Oklahoma Sooners: Blake Bell
Here are the Big 12 players that made each list:
- BJ Finney, Kansas State
- Dominic Espinosa, Texas
- Joey Hunt, TCU
- Tom Farniok, Iowa State
- Ty Darlington, Oklahoma
Monday, the Maxwell (player of the year), Bednarik (defensive player of the year) and Hornung (most versatile player) watch lists were released.
Below is the rest of the preseason watch list schedule:
- Lou Groza Award, best place-kicker
- Ray Guy Award, best punter
- Bronko Nagurski Trophy, best defensive player
- Outland Trophy, best interior lineman
- Jim Thorpe Award, best defensive back
Monday, July 14
- Butkus Award, best linebacker
- Lombardi Award, best lineman
Tuesday, July 15
- Biletnikoff Award, best receiver
Wednesday, July 16
- Davey O’Brien Award, best quarterback.
Thursday, July 17
- Doak Walker Award, best running back
Friday, July 18
- Walter Camp Award, best player
- Former Oklahoma star running back Joe Washington hopes the Sooners remember the feeling after their win against Alabama as they strive to win a national championship this fall.
- Sooners tight end Blake Bell says his knee is strong after missing OU's spring game, reports Jason Kersey of The Oklahoman.
- West Virginia quarterback Clint Trickett is still working his way back after shoulder surgery, reports Mike Casazza of the Charleston Daily Mail.
- A few tweaks chould help TCU turn things around after struggling during its first two years in the Big 12.
- Former Mountaineers' running back Charles Sims has signed with Tampa Bay.
- OU running backs coach Cale Gundy is one of the Sooners' top recruiters.
- The Sooners landed an offensive line commitment.
- There's no reason to add BYU unless another quality possible addition emerges to join the Cougars, writes John Klein of the Tulsa World.
- Athlon ranks the Top 10 Big 12 non-conference games in 2014.
Impact thus far: Bell has had an interesting and productive career. After a redshirt season in 2010, Bell became an contributor in 2011, earning the moniker the “Belldozer” while scoring 13 rushing touchdowns as OU’s short yardage specialist. in 2012 he continued his role, scoring 11 rushing touchdowns. In 2013, Bell finally got his chance to play quarterback and run the Sooners’ regular offense. He started eight games, finishing with 1,648 passing yards, 12 touchdowns and five interceptions. Interestingly enough, he did not score a rushing touchdown as a junior. Bell has played in 31 games (eight starts) and accounted for 36 touchdowns in an OU uniform.
Impact in 2014: With Trevor Knight locking down the starting quarterback job in the Sugar Bowl, Bell made the move to tight end in January, deciding to stay in Norman, Okla., instead of transferring to play quarterback elsewhere. He has the size and athleticism to help the Sooners at the tight end spot as a senior if he makes a smooth transition to his new position.
Long term upside: If everything goes perfectly for Bell, he could become the Sooners top pass-catching tight end since Jermaine Gresham. But that requires him excelling as a blocker, getting comfortable running patterns and, most important, proving he is one of the best 11 players available to put on the field for offensive coordinator Josh Heupel.
Evaluation grade for Bell: B. This is a tough one. Bell is poised to be a major contributor for the fourth straight season. Yet he never became an consistent difference-maker as a dual-threat quarterback, which is why he was recruited in the first place. Nonetheless you can’t discount Bell’s positive impact on the program. He’s helped OU win a lot of games during his four years on campus.
Development grade for Bell: B. Another tough grade, but there’s not much more the Sooners could have done to help Bell’s development other than give him more time running the regular offense as a freshman and sophomore. Nonetheless it was a stroke of genius to put his size, strength and desire in the short-yardage package when he would have just been sitting on the sideline behind Landry Jones as a underclassman.
Quotable: “Blake has done a great job, we’re very fortunate to have him there and he’s fit in very nicely with our guys. He’s really excelled and he brings an athlete, which is what we’ve always said we need, we need blockers, we need guys who can run down the field and make plays on the ball and Blake can do that.” -- tight ends coach Jay Boulware
Yet, he’s likely to have a few returning quarterbacks nipping at his heels for that title this fall. Texas Tech’s Davis Webb, Kansas State’s Jake Waters and Oklahoma’s Trevor Knight are some conference quarterbacks who, with strong seasons, could battle Petty for the honor.
A closer look at the production of the Big 12’s returning quarterbacks reveals some areas of improvement for the record-setting Petty, Webb’s overlooked success and a pair of returning quarterbacks who changed positions after ranking among the conference’s best in a few passing categories. Here are some interesting tidbits, courtesy of ESPN Stats and Information, about the 2013 production of some of the Big 12’s top returning quarterbacks.
- Petty had 10.67 touchdowns for every interception he threw last season, which ranked second among FBS quarterbacks who started at least four games and first among Big 12 signal-callers. Petty’s production, efficiency and ability to take care of the ball while averaging 31 pass attempts per game is one reason he’s the favorite to be named the Big 12 offensive player of the year for the second straight season.
- As good as Petty was throughout the season, he ranked fourth in the Big 12 in third-down conversion percentage, converting 40.8 percent of his third-down throws into first downs. Petty’s third-down conversion percentage is one of the few categories he can improve on this fall.
- Kansas State's Daniel Sams, who has moved to receiver, converted 68.4 percent of his third-down throws into first downs, which led all Big 12 quarterbacks who started a game in 2013. Sams' percentage is impressive, but he only averaged 4.08 passes per game last season, making the number a bit misleading. Nonetheless, Sams was a more productive quarterback than it may seem, as he finished among the top-5 quarterbacks in the Big 12 in multiple categories, including adjusted QBR (68.3 on a scale of 0-100 with 50 being average) and yards per pass attempt (8.53).
- One potential reason for Sams’ move? He was intercepted on 7.5 percent of his pass attempts, easily the worst in the Big 12. For comparison’s sake, Petty was intercepted on just 0.7 percent of his attempts.
- Webb was the Big 12’s toughest quarterback to sack last season. The sophomore was sacked just 1.9 percent of the time in 2013. It’s a revealing and encouraging number for Texas Tech fans because it shows Webb, who averaged 36.1 pass attempts per game, makes quick decisions and gets rid of the ball fast in the Red Raiders' offense.
- Waters was extremely efficient for Kansas State with 65.4 percent of his completions going for first downs or touchdowns. Only Petty and Sams had better percentages in 2013.
- A pair of returning Bedlam quarterbacks, OU’s Knight and Oklahoma State’s J.W. Walsh, were right behind Webb in sack percentage. Walsh was sacked just 2.6 percent of the time, while Knight was sacked just 2.9 percent of the time. Both quarterbacks used their mobility and athleticism to make it difficult on defenses to sack them.
- Knight was particularly hard to sack on third downs, as his 2.1 sack percentage led the Big 12.
- Webb is the Big 12’s top returning quarterback in raw QBR on third down, recording a 85.3 raw QBR on third-down plays. Texas’ David Ash (83), Walsh (82.4) and Knight (78.4) each finished with a higher raw QBR on third down than Petty’s 76.
- After finishing 2012 as one of the nation’s leaders in adjusted QBR, Walsh continues to be underappreciated for his actual production for the Cowboys. His 75 adjusted QBR was fifth in the Big 12, placing him ahead of Knight, Ash, Waters, OU’s Blake Bell, and Baker Mayfield, the former Texas Tech quarterback who transferred to OU in January after earning Big 12 offensive newcomer-of-the-year honors.
- Bell ranked seventh in the Big 12 in clutch-weighted expected points added, a ESPN metric which measures a quarterback’s impact on clutch plays. The senior, who moved to tight end this spring, added 19.85 points on clutch plays which ranked him ahead of Mayfield, Knight, Ash and Texas’ Case McCoy. For comparison’s sake, Petty’s 69.82 CWEPA led the Big 12 and the league average was 14.7.
On Monday, we began with five questions that were answered during the Sooners' 15 practices. On Tuesday, we reviewed five questions that remain unanswered. On Wednesday, we took a look at five surprising Sooners. On Thursday, we highlighted the five disappointing developments of the spring. Today we end the series with five things to keep an eye on when the Sooners return to their preparation for the 2014 season with summer workouts in June.
Summer quarterback development: Most eyes will be on redshirt freshman Cody Thomas and true freshman Justice Hansen as they battle for the backup job behind Knight. But don’t overlook the importance of the summer for Knight, a redshirt sophomore. The summer months and competitive workouts could help Knight’s continued development as a passer and decision maker. In addition, it’s an opportunity for Knight to really emerge as a key leader for the entire team, not just the offense.
Skill position battles: As the uncertainty at some receiver spots and in the secondary linger on into the summer, those Sooners battling for a spot at receiver, cornerback or safety will get the chance to go head-to-head with each other in an attempt to improve and distinguish themselves. It’s an important summer for players such as cornerback Stanvon Taylor and receiver K.J. Young, a pair of second-year players who could earn a starting role if they take their game to another level in the summer heat. In addition, summer arrivals such as safety Steven Parker II and receiver Michiah Quick could arrive on campus and impress immediately, much like Sterling Shepard did before he broke into the lineup as a true freshman.
Leaders emerging: Along with Knight, other leaders should emerge who could ultimately help decide just how successful the Sooners will be this fall. Terrific leadership a year ago from guys such as Gabe Ikard and Trey Millard was the foundation of OU’s 11-2 season despite the musical chairs at quarterback. If the Sooners can replace those departed seniors with similar leadership, their chances of a Big 12 title and national championship run will increase significantly.
No distractions: One of the most important goals of the rest of spring and summer is to limit and/or erase distractions caused by off-the-field decisions. The Sooners have a real chance to make a run at a College Football Playoff berth, so it will be important for the leaders of the team to emphasize the importance of good off-the-field decision making to their teammates so the Sooners can open the season with a roster full of eligible and hungry players.
On Monday, we began with five questions that were answered during the Sooners' 15 practices. On Tuesday, we reviewed five questions that remain unanswered. On Wednesday, we took a look at five surprising Sooners. Today, we highlight the five disappointing developments of the spring.
Stanvon Taylor's development: The sophomore cornerback is a better player than he’s showing. Taylor earned the praise of Bob Stoops and Mike Stoops on signing day, as the two brothers compared him to Aaron Colvin. He stepped on campus with a hungry desire to make an impact and started against Tulsa early in his freshman season but he hasn’t made the jump you would expect from a player of his talent as a sophomore. Dakota Austin passed him on the depth chart, and Taylor currently doesn’t look like a guy who can slide into Colvin’s spot without a drop off. Taylor isn’t a bust nor is a guy who won’t contribute this fall -- he just needs to take his game to another level if he’s going fulfill the upside that made him the No. 199 player in the ESPN 300 for the Class of 2013.
No dominant No. 2 receiver: Ideally, the Sooners would have seen one receiver emerge from the competition to show he wants to be a starter and centerpiece in OU’s passing game. Jordan Smallwood is the closest to filling that description, but he hasn’t run away from the competition with K.J. Young, Dannon Cavil and Derrick Woods among the receivers nipping at his heels. Sterling Shepard will be OU’s No. 1 target and will make plenty of plays as a junior, but someone else needs to step up as the No. 2 guy and force defenses to account for them if OU’s offense is going to really take off in 2014.
Offensive line injuries: The Sooners never really could get their entire offensive line together this spring with injuries to guard Nila Kasitati, tackle Tyrus Thompson, guard Adam Shead and others during spring practices. Center Ty Darlington's smooth transition into the starting center spot got overlooked in the spring, but the uncertainty along the rest of the offensive line could hurt the Sooners in the fall or could pay off since it seasoned the overall depth of OU’s offensive front. It was a disappointing spring because a roster full of healthy bodies would have spurred competition and forced returning starters to get better, much like it did on with the Sooners’ defensive line.
Offensive production in the spring game: Baker Mayfield was the lone quarterback to pass for more than 60 yards, Daniel Brooks was the lone running back to rush for more than 30 yards and no OU receiver recorded more than 62 receiving yards. To be fair, OU didn’t exactly break out its full arsenal on offense, but more individual playmaking would have made the Sooners’ coaching staff head into the summer with more confidence. The Sooners' offense didn’t look like a unit that was overflowing with players who will make game-changing plays this fall. OU has talented skill players; they just need those guys to continue to develop and, once the games really matter, to become consistent, productive playmakers.
Who will be the starting running back? The competition promises to continue into August, but don't be surprised if it continues deep into the season. OU has plenty of good options including sophomores Keith Ford and Alex Ross, but this competition could be decided by what the Sooners' running backs do without the ball in their hands. Ross had an excellent spring but didn’t star in the spring game while Ford showed he can play at a Big 12 level as a freshman. The running back battle could be the most exciting battle to monitor this fall.
How will Ahmad Thomas be used? The sophomore has really come on since the middle of last season. He saw time against Alabama and held his own, then built upon that performance with a strong spring. It would be a surprise if he’s not a major contributor on OU’s defense; it’s just a matter of where he plays. Thomas is a versatile defensive back who can play safety or nickelback. He’s the type of guy the Sooners can leave on the field -- regardless of the offense they’re facing -- and feel confident he will make an positive impact against the run or pass.
Who will back up Knight? Baker Mayfield is the obvious choice … in 2015. The former Texas Tech quarterback was the standout of the spring game and will have Knight feeling like his starting spot is never secure when he becomes eligible to play for the Sooners after sitting out the 2014 season. This fall, however, Knight’s backup remains a question mark. Redshirt freshman Cody Thomas looks like he could develop into a quality quarterback, and the new NCAA rules will allow the Sooners to quicken his development like never before. Thomas should be considered the favorite to win the No. 2 job but Justice Hansen's decision to enroll early has allowed him to get one spring under his belt and he could arrive in the fall much more comfortable than the average freshman. This is another battle that could last deep into August.
Who will make big plays in the passing game? Austin Bennett. Blake Bell. Jordan Smallwood. Durron Neal. K.J. Young. Those names could emerge as key targets for Knight this fall but none of them have locked down a spot in the offense quite yet. Smallwood, who probably had the best spring of the bunch, will undoubtedly play a role but OU needs someone to emerge as a legit, consistent threat alongside Sterling Shepard or risk watching one of the Big 12’s top returning receivers be double teamed constantly.
Oklahoma held its spring game on Saturday with excitement around the program continuing to build this offseason. Here are some postgame thoughts, offense only, on OU’s spring finale. Check back later today for a defense only post. To be clear, this is an informal collection of my observations after the spring game. For a more formal and general spring game review, check out this post from earlier today.
- Undoubtedly some Sooners fans left the stadium disappointed with what they saw from Trevor Knight. He finished 5-of-14 for 53 yards with one interception. Yet it’s not time to panic, for several reasons. First, Sterling Shepard was on the sidelines. The junior will be Knight’s go-to receiver and could become one of the Big 12’s best playmakers. Two, Knight was going against a solid and athletic defense while using a relatively vanilla offense. Three, injuries along the offensive line didn’t make things any easier, with multiple projected starters out of the spring game. Finally, Knight's ability to make plays with his feet was taken away with his blue, no-hit jersey limiting his impact in the running game.
- Nonetheless, Knight must play better. Period. Some people have been quick to insert his name among the nation’s best after his Allstate Sugar Bowl performance. He’s still young, relatively inexperienced and has been inconsistent at times early in his career. Let’s wait until he’s consistently efficient before we anoint him as one of the nation’s, or even the Big 12’s, top quarterbacks.[+] EnlargeMark D. Smith/USA TODAY SportsTrevor Knight had a rough outing on Saturday.
- Anyone who was surprised by Baker Mayfield’s performance must have missed the rest of the Big 12 in 2013. The former Texas Tech quarterback was the Big 12 offensive freshman of the year for a reason.
- Mayfield seemed genuinely excited to be a Sooner. He grew up an OU fan and said he would have decided to join the Sooners even if Blake Bell had not changed positions and Kendal Thompson did not transfer. While he is ineligible to play this fall, his presence could pay off big time. OU’s defense will be tested in ways you normally wouldn’t expect from a scout-team quarterback and the Sooners defense should make Mayfield a much better player with its overall talent and playmakers all over the field.
- Tight end Taylor McNamara had two touchdown catches in the spring game. Could a pass-catching tight end return to OU’s weekly game plans this fall? Maybe. A wait-and-see approach would be wise, as adding a big receiving threat has been a goal for the past two seasons. McNamara and former quarterback Bell, who missed the spring game with an injury, appear to be the most likely candidates at tight end if it does happen.
- Speaking of receiving threats, true freshman Dimitri Flowers should make an impact this fall. He spent a lot of time with the first-team offense before a hyper-extended knee ended his day. He can block, he can catch and he’s picked up the offense as if he’s entering his junior season. It appears OU has found a hidden gem in the three-star Class of 2014 signee. Don’t be surprised if he emerges as the big-bodied receiving threat OU’s offense has been lacking as his blocking and overall versatility could secure a key role in the offense, allowing the Sooners to adapt on the fly.
- OU has talented receivers but will miss Jalen Saunders, a likely NFL draft pick. K.J. Young and Austin Bennett, Jordan Smallwood and Derrick Woods each showed flashes of ability but need to develop quickly if the Sooners hope to provide quality receiving options for Knight this fall.
- Nobody seized the starting running back spot with a eye-opening day. Daniel Brooks led the way with eight carries for 67 yards and Keith Ford finished with nine carries for 29 yards. Alex Ross, who had been praised throughout the spring, added three carries for six yards. The door is wide open for Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine, two ESPN 300 running back signees, to make an immediate impression on the coaching staff and earn carries this fall. The Sooners need someone to step up and make defenses account for them from the running back position this fall. It doesn’t matter who it is.
- OU could end up looking back at this spring as a critical time for developing depth along the offensive line. Several linemen, including guards Adam Shead and Nila Kasitati and tackle Tyrus Thompson, sat out the spring game, allowing backups such as tackles Josiah St. John and Sam Grant to get plenty of chances. The offensive line struggled at times.
- The backup quarterback position remains up in the air, but Cody Thomas, a redshirt freshman, looked solid, going 5-of-9 for 52 yards and a touchdown. Justice Hansen, a true freshman, struggled with the speed of the game at times, finishing 4-of-8 for 58 yards and one touchdown but with some good moments.
The Knights were in Austin for nearly every UT home game, and Trevor fondly remembers going to Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium the week before the Longhorns played Oklahoma in the Red River Rivalry game in Dallas.
“I hated 'em,” Knight said of the Sooners. “I did. Going to Texas games, I’d go to the one right before the Red River Rivalry game and yell, ‘OU sucks!’”
But the day before Knight was scheduled to make his official visit to UT in February 2012, the Longhorns received a verbal commitment from quarterback Connor Brewer of Scottsdale, Ariz. Knight never made a visit to Austin and verbally committed to play at Texas A&M before flipping to Oklahoma after an official visit to Norman.
Instead of playing quarterback for Texas, he ended up playing for the team the Longhorns dislike the most.
“It was a blessing in disguise,” Knight said. “Going through the recruiting process, you realize you have to pick the best place for you. The whole fan aspect goes out [the window]. I grew up a huge Texas fan and hated A&M and OU but committed to A&M and ended up at OU. It’s how it works out. It’s funny because I grew up hating OU and now I love it.”
After two years at OU, it seems pretty clear that Knight made the correct decision. Heading into his sophomore season, Knight is the Sooners’ undisputed starting quarterback after throwing for a career-high 348 yards with four touchdowns on 32-for-44 passing in a 45-31 victory over Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
“I think a lot of positives came from it,” Knight said. “Obviously, recognition came from it. It’s a good thing to play well and be recognized for playing well. People have been saying, ‘It’s one game.’ You’ve got to build off of it and continue to move in the right direction.”
Before Knight’s breakout performance against the Crimson Tide, he had endured an up-and-down first season as Oklahoma’s quarterback in 2013. He won a tight quarterback competition and started the first two games before spraining his knee in a 16-7 win over West Virginia on Sept. 7. Blake Bell replaced Knight and kept the starting job for eight games until suffering an injury late in the season.
Knight’s performance against Alabama ended any speculation about who would be OU’s quarterback in 2014. So much so that Bell decided to move to tight end during the offseason and Kendal Thompson, another backup quarterback, transferred to Utah.
OU coach Bob Stoops said he wasn’t surprised Knight played well against Alabama. In fact, it’s what Stoops expected from his quarterback all along.
“When you go through the entire spring and two-a-days, we saw a lot of great throws and his ability to run and do things,” Stoops said. “It’s why he started the season. We don’t name a starter haphazardly.”
Added Knight: “I think there was a light switch for our whole team. Just the confidence we had and focus we had was different. We were carrying a chip on our shoulders. Nobody gave us a chance. They were fighting to keep us from trying to run out of the tunnel because we were so ready to play.”
Now it’s up to Knight to build on the Sugar Bowl and continue to get better. As good as he looked against Alabama, Knight was still wildly inconsistent last season. In eight games, Knight completed 59 percent of his passes for 819 yards with nine touchdowns and five interceptions. He also ran for 445 yards with two scores and was sacked four times.
“He is definitely coming along,” Stoops said. “It’s easy to say it’s because of the Sugar Bowl, but I think it’s because of natural maturity and the number of snaps he’s taken. He’s progressed. I think the Sugar Bowl allowed him to be a leader and take over the team.”
Moving Bell to another position also allowed Knight to take ownership of OU’s offense, according to Stoops.
“I think it helps so much now that he’s 'the guy,’” said OU center Ty Darlington, Knight’s roommate. “He’s not looking over his shoulder.”
Since setting an OU bowl record with four touchdown passes against Alabama, Knight has been the center of attention around campus. Darlington said it’s rare that Knight isn’t asked to take a photograph or sign an autograph when they attend sporting events or go out for late-night meals.
“Trevor hasn’t changed a ton,” Darlington said. “I would say the way people treat Trevor has changed. It’s different. We’ve always gone everywhere together. Now it’s like we can’t go anywhere. He’s done a good job of embracing it but hasn’t let it go to his head.”
Not that Darlington or Knight’s fraternal twin brother would let his head get too big. Connor Knight is a sophomore tight end for the Sooners and played on special teams last season.
“He hasn’t changed at all,” Connor Knight said.
OU fans will have to wait until the Aug. 30 season opener against Louisiana Tech to find how much better he’ll be this season. They hope to see the quarterback who lit up Alabama’s vaunted defense instead of the one who struggled to keep the starting job.
“It was refreshing to play well and obviously to win a big game like that,” Knight said. “That is what you dream of doing. Internally, it wasn’t a surprise to us. We really did come together and peak at the right time. I think it’s a vote of confidence. It’s nice to play that way in your last game because it carries into the offseason. We just want to build on it and ride the wave and be the best we can be.”
Oklahoma will be without several players during its spring game on Saturday but none of the injuries are major.
Nickelback Julian Wilson, defensive lineman Rashod Favors, defensive tackle Quincy Russell, receiver Sterling Shepard, receiver Durron Neal, tight end Blake Bell, guard Adam Shead, tackle Tyrus Thompson, guard Nila Kasitati and guard Tyler Evans will miss the action due to various injuries but none of them require surgery and head coach Bob Stoops said he expects all of them to return after a short hiatus.
Those injuries have opened the door for several young players on the roster.
“They’re getting more snaps and having to step up,” Stoops said.
Here’s a closer look at how those injuries could open up spring game opportunities for several players on the roster.
Favors: Several young defensive ends including Mike Onuoha are showing good upside this spring and Favors' injury gives them more chances to impress in the spring game. Onuoha was right alongside returning Big 12 first teamer Charles Tapper as the future at the position before a shoulder injury forced him to miss his sophomore season while Tapper starred. He could be hungry to prove he could have made a similar impact. Matt Dimon and D.J. Ward are other young defensive ends who could end up providing quality depth this fall.
Russell: This injury hurts Russell in the race to earn playing time in 2014 and opens up additional opportunities for redshirt freshman Charles Walker to show he’s ready to make an impact in the fall. It also gives the opportunity for another redshirt freshman, Matt Romar, to show Walker isn’t the only youngster looking to force his way into the lineup along a veteran defensive line.
Bell: More than anything Bell’s injury robs us of the opportunity to see the Belldozer play tight end before the fall. And, quite frankly, that’s all anyone is going to think about when it comes to Bell’s absence on Saturday. The overriding question about Bell is not if he can win the starting tight end job, it's can he prove to be one of the best 11 players on offense? That answer will define his playing time and it won't come until the fall.
Shepard and Neal: Redshirt freshman Jordan Smallwood, K.J. Young and Dannon Cavil could have lost all right to complain about a lack of opportunities with these injuries. Don’t be surprised if Smallwood is one of the stars of the spring game, Young is silky smooth and Cavil brings a unique size and athleticism to the receiving corps. Sophomores Derrick Woods and Austin Bennett will also get the chance to shine after limited duty as freshmen in 2013.
Offensive line: Injuries have hammered the offensive line throughout the spring, so being thrown into duty in the spring game will be nothing new for guys like tackle Sam Grant, tackle Christian Daimler and guard Kyle Marrs. They’ll get the chance to get a bunch of reps against a deep defensive line and potentially secure a reputation for themselves before a talented group of offensive line signees arrive in the summer looking to rise past them on the Sooners' depth chart.
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.
“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.
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
“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  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.”
Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight is growing into his role as “the man” behind center this spring. His leadership in the hallways and meeting rooms of OU’s football building could be a key to the 2014 season.
For the majority of the 2013 season the quarterback spot remained unclear as Knight was joined by Kendal Thompson and Blake Bell as options at the position. Now, after Knight’s stellar Allstate Sugar Bowl, the sophomore is the unquestioned starter and the guy the offense will turn to for leadership when adversity hits.
“[It’s] his ability to speak with a louder stick in the weight room and locker room,” offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. “For him to [show] more of his personality and [put his] stamp on the offense.”
Yet, Knight’s role has undertaken a bigger change than his daily approach. Heupel often praised his work ethic and habits while he was redshirting in 2012, saying Knight was preparing as if he was the starter despite being the scout team quarterback at the time.
That part of Knight’s personality is as present as ever.
“I don’t know if it’s necessarily a change in his demeanor,” Heupel said. “He’s a great leader, a great kid on and off the field. He’s extremely competitive. He’s the same guy every day, in the meeting room or on the field, he doesn’t change. Hopefully that will transcend through entire football team.”
Those traits are one of the reasons the coaching staff didn’t think twice about naming him the opening day starter a year ago.
“I don’t notice it being much different,” coach Bob Stoops said. “Because he always did what you wanted him to do.”
It’s easy to forget that Knight is still a young player with three years to play and plenty of improvement to make. He’s the oldest player in the quarterback room with Baker Mayfield (who is ineligible for 2014 after transferring from Texas Tech after his true freshman season), redshirt freshman Cody Thomas and true freshman Justice Hansen alongside him.
“It’s nice to be the oldest guy and be that leader,” Knight said. “But I know that I haven’t accomplished much yet. I’m still a young guy so I want to build off of that and get better and better every day.”
This spring isn’t just about becoming comfortable as the focal point and leader of the offense. Knight needs to become a better quarterback.
“He continues to progress,” Heupel said. “We think he has a great command of what we’re doing and he’s understanding defenses better. He should only get better at every practice with every rep.”
Yet, after Trevor Knight's Sugar Bowl MVP performance, there was no question who would be the Sooners’ starting quarterback in 2014. Thus, Bell had a choice to make: Stay at Oklahoma or search for greener pastures elsewhere.
Bell chose to return to OU, cementing his legacy in the minds of several Sooners fans by asking to move to tight end, a clear sign of his commitment to the program.
“It was a tough decision,” Bell said. “Obviously playing quarterback was my dream, but another dream of mine was to play at OU. And I didn’t want to leave, I didn’t want to go anywhere, so that’s why I stayed around. I love these guys, love my teammates. I just wanted to get on the field somehow.”
This spring is Bell’s first taste of his new position. The blue “don’t hit” quarterback jersey has been abandoned for a crimson No. 10 jersey, bigger shoulder pads and more time battling the big boys in the trenches.
“It’s just a different mindset, and it’ll take me a little bit to get used to, but it’s been fun,” Bell said. “It’s a mentality. You’ve got to flip the switch from quarterback to tight end, and I think that’s the main deal.”
Everything is different, from the physical nature of the position to the intricacies of blocking schemes. He’s gone from being a prime target in the pocket to being able to dish out some punishment of his own on linebackers and defensive linemen. It’s going to take a while before Bell’s athleticism and talent can be on full display at the position, but the senior is slowly but surely becoming more comfortable at tight end.
“It’s a brand new world for Blake,” co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. “It’s fun to watch because he’s a good athlete and he’s got long arms. It’s a different workload for him and he’s beat up and sore. He’s got parts of his body that are bruised that have never been bruised before.”
Bell’s experience as a quarterback could make the transition much smoother for him. He won’t have to spend time trying to understand plays and concepts, allowing him to focus on technique, blocking assignments and route running instead.
“It’s helped me a lot to know the offense,” he said, while noting the ability to read defenses is also a useful asset.
Bell earned the nickname “Belldozer” with his physical running style as a freshman and sophomore behind former quarterback Landry Jones. At 6-foot-6, 264 pounds, he gave as much punishment as he received while becoming a short-yardage specialist in 2011 and 2012. OU hopes that physical nature and playmaking ability can transfer to the tight end position.
“Blake’s got soft hands, good hands,” Sooners coach Bob Stoops said. “He’s running around really well. He’s a huge target. I’m sure blocking is something we’ll have to work hard on, but Blake’s athletic, Blake’s tough. He’s got size, he’s got strength, he’s got the things you need to do it.”
OU has been searching for a receiving threat at tight end since James Hanna moved on to the NFL after the 2011 season. The Sooners are hopeful that Bell will be the answer to their woes at the spot.
“It’s really fun to watch him compete and make plays for us,” Norvell said. “I think he’s really going to help us as a tight end.”
A vacant sign would be the best representation of the Sooners backup quarterback spot with Blake Bell's move to tight end and Kendal Thompson's decision to transfer to Utah.
“It’s opened that window of opportunity for him to get those reps, and I’m sure it will be the most a guy like that’s been able to get [at OU],” head coach Bob Stoops said. “But watching Justice work out, he fits the part of being here and belonging, so we’ll be excited to get him those snaps and seeing how he does.”
Questions about Thomas tend to revolve around his ability to juggle his football and baseball duties. He was solid while running the scout team last fall but will have to manage his time well to excel behind center this spring.
“Coach Pete [Hughes] and Josh [Heupel], they’ve already communicated really well through the winter,” Stoops said. “We want him to have success at both and I know they want him to have it too. So we’ll do the best we can to manage it. So far, it hasn’t been a problem.”
Three practices into the spring, the Sooners feel positive about the progress of Hansen and Thomas alongside Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield, who is ineligible to play this fall but has already made a strong impression in crimson and cream.
“Justice being here, Cody being involved in spring practice, those guys have done a lot of good things,” co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. “They’ve taken their understanding to a new level and [are] spreading the ball around. We’re going to need more than one quarterback to play well for us to win games. Those guys have made some good strides in three days.”
No battle for a backup spot on the depth chart is more important in Norman, Okla., this spring. The nightmare scenario for the Sooners would be watching an injury to Knight derail what could have been a national title run in the fall.
“It’ll be a big part our team’s success, is those guys coming around and getting a really good and consistent feel of what we want them to do at the quarterback position,” Stoops said. “It’ll really important that we do a good job with them and make sure they work hard in the spring.”
The Sooners are well ahead of where they were at this time last year but still have work to do if they hope to build off their 2013 season. Here are five things that need to happen for a successful spring in Norman, Okla.
A backup quarterback emerges: OU and Blake Bell are all in on the senior’s move to tight end. Thus, redshirt freshman Cody Thomas or early enrollee freshman Justice Hansen need to show they can handle the pressure of running the offense during spring practice. They are a pair of young, inexperienced quarterbacks who could find themselves thrown into the fire if anything happens to Knight. Heading into a season with one proven quarterback is never a good idea, so the Sooners are hopeful Thomas or Hansen can erase concerns about the backup QB spot.
Competition in the trenches: The Sooners return several veteran offensive and defensive linemen, including DE Charles Tapper, OT Daryl Williams and DE/DT Chuka Ndulue. Thus, if playing time and the overall rotation remains up in the air heading into the summer, that means young players like DE Mike Onuoha, DT Charles Walker and OT Derek Farniok are amping up the competition in the trenches. If that is happening, the Sooners could dominate games with their depth and versatility on the lines.
Skill position players step up: The best-case scenario for offensive coordinator Josh Heupel and the rest of the offensive staff is to spend the summer trying to figure out ways to get several players involved. The only way that would happen is if youngsters at running back and receiver look like playmakers this spring because simply having starters emerge at those positions is not enough. OU lost its top two rushers and three of its top four receivers from last season, but if only two or three players seize the opportunity for more playing time, its depth at both positions would be in doubt. A two-deep full of playmakers is always better than a sizable drop off after the starters.
The defense appears to be faster and deeper: One reason the Sooners surprised in 2013 was their speed and versatility on defense. It’s a scary proposition for Big 12 offenses if OU gets more athletic and deeper in 2014. This spring will tell if increased depth and athleticism in the secondary is a certainty. Young players along the defensive line and at linebacker could upgrade the athleticism at both spots if they are ready to make an impact.