Oklahoma Sooners: Dominique Alexander

Oklahoma’s linebacker group have been the least talked about unit on the defense this spring.

Yet they were easily the Sooners’ most productive position group in 2013.

OU returns all three starters with Frank Shannon, Dominique Alexander and Eric Striker set to remain key contributors in the Sooners defense this fall. This spring, all three players are a year wiser, a year stronger, a year better and poised to become even more important to the Sooners defense this season.

“They are just playing faster and better,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “The experience is so valuable. As good as those guys are, just playing the whole year in the system they understand it so much better. We have seen a lot of different schemes and hopefully we can react to plays better. I thought in games we were a little slow in adjusting and reacting to things just because we hadn’t experienced them before. Now we have a year under our belt to really dissect the good and the bad of it all and adjusting our personnel to match.”

While the ability to adjust will be key, the overall depth at the position could be better as well. Sophomore Jordan Evans is improving and could be the most athletic of the bunch and was exceptional when thrown into the fire with an eight-tackle performance against Texas Tech as a true freshman. Junior college transfer Devante Bond joins the roster, providing another pass rush threat in the mold of Striker and redshirt freshman Ogbonnia Okoronkwo is another young player who could earn himself some playing time if he proves to be a pass rushing threat.

“It is good,” Mike Stoops said. “I like our depth outside, I think we have to continue to gain some depth inside. The new additions, Devante Bond has been good and Obo [Okoronkwo], it has been good to have him back out there. He has a lot to learn, but they are very athletic and very fast. The important part of this whole deal is gaining quality depth and I think we are starting to do that.”
Over the next two weeks, we’ll be breaking down the 10 best players at the moment on every team in the Big 12.

These lists won’t include junior college or freshman signees who haven’t arrived on campus yet. Rather, they will include only the players on their teams this spring. Some of these rankings might look different after the spring, but this is how we see them now.

On Tuesday, we continue with Allstate Sugar Bowl champion Oklahoma.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Knight
Chuck Cook/USA TODAY SportsA more consistent Trevor Knight easily would rise on this list.
1. Linebacker Frank Shannon: The Sooners' leading tackler finished with 92 stops including seven for loss as a sophomore. He fought through injuries to become OU’s most consistent and productive player on a defense that was the foundation of the program’s success in 2013. There’s no reason to think Shannon will take a step backward as a junior.

2. Linebacker Eric Striker: One of the Big 12’s top pass rushers, Striker showed what he can do during his three-sack performance in the Sugar Bowl. His relentlessness on the edge should continue to terrorize quarterbacks this fall.

3. Defensive end Charles Tapper: The former basketball player is coming off an All-Big 12 season, but he still hasn’t scratched the surface of his potential in a lot of ways. He’s continuing to grow as a football player, but his natural instincts and exceptional physical ability to cement himself near the top of this list until he leaves Norman, Okla.

4. Receiver Sterling Shepard: Shepard has been a key piece of the offense since he stepped on campus two years ago. His tendency to play his best in OU’s biggest games, particularly against Alabama, Oklahoma State and Notre Dame, is what makes him a special player.

5. Safety Quentin Hayes: He goes somewhat unnoticed, but Hayes' versatility is a critical piece in OU’s defense. He has the ability to cover receivers yet always remains active and around the ball. This spring Hayes needs to emerge as a leader in the secondary as the veteran in the group.

6. Quarterback Trevor Knight: If Knight can consistently play like he did in the Sugar Bowl, he’ll rise to the top of this list quickly. Even with several stellar performances by teammates, Knight was easily the Sooners' best player against Alabama, but the same cannot be said for the other seven appearances of his redshirt freshman season.

7. Linebacker Dominique Alexander: The Big 12 defensive freshman of the year joins Shannon and Striker to give the Sooners one of the Big 12’s top linebacker units. Alexander had 80 tackles while recording double-digit stops in four of the nine games he started as a true freshman. The sky is the limit for Alexander, who should be even better as a sophomore.

8. Tackle Daryl Williams: Injuries are the only thing that have kept Williams from being productive during his time in crimson and cream. He earned second-team All-Big 12 honors as a junior and should be the veteran anchor of the offensive line in 2014.

9. Defensive end Geneo Grissom: He finally started to realize his upside as a junior, capping it off with an outstanding performance against Alabama. Much like Knight, if he can consistently play at that level, he would skyrocket up this list.

10. Cornerback Zack Sanchez: He stepped up in a big way during his redshirt freshman year. Sanchez had major ups and downs but his competitiveness rose to the forefront on several occasions. He finished with a team-high 13 pass breakups along with 46 tackles and two interceptions. He’ll need to become a leader as a sophomore.
Oklahoma begins its spring football drills on Saturday.

An exceptional Sugar Bowl performance, a young and talented defense and renewed confidence in quarterback Trevor Knight has the Sooners eyeing a national title run in 2014. Yet that won’t happen without growth at several key positions, starting this spring. This week we’ll make five spring predictions, continuing with No. 2:

[+] EnlargeStanvon Taylor
John Rivera/Icon SMIStanvon Taylor looks ready to make a leap in his sophomore season and become another stalwart in Oklahoma's 2013 class.
No. 2: The Sooners’ Class of 2013 shows signs it was vastly underrated.

Why it matters: OU fans were less than impressed when the Sooners inked ESPN.com’s No. 17 recruiting class in February 2013. While the Sooners coaching staff swooped in to land a few late bloomers and potential hidden gems, OU fans were lamenting the recruits they had missed out on. Now, one year later, that class appears poised to have a significant impact on the program.

What it would mean: First off, it would underscore the value of evaluation and development. Secondly, it would mean the Sooners have a bright future ahead.

Linebacker Dominique Alexander was the Big 12 newcomer of the year, while running back Keith Ford, cornerback Stanvon Taylor, safety Ahmad Thomas, safety Hatari Byrd, receiver K.J. Young and guard Dionte Savage are on the verge of locking up starting spots. Cornerback Dakota Austin, receiver Austin Bennett, receiver Jordan Smallwood, defensive tackle Charles Walker, linebacker Jordan Evans, defensive end Matt Dimon and quarterback Cody Thomas are among several members of the class who could be contributors.

Over half the class appears ready to make an impact (or already has made an impact) heading into their second season on campus. This spring provides the opportunity for the majority of this class to prove they are ready and able to help spark a successful 2014 season in Norman, Okla.

While the class is appearing to develop quickly, OU has its fingers crossed that its development continues. OU’s hopes of competing for a Big 12 title and national title this fall rests on several members of this class. It’s critical for sophomores such as Ford, Taylor, Byrd and Young to become key pieces of the 2014 squad, otherwise the Sooners could be forced to turn to true freshmen.

Big 12 pre-spring breakdown: LBs

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As we await the start of spring ball, we’re examining and ranking the positional situations of every team in the Big 12, continuing Tuesday with linebackers. Some of these outlooks will look different after the spring. But here’s how we see the linebacking corps going into the spring:

[+] EnlargeDominique Alexander
William Purnell/Icon SMIDominique Alexander was a star as a true freshman and leads a loaded Oklahoma linebacking corps.
1. Oklahoma: After a couple of lean years, the Sooners are loaded at linebacker again. Dominique Alexander was the Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year, Frank Shannon led the defense in tackles as a sophomore, and Eric Striker is budding into the most ferocious blitzing linebacker in the country (just ask Alabama). Jordan Evans played extensively as a true freshman, too. This is an athletic group that can cover, stop the run and get to the quarterback.

2. Texas: This will be as deep as any linebacking corps in the league, with starters Peter Jinkens, Dalton Santos and Steve Edmond all returning off a unit that improved dramatically after the rocky nonconference start. After allowing a school-record 550 yards rushing to BYU, Texas had the Big 12’s fourth-best rush defense in conference games. Whether this group can take another step up will depend on what happens with Jordan Hicks, who enters his fifth year in the program after suffering season-ending injuries in back-to-back years. Hicks was the No. 1 linebacker in the country coming out of high school and has played well when healthy.

3. West Virginia: This will be the strength of the defense, as Brandon Golson, Isaiah Bruce, Jared Barber and Nick Kwiatkoski all return with significant starting experience. Kwiatkoski was West Virginia’s leading tackler last season, and Bruce was a freshman All-American the season before. Wes Tonkery and Jewone Snow also have starting experience, and Shaq Petteway, who missed last season with a knee injury, was a key rotation player the previous year. This level of experience and production with give the new defensive regime of Tony Gibson and Tom Bradley a foundation to build around.

4. Baylor: Bryce Hager is one of the best returning linebackers in the league. He was a second-team all-conference pick two years ago and would have earned similar honors last season had he not missed the final three games of the regular season with a groin injury. Grant Campbell, a three-star juco signee, is already on campus and will vie for the vacancy of departing All-Big 12 linebacker Eddie Lackey. Kendall Ehrlich and Aiavion Edwards are the only other players at the position with any meaningful experience, but Raaquan Davis, a former four-star recruit who redshirted last season, could be a factor.

5. Kansas: Middle linebacker Ben Heeney was a second-team All-Big 12 selection after finishing fourth in the league in tackles per game. His wingman, Jake Love, got beat out by juco transfer Samson Faifili during the preseason but took over when Faifili suffered an injury and was solid. As long as Heeney remains healthy, the Jayhawks will be solid here.

6. TCU: Projected to be the Achilles’ heel of the TCU defense last season, Paul Dawson, Marcus Mallet and Jonathan Anderson actually gave the position stability. Dawson led the Horned Frogs with 91 tackles, Mallet was third with 70 and Anderson was fourth with 66. All three will be seniors in 2014 and should give the Horned Frogs a solid, reliable linebacking unit again.

7. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders and their 3-4 scheme graduate two very productive players in Will Smith and Terrance Bullitt. Smith was second in the Big 12 in tackles, and Bullitt led all Big 12 linebackers in pass breakups. Austin Stewart and Micah Awe go into the spring as the favorites to replace Bullitt and Smith, respectively. Two starters do return in Sam Eguavoen and Pete Robertson, who was honorable mention All-Big 12 thanks to his impact off the edge. Tech also has several intriguing young players, including Jacarthy Mack, Malik Jenkins and Kahlee Woods, who will all be second-year players.

8. Kansas State: The Wildcats lose two stalwarts to graduation in captains Blake Slaughter and Tre Walker. The only returner is former walk-on Jonathan Truman, who was second on the team in tackles from the weak side. The Wildcats will be hoping for big things from D'Vonta Derricott, an ESPN JC 50 signee who had offers from Miami and Wisconsin, among many others. Will Davis, who was Slaughter’s backup as a freshman last season, could thrive if he secures the starting role in the middle.

9. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys are somewhat decimated here with the graduations of all-conference veterans Shaun Lewis and Caleb Lavey. The only returning starter, Ryan Simmons, could move inside, which would open the door for hard-hitting jucos D'Nerius Antoine and Devante Averette to start on either side of him. Seth Jacobs, who was a four-star recruit two years ago, should jump into the rotation, and the Cowboys could get an instant boost from freshman Gyasi Akem, who was an ESPN 300 signee. The potential ascension of this group, though, hinges on what Antonie and Averette accomplish.

10. Iowa State: The Cyclones graduate their defensive cornerstone in Jeremiah George, who was a first-team all-conference performer after leading the Big 12 with 133 tackles. Replacing George won’t come easy. But there’s reason to believe that Luke Knott can become Iowa State’s next cornerstone at the position. The younger brother of Cyclone LB great Jake Knott, Luke Knott started five games as a freshman and quickly racked up 45 tackles before suffering a season-ending hip injury, which required surgery. If he makes a full recovery, Knott has the talent to become the next in a growing line of All-Big 12 Iowa State linebackers. Seniors Jevohn Miller and Jared Brackens, who combined for 19 starts last season, flank Knott with experience.

State of the position: Linebacker

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The next few weeks leading into signing day is a great time to take a position-by-position glance at Oklahoma’s returning roster. This series, called State of the Position, will look at the playmakers, up-and-comers and current commitments or targets at each position for the Sooners, as recruiting really heats up during these final weeks before signing day on Feb. 5. On Monday, we take a closer look at the linebacker position.

Starters/contributors: Dominique Alexander (So.), Frank Shannon (Jr.)

[+] EnlargeFrank Shannon
AP Photo/Darron CummingsFrank Shannon and the Oklahoma linebackers have a bright future.
Shannon led the defense with 92 tackles and provided a consistent, durable presence in the middle of the OU defense throughout the season, as the faces seemed to change around him with injuries hitting the unit. Playing with injuries of his own, Shannon recorded at least five tackles in nine of 13 games. He was easily OU’s most consistent, durable and overlooked defender in 2013.

Alexander was the surprise of the season on defense. He was thrown into the fire after having to replace Corey Nelson as a starter. Alexander had his ups-and-downs, but his natural instincts and playmaking ability earned Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year honors for the Tulsa, Okla., native. He finished with 80 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and one sack. The sky is the limit for Alexander as a sophomore.

On the cusp: Jordan Evans (So.), Aaron Franklin (Sr.)

Evans' performance against Texas Tech was a glimpse of his tremendous upside. When an injury knocked Shannon out of the game, Evans responded with an eight-tackle performance. It was an amazing game for a freshman who had seen minimal action on defense to that point. His athleticism and versatility will make him a valuable piece at the disposal of the Sooners’ coaching staff in 2014 and beyond.

Franklin has played spot duty for the Sooners for the past three seasons and should provide quality veteran depth as a senior. He has been a core member of OU’s special teams and can fill in at linebacker in a pinch.

On the recruiting trail: Devante Bond (Roseville, Calif./Sierra College), Tay Evans (Allen, Texas/Allen)

Bond is a junior-college signee who can play several spots on OU’s defense. He could fill in at the middle linebacker spots or slide in alongside or opposite Eric Striker as a pass rush specialist in 2014. It wouldn’t be a surprise for the Sooners to use him and Striker on opposite sides in passing situations to terrorize quarterbacks in 2014.

Evans is a solid prospect who probably could use a redshirt season to maximize his impact. He has the good size and athleticism, but the depth at the position provides a roadblock between Evans and immediate playing time.

Overall Grade: A

Alexander and Shannon could be the Big 12’s best duo in 2014. Add Striker and Bond, and OU could have a linebacker group that rivals any in America. Strong starters, good depth and a solid future earns this group an A.

Season wrap: Oklahoma

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Wasn’t this supposed to be a rebuilding year in Norman, Okla.?

Oklahoma entered the season counting on inexperienced players at quarterback, along the defensive line and in the secondary. Yet the Sooners finished the season with 11 wins, including a Sugar Bowl victory over SEC power Alabama.

The Sooners overcame inconsistency at quarterback thanks to young players such as defensive end Charles Tapper, linebacker Eric Striker, linebacker Dominique Alexander and cornerback Zack Sanchez, who emerged as key cogs in OU’s defense.

Offensive MVP: Gabe Ikard. It’s rare for an offensive lineman to be the clear MVP of an offense, but Ikard’s consistency, durability and leadership were critical. The senior center was one reason OU overcame uncertainty at quarterback and finished second in the Big 12 in rushing (223.92 yards per game).

Defensive MVP: Aaron Colvin. The senior cornerback was outstanding, as he earned All-Big 12 honors for the second straight year. His coverage skills, leadership and confidence rarely went unnoticed when he was healthy and on the field. His experience and excellence are one reason the Sooners finished first in the Big 12 in total yards (350.2) and passing yards (212.54) per game.

Best moment: OU’s 45-31 win in the Sugar Bowl was the best moment in recent memory for the Sooners. Bob Stoops' squad proved to the world that it can play with anyone after entering the game as the clear underdog. Quarterback Trevor Knight was the MVP with a four-touchdown performance that left Sooners fans dreaming about the future.

Worst moment: Things got ugly during OU’s 41-12 loss at Baylor. The Sooners' offense looked overmatched and inept against the Big 12 champions as the Bears pulled away from OU in the second half of a nationally televised Thursday night battle.
The Oklahoma Sooners' 11-2 season had several key contributors. Here are the top five names that put their stamp on OU’s outstanding campaign:

Head coach Bob Stoops: One of the best coaching jobs of his career ended with a Sugar Bowl victory and Oklahoma alongside Florida State near the top of the college football landscape. He became the only coach to win all four BCS games during a season that began with a a lot of questions and a roster without a lot of experience. Stoops' unyielding expectations for success and pride within the program pushed the team to a 11-win season. His focused leadership and unshaken confidence as injuries riddled the starting lineup rubbed off on his team.

[+] EnlargeJalen Saunders
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesJalen Saunders caught 61 passes and was a consistent threat in the Sooners' passing game.
Receiver Jalen Saunders: The senior was one of the Sooners' most consistent players. No matter the opponent, big game or small, Saunders could be counted on to make a big play. His shiftiness made him a handful in the open field on punt returns and his quickness helped him slither through opponents’ secondaries. His receiving numbers (61 receptions, 729 yards, eight touchdowns) aren’t that impressive on the surface, due largely to the Sooners' inconsistent quarterback play, but he was one of the Big 12’s most explosive playmakers.

Defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery: In his first year at Oklahoma after leaving Michigan, Montgomery spurred the development of the Sooners' young defensive linemen. Sophomore Charles Tapper became a impact player, redshirt freshman Jordan Wade stepped up when Jordan Phillips was injured and junior Geneo Grissom finally started to turn his potential into production. Pretty much every Sooners defensive lineman took a step forward in production under Montgomery’s mentorship. He took the defensive line from a potential weak link to the best unit on OU’s defense in the Sugar Bowl.

Center Gabe Ikard: As good as Ikard was on the field, he was even better off of it. His leadership and demeanor was like water in an oasis for a Sooners’ coaching staff dealing with a roster featuring several young, inexperienced players. He led vocally and by example and instilled a unyielding mindset in his teammates. On the field, he was one of the Big 12’s top offensive linemen and brought consistency to an offense that experienced ups and downs from week to week.

Linebacker Dominique Alexander: At this time last year, Alexander was walking the halls of Tulsa (Okla.) Booker T. Washington High School, unsure where he would play college football. Twelve months later, he looks like the next star linebacker at OU. His athleticism and instincts helped him slide into the starting lineup when senior Corey Nelson was injured. The freshman finished with 80 tackles, including 45 combined tackles against Texas, Baylor and Oklahoma State.

Season report card: Oklahoma

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Well, well, well. Look who ends the season as the Big 12’s top-ranked team. It appeared the Sooners were facing a rebuilding season heading into 2013, yet Oklahoma finished the year No. 6 in both the AP and coaches polls after an 11-2 season that was capped off by a 45-31 win over Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

Offense: B

The Sooners' bowl performance catapulted this grade up to a B. They were a very average offense for the majority of the season, lacking balance and consistency in the passing attack. Their running game was terrific, averaging 223.92 yards, second in the Big 12 and No. 18 nationally among FBS teams. Senior running back Brennan Clay had the best season of his career with 175 carries for 957 yards and six touchdowns. He was OU’s most consistent skill player.

But Oklahoma's passing game was inconsistent and didn’t create fear for any defense it faced with a passing attack that surpassed 200 yards just three times during the regular season. The Sooners' Sugar Bowl offense was the one the offensive coaching staff had envisioned when they named Trevor Knight the starter before the season began, so the Sooners enter this offseason with hope. OU’s quarterback situation is clearer now than it was at any point during the regular season.

The Sooners' offensive line deserves an A. The group didn’t dominate every single game but rarely had bad outings and was the main reason for the offensive success OU did achieve in the regular season. Center Gabe Ikard was the best player on the team and his leadership was one reason this squad overachieved.

[+] EnlargeHead coach Bob Stoops of the Oklahoma Sooners
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAn 11-2 record and Allstate Sugar Bowl win means a lot of high marks for the Sooners.
Defense: A-

OU’s defense was the foundation of its BCS berth. The defense entered the season with a huddle full of questions, yet was the driving force behind another 10-win regular season in Norman, Okla.

The defensive line was very good, overachieving with a lot of inexperienced players. Sophomore Charles Tapper became an impact player, and the development of several other defensive linemen, including Jordan Wade and Geneo Grissom, cannot be understated. New defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery did a terrific job.

The linebackers redeemed themselves as the most productive position group after a shaky 2013. Despite losing senior leader Corey Nelson, OU’s linebackers were solid throughout the year and Big 12 defensive freshman of the year Dominique Alexander looks like a future star.

Cornerback Aaron Colvin joined Ikard as one of the leaders and best players on the squad. He was the anchor of a defense that finished atop the Big 12 in yards allowed per game (350.2 ypg). OU’s secondary was relatively inexperienced but more than held its own even with some rough patches against Alabama and Kansas State.

Special teams: A

Special teams play won the Sooners some games in 2013. Those units had a major impact in wins over Iowa State, Oklahoma State and West Virginia. Jalen Saunders was one of the nation’s top punt returners and kicker Michael Hunnicutt was money for the majority of the season.

Overall: A+

This OU squad had no business going 11-2 as injury after injury crippled the team, but it still found a way to keep winning games. The Sooners' pride, competitiveness and undeterred expectations for success rose them to another level and was never more apparent than in the Sugar Bowl win over the Crimson Tide. OU entered the season with muted expectations and ended it alongside the best teams in college football.
NORMAN, Okla. — Oklahoma’s defense was among the Big 12’s best in 2013.

And it could be even better in 2014.

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

“All of the young players are improving," defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “That’s critical this time of year, you could see them in three days starting to get better.”

The defensive line is quickly looking like it could be a clear strength of the defense with freshman Matt Dimon joining redshirting freshmen Charles Walker, Matt Romar and D.J. Ward along a defensive front that is poised to return every starter in 2014.

“We have a lot of guys coming up,” defensive end Chuka Ndulue said. “When they get it figured out, because right now they are just doing it off of raw talent and making plays … They are kind of like Tap (Charles Tapper). Just imagine a bunch of Charles Tappers running up and down the field. That’s going to be good.”

Walker, in particular, has impressed his teammates during his redshirt season on the scout team defense.

“He’s a monster, a man child out there,” Sanchez said.

A former high school running back, Walker was an late addition to OU’s 2013 recruiting class. The Sooners are hopeful that Walker translates his raw potential into consistent production in 2014. If he does, OU’s defensive line could be one of the deepest units in recent memory.

“Charles Walker on the defensive line has a great future ahead of him,” center Gabe Ikard said. “He might be the most explosive guy we have on the team right now. If he is able to develop the skill work that Coach [Jerry] Montgomery has been able to develop in the guys that are playing right now, he could be an animal on the football field because he is extremely explosive.”

In the secondary, L.J. Moore has impressed at cornerback. Moore, a true freshman, saw limited action in early games this season but wasn’t a consistent contributor during the Sooners’ road to the Sugar Bowl.

“L.J. has been doing his thing,” Sanchez said. “He got moved to the scout team throughout the year but he’s back and he’s competing. That’s big. When you get moved to the scout team, sometimes it can do things to your confidence, you kind of don’t want to be here, you don’t care but these past couple of days it’s been good to see that from him.”

Those young standouts could combine with Alexander and Jordan Evans, who each played well as true freshman linebackers, to give OU talented freshman and/or sophomores along the defensive line, at linebacker and in the secondary.

“It’s been great to see these guys out there,” sophomore linebacker Eric Striker said of the young talent on the roster. “To see them do [well] is a good thing for the future.”

Big 12 stats that defined the season

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Baylor, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State leaned on defensive improvement in several statistics to finish in the top half of the Big 12 while several stats reveal why Kansas, Iowa State, TCU and West Virginia didn't reach bowl eligibility.

Here is one stat from each Big 12 team that helped define the season:

[+] EnlargeBaker Mayfield, Ahmad Dixon
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesBaylor's offense got most of the pub, but the Bears' defense -- led by senior safety Ahmad Dixon -- was one of the stingiest when it comes to yards allowed per play.
Baylor’s yards per play allowed: The Bears offense has been explosive and high scoring for the past several seasons, so seeing it again in 2013 was nothing new. But, this season, their defense more than held up their end of the bargain allowing 4.53 opponent yards per play, leading the Big 12 and ranking sixth among FBS teams. A defense laced with veterans, including safety Ahmad Dixon, helped BU’s unit rank among the nation’s best, and the athletes that have become commonplace on the Bears offense are starting to surface on the defensive side of the football with talented young guys such as defensive end Shawn Oakman and safety Terrell Burt.

Iowa State’s sacks allowed: The Cyclones allowed 37 sacks in 12 games, an average of 3.08 per game. ISU finished last in the nation and tied for No. 113 among FBS teams in the category. The trouble protecting the passer speaks volumes about the injury struggles Paul Rhoads’ team had along the offensive line. Ten different ISU offensive linemen started games this season, with nine different starting lineups starting the first 11 games. All of ISU’s offensive problems began up front.

Kansas’ yards per play: It’s amazing to think how bad Charlie Weis’ offense was this season. The Jayhawks ranked among the worst in the nation in several categories, but their 4.28 yards per play was No. 120 among FBS teams. KU entered the season with much higher expectations for this offensive unit, particularly with BYU transfer Jake Heaps as the triggerman. Yet the Jayhawks never really found any consistency, as Weis and company tried several different things to jump start the unit. KU scored more than 20 points twice this season, letting down a defense that was much improved over last year’s group.

Kansas State’s yards per play: When you think of the top offenses in the Big 12, it takes a while to get to Kansas State. Yet the Wildcats featured a surprisingly explosive offense despite losing uber-productive quarterback Collin Klein off last year’s squad. This year’s K-State offense averaged 6.3 yards per play, second to only Baylor in the Big 12 and No. 28 among FBS teams. Bill Snyder’s ability to find harmony while using Jake Waters and Daniel Sams in a two-quarterback system led to 33.4 points per game by an offense that didn’t enter the season expected to be among the Big 12’s best.

Oklahoma’s yards allowed per game: The Sooners allowed just 336.3 yards per game to lead the Big 12 and finish No. 13 in the FBS. OU entered the season with a lot of questions and concerns about a defense that was embarrassed by Johnny Manziel in last year's Cotton Bowl and was losing a bunch of starters, yet the Sooners defense improved thanks to several young players, including defensive end Charles Tapper and Big 12 defensive newcomer of the year Dominique Alexander. OU's defense was the foundation of the Sooners' 10-2 season and Sugar Bowl berth.

Oklahoma State’s opponent third down conversion rate: The Cowboys defense was among the Big 12’s best in its first season under Glenn Spencer. Their third down production was superb, allowing opponents to convert just 31.3 percent of their third down attempts to lead the Big 12 and finish seventh among FBS teams. OSU’s veteran defense and willingness to be more aggressive on third downs under Spencer played a key role in its success in those situations and eventual 10-2 finish.

Texas sack percentage: The Longhorns' ability to get after the quarterback played a key role in their success. UT featured two of the Big 12’s top pass rushing threats in Jackson Jeffcoat and Cedric Reed. That duo helped UT sack opposing quarterbacks on 8.6 percent of passing plays, ranking No. 1 in the Big 12 and No. 9 among FBS teams while finishing with 37 total sacks, including 35 during Big 12 play, helping UT to a 7-2 conference record.

TCU third down conversion rate: The Horned Frogs converted just 32 percent of their third down attempts this season, ranking eighth in the Big 12 and No. 113 among FBS teams. It’s easy to see why the Horned Frogs have brought in former Houston offensive coordinator Doug Meacham to take over their offense. TCU’s defense was good enough to be in the Big 12 title race, its offense was not.

Texas Tech passing yards per game: It was a terrific debut season for head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s offense despite some musical chairs at the quarterback position. The Red Raiders averaged 392 passing yards per game to lead the Big 12 and rank second among FBS teams despite having true freshmen Baker Mayfield and Davis Webb running the offense. Without one of the nation’s elite passing offenses, it’s unlikely the Red Raiders earn a bowl bid with a 7-5 record.

West Virginia’s opponent third down conversion rate: The Mountaineers allowed opponents to convert 42.7 percent of their third down attempts, ranking last in the Big 12 and No. 91 among FBS teams. WVU’s inability to get off the field in those important moments was one reason the Mountaineers’ defense allowed 455 yards per game, leading to the team's 4-8 finish.

Sooners' report card: Defense

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Oklahoma's defense was the foundation of the team's drive to the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Mike Stoops' unit finished atop the Big 12 in passing yards allowed and total yards allowed while making sure the Sooners had the chance to win every game they played, even with constant uncertainty at quarterback. The defensive line was surprisingly good, the linebackers were much more productive than in 2012 and the secondary replaced several starters with relative ease.

Here are the position-by-position grades for the Sooners' defense.

[+] EnlargeCharles Tapper
AP Photo/Brody SchmidtOklahoma defensive end Charles Tapper had 5.5 sacks in his first season as starter.
Defensive line: B+. The defensive line entered the season as the biggest question mark on the entire team. New defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery’s group ended the season as anything but the weak link of a defense that was among the Big 12’s best. Sophomore defensive end Charles Tapper has realized his potential, going from raw talent to All-Big 12 performer during his first season as a starter. Redshirt freshman Jordan Wade stepped in for injured starter Jordan Phillips and held his own, while the overall depth and production of the defensive line moved up a notch under Montgomery. It’s not a dominant unit but it was solid and productive this season, and OU wouldn’t have led the Big 12 with 336.3 yards allowed per game without strong play up front.

Linebackers: A-. OU’s linebackers showed terrific improvement in 2013. Junior Frank Shannon and freshman Dominique Alexander, the Big 12 defensive newcomer of the year, finished 1-2 in tackles. Shannon played through nicks and bruises to finish with 85 tackles while Alexander finished with 75 stops after being thrust into the starting role against Texas. Add linebacker/defensive end hybrid Eric Striker to the mix and the linebackers were among the most productive groups on the squad. The versatility of Shannon and Alexander and Striker’s pass rushing skills are one reason the Sooners finished second in the Big 12 and No. 13 among FBS teams in third-down conversion percentage at 32.5 percent.

Cornerbacks: A-. Two-time All-Big 12 performer Aaron Colvin is an “A+++” performer. He showed toughness, leadership and exceptional coverage skills as a senior. With Colvin on the other side, redshirt freshman Zack Sanchez was constantly picked on by opponents but held up well and, most importantly, displayed the competitive nature every cornerback needs to succeed. Behind Colvin and Sanchez, freshman Stanvon Taylor and sophomore Cortez Johnson both made starts and earned valuable experience while providing quality depth. And nickelback Julian Wilson was stellar in his first season as a starter while tying for the team lead with three interceptions. OU led the Big 12 with 198 passing yards allowed per game, largely because of quality play from its cornerbacks and Wilson.

Safeties: A-. As good as the cornerbacks were, the safeties held their own in the defensive backfield. OU’s safeties were better in coverage this season than in 2012 while limiting big plays in the running and passing game. Gabe Lynn and Quentin Hayes weren’t dominant forces in the secondary but they were very good and played key roles while helping the Sooners to their 10-2 record.


Run game, defense define OU's season

December, 13, 2013
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Oklahoma excelled in several aspects on its way to a 10-win season. The Sooners’ running game was on point, their third down defense was stellar and they showed the ability to limit big plays. Yet, there are still areas of improvement looking forward to 2014.

Here are five stats that defined OU's season, what they mean and how OU can improve or maintain those trends in 2014.

[+] EnlargeBrennan Clay
Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY SportsThanks to an offensive line that opened hole after hole, Brennan Clay and the OU running backs averaged 5.35 yards per carry.
Yards per carry

OU averaged 5.35 yards per carry this season, ranking second in the Big 12 and No. 16 among FBS teams.

What it means: The first year of Bill Bedenbaugh was a success. OU’s offensive line did a terrific job of creating running lanes for whoever was in the backfield. True enough the Sooners had three quality veterans at running back but Brennan Clay (5.78), Damien Williams (4.78) and Roy Finch (5.88) each averaged at least 4.5 yards on at least 59 carries this season thanks to the big uglies up front.

How OU can maintain in 2014: It’s going to be tough as the Sooners lose Clay, Finch, Williams and center Gabe Ikard. But the Sooners have some solid young backs, including Keith Ford, who had 20 carries for 119 yards and one touchdown but dealt with fumble troubles as a true freshman. With the young talent in place and poised to replace the departed seniors, there’s no reason to believe the Sooners can’t match this year’s production in 2014.

Third down conversion defense

OU allowed opponents to convert just. 32.5 percent of their third down attempts, ranking second in the Big 12 and No. 13 among FBS teams.

What it means: The Sooners defense was among the best in the nation on third down. OU’s coaching staff focuses on third down plays and it’s clear they had the defense ready to step up in those key moments. In fact, eight of OU’s 14 interceptions came on third down, including all three interceptions by Julian Wilson.

How OU can maintain in 2014: Well, Mike Stoops returns, so that’s half the battle. OU should be even better on third down in 2014. Most of its key contributors return but replacing All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin won’t be easy. The Sooners defense was littered with youngsters this season and still ranked among the nation’s best. So expect even better in 2014.

Percentage of opponent drives without a first down or touchdown

The Sooners held opponents without a first down or touchdown on 40.8 percent of their drives, ranking second in the Big 12 and No. 13 among FBS teams.

What it means: OU did a terrific job of getting off the field and stopping offenses before they could gain momentum. While the Sooners offense was leaning on the running game and controlling the ball, OU’s defense came onto the field fresh and with a purpose to get off the field quickly. That combination made it hard for opposing offenses to find their rhythm against OU.

How OU can maintain in 2014: It won’t be easy because the Sooners offense should have better balance, resulting in more plays and opportunities for opponents as OU turns to the pass more often. Yet, OU’s defense should be talented enough to come close to matching that percentage.

Opponent rushes of 10 yards or more

OU allowed 46 runs of 10 yards or more to opponents, leading the Big 12 and tying Stanford and Utah for 16th among FBS teams.

What it means: One key reason the Sooners won five games by single digits was the defense’s ability to keep OU in games while the offense was struggling, particularly in the first quarter. If opponents were making big plays in the running game that wouldn’t have been possible. It also points to the increased quickness, speed and athleticism of OU’s 3-4 approach this season.

How OU can maintain in 2014: It will take a combination of good coaching and on-field leadership. And since the Sooners return several key players, including linebackers Frank Shannon and Dominique Alexander, they should be able to match that number.

Passing yards in the first quarter

OU averaged 32.75 passing yards in the first quarter, ranking last in the Big 12 and No. 112 among FBS teams.

What it means: The Sooners’ inability to pass (186.67 passing yards per game) made things difficult for OU’s offense. And their struggles to pass in the first quarter often impacted games by forcing the Sooners to lean on the running game simply because they didn’t have a lot of confidence in their passing game. Fortunately for OU, its running game was one of the conference’s best.

How OU can improve in 2014: Find stability at the quarterback position. Blake Bell played well at times, struggled at other times. Trevor Knight flashed big-time ability and displayed his inexperience as well. No matter who emerges as the No. 1 guy for 2014, he’ll have to consistently play well to help OU’s offense regain the balance that helped make it one of the nation’s best in previous years.

Big 12 releases all-conference honors

December, 11, 2013
12/11/13
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Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty was named the Big 12’s Offensive Player of the Year, and Texas defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat and TCU cornerback Jason Verrett shared defensive honors.

Big 12 champ Baylor led the league with a school-record 10 first team players and earned three individual awards, including Coach of the Year (Art Briles) and Offensive Lineman of the Year (guard Cyril Richardson).

Oklahoma State had a league-high 11 players named to the first or second teams. The awards were voted on by the league’s coaches.

Chuck Neinas Coach of the Year
Art Briles, Baylor

Defensive Lineman of the Year
Ryan Mueller, Kansas State

Offensive Newcomer of the Year
Charles Sims, West Virginia

Co-Defensive Players of the Year
Jason Verrett, TCU; Jackson Jeffcoat, Texas

Offensive Freshman of the Year
Baker Mayfield, Texas Tech

Defensive Newcomer of the Year
Isaiah Johnson, Kansas

Offensive Player of the Year
Bryce Petty, Baylor

Defensive Freshman of the Year
Dominique Alexander, Oklahoma

Offensive lineman of the Year
Cyril Richardson, Baylor

Special teams Player of the Year
Tyler Lockett, Kansas State

First-team offense

QB – Bryce Petty, Baylor
RB – Lache Seastrunk, Baylor
RB – Charles Sims, West Virginia
FB – Trey Millard, Oklahoma
WR – Antwan Goodley, Baylor
WR - Tyler Lockett, Kansas State
WR – Tevin Reese, Baylor
TE - Jace Amaro, Texas Tech
OL – Spencer Drango, Baylor
OL – B.J. Finney, Kansas State
OL - Gabe Ikard, Oklahoma
OL - Cyril Richardson, Baylor
OL - Parker Graham, Oklahoma State
PK –Anthony Fera, Texas
KR/PR – Tyler Lockett, Kansas State

First-team defense

DL - Ryan Mueller, Kansas State
DL - Calvin Barnett, Oklahoma State
DL – Chris McAllister, Baylor
DL - Charles Tapper, Oklahoma
DL - Jackson Jeffcoat, Texas
LB - Jeremiah George, Iowa State
LB – Shaun Lewis, Oklahoma State
LB – Eddie Lackey, Baylor
DB – Jason Verrett, TCU
DB – Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State
DB – Ahmad Dixon, Baylor
DB – Ty Zimmerman, Kansas State
DB – Aaron Colvin, Oklahoma
P – Spencer Roth, Baylor

Second-team offense

QB – Clint Chelf, Oklahoma State
RB – James Sims, Kansas
RB – Malcolm Brown, Texas
FB – Kye Staley, Oklahoma State
WR – Jalen Saunders, Oklahoma
WR – Josh Stewart, Oklahoma State
WR – Jaxon Shipley, Texas
TE – E.J. Bibbs, Iowa State
OL – Cody Whitehair, Kansas State
OL – Daryl Williams, Oklahoma
OL – Donald Hawkins, Texas
OL – Trey Hopkins, Texas
OL - Le’Raven Clark, Texas Tech
PK –Michael Hunnicutt, Oklahoma
KR/PR – Josh Stewart, Oklahoma State

Second-team defense

DL – Tyler Johnson, Oklahoma State
DL – Chucky Hunter, TCU
DL – Cedric Reed, Texas
DL – Kerry Hyder, Texas Tech
DL – Will Clarke, West Virginia
LB – Ben Heeney, Kansas
LB – Eric Striker, Oklahoma
LB – Caleb Lavey, Oklahoma State
DB – Jacques Washington, Iowa State
DB – Daytawion Lowe, Oklahoma State
DB – Sam Carter, TCU
DB – Carrington Byndom, Texas
DB – Darwin Cook, West Virginia
P – Nick O’Toole, West Virginia

Sooners' superlatives

December, 11, 2013
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Oklahoma is riding high after a 33-24 Bedlam win over Oklahoma State that catapulted the Sooners into the Allstate Sugar Bowl while stripping the Cowboys of their Big 12 title dreams.

OU finished the season 10-2 including a 7-2 Big 12 record as some likely and unlikely candidates stepped up to make a difference during a season that was initially billed as a rebuilding year but will end with the Sooners playing in a BCS bowl.

Here is a regular season review of the standout players and coaches during OU’s BCS journey.

Offensive MVP: Center Gabe Ikard. It’s not often that an offensive lineman is the clear MVP of a 10-win team. But Ikard’s not your normal offensive lineman. A four-year starter, Ikard’s experience and intelligence helped the Sooners overcome an season-ending injury to fullback Trey Millard, a quarterback carousel and multiple running backs taking turns as the lead ball carrier. Through it all the offensive line helped the Sooners average 235.83 rushing yards per game and allowed 15 sacks with Ikard’s leadership and example.

Defensive MVP: Linebacker Frank Shannon. The sophomore fought off injuries to play in all 12 games and lead the squad with 85 tackles along with seven tackles for loss, two sacks and one interception. When senior linebacker Corey Nelson was lost for the season in early October, Shannon went from an understudy to a on-field leadership role. His presence also helped true freshman Dominique Alexander excel in Nelson’s absence.

Special teams MVP: Jalen Saunders. The senior receiver changed the game with punt returns for touchdowns against Iowa State and Oklahoma State during the Sooners’ three-game win streak to end the regular season. Without those two returns, who knows how those games could have turned out. He averaged 16.78 yards per punt return and had five punt returns for more than 20 yards.

Assistant coach of the year: Defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery. The season began with a defensive line full of unknowns and inexperience. Yet, it performed like a veteran group and even shook off an season-ending injury to Jordan Phillips to finish No. 1 in the Big 12 in yards allowed per game. Several inexperienced players including Charles Tapper and Jordan Wade played important roles under Montgomery's coaching.

Undervalued contributor on offense: Receiver Sterling Shepard. The sophomore wasn’t the No. 1 guy like Saunders, but when he wasn’t involved OU’s passing attack wasn’t as potent. He finished with 44 receptions for 540 yards and six touchdowns. His 67.7 completion percentage (44 receptions in 65 targets) led the squad. Shepard stepped up in key games and provided a quality big play threat when teams focused on Saunders.

Undervalued contributor on defense: Linebacker Eric Striker. The Florida native helped transform the Sooners’ defense with his relentlessness and quickness off the edge. Playing a standup linebacker who consistently blitzed on passing downs, Striker proved to be one of OU’s top pass rushing threats with 3.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss. He wasn't among the team leaders in tackles but he was always active when he was on the field.

Newcomer of the year: Alexander. The coaching staff had raved about Alexander since the preseason but his opportunities were limited until Nelson’s injury. He had 10 tackles in his first four games but had 19 tackles in his first start against Texas after Nelson was sidelined. He finished with 75 tackles, second on the squad.

Most improved player: Tapper. The defensive end stepped on campus as a raw former basketball star with plenty of potential. He ends his sophomore season leading the Sooners in sacks (5.5) and tackle for losses (9). His size, speed and quickness will make him one of the Big 12’s most feared defenders in 2014.

Preview: Oklahoma at Oklahoma State

December, 6, 2013
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Oklahoma State is hoping to represent the Big 12 in a BCS bowl game for the second time in three years. Oklahoma is hoping to play spoiler. Oh, and they're in-state rivals who played an overtime thriller in 2012. This should be fun.

Oklahoma visits Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater, Okla., to take on Oklahoma State on Saturday (Noon ET, ABC). Here are some storylines, interesting stats, players to watch and a prediction:

Storylines

Can Trevor Knight match his performance at Kansas State? The Sooners redshirt freshman quarterback was outstanding against the Wildcats. He used his quickness and speed to create havoc as a runner while being accurate and decisive as a passer. If he plays that way against the Cowboys, he will create problems for their defense.

Will OSU continue to dominate at home? The Cowboys have outscored opponents by 28.4 points per game while going 5-0 at Boone Pickens Stadium. OSU is 18-1 at home in its past 19 games, so winning in Stillwater is harder than many people realize.

Who wins the turnover battle? Whoever wins the turnover battle probably will win the game, particularly if the chilly weather makes everything harder on the offenses. OSU has forced 22 turnovers during its seven-game win streak, while OU has forced 16 turnovers in its nine wins.

Key stats, courtesy ESPN Stats & Information

[+] EnlargeClint Chelf
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesClint Chelf has been extremely productive of late, and that could be the key to Saturday's outcome.
Sooners yards per carry before contact: OU's rushing offense has been simply outstanding, as a veteran offensive line has paved the way to excellence. The Sooners have gained 1,752 rushing yards before contact, ranking No. 1 in the Big 12. Their 3.6 yards per carry before contact also sits atop the conference. But in their two losses, OU has averaged 37.5 rushing yards before contact and 1.1 rushing yards per carry before contact. It's clear OU's offensive line will need to play well if the Sooners hope to win.

Clint Chelf's running: OSU quarterback Clint Chelf isn't known for his running ability, but the Cowboys have used his mobility to terrorize defenses. Chelf is averaging 5.4 rushing yards before contact and has gained 258 total rushing yards before contact, ranking second on the team. OSU will look to continue to pick and choose the times to unleash Chelf, while OU likely will have a plan to stop his running.

Players to watch

OSU linebacker Caleb Lavey: The senior is making a strong case for Big 12 defensive player of the year. He has done it all for the Pokes this season, from tackles to interceptions to tackles for loss. He has 82 tackles this season and can cap off his player-of-the-year campaign with a strong game against an OU rushing offense that is one of the conference's best.

OU linebacker Dominique Alexander: The true freshman has played remarkably well in his first season in crimson and cream. He has 25 tackles in OU's past three games and will need to play well if the Sooners hope to force the Cowboys to throw by taking their running game out of the equation.

OSU quarterback Chelf: He has played as well as any quarterback in the nation during the past four weeks, accounting for 15 touchdowns and 305.8 yards per game. If he continues to operate the Cowboys' attack that efficiently, it might not matter what OU does.

OU receiver Jalen Saunders: The Sooners are going to need Saunders and his running mates at the receiver spot to create opportunities to make big plays. OSU will come out to stop OU's running game, likely leaving one-on-one opportunities on the outside. If OU hopes to win, the Sooners' receivers must win the majority of those battles.

Prediction: OSU 34, OU 24. Both running games will have success, but the Cowboys' ability to keep OU's defense honest through the air without turning the ball over will be the difference.

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