Oklahoma Sooners: Jalen Saunders

Spring football has come to a close at Oklahoma.

The Sooners 15 practices answered some questions, but others remain. Now is the perfect time to update the some of the position battles that made this spring intriguing in Norman. We took a look at offense and defense earlier this week. We end the series on Friday with special teams.

[+] EnlargeSterling Shepard
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsSterling Shepard should be able to step up and fill the void left in OU's return game by the departure of Jalen Saunders.
Kicker

Pre-spring: Already considered among the nation’s best, Michael Hunnicutt is locked in as the Sooners’ starting kicker.

Post-spring: Not only should the Sooners feel great about Hunnicutt, he showed increased kicking prowess in the spring game. Long-range field goals have not been a strength for the 2013 Lou Groza Award semifinalist during his first three years, but he nailed two 40-plus yard field goals in the spring game, including a 53-yarder, although it was wind-aided.

Summer outlook: OU heads into the summer knowing it has one of the nation’s best kickers.

Punter

Pre-spring: Jed Barnett returns after his first season as OU’s punter, averaging 41.7 yards per punt.

Post-spring: Much like kicker, there's not much to see here. Barnett was solid during his first season and returns to give OU solid punting in his final year on campus. OU should exit the spring feeling good about both kicking positions.

Summer outlook: Barnett is a very solid punter and heads into the summer as the clear No. 1 guy. There’s no reason to think that will change.

Returners

Pre-spring: The Sooners lose all of their returners. Receiver Jalen Saunders was dynamic on punt returns and running backs Roy Finch and Brennan Clay were very productive kick returners. With that, there are plenty of questions about who will return kicks.

Post-spring:Receiver Sterling Shepard is in line to return punts. He was a superb punt returner in high school and has proven playmaking ability. Cornerback Zack Sanchez could also be an option as a punt returner this fall. Kick returns could be a good fit for running back Alex Ross or running back Daniel Brooks among several other young and talented options.

Summer outlook: OU will start finalizing its return game in August. Plenty of talented freshmen could get the opportunity, with Shepard looking like the lone frontrunner for any of the return positions.

“When we get our whole football team on here in the summer, that’s when I’ll identify and make final decisions on that,” special teams coordinator Jay Boulware said of potential punt and kick returners. “We have a lot of freshmen coming in and we have a lot of guys who are busting their butts right now. We won’t make any final decisions until towards the end of fall camp.”

Punt/kick coverage

Pre-spring: OU’s coverage teams could improve after allowing 15.6 yards per punt return and 23.28 yards per kick return in 2013. But OU’s coverage overall was pretty solid and its coverage units allowed then-freshmen like Ahmad Thomas, Dakota Austin and Keith Ford to get their feet wet and contribute during their first seasons.

Post-spring: Much like the returners, Boulware will be looking to finalize these units after the freshmen arrive. One key to keep an eye on will be OU’s attempt to replace Trey Millard, who was a special teams monster during his four seasons. Freshman Dimitri Flowers appears ready to help replace Millard on offense but Boulware said he’s not certain if the early enrollee can match Millard’s contributions on special teams as well.

Summer outlook: Special teams coverage units can be a way for true freshmen to get their foot in the door. Boulware likes the overall speed and athleticism on the roster this spring, so adding additional, hungry freshmen into the mix should help OU be able to field some of the quickest and more athletic coverage units in the Big 12 in 2014. The battle for special teams spots should be interesting to watch and could provide a glimpse at the young guys who could be the future on offense and defense.
It was a short gain, a simple catch in his third collegiate game.

Yet, Oklahoma receiver Sterling Shepard sent a message in the span of five seconds.

[+] EnlargeSterling Shepard and Jackson Jeffcoat
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsSterling Shepard is stepping into more of a leadership role for the Sooners.
The Sooners standout caught the pass on an out route then vaulted over Kansas State’s Nigel Malone, leaving the Wildcats cornerback grasping at air while displaying some eye-popping athleticism. With the 11-yard gain Shepard removed all doubts about his ability to be a playmaker in crimson and cream.

Shepard went on to catch 96 passes for 1,224 yards and 10 touchdowns during his first two seasons. He proved to be one of the Big 12’s top clutch receivers with his 26 receptions for 415 yards on third down ranking among the conference’s best.

This season, Shepard’s role changes. The junior is the centerpiece of OU’s receiving corps for the first time with all eyes on him to be the go-to guy for sophomore quarterback Trevor Knight.

Teammates know they can count on the Oklahoma City native to make plays, but they’ve lauded his increasing leadership role as well.

“Sterling has done a great job being a vocal leader with the wideouts,” Knight said.

This spring, coach Bob Stoops immediately pointed to Shepard as one of the players who could fill the leadership void left by a quality senior class which included center Gabe Ikard and fullback Trey Millard, both four-year starters.

“He’s really emerged as a strong leader for us on offense,” Stoops said. “He’s consistent. He’s had a great winter in the way he has worked. He’s pushing other guys. He’s going to be a guy that we have to focus on and find different ways to keep getting him the ball more, which is obvious to everyone. He’s been great.”

Receivers coach Jay Norvell is challenging Shepard to become an even better player as he becomes a veteran and leader, not just for the offense but the entire team.

“I’ve told Shep that his world his different now,” Norvell said. “He’s not the young guy. He’s played a lot of football around here and he knows what it takes to win big games. He’s got to make players around him better.”

Setting an example with his effort, consistent production and forcing Big 12 coordinators to focus their game plans on him are among the ways Shepard can make his teammates better.

And the 5-foot-10, 193-pound pass catcher could find even more ways to impact games during his third season with the Sooners. He’s in line to return punts for OU after watching Jalen Saunders and Justin Brown excel as punt returners during his freshman and sophomore seasons.

“He’s been catching [punts] the last couple of years,” Stoops said. “We’ve just had the good fortune of having two experienced guys in Justin Brown and Jalen Saunders. They both had a year of doing it. Both were so good at it that Sterling hasn’t had to, but he’s caught balls for two years. He’ll be ready for it. He’s strong and can run balls, so he’ll be comfortable with it.”
Twenty-five Big 12 players have been invited to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis Feb. 19-24. The NFL released the invite list Thursday afternoon. The Big 12 players are below:

Quarterbacks
  • None
Running backs
Fullbacks
Tight ends
Wide receivers
Offensive linemen
Defensive linemen
Linebackers
Defensive backs
Long snapper
Kicker
Punter
  • None
Notable omissions:
With signing day quickly approaching, it’s time to close the chapter on the 2013 season. We’re counting down the Top 25 players in the Big 12 in 2013 over the next few days with a list collaboratively selected by Jake Trotter, Brandon Chatmon and Max Olson. We continue the postseason countdown with the No. 10 player in the Big 12.

[+] EnlargeSaunders
Richard Rowe/USA TODAY SportsJalen Saunders might not have been the biggest player on the field, but the Sooners receiver/returner was one of the best.
No. 10: Jalen Saunders, WR, Oklahoma

Previous ranking: Saunders was No. 19 in the blog’s preseason list of the Big 12’s Top 25 players.

Making the case for Saunders: He was often the smallest player on the field. And, just as often, he made game-changing plays that sparked the Sooners’ run to the Allstate Sugar Bowl. His quickness and ability to change direction made him nearly impossible to cover in the open field. His two-touchdown performances in OU’s 33-24 Bedlam win over Oklahoma State and against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl were the perfect way for him to end his college career.

With inconsistent quarterback play hampering his opportunities, Saunders finished with 61 receptions for 729 yards and eight touchdowns with 57.4 percent of his receptions going for first downs. And he averaged 15.4 yards per punt return with returns of 20 yards or more in five different games.

As a receiver and returner, Saunders proved size doesn’t matter. Talent and will to win does.

The rest of the list:
The Big 12 had nine players participate in the Reese's Senior Bowl over the weekend, but the group's impact on the actual game in Mobile, Ala., was negligible.

West Virginia running back Charles Sims, who drew rave reviews in practice throughout the week, had just eight yards rushing on three carries. Sims, however, definitely improved his draft stock. Scouts Inc. recognized Sims as a Senior Bowl week standout, calling him the "most versatile" running back in camp Insider.

Texas wide receiver Mike Davis had a decent game with 20 yards receiving on three catches. So did Oklahoma's Jalen Saunders, who had two receptions and a 14-yard punt return.

Defensively, Baylor safety Ahmad Dixon was tied for fourth on the North side with four tackles. West Virginia defensive end Will Clarke added one tackle for the North.

The player that had perhaps the biggest impact on the Senior Bowl was Iowa State punter Kirby Van Der Kamp. On eight punts, Van Der Kamp averaged 46.9 yards with a long of 54.

Baylor guard Cyril Richardson, Oklahoma center Gabe Ikard and Kansas State long snapper Marcus Heit each played in the game. While Sims seemed to help his stock at the Senior Bowl, Richardson apparently hurt his.

Oklahoma cornerback Aaron Colvin also started out the week in Mobile, but he suffered a torn ACL during practice last Tuesday.

Big 12 games of the year: No. 1

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We’ve been counting down the 10 best games of the year in the Big 12. Finally, we’re down to game No. 1. Once again, Bedlam was the game of the year in the Big 12:

No. 1: Dec. 7 -- Oklahoma 33, Oklahoma State 24

In one of the coldest games either team had ever played in, Oklahoma stunned its Bedlam rival with two touchdowns in the final 19 seconds to pull off the upset.

What happened: Oklahoma State went into the game a double-digit favorite for the first time since Vegas began keeping track. But the Sooners were able to hang around utilizing a variety of unconventional scoring plays and three different quarterbacks.

The Sooners tied the game 7-7 at the end of the first quarter on Jalen Saunders’ 64-yard punt return touchdown. The Sooners tied the game late in the third quarter on a fake field goal, as holder Grant Bothun threw a touchdown pass to Michael Hunnicutt.

Oklahoma State, which struggled to pass the ball in the sub-10 degree temperatures, finally got going in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Clint Chelf completed four consecutive passes of 14, 27, 20 and 23 yards, setting up Desmond Roland’s go-ahead touchdown plunge to put the Cowboys up 24-20.

But Oklahoma State left too much time on the clock. And Blake Bell -- the third quarterback to enter the game for the Sooners -- led them back down the field in the final seconds.

Bell appeared to throw a jump-ball interception to Oklahoma State All-American cornerback Justin Gilbert. But as Gilbert landed on the ground, receiver Lacoltan Bester was able to swipe the ball away to turn the play into an incomplete pass.

Moments later, Bell hit Saunders in the corner of the end zone for a seven-yard, game-winning touchdown pass -- the Sooners’ first and only offensive touchdown of the game.

Oklahoma State’s desperation series of laterals resulted in Oklahoma linebacker Eric Striker scoring another touchdown, providing Bedlam with an exclamation point.

Player of the game: Bell was clutch but Oklahoma would have never been in the game without Saunders. His punt return touchdown changed the complexion of the game in the first quarter. Saunders’ 37-yard reverse also set up the fake field goal touchdown, when Oklahoma desperately needed a big play. Then, of course, there was the game-winning touchdown catch, too. It was the second time in his career that Saunders had a punt return touchdown and receiving touchdown in the same game. The other time came in Oklahoma’s overtime victory over the Cowboys in 2012.

Stat of the game: Though he was on point late in the fourth quarter, Chelf completed just 2 of 10 passes on third down. Neither of his completions resulted in a first down, and Oklahoma State’s ineffective third-down passing caused several promising drives to stall out.

Quotable: “The feeling in the locker room is a bad feeling right now.” -- Oklahoma State’s running back Roland, immediately after the loss.

The rest of the list:

Big 12 lunchtime links

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I have to side with Kobe Bryant on this one.

Big 12 games of the year: No. 9

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We’re counting down the 10 best games of the year in the Big 12. Below is game No. 9, which featured a series of successful trick plays from one side in a losing effort:

No. 9: Oct. 26 -- Oklahoma 38, Texas Tech 30

Despite a run of trick plays, No. 15 Oklahoma survived 10th-ranked Texas Tech in one of the league's most entertaining games.

What happened: After a disappointing loss to Texas, the Sooners rediscovered their ground game while quarterback Blake Bell regained his confidence during a pair of pivotal second quarter series.

After three inept weeks of offense, the Sooners went on the longest drive of the season to that point in plays, yards and time. The Sooners grounded out a 16-play, 97-yard touchdown drive covering almost eight minutes to tie the game, 7-7.

On the first play of OU's following possession with Tech’s safeties creeping up to stop the run, Bell faked a handoff then threw a pass over the top to Jalen Saunders for a 76-yard touchdown.

The Red Raiders, however, wouldn’t go down easily.

Utilizing a reverse, a halfback touchdown pass, a decoy punt returner play and an onside kick, Texas Tech stormed back to take a 24-21 lead.

But Oklahoma countered with some trickery of its own. Wideout Lacoltan Bester took a reverse and was supposed to pass it. When nobody was open, Bester tucked the ball and weaved through the Texas Tech defense for a 35-yard touchdown. The Sooners never trailed again.

Player of the game: Bell, who completed 14 of 22 passes for 249 yards and two touchdowns after struggling the previous two weeks. Texas Tech quarterback Davis Webb was good, too, throwing for 385 yards and a pair of scores. His second interception, however, led to a touchdown that put the Sooners up 35-24 in the fourth quarter.

Stat of the game: The Red Raiders committed three turnovers, which was a sign of things to come. Texas Tech finished No. 121 nationally in turnovers lost, which fueled Tech’s five-game losing streak to end the regular season.

Quotable: “I love our team and their attitude. Are we in great shape? No. Am I excited about our team and our opportunity and our willingness to fight and all of that? Yeah, I am.” -- Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, noting the season-ending injury to his All-Big 12 fullback, Trey Millard

Big 12's best of 2013

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The college football season is over, and what a season it was. Picked fifth in the preseason, Baylor won its first Big 12 championship. Oklahoma, left for dead in early November, rose out of the ashes to win 11 games. Oklahoma State had some of the most puzzling losses and most dominant wins, as well. And Texas, well, the soap opera is finally over.

Here’s a look back at the 2013 season with our Best of the Big 12:

[+] EnlargeBob Stoops
Chuck Cook/USA TODAY SportsBob Stoops and Trevor Knight delivered the Big 12 a signature BCS win in 2013.
Best coach: Art Briles, Baylor. Bob Stoops deserves a bunch of credit for how his Sooners surged late in the season, but Briles' leading Baylor to its first Big 12 championship was no small feat. The Bears led the nation in scoring, and beat Oklahoma and Texas convincingly. The bowl game was disappointing. The season overall was not.

Best player, offense: Even though he cooled off later in the year, Baylor’s Bryce Petty still finished fifth nationally in QBR in his first season as a starting quarterback. He threw 32 touchdown passes and did a masterful job taking care of the ball, tossing only three interceptions.

Best player, defense: There wasn’t really anyone who clearly stood out here. TCU cornerback Jason Verrett, Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State linebacker Caleb Lavey, Kansas State defensive end Ryan Mueller and Baylor linebacker Eddie Lackey all had their moments. Texas defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat, however, was the only defensive player from the league to win a national award. He was given the Ted Hendricks Award, which goes to the defensive end of the year in college football. Jeffcoat tied for third nationally with 13 sacks.

Best moment: The league has been waiting for a signature victory to hang its hat on. Oklahoma finally gave the Big 12 that victory in the Allstate Sugar Bowl with a stunning 45-31 win over Alabama. Behind freshman quarterback Trevor Knight, the Sooners controlled the game from the second quarter on. Defensively, linebacker Eric Striker and end Geneo Grissom were unblockable, combining for five sacks of Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron. Offensively, Knight carved up the Crimson Tide for 348 passing yards and four touchdowns. It wasn’t even that Alabama played poorly. It was that Oklahoma played terrifically.

Best rivalry game: Maybe new Texas coach Charlie Strong will bring some more juice to the Red River Rivalry. Lately, it’s been second fiddle to Bedlam. In quality. In drama. In impact. Once again, Bedlam carried major Big 12 title implications, and once again, the game delivered a thrilling ending. Backup quarterback Blake Bell found Jalen Saunders in the corner of the end zone with 19 seconds remaining for the Sooners’ first offensive touchdown of the game, lifting Oklahoma to a win and spoiling Oklahoma State’s shot at a Big 12 title.

Best play: Late in the third quarter of Kansas State’s game against Baylor, Mueller stripped Petty while simultaneously recovering the fumble near the sideline. The acrobatic play gave K-State good field position in Baylor territory, and the Wildcats would go on to take a 25-21 lead. Baylor ultimately outlasted the Wildcats, but Mueller, who also had two sacks in the game, was a big reason why the Bears' high-powered offense was held in check most of the afternoon.

[+] EnlargeTyler Lockett
Jasen VinloveUSA TODAY SportsKansas State's Tyler Lockett had seven 100-yard receiving games this season, including two games with more than 200 yards receiving.
Best performance in a loss: The Wildcats eventually lost, but K-State receiver Tyler Lockett could not be covered by the Sooners in their game in late November. Lockett kept the Wildcats in the game, reeling in 12 catches for 278 yards and three touchdowns, prompting Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops to go ballistic on the sideline multiple times. Lockett was also a monster against Texas and Michigan. All told, he totaled 35 catches, 631 yards and six touchdowns against those three programs alone.

Best individual defensive performance: Mueller against Baylor, Verrett shutting down Baylor wideout Antwan Goodley, and Gilbert picking off Texas twice all deserve honorable mention. But Striker gets the nod for wreaking havoc on the two-time defending national champ in New Orleans. Striker had three sacks and forced a fumble after barreling around the edge to slam into McCarron’s blind side. The ball popped loose and Grissom returned the fumble for the game-winning touchdown.

Best true freshman: Texas Tech quarterback Davis Webb had to split time with fellow true freshman Baker Mayfield for most of the season. When Mayfield left unexpectedly in December, the job was finally Webb’s to run with. And run he did. Actually, he threw. Against No. 14 Arizona State in the National University Holiday Bowl, Webb completed 28 of 41 passes for 403 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions in one of this year’s best bowl performances from a quarterback. Webb had a solid freshman season, leading the Red Raiders to fourth-quarter wins over TCU and West Virginia. But if the bowl was any indication, the best is yet to come.

Best quote: “So much for the big bad wolf, huh?” -- Bob Stoops, after the Sooners defeated Alabama.
Oklahoma’s season had it all.

Great performances from multiple quarterbacks, special teams brilliance from an undersized but dynamic receiver and a pass rushing clinic on college football’s biggest stage. Here’s a look at the top five individual performances during the Sooners’ 11-2 campaign in 2013.

1. Trevor Knight, Allstate Sugar Bowl MVP. It’s amazing how exceptional quarterback play can transform a team. Watching Knight expose Alabama’s defense sent shockwaves of confidence throughout the OU sideline and transformed the Sooners into the story of the bowl season. His 94.7 adjusted QBR was the ninth best in bowl games as he finished 32 of 44 for 348 yards with four touchdowns and one interception. It was the Trevor Knight that Bob Stoops expected to see in 2013 when the Sooners head coach named the redshirt freshman quarterback his starter before the year began.

2. Jalen Saunders breaks Oklahoma State hearts in Bedlam. The frigid cold temps didn’t seem to bother the California native. Instead he exposed OSU defenders with cold-hearted efficiency. His 64-yard punt return sparked some confidence for the Sooners in the first quarter and prevented OSU from playing with a lead, then his game-deciding touchdown reception in the final seconds put OU into the Sugar Bowl. He finished with a season-high 157 all-purpose yards and averaged 17.4 yards per touch against the Cowboys.

3. Eric Striker terrorizes A.J. McCarron in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. The sophomore was a relentless pass rushing threat for most of the season but his three sacks against Alabama stand head and shoulders above any defensive performance in 2013. Going against an All-SEC tackle in Cyrus Kouandjio, Striker beat the future NFL draft pick on multiple occasions helping to contribute to OU’s seven Sugar Bowl sacks. Striker’s pass rushing prowess was immediately noticed when he stepped on campus in the summer of 2012 but he really came into his own in New Orleans.

4. Brennan Clay’s 200 yards against Kansas State. The senior running back made life a lot easier for Knight in his first road start in Manhattan, Kan. Clay had 31 carries for 200 yards and two touchdowns against the Wildcats as he continually found plenty of room to roam and took advantage. OU’s offensive line deserved a large share of the credit for Clay’s performance against KSU but he was a consistent, durable running option throughout the season and averaged 5.47 yards per carry, third in the Big 12.

5. Blake Bell’s record-setting performance against Tulsa. In his first start, Bell broke school records while leading OU to a 51-20 win over Tulsa. The junior was 27 of 37 for 413 yards, 11.2 yards per attempt and four touchdowns, setting a school record for most passing yards by a Sooner in his first start. His 96.4 adjusted QBR was the seventh-best nationally in Week 3 and one of the highest QBR’s in the Big 12 this season. Bell looked like a future star against the Golden Hurricane while starting to shed the “Belldozer” moniker that defined his first two seasons in crimson and cream. It was Bell’s best overall performance of the season.
Big plays changed the destiny of Oklahoma football in 2013. Without several key plays in key moments, the Sooner could have stumbled down the Big 12 standings. Instead, OU was a BCS bowl winner. Here are the top five plays of the 2013 season in terms of their impact on games and overall impact on how this season will be remembered:

[+] EnlargeJalen Saunders, Lyndell Johnson
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiJalen Saunders made a number of clutch plays this season, but none bigger than his touchdown catch late against Oklahoma State.
1. Receiver Jalen Saunders' Bedlam touchdown. This was the defining moment of the 2013 season for Oklahoma. No single play represents this season better than Saunders’ seven-yard touchdown with 19 seconds remaining in the Sooners’ 33-24 win over Oklahoma State on Dec. 7. The play capped an improbable game-winning drive and improbable Bedlam win which knocked OSU out of the Big 12 title hunt and thrust OU into the Sugar Bowl.

2. Defensive end Geneo Grissom’s touchdown in the Sugar Bowl. As Grissom dove toward the end zone, arm outstretched to score OU’s final touchdown, Sooners fans erupted with the realization that OU was going to beat Alabama by double digits, 45-31. It was the best moment of the year for Sooner Nation and meant validation for Bob Stoops on many levels. And the actual play represented the foundation of OU’s win, an opportunistic defense forcing four turnovers.

3. Linebacker Corey Nelson’s touchdown at Notre Dame. Nelson’s 24-yard interception return for a touchdown was the first sign this could be a special year for Stoops’ group. It got the Sooners off to a terrific start in their first road game of the season and sparked OU to the best nonconference win by a Big 12 team -- 35-21 over Notre Dame -- during the regular season. This play was also the first sign that linebacker Eric Striker was going to be a terror for opposing quarterbacks and a major playmaker for OU’s defense this season.

4. Receiver Lacolton Bester’s Sugar Bowl touchdown. OU’s first touchdown of the Sugar Bowl sent a message that the Sooners weren’t going to back down against the Crimson Tide and weren’t hesitant to place the game on the shoulders of redshirt freshman quarterback Trevor Knight. His perfect throw to Bester sent waves of confidence throughout the Sooners sidelines and OU rode that wave to a Sugar Bowl victory.

5. Cornerback Zack Sanchez interception return for touchdown against Kansas State. Not only did it seal the Sooners’ 41-31 road win, it is a good representation of the growth of the Sooners and how they turned that growth into on-field production. Sanchez had his struggles as a redshirt freshman but his competitiveness never wavered and his interception return against the Wildcats is an example of his development as a player. Several young Sooners, like Sanchez, grew a lot during the season and turned their development into on-field success as OU won three straight huge games against Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Alabama to end the season.

Big 12 all-bowl team

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The Big 12 had some memorable bowl performances, and some not-so-memorable ones. Below, we honor the memorable ones with the Big 12's all-bowl team:

OFFENSE

QB: Trevor Knight, Oklahoma. Texas Tech’s Davis Webb and Kansas State’s Jake Waters were marvelous, too, but Knight was simply incredible, throwing for 348 yards and four touchdowns against the two-time defending national champs.

RB: Malcolm Brown, Texas. Brown did everything he could to keep the Longhorns in the Valero Alamo Bowl, rushing for 130 yards on 26 carries. Unfortunately, he had little help from the rest of the offense.

[+] EnlargeTyler Lockett
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesTyler Lockett proved just as much a handful for Michigan as he does Big 12 teams.
RB: John Hubert, Kansas State. In his final game at K-State, Hubert went out with a bang, rushing for 80 yards and a touchdown as the Wildcats rolled Michigan.

WR: Tyler Lockett, Kansas State. The Wolverines became the next team unable to guard Lockett, who had another stellar outing with 10 catches, 116 yards and three touchdowns. Big 12 defensive backs cannot be looking forward to this guy coming back next season.

WR: Jalen Saunders, Oklahoma. Saunders hauled in two of Knight’s touchdown passes, the second a 43-yarder coming off a gorgeous double move that gave OU the lead for good.

TE: Jace Amaro, Texas Tech. Amaro became the NCAA's all-time single season tight end record holder for receptions and receiving yards, reeling in eight catches for 112 yards against the Sun Devils before revealing he would be turning pro.

OT: Bronson Irwin, Oklahoma. Irwin held up remarkably well against Alabama’s mighty front in his first career start at right tackle, as Knight was sacked only once. Irwin, a guard his entire career, had to move outside because of an injury to Tyrus Thompson.

OT: Le'Raven Clark, Texas Tech. Webb attempted 41 passes and wasn’t sacked once. Clark was a big reason.

OG: Cody Whitehair, Kansas State. The Wildcats moved the ball at will against Michigan. Along with Clark, Whitehair is one of the best young returning offensive linemen in the league.

OG: Beau Carpenter, Texas Tech. After missing three straight games with a concussion, Carpenter returned to help shut down Arizona State All-American DT Will Sutton, who basically was a non-factor.

C: Gabe Ikard, Oklahoma. Even with a makeshift offensive line, OU somehow won the battle in the trenches against Alabama. Ikard, an All-American and quarterback of the line, deserves a ton of credit for keeping the line together.

DEFENSE

DE: Geneo Grissom, Oklahoma. Grissom was a man possessed against the Crimson Tide. The former tight end had two sacks and two fumble recoveries, the latter of which he returned for a touchdown to clinch the Sooners’ victory.

DT: Calvin Barnett, Oklahoma State. Despite the loss, Barnett tied a career high with five tackles and one sack and repeatedly found his way into the Missouri backfield.

DT: Dartwan Bush, Texas Tech. The Red Raiders desperately missed Bush late in the regular season. His performance against Arizona State underscored why, as Bush delivered three tackles and a sack and freed up Kerry Hyder to make plays, too.

[+] EnlargeEric Striker
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesSooners LB Eric Striker sacked AJ McCarron three times in the Sugar Bowl.
DE: Jimmy Bean, Oklahoma State. Bean had a breakout game in the AT&T Cotton Bowl, with a career-high seven tackles, including three for loss.

LB: Eric Striker, Oklahoma. Not even Alabama could block Striker off the edge. Striker had a monster performance against the Tide with seven tackles and three sacks, with his final sack forcing the game-clinching fumble in the final minute of the fourth quarter.

LB: Will Smith, Texas Tech. The senior had a National University Holiday Bowl-high 14 tackles, as the Red Raiders held Arizona State 17 points below its season average.

LB: Blake Slaughter, Kansas State. One of the better linebackers in the Big 12 all year, Slaughter had another fine game in the desert with seven tackles, including one for loss, as Michigan’s offense was held in check all night.

CB: Aaron Colvin, Oklahoma. The Sooners gave up some big plays in the passing game, but Colvin was the exception. He also had a critical, touchdown-saving tackle in the first quarter that resulted in Alabama having to settle for a field goal.

CB: Demetri Goodson, Baylor. The Bears gave up 52 points, but they might have given up more had Goodson not collected an acrobatic interception inside the Baylor 5-yard line.

S: Dante Barnett, Kansas State. Barnett led the Wildcats with eight tackles, and he delivered the exclamation point against Michigan with a 51-yard interception return in the fourth quarter.

S: Tanner Jacobson, Texas Tech. In his last college game for a while, the walk-on freshman had a very solid performance with seven tackles. Jacobson is leaving the program for a two-year Mormon mission to Bolivia.

SPECIAL TEAMS

K: Michael Hunnicutt, Oklahoma. “Moneycutt” nailed a season-long 47-yard field goal in the second quarter that allowed OU to keep momentum. It was the third-longest field goal of his career.

P: Spencer Roth, Baylor. One of the few bright spots for Baylor in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl was its punter, who was busier than he had been all season. Roth averaged almost 44 yards on seven punts, and pinned UCF inside the 20-yard line three times.

Returner: Reginald Davis, Texas Tech. After Arizona State had trimmed Tech’s lead to 27-20 early in the third quarter, Davis answered on the ensuing kickoff with a 90-yard touchdown return down the sideline. The Sun Devils failed to retake the momentum again the rest of the game.
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

January, 7, 2014
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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.

Allstate Sugar Bowl: Three thoughts

January, 3, 2014
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Oklahoma pulled off one of the great upsets of this bowl season Thursday with a 45-31 victory over heavily favored and No. 3 Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. Three things we learned about the No. 11 Sooners following their biggest win in a long time.

1. Knight’s big moment: Redshirt freshman quarterback Trevor Knight got the start, his fifth this season, and absolutely shined. Knight threw for 348 yards and four touchdowns to guide an Oklahoma offense that put up 45 points on one of the nation’s toughest defenses. The knock on Knight in his inconsistent debut season was his accuracy, but you wouldn’t have known that on Thursday. He hit on a career-best 32 of his 44 attempts and was as sharp as he was aggressive. Too often we can make too much of a bowl-game performance and what it means, but this was a legitimate breakthrough. The Sooners, it seems, have finally found their triggerman.

2. Big 12 tempo pays off: In the battle of Big 12 vs. SEC, who would’ve figured Alabama would have a hard time keeping up with a Sooner offense that went surprisingly high tempo? We saw the effects Auburn’s quick attack had on confusing Tide defenders, and Bob Stoops and Josh Heupel deserve plenty of praise for turning up their speed in bowl practices and unleashing a much faster offense, one that gave the Tide fits and got plenty of big plays. Remember, one year ago Oklahoma was the one that couldn’t keep up with Johnny Manziel and the frenetic Texas A&M offense. This time, the Sooners dropped 31 in the first half and Bama couldn’t stop them.

3. What can Oklahoma do in 2014? On paper, the Big 12 looks about as wide open in 2014 as it was going into this season, when four teams all could’ve made legitimate claims they were the league’s best. The Sooners made their case in New Orleans. While they’ll lose several key cogs to graduation -- including Gabe Ikard, Aaron Colvin, Jalen Saunders, Brennan Clay, Trey Millard and Corey Nelson -- this defense could be loaded next fall and Knight will break in some exciting new weapons at the skill spots. Calling them the league’s runaway favorite for 2014 might be premature, but Oklahoma will definitely be in the title hunt again.

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