Oklahoma Sooners: Chuka Ndulue

This summer, ESPN.com is taking a closer look at each scholarship player on the Oklahoma Sooners' roster in our Crimson Countdown series. Each day, we analyze each player’s impact on the program since arriving on campus, his potential impact this fall, and his long-term projection. Starting with No. 1 Dominique Alexander, the series followed the roster numerically and concludes today with No. 98 Chuka Ndulue.

No. 98 Chuka Ndulue, defensive tackle, 6-foot-3, 289 pounds, senior

Impact thus far: Arguably the most overshadowed contributor on the roster. He’s displayed terrific versatility and production during his time as a Sooner. He’s started 19 of 32 career games with 91 tackles including 12 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. In 2013, he brought a veteran presence to the defensive line with nine starts in 12 games played and 42 total tackles.

Impact in 2014: Ndulue should be a core contributor for the Sooners’ defensive line for the third straight season. His versatility and experience are key assets on a defensive front that could become the Big 12’s best unit.

Long-term upside: Much like 2013, he’s likely to be outshined by Eric Striker, Geneo Grissom, Charles Tapper and the rest of OU’s attacking pass rush, thus missing out on postseason honors, but he’s a key part of the Sooners' defense.

Evaluation grade for Ndulue: A. Anytime a signee becomes a three-year starter, he’s a pretty good evaluation. Brought in as a defensive end, Ndulue should the willingness and ability to move around the defensive line to help OU get its top performers on the field.

Development grade for Ndulue: A. Thanks to a redshirt season in 2010, Ndulue is around to provide a productive, experienced player in the middle of OU’s defensive interior.
Since last week we’ve been examining at the strongest and weakest position groups for each Big 12 team going into the fall.

We continue with the Oklahoma Sooners:

Strongest position: Defensive line

Pretty obvious choice here for Oklahoma, considering how this unit played in its greatest test yet against Alabama.

Eric Striker gives the Sooners an All-Big 12 defensive end who still has two years left to get even better. He's a playmaker, and senior Geneo Grissom proved against the Tide, with his two sacks and two fumble recoveries, that he can be, too.

We got to see Jordan Phillips in only four games last fall before he was shut down for the season, but the defensive tackle was one of OU's most promising defenders when he was on the field. The trio of Phillips, Chuka Ndulue and Jordan Wade is potent. Keep them healthy, and they can develop into a fearsome group.

What makes this group really stand out, and what probably gets overlooked, is the depth you don't see. While these starters form one of the conference's best defensive lines, the guys behind them will continue to develop in the background.

Some will be called upon when injuries hit, but having young linemen such as Matt Dimon, D.J. Ward, Dwayne Orso Jr. and Courtney Garnett waiting in the wings will mean an exciting future for this line.

Weakest position: Wide receivers

You can't lose a great talent like Jalen Saunders and key seniors Lacoltan Bester and Jaz Reynolds and not be a little concerned with this group.

The Sooners are essentially working with four experienced receivers going into 2014, led by Sterling Shepard. He can't do it all by himself. Among Durron Neal, Derrick Woods and Austin Bennett, quarterback Trevor Knight is going to need to find a couple guys he can trust. There are some redshirt freshmen waiting for their turn, too.

The good news is help is on the way, and it might be elite help. The Sooners signed three skyscrapers in Mark Andrews (6-foot-6), Jeffery Mead (6-6) and Dallis Todd (6-5) and then inked a four-star speedster in Michiah Quick on signing day. Three of those incoming freshmen are ESPN 300 recruits with big expectations.

If a couple are ready when they show up in Norman, this group will instantly get a lot better.
Over the next two weeks, we’ll be analyzing the depth charts of every Big 12 team coming out of the spring. On Tuesday, we continue the series with Oklahoma:

Offense (projected starters in bold)

QB: Trevor Knight (So.), Cody Thomas (RFr.), Justice Hansen (Fr.)

[+] EnlargeKeith Ford
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsAfter receiving only 23 carries last season as a freshman, OU's Keith Ford will likely be the starting tailback in 2014.
The Sooners feel great about putting the offense in the hands of Knight after his Allstate Sugar Bowl MVP performance against Alabama. The sophomore looked like a future star against the Crimson Tide while leading the Sooners to a 45-31 upset win. OU is inexperienced behind Knight with a pair of freshman in Thomas and Hansen. Former Texas Tech quarterback Baker Mayfield, who transferred to OU in January, would be the perfect fit behind Knight but won’t be eligible to play until 2015. If he plays consistent and remains healthy, Knight could lead his team to a College Football Playoff berth. If not, OU could flounder below expectations and look back upon the 2014 season as a missed opportunity.

RB: Keith Ford (So.), Alex Ross (So.), Daniel Brooks (So.)

Ford exits spring as the favorite to start in the backfield, but he didn’t take the job and hide during 15 spring practices. Ross was one of the stars of the spring as he continually made plays during scrimmages, and Brooks was one of the standouts during the spring game. OU has several talented options at running back and is poised to add two top freshman runners in Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine.

FB/TE: Aaron Ripkowski (Sr.), Dimitri Flowers (Fr.), Blake Bell (Sr.)

OU uses fullbacks and tight ends in similar ways as both positions spend their meeting time with tight ends coach Jay Boulware. Ripkowski is one of the unsung heroes on the entire roster. He played a critical role during the team's strong finish to the 2013 season. Flowers has stepped on campus ready to make an impact with his versatility and football IQ after enrolling in school early. Bell has moved over from quarterback and looks poised to make an impact as a pass catcher with his size and athleticism. It’s a talented and versatile group that is likely to get overlooked this fall but could be the foundation of any success the team has on offense.

WR: Sterling Shepard (Jr.), Derrick Woods (So.), Durron Neal (Jr.), K.J. Young (RFr.), Jordan Smallwood (RFr.), Austin Bennett (So.)

Shepard should be one of the Big 12’s top receivers if Knight continues to develop as a passer. OU badly needs someone to emerge alongside Shepard if it hopes to have a strong passing game to help make the 2014 version of the offense more balanced than the 2013 version. There’s talent on campus but nobody separated themselves during the spring, opening the door for a freshman like Michiah Quick to step on campus and into the lineup this fall.

C: Ty Darlington (Jr.)

G: Dionte Savage (Sr.), Nila Kasitati (Jr.), Tony Feo (Sr.), Adam Shead (Sr.), Tyler Evans (Sr.)

T: Tyrus Thompson (Sr.), Daryl Williams (Sr.), Josiah St. John (Sr.)

Darlington has been groomed to replace All-Big 12 center Gabe Ikard and could slide into the starting lineup with ease. Nonetheless, adding competition at this position would help the Sooners. OU is fairly deep at guard and tackle which should allow competition for playing time to help everyone improve. Williams is the anchor of the entire offensive line and should be one of the Big 12’s top tackles this fall. The Sooners should have one of the better offensive lines in the Big 12.

DEFENSE

DE: Charles Tapper (Jr.), Geneo Grissom (Sr.), Matt Dimon (So.)

DT: Jordan Phillips (Jr.) or Chuka Ndulue (Sr.), Jordan Wade (So.)

[+] EnlargeDominique Alexander
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsSooners linebacker Dominique Alexander emerged as a playmaker as a freshman.
OU’s defensive line could be one of the most disruptive and deepest in the nation. The Sooners should easily go six or seven deep along the defensive line, particularly if Phillips returns to his early 2013 form after suffering a back injury last season. Tapper and Grissom have the ability to be disruptive against anyone, and the overall depth on the roster should allow OU to come at offenses in waves with fresh bodies rotating throughout games. If OU makes a national title run, the defensive line will likely be the driving force.

LB: Dominique Alexander (So.), Frank Shannon (Jr.), Eric Striker (Jr.), Jordan Evans (So.), Devante Bond (Jr.)

Striker could be the Big 12’s best pass rusher, Alexander has the potential to be one of the Big 12’s best before his career is over, Evans could take a major step forward as a sophomore and Bond impressed as a junior college transfer this spring. If Shannon returns to good standing after missing part of spring due to personal issues, this is a good, experienced group. OU’s linebackers are one of the main reasons its defense could be the most athletic and versatile in the conference this fall.

CB: Zack Sanchez (So.), Julian Wilson (Sr.), Dakota Austin (So.), Stanvon Taylor (So.), Cortez Johnson (Jr.)

Here’s where things get interesting for the defense. Wilson returns as the starting nickelback and a productive veteran in the secondary. Sanchez is solid and took his game to another level this spring as he strives to be the type of coverage cornerback that teams don’t want to test. But the Sooners need someone to step up on the opposite side of the field with Austin ending the spring as a starter but remaining untested. No matter who wins the job, they will be picked on repeatedly until they prove they aren’t the weak link of the secondary. Defensive back is one of the few unsettled and unproven spots on the entire roster.

S: Quentin Hayes (Sr.), Hatari Byrd (So.), Ahmad Thomas (So.)

Hayes was quietly one of the better safeties in the Big 12 in 2013. He was productive with 75 tackles and solid in coverage. Byrd and Thomas have matured and started to develop as sophomores and should be key contributors this fall. Nonetheless, freshman Steven Parker has the talent to step in an earn a role this summer. If Parker is as good as advertised, OU will go two deep with talented options.
It was a quiet and productive spring at Oklahoma. The Sooners emerged relatively injury free and were able to tinker with their systems on both sides of the ball. This week we'll review OU's spring, starting with five questions that were answered during the Sooners' 15 practices.

The defensive line is as good as advertised: Junior Charles Tapper didn't rest on his laurels after a breakout, All-Big 12 sophomore season. He’ll enter the fall as one of the Big 12’s top defensive ends and is a legitimate difference-maker on OU’s defensive front. His strength, speed and athleticism could push him into the fight to be an All-American if his development continues.

Senior defensive end Geneo Grissom appears ready to fulfill the recruiting hype that followed him onto campus, senior defensive lineman Chuka Ndulue is a veteran presence, sophomore defensive tackle Jordan Wade is strong in the middle and junior defensive tackle Jordan Phillips is on the road to recovery after missing the majority of the 2013 season with a back injury. The depth of the defensive line is expanding as well, with redshirt freshmen Matt Romar and Charles Walker bringing competition inside during spring drills and sophomores Matt Dimon and Mike Onuoha adding depth on the outside.

[+] EnlargeEric Striker
Robin Alam/Icon SMIEric Striker hasn't seemed to miss a beat since his Sugar Bowl breakout.
The defense could be the most versatile in years: The Sooners' savvy decision to tinker with some of their defensive stars and move guys around in the defensive system this spring should pay off in the fall. Grissom spent time at linebacker alongside Eric Striker, who played some nickelback during the 15 practices. Both players will be core members of OU’s defense in 2014 but the spring was spent trying find the Sooners' best 11 defenders for every situation. Challenging its best players to be more versatile will help defensive coordinator Mike Stoops adapt to the various offenses the Big 12 has to offer this fall. Putting its best players in the best position to make plays could make this defense even stronger.

The Class of 2013 is better than expected: It seemed like OU scrambled to put together its 2013 recruiting class, yet the group started showing signs it was better than anticipated last season. This spring, they further cemented that belief with several sophomores or redshirt freshmen fighting to be major contributors. Receiver Jordan Smallwood, cornerback Dakota Austin, safety Ahmad Thomas and linebacker Jordan Evans are just a few of the members of that class who could be poised for breakout seasons in 2014 after a strong spring showing.

Fullback/tight end Dimitri Flowers was the hidden gem of the Class of 2014: We haven’t even reached three months after signing day, yet Flowers already looks like a diamond in the rough. Comparisons to Trey Millard began early in spring practices and increased from that point. While his versatility, size, blocking and receiving prowess immediately impressed, Flowers showed an ability to pick up the Sooners' offensive concepts and operated like a veteran. It's put him on the road to becoming a valuable asset in OU’s offense as a freshman. When they see Flowers for the first time this fall, there’s a chance opposing Big 12 defensive coordinators will accuse the Sooners of trying to get four more years out of the former All-Big 12 fullback by simply changing Millard’s jersey number and renaming him.

Striker is going to make life miserable for Big 12 quarterbacks: The junior picked up right where he left off after embarrassing Alabama tackle Cyrus Kouandjio with three sacks in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. He looked active, energetic and quick in the spring game, recording back-to-back sacks early in the third quarter. Striker was going against backup linemen, but there’s a good chance he’s going to be a pest to every Big 12 lineman he faces this fall.
NORMAN, Okla. -- Oklahoma is dreaming of a national title run that would make its Allstate Sugar Bowl destruction of Alabama an afterthought.

If that dream turns into reality, the Sooners will likely have their defensive line to thank. As the defensive line went, so went the Sooners in 2013, as the group sparked the Sugar Bowl win yet faltered in OU’s losses to Baylor and Texas.

[+] EnlargeGeneo Grissom
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesOklahoma's Geneo Grissom is hoping to build off a two-sack performance in the Sugar Bowl win over Alabama.
It’s hard to imagine the defensive line taking a step backward in 2014. In fact, the group could end up becoming one of the best defensive lines of Bob Stoops' tenure after entering the spring of 2013 as one of the biggest question marks on the roster.

“It has a chance to be one of our deeper and better ones,” Stoops said. “Imagine that, in a year's period of time.”

Every significant contributor returns along the defensive line, including All-Big 12 end Charles Tapper, and the group should be boosted even more if tackle Jordan Phillips, who was playing at an all-conference level early last season, returns to full health after a back injury ended his sophomore season early. From top to bottom, it’s one of the deepest units in years.

“Yeah, no question,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said when asked if this would be one of the deepest defensive lines he has coached.

“You get Jordan Phillips back and we can go two deep and not really slide much. Tapper and Geneo [Grissom] are difference-makers, and the other guys will be difference makers as they continue to grow too. Chuka [Ndulue] is the old, reliable horse in there that holds down the fort, he pushes things to the other guys. They all work together extremely well. We have a unique group and they play hard.”

The bowl win over Alabama was a glimpse at just how good OU's defensive line could be. Crimson Tide quarterback AJ McCarron, who was sacked seven times, probably still has nightmares of defenders setting up camp in the backfield. Make no mistake, OU won the game in the trenches and hopes to continue that trend in 2014.

The returnees have proven to be quality Big 12 defensive linemen, yet their playing time is far from secure. The development and growth of several young defensive linemen has spurred Mike Stoops' belief they can go two deep without a drop off. Matt Dimon, Mike Onuoha, Charles Walker and Matt Romar are just a few of the young defensive linemen on the roster who have increased the competition.

“There’s a huge competition,” Ndulue said. “There’s a bunch of great guys out there, and any one of them could be the starting man. There’s just more drive because you want to play, so we just know that your job is on the line each snap so it just makes you play to the best of your ability. As the defensive line, we know that there’s competition every day. It makes our [meeting] room a lot better.”

At the center of it all is defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery, who joined the Sooners in February 2013 to jump start a disappointing defensive front. He has done that and more, proving to be stellar position coach after arriving from Michigan with a reputation as an elite recruiter.

“The defensive line is where the game is played,” Mike Stoops said. “They are very disruptive and that is what you need to have. [Montgomery] is very good with technique and he has a great relationship with the players, and that has all been very positive. They play hard and they play with technique, and that is where it all starts up front. They have been a catalyst for us.”

Few envisioned the Sooners’ defensive line becoming one of the Big 12’s best in 2013. Yet it was.

“It wasn’t supposed to be a very strong group for us a year ago, but they really flipped it and now it is one of the best groups in the country,” Mike Stoops said. “Again, hopefully we can get [Phillips] back and make this group even stronger. It can be a dominating group if we can get him back healthy and playing at the level he was playing at a year ago.”

Now the defensive line is looking to be called the nation’s best, with the goal of being the driving force behind a College Football Playoff berth.

“It all starts with the big guys,” Ndulue said. “If we’re not being dominant, getting driven back into the linebackers, it’s going to be a long day for us. If we’re playing on their side of the line of scrimmage, we can do something great.”
Oklahoma has a roster full of talented and experienced defensive tackles.

Jordan Phillips appears in line for a healthy return after his redshirt sophomore season was cut short. Jordan Wade was pleasantly productive in the middle in Phillips’ absence, and Chuka Ndulue can slide inside at a moment’s notice.

Yet Charles Walker might be the most physically gifted of the bunch.

The redshirt freshman had Sooners fans buzzing when he posted his 4.7 time in the 40-yard dash on social media during winter workouts. It was an early sign of the sheer physical talent of the 6-foot-2, 289-pound Walker. This spring, he has continued to impress.

[+] EnlargeCharles Walker, Quincy Russell
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiRedshirt freshman Charles Walker (left) has turned heads during spring practice and could figure into the DT rotation.
“He runs great,” coach Bob Stoops said. “He’s really picking things up. It’s too early to say he’s ready to go, but he physically is close. Now it’s just getting technique right and consistent on every snap.”

The definition of a hidden gem, Walker was a late addition to the Sooners’ Class of 2013. The Sooners battled New Mexico, Houston, New Mexico State and North Texas for his signature. His underwhelming offer list didn’t stop him from making an immediate impression when he arrived last summer, with the coaching staff recognizing his long-term upside right away.

But as talented as Walker is, it is far from a certainty for him to see the field in 2014.

“It is a learning progression for Charles,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “We are not seeing his full ability yet, and I don’t anticipate we will until next fall or he gets some more repetitions in this system. It is hard for your skill set to really show up when you are thinking all the time.”

Having veterans at the position helps the Sooners and Walker. Watching and learning from players who have proven to be productive Big 12 defensive tackles is a luxury for Walker, and one the Sooners did not have last spring. For OU, Walker’s presence ensures the veterans won’t get complacent with a talented youngster nipping at their heels for playing time.

“I think he is a guy that continues to improve, and hopefully by next fall, he will be part of the rotation,” Mike Stoops said. “But we have got all of those other guys back, so he is going to have to work his way, but he has shown great promise up until this point.”

The inexperience and lack of technique hasn’t stopped him from drawing raves from teammates, who consistently speak his name when asked about talented unknowns on the roster.

“Charles Walker is a beast,” said guard Dionte Savage, who battles Walker in practice. “He’s going to have a great career. He’s a great player, definitely a good player to go up against -- his moving ability and the way he moves his hips.”

We might not see it this season, but all signs are pointing toward Walker being a name to know in Norman, Okla., and, quite possibly, across the Big 12 region.

“Anyone that big and strong and fast, I think he will be a dynamic player,” Mike Stoops said. “Again, you are talking about a guy that has not even been here a year, so, you are asking a lot. Eric Striker was not Eric Striker until this year, if you remember right. Maybe that was our fault not playing him more the year before, but it takes a while, and hopefully with Charles that light will turn on and you will see him start to make more plays.”
Oklahoma kicked off spring practice over the weekend.

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.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Knight
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesSophomore signal-caller Trevor Knight must show more consistency for Oklahoma in 2014.
Trevor Knight builds on his Sugar Bowl performance: After watching Knight complete 72.7 percent of his passes for 348 yards and four touchdowns in the 45-31 win over Alabama, it's easy to assume Knight will consistently match that performance in 2014. But what if he doesn’t? There’s no reason to expect the sophomore to take a step backward this spring but, even though his name is already being mentioned among the Big 12’s best quarterbacks, he won’t earn that spot until he consistently plays at a championship level. If Knight looks better than ever this spring, it’s a great sign for 2014.

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.
NORMAN, Okla. -- Oklahoma’s Sugar Bowl win over Alabama could end up being a blessing or a curse.

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.

[+] EnlargeKeith Ford
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiSophomore running back Keith Ford is one of many hungry young Sooners that are eager to build on last season's success.
OU coach Bob Stoops is confident that won’t happen to his team. The veteran coach is convinced his team is as hungry as ever as OU’s spring football gets under way on Saturday.

“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.”
Oklahoma begins its spring football drills on Saturday.

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:

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCharles Tapper's strength, speed and desire make him a potential All-America candidate at defensive end for Oklahoma next season.
No. 3: The defensive line shows it can be one of the deepest and best since Bob Stoops took over in 1999.

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.

Big 12 pre-spring breakdown: DL

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As we wait for the start of spring ball, we’re examining and ranking the positional situations of every team in the Big 12, continuing Monday with defensive line. Some of these outlooks will look different after the spring. But here’s how we see the defensive lines at the moment:

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesOklahoma end Charles Tapper will lead the Big 12's best defensive line in 2014.
1. Oklahoma: D-line began as a weakness but quickly turned into a strength under first-year position coach Jerry Montgomery. End Charles Tapper was an All-Big 12 selection as a sophomore, and tackle Jordan Phillips was on his way to earning similar honors before a back injury ended his season prematurely. Both players are back. So is Geneo Grissom, who had three sacks in the bowl win over Alabama. Nose guard Jordan Wade earned a starting role late in 2013, and Chuka Ndulue will be a starter for a third season. Basically, the entire rotation returns. If Phillips rebounds from the injury, this could prove to be Oklahoma’s finest D-line since 2009, when NFL All-Pro Gerald McCoy roamed the middle.

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.

[+] EnlargeShawn Oakman
John Rivera/Icon SMIBaylor defensive end Shawn Oakman will play a bigger role next season.
5. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys lose two-time All-Big 12 tackle Calvin Barnett. James Castleman, however, will be a three-year starter, and end Jimmy Bean had a career night in the Cotton Bowl with three tackles for loss. The key to the Cowboys fielding one of the better lines in the league again will be whether Ben Hughes, Vincent Taylor and/or Vili Leveni can emerge inside after redshirting in 2013. All three are promising prospects, especially Taylor, who was an ESPN 300 recruit in the 2013 class.

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.

Grading Oklahoma's class: 2010

February, 4, 2014
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Oklahoma is poised to add several recruits into the fold on Wednesday, with its eye on creating the foundation of a future championship squad. Yet, recruiting is an inexact science, as some projected stars rise to meet those high expectations while others struggle to make a difference in the Big 12. Thus, it’s the perfect time to look back at OU’s past five recruiting classes. On Tuesday, we continue the series with a review of the Class of 2010, including recruits who exceeded expectations, those who were solid signees and complete busts.

This class featured seven players in the ESPN 150 and a ton of star power led by the “Cali Trio” of Kenny Stills, Brennan Clay and Tony Jefferson. The class was ranked No. 5 nationally by ESPN.com.

Transcendent figures

[+] EnlargeTrey Millard
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiTrey Millard earned first-team All-Big 12 honors during his final three seasons in Norman.
Fullback Trey Millard: The No. 59-ranked athlete in this class, Millard was exceptional during his four seasons in Norman. He was a mainstay on special teams, a devastating blocker from his fullback spot and a nightmare with the ball in his hands. He exceeded expectations and earned first-team All-Big 12 honors during his final three seasons.

Cornerback Aaron Colvin: An afterthought on signing day, but he was arguably the best player in this class. He started his first-ever Red River Rivalry as a freshman and started three straight seasons at two different positions, earning All-Big 12 honors twice. The nation’s No. 40 safety prospect coming out of Owasso, Okla., Colvin finished with 234 tackles, including 15 tackles for loss and five interceptions in 50 career games (36 starts).

Tackle Daryl Williams: The No. 53 tackle in the nation, Williams has performed like a highly-regarded offensive line prospect. He started his first college game as a redshirt freshman before injury derailed his first season. Nonetheless, Williams became a anchor on OU’s offensive line during his sophomore and junior seasons and enters his final season as one of the Big 12’s best offensive linemen.

Safety Tony Jefferson: The No. 21-ranked player in the ESPN 150, Jefferson stepped on campus with high expectations. He didn’t disappoint, earning Big 12 freshman-of-the-year honors in 2010 and All-Big 12 honors in 2012 before leaving early for the NFL. Jefferson finished with 258 tackles, eight interceptions and seven sacks in 40 career games (34 starts). He’s currently a safety for the Arizona Cardinals after going undrafted last spring.

Receiver Kenny Stills: The No. 36-ranked receiver prospect, Stills started every game he played in crimson and cream. His speed and football IQ separated him from the competition, as he finished with 204 receptions for 2,594 yards and 24 touchdowns in 38 career games (38 starts) before leaving early for the NFL. He’s currently one of Drew Brees’ main targets with the New Orleans Saints.

Bull's-eye

Running back Brennan Clay: Ranked No. 129 in the ESPN 150, Clay overcame injuries to become a key performer. He never emerged as a star, but he was the type of consistent, productive player who helps teams win games. He had 1,913 yards and 13 touchdowns in 46 career games (18 starts).

Linebacker Corey Nelson: The No. 62 player in the ESPN 150, Nelson had a solid career. A three-year starter, he had 153 tackles, including 17.5 tackles for loss in 45 career games (27 starts).

Completely missed the mark

Receiver Justin McCay: McCay never made an impact with the Sooners, transferring after his redshirt freshman season. The No. 142 player in the ESPN 150, McCay transferred to Kansas and currently plays for the Jayhawks.

Receiver Sheldon McClain: Much like McCay, McClain had a higher ranking than Stills as the No. 22-ranked receiver nationally but never made an impact before transferring.

Overall grade

A-minus. Even though this recruiting class featured multiple disappointments, it was littered with stars and contributors. Tyrus Thompson, Julian Wilson, Roy Finch, Blake Bell and Chuka Ndulue are just a few of the other Sooners in the Class of 2010 who became starters or major contributors alongside Colvin, Millard and the rest of the playmakers signed in February 2010.
In the next two weeks, we’ll continue to close the door on the 2013 season. Every Big 12 team suffered at least one loss during the regular season and losses can be as beneficial as wins. In this team-by-team series, we’ll take a look at the best loss of the season for each Big 12 team, including what happened and why it matters.

On Tuesday, we focus on Oklahoma.

Best loss: 36-20 against Texas in the Red River Rivalry, in a game the Sooners were expected to cruise to victory.

What happened: The Sooners were dominated. It’s just that simple. The Longhorns had two running backs run for more than 100 yards in Johnathan Gray (123) and Malcolm Brown (120) and quarterback Case McCoy made plays when he needed to make plays. Most importantly, Texas' defense, which entered the game as one of the laughingstocks of the Big 12 after a horrible nonconference showing, shut down OU’s offense on third down (2 of 13) and stuffed the Sooners’ running game (130 yards, 3.9 yards per carry).

Why it was helpful: The loss humbled the Sooners. They entered the game as the nation’s No. 12 team with victories over Notre Dame and TCU and an eye on inserting themselves into the BCS title chase. Sixty minutes at the Cotton Bowl changed all of that.

And the Sooners were better for it.

The loss showed OU how important its focus and preparation was and how thin the line between winning and losing can be. If the Sooners hadn’t lost to Texas, they probably wouldn’t have had the competitive resolve that emerged in wins over Texas Tech, Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Alabama. The Red River Rivalry loss forced the Sooners to renew their focus and dug out their competitive nature as it ignited doubts about the Sooners' chances to win double-digit games in 2013.

Revealing stat: 19.1 average yards per drive. The Sooners had 12 drives and averaged 19.1 yards per drive, their worst average in 2013 and a sign of the dominance of Texas' defense. Their season average was 33.2 yards per drive.

Quote of note: “We just needed to be more physical at the line of scrimmage and didn't do that. They out-executed us and we were driven back. That's pretty much it.” -- OU defensive lineman Chuka Ndulue.
In the next few weeks leading into signing day it’s a great time to take a position-by-position glance at Oklahoma’s returning roster. This series, called State of the Position, will look at the playmakers, up-and-comers and current commitments or targets at each position for the Sooners as recruiting really heats up during these final weeks before signing day on Feb. 5. On Wednesday, we take a closer look at the defensive tackle position.

[+] EnlargeOklahoma
Jackson Laizure/Getty ImagesIf Jordan Phillips can return fully healthy, he will be another big piece on the Sooners interior line.
Starter/contributors: Jordan Wade (So.), Jordan Phillips (Jr.), Chuka Ndulue (Sr.)

The argument could be made that Wade was the best freshman on a Sooners defense that featured Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year Dominique Alexander. Wade stepped in after Phillips was injured and more than held his own as an anchor for OU’s defense, particularly in the final month of the season. He has a big future ahead of him.

Ndulue made a pretty smooth transition to the defensive interior after spending his first two seasons at defensive end. His versatility is an important asset and he brought experienced play to the defense in 2013. Ndulue will continue to be a critical piece in 2014.

If Phillips returns to his September 2013 form, OU’s defense could secure itself a place among the nation’s best. He was a disruptive force who was finally starting to match the hype with production before a back injury derailed his sophomore year.

On the cusp: Charles Walker (redshirt freshman), Matthew Romar (redshirt freshman), Quincy Russell (Sr.), Torrea Peterson (Sr.)

Asked about who impressed during their redshirt season, Sooners coaches and players consistently mentioned Walker. His teammates on OU’s offensive line lauded his explosiveness after going against Walker on the scout team last fall. He could be poised to make an impact.

Romar joins Walker as another guy who could help after a redshirt season. With so many quality options at the position, OU won’t be in a hurry to throw Romar into the fire.

Russell saw spot duty as a junior and never really could secure himself a consistent role on OU’s defense after joining the program in the middle of preseason drills. Nonetheless, he has the ability to be a contributor as a senior.

Peterson played in seven games in 2013, even starting against Iowa State, but never really distanced himself from the competition at the position. He’s a solid guy to have in the fold but hasn’t proven to be irreplaceable with his on-field production.

On the recruiting trail: Brandon Glenn (Irving, Texas/Ranchview)

Glenn may or may not make it on campus with academic concerns standing in his way. But OU has made a hard push for Courtney Garnett (New Orleans/Saint Augustine) and could land the defensive tackle, which would be a clear upgrade on the hype-o-meter.

Realistically it might not matter what happens on the recruiting trail with Walker and Romar appearing to pan out as potential hidden gems in last year’s class and OU’s move to a three-man front.

Overall Grade: A

Three significant returning contributors, multiple others who have played in games and two freshmen with solid upside? The only reason this isn’t a A+ is the lack of a top-notch defensive tackle commitment. This position looks 100 times better right now than it did in late January 2013. Sure seems like defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery deserves a raise.
NORMAN, Okla. — Oklahoma’s defense was among the Big 12’s best in 2013.

And it could be even better in 2014.

[+] EnlargeMatt Dimon
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesFreshman defensive end Matt Dimon and other young players will make OU's defensive line one of the nation's deepest.
Freshman linebacker Dominique Alexander, sophomore defensive end Charles Tapper and redshirt freshman cornerback Zack Sanchez were key playmakers while helping OU’s defense finish first in the Big 12 in total yards per game allowed at 336.3 yards. Other young defenders could help the Sooners defense next season and OU’s coaching staff got a glimpse at some of the young talent on the roster as their young players took the majority of the practice repetitions earlier this week.

“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.”
NORMAN, Okla. -- It seemed like all hope was lost.

Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops had just announced defensive tackle Jordan Phillips would miss the remainder of the season with a back injury during his weekly press conference in mid-October. One week earlier, Stoops had announced linebacker Corey Nelson would miss the rest of the year with a pectoral injury.

Just that quickly, the Sooners were eyeing the bulk of their Big 12 conference schedule without two of their top defenders. Phillips had been emerging as a force in the middle after the season opened with lots of questions about OU’s defensive interior, and Nelson had become the anchor of OU’s defense after the season began with major concerns about the lack of production from the linebackers.

[+] EnlargeDominique Alexander
William Purnell/Icon SMIFreshman Dominique Alexander is one of many Sooners who have stepped up on defense in the wake of injuries.
The Sooners were back to square one. And with limited options. Defensive tackles Jordan Wade and Torrea Peterson stepped up to replace Phillips and linebacker Dominique Alexander filled in for Nelson.

A clear step backward was expected.

But it hasn’t really happened. For all intents and purposes, this Sooners defense has proven to have much better depth than anyone would have anticipated when the season began.

“No one thought we had any D-Linemen, now we’re two-deep,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “Dominique was a pleasant surprise, coming in and playing at the level he’s played at. We needed that or we couldn’t have survived. Guys have really come through.”

The stats have jumped in the last five games since Phillips and Nelson were lost for the year, with points allowed per game, yards per play and yards per game increasing. But so has the quality of the competition. And OU’s defense has remained the best and most consistent unit on the team, even without Nelson and Phillips.

“Some of the younger guys are playing are playing above their age,” defensive end Chuka Ndulue said. “They’re playing at a higher level than most young guys are expected to play.”

Alexander has 52 tackles in the last five games, averaging 10.4 tackles per game while becoming one of the most productive players on the defense. Wade and Peterson haven’t done much to be noticed, which is a good thing. As the anchors of a 3-man front, they aren’t expected to get numbers as much as they’re counted on not to get pushed around. The fact Alexander and fellow linebacker Frank Shannon usually sit atop the postgame tackle list speaks to solid contributions by Wade and Peterson, who are allowing the linebacker duo the freedom to make plays.

“We have a lot of positives our guys are taking away, even though you lose players it’s helping us transition,” Mike Stoops said. “Those are good things.”

The Sooners defensive coordinator points to the expectation of being a Sooner and the mental approach as the foundation of OU’s ability to handle the injuries without complete and total disaster.

“Consistently being tough and having pride about the way we play, that’s where it all starts,” Mike Stoops said. “That’s the most important element of defense, your attitude about it, regardless of who is in there, nobody cares who is playing. It’s how you play and how you attack each preparation each week. Our guys have been really consistent in those departments and that’s given us a chance.”

The ability to overcome those injuries has OU excited about the future, particularly with Alexander and Wade each in their freshman seasons and several other freshman, like cornerbacks Zack Sanchez and Stanvon Taylor, showing good long-term upside.

“You lose two leaders and two impact players, but at the same time it shows you what we can do with the players we have right now,” Ndulue said. “We’re playing at a high level with those two guys gone, so imagine the possibility if they were still here. We’re Oklahoma. We have pride. We have good players. Whoever is up to play has to be ready to step out there and make plays.”

The Sooners defense isn’t littered with five-star talent, a trend that’s led to some unrest by the Sooner faithful, yet the defense seems littered with plenty of young talent that has upgraded the overall speed and athleticism of the unit. Seeing young players like Alexander and Sanchez step up this season has validated the Sooners’ ability to evaluate somewhat overlooked recruits who can make an impact early in their careers.

“Watching some of our younger players play Saturday, we have a lot of good players that just haven’t had the opportunities,” Mike Stoops said.

But most importantly it’s been the expectation to excel which seems to have allowed OU to handle the loss of two critical pieces in the middle of the season and continue to field a defense that’s played well enough to win every game this season.

“If they’re at Oklahoma, they’re expected to play at a high level,” Mike Stoops said. “That’s all there is to it.”

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