heads as a freshman and has the perfect fullback name in Ripkowski.

- Bob Przybylo

While Lane Johnson was solid but not spectacular at right tackle for the Sooners in 2011, Daryl Williams was a non-factor.. Expect Williams' role to change significantly this season as he has already locked down the starting job coming out of spring. Williams has the potential to be an all-conference lineman, barring any injuries which was his downfall last season. Williams will likely be the youngest member of OU's line, but he's also one of its most talented.

- Dane Beavers
For the first time in his tenure at Oklahoma, coach Bob Stoops is welcoming back a quarterback entering his fourth straight season as a starter.

What kind of advantage does having somebody with Landry Jones’ experience quarterbacking the Sooners as they begin spring drills this week?

"I believe it's a great advantage,” Stoops said during a press conference to kick off spring practice Monday. “The leadership, the poise, being able to hopefully avoid the really poor plays that put you in bad position with turnovers. And then hopefully there’s increased precision and execution. That’s what you really get with a more mature and experience quarterback.”

Jones struggled some late last season after losing top target Ryan Broyles to a knee injury. But by coming back for his senior season, he also has a chance to become the winningest quarterback in OU history.

"He makes a great impact,” Stoops said. “He's a tremendous leader and a very talented quarterback in everything he does -- not just throwing the football. With another year under his belt and time to work here in the spring and summer with these receivers, I'm excited about the possibilities.”

Other news and notes from Stoops’ press conference:

• On his first day at practice as defensive coordinator, Mike Stoops will be without three key starters. Defensive tackle Casey Walker (shoulder), safety Aaron Colvin (shoulder) and middle linebacker Tom Wort (back) will sit out the spring recovering from injuries sustained last season. Wort could still return late in spring drills.

The Sooners will also be without center Ben Habern (neck) and running back Dominique Whaley (ankle).

• Two players that were expected to miss spring will actually be available. Wideout Jaz Reynolds (kidney) and fullback Aaron Ripkowski (back), who both suffered serious injuries in the loss at Oklahoma State, have both been cleared for spring drills.

“Jaz has been cleared for probably the last three weeks and has really gotten back to full strength and looks good,” Stoops said. “He’s cleared to go. And in all likelihood, we’re set to have a procedure at the end of spring that will sideline him just for probably three weeks.”

• Stoops said that Lane Johnson, who started at right tackle last season, will start the spring at left tackle as the Sooners work to replace Donald Stephenson. Sophomores Daryl Williams and Tyrus Thompson will man the right side.

Stoops also noted that mammoth redshirt freshman Derek Farniok has made strides during the winter and has a chance to become part of the rotation.

“Derek Farniok, a young guy, had a huge winter,” Stoops said. “He's a totally different guy than the guy that walked in here. It's exiting to see how hard he's worked, how well he's running. He's the biggest of all of them. The other guys are all doing well.”

• Stoops confirmed that Florida State tried to schedule Oklahoma for a third straight season, with both programs needing to fill holes because of conference realignment. But Stoops said FSU wanted the Sooners to come back to Talahassee for a second straight year.

“I know it was brought up about Florida State, but they didn’t seem to want to come here,” Stoops said. “We might have entertained it if they wanted to come here first game.”
With a name like Aaron Ripkowski, fullback is a natural position. The freshman from Dayton, Texas, has been ripping through opponents since the Sooners started using the "Belldozer" formation.

When backup quarterback Blake Bell has entered the game, the 6-foot-2, 255-pound Ripkowski is right there by his side. Bell’s patience in running behind Ripkowski and fullback Trey Millard has helped Bell find success.

“He’s physical and has played smart,” offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. “We knew with his strength and explosiveness that he brought some tools to the table. We just didn’t know how long it would take him to perform at a real good level.”

As the Belldozer package continues to evolve, expect Ripkowski’s role on the offense to increase, too.

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