Oklahoma Sooners: Frank Shannon

Spring football has come to a close at Oklahoma.

[+] EnlargeDakota Austin
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesOklahoma's Dakota Austin ended the spring as the starter at cornerback opposite Zack Sanchez.
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. On Tuesday we took a look at the offense. Today, all eyes turn to the defense.

Cornerback

Pre-spring: A trio of Sooners entered the spring set to battle to replace Aaron Colvin. Sophomores Stanvon Taylor and Dakota Austin joined junior Cortez Johnson in the competition. None of the three entered the spring as the clear favorite to secure the spot.

Post-spring: Austin had the best spring of the bunch, taking the field with the Sooners’ first-team defense in the spring game and holding his own. The sophomore is undersized (5-foot-11, 162 pounds) but good in coverage and has a chip on his shoulder. Injuries hampered Johnson’s spring, and Taylor didn’t make the move you would expect from a guy who stepped on campus with lofty expectations.

Summer outlook: Someone needs to seize the opportunity by taking their game to another level. Austin sent a message with a strong spring, but a few incoming recruits, including Tito Windham and Jordan Thomas, arrive in the summer with an eye on stepping up if nobody else makes it their spot to lose.

Free safety

Pre-spring: Sophomores Ahmad Thomas and Hatari Byrd each saw action as freshmen in 2013. With Quentin Hayes comfortably manning the other safety spot, letting the Class of 2013 signees compete for a starting spot was the plan.

Post-spring: Both guys look like they could be solid, trustworthy options at the position. Thomas has emerged as a player who should see the field regardless thanks to his versatility and athleticism, while Byrd has progressed as a playmaker.

Summer outlook: Depth, not the starters, is the main concern at safety. Thomas or Byrd could do the job, and Steven Parker arrives in the summer with a unique skill set that could make him tough to keep on the sidelines. Though the name of the starter at free safety remains unclear, the position doesn’t look like a potential weak link in the defense this fall.

Linebacker depth

Pre-spring: OU returned its two leading tacklers at the linebacker spot with Dominique Alexander and Frank Shannon, along with pass-rushing dynamo Eric Striker. It was a unit full of playmakers but questionable depth.

Post-spring: The depth questions remain and could get worse if Shannon, whose status is unclear after missing the spring game for personal reasons, does not return. Fortunately for OU, Jordan Evans looks ready to step in and fill the void if needed. Additionally, Devante Bond should provide another option for Mike Stoops’ defense, and defensive end Geneo Grissom even spent time at linebacker this spring. Alexander is a terrific foundation and Evans is unusually athletic at linebacker, so developing more depth is the lingering question.

Summer outlook: Shannon’s status is the main storyline of the summer. If he returns it's a big boost for the Sooners. If not, OU will likely turns to Evans, which is another hit to its depth. Incoming recruits Curtis Bolton and Tay Evans might be called upon sooner than anticipated.
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Oklahoma held its spring game on Saturday with excitement around the program continuing to build this offseason. Here are some postgame thoughts, defense only, on OU’s spring finale. To be clear, this is an informal collection of my thoughts and observations after the spring game. For a more formal and general spring game review, check out this post from earlier today.

  • Linebacker Frank Shannon’s absence is disappointing, but Jordan Evans filled in at linebacker without looking like a weak link, much as he did against Texas Tech during his true freshman season a year ago. Evans is very athletic and comfortable in coverage. If Shannon, who is dealing with personal issues, is unable to return, OU can feel good about Evans’ spring-game production.
  • Ahmad Thomas looks like a potential difference-maker. He can play multiple positions in the secondary and he was consistently around the ball. A breakout sophomore campaign could be on the horizon.
  • The defensive line should be deep, athletic and productive. This unit could spark a special season if everyone continues to develop. From Charles Tapper to Jordan Wade to Charles Walker, it’s a very solid group of defensive linemen from top to bottom. Games are won in the trenches, so the Sooners should feel good about their chances this fall.
  • [+] EnlargeQuentin Hayes
    Mark D. Smith/USA TODAY SportsQuentin Hayes is a returning starter at safety, but depth is a concern there.
    Cornerback Zack Sanchez is another Sooner who looks as if he’s taken a step forward. If he continues to progress, Sanchez could become a player who opponents think twice about testing. He was competitive and active on Saturday and played like OU's best cornerback.
  • Sophomore Dakota Austin looked solid opposite Sanchez, but the search for the other half of OU’s cornerback duo should carry deep into preseason camp. Stanvon Taylor and Cortez Johnson are also in the mix, but nobody has taken the job and run away with it. The Sooners need to shore up this spot, as this concern could be considered the top priority on the defensive side of the ball heading into the summer.
  • Linebacker Eric Striker is on the road to making several appearances on "SportsCenter" this fall. The pass-rushing dynamo was terrific as a sophomore and it looks like he could be even better as a junior. He's exceptionally quick off the edge and has a knack for getting to the quarterback.
  • The safety position looks like it is in good hands with Quentin Hayes and Hatari Byrd, but the depth behind them is a major summer storyline. Thomas and Julian Wilson, who sat out the spring, could help at the position and incoming freshman Steven Parker has the talent to step in immediately. It’s not a problem if OU remains injury-free, but it’s football, so heading into the season without a Plan B is fool’s gold.
  • Kicker Michael Hunnicutt has earned his nickname “Munnicutt” and his leg strength has improved. He made two 40-plus-yard field goals, one with the wind at his back and one into the wind. He’s one of the nation’s most consistent kickers, so increased long-range production is a major bonus.
  • Final thought: The excitement surrounding the Sooners program heading into 2014 is well-earned. This team could find itself in the College Football Playoff if Trevor Knight is consistent and efficient under center and the defense takes another step forward this fall. But don't lock them into the national title conversation quite yet, as several young players need to continue to develop and take their games to another level and show they are ready to perform at a championship level, week in and week out.
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.

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.

Grading the class: 2011

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Oklahoma is poised to add 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 past five recruiting classes. On Wednesday, we begin with a review of the Class of 2011 including recruits who exceeded expectations, recruits who were solid signees and ones who were complete busts.

There was a lot of hope for this class when these players signed in February 2011, but the class as a whole has let down the Sooners. The class was ranked No. 11 nationally by ESPN.com.

Transcendent figures

Linebacker Franklin Shannon: The No. 48 safety in the nation, Shannon made an immediate impact after a redshirt season. He forced his way onto the field as a redshirt freshman in 2012 and led OU in tackles as a sophomore in 2013. Shannon started in 15 games in his first two seasons and has 132 tackles, including 10.5 tackles for loss, heading into his junior year.

Bull's-eye

[+] EnlargeOklahoma
Jackson Laizure/Getty ImagesDefensive tackle Jordan Phillips is one of the few players who has panned out from Oklahoma's 2011 recruiting class.
Defensive tackle Jordan Phillips: Phillips was emerging as a major force in the middle of the Sooners defense before a back injury this season. The No. 119 player in the ESPN 150 in 2011, Phillips has the talent to exceed expectations if he returns to full health.

Defensive tackle Jordan Wade: He replaced the other Jordan after a grayshirt season, and then redshirted in 2012. As a redshirt freshman in 2013, Wade was one of the heroes of OU’s 11-win season as he stepped in for Phillips and held his own in the middle of OU’s defense. The No. 103 player in the ESPN 150, Wade has a bright future ahead of him.

Completely missed the mark

Offensive lineman Nathan Hughes: The No. 101 player in the ESPN 150, Hughes played several positions before leaving the program before the 2013 season.

Running back Brandon Williams: The No. 35 player in the ESPN 150, Williams made an impact as a freshman but elected to transfer to Texas A&M after his first season.

Running back Danzel Williams: The No. 64 player in the ESPN 150, Williams redshirted in 2011, then left the program before the 2013 season. He never made an impact for the Sooners.

Overall grade: D-

More than half of this class is no longer in the program, including both Williams, Hughes, receiver Trey Metoyer, receiver Kameel Jackson, quarterback Kendal Thompson, linebacker Kellen Jones and defensive back Bennett Okotcha. Only Shannon and a pair of Jordans kept this class from being an F in one of the worst classes of the Bob Stoops era.

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.
With the 2013 season officially in the books, we’ve begun looking ahead to identify potential breakout performers for 2014.

This morning, we took a look at 10 Big 12 offensive players to watch in 2014. Now it’s time to spotlight 10 possible breakout defenders.

As a reminder, these lists include players who can take that step into greatness next season, much as Baylor’s Ahmad Dixon and Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert did in 2013. Players who have earned first-team or second-team All-Big 12 honors from either the coaches or the media were not eligible for this list, as the focus is limited to guys who have yet to make that leap. In other words, players such as TCU's Chris Hackett or Oklahoma's Eric Striker weren't eligible, as they were both second-team selections this year.

Below are 10 players to watch on the defensive side of the ball in 2014 (in alphabetical order):

[+] EnlargeDante Barnett
John Rieger/USA TODAY SportsDante Barnett had four interceptions as a sophomore.
Kansas State S Dante Barnett: The last couple of years, Ty Zimmerman was the anchor of the K-State secondary. With Zimmerman out of eligibility, Barnett appears ready to take over. Barnett had a banner sophomore season, leading the Wildcats with four interceptions and finishing third with 75 tackles. He was especially impressive in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, delivering a team-high eight tackles and a 51-yard interception return that proved to be the exclamation point. Barnett is one reason why the Wildcats should be better defensively in 2014.

Texas DT Malcom Brown: Often confused with the Texas running back with the same name, Brown was a force in the middle as a sophomore. With more improvement, the former blue-chipper who was the No. 2 DT in the nation coming out of high school has a chance to be Texas’ first All-Big 12 defensive tackle since Roy Miller in 2008.

Oklahoma State DT James Castleman: The last two seasons, Castleman has operated in the shadows of All-Big 12 DT Calvin Barnett. With Barnett – and virtually the rest of the Oklahoma State defense – gone, Castleman will be the Cowboys’ top returning defensive player next season. Castleman has the talent to be an all-conference tackle, and will need to be for the Cowboys to avoid a significant defensive drop-off.

Oklahoma DE Geneo Grissom: Last year, Grissom was so dubious on his prospects of making the rotation at end that he asked to play tight end. That experiment failed, and the Sooners have to be glad that it did. The switch finally flipped for Grissom in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. In that game, he played like a man possessed and finished with two sacks and two fumble recoveries. He returned the second eight yards for a game-clinching touchdown. Grissom has only year left, but it could be a special one if he plays the way he did against Alabama.

West Virginia S Karl Joseph: After starting every game at safety as a true freshman in 2012 and leading the team in tackles, Joseph didn’t make the kind of leap the Mountaineers hoped he would as a sophomore. Still, there’s no denying the talent here. Joseph has the skill to be an all-conference safety, something that might need to happen for West Virginia to avoid another disappointing season in the Big 12.

Iowa State LB Luke Knott: Knott started five games as a redshirt freshman this year before suffering a season-ending hip injury that should keep him out of spring ball as well. But if he can make a healthy return, look out. Knott came to Iowa State as a quarterback but has made a seamless transition to linebacker, showing plenty of instinct with 11 tackles in Iowa State’s 31-30 loss to Texas. His older brother Jake was an All-Big 12 linebacker for the Cyclones. As long as that hip doesn’t get in the way, Knott could become one an all-conference selection as well.

Baylor DE Shawn Oakman: The Penn State transfer has the tools to become a dominant player in the league. Oakman had his moments as a rotation player in 2013, finishing sixth in the Big 12 in tackles for loss. But the potential is there for so much more from the 6-foot-9, 275-pound Oakman. If he can put it all together in 2014, he could become one of the league’s most disruptive defenders.

[+] EnlargeDalton Santos
David Purdy/Getty ImagesThe new Texas coaching staff will have to find the best position for Dalton Santos.
Oklahoma State CB Kevin Peterson: While All-American Justin Gilbert deservedly received the accolades this season, Peterson quietly had a very stout sophomore season on the other side of the field. Peterson, who flipped his commitment from Oklahoma to Oklahoma State in recruiting, had two interceptions and was solid in coverage all season in Glenn Spencer’s aggressive, man-to-man defense. With Gilbert gone to the NFL, Peterson will be Oklahoma State’s No. 1 cornerback in 2014. So far, he looks up to the challenge.

Texas LB Dalton Santos: After Jordan Hicks went down with yet another season-ending injury, Santos elevated his game at linebacker. The sophomore finished fourth on the team with 74 tackles, including 10 for loss. It will be interesting to see what happens with the Longhorns at linebacker. The entire group of linebackers will return, including Hicks. But the way Santos played late in the year, the new Texas regime will have to find a way to get him on the field.

Oklahoma LB Frank Shannon: Even though injuries plagued Shannon the second half of the season, he still led the Sooners with 92 tackles as a sophomore. In Shannon, blitzer extraordinaire Eric Striker and Big 12 defensive freshman of the year Dominique Alexander all back, Oklahoma might have the best linebacker corps in the country next season.

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

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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.


NORMAN, Okla. -- Mike Stoops’ decision to make Oklahoma’s defense more versatile, athletic and faster has paid off this season.

The Sooners’ defensive coordinator has OU among the nation’s top 20 in points allowed (No. 19 at 20.1), yards per game (No. 13 at 326.4), passing yards per game (No. 10 at 182.8) and passing yards per attempt (No.10 at 5.8).

But this defense wasn’t built for Kansas State.

OU’s offseason changes were made with the spread offensive attacks run by the Baylors, Texas Techs and Oklahoma States of the Big 12 in mind.

[+] EnlargeMike Stoops
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsOU defensive coordinator Mike Stoops knows his defense will have its hands full against K-State.
The Wildcats will take the field with a physical running attack that will test OU’s defense in ways it hasn’t really been tested this season. KSU ranks third in the Big 12 in rushing (193.3), but it is the way it rushes and its use of big personnel that will make OU’s preparation more difficult. KSU uses its tight ends in ways the rest of the league does not, although with quarterbacks struggling around the league, offensive coordinators have turned to more big packages this season with the hope of leaning on their running games instead.

“We’re seeing more bigger sets this year than we have in a long time,” Stoops said. “Compared to last year, it’s almost like a [180] the reemerging of the tight end is becoming the focal point of all offenses, now you have to bring bigger people in. We’ll have to make some adjustments to their big people and physical sets. It’s something we need to look at.”

OU will have to alter its base three-man front, bringing in bigger bodies like defensive end P.L. Lindley to help make the Sooners’ defense bigger and more physical, essentially making it a four-man defensive set to try to offset the size disadvantage.

“P.L. is a guy that we have to continue to define, he’s a good player,” Stoops said. “He’s a guy that makes us more physical at the point of attack in bigger sets. That’s where we try to implement a more physical player and that’s what we need to do. He’s going to be a guy that’s able to do those things as we move forward with what we’re doing.”

More importantly the Sooners will need to play solid, assignment football and must have freshman linebacker Dominique Alexander to continue to exceed expectations and fellow linebacker Frank Shannon to play well. Alexander and Shannon will need to show their versatility. Two weeks ago, they were dealing with the space and athletes that make Baylor so potent. Saturday, they’ll have to deal with fundamentally sound KSU offensive linemen looking to drive them deep into the Sooners’ defensive backfield.

“It’s not a 180. Football is football,” Alexander said. “They’re either going to run or pass it, and they’re going to do both on Saturday. They’re a strong and powerful team, but we’re going to prepare well for them and execute.”

Adding to the quandary is K-State’s use of quarterbacks Daniel Sams and Jake Waters. Both quarterbacks can make you pay with their arms and legs, yet are quite different in their approaches. Sams is the better runner, Waters the better passer but both have the proven ability to take advantage of defensive game plans that focus on stopping one or the other.

“It gives you a lot more to work on,” Stoops said of the two-quarterback approach. “It’s like they have two different offenses. It will take a lot more practice time and attention to detail to get familiar with the two different ways that they are trying to move the ball.”

OU’s defense has been the foundation of the majority of the Sooners’ success this season. If they hope to continue that trend, they will have to prove they could be more versatile than ever.

“It’s going to be fun,” Alexander said. “I like physical play. I like smashmouth football. That’s how I was raised playing. So it’s going to be fun playing the run and the pass. Like I said, it’s just football.”

Week 12 helmet stickers

November, 17, 2013
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Here are the helmet stickers after Oklahoma's 48-10 win over Iowa State on Saturday.

Quarterback Trevor Knight: The redshirt freshman replaced Blake Bell and helped spark the 48-point outburst from the Sooners’ offense. Knight had 10 carries for 123 yards including a 56-yard touchdown gallop as the Sooners had three touchdown runs of 56 yards or more. Knight was 8-of-14 through the air for 61 yards and finished with a 70 raw QBR.

OU’s offensive line: The Sooners had three different rushers average at least 12 yards per carry with seven carries or more. Knight was joined by Damien Williams (10 carries, 128 yards, 12.8 avg, 2 touchdowns) and Brennan Clay (7 carries, 86 yards, 12.29 avg, touchdown). Overall the Sooners had 44 carries for 405 yards and four touchdowns, averaging 9.2 yards per carry. None of that is possible without a strong game from an offensive line that struggled against Baylor.

Linebacker Frank Shannon: The sophomore has been incredibly productive despite not being 100 percent healthy for the past two games. He had eight tackles including 2.5 tackles for loss and two sacks after recording 15 stops against Baylor.

Week 11 helmet stickers

November, 8, 2013
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Here are the Sooners who earned some recognition after Oklahoma’s 41-12 loss to Baylor.

Receiver Jalen Saunders: The senior was one of the few Sooners who stepped up to make big plays against the Bears. His 55-yard kickoff return gave the squad early hope and he led OU with six receptions for 74 yards. He continues to be one of the few bright spots on an otherwise lackluster offense.

Linebacker Frank Shannon: The sophomore led the Sooners with 13.5 tackles including 12 solo stops against the Bears. He added two tackles for loss and was active in the middle of OU’s defense throughout the night.

Running back Roy Finch: The senior continues to perform in his limited opportunities while the Sooners offense continues to stumble around. Finch had seven carries for 36 yards, averaging 5.1 yards per carry and added a 10-yard touchdown reception.

Midseason report: Oklahoma

October, 15, 2013
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Two weeks ago, Oklahoma was on cloud nine, having just beaten Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., with dreams of a BCS title game berth and Big 12 title in its sights. Now, the Sooners are coming off a devastating loss to their chief rival and face the remainder of the season without two of their top defensive players, Jordan Phillips and Corey Nelson. How quickly things change.

Yet, realistically, a 5-1 record at this point in the season could be considered a lofty preseason expectation for a Sooners squad that entered 2013 with a handful of new starters on defense and a new quarterback under center.

OU’s hopes of a Big 12 title aren’t completely dashed as long as it starts to get consistent play from the quarterback position and a game-changing playmaker emerges among its skill position players. Saturday’s loss to Texas proved what we knew already -- OU can’t just lean on its defense and expect to cruise through conference play even though defensive coordinator Mike Stoops' unit appears improved this season.

The Sooners have suffered two big injuries with Phillips, a defensive tackle, and Nelson, a linebacker, out for the season. Nonetheless, the Sooners still feature the talent to jump back into the Big 12 title race in the second half of the season. But it won’t happen until OU develops consistent playmakers in its passing game to supplement a solid running attack.

Offensive MVP: Center Gabe Ikard. The senior has been a consistent, calm presence in the middle with the unrest at the quarterback position, which has seen Blake Bell and Trevor Knight both start multiple games. Ikard has been the anchor of an offensive line that has paved the way for OU’s running game, which is averaging 226.7 yards per game, second in the Big 12. Ikard's leadership and experience might be his most important contribution in the second half of the season.

Defensive MVP: Linebacker Frank Shannon. Phillips or Nelson could easily be considered the first-half MVP but Shannon has been just as consistent and OU will count on him even more in the second half of the season. The sophomore has 50 tackles, 18 more than any other Sooner, three quarterback hurries, one interception and a forced fumble.

Big 12 unsung heroes: Week 7

October, 14, 2013
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Here are this week’s unsung heroes:

Linebacker Eddie Lackey, Baylor: Overshadowed by Bryce Hager’s 18-tackle performance, Lackey had a solid game in the Bears’ 35-25 win over Kansas State. He finished with 10 tackles, including eight solo stops, and a forced fumble. His active play is one of the reasons the Bears’ defense is playing better in 2013.

[+] EnlargeJarvis West
Jerod Foster/Icon SMIJarvis West's efforts on special teams provided a major boost for Iowa State.
Receiver Jarvis West, Iowa State: The Cyclones’ wideout helped keep his squad in the game with his special teams’ prowess. He had a 95-yard kickoff return for a score and added 46 punt return yards including a 38-yarder. West finished with 177 all-purpose yards, more than 100 yards more than the next best Cyclone.

Cornerback JaCorey Shepherd, Kansas: Shepherd did it all in the Jayhawks’ 27-17 loss to TCU. He had seven tackles, one sack, one forced fumble and a 32-yard interception return for a touchdown. It was a terrific performance in his return home for the former Mesquite (Texas) Horn standout.

Running back John Hubert, Kansas State: An overlooked aspect of Daniel Sams’ explosive day was Hubert’s increased production. The senior had 15 carries for 90 yards to provide a solid 1-2 running punch alongside Sams. Hubert clearly becomes a more productive player with a running threat at quarterback.

Linebacker Frank Shannon, Oklahoma: The sophomore had the quietest 16-tackle performance in recent memory. Shannon continued to be a consistent playmaker on OU’s defense, recording those 16 tackles and forcing a fumble in the Sooners’ 36-20 loss to Texas. He’s proving to be a player the Sooners can count on, week in and week out.

Linebacker Dalton Santos, Texas: The Longhorns were stout against the run in their 36-20 win over OU, and Santos played a key role. The sophomore made plays from sideline to sideline and was consistently around the football. He finished with six tackles including 1.5 tackles for loss. Santos has helped offset the loss of Jordan Hicks for the Longhorns’ defense.

Running back B.J. Catalon, TCU: Catalon continues to be a playmaker for the Horned Frogs, accounting for a team-high 122 yards. The sophomore averaged 9.38 yards per touch in TCU’s 27-17 win over Kansas. On an offense searching for playmakers, it seems like the Horned Frogs can’t get the ball in Catalon’s hands enough, particularly if he can take better care of the football.

Running back Sadale Foster, Texas Tech: One of three Red Raiders to rush for more than 80 yards, Foster averaged 9.7 yards per carry in Tech’s 42-35 win over Iowa State. He had nine carries for 87 yards and one touchdown. He averaged 14.8 yards per carry on first down (five carries, 74 yards), including a 38-yard touchdown scamper in the fourth quarter to put the game away.

Note: Oklahoma State and West Virginia did not play in Week 7.

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