Oklahoma Sooners: Dannon Cavil

During the summer months, ESPN.com will take a closer look at each scholarship player on Oklahoma’s roster in our Crimson Countdown series. Each day, we will analyze each player’s impact on the program since arriving on campus, his potential impact this fall, and his long-term projection. Starting with No. 1 Dominique Alexander, the series will follow the roster numerically through our final analysis of No. 98 Chuka Ndulue.

No. 7 Dannon Cavil, receiver, 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, redshirt freshman

Impact thus far: Cavil redshirted during his first season on campus.

Impact in 2014: Cavil brings excellent size and surprising speed to the Sooners’ receiver corps. The San Antonio native should be an impact player this fall, particularly if he seizes the opportunity to become the No. 2 receiver target alongside Sterling Shepard. It’s not “do-or-die” time for the redshirt freshman, but the opportunity to play is wide open.

Long term upside: Cavil, with his physical skills and size, could develop into a receiver who battles for all-conference honors during his Sooners’ career. It wouldn't be surprising to see him develop into a key contributor for at least three seasons.

Evaluation grade for Cavil: B. It’s early in his career, but Cavil already looks like a pretty solid evaluation by the Sooners, who offered him late in the recruiting process. He appears poised to make an impact as a redshirt freshman, yet is far from a finished product.

Development grade for Cavil: A. The Sooners recognized Cavil wouldn’t have a major impact during his first season on campus, so they redshirted him with an eye on having four seasons of production. A redshirt season was the best scenario for the Sooners and Cavil.

Quotable: “He is on scout team and he works to be the best guy down there every day. He is bigger, stronger, faster than the guy he was a few months ago. He is a much better football player.” -- receivers coach Jay Norvell during Cavil's redshirt season.
This week, we’ve been examining the most indispensable player for every team in the Big 12. In other words, who is the player each team could least afford to lose to injury?

We’re knocking on wood before we turn in these posts; so no need to worry about a jinx.

We continue with the Oklahoma Sooners.

Most indispensable player: Receiver Sterling Shepard

[+] EnlargeSterling Shepard and Jackson Jeffcoat
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsSterling Shepard's production will be vital to Oklahoma's success in the passing game in 2014.
2013 stats: Caught 51 passes for 603 yards and seven touchdowns.

Why Oklahoma can’t afford to lose him: A strong case could be made for sophomore quarterback Trevor Knight here. He was spectacular in the Allstate Sugar Bowl and has the skill set to be a star in college football. But it’s difficult to slap the “indispensable” label on a player who has only started and finished three games in his college career.

Last season, Oklahoma’s most indispensable player was do-everything receiver Jalen Saunders. This season, the Sooners’ most indispensable player figures to be another do-everything pass-catcher.

Shepard has been a key part of the Oklahoma offense from the moment he stepped on campus. Through two seasons in Norman, Shepard already has 96 receptions for 1,224 yards and 10 touchdowns.

With Saunders now a member of the New York Jets, Shepard will take over as the Sooners’ go-to playmaker at receiver. But unlike Saunders, who had Shepard and Lacoltan Bester alongside him, Shepard won’t have an experienced receiver flanking him. That makes Shepard all-the-more indispensable.

After Shepard, Durron Neal is Oklahoma’s second-leading receiver from last season, and he finished with only 13 receptions. Neal also missed spring practice with knee and ankle injuries.

Elsewhere, the Sooners are loaded with inexperience at receiver. Jordan Smallwood, Dannon Cavil and K.J. Young redshirted last season. Austin Bennett and Derrick Woods have been used sparingly. Mark Andrews, Jeff Mead, Michiah Quick and Dallis Todd are incoming true freshmen.

In fact, outside Shepard, the only two returning Sooners who had touchdown catches last year are fullback Aaron Ripkowski and place-kicker Michael Hunnicutt.

That’s why Shepard is so valuable.

He gives the Sooners an unequivocal tone-setter and leader for its extremely young group of receivers. And he gives Knight that one dependable target every budding quarterback requires.
It was a quiet and productive spring at Oklahoma. The Sooners emerged relatively free of injuries and were able to tinker with their systems on both sides of the ball. This week we'll review OU's spring.

On Monday, we began with five questions that were answered during the Sooners' 15 practices. On Tuesday, we reviewed five questions that remain unanswered. On Wednesday, we took a look at five surprising Sooners. Today, we highlight the five disappointing developments of the spring.

[+] EnlargeBlake Bell
AP Photo/Darron CummingsAn injury limited what OU QB-turned-TE Blake Bell could do at his new position this spring.
Blake Bell's injury: Sooner nation was robbed of the chance to see Bell in his new tight end position after a MCL sprain forced him to miss the end of spring. It also robbed Bell of critical reps he could have used to improve at his new position. Luckily he should return in the summer, allowing him to get even more time at the position before preseason camp begins because once the Sooners start preparing for the season, all bets are off and it will be time for Bell to battle for a role in the offense.

Stanvon Taylor's development: The sophomore cornerback is a better player than he’s showing. Taylor earned the praise of Bob Stoops and Mike Stoops on signing day, as the two brothers compared him to Aaron Colvin. He stepped on campus with a hungry desire to make an impact and started against Tulsa early in his freshman season but he hasn’t made the jump you would expect from a player of his talent as a sophomore. Dakota Austin passed him on the depth chart, and Taylor currently doesn’t look like a guy who can slide into Colvin’s spot without a drop off. Taylor isn’t a bust nor is a guy who won’t contribute this fall -- he just needs to take his game to another level if he’s going fulfill the upside that made him the No. 199 player in the ESPN 300 for the Class of 2013.

No dominant No. 2 receiver: Ideally, the Sooners would have seen one receiver emerge from the competition to show he wants to be a starter and centerpiece in OU’s passing game. Jordan Smallwood is the closest to filling that description, but he hasn’t run away from the competition with K.J. Young, Dannon Cavil and Derrick Woods among the receivers nipping at his heels. Sterling Shepard will be OU’s No. 1 target and will make plenty of plays as a junior, but someone else needs to step up as the No. 2 guy and force defenses to account for them if OU’s offense is going to really take off in 2014.

Offensive line injuries: The Sooners never really could get their entire offensive line together this spring with injuries to guard Nila Kasitati, tackle Tyrus Thompson, guard Adam Shead and others during spring practices. Center Ty Darlington's smooth transition into the starting center spot got overlooked in the spring, but the uncertainty along the rest of the offensive line could hurt the Sooners in the fall or could pay off since it seasoned the overall depth of OU’s offensive front. It was a disappointing spring because a roster full of healthy bodies would have spurred competition and forced returning starters to get better, much like it did on with the Sooners’ defensive line.

Offensive production in the spring game: Baker Mayfield was the lone quarterback to pass for more than 60 yards, Daniel Brooks was the lone running back to rush for more than 30 yards and no OU receiver recorded more than 62 receiving yards. To be fair, OU didn’t exactly break out its full arsenal on offense, but more individual playmaking would have made the Sooners’ coaching staff head into the summer with more confidence. The Sooners' offense didn’t look like a unit that was overflowing with players who will make game-changing plays this fall. OU has talented skill players; they just need those guys to continue to develop and, once the games really matter, to become consistent, productive playmakers.
The injury bug has hit Norman, Okla. this spring.

Oklahoma will be without several players during its spring game on Saturday but none of the injuries are major.

Nickelback Julian Wilson, defensive lineman Rashod Favors, defensive tackle Quincy Russell, receiver Sterling Shepard, receiver Durron Neal, tight end Blake Bell, guard Adam Shead, tackle Tyrus Thompson, guard Nila Kasitati and guard Tyler Evans will miss the action due to various injuries but none of them require surgery and head coach Bob Stoops said he expects all of them to return after a short hiatus.

Those injuries have opened the door for several young players on the roster.

“They’re getting more snaps and having to step up,” Stoops said.

Here’s a closer look at how those injuries could open up spring game opportunities for several players on the roster.

[+] EnlargeEric Striker
Robin Alam/Icon SMIOLB Eric Striker has been taking some reps at nickelback this spring.
Wilson: The senior has missed the spring anyway, allowing Ahmad Thomas, Eric Striker and others to get the reps at nickelback. Thomas is showing great versatility and carving himself a role on the defense. Striker, a returning All-Big 12 second teamer, will be on the field regardless, it’s just a matter of where. Both guys get the chance to prove they can fill a variety of roles on Saturday.

Favors: Several young defensive ends including Mike Onuoha are showing good upside this spring and Favors' injury gives them more chances to impress in the spring game. Onuoha was right alongside returning Big 12 first teamer Charles Tapper as the future at the position before a shoulder injury forced him to miss his sophomore season while Tapper starred. He could be hungry to prove he could have made a similar impact. Matt Dimon and D.J. Ward are other young defensive ends who could end up providing quality depth this fall.

Russell: This injury hurts Russell in the race to earn playing time in 2014 and opens up additional opportunities for redshirt freshman Charles Walker to show he’s ready to make an impact in the fall. It also gives the opportunity for another redshirt freshman, Matt Romar, to show Walker isn’t the only youngster looking to force his way into the lineup along a veteran defensive line.

Bell: More than anything Bell’s injury robs us of the opportunity to see the Belldozer play tight end before the fall. And, quite frankly, that’s all anyone is going to think about when it comes to Bell’s absence on Saturday. The overriding question about Bell is not if he can win the starting tight end job, it's can he prove to be one of the best 11 players on offense? That answer will define his playing time and it won't come until the fall.

Shepard and Neal: Redshirt freshman Jordan Smallwood, K.J. Young and Dannon Cavil could have lost all right to complain about a lack of opportunities with these injuries. Don’t be surprised if Smallwood is one of the stars of the spring game, Young is silky smooth and Cavil brings a unique size and athleticism to the receiving corps. Sophomores Derrick Woods and Austin Bennett will also get the chance to shine after limited duty as freshmen in 2013.

Offensive line: Injuries have hammered the offensive line throughout the spring, so being thrown into duty in the spring game will be nothing new for guys like tackle Sam Grant, tackle Christian Daimler and guard Kyle Marrs. They’ll get the chance to get a bunch of reps against a deep defensive line and potentially secure a reputation for themselves before a talented group of offensive line signees arrive in the summer looking to rise past them on the Sooners' depth chart.
The final days of spring are rapidly approaching at Oklahoma. Instead of searching for the foundation of its squad, this spring has been a period of tinkering and polishing. Here’s a look at five players who need to finish the spring strong or risk leaving the door open for younger players and/or freshman arrivals.

Running back Alex Ross: The opportunity to play is there for the taking if Ross wants to grab it. He joins Keith Ford as the main competitors for carries this spring. Coach Bob Stoops has singled out Ross as a playmaker in scrimmages thus far but it’s critical for Ross to make a strong impression before February signees Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine arrive in the summer.

“I paid my dues and waited my time,” Ross said. “I felt like I needed time to get acclimated to everything around here. I feel like I’ve matured a little bit just in getting bigger and knowing what to do in my part.”

Defensive tackle Torrea Peterson: The senior played a solid role and contributed to OU’s success in 2013, even starting a game against Iowa State. Oklahoma is looking at one of its deepest defensive line units in years. If Jordan Phillips returns to good health and Jordan Wade continues to develop, OU has one of the best two-deep depth chart in the nation. Add Charles Walker, the star of the scout team last fall, and the defensive tackle spot is getting crowded. If Peterson continues to mature and improve, he could be able to secure himself a role but his margin of error is minimal.

Receiver Dannon Cavil: This spring is the 6-foot-4 Cavil’s chance to shine as the lone tall target in the receivers’ room. That changes this summer when three February receiver signees (Jeffery Mead, Mark Andrews and Dallis Todd) who stand 6-5 or taller will arrive.

Cavil is smooth and athletic and this spring will bring more opportunities than the summer or preseason camp. Now is the time for the redshirt freshman to lock down a spot in before other options begin arriving on campus and limiting his reps.

Cornerback Cortez Johnson: The junior headed into the summer of 2013 as an projected starter opposite Aaron Colvin. His sophomore season didn’t go as expected after Zack Sanchez started in his place due to Johnson’s suspension for the season opener and Sanchez never relinquished the starting spot. Johnson shouldered the blame for his subpar showing, saying he is focused on “taking more coaching and less talking” this spring. It’s important for Johnson to show he’s serious about changing his commitment to getting better because he brings excellent size (6-2, 205 pounds) to the cornerback spot.

“I’m just trying to bounce back from last year,” Johnson said. “I didn’t do so well and I’m just trying to be more consistent.”

Offensive lineman Josiah St. John: The senior is one player who was singled out by Stoops for his improvement during the offseason. A junior college transfer, St. John needs to show he can be solid competition for returning starters Daryl Williams and Tyrus Thompson at the tackle positions with an eye on being a solid third tackle. If he falters, Christian Daimler and Sam Grant are young tackles lurking with three additional tackle signees (Orlando Brown, Joseph Paul and Kenyon Frison) poised to arrive in the summer.
Every year, true freshmen enroll in college early to participate in spring ball, often with hopes of augmenting their chances for playing time in the fall. More times than not, it doesn’t work out that way.

Last year, 21 high school seniors enrolled early in the Big 12. Below is a breakdown of the outcomes from their first college seasons:

Baylor
QB Chris Johnson: A highly-touted, four-star signee, Johnson got a valuable extra spring working under coach Art Briles. But Bryce Petty was healthy and tremendous all season and Seth Russell proved to be a more than a viable backup, prompting Johnson to redshirt. After Petty and then Russell, Johnson appears to be the next in a budding line of superb Baylor QBs.

Iowa State
OT Shawn Curtis: Curtis was the top recruit in the Cyclones' 2013 class. Though Jacob Gannon and Brock Dagel seem entrenched at the tackle positions, Curtis will have ample opportunity to work into the two-deep this fall.

LB Alton Meeks: The versatile Meeks settled in as a linebacker in Ames. He too redshirted, and he too could step into the two-deep next season.

Kansas
DB Colin Spencer: Spencer, who redshirted last season, was recruited as a defensive back but has since been moved to halfback/flanker with the Jayhawks looking for pass-catching help.

Kansas State
K Matthew McCrane: Watched as Jack Cantele won the starting place-kicking job as a sophomore. Will have to wait awhile before getting another shot.

Oklahoma
WR Dannon Cavil: Cavil turned heads with his combination of size and speed in the spring, and he seemed primed to break into the receiving rotation. But that never happened, and he wound up redshirting. With 2013 starters Jalen Saunders and Lacoltan Bester gone, Cavil will have another chance at playing time this spring.

S Ahmad Thomas: Thomas created a buzz in the spring, but couldn’t topple veterans Quentin Hayes, Gabe Lynn and Julian Wilson. He is vying for a starting job this spring and figures to be a key part of the secondary in 2014.

DE D.J. Ward: The No. 1-rated player from the state of Oklahoma, Ward endured qualifying issues that kept him from participating for much of spring ball. Then during the preseason, he had to have his spleen removed, which forced a redshirt. Ward has talent, but he needs to catch a break.


Oklahoma State
DE Naim Mustafaa: The Cowboys swiped this four-star recruit just in time to get him enrolled for spring ball. But Mustafaa left the team over the summer. He landed at Miami, but he bolted from there too during the season.

Texas
LB Deoundrei Davis: Davis spent the year redshirting and recovering from a torn ACL he suffered in high school. The Longhorns remain stacked at linebacker, so Davis will have another season to improve his strength and agility.

C Jake Raulerson: Raulerson also redshirted, giving him the opportunity to bulk up as he moved to the interior of the line. He should back up senior Dominic Espinosa this season and is on track to be the center of the future.

QB Tyrone Swoopes: Former coach Mack Brown controversially pulled Swoopes’ redshirt midway through the season, but Swoopes never unseated Case McCoy and attempted only 13 passes the entire season. Swoopes has all the tools, but will need to show more polish this spring to make a serious run at Texas’ influx starting quarterback job.

TCU
QB Zach Allen: The Horned Frogs had massive issues at the quarterback spot after Casey Pachall suffered a broken forearm, but Allen never was called on for help and redshirted instead. He’s battling Trevone Boykin and Tyler Matthews for the job this spring, and the pressure will be on to make an impression to the new offensive regime, with Grayson Muehlstein and Foster Sawyer set to join the QB competition over the summer.

TE Bryson Burtnett: After redshirting last season, Burtnett could help the Horned Frogs as a blocking tight end this fall.

OT Eason Fromayan: Also redshirted last season. Tackle is a position of concern for TCU, but there are other options that appear to be ahead of him in the pecking order early in spring ball.

Texas Tech
QB Davis Webb: Kliff Kingsbury’s first QB signee, Webb had quite the rollercoaster first season. With the favorite to start, Michael Brewer, ailing with a back injury, Webb had a golden opportunity to seize the starting job. Instead, walk-on freshman Baker Mayfield beat him out. Webb made the most of his opportunities when they came, though. After Mayfield suffered a knee injury, Webb led Tech to a come-from-behind win at West Virginia. After Mayfield transferred, Webb delivered one of the best bowl performances of any QB, throwing for 403 yards and four touchdowns in a convincing win over heavily-favored Arizona State. As the only scholarship QB currently on campus, Webb is finally the clear-cut starter going into 2014. And if he builds on his bowl showing, he could have a monster sophomore campaign.

West Virginia
LB Hodari Christian: Christian redshirted last season. Considering the Mountaineers are loaded with experience at linebacker, it could be some time before Christian steps onto the field defensively.

S Malik Greaves: Greaves too redshirted in 2013 and is currently listed this spring as the third-team “spur” linebacker behind K.J. Dillon and Marvin Gross.

QB Chavas Rawlins: Rawlins went through spring ball with the Mountaineers, but he left the program after spring ball because the coach that had recruited him, Jake Spavital, left West Virginia to become the quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator at Texas A&M. Rawlins ended up enrolling at Duquesne.

WR Daikiel Shorts: Shorts was arguably the most impressive true freshman during the preseason for West Virginia and ended up starting nine games. He also tied for the team lead with 45 receptions and figures to be a playmaking cornerstone in Morgantown.

RB Wendell Smallwood: Smallwood started out helping on special teams, but he eventually carved out a role on the offense as a third-team running back behind Charles Sims and Dreamius Smith. He finished the season with 221 rushing yards on 39 carries. Even though carries will be competitive to get again, Smallwood’s versatility should cement him a role in the offense.
A glimpse at the future is no longer enough.

Oklahoma receivers coach Jay Norvell has several pass catchers in his meeting room who have made occasional plays for the Sooners, showing glimpses of their playmaking ability. This season OU is counting on those players to transform into consistent playmakers. If they don’t, OU could find itself with a passing offense that is shooting blanks.

[+] EnlargeSterling Shepard
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsSterling Shepard is a proven commodity at WR for Oklahoma, but there are plenty of question marks behind him.
“We don’t have as many guys with game time, but I think that’s a good thing,” Norvell said. “We’re going to have to find about five guys out of this group and they’re going to have to grow up in a hurry. It’s about being consistent and being competitive now. The really good players, they do it every day.”

Sterling Shepard qualifies as "really good".

The Sooners’ leading returning receiver will take over for Jalen Saunders as OU’s go-to receiver after two seasons as a complementary piece in OU’s offense. Outside of Shepard, the Sooners' returning receivers combined for 17 receptions and 228 receiving yards in 2013.

Durron Neal's 22-yard catch against Kansas State and Derrick Woods' 20-yard reception against Alabama provided glimpses of their potential. The duo joined Shepard in the same recruiting class but have been looking up at him on the depth chart for their first two years on campus. Neal was one of the nation’s top receiver recruits out of high school, and the Sooners held off a late charge from USC to secure Woods.

Making the occasional play is no longer acceptable for Neal or Woods; it’s either step up or lose their spot. Sophomore Austin Bennett joins redshirt freshmen Dannon Cavil, Jordan Smallwood and K.J. Young as highly regarded receivers nipping at their heels this spring. And four freshmen signees, including ESPN 300 receiver Michiah Quick, will arrive this summer with the goal of forcing themselves into the competition.

The overall depth of talent at the position is one reason the Sooners aren’t overly concerned about finding pass catchers for starting quarterback Trevor Knight.

“It’s a good group, they just haven’t had a ton of time on the field,” said Sooners coach Bob Stoops, who likened the receiver position to OU’s defensive line group, which was a major question mark last spring before blossoming into a major asset in the fall.

“These guys have been developing, training [and are] ready to take over. Those guys are just going to have to be more consistent [to] stay on the field.”

Shepard is the lone known commodity, with all-conference honors in his sights after 51 receptions for 603 yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore. He’s tough as nails, competitive and rises to the occasion in big games, with four of his seven scores coming in wins over Notre Dame, Kansas State and Alabama.

The Sooners' search for consistent receivers is reminiscent of two springs ago in Norman, Okla., when OU had just lost NCAA all-time receptions leader Ryan Broyles and returned Kenny Stills, who had been a key player during his first two seasons but was being counted on to anchor the receiver spot for the first time in his career. Norvell turned to Stills to raise his overall game and leadership that spring, much like he’s asking from Shepard over the next 12 practices.

“When you become a leader, you gotta make everybody else better,” Norvell said of his only veteran receiver. “He’s not competing against guys here, he’s competing against guys around our league, around the country. He’s got to raise the standard in his game.”

OU hopes the similarities between 2012 and 2014 stop at the concerns about the receiver spot during spring football. In 2012, the Sooners added transfers Justin Brown (Penn State) and Saunders (Fresno State) in the summer after post-spring suspensions took Jaz Reynolds and Trey Franks out of the equation. OU hopes its young receivers improve enough this spring to remove all doubt about the position heading into the summer while creating depth that can withstand any unexpected hits before August.

“It’s a competitive group,” Norvell said. “We’re extremely competitive in the spring, the whole group gets graded every single day on every snap, so it's really easy to know who the best players are. We have a bunch of young guys who have shown flashes but now it’s about being able to go out every day compete and make plays. So, we’ll see who rises to the top.”
Oklahoma begins its spring football drills on Saturday.

With an exceptional Sugar Bowl performance, a young and talented defense and renewed confidence in quarterback Trevor Knight, the Sooners are 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 at five spring predictions, continuing with No. 4:

[+] EnlargeSterling Shepard and Jackson Jeffcoat
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsSterling Shepard (right) will need some help if OU's receiving corps is to step up next season.
No. 4: Concerns about the receiver position diminish.

Why it matters: The Sooners need to find balance and consistency on offense. It’s hard to imagine that scenario with Sterling Shepard as the lone consistent playmaker on the end of Knight’s passes. Oklahoma has a receivers meeting room overflowing with talent but Shepard is the only proven commodity. The Sooners need at least two other receivers to step up and become playmakers this spring.

What it would mean: OU wouldn’t need one of its four receiver signees to make an immediate impact this fall. Michiah Quick’s playmaking might earn him a role regardless, but the Sooners don’t want to count on one of those youngsters this fall. The football I.Q. and attention to detail required to excel as a true freshman receiver makes it a slippery slope to lean on those newcomers when chasing a national title.

It’s hard to believe that none of the Sooners receivers will step up this spring. Durron Neal, Derrick Woods, K.J. Young and Jordan Smallwood are legit candidates to help provide additional targets alongside Shepard. Young has impressed with his hands and ability to make plays on the scout team; Smallwood might have played immediately without a foot injury last summer and Neal understands this spring is his opportunity to start fulfilling the promise he showed when he signed in February 2012. Austin Bennett and Dannon Cavil also have the chance to rise to the occasion this spring.

Quite frankly, it doesn’t matter who steps up, as long as two or more Sooners’ pass-catchers recognize and seize their chance to become a critical part of OU’s offense. Keep an eye on Young and Smallwood, who would bring a unique playmaking combination alongside Shepard.

OU spring position battles: No. 3

February, 26, 2014
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Spring football provides the opportunity for players to put themselves in the driver’s seat when it comes to position battles. Several Oklahoma Sooners will have the chance to make a statement and make themselves the favorite to start or become a significant contributor during spring drills with several starting spots open heading into 2014. This week we’ll review the top five position battles to keep an eye on this spring, continuing with receiver.

No. 3: Receiver

Why it’s important: Trevor Knight is going to need options when he drops back to throw the football. Sterling Shepard is a bona fide playmaker, and has been proving it since he stepped on campus in the summer of 2012. Yet the junior is the lone known playmaker returning to the receiving corps in 2014. OU needs two or more receivers to step their game up in the spring and show they’re ready to be on the receiving end of Knight’s spirals.

Competitors

Junior Durron Neal: Neal arrived on campus with Shepard but hasn’t made a similar impact. He’s shown potential but he needs to become more consistent and earn the coaches trust if he hopes to fulfill the expectations placed upon him when he signed in the Class of 2012.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Woods
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsWR Derrick Woods has shown huge upside (see his acrobatic catch in the Sugar Bowl) but can he put it all together this spring and earn a starting spot?
Sophomore Derrick Woods: One of the best athletes on the team, Woods is starting to apply that athleticism to the receiver spot after playing multiple positions in high school. His leaping catch in the Sugar Bowl was a glimpse at his upside but will he seize the opportunity to become a starter?

Redshirt freshman K.J. Young: A smooth slot receiver who had a terrific redshirt year and is looking to show he will be a playmaker this fall. A strong spring could cement himself a role in the offense heading into the summer.

Redshirt freshman Jordan Smallwood: A physical presence with terrific ball skills, Smallwood appears poised to make an impact after a foot injury forced him to redshirt in 2013.

Redshirt freshman Dannon Cavil: He brings great height (6-foot-5, 214 pounds) and the spring gives him the opportunity to get a leg up on the competition before a freshman class that features three guys over 6-4 will arrive in the summer.

Sophomore Austin Bennett: Easily the most overlooked freshman receiver and the only one who escaped a redshirt season in 2013. This spring is his chance to show why for this intriguing slot receiver.

Summer arrivals

Freshman Michiah Quick: The ESPN300 signee is an exceptional playmaker who is dynamic with the ball in his hands. Don’t be surprised if he forces his way onto the field as a true freshman.

Freshman Dallis Todd: The California native has the size and speed to be ready to pounce if any of the receivers currently on campus aren’t ready to play.

Freshman: Jeffrey Mead: A raw talent who could become a matchup nightmare for Big 12 defenses as he starts to focus on football after starring in three sports in high school.

Freshman Mark Andrews: Another big body (6-6, 220) who could overwhelm defenders with his size and ball skills.

Potential outcomes

Best-case scenario: Neal or Woods emerge as a trustworthy sidekick alongside Shepard and one or more of the young receivers on campus show they are ready to take advantage of the one-on-one opportunities the Sooners’ offense will create. If at least four of the receivers currently on campus try to secure themselves a spot in the starting lineup with strong performances this spring, the Sooners offense has a chance to be scary.

Worst-case scenario: None of the receivers on campus look like different players in the spring. They continue to perform the way they have to this point in their careers forcing the Sooners’ coaches to know they may have to lean on one or more of the true freshman to play immediately this fall. It would really handicap the offense if Shepard is the only trustworthy receiver on the roster heading into August.
Spring football is just over the horizon.

Oklahoma is coming off a banner 2013 campaign featuring an 11-win season and a Sugar Bowl victory over SEC power Alabama, yet the Sooners have several position groups they need to address if they hope to make a national title run in 2014. This week, we’ll take a closer look at the top five position groups that need to improve during OU’s spring practices. On Thursday, we continue the series with the Sooners receivers at No. 2.

The breakdown

[+] EnlargeDurron Neal, Sterling Shepard
Alonzo Adams/USA TODAY SportsOklahoma needs Durron Neal (5) to become a reliable playmaker at receiver opposite Sterling Shepard.
On campus: Sterling Shepard, Jr.; Derrick Woods, So.; Durron Neal, Jr.; Austin Bennett, So.; Dannon Cavil, R-Fr.; Jordan Smallwood, R-Fr.; K.J. Young, R-Fr.

Summer arrivals: Mark Andrews, Fr.; Jeffery Mead, Fr.; Michiah Quick, Fr.; Dallis Todd, Fr.

Summary: The Sooners appear on the cusp of having a receiver selected in the NFL draft for the third consecutive season if Jalen Saunders hears his name called in May, following the footsteps of Ryan Broyles and Kenny Stills. Yet if OU hopes to make a national title run, its receivers will have to be much more productive in 2014 than they were in 2013. Fortunately the receivers room is overflowing with talent, so the competition to play should be fierce and force everyone to raise their overall level of play.

Shepard, who had 96 receptions for 1,224 yards and 10 touchdowns in his first two seasons, could have an all-conference season as Trevor Knight’s top target and the most experienced receiver on the roster as a junior. He’s competitive, tough and athletic. Spring is his first opportunity to show he can handle being “the man” in the passing game, but there’s no reason to think he’s not ready to carry that burden.

It’s an important season for Neal, who stepped on campus as a highly regarded recruit but hasn’t made as big an impact as Shepard, a fellow Class of 2012 signee. The junior has shown signs of being a playmaker but hasn’t forced his way into the lineup the way Shepard did during their first two seasons. Spring is his chance to show he deserves a bigger role in the offense.

Woods is coming off a redshirt freshman season in which he made an impact on special teams with limited duty on offense. As the former high school quarterback gets more comfortable as a college receiver, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him make a major jump from his freshman to sophomore season. Spring will be the first glimpse of his readiness to be a factor at receiver.

Bennett was the lone freshman receiver to escape a redshirt in 2013, playing on special teams. He can be the playmaker in the slot that the Sooners need, particularly with Saunders out of the picture.

At 6-foot-5 and 214 pounds, Cavil brings unique size and good speed. Unlike most 2013 signees, he’s been on campus for a full year, so Cavil should be comfortable with the demands of playing college football and ready to show if he can be an impact player as a redshirt freshman.

There’s been a buzz about Young since his arrival last summer. Comparisons to Broyles have begun thanks to his ball skills and quickness in the slot. The first step for Young, however, is to have a great spring and start proving he can turn his potential into production.

Smallwood might have played as a true freshman if he hadn’t injured his foot before the season began. The coaches love the physicality he brings as a receiver, so this spring should be his first chance to show what he can do in crimson and cream.

Don’t be surprised if Quick makes an immediate impact, even though he could use a year in the Sooners’ strength and conditioning program. A lack of bulk never held Saunders back, so there’s no reason to think Quick won’t use his exceptional talent to overcome any size limitations just like Saunders did.

Andrews has the athleticism and ball skills to be a matchup nightmare for defensive backs. How well he transitions to Big 12 receiver will ultimately decide how quickly he sees the field.

The sky is the limit for Mead, a three-sport star at Tulsa (Okla.) Union, as the recent signee could develop into a major contributor once he starts to focus on football in the fall. He has terrific size and athleticism with plenty of room to grow as a receiver.

Todd (6-5, 210) moves like a much smaller man. His quickness and speed will surprise defenders, yet he maintains the strength expected of someone his size. His unique combination of skills could help him earn a role early in his OU career.

The list

No. 3: Cornerbacks
No. 4: Running backs
No. 5: Tight ends

State of the program: Receiver

January, 15, 2014
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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 before signing day on Feb. 5. On Wednesday, we take a closer look at the receiver position.

Starter/contributors: Sterling Shepard (Jr.)

The lone major contributor returning at receiver, Shepard has the skills to be one of the Big 12’s bests in 2014. He finished with 51 receptions for 603 yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore. His toughness, quickness and competitive nature will make him part of the foundation of OU’s offense next season. But he’ll need a teammate or two to emerge or risk seeing double coverage for the majority of his junior season. He’s a special player who takes his game to another level in big games.

On the cusp: Durron Neal (Jr.), K.J. Young (redshirt freshman), Derrick Woods (So.), Jordan Smallwood (redshirt freshman), Trey Franks (Sr.)

The Sooners will need a few of these young, talented receivers to transform into productive, skilled playmakers. Neal has yet to emerge as the player he was expected to become when he signed in 2012 but has had moments that displayed his potential.

Woods is one of the better athletes on the squad and contributed on special teams. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him emerge as a receiving option.

Young was one of the stars of the scout team last fall. His hands and quickness have likened comparisons to Sooners’ legend Ryan Broyles, so if Young can continue to develop during the spring and summer he could make an immediate impact.

Smallwood might have played himself out of a redshirt season in 2013 if he hadn’t broken his foot. He’ll bring much needed size and ball skills to the receiver spot.

Dannon Cavil (redshirt freshman) and Austin Bennett (So.) join that foursome as potential impact players. Bennett gives OU another quick slot receiver and Cavil has unmatched size (6-foot-5, 214 pounds) .

Franks brings a veteran presence to the receiving spot but saw limited time at receiver in 2013 after a stint at safety.

On the recruiting trail: Dallis Todd (La Mirada, Calif./La Mirada), Mark Andrews (Scottsdale, Ariz./Desert Mountain), Jeffery Mead (Tulsa, Okla./Union)

Todd, the No. 265 player in the ESPN 300, is another big receiver (6-5, 210) who could create mismatches with his size and athleticism. He has terrific feet and surprising speed which could earn him a spot in the rotation, particularly with so many spots to fill.

Much like Todd, Andrews has unusual feet and ball skills for a player his size (6-6, 220). The No. 295 player in the ESPN 300, Andrews could provide another big target in the passing game.

Mead (6-5, 179) is very similar to Todd but more of a raw talent. A three-sport star in high school, Mead’s ball skills could help him become a nightmare matchup on third downs and in the red zone. He has the talent to play immediately but it could be a tough transition into a full-time football player.

Overall Grade: B-

Shepard is the only reason this grade is not much lower. The junior should become one of the Big 12’s top receivers during his third year on campus, so that’s a terrific foundation to build upon. Yet Jay Norvell’s meeting room will be full of inexperienced players who haven’t proven they can excel in Big 12 stadiums. But there are several unique talents on the roster and if two or three of those players develop into playmakers the combination of size, quickness and ball skills among this group could challenge defenses in ways no other Big 12 squad can match.

Ranking Oklahoma's position groups 

August, 12, 2013
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Damien WilliamsAP Photo/Cal Sport MediaSenior Damien Williams is one of a deep stable of Oklahoma running backs that are capable of making an impact for the Sooners this season.
It's an unusual role for Bob Stoops' program as Oklahoma prepares for 2013 season with minimal expectations to insert itself into the BCS title hunt. The Sooners have several talented, deep position groups and other position groups full of uncertainty. Here's a look at OU's position groups ranked from strongest to weakest.

You’ve seen them while prepping your fantasy football team. Or reading ESPN Insider Chad Ford while getting ready for the NBA Draft. The “tier system” is an effective way of making sense, differentiating and analyzing a cluster of players. Everyone from pro sport general managers to college coaches out on the trail recruiting employ this method.

With this is mind, SoonerNation has parsed out Oklahoma’s roster into 10 separate tiers. Here they are:

Tier 1: The Elite (Guys who could play for almost anyone)


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Ranking Oklahoma's position groups 

June, 17, 2013
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The last several days, ESPN Insider Phil Steele has been rolling out the rankings of his top individual position units in the country. In that vein, SoonerNation has ranked OU’s position units for the upcoming season, from best to worst:


To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

NORMAN, Okla. -- In Bob Stoops’ first season in 1999, Oklahoma spread everyone out and threw it around.

In 2004, the Sooners put Jason White under center and handed off to Adrian Peterson.

As Stoops pointed out last week, the Sooners have often "played to their personnel." That includes last season, when, after it became abundantly clear the Sooners’ fourth-best receiver was better than any tight end, OU went almost exclusively with four-wide formations.

[+] EnlargeTaylor McNamara
J.P. Wilson/Icon SMIThe Sooners need redshirt freshman Taylor McNamara to become a passing-game threat in 2013.
“We had some young [tight ends], a new guy from junior college,” Stoops said. “We weren’t the same with them on the field. Our best grouping was with wide receivers, which was quite obvious to anybody who watched us.”

In recent weeks, the Sooners have taken criticism from ESPN analysts Trent Dilfer and Jon Gruden for not using tight ends. They say it put too much pressure on quarterback Landry Jones to throw the ball downfield.

In several OU victories, Jones’ arm was good enough to overcome the limitations of not having a tight end checking off a route underneath the coverage, streaking down the middle of the field or helping to block in the run game.

But in the Sooners’ three 2012 losses, not having a tight end came back to haunt them, as OU was unable to maintain balance with the run or attack the Kansas State, Notre Dame and Texas A&M defenses off play-action.

The OU coaching staff recognized this liability and tried to lure another junior-college tight end to Norman before signing day. But after losing out on Beau Sandland and Emmanuel Bibbs -- the two juco tight ends they thought could provide an immediate impact -- the Sooners were forced to go with what they have.

Only this time, they won’t have Jones’ arm to fall back on. To be successful in 2013, the Sooners will have to run the ball with better efficiency. And they’ll have to also be lethal with play-action. Which means Sam Grant, Taylor McNamara and Brannon Green, whom the Sooners deemed weren’t ready last year, had better be ready to play this time around.

“I feel much better about it,” Stoops said. “The two freshmen [Grant and McNamara] have come along, are stronger blockers, have a stronger presence about what they’re trying to do. Same thing with Brannon Green, more experience in what we want him to do.

“I believe they’ll have more opportunities.”

Despite losing Kenny Stills and Justin Brown, the Sooners figure to be strong at wideout again. Jalen Saunders and Sterling Shepard should be prolific, and Trey Metoyer, Durron Neal, Dannon Cavil, Jaz Reynolds and others have big-play ability. But as OU transitions to an offense more reliant on the ground game -- as well as the running ability of its inexperienced quarterbacks -- tight end play will be paramount.

It’s no coincidence that when the Sooners have run the ball best, they’ve had stellar tight end play.

Quentin Griffin had Trent Smith.

Chris Brown and DeMarco Murray had Brody Eldridge and Jermaine Gresham.

Even Adrian Peterson had James "Bubba" Moses and Joe Jon Finley.

Stoops says he likes what he saw from the tight ends in the spring. After redshirting last year, Grant showed promise as a blocking specialist. McNamara has put on weight and is finally healthy after undergoing shoulder surgery last season, then tweaking a hamstring after being cleared for spring ball. Green has come along, too.

They’ll never be confused with the 2007 tight end grouping of Gresham, Eldridge and Finley. But if they can be just solid enough to be used, that might be adequate.

The Sooners are always going to play to their personnel. But OU has always been better when the tight ends are included.

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