Oklahoma Sooners: Charles Tapper
The nation watched with eyebrows raised as the Sooners throttled the two-time reigning BCS champions 45-31 in January then rode the momentum from that victory to a strong finish on the recruiting trail. The win could be a blessing as it showed the Sooners their potential, bringing visions of a national championship run into focus.
The downside? Those same players could hear the praise showered upon them in the offseason while forgetting the little steps and hard work that helped the Sooners overcome their inconsistent passing game to win 11 games.
“Talking to Jerry Schmidt, our strength coach, and all of our coaches who have been working and developing our guys out of season really believe that it’s been our best or one of our best years,” he said. “We’re really excited about the overall attitude and preparation and the way our guys are working.”
OU needs that dedication to continue, as the Sooners could be counting on several young players to fill critical roles in 2014, including sophomore running back Keith Ford, sophomore cornerback Stanvon Taylor and sophomore safety Ahmad Thomas. Those three are just a few signees from the Sooners' Class of 2013 who need to step up if a national title run is realistic.
Those young players get their chance to shine, as the start of spring marks the beginning of an intriguing time of year for Stoops.
“It’s really exciting,” Stoops said. “Probably my most exciting time of the year because you get to see the young guys that we’ve seen in practice now in a more competitive setting and fighting for jobs and making plays.”
OU’s closed-practice policy means those young players start to make their move out of the public eye. Nonetheless, those players who make names for themselves in March and April often become contributors in the fall. Defensive end Charles Tapper’s strong spring in 2013 was a precursor of his All-Big 12 performance as a sophomore last season.
“Not everybody in the outside world gets to see it,” Stoops said. “As a coach, [you] get to see it in scrimmages or when we go good against good, we start to see them make those kind of plays. It’s exciting when guys start to really figure it out and get ready to play.”
Ford, Taylor and Thomas are among several Sooners who played limited roles as true freshman as OU went 11-2 during their first season. But making an impact on special teams and proving themselves ready to become regulars in their second season are two different things. Those special teams duties can give them a taste of performing on the big stage while making them hungry to make an even bigger impact in the future. It’s one reason Stoops expects a hungry team to take the field this weekend.
“It’s always that way,” Stoops said. “Guys who have played a little bit or haven’t played at all are really champing at the bit to show they’re ready for it and that it’s their time now. That’s why it’s always so exciting.”
The Sooners' reaction to last season's success could be a concern because the majority of the roster had never won 11 games or a BCS bowl before last season. Safety Quentin Hayes, nickelback Julian Wilson, tight end Blake Bell and defensive lineman Chuka Ndulue are among several Sooners who were redshirting when OU last accomplished both of those feats in 2010, but nobody had been a core contributor on a Sooners squad that had that type of success before the 2013 campaign.
Yet Stoops seemed unconcerned during his pre-spring media session on Thursday.
“We’ve had probably the best winter we’ve ever had,” he said. “So, they’re not sitting back thinking about that and not doing what they need to do to move forward. I think more than anything, it’s made them hungrier to build on and to keep improving.”
An exceptional Sugar Bowl performance, a young and talented defense and renewed confidence in quarterback Trevor Knight has the Sooners eyeing a national title run in 2014. Yet that won’t happen without growth at several key positions, starting this spring. This week we’ll make five spring predictions, continuing with No. 3:
Why it matters: Games are won in the trenches; just ask Alabama. At this time last year, questions about OU’s defensive line sat atop the list of concerns heading into spring. Now the Sooners return a defensive line full of playmakers, including All-Big 12 defensive end Charles Tapper. How well that group continues to develop will have a major impact on OU’s national title hopes.
What it would mean: If the Sooners defensive front takes another step forward, it could become the foundation of a national title run. Tapper has NFL talent and a hunger to be great, Geneo Grissom played one of the best games of his career in the Sugar Bowl, and the two Jordans (Jordan Phillips and Jordan Wade) are a terrific potential duo in the defensive interior. Add in Chuka Ndulue and OU has all the making for an exceptional defensive line.
Yet how well the depth behind that group develops could be the key. Charles Walker's name repeatedly came up as a stellar scout teamer during his redshirting freshman season and could earn himself some playing time this spring. At defensive end, Matt Dimon, Mike Onuoha and D.J. Ward could show they are ready to play as well, which would make the Sooners three-deep at all three positions on the front.
It’s a talent-laden group that returns playmaking starters while still featuring several youngsters with terrific upside. If the competition for playing time raises the overall level of play of the entire group, they should provide nightmares for Big 12 offensive coordinators this fall while becoming one of the best defensive line groups in Stoops' tenure.
2. TCU: DE Devonte Fields, the Associated Press’ Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year as a freshman in 2012, had an empty season in 2013 thanks to a suspension, then a season-ending foot injury. If Fields can return to the player he was, TCU will be formidable up front. Chucky Hunter was a second-team All-Big 12 pick inside last season, and he’ll be flanked by an array of experienced tackles in Davion Pierson and Tevin Lawson, who were all part of the rotation last season. Ends Terrell Lathan, James McFarland and Mike Tuaua, who combined for 11 sacks in 2013, all return as well. Even with DT Jon Lewis giving up football, TCU's D-line figures to be as deep as any in the league.
3. Texas: Cedric Reed, one of the best sack men in the Big 12 last season, returns after giving the NFL a cursory thought. The Longhorns have to replace Big 12 co-Defensive Player of the Year Jackson Jeffcoat on the other side, but ESPN 300 recruit Derick Roberson, the No. 8 DE in the Class of 2014, could help right away. The Longhorns should also be stout inside, with run-stuffing tackles Malcom Brown and Desmond Jackson back to clog the middle.
4. Kansas State: Ryan Mueller, who was eighth nationally with 11.5 sacks last season, comes back after a breakout All-Big 12 season. Travis Britz is an all-conference-caliber tackle and gives K-State one of the better one-two punches on the D-line in the league. Joining them will be Terrell Clinkscales, who was the No. 4 junior college DT in the 2014 class. The Wildcats pried Clinkscales away from Nebraska, and at 315 pounds he could be the perfect complement to Britz, who relies more on quickness.
6. Baylor: The Bears feature two of the more intriguing defensive linemen in the league. DE Shawn Oakman, a former Penn State transfer with tremendous length at 6-foot-9, finished sixth in the league with 12.5 tackles for loss last season, but he tailed off in Big 12 play. Baylor will ask him to play a much bigger role along the line, and he has the potential to give the Bears a unique playmaker there. On the inside, Baylor will lean more on Andrew Billings, who was part of the DT rotation as a freshman. If both Billings and Oakman play up to their vast potential, Baylor could be a handful up front.
7. West Virginia: The Mountaineers lose two of three starters along the D-line, including second-team All-Big 12 end Will Clarke. West Virginia is hoping for big things from DE Kyle Rose, who played a lot as a sophomore. Dontrill Hyman will likely fill a starting role on the other side, though he could get pushed for time by Eric Kinsey and Noble Nwachukwu, who both will be in their third year in the program. The Mountaineers will lean on Christian Brown and Darrien Howard at nose guard. Howard was an ESPN 300 recruit last year and played as a freshman. There’s some talent and potential here.
8. Iowa State: Like Texas Tech, Iowa State loaded up on immediate defensive line help, signing three juco defensive ends in Dalyou Pierson, Terry Ayeni and Gabe Luna, who is enrolled already for spring ball. Those three together with All-Big 12 honorable-mention selection Cory Morrissey and sophomore Mitchell Meyers should give Iowa State a solid rotation at end. Rodney Coe, who started the last four games, will anchor the Cyclones inside.
9. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders lose their two best defensive linemen in Kerry Hyder and Dartwan Bush, and Tech got pushed around up front anyway last season. Coach Kliff Kingsbury recognized this deficiency and signed four juco defensive linemen, all of whom have a chance to play immediately. Of the returning linemen, Branden Jackson was by far the most productive, totaling nine tackles for loss and four sacks as a starter.
10. Kansas: Despite also losing two starters, the Jayhawks have experience up front. Defensive captain Keon Stowers is back after manning the middle in 2013. Ben Goodman returns as well in Kansas’ “buck” role, and he is coming off a very solid sophomore season. Goodman’s backup, Michael Reynolds, and rotation players Tedarian Johnson and Ty McKinney give the Jayhawks depth.
OU landed 11 four-star recruits in 2012, including five members of the ESPN 150, and while it’s relatively early in their careers, several signees, including defensive end Charles Tapper, linebacker Eric Striker, quarterback Trevor Knight and receiver Sterling Shepard, have already made major contributions. The class was ranked No. 11 nationally by ESPN.com.
Defensive end Charles Tapper: He was the rawest signee in the class. Now, two years later, he’s an All-Big 12 defensive end with an NFL future. OU deserves a ton of credit for finding this hidden gem and Tapper deserves just as much credit for pushing himself to greatness and turning his potential into on-field production. Not bad for the nation’s No. 74-ranked defensive end.
Quarterback Trevor Knight: The sophomore quarterback was showing unique traits before he even stepped on campus, organizing fellow recruits and displaying leadership ability before he signed with OU. The No. 22-ranked quarterback in the nation, Knight won the starting job last August and, after some ups and downs during the regular season, lifted up the Sugar Bowl MVP trophy in early January after leading OU to an impressive win over Alabama. OU will build its offense around his talents this offseason and if he plays like he did in the Sugar Bowl, the sky is the limit for the Sooners in 2014.
Receiver Sterling Shepard: As soon as the Under Armour All-American stepped on campus everyone knew Shepard would be a key part of the Sooners’ plans. He was one reason OU went to a four-receiver base package in 2012 as they aimed to get their top 11 players on the field and he hasn’t disappointed with 96 receptions for 1,224 yards and 10 touchdowns in his first two seasons. The No. 60 player in the ESPN 150, Shepard should be Knight’s primary target in 2014.
Linebacker Eric Striker: Sooners running backs were complaining about having to try to block Striker during his freshman year but he rarely saw the field on defense in 2012. That changed in 2013 as he became one of the Big 12’s most feared pass rushers. His acceleration and knack for getting to the quarterback made him a critical part of the defense as a sophomore and earned him All-Big 12 second team honors after stepping on campus as the No. 62 safety in the nation.
Cornerback Zack Sanchez: The No. 64 cornerback in the nation, Sanchez has started every game of his young career and has displayed the competitiveness required to excel at cornerback. He’s already exceeding expectations.
Center Ty Darlington: He could be the anchor of OU’s offensive line as a junior after two quality years behind All-Big 12 center Gabe Ikard. Darlington was No. 148 in the ESPN 150.
Receiver Lacoltan Bester: A late junior college signee, Bester did exactly what he was brought in to do. He provided veteran depth and competition to the receiving corps during his two seasons.
Receiver Durron Neal: His junior year is a big one for Neal. He’s seen spot duty during his first two seasons but needs to step up and secure a spot in the starting lineup this fall. Neal was No. 64 in the ESPN 150.
Receiver Derrick Woods: Woods made an impact on special teams as a redshirt freshman and his Sugar Bowl catch was a glimpse at his potential to make an impact on offense. Woods was No. 137 in the ESPN 150.
Running back Damien Williams: Williams did what he was brought in to do, provide competition and big plays at the running back spot for two seasons. Even though his Sooners’ career ended with his dismissal, he gave the program two productive seasons.
Tight end Brannon Green: Green was a valuable blocker and overlooked key to OU’s running success during his two years in Norman, Okla.
Completely missed the mark
Offensive lineman John Michael McGee: It always was odd for the Sooners to sign McGee, who said he didn’t love football during the recruiting process. Therefore, it really was no surprise when he quit the team before his freshman season even began.
Overall grade: A+
This class has been on campus for two years and already features an All-Big 12 first teamer, All-Big 12 second teamer, a freshman All-American and a Sugar Bowl MVP. Anyone expecting more from a recruiting class that has been on campus for 18 months needs to re-think their expectations.
Starter/contributors: Charles Tapper (Jr.), Geneo Grissom (Sr.), P.L. Lindley (Jr.), Matt Dimon (So.)
Grissom was the Trevor Knight of the defense in the Sugar Bowl, taking his game to another level against the Crimson Tide. He’s another guy who went from potential to production in 2013. If he gets even better in 2014, OU’s defensive line could be devastating.
Lindley brings good depth, size and strength to the defensive end spot. His ability to slide into OU’s defense against certain offenses makes him a valuable asset.
Dimon provides quality young depth as a player who earned himself a role in the defense immediately. He played in his first-ever game and carved out a special teams role during his first year on campus. He’s one reason OU should be excited about the future in 2014 and beyond.
On the cusp: Mike Onuoha (So.), D.J. Ward (redshirt freshman)
Onuoha redshirted as a sophomore but he brings a skill set that nobody else along the defensive line possesses with his length and athleticism. That unique ability leaves his chances of making an impact in 2014 within his hands more than anyone else's.
One of OU’s top signees in 2013, Ward redshirted last fall. He is talented but there’s so much talent ahead of him it would be a slight surprise for him to rise into the defensive line rotation immediately.
On the recruiting trail: Dwayne Orso Jr. (Birmingham, Ala./Homewood)
Orso is a solid prospect in the mold of former Sooner Frank Alexander. He should bring versatility and upside to an already stacked defensive end group.
Overall Grade: A+
What more do you want?
Oklahoma entered the season counting on inexperienced players at quarterback, along the defensive line and in the secondary. Yet the Sooners finished the season with 11 wins, including a Sugar Bowl victory over SEC power Alabama.
The Sooners overcame inconsistency at quarterback thanks to young players such as defensive end Charles Tapper, linebacker Eric Striker, linebacker Dominique Alexander and cornerback Zack Sanchez, who emerged as key cogs in OU’s defense.
Offensive MVP: Gabe Ikard. It’s rare for an offensive lineman to be the clear MVP of an offense, but Ikard’s consistency, durability and leadership were critical. The senior center was one reason OU overcame uncertainty at quarterback and finished second in the Big 12 in rushing (223.92 yards per game).
Defensive MVP: Aaron Colvin. The senior cornerback was outstanding, as he earned All-Big 12 honors for the second straight year. His coverage skills, leadership and confidence rarely went unnoticed when he was healthy and on the field. His experience and excellence are one reason the Sooners finished first in the Big 12 in total yards (350.2) and passing yards (212.54) per game.
Best moment: OU’s 45-31 win in the Sugar Bowl was the best moment in recent memory for the Sooners. Bob Stoops' squad proved to the world that it can play with anyone after entering the game as the clear underdog. Quarterback Trevor Knight was the MVP with a four-touchdown performance that left Sooners fans dreaming about the future.
Worst moment: Things got ugly during OU’s 41-12 loss at Baylor. The Sooners' offense looked overmatched and inept against the Big 12 champions as the Bears pulled away from OU in the second half of a nationally televised Thursday night battle.
The Sooners' bowl performance catapulted this grade up to a B. They were a very average offense for the majority of the season, lacking balance and consistency in the passing attack. Their running game was terrific, averaging 223.92 yards, second in the Big 12 and No. 18 nationally among FBS teams. Senior running back Brennan Clay had the best season of his career with 175 carries for 957 yards and six touchdowns. He was OU’s most consistent skill player.
But Oklahoma's passing game was inconsistent and didn’t create fear for any defense it faced with a passing attack that surpassed 200 yards just three times during the regular season. The Sooners' Sugar Bowl offense was the one the offensive coaching staff had envisioned when they named Trevor Knight the starter before the season began, so the Sooners enter this offseason with hope. OU’s quarterback situation is clearer now than it was at any point during the regular season.
The Sooners' offensive line deserves an A. The group didn’t dominate every single game but rarely had bad outings and was the main reason for the offensive success OU did achieve in the regular season. Center Gabe Ikard was the best player on the team and his leadership was one reason this squad overachieved.
OU’s defense was the foundation of its BCS berth. The defense entered the season with a huddle full of questions, yet was the driving force behind another 10-win regular season in Norman, Okla.
The defensive line was very good, overachieving with a lot of inexperienced players. Sophomore Charles Tapper became an impact player, and the development of several other defensive linemen, including Jordan Wade and Geneo Grissom, cannot be understated. New defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery did a terrific job.
The linebackers redeemed themselves as the most productive position group after a shaky 2013. Despite losing senior leader Corey Nelson, OU’s linebackers were solid throughout the year and Big 12 defensive freshman of the year Dominique Alexander looks like a future star.
Cornerback Aaron Colvin joined Ikard as one of the leaders and best players on the squad. He was the anchor of a defense that finished atop the Big 12 in yards allowed per game (350.2 ypg). OU’s secondary was relatively inexperienced but more than held its own even with some rough patches against Alabama and Kansas State.
Special teams: A
Special teams play won the Sooners some games in 2013. Those units had a major impact in wins over Iowa State, Oklahoma State and West Virginia. Jalen Saunders was one of the nation’s top punt returners and kicker Michael Hunnicutt was money for the majority of the season.
This OU squad had no business going 11-2 as injury after injury crippled the team, but it still found a way to keep winning games. The Sooners' pride, competitiveness and undeterred expectations for success rose them to another level and was never more apparent than in the Sugar Bowl win over the Crimson Tide. OU entered the season with muted expectations and ended it alongside the best teams in college football.
Safety Gabe Lynn’s interception in the first quarter
The Sooners brought four pass rushers against Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron, who made a horrible decision, throwing into triple coverage despite not being pressured. The Crimson Tide had single coverage on every other receiver, making McCarron’s decision even worse. He essentially threw the ball as if he didn't see that Lynn was sitting in center field to attack any deep throw.
Lynn, reading McCarron’s eyes, made the easy interception. It was a key play for the Sooners as it came right after Knight threw an interception on OU’s first possession, and it prevented the Crimson Tide from jumping out to a two-touchdown lead.
Knight’s 45-yard touchdown to Lacoltan Bester in the first quarter
It started with a play-action pass off a zone-read fake. OU only had two receivers running routes, with Sterling Shepard providing a safety net option after the fake. Without a perfect throw from Knight, this would not have been a touchdown. It was accurate with zip, allowing Bester to gather it in and turn upfield. Bester’s stutter step provided just enough room to dive in for the score. The most underrated aspect of the touchdown was the confidence from Heupel to call a pass on the first offensive play after Knight’s interception.
The fact coach Bob Stoops sought out Knight to congratulate him after the play speaks volumes about the importance of the touchdown. It was at that point the Sooners realized Knight had brought his “A” game and they would be able to take advantage of the Crimson Tide’s focus on OU’s ground attack.
Knight’s 43-yard beauty to Jalen Saunders in the second quarter
Alabama defensive back Deion Belue gave Saunders’ a 10-yard cushion before the snap, and still was beaten deep. This is where having NFL-caliber players on your roster pays off.
Play action helped get Saunders one-on-one against Belue, who bit on Saunders' double move. Knight delivered a perfect throw over the outside shoulder, where only Saunders could make a play on it. The senior receiver made a superb, over-the-shoulder catch while keeping one foot in bounds for the touchdown. Saunders' combination of quickness and acceleration was simply too much for Belue on the play.
Cornerback Zack Sanchez's interception
Everett, who was five yards behind the line of scrimmage when the ball was snapped, was in McCarron’s face when the Bama quarterback threw the ball. Sanchez, knowing the blitz was on, jumped the hot route for the interception in front of Amari Cooper, who stopped his route for some reason. Alabama actually picked up the blitz well, but OU just brought too many defenders to block. Sanchez made a great play and Cooper didn’t.
Geneo Grissom’s touchdown to seal the game
Cyrus Kouandjio is probably still waking up in the middle of the night from nightmares of trying to block Sooners linebacker Eric Striker. The sophomore blew past the All-SEC left tackle to force a fumble by McCarron that was scooped up by Grissom and returned eight yards for a touchdown.
The play is notable because it was a mirror representation of the key to OU’s win. The Sooners were able to get pressure on McCarron while rushing four defenders. Striker got to McCarron less than three seconds after the snap and defensive end Charles Tapper, after a stunt, drove his man back into McCarron’s face, preventing him from stepping up into the pocket to avoid Striker. Both players won their individual battles and the result was the game-sealing touchdown.
And it could be even better in 2014.
“All of the young players are improving," defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “That’s critical this time of year, you could see them in three days starting to get better.”
The defensive line is quickly looking like it could be a clear strength of the defense with freshman Matt Dimon joining redshirting freshmen Charles Walker, Matt Romar and D.J. Ward along a defensive front that is poised to return every starter in 2014.
“We have a lot of guys coming up,” defensive end Chuka Ndulue said. “When they get it figured out, because right now they are just doing it off of raw talent and making plays … They are kind of like Tap (Charles Tapper). Just imagine a bunch of Charles Tappers running up and down the field. That’s going to be good.”
Walker, in particular, has impressed his teammates during his redshirt season on the scout team defense.
“He’s a monster, a man child out there,” Sanchez said.
A former high school running back, Walker was an late addition to OU’s 2013 recruiting class. The Sooners are hopeful that Walker translates his raw potential into consistent production in 2014. If he does, OU’s defensive line could be one of the deepest units in recent memory.
“Charles Walker on the defensive line has a great future ahead of him,” center Gabe Ikard said. “He might be the most explosive guy we have on the team right now. If he is able to develop the skill work that Coach [Jerry] Montgomery has been able to develop in the guys that are playing right now, he could be an animal on the football field because he is extremely explosive.”
In the secondary, L.J. Moore has impressed at cornerback. Moore, a true freshman, saw limited action in early games this season but wasn’t a consistent contributor during the Sooners’ road to the Sugar Bowl.
“L.J. has been doing his thing,” Sanchez said. “He got moved to the scout team throughout the year but he’s back and he’s competing. That’s big. When you get moved to the scout team, sometimes it can do things to your confidence, you kind of don’t want to be here, you don’t care but these past couple of days it’s been good to see that from him.”
Those young standouts could combine with Alexander and Jordan Evans, who each played well as true freshman linebackers, to give OU talented freshman and/or sophomores along the defensive line, at linebacker and in the secondary.
“It’s been great to see these guys out there,” sophomore linebacker Eric Striker said of the young talent on the roster. “To see them do [well] is a good thing for the future.”
Here is one stat from each Big 12 team that helped define the season:
Iowa State’s sacks allowed: The Cyclones allowed 37 sacks in 12 games, an average of 3.08 per game. ISU finished last in the nation and tied for No. 113 among FBS teams in the category. The trouble protecting the passer speaks volumes about the injury struggles Paul Rhoads’ team had along the offensive line. Ten different ISU offensive linemen started games this season, with nine different starting lineups starting the first 11 games. All of ISU’s offensive problems began up front.
Kansas’ yards per play: It’s amazing to think how bad Charlie Weis’ offense was this season. The Jayhawks ranked among the worst in the nation in several categories, but their 4.28 yards per play was No. 120 among FBS teams. KU entered the season with much higher expectations for this offensive unit, particularly with BYU transfer Jake Heaps as the triggerman. Yet the Jayhawks never really found any consistency, as Weis and company tried several different things to jump start the unit. KU scored more than 20 points twice this season, letting down a defense that was much improved over last year’s group.
Kansas State’s yards per play: When you think of the top offenses in the Big 12, it takes a while to get to Kansas State. Yet the Wildcats featured a surprisingly explosive offense despite losing uber-productive quarterback Collin Klein off last year’s squad. This year’s K-State offense averaged 6.3 yards per play, second to only Baylor in the Big 12 and No. 28 among FBS teams. Bill Snyder’s ability to find harmony while using Jake Waters and Daniel Sams in a two-quarterback system led to 33.4 points per game by an offense that didn’t enter the season expected to be among the Big 12’s best.
Oklahoma’s yards allowed per game: The Sooners allowed just 336.3 yards per game to lead the Big 12 and finish No. 13 in the FBS. OU entered the season with a lot of questions and concerns about a defense that was embarrassed by Johnny Manziel in last year's Cotton Bowl and was losing a bunch of starters, yet the Sooners defense improved thanks to several young players, including defensive end Charles Tapper and Big 12 defensive newcomer of the year Dominique Alexander. OU's defense was the foundation of the Sooners' 10-2 season and Sugar Bowl berth.
Oklahoma State’s opponent third down conversion rate: The Cowboys defense was among the Big 12’s best in its first season under Glenn Spencer. Their third down production was superb, allowing opponents to convert just 31.3 percent of their third down attempts to lead the Big 12 and finish seventh among FBS teams. OSU’s veteran defense and willingness to be more aggressive on third downs under Spencer played a key role in its success in those situations and eventual 10-2 finish.
Texas sack percentage: The Longhorns' ability to get after the quarterback played a key role in their success. UT featured two of the Big 12’s top pass rushing threats in Jackson Jeffcoat and Cedric Reed. That duo helped UT sack opposing quarterbacks on 8.6 percent of passing plays, ranking No. 1 in the Big 12 and No. 9 among FBS teams while finishing with 37 total sacks, including 35 during Big 12 play, helping UT to a 7-2 conference record.
TCU third down conversion rate: The Horned Frogs converted just 32 percent of their third down attempts this season, ranking eighth in the Big 12 and No. 113 among FBS teams. It’s easy to see why the Horned Frogs have brought in former Houston offensive coordinator Doug Meacham to take over their offense. TCU’s defense was good enough to be in the Big 12 title race, its offense was not.
Texas Tech passing yards per game: It was a terrific debut season for head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s offense despite some musical chairs at the quarterback position. The Red Raiders averaged 392 passing yards per game to lead the Big 12 and rank second among FBS teams despite having true freshmen Baker Mayfield and Davis Webb running the offense. Without one of the nation’s elite passing offenses, it’s unlikely the Red Raiders earn a bowl bid with a 7-5 record.
West Virginia’s opponent third down conversion rate: The Mountaineers allowed opponents to convert 42.7 percent of their third down attempts, ranking last in the Big 12 and No. 91 among FBS teams. WVU’s inability to get off the field in those important moments was one reason the Mountaineers’ defense allowed 455 yards per game, leading to the team's 4-8 finish.
Oklahoma's defense was the foundation of the team's drive to the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Mike Stoops' unit finished atop the Big 12 in passing yards allowed and total yards allowed while making sure the Sooners had the chance to win every game they played, even with constant uncertainty at quarterback. The defensive line was surprisingly good, the linebackers were much more productive than in 2012 and the secondary replaced several starters with relative ease.
Here are the position-by-position grades for the Sooners' defense.
Linebackers: A-. OU’s linebackers showed terrific improvement in 2013. Junior Frank Shannon and freshman Dominique Alexander, the Big 12 defensive newcomer of the year, finished 1-2 in tackles. Shannon played through nicks and bruises to finish with 85 tackles while Alexander finished with 75 stops after being thrust into the starting role against Texas. Add linebacker/defensive end hybrid Eric Striker to the mix and the linebackers were among the most productive groups on the squad. The versatility of Shannon and Alexander and Striker’s pass rushing skills are one reason the Sooners finished second in the Big 12 and No. 13 among FBS teams in third-down conversion percentage at 32.5 percent.
Cornerbacks: A-. Two-time All-Big 12 performer Aaron Colvin is an “A+++” performer. He showed toughness, leadership and exceptional coverage skills as a senior. With Colvin on the other side, redshirt freshman Zack Sanchez was constantly picked on by opponents but held up well and, most importantly, displayed the competitive nature every cornerback needs to succeed. Behind Colvin and Sanchez, freshman Stanvon Taylor and sophomore Cortez Johnson both made starts and earned valuable experience while providing quality depth. And nickelback Julian Wilson was stellar in his first season as a starter while tying for the team lead with three interceptions. OU led the Big 12 with 198 passing yards allowed per game, largely because of quality play from its cornerbacks and Wilson.
Safeties: A-. As good as the cornerbacks were, the safeties held their own in the defensive backfield. OU’s safeties were better in coverage this season than in 2012 while limiting big plays in the running and passing game. Gabe Lynn and Quentin Hayes weren’t dominant forces in the secondary but they were very good and played key roles while helping the Sooners to their 10-2 record.
OU finished the season 10-2 including a 7-2 Big 12 record as some likely and unlikely candidates stepped up to make a difference during a season that was initially billed as a rebuilding year but will end with the Sooners playing in a BCS bowl.
Here is a regular season review of the standout players and coaches during OU’s BCS journey.
Offensive MVP: Center Gabe Ikard. It’s not often that an offensive lineman is the clear MVP of a 10-win team. But Ikard’s not your normal offensive lineman. A four-year starter, Ikard’s experience and intelligence helped the Sooners overcome an season-ending injury to fullback Trey Millard, a quarterback carousel and multiple running backs taking turns as the lead ball carrier. Through it all the offensive line helped the Sooners average 235.83 rushing yards per game and allowed 15 sacks with Ikard’s leadership and example.
Defensive MVP: Linebacker Frank Shannon. The sophomore fought off injuries to play in all 12 games and lead the squad with 85 tackles along with seven tackles for loss, two sacks and one interception. When senior linebacker Corey Nelson was lost for the season in early October, Shannon went from an understudy to a on-field leadership role. His presence also helped true freshman Dominique Alexander excel in Nelson’s absence.
Special teams MVP: Jalen Saunders. The senior receiver changed the game with punt returns for touchdowns against Iowa State and Oklahoma State during the Sooners’ three-game win streak to end the regular season. Without those two returns, who knows how those games could have turned out. He averaged 16.78 yards per punt return and had five punt returns for more than 20 yards.
Assistant coach of the year: Defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery. The season began with a defensive line full of unknowns and inexperience. Yet, it performed like a veteran group and even shook off an season-ending injury to Jordan Phillips to finish No. 1 in the Big 12 in yards allowed per game. Several inexperienced players including Charles Tapper and Jordan Wade played important roles under Montgomery's coaching.
Undervalued contributor on offense: Receiver Sterling Shepard. The sophomore wasn’t the No. 1 guy like Saunders, but when he wasn’t involved OU’s passing attack wasn’t as potent. He finished with 44 receptions for 540 yards and six touchdowns. His 67.7 completion percentage (44 receptions in 65 targets) led the squad. Shepard stepped up in key games and provided a quality big play threat when teams focused on Saunders.
Undervalued contributor on defense: Linebacker Eric Striker. The Florida native helped transform the Sooners’ defense with his relentlessness and quickness off the edge. Playing a standup linebacker who consistently blitzed on passing downs, Striker proved to be one of OU’s top pass rushing threats with 3.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss. He wasn't among the team leaders in tackles but he was always active when he was on the field.
Newcomer of the year: Alexander. The coaching staff had raved about Alexander since the preseason but his opportunities were limited until Nelson’s injury. He had 10 tackles in his first four games but had 19 tackles in his first start against Texas after Nelson was sidelined. He finished with 75 tackles, second on the squad.
Most improved player: Tapper. The defensive end stepped on campus as a raw former basketball star with plenty of potential. He ends his sophomore season leading the Sooners in sacks (5.5) and tackle for losses (9). His size, speed and quickness will make him one of the Big 12’s most feared defenders in 2014.
The true freshman has come a long way since preseason camp opened in August.
"I'm playing faster since my first start; I'm seeing things," Alexander said. "My coaches said my vision has gotten a lot better, seeing the whole play. I can see things a lot better with the more games I've played. I have a lot more confidence since my first game."
Alexander has been one of the most productive players on the Sooners' defense since Corey Nelson was injured against TCU. He has stepped into Nelson's role and recorded double-digit tackles in two of the four games, including an 11-tackle effort against Baylor last Thursday. He ranks third on the squad with 51 tackles.
"For a guy who has not been in the system at all until this summer he has shown great maturity on and off the field," defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. "He's a guy we can lean on and will be a strong player in this system."
Alexander has been a shining light during some cloudy days for the Sooners, who have lost two of their last four contests. And he isn't the only reason for hope for the future on the defensive side of the football.
OU entered the season with an inexperienced defensive unit, yet thanks in part to strong contributions from young, inexperienced players like Alexander, the defense has emerged as the strongest unit on the team. Alexander, linebacker Eric Striker, cornerback Zack Sanchez, defensive tackle Jordan Wade and defensive end Charles Tapper are among several freshmen and sophomores who have shown they can be the foundation of the Sooners defense in the future.
"All those guys show signs of building for the future," Stoops said. "I'm excited about all of our young players."
Striker is the Sooners' top pass rusher and has been terrorizing quarterbacks throughout the season. He has proven very difficult to block with one blocker in passing situations, and the sophomore is tied for the team lead with seven quarterback hurries to go with his 2.5 sacks.
Tapper has looked like one of the best defenders on the team at various times during his sophomore season. His strength, athleticism, quickness and speed could make him the nest great defensive end in Norman. He leads the team with 4.5 sacks and seven tackles for loss along with his seven hurries to tie Striker.
Sanchez has had ups-and-downs during his redshirt freshman campaign but has displayed the competitive nature that many stellar cornerbacks possess. He went from afterthought to starting every game of his first season on the field and should be a key contributor for years to come. He has been picked on throughout the season and has responded with a team-high 10 pass breakups.
Wade has stepped in for Jordan Phillips, who was lost for the season with a back injury. The redshirt freshman hasn't been the anchor or disruptive force that Phillips was becoming, but he has shown signs he could be a quality defensive tackle for the Sooners during his career. He has blocked two kicks and recorded one sack this season.
Several other youngsters, including cornerback Stanvon Taylor, defensive end Matt Dimon and linebacker Jordan Evans have had their moments, as well, during their true freshmen seasons and look like they could become the foundation of what the Sooners hope can be a championship defense in the future.
"I couldn't be more excited about what we are doing with a lot of these guys," Stoops said. "They show a strong desire to want to be good. They show a very competitive element. There's a lot to build on."
Receiver Sterling Shepard: The sophomore receiver helped the Sooners finally find some big plays in the passing game with seven receptions for 82 yards and two touchdowns. Shepard was particularly explosive on first-down plays with four receptions for 68 yards and both scores on first down.
Running back Roy Finch: It remains hard to understand why Finch is not a major part of the offensive game plan each and every week. He averaged 8 yards per touch from scrimmage (8 touches, 64 yards) and led the Sooners with 93 all-purpose yards. At some point he’s got to become a mainstay in an OU offense searching for playmakers, right?
Defensive end Charles Tapper: It’s amazing how often Tapper earns a helmet sticker for a guy who didn’t play much football in high school. He earned yet another helmet sticker with six tackles, including three tackles for loss and two sacks. It’s time to start talking about Tapper being an All-Big 12-type player right now instead of in the future.
Here are five players who will have to raise their game to another level if OU hopes to win another Big 12 championship this season:
Quarterback Blake Bell. The Sooners' coaching staff is convinced Bell is the man for the job. If OU wants to get back into the Big 12 title race, Bell will need to prove them right. Or, if he can’t, either Kendal Thompson or Trevor Knight will have to improve OU’s quarterback play. The Sooners cannot compete for a Big 12 title unless their signal-caller becomes consistently good for a solid month of action. Before the season even began, offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said the starting quarterback will be expected to perform at championship level this season. Thus, the roller coaster production at the position must stop.
Receiver Jalen Saunders: OU needs a game-breaking threat on offense. And Saunders is that guy. The unrest at quarterback plays a role in Saunders’ lack of production and the coaching staff shoulders a share of the blame as well. But Saunders also shares some of the responsibility for the Sooners’ search for big plays in the passing game. The senior has caught just 25 of 51 passes thrown his way, a completion percentage of less than 50 percent. By comparison, Sterling Shepard has caught 21 of 31 passes thrown his way. Thus, Saunders needs to play better and the coaches need to be more creative in finding ways to get him the ball. If they do, Saunders has the skills to change games with his speed, quickness and elusiveness.
Defensive end Charles Tapper: Tapper has been one of the Sooners’ top defenders this season yet he needs to take his game to an even higher level in the second half of the season by becoming a pass rushing terror who makes offenses think twice before running his way. The sophomore has the talent to be one of the Big 12’s most disruptive defensive linemen but OU needs him more than ever with Nelson and Phillips out. He cannot regress at all during his first season as a core member of the defense.
Defensive tackle Jordan Wade: The redshirt freshman held up against TCU in his first start but recorded just two assisted tackles against Texas. With Jordan Philips set to miss the season, Wade needs to step up in the middle if the Sooners hope to get back into the conference title race. True enough, it doesn’t all fall on the shoulders of the 6-foot-4, 296-pound tackle, but Wade’s teammates along the offensive line have always praised the sheer strength of Wade so he may be best equipped to anchor OU’s defensive interior like Phillips did earlier this season.
Top Returning Players: Big 12
BIG 12 SCOREBOARD
Final Washington State 45 Colorado State 48 Final 20 Fresno State 20 25 USC 45 Final Buffalo 24 San Diego State 49 Final Tulane 21 Louisiana-Lafayette 24
Final Pittsburgh 30 Bowling Green 27 Final Utah State 21 23 Northern Illinois 14
Final Marshall 31 Maryland 20 Final Syracuse 21 Minnesota 17 Final Brigham Young 16 Washington 31
Final Rutgers 16 Notre Dame 29 Final Cincinnati 17 North Carolina 39 Final Miami (FL) 9 18 Louisville 36 Final Michigan 14 Kansas State 31
Final Middle Tennessee 6 Navy 24 Final Ole Miss 25 Georgia Tech 17 Final 10 Oregon 30 Texas 7 Final 14 Arizona State 23 Texas Tech 37
Final Arizona 42 Boston College 19 Final Virginia Tech 12 17 UCLA 42 Final Rice 7 Mississippi State 44 Final 24 Duke 48 21 Texas A&M 52
Final Nebraska 24 22 Georgia 19 Final UNLV 14 North Texas 36 Final Iowa 14 16 LSU 21 Final 19 Wisconsin 24 9 South Carolina 34 Final 5 Stanford 20 4 Michigan State 24 Final 15 UCF 52 6 Baylor 42
Final 13 Oklahoma State 31 8 Missouri 41 Final 12 Clemson 40 7 Ohio State 35