Oklahoma Sooners: Derrick Woods

During the summer, ESPN.com is taking a closer look at each scholarship player on Oklahoma’s 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 follows the roster numerically through No. 98 Chuka Ndulue.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Woods
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsDerrick Woods only had two catches in 2013 but has shown his development as a receiver.
No. 12 Derrick Woods, receiver, 6-foot-1, 189 pounds, sophomore

Impact thus far: Woods hasn’t made a major impact during his two years on campus but has flashed terrific ability at various moments during his young career. After redshirting in 2012, Woods was a core member of the Sooners special teams and showed potential as a receiver. He finished with two receptions for 29 yards in 11 games in 2013.

Impact in 2014: If Woods continues the steady improvement he’s shown during his first two years, he should make an impact at receiver this fall. His 20-yard reception in the Sugar Bowl was a glimpse at his playmaking potential.

Long term upside: Woods is another one of the talented receivers in the Sooners meeting room who has not started to turn his upside into production. But, ability-wise, he looks like a guy with the potential to be a key contributor for the next three seasons and a potential all-conference player.

Evaluation grade for Woods: B. He earned a special teams role as a redshirt freshman and seems to be getting more and more comfortable as a receiver after starring at several different positions in high school. Most schools recruited him as a defensive back, but the Sooners’ willingness to keep him at receiver could pay off.

Development grade for Woods: A. Outside of just throwing him into the mix at receiver as a redshirt freshman, there probably wasn’t a better development arc for Woods. As the season progressed, Woods did start seeing the field more and more on offense and redshirting him during his true freshman season was the right move.

Quotable: “He didn’t play a lot but he played an important role in that Alabama game. He came in on that big pass, which was as important of a play in that game. Now he just has to transport that into his play all the time. He’s been a big play threat on the field; he just has to do that consistently.” -- Receivers coach Jay Norvell on what Woods needs to do to take the next step as a sophomore.
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.
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.
With spring ball done, we’re reexamining and re-ranking the positional situations of every Big 12 team, continuing Wednesday with receivers (and tight ends). These outlooks could look different in August. But here’s how we see them post-spring:

1. Baylor (pre-spring ranking: 1): The Bears maintained their commanding advantage over any other receiving corps in the league. Antwan Goodley remains an All-American candidate, and Corey Coleman looks primed to become Baylor’s next great wideout following a spectacular spring. Levi Norwood, Jay Lee and Clay Fuller are proven performers. And more talent is about to arrive, including blue-chip freshman K.D. Cannon. The Baylor receivers are as formidable as any position grouping in the league.

2. Texas Tech (3): The Red Raiders lost their two best pass-catchers from last year in tight end Jace Amaro and Eric Ward, but this group is overflowing with dynamic young talent. After reeling in two touchdowns in the bowl and dominating Texas Tech’s spring game, Jakeem Grant looks like he’s on the verge of becoming a star in the league. Bradley Marquez should be even sharper after giving up baseball to focus on football this offseason. And the speedy Reginald Davis is a potential big-play threat on the perimeter. All three players can fly, and they have a quarterback in Davis Webb who can deliver the ball to them down field. The unit goes deep in the rotation, too, with D.J. Polite-Bray, Devin Lauderdale, Jordan Davis and Derreck Edwards all poised to be factors.

3. Oklahoma State (4): The Cowboys don’t have a Justin Blackmon or Dez Bryant. But they have a deep rotation and a budding All-Big 12 candidate in Jhajuan Seales, who is ready to take over as the offense’s go-to receiver. Marcell Ateman, David Glidden and Brandon Sheperd were all significant parts of the corps last year, as well, and Blake Webb and Austin Hays, who both made starts two years ago as true freshmen, bounced back from injury-plagued 2013 seasons to impress in the spring. Track star/running back Tyreek Hill also will line up in the slot at times and will be a home-run threat any time he touches the ball. Considering none of the projected eight in the two-deep will be a senior, this group should only continue to get better, too.

4. Texas (5): Don’t fault the Texas receivers for not making a bigger impact in the spring game. For three quarters, reserve quarterback Tyrone Swoopes struggled to get them the ball. While the Longhorns probably lack an All-Big 12-caliber performer, they boast an experienced, reliable trio in three-year starter Jaxon Shipley and juniors Kendall Sanders and Marcus Johnson. Daje Johnson, who caught a Hail Mary from Swoopes in the spring game, brings even more playmaking to the group as a full-time receiver. Texas obviously has QB issues. But if the Horns can find the right player there, that QB will have reliable weapons to operate within the passing game.

5. Kansas State (2): K-State still has one of the best receivers in the country in Tyler Lockett, who is deserving of preseason All-American consideration. But the rest of the unit didn’t round out during the spring as well as the Wildcats would have hoped. Curry Sexton (eight catches for 88 yards) and Deante Burton (six catches for 48 yards) were both solid in the spring game. So was freshman Judah Jones, who hauled in a 51-yard scoring grab. But converted QB Daniel Sams still has a ways to go before making a huge impact, and highly touted juco transfer Andre Davis failed to make a big spring splash. Any receiving corps featuring Lockett is going to be a handful. But the supporting cast still needs work.

6. Iowa State (7): The Cyclones have the top returning pass-catching tight end in the league in E.J. Bibbs, who coach Paul Rhoads believes could vie for All-American honors. Quenton Bundrage has all-league potential, though he disappeared too many times last season, and did so again in the spring game. Jarvis West has proven he can make plays out of the slot, and the Cyclones have depth on the perimeter in P.J. Harris, Brett Medders and D'Vario Montgomery, who all developed rapidly during the spring. With highly touted signee Allen Lazard set to join the rotation, the Cyclones could boast their best receiving corps in several years.

7. Oklahoma (6): The Sooners feature a bona-fide No. 1 receiver in Sterling Shepard, who has 96 career catches his first two seasons. But the position is the Sooners' biggest question mark. With 12 catches last year, Durron Neal is the team's second-leading returning receiver. Austin Bennett, Jordan Smallwood and Derrick Woods all had moments in the spring game, but the competition for snaps will carry over into the fall. Talented four-star incoming freshman Michiah Quick could be a factor in the slot once he gets to Norman.

8. West Virginia (8): Starters Mario Alford, Kevin White and Daikiel Shorts are all back, but, collectively, must produce more consistently than they did last season. Alford seems to be the key. He had 215 receiving yards in West Virginia’s final game of 2013, and he has the talent and speed to give the Mountaineers a dangerous No. 1 wideout. Cody Clay is a valuable tight end, though does most of his damage with his blocking. Shelton Gibson, who was ineligible last year and this spring as a partial qualifier, is a former four-star recruit and could give West Virginia a boost.

9. TCU (9): The Horned Frogs actually had two positive developments at this position during the spring. Jordan Moore made a seamless transition from running back to receiver and is in line to give TCU a physical and fast presence on the outside. Then, former Texas A&M QB Matt Joeckel transferred in, potentially clearing the way for Trevone Boykin to swing back to receiver. This group has depth, with Ty Slanina, Josh Doctson, David Porter and Cameron Echols-Luper returning. But the future of the most talented receiver on the roster -- Brandon Carter -- remains in doubt after he was recently arrested on suspicion of marijuana possession, after sitting out spring ball to focus on academics.

10: Kansas (10): The Jayhawks might be at the bottom here, but they seem primed to field their best one-two punch at receiver since Kerry Meier and Dezmon Briscoe roamed Lawrence five years ago. Miami (Ohio) transfer Nick Harwell has taken on a much-needed vocal leadership role among this group and brings a track record of production, having finished second nationally in receiving in 2011. Flanking Harwell will be former running back Tony Pierson, who made the full-time move to receiver this offseason. While he’s raw as a receiver, Pierson is capable of the big play. Rodriguez Coleman also emerged this spring as potential viable third option. The dark days of the Jayhawk receivers posing no threat in the passing game appear to be over.
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 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.
Spring football has come to a close at Oklahoma.

The Sooners’ 15 practices answered some questions but others still remain. Now is the perfect time to update the some of the position battles that made this spring intriguing in Norman, Okla. beginning with the offense.

Backup quarterback

Pre-spring: This was arguably the biggest offensive concern heading into the spring. Two freshmen, Cody Thomas and Justice Hansen, are behind projected starter Trevor Knight and preparing them for the backup role was one of the spring’s most important goals.

Post-spring: Those questions still remain. Thomas, who was splitting time with OU’s baseball team during the spring, is clearly ahead of Hansen, who threw two interceptions in the spring game after enrolling early to participate in spring drills. Even though Thomas performed better in the spring game he hasn’t appeared to run away with the job.

Summer outlook: The four months until August are the best news for the Sooners. That extra time to develop could be critical for Thomas and Hansen because one of them will need to be the No. 2 quarterback. Either way, OU must have its fingers crossed that Knight stays healthy.

Starting running back

Pre-spring: Keith Ford was considered the favorite to take over as OU’s starting running back after a solid freshman debut. His determination and physical running style earned him carries in a senior-laden backfield in 2013.

Post-spring: Even though he had a lackluster spring game (three carries, six yards), Alex Ross made a move during spring drills. Coach Bob Stoops consistently praised the sophomore, who continually made plays during spring scrimmages. Fellow sophomore Daniel Brooks also looked healthy for the first time in a Sooners’ uniform during the spring game, giving OU more options at the position. The spring left the position murkier than ever but it’s a good problem because the Sooners have several talented options to carry the ball, much like they did in 2013.

Summer outlook: February signees Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine are expected to arrive in the summer, kicking up the competition at the position to an even higher level. Stoops expects multiple running backs to get carries this fall, so expect this competition to rage on into the season.

No. 2 receiver

Pre-spring: Sterling Shepard is a proven playmaker and emerging leader. Junior Durron Neal was the clubhouse favorite to emerge alongside Shepard with sophomore Derrick Woods and others ready to battle to become key contributors.

Post-spring: This battle is far from over but redshirt freshman Jordan Smallwood could join Shepard as one of Knight’s favorite targets. The buzz surrounding Smallwood has been unrelenting since he stepped on campus last summer, only to be muffled after a foot injury forced him to redshirt. He returned for bowl practices and the buzz wasn’t far behind. With three receptions for 60 yards and one touchdown in the spring game, the redshirt freshman showed his size, athleticism, route running and ball skills could make him a consistent part of OU’s offense.

Summer outlook: Several receivers could become receiving targets this fall but outside of Smallwood, nobody looks like they’ve cemented a role in the offense. Thus, the competition continues and four freshmen, including potential game-breaker Michiah Quick, will arrive in the summer with an eye on surpassing their older teammates on the depth chart.
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.
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.”
Spring football has begun in Norman, Okla.

Several playmakers return, but some unknown players could make names for themselves during March and April. Here are five to keep an eye on:

Defensive tackle Charles Walker: Unlike a year ago, the Sooners aren’t searching for experienced playmakers on the defensive line. OU returns six defensive linemen who started a game in 2013, yet few people around the program would be surprised if Walker earns playing time as a redshirt freshman this fall.

“Charles has really been impressive,” OU coach Bob Stoops said. “He had a great fall. He’s a guy that’s up to about 300 pounds now, light on his feet, ran really well when we timed. I want to say he ran in the 4.7s, so he really has a bright future. [He] works hard. Charles is going to be a big factor in that defensive line.”

[+] EnlargeDerrick Woods
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsDerrick Woods made a big catch in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama.
Receiver Derrick Woods: It’s taken a while for Woods to get comfortable as a receiver after stepping on campus as a multi-dimensional athlete who played several positions in high school. But his special-teams role as a freshman affirmed his place as one of the better athletes on the team, and his 20-yard catch in the Sugar Bowl could be a sign he’s ready to make an impact at receiver.

“[Woods] has really come on,” Stoops said. “Derrick Woods made a huge play in the Sugar Bowl when we had to have it on a third-and-12 or whatever it was -- a competitive play.”

Defensive end Mike Onuoha: The sophomore was mentioned along with Charles Tapper as the future of the Sooners defensive line after both youngsters played themselves out of a redshirt season in 2012. Last season, Tapper fulfilled his upside, earning All-Big 12 honors; Onuoha watched from the sideline after shoulder surgery. This spring is Onuoha’s chance to make his mark. He brings unique size and athleticism at 6-foot-5 and 249 pounds.

“Michael Onuoha really is a guy ready to make a big move in that defensive line,” Stoops said.

Receiver Jordan Smallwood: As soon as Smallwood stepped on campus last summer, he began impressing teammates with his physical nature and receiving skills. A foot injury took away his freshman season, but he returned to practice during Sugar Bowl preparations and drew praise from the coaches. This spring is his chance to show he can be a big part of OU’s offense in 2014.

“They finally turned him loose to practice in the bowl practices,” Stoops said. “[He] really was impressive.”

Linebacker Devante Bond: Much like Walker, OU doesn’t need Bond to make an impact with playmaking veterans returning at linebacker. However, if he shows the pass-rushing prowess he displayed in junior college, he could become a key component of the Sooners’ defense in pass situations, joining Eric Striker to create havoc in opponent’s backfields.

“Devonte Bond has really looked impressive in our workouts and weights,” Stoops said. “In long yardage he will put his hand down and let him go or stand him up and let him go.”

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

Grading the class: 2012

February, 6, 2014
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Oklahoma added several recruits into the fold on Wednesday with an 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 last five recruiting classes. On Thursday we begin with a review of the Class of 2011 including recruits who exceeded expectations, recruits who were solid signees and complete busts.

OU landed 11 four-star recruits in 2012, including five members of the ESPN 150, and while it’s relatively early in their careers, several signees, including defensive end Charles Tapper, linebacker Eric Striker, quarterback Trevor Knight and receiver Sterling Shepard, have already made major contributions. The class was ranked No. 11 nationally by ESPN.com.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCharles Tapper (right) was a raw talent when he arrived at Oklahoma, but has developed into an All-Big 12 defender.
Transcendent figures

Defensive end Charles Tapper: He was the rawest signee in the class. Now, two years later, he’s an All-Big 12 defensive end with an NFL future. OU deserves a ton of credit for finding this hidden gem and Tapper deserves just as much credit for pushing himself to greatness and turning his potential into on-field production. Not bad for the nation’s No. 74-ranked defensive end.

Quarterback Trevor Knight: The sophomore quarterback was showing unique traits before he even stepped on campus, organizing fellow recruits and displaying leadership ability before he signed with OU. The No. 22-ranked quarterback in the nation, Knight won the starting job last August and, after some ups and downs during the regular season, lifted up the Sugar Bowl MVP trophy in early January after leading OU to an impressive win over Alabama. OU will build its offense around his talents this offseason and if he plays like he did in the Sugar Bowl, the sky is the limit for the Sooners in 2014.

Receiver Sterling Shepard: As soon as the Under Armour All-American stepped on campus everyone knew Shepard would be a key part of the Sooners’ plans. He was one reason OU went to a four-receiver base package in 2012 as they aimed to get their top 11 players on the field and he hasn’t disappointed with 96 receptions for 1,224 yards and 10 touchdowns in his first two seasons. The No. 60 player in the ESPN 150, Shepard should be Knight’s primary target in 2014.

Linebacker Eric Striker: Sooners running backs were complaining about having to try to block Striker during his freshman year but he rarely saw the field on defense in 2012. That changed in 2013 as he became one of the Big 12’s most feared pass rushers. His acceleration and knack for getting to the quarterback made him a critical part of the defense as a sophomore and earned him All-Big 12 second team honors after stepping on campus as the No. 62 safety in the nation.

Cornerback Zack Sanchez: The No. 64 cornerback in the nation, Sanchez has started every game of his young career and has displayed the competitiveness required to excel at cornerback. He’s already exceeding expectations.

Bull's-eye

Center Ty Darlington: He could be the anchor of OU’s offensive line as a junior after two quality years behind All-Big 12 center Gabe Ikard. Darlington was No. 148 in the ESPN 150.

Receiver Lacoltan Bester: A late junior college signee, Bester did exactly what he was brought in to do. He provided veteran depth and competition to the receiving corps during his two seasons.

Receiver Durron Neal: His junior year is a big one for Neal. He’s seen spot duty during his first two seasons but needs to step up and secure a spot in the starting lineup this fall. Neal was No. 64 in the ESPN 150.

Receiver Derrick Woods: Woods made an impact on special teams as a redshirt freshman and his Sugar Bowl catch was a glimpse at his potential to make an impact on offense. Woods was No. 137 in the ESPN 150.

Running back Damien Williams: Williams did what he was brought in to do, provide competition and big plays at the running back spot for two seasons. Even though his Sooners’ career ended with his dismissal, he gave the program two productive seasons.

Tight end Brannon Green: Green was a valuable blocker and overlooked key to OU’s running success during his two years in Norman, Okla.

Completely missed the mark

Offensive lineman John Michael McGee: It always was odd for the Sooners to sign McGee, who said he didn’t love football during the recruiting process. Therefore, it really was no surprise when he quit the team before his freshman season even began.

Overall grade: A+

This class has been on campus for two years and already features an All-Big 12 first teamer, All-Big 12 second teamer, a freshman All-American and a Sugar Bowl MVP. Anyone expecting more from a recruiting class that has been on campus for 18 months needs to re-think their expectations.

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.

How OU can salvage its season

November, 11, 2013
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NORMAN, Okla. -- Oklahoma is on the cusp of another disappointing season. Its chances of winning another Big 12 title are slim, and the Sooners are completely out of the BCS title conversation after their 41-12 loss to Baylor last Thursday.

Competing for national championships is the stated goal in Norman, so here are five things the Sooners can do to salvage the season with that ultimate goal in mind.

[+] EnlargeKendal Thompson
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsSophomore Kendal Thompson is in his third season in the program but hasn't appeared in a game.
Find a quarterback of the future. OU has sent out two starting quarterbacks this season, Blake Bell and Trevor Knight, and has a third, Kendal Thompson, who hasn't taken a snap. Yet, the Sooners don't seem any closer to replacing Landry Jones than they did when the season began. Bell has had good and bad moments and hasn't separated himself from either of the other two despite starting the majority of OU's games. Knight was the opening-day starter but didn't look like a game-changing signal caller as his youth was readily on display. And Thompson, who missed preseason camp and the first few games due to a broken foot, hasn't been given the opportunity to show what he can do. If the Sooners accomplish nothing else during the final weeks of the season, they need to have a much better feel for who they want to lead the offense in 2014 after the regular season finale at Oklahoma State.

Figure out the vision of what the Sooners offense should be. What is OU's identity on offense? At this point last season, the offense had progressed into a four-receiver attack that forced defenses to account for several talented targets in the passing game, with a solid supplementary running attack. This season OU can run the ball, but that's about it. It's clear the Sooners wanted to make running the football a priority, but they appear to have emphasized that goal to the point their passing game isn't anything worth worrying about. They're much closer to the goal of becoming a physical running team, but that doesn't do any good if they can't be balanced. OU must find a middle ground between its 2012 offense and this 2013 version, then aim to make that the starting point in 2014. There needs to be a baseline starting point that coaches, players and the rest of the staff are comfortable with to begin each cycle.

Get young players plenty of game experience. Coach Bob Stoops raved about his freshman class in August. It's time for those freshmen, like receiver Austin Bennett or safety Ahmad Thomas, who aren't in the midst of a redshirt year, to see the field much more often. If they're going to use a year of eligibility, why not use it by getting them prepared to make an impact as sophomores? True enough, there will be ups and downs to deal with, and the potential for opponents to take advantage of them, but it would pay off in 2014, show them what it takes to be successful at this level and could give them confidence heading into the offseason. One series here or there and those guys can gain some game experience while the Sooners remain committed to their starting lineup and veterans.

Find out who are the most competitive, mentally tough players on the roster. Adversity can be educating. The Sooners can use some of their current struggles to learn which players could be the foundation of a title run in the future. OU should be willing to put some of its younger players, not just freshman, into adverse situations down the stretch, even at the risk of making a game harder to win. Can Keith Ford respond when he's tired from carrying the load and OU needs to convert a key short-yardage situation in the red zone? Will Zack Sanchez accept the challenge if asked to cover the opponent's top receiver for a quarter? Would Derrick Woods flash some potential if he gets some snaps at receiver? Creating little scenarios like that will challenge the players and help the coaches learn some things about the roster they might not know otherwise heading into the offseason.

Find some confidence. Win or lose, OU needs to play well in every game the rest of the way. This team rarely has played to its potential in 2013 and doesn't seem to play with any confidence until something good happens. And if good things don't happen, the confidence to dig out of a hole seems sorely lacking. This squad, particularly offensively, seems to question its ability to get the job done any time adversity hits. OU needs to find the players who have the unyielding confidence that they can make plays, like receiver Jalen Saunders, and build around them for the next three games. The Sooners need to find some way to get back to the belief that they can excel against anyone if they execute and focus on themselves, not the opponent. If they do, it could help lift the program to greater heights in 2014.

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