Oklahoma Sooners: Ben Habern
Next up: Oklahoma.
Strongest position: Offensive line.
Don't discount Landry Jones' experience and decision-making, but Oklahoma threw the ball 571 times last year -- more than everyone in the Big 12 but Texas Tech -- and gave up just 15 sacks, third-fewest in the Big 12. The Sooners have good depth at running back but not a true gamebreaker, and the offense still averaged 4.85 yards a carry, third-most in the Big 12. Oklahoma dealt with a ton of injuries on the offensive line and at the end of the season, was basically reduced to five guys who could play and depended on true freshman Ty Darlington at times, too. The unit loses tackle Lane Johnson, but Gabe Ikard is the Big 12's best offensive lineman and returns alongside Adam Shead, Bronson Irwin and Tyrus Thompson. This unit perhaps could have been better than it was in 2011, which is part of the reason you saw position coach James Patton shown the door in favor of WVU's Bill Bedenbaugh, but it should be a big strength yet again in 2013. I'd say it's definitely the Sooners' best overall position. The Sooners fought through the loss of center Ben Habern and guard Tyler Evans in preseason camp last year, and Evans is out again after injuring his knee this spring. Here's betting Oklahoma fills the void yet again.
Weakest position: Defensive line
If you watched the Cotton Bowl, you know all you need to know about this position for the Sooners. Texas A&M had arguably the nation's best offensive line, but the Sooners D-line looked like a bunch of high schoolers for much of the game, applying zero pressure to Johnny Manziel and letting him get loose for a record-breaking game in a blowout loss. The Sooners lose four seniors along the line, leaving behind just Chuka Ndulue, Jordan Phillips and Mike Onuoha as contributors from last year's D-line that helped Oklahoma rank just 108th nationally in tackles for loss and 94th nationally in run defense. Oklahoma needs a big upgrade at this position to return to prominence, and I'm not sure the answer to the Sooners being as good along the front line of the defense is coming anywhere but on the recruiting trail.
More Weak and Strong.
1. FB Trey Millard: The Sooners got the ball to their big fullback, and he made sure they didn’t regret it. Millard finished with 119 yards and a touchdown on five receptions and rushed for 45 yards on three carries. His 73-yard reception, which included a hurdle of a Texas defender, was the longest Sooners catch in OU-Texas history.
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Jones played one of the worst games of his career with two costly turnovers in the Sooners’ 29-14 loss to Kansas State.
Season stats: 68-for-107 for 772 yards, 5 TD, 2 INT
RB Dominique Whaley, Sr: Maxwell
Whaley showed flashes of his 2011 form with nine carries for 51 yards (5.7 yards per carry) against the Wildcats.
Season stats: 30 carries for 168 yards, 1 TD
WR Kenny Stills, Jr: Walter Camp, Maxwell
Stills was solid against K-State with six receptions for 60 yards as it is becoming clear he is Jones’ favorite target. While he didn’t have a game-changing play Saturday, he has made a smooth transition to the slot for OU.
Season stats: 22 receptions for 301 yards, 2 TDs
LB Tom Wort, Jr: Butkus, Nagurski
Going against the power-running Wildcats, Wort finished with four tackles. However, the Sooners' game plan was to have their safeties more involved in run defense, which was part of the reason Wort was tied for sixth on the squad in tackles against KSU.
Season stats: 16 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 pass breakup, 1 pass defensed
LB Corey Nelson, Jr: Lombardi
Nelson was solid against FAMU, finishing with three tackles in limited action.
Season stats: 11 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 pass breakup, 1 pass defensed, 1 quarterback hurry
C Gabe Ikard, Jr: Lombardi, Outland
The Sooners were sub-par running the ball against KSU, averaging 3.3 yards per carry. As the anchor of the offensive line, Ikard has to take his share of the blame. He readily admitted his unit needs to be better after the loss.
Season stats: OU is averaging 214 rushing yards per game and 491.7 yards of total offense per outing, thanks in large part to its offensive front, but the Sooners have allowed seven sacks in three games.
S Tony Jefferson, Jr: Walter Camp, Nagurski, Bednarik, Thorpe
Playing on a bum ankle, Jefferson played like an All-America candidate, finishing with a career-high 14 tackles including one tackle for loss.
Season stats: 25 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 pass breakup, 1 pass defensed
CB Demontre Hurst, Sr: Nagurski, Bednarik
Hurst was solid in the game and was rarely challenged against KSU. His coverage helped allow the safeties to finish 1-2 in tackles.
Season stats: 11 tackles, 2 pass breakups, 2 passes defensed
PK Michael Hunnicutt, So: Groza
Hunnicutt hit field goals of 34 and 28 yards and made his lone extra point attempt.
Season stats: 3-of-4 on field goals, 13-for-14 on PATs, 22 points scored
“Lot of things we could do better,” he said. “Depth on our routes, knowing where we are on the field. Trey (Metoyer) had a couple of go balls where he was too close to the boundary. But Trey hadn’t played a real game in two year.
Norvell also noted the receivers struggled with their perimeter on bubble screens and runs to the outside. He was also disappointed with the unit’s yards after catch, which were minimal.
“We need to make more plays,” Norvell said. “And all get on the same page, and we will. That’s what good teams do, they get better. We’ve got a lot of good players, and we’ll improve in the coming weeks.”
• Dominique Whaley forged his career last season as a running back that wouldn’t put the ball on the ground. But in his first game back from the broken ankle, Whaley fumbled late in the second quarter with the game tied 7-7. Fortunately for Whaley and the Sooners the ball rolled out of bounds.
Center Gabe Ikard said as a captain he considered talking the fumble over with Whaley. Then on Monday, he saw Whaley working on his ball security by carrying a ball with his arm strapped to a bungee cord.
“I was like, ‘Eh, I don’t think I’m going to say anything,” Ikard said. “He knows. That happens sometimes, but Dom Whaley will get that taken care of.”
• Tight end Brannon Green confessed that his heart almost stopped when Landry Jones threw the ball his way during the fourth quarter at UTEP.
“It was pounding,” he said. “Kind of like a blur.”
Despite the nerves, Green snagged the pass for an 18-yard touchdown that put the Sooners ahead 17-7.
“The good thing was I didn’t even have to move by hands,” Green said. “The ball hit me right in the chest.”
It will be interesting to see how the tight end rotation works out going forward. Green played very well in his OU debut, but projected starter Geneo Grissom returns this week after serving out a one-game suspension. The Sooners also played true freshman Taylor McNamara in El Paso. Green, however, said he’s looking forward to Grissom rejoining the rotation.
“We’re all getting reps,” Green said. “I’m glad Geneo is back. If he gets a touchdown, I’m going to be just as happy for him.”
• Since the moment he stepped on campus, Sterling Shepard had a goal for his freshman season: to play in OU’s season opener against UTEP. The true freshman accomplished that goal on Sept. 1, playing limited action behind slot receiver Stills in his first collegiate game.
“I knew I could play at this level,” Shepard said during Tuesday’s media session. “I wanted to test myself and show that I could. In practice, I just tried to show myself in every practice and it paid off.”
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Less than 30 minutes into Jones' redshirt freshman season, the plan changed.
Sam Bradford's shoulder was planted into the turf and the first chapter of Jones' Oklahoma story was began. It wasn't a happy one, ending what the Sooners hoped was a return to the national title game with a 13-12 loss to BYU in the season opener.
There were other bumps in the road during Jones' first season, like a five-interception outing against Nebraska and an embarrassing blowout loss to Texas Tech in Lubbock.
By the bowl game, though, Jones looked like a different quarterback.
He rolled over Stanford's defense in the Sun Bowl, throwing for a then-career high 418 yards, three scores and completing nearly 60 percent of his passes in the 31-27 win.
"It was a starting point for sure," Jones said. "I grew up a lot in that game."
Almost three years later, he'll begin his final season in the same stadium. This time, Texas-El Paso awaits.
His freshman season ended with a career game. Jones passed up NFL money and a likely first-round selection to come back to Oklahoma for his senior season, which somehow disappointed at least a few Oklahoma fans.
Saturday, Jones will have a chance to remind most everyone of what he can do.
"I believe I’ll see more consistency," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. "I believe he’s a better player. More mobile, throwing a great ball. I believe the players around him will be more consistent. That position needs support."
Jones watched more film leading up to that Stanford win than he'd ever watched on an opponent before. He saw the results on the field, and his career's never been the same.
Being consistent has always been a struggle for Jones, and part of that has been decision-making and accuracy outside the pocket.
"Moving around in the pocket for sure, that’s one area that I wanted to grow in, one area I wanted to get better at," Jones said.
It was an emphasis all offseason for Jones, who also paid a visit to QB guru George Whitfield in California over spring break to work on his mechanics.
"Moving and throwing, that’s one thing that was big for me," Jones said, "and sliding around in the pocket and making throws whenever I was sliding."
Jones might need to be on the move a little more this year behind an offensive line struggling with depth. The Sooners lost a pair of three-year starters in Ben Habern (neck, back) and Tyler Evans (knee), who were both with Jones for his rocky freshman season.
Jones noted he has a lot of confidence in players like Adam Shead and Bronson Irwin, big talents sliding up into bigger roles, but Jones' senior debut will be Step 1 in proving he can be at his best for every week in a given season.
"I expect nothing but the best for myself," Jones said. "I expect to play really well and play winning football every game. That’s what I expect and that’s what I’m shooting for."
The junior running back has been working at slot receiver for OU during preseason camp. And he’s getting more and more comfortable in the slot.
The Sooners are looking to have use Finch in different ways this season than they have in his first two years.
“They have a package for me this year,” Finch said. “I talked to Coach Norvell and he doesn’t want me to be a guy who just gets reverses, he wants me to be a complete player.”
Asked if it’s more 50-50 or 80-20 slot receiver to running back, for his potential time on the field, Finch said he expects to spend more time in the slot.
“I think it’s more 80-20,” he said. “We have Dom (Dominique Whaley) and Damien Williams, we have feature backs. I feel like they really want me to focus not the slot and get really good at it.”
Finch is a potential terror in the slot with his quickness and open field moves. If a team tries to cover him with a linebacker or safety, the Sooners should have the advantage in that matchup. The dynamic running back/slot receiver could emerge as an “X factor” for OU in 2012.
• Heading into the opener, Sooners offensive coordinator Josh Heupel doesn’t have a set goal for number of plays run by the OU offense on Saturday.
“It depends on the flow of the game, each one has it’s own identity,” Heupel said. “We try to push (tempo) but each one is different.”
The Sooners averaged 80.92 plays per game in 13 contests in 2011.
After Tuesday’s practice, Heupel was happy with the tempo of the offense.
“Today was a really good day, guys competed at a high level,” he said. “We challenged them yesterday to do that, you have to win on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday to give yourself a chance to win on Saturday.”
OU’s high tempo offense consistently creates problems for defenses as they struggle to line up, focus and matchup with the Sooners skill players. If the Sooners can approach their average play per game number from 2011, it could be a great sign for Saturday and beyond.
• For the first time this preseason, junior-college transfer running back Damien Williams met reporters. What kind of game does he bring to the offense?
“I like running inside,” Williams said. “But I can run outside, catch the ball – I can do everything.”
Teammates, however, have raved about Williams’ inside running the most.
“He’s really physical,” Finch said. “He can really move the pile.”
Williams said running backs coach Cale Gundy hasn’t disclosed how he’ll rotate in with Dominique Whaley and Brennan Clay. But don’t be surprised if Brennan Clay is used as the third-down while Williams the power back behind starter Dominiue Whaley.
• Offensive line coach James Patton broke down the interior offensive line rotation going into the opener. Nila Kasitati is Patton’s top reserve at either guard position, although Kasitati has been getting his reps at left guard. True freshman
Ty Darlington, meanwhile, is Gabe Ikard’s backup at center. Patton said he has been impressed with Darlington’s “smarts and toughness” all preseason. Patton is hoping for opportunities to get Kasitati, Darlington and Austin Woods – who is the third option at guard or center – some work during the early part of the season.
“It’s all about game experience,” Patton said. “Ben Habern, Tyler Evans, those guys played a lot of football. It’s about getting game experience. Nothing like game feel.”
• The month of August has been a whirlwind for Penn State transfer Justin Brown. Tuesday, Brown said one of most important factors in transferring to another school was that he could still graduate with a Penn State degree.
“I wasn’t going to come down here if I couldn’t graduate from Penn State,” Brown said. “I spent three-and-a-half years there. It was important to me.”
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Since middle school, Kasitati has had episodes where he couldn’t catch his breath and his heart would race. A “heavy chest,” he called it. Sometimes he’d get out of a chair and “it felt like I’d ran a mile.” Finally this summer, it became too much to bear. He woke up for a July workout with a racing heart. It never slowed, and Kasitati had to eventually excuse himself from the workout.
“I wasn’t sure what it was,” he said. "Before, I didn’t think it was anything. I never saw it as anything. But I guess one workout – and the work I was doing wasn’t even hard – it just hit me as I woke up. It bothered me the whole day and I went into workouts and I just couldn’t do it.”
Kasitati met with the training staff, who performed an EKG on him. He was diagnosed with arrhythmia.
“They did this procedure where they actually go through up your groin, the main arteries, and just go up,” he said.
Kasitati had to stay away from football for a couple of weeks, missing the first days of practice. But he has since returned, feels great and is just days away from getting all of his conditioning back.
“I’m fine,” he said. “The surgery was a success so I’m good right now. There’s nothing holding me back from being better or getting a chance to play.”
You'll need Insider to see the full thing, and I'd encourage you to do so, but in the Big 12, there's no doubt about which programs carry the banner of national power.
When will Oklahoma be in position to win a national title?
You won't have to wait too long. Haney correctly notes that expectations inside and outside the program are measured after last year's debacle, but the team could be in position to win the whole thing in 2012. The Sooners clearly have the talent to do it and a preseason top-five ranking to match.
Landry Jones is back, and despite his criticisms, he's still got loads of experience and can handle the rigors of the season, but everything around him will have to be perfect for the Sooners to make a run. The offensive line suddenly became a big question mark with the losses of Tyler Evans and Ben Habern, and the receivers are a big question mark, too, after last season's post-Ryan Broyles struggles.
Still, for the Sooners, the time is now for an eighth national title and a second under Bob Stoops.
As for the Longhorns? They may prove that 2012 is their breakthrough year, but if you're wanting a national title, keep your eyes on 2013, Haney writes.
I wholeheartedly agree there. Oklahoma State and Texas are going to be scary in 2013, but particularly the Longhorns, whose running game is only going to get better and better.
Recruiting expert Tom Luginbill weighed in, too, and says Texas' recent recruiting and newcomers to the coaching staff have the pieces in place for a very, very bright future.
The official list is locked away in a vault in an undisclosed location, but we'll be revealing one player a day leading up to the season.
Next up on the list:
No. 15: Gabe Ikard, OL, Oklahoma
2011 numbers: Made 88 knockdowns in 860 plays and had the best blocking grades of any interior lineman for the Sooners. Also helped the Sooners rank third in the Big 12 with more than 512 yards of offense.
Most recent ranking: Ikard unranked in our postseason list of the Big 12's top 25 players.
Making the case for Ikard: You've got to love offensive linemen who can be versatile and excel at different positions, and no lineman in the Big 12 has done this better lately than Ikard. He's technically Oklahoma's starting right guard, but last season, moved over to start seven games at center when teammate Ben Habern broke his arm.
After Habern decided to quit football earlier this month, Ikard is back on the move, assuming the position of the Sooners' starting center. The coaches and the media both recognized his excellence last season, voting him to the first-team of both All-Big 12 teams.
Ikard already started 12 games at guard as a redshirt freshman in 2010, but entering his junior season in 2012, he's made his argument as the Big 12's best offensive lineman. It's solid, and it'll take a lot for somebody to knock him off his perch this season.
The rest of the list:
- No. 25: Justin Gilbert, CB/KR, Oklahoma State
- No. 24: Ben Habern, C, Oklahoma
- No. 23: Terrance Williams, WR, Baylor
- No. 22: Josh Boyce, WR, TCU
- No. 21: Cyril Richardson, OL, Baylor
- No. 20: Trey Millard, FB/TE, Oklahoma
- No. 19: Quandre Diggs, CB/KR, Texas
- No. 18: Kenny Stills, WR, Oklahoma
- No. 17: Brodrick Brown, CB, Oklahoma State
- No. 16: Stansly Maponga, DE, TCU
"Ty's ready to play in my opinion. He's strong enough. He has great strength in the weight room and obviously he had really good coaching in high school when his dad was his coach,” Ikard said. "He already knows the whole playbook. He studied and watched film with us and studied everything during the summer. He's ahead of the curve by a lot. He's ahead of the curve strength wise. There's no hesitation throwing him in there in my opinion. He's smart, he's tough and he can play.”
It’s unclear at this point if Darlington will avoid redshirting. A sports hernia slowed him some over the last year. The Sooners have other options on the interior of the line in Bronson Irwin and Nila Kasitati, who has returned from a heart condition. But if you ask the players, Darlington could help immediately.
"He's one of those guys that I fully expect him to give us some depth, whether it's at center or guard,” Ikard said. “Wherever you stick him, I know he's going to do right and learn his job well – nothing but praise for Ty.”
"A couple times during workouts, I could just see it in his eyes where he was just in pain. It was one of those things where he'd share how he was actually feeling with me,” said teammate Gabe Ikard, who will take over at center. “I knew he was hurting a lot and I knew it was a discomfort all the time. He's played with injuries before. He's played with a lot of pain and I was hoping he'd be able to play again.
"He's one of the toughest guys I know. Once he let me know he wasn't going to play, I was taken back."
Now, with Evans lost for the season with a torn ACL in his right knee, OU will turn to junior Bronson Irwin to help fill the void. And the Sooners' depth in the offensive interior, which appeared to be a strength on Aug. 1, has become a potential concern in Norman.
Irwin appears prepared to handle the challenge of replacing Evans even though he hasn’t started a game in crimson and cream. He saw spot duty in 2011 after playing himself out of a redshirt season in 2010. He arrived in Norman as a highly regarded recruit from Mustang, Okla., after choosing the Sooners over offers from Alabama, Nebraska, Oklahoma State, Arkansas and others.
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“Goodluck to OU on the field I'll be watching,” McGee posted on his Twitter account. “It's just not for me.”
Bob Stoops said he gave McGee the day away from the team to contemplate whether he wanted to go ahead and leave.
His departure is another blow to an offensive line that’s been ravaged by injuries this season. Monday, Stoops confirmed that three-year starting guard Tyler Evans has suffered a knee injury and was undergoing an MRI. Stoops feared that it could be a torn ligament. Last week, Stoops announced that veteran center Ben Habern was giving up football because of a bad neck and back.
OU is also without guard/center Nila Kasitati, who underwent a procedure on his heart last week. The ailment is believed to be non-life threatening and offensive line coach James Patton said he’s hoping to get Kasitati back on the practice field in the next few days. Reserve center Austin Woods is still undergoing chemotherapy treatments even as he practices with the team. Woods was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma in the spring.
McGee was the No. 12 guard in the country coming out of Texarkana, Texas, according to ESPN. He signed with the Sooners despite having offers from Michigan, Notre Dame and Alabama, among others.
“John Michael McGee is a freak athletically,” Patton said of him in the spring. “He’s not as big as (former OU All-American) Trent Williams, but in terms of a linemen who can move and bend and has quickness and agility – we saw him on tape and they threw a tackle screen to him and he walked in for a touchdown. In terms of his athleticism, he can do a lot of different things for us.”
OU has several talented redshirt and true freshmen at various positions and plenty of opportunity to earn playing time as fall camp opens. Receiver, cornerback and center are just a few positions that could be boosted by quick development from a freshman.
Early enrollee Trey Metoyer is an example of a freshman who developed quickly and will be counted on to make plays immediately.
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