Oklahoma Sooners: Jay Norvell

Big 12 teams rejoice.

For the first time in four years, Oklahoma faces the proposition of a season without Trey Millard as a critical piece of its offense and special teams.

[+] EnlargeDimitri Flowers
Tom Hauck for Student SportsWhile only a 3-star recruit, Dimitri Flowers' versatility stood out to scouts.
The former Sooner earned a reputation as one of the conference’s most physical and versatile players as a four-year starter and could easily be considered the hardest player to replace in the Big 12. Millard ran like a running back, blocked like an offensive lineman and covered kicks like a linebacker. Locating guys like Millard is nearly an impossible task.

The Sooners hope they found a similar hidden gem in early enrollee Dimitri Flowers. He starred all over the field at San Antonio Churchill, making plays as a running back, tight end and defensive end. Flowers, at 6-foot-1, 234 pounds, has been earmarked for a Millard-type role as a hybrid tight end and running back and is already impressing coaches and teammates with his versatility.

“He’s one of the most skilled, well-rounded guys that I’ve seen come into our program,” offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. “His ability to play in line and in space as an H-back, motion guy, [and] he does a great job of catching the football and he’s extremely bright for a young kid coming into your program.”

Flowers was called “as versatile as any player in high school” by ESPN.com recruiting experts, who rated him as a three-star athlete with “above average” size, speed and strength.

It would be asking a lot for Flowers to step right into the Sooners plan and have a similar impact as Millard, who essentially forced the coaching staff to find an immediate role for him as a true freshman. Fortunately for OU, it doesn’t need him to make an similar impact with former walk-on Aaron Ripkowski already proving he can be a core contributor as a fullback/tight end after Millard missed the end of the 2013 season with a knee injury.

Nonetheless, Flowers still could provide superb depth and play a special teams role this fall, particularly if he makes a smooth transition to college football and can handle the little details that can be the difference between seeing the field or watching from the sideline.

“He came in [as] a really good [player],” sophomore running back Keith Ford said. “He’s adjusted to the speed and the things I’ve seen with the catching the ball and pass blocking, he’s picking it up fast.”

OU used Millard and Ripkowski together at various times in 2012 and 2013 so it’s not out of the question for Flowers to have a role in the Sooners’ offensive plans with a strong showing this spring.

“He’s a really versatile player, very young, but a lot of great qualities,” co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. “A lot of our best players can do a lot of things and he’s showing a lot of versatility on the field. He’s green as grass, he doesn’t know much but he’s a good athlete and he can play for us so we’re excited to have him.”
Blake Bell is quickly ascending to hero status in Norman, Okla.

[+] EnlargeBlake Bell
AP Photo/Darron CummingsOklahoma is hoping Blake Bell's athleticism and physical style translates to his move to tight end.
The Oklahoma senior saved the day, quarterbacking the Sooners on a game-deciding touchdown drive to win Bedlam, giving OU fans bragging rights over Oklahoma State supporters while robbing the Cowboys of their second Big 12 championship in three seasons. Bell started eight games at quarterback in 2013, passing for 1,648 yards and 12 touchdowns as a major contributor to OU’s 11-2 campaign.

Yet, after Trevor Knight's Sugar Bowl MVP performance, there was no question who would be the Sooners’ starting quarterback in 2014. Thus, Bell had a choice to make: Stay at Oklahoma or search for greener pastures elsewhere.

Bell chose to return to OU, cementing his legacy in the minds of several Sooners fans by asking to move to tight end, a clear sign of his commitment to the program.

“It was a tough decision,” Bell said. “Obviously playing quarterback was my dream, but another dream of mine was to play at OU. And I didn’t want to leave, I didn’t want to go anywhere, so that’s why I stayed around. I love these guys, love my teammates. I just wanted to get on the field somehow.”

This spring is Bell’s first taste of his new position. The blue “don’t hit” quarterback jersey has been abandoned for a crimson No. 10 jersey, bigger shoulder pads and more time battling the big boys in the trenches.

“It’s just a different mindset, and it’ll take me a little bit to get used to, but it’s been fun,” Bell said. “It’s a mentality. You’ve got to flip the switch from quarterback to tight end, and I think that’s the main deal.”

Everything is different, from the physical nature of the position to the intricacies of blocking schemes. He’s gone from being a prime target in the pocket to being able to dish out some punishment of his own on linebackers and defensive linemen. It’s going to take a while before Bell’s athleticism and talent can be on full display at the position, but the senior is slowly but surely becoming more comfortable at tight end.

“It’s a brand new world for Blake,” co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. “It’s fun to watch because he’s a good athlete and he’s got long arms. It’s a different workload for him and he’s beat up and sore. He’s got parts of his body that are bruised that have never been bruised before.”

Bell’s experience as a quarterback could make the transition much smoother for him. He won’t have to spend time trying to understand plays and concepts, allowing him to focus on technique, blocking assignments and route running instead.

“It’s helped me a lot to know the offense,” he said, while noting the ability to read defenses is also a useful asset.

Bell earned the nickname “Belldozer” with his physical running style as a freshman and sophomore behind former quarterback Landry Jones. At 6-foot-6, 264 pounds, he gave as much punishment as he received while becoming a short-yardage specialist in 2011 and 2012. OU hopes that physical nature and playmaking ability can transfer to the tight end position.

“Blake’s got soft hands, good hands,” Sooners coach Bob Stoops said. “He’s running around really well. He’s a huge target. I’m sure blocking is something we’ll have to work hard on, but Blake’s athletic, Blake’s tough. He’s got size, he’s got strength, he’s got the things you need to do it.”

OU has been searching for a receiving threat at tight end since James Hanna moved on to the NFL after the 2011 season. The Sooners are hopeful that Bell will be the answer to their woes at the spot.

“It’s really fun to watch him compete and make plays for us,” Norvell said. “I think he’s really going to help us as a tight end.”

Key spring for Neal, Sooners

March, 18, 2014
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NORMAN, Okla. -- Durron Neal's career at Oklahoma hasn’t gone as he expected.

Opportunity appeared to be staring the receiver right in the face in the summer before his freshman season, with OU in dire need of receivers and Neal stepping on campus as one of the top receiver recruits in the Class of 2012.

[+] EnlargeDurron Neal
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiDurron Neal has hid in the background his first two seasons at OU, but the Sooners need him to emerge in 2014.
Yet his impact has been minimal and his doubters have been validated. Neal has played in 15 games in two seasons, been targeted 36 times and has 18 receptions for 251 yards.

This season, Neal has the chance to completely change his career storyline.

“I’ve got a lot of fire built up in me,” Neal said. “I have a lot to prove to myself, and I want my teammates to count on me.”

As he sat back and watched fellow Class of 2012 signees such as Sterling Shepard, Charles Tapper and Eric Striker making major contributions to the Sooners' success, Neal could have become discouraged and disgruntled with his own career path. Instead, he's taken a different route.

“Durron has really been patient, he really tries to do everything right,” receivers coach Jay Norvell said. “He loves Oklahoma, he’s a great program kid. He’s getting his opportunity and that’s what spring football is about, opportunities for these guys to compete and show what they’re about.”

It could be his last opportunity. If Neal wants to fulfill his potential and prove doubters wrong, this spring is the time. He needs to cement himself a role in the offense during spring football or risk getting left behind in a meeting room full of other talented receivers competing to fill the void left by Jalen Saunders and Lacoltan Bester.

“I sat back and watched guys be productive and I got a taste of it,” Neal said. “I know my teammates are expecting a lot of me. I’m older now, I understand the offense and I’m comfortable in the offense.”

Even though he hasn’t become a consistent threat in OU’s offense during his first two seasons, Neal has shown flashes of his talent. He’s hoping to become a consistent and physical force on the outside and emerge as a terrific complement to Shepard, who has proven to be a playmaker in the slot. With the pressure to step up resting on his shoulders, Neal entered the spring with a focus on adding several elements to his game.

“Being aggressive, playing physical and when the ball is in the air, attack it,” Neal said when asked how he could become a more consistent receiving threat. “Being in attack mode at all times and being a big, physical body on the outside.”

If Neal achieves those goals and takes his game to a different level, he could form a solid inside-outside duo with Shepard while giving younger players at the position time to develop at their own pace. For OU, that would be the ideal scenario because it would strengthen the depth and maturity at the position for the future while lessening concerns about the Sooners receiving corps heading into preseason camp.

With OU trying to make sure it doesn’t have another season with an inconsistent and unbalanced offense, the development of Neal and other receiving targets is a storyline to keep an eye on when the Sooners return from spring break to continue spring drills next week.

“Just like last year when a lot of people had questions about our D-line, those guys came up and showed up big. Now, it’s on our back,” Neal said. “We’re ready to step up to the challenge.”
A glimpse at the future is no longer enough.

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

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

Sterling Shepard qualifies as "really good".

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s a competitive group,” Norvell said. “We’re extremely competitive in the spring, the whole group gets graded every single day on every snap, so it's really easy to know who the best players are. We have a bunch of young guys who have shown flashes but now it’s about being able to go out every day compete and make plays. So, we’ll see who rises to the top.”
The Big 12 is full of talented assistant coaches. In a conference loaded with quality assistants, we've tried to narrow it down to the top 10 based on the on-field production of their offense, defense or position group and their ability to evaluate, recruit and develop players at their position.

[+] EnlargeMike Stoops
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesMike Stoops' defenses at Oklahoma have been among the best in the Big 12 the last two seasons.
Here's a closer look at the top 10 assistant coaches in the Big 12:

  1. Mike Stoops, Oklahoma defensive coordinator/safeties coach: The Sooners defense has been solid since Stoops returned after his stint as head coach at Arizona. Oklahoma has been among the Big 12’s top defenses during the past two seasons, particularly against the pass. Stoops secured the top spot on the list with his willingness to completely change the defense in 2013, going to a three-man front and making the defense faster and more versatile. And he’s one of the best evaluators and developers of defensive backs in the country.
  2. Phillip Montgomery, Baylor offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach: Montgomery coordinated the nation’s top offense in 2013. The Bears led all BCS teams, averaging 52.4 points and 618.8 yards per game, as the offense spearheaded Baylor's run to its first Big 12 title. Montgomery also has mentored some of the Big 12’s top quarterbacks in recent years, including Robert Griffin III and Nick Florence, capped by Big 12 offensive player of the year Bryce Petty in 2013.
  3. Glenn Spencer, Oklahoma State defensive coordinator/linebackers coach: Spencer took over Oklahoma State’s defense in 2013 and the Cowboys transformed into a more aggressive and adaptive unit. Oklahoma State's defense led the Big 12 in fewest points allowed (21.6) and lowest third-down conversion rate (31.4 percent) to finish among the top 20 teams in the BCS in each category. Spencer also is a superb recruiter and developer of linebackers for the Cowboys, who featured two of the Big 12’s best in Caleb Lavey and Shaun Lewis last season.
  4. Dick Bumpas, TCU defensive coordinator/defensive line coach: Bumpas has coached with TCU head coach Gary Patterson since 2004, and the Horned Frogs have fielded some of the best defenses in the nation during Patterson’s tenure. TCU’s defense finished among the Big 12’s best in several categories in 2013, including its 4.83 yards allowed per play, which was No. 13 among BCS teams. Bumpas’ defensive line group also has been among the Big 12’s best, as he consistently turns players other teams overlooked into solid performers.
  5. Dana Dimel, Kansas State offensive coordinator/running backs and tight ends coach: The Wildcats' creativity on offense often goes unnoticed, but K-State finished among the top 30 BCS teams in yards per play. Dimel, who coaches the running backs and tight ends, has been a key member of Bill Snyder’s staff and has coached 34 players who have played in the NFL. That includes Daniel Thomas, who arrived on campus as a junior college quarterback before developing into an All-Big 12 running back.
  6. Joe Wickline, Texas offensive coordinator/offensive line coach: Wickline has been one of the Big 12’s top position coaches for the past few years as Oklahoma State’s offensive line coach. He coached several players to all-conference honors, including NFL first-round pick Russell Okung. Wickline moves to Austin, Texas, in 2014 after being named Texas’ offensive coordinator by head coach Charlie Strong. He has a proven ability to evaluate talent and develop relative unknowns into productive offensive linemen.
  7. Wally Burnham, Iowa State defensive coordinator/linebackers coach: Burnham consistently has developed All-Big 12 linebackers during his time on the Cyclones' coaching staff. During his five seasons coaching linebackers, Jesse Smith, Jake Knott, A.J. Klein and Jeremiah George each earned All-Big 12 honors. The Cyclones defense took a step backward in 2013, but much of their success under Paul Rhoads is built upon an underrated defense led by quality linebackers.
  8. Sonny Cumbie, TCU co-offensive coordinator: The Red Raiders receivers have been among the Big 12’s best under Cumbie for the past few seasons. His work with the receivers was one reason Texas Tech led the Big 12 and finished second nationally with 392.85 yards per game in 2013 despite playing multiple quarterbacks. Cumbie will play a key role in kick-starting TCU’s offense in 2014.
  9. Kendal Briles, Baylor passing game coordinator/receivers coach: Briles secured his spot on this list thanks to his ability to evaluate, recruit and develop receivers. He’s one reason Baylor has become “Wide Receiver U” in the Big 12 while putting several players into the NFL, including Kendall Wright, Terrance Williams and Josh Gordon. Not only does he evaluate well -- such as with overlooked speedster Tevin Reese -- Briles has shown he can develop those signees into all-Big 12 performers.
  10. Jay Norvell, Oklahoma co-offensive coordinator/receivers coach: Much like Briles, Norvell consistently recruits and develops players for the Sooners. He coached NFL draftees Ryan Broyles, Kenny Stills and Justin Brown during the past three seasons, when six receivers have caught at least 50 passes. His ability to continue to bring in elite prospects amps up the competition at the position.

State of the program: Receiver

January, 15, 2014
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In the next few weeks leading into signing day it’s a great time to take a position-by-position glance at Oklahoma’s returning roster. This series, called State of the Position, will look at the playmakers, up-and-comers and current commitments or targets at each position for the Sooners as recruiting really heats up before signing day on Feb. 5. On Wednesday, we take a closer look at the receiver position.

Starter/contributors: Sterling Shepard (Jr.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall Grade: B-

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

"What's great about playing Bama," legendary former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer wrote on Twitter this week, "is they are the team to find how good you are or how far you have to go."

[+] EnlargeBob Stoops
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezHow good are Bob Stoops' Sooners? We'll find out in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama.
Thursday night in the Allstate Sugar Bowl (ESPN, 8:30 ET), the Sooners will play in the ultimate barometer game against third-ranked Alabama.

It's a game that will reveal where the Sooners are, relative to the Crimson Tide. And just how far they have to go.

"How could it not be that?" Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops asked. "They're as good a football team as we've played in 15 years.

"So it’s definitely that."

Under coach Nick Saban, the Crimson Tide have become the standard-bearers in college football. Since 2009, Alabama has won three national championships, and only the wildest ending in college football history prevented the Tide from playing for another.

"They're obviously the program the last five years that has set the bar in college football," Sooners co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. "Is it any more of a benchmark than any other game? Probably so."

Under Stoops, Oklahoma once set the bar in college football. At the turn of the millennium, the Sooners played for three national titles in five years, and captured the championship in Y2K with a defensive flattening of Florida State in the Orange Bowl.

Like the Tide of now, the Sooners of then rolled in top-five recruiting classes every February. And every April, Oklahoma produced a lion's share of first-round draft picks.

But that was then.

And in the present, the Sooners have fallen on hard times -- at least according to the towering expectations that apply to the likes of an Alabama or an Oklahoma.

"We win 10 games every year," said center Gabe Ikard, "and people feel that we’ve fallen off."

True, the Sooners haven't fallen off into a canyon like their Red River brethren (even though Texas did dismantle Oklahoma this year in Dallas). But in Norman, 10-win seasons minus the championships ring hollow.

It has been six seasons since the Sooners seriously contended for a national title past October. And after seizing six Big 12 championships over a span of nine seasons, Oklahoma has only one outright conference title since 2008.

This November, once they fell 41-12 to Baylor -- yes, the same Baylor that Central Florida roasted Wednesday night in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl -- the Sooners weren’t even a factor in the Big 12 race, much less the national one.

At the moment, Alabama owns RecruitingNation's No. 1 class, while Oklahoma's just barely cracks the top 25. Last year alone, the Crimson Tide furnished the NFL with three first-round draft picks. The Sooners, meanwhile, have had just one first-rounder (OT Lane Johnson) since 2010.

But just because the results have tapered off in Norman doesn’t mean the expectations have.

And against Alabama, the Sooners will find out where they stand.

"This is definitely going to show what kind of team we have right now," said Oklahoma receiver Jalen Saunders. "What type of players we have at OU. Where we stand nationally."

Lately, the Sooners haven’t stood quite as tall.

As a testament to Stoops' unrivaled, long-term consistency, Oklahoma still managed to grind out 10 victories in 2012 despite having no running game and a shaky defense. But whenever the Sooners faced a quality opponent last season, they were vanquished. Kansas State out-executed them in the Big 12 opener, Notre Dame smashed them in the fourth quarter, and Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, well, he just made them look ridiculous in an AT&T Cotton Bowl rout.

As a result, Oklahoma opened 2013 outside the top 10 in the preseason polls for the first time since Stoops' second year.

Even though the Sooners stunned Oklahoma State in the 2013 Big 12 regular-season finale to sneak their way into the BCS, Las Vegas oddsmakers have pegged them as 16½-point underdogs against the mighty Tide. That, by the way, is the third-largest point spread in BCS history, behind only this year's Baylor-UCF Fiesta Bowl and the 17-point line Oklahoma was handed over Connecticut in the 2010 Fiesta Bowl.

In other words -- at least according to Vegas -- the gap between Alabama and Oklahoma right now is roughly equal to the gap between Oklahoma and Connecticut then.

"They're a great, great team," Stoops said of the Tide. "Great talent across the board."

When facing great talent, however, comes great opportunity. To ascend back atop college football's summit, the Sooners have to start somewhere. They'll find no more opportune setting than the Sugar.

"They’ve been so dominant," said Oklahoma running back Brennan Clay, "that if we come out with a victory, it would definitely say we're a national championship-contending-type team."

The Sooners can't secure a national championship overnight. And they certainly can't on Thursday night. But they can send a message. And in doing so, also can launch their climb back to the top.

"Winning this game would be big," Ikard said. "Big for recruiting, big for the program, big for the fan base.

"It would show that we're still one of the premier, top-five programs in the country."

The Sooners haven’t been a top-five program lately. But in New Orleans they get to find out how good they really are.

And just how far they have to go.

Jalen Saunders soars as a Sooner

December, 23, 2013
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NORMAN, Okla. — It was a perfect fit.

Receiver Jalen Saunders was searching for a home in early 2012, looking to transfer from Fresno State after two seasons with the Bulldogs. Oklahoma was looking for a veteran receiver, hopeful to replace the departed Ryan Broyles, the NCAA’s all-time reception leader.

After a tip from former New Mexico State coach Dwayne Walker, Sooners receivers coach Jay Norvell got in touch with Saunders and convinced him that Norman, Okla., was the place to spend his final two seasons. Saunders quickly became one of OU’s top receiving threats and he’s put himself in position to be the fourth Sooners receiver selected in the NFL draft in the last three years, joining Broyles, Justin Brown and Kenny Stills.

[+] EnlargeJalen Saunders
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiJalen Saunders turned out to be a perfect fit for Oklahoma, and vice versa.
OU received an explosive threat who has proven ability to change games. Saunders received added exposure and better competition week in and week out. Saunders' decision to finish his career at OU has paid off.

“Oklahoma has a great legacy behind its name and there have been a lot of greats come through here,” Saunders said. “Adrian Peterson, Ryan Broyles and Sam Bradford -- the list goes on and on. So this is just a great program to come out of.”

Entering the Allstate Sugar Bowl, Saunders has 198 career receptions on 295 targets for 3,010 yards and 24 touchdowns. In 21 games at OU, the senior has 118 receptions for 1,483 yards and nine touchdowns, with 61.9 percent of his receptions gaining a first down.

“Jalen has had a huge impact,” coach Bob Stoops said. “He has been a great player for us, explosive player, and a very consistent player, too. Every week he performs well and he plays hard and always has that ability to make big plays.”

Saunders is playing his best in a crimson and cream uniform during his final few games as a Sooner. He changed the game with a punt return for a touchdown against Iowa State, sparking a 48-10 win. He led OU with seven receptions for 95 yards in a 41-31 win over Kansas State and saved his best for last, catching the game-winning touchdown against Oklahoma State and added a critical punt return in the Sooners’ 33-24 win over the Cowboys to help earn the Sugar Bowl bid.

“He’s ratcheting it up,” Norvell said. “He sees the end coming and he really is dialed in to how he can help this team. We’re moving him around a little bit more; we’re putting him in different spots. Sometimes when you’re a college football coach you start seeing the end with some guys and you want to get as much out of him as you can. But he’s a really good player. He’s really tough for a little guy and we just are trying to use him up here these last few weeks and put him in good spots.”

During OU’s last five games, Saunders has 27 receptions for 376 yards and three touchdowns, six punt returns for 192 yards and two scores (32 yards per return) and a 55-yard kickoff return.

“He’s played a major role in our success down the stretch,” co-offensive coordinator Josh Heupel.

The senior’s production helped earn him an invitation to the Senior Bowl, where he will get a chance to prove himself in front of NFL scouts and coaches. Questions about his size (5-foot-9, 157 pounds) will undoubtedly hurt his NFL stock, but he can start answering those questions in Mobile, Ala. in late January.

Norvell, who coached in the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts and Oakland Raiders, believes Saunders can be an NFL receiver.

“I don’t think there’s any question,” Norvell said. “I think he’s really showing he can do a lot of things very well as a punt returner and a route-runner. I think they like his toughness. He’s showing that he’ll mix it up. We use him in a lot of situations where you’d use a bigger receiver and he goes in there and throws his body around, so I’m probably most proud about that of him and just how he’s played the physical part of the game.”

WR Young is name to know for Sooners

December, 19, 2013
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NORMAN, Okla. -- A short amount of time can provide a valuable opportunity and a glimpse at the future.

Oklahoma spent the first few practices of its bowl preparation giving its younger players most of the repetitions, allowing guys like quarterback Cody Thomas the opportunity to start to carve out their futures in the program.

[+] EnlargeK.J. Young
Tom Hauck for ESPN.comFreshman receiver K.J. Young has impressed teammates while redshirting this season.
“We wanted to use these first three days of practice to really give our young guys a look, and it’s been great,” co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach Jay Norvell said. “As coaches, it gives us a chance to see what next year’s team is going to look like and it’s given them a chance to get coached hard and get a feel for the competition while the older guys are watching. It’s been a spirited couple of days and fun to watch the young guys compete, and they did some good things. It gives us a good picture and those kids a chance to compete and give you a look at the spring.”

For the freshmen and sophomores, it’s an opportunity to send the message that they could be impact players in 2014. Defensive tackle Jordan Wade, cornerback Zack Sanchez and quarterback Trevor Knight are just a few of the contributors to their 10-2 season who had not played a down of college football at this time a year ago.

Several Sooners have seized the opportunity, but K.J. Young is a name that has continually come up as an impressive performer during practices. The redshirting receiver made a great impression when he arrived on campus and has continued to impress during the short bowl prep period.

“Man, K.J.’s got stick 'ems, he’s got some hands,” linebacker Eric Striker said. “Good hands, good routes, too. He doesn’t drop the ball. K.J. has been doing it all season so it’s not a surprise.”

Said safety Gabe Lynn: “He’s nice at receiver. He goes up and gets the ball at its highest point.”

Young, a three-star signee from Perris, Calif., had some ups-and-downs during his redshirting season but is setting himself up to make an impact on the Sooners’ offense next season, which would be ideal with senior slot receiver Jalen Saunders completing his eligibility in the Sugar Bowl.

“It’s hard when kids are away from home their freshman year,” Norvell said. “He’s made some mistakes but I think, of late, he can kind of see the light. He’s away from home but he’s gotten a chance the last few days in practice to make some plays and he’s really stepping up. We’re really excited about him next year.”

Jordan Smallwood could be another young receiver to keep an eye on. At 6-foot-2, 202 pounds, he brings terrific size to the position. He returned to practice this week after missing the regular season due to a Lisfranc (foot) injury.

“He just got cleared, so he’s been out there running around and anxious to make plays,” Norvell said. “Smallwood gives us a different body type than we’ve ever had. He’s just so big, so physical and so strong for a young guy and he really creates matchup problems.”

Thomas also could be putting himself into position to throw his name into the mix as the Sooners continue to search for their quarterback of the future heading into 2014. Knight was in the same position as Thomas a year ago, yet eight months later, Knight was named OU’s starter for the season opener, proof of how valuable taking advantage of every opportunity can be.

“Cody is doing a great job and throwing the ball around really well,” Knight said. “I’m excited for him to get a bunch of reps because this is an exciting time for him. I remember when I was there last year and I can’t believe it’s only been a year, it seems like it was forever ago. But it’s just the starting spot to becoming a really good player.”
NORMAN, Okla. -- Oklahoma has been searching for answers in its passing attack for the majority of the season.

Redshirt freshman Trevor Knight got the first shot, starting the Sooners' first two games of the season, then Blake Bell got the nod against Tulsa on Sept. 14 and has been the starter ever since.

[+] EnlargeKendal Thompson
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsSophomore signal-caller Kendal Thompson played well in OU's Red-White spring game but has yet to play in 2013.
Neither player has solidified themselves as the Sooners' signal-caller of the future.

Meanwhile, there was another competitor in OU's quarterback derby throughout the spring and summer. Sophomore Kendal Thompson was part of the three-quarterback race to replace Landry Jones until a broken foot on the first day of fall camp derailed his hopes of winning the job.

With the Sooners still searching for consistency at quarterback it would seem natural for the now-healthy Thompson to get a shot to quarterback the squad, as the lone one of the three who hasn’t gotten the chance to show what he can do in a game. Yet coach Bob Stoops doesn’t see it that way.

“I’m not going to sit here and make wholesale changes in the ninth game of the year when we’ve done some good things through the year,” Stoops said. “Kendal has done an awesome job. We love what he’s doing. He’s got a bright future. It’s hard to overcome the initial way that he started.”

Thompson missed the month of August and part of September while recovering from the foot injury, creating a hole that the coaching staff believes has been too deep to dig out of. Asked what Thompson would have to do to get an opportunity to lead the Sooners offense in a game, co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell preached patience.

“Kendal has to do what he has continued to do, practice hard and continue to prepare,” Norvell said. “He will ready when his opportunity comes. It is unfortunate; he got hurt at a very critical time in training camp when people were competing for the spot and it just hard to get an opportunity once the season starts.”

It’s tough to spread the practice reps to three different quarterbacks, Norvell contended, particularly with the Sooners trying to do everything they can to work on the improvements needed if their passing attack expects to click consistently as the season comes to a close.

The OU quarterbacks rank ninth in the Big 12 at 195.3 passing yards per game with Kansas as the only other conference squad averaging less than 200 passing yards per game. It's an ugly realization considering the league is full of sub-par and unsettled quarterback play.

OU coaches consistently say their players must prove themselves in practice to get an opportunity in games but even Stoops admitted things can be different when the lights turn on.

“It’s always a different feel,” Stoops said. “Practice to games can be drastically different.”

It doesn’t sound like the Sooners are going to stray away from their commitment to Bell anytime soon. Even though Norvell and offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said Thompson has continued to develop since returning to full health, Stoops reaffirmed his commitment to Bell earlier this week.

“Are we going to go and experiment now?” Stoops asked. “I don’t think that’s the case. [Kendal]’s doing everything. He’s a wonderful young man with a bright future, and he’s a talented guy.”

Will we ever see Thompson's talent on full display on the Oklahoma Memorial Stadium turf? That question remains unanswered.

Planning for success: Oklahoma

November, 7, 2013
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NORMAN, Okla. -- Oklahoma will enter Thursday night’s Top-10 matchup against Baylor as underdogs.

The Sooners will also step on the field with plenty of confidence.

[+] EnlargeDamien Williams
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsDamien Williams and the Oklahoma running backs will be key in the matchup with Baylor.
“Nobody has the type of players we have,” Sooners running back Damien Williams said. “They haven’t seen anybody like us. We’re an explosive offense, we have a lot of weapons on offense and we’re ready to get after it.”

The Bears have reeled off an 7-0 start while beating opponents by an average of 48 points but they haven’t seen anything similar to what the Sooners will bring to Waco, Texas. Oklahoma holds the clear edge in experience with tough games against West Virginia, Notre Dame, TCU and Texas Tech on its road to 7-1.

Baylor is the only team ranked in the BCS top 15 that has not faced a ranked opponent and its strength of schedule is ranked No. 113 in the FBS. Buffalo is the only Baylor opponent that has won at least 70 percent of their games this season compared to the three Sooners' opponents (Notre Dame, Texas, Texas Tech) that have won at least 70 percent of their games.

“We play a tough schedule at Oklahoma,” co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. “We get tested early, and I think it benefits us this time of year. We understand that, and I think we’ve been in this situation before, and now I think we will benefit from having tough opponents.”

Baylor’s schedule can be questioned but the improvement of its defense cannot. Its offense has gotten all of the attention but the Bears have been putting up eye-popping numbers on that side of the ball for several seasons. The Bears defense is the biggest area of growth the program has seen since last season. BU ranks No. 1 in the Big 12 in points allowed (15.9), yards per play (4.17), yards per rush (3.04) and passing yards (177.29).

“The defense is a big part of this success,” Norvell said. “I know offensively they’ve gotten a lot of notoriety for what they’ve done scoring a lot of points, but their success on defense is a big part of why they’re undefeated right now.”

Those athletes you see on the Bears offense? They’ve been adding more and more of those type of playmakers on defense in recent years. Safety Ahmad Dixon brings a physical tone to the defense, linebackers Bryce Hager and Eddie Lackey make plays all over the field and defensive end Shawn Oakman has lived in opponents' backfields this season.

“It’s the part of their team that hasn’t been talked about nearly as much as it deserves,” coach Bob Stoops said. “It’s not surprising, they have like seven seniors on their defense and they are in the top part of the league in about every category. They are very aggressive and very disciplined in how they play you so they are playing well.”
NORMAN, Okla. -- Just the thought of his defense spending the majority of the game on the field makes Mike Stoops uncomfortable.

“If we play 90 to 100 snaps, it’s not good,” the Oklahoma defensive coordinator said. “You can’t win a game against Baylor playing 90 to 100 snaps. That’s not a game you want to be in.”

[+] EnlargeRoy Finch
AP Photo/Orlin WagnerRoy Finch and the Oklahoma offense must stay on the field to keep Baylor's high-powered offense on the sidelines.
Oklahoma’s offense could be its best defense when it meets Baylor at Floyd Casey Stadium on Thursday. By running the ball, controlling the tempo and keeping the Bears' offense on the sideline, the Sooners' offense could be the difference.

“You hope that your offense can control the football and that you can control the tempo of the game,” Stoops said.

It’s a formula that has worked before against the Bears. Kansas State held BU to 58 offensive plays in its 35-25 loss to the Bears on Oct. 12. Not surprisingly, the Wildcats held the Bears to season lows in plays (58), yards (446), touchdowns (5) and plays of 10 yards or more (12).

Giving Bryce Petty, Lache Seastrunk, Antwan Goodley and the rest of the Baylor playmakers too many opportunities to make plays will result in big plays and plenty of points. It’s simply unavoidable. But limiting their offensive plays and opportunities can make their offense look human and make the ultimate goal of winning the game within reach.

Fortunately for the Sooners, this game plan fits right in line with the approach that has carried them to a 7-1 record. Opponents average 63.8 offensive plays against the Sooners this season, five plays per game less than any other Big 12 team. It’s a big reason why OU sits atop the conference in yards allowed per game (314.3) and ranks second behind the Bears in points allowed (18.8).

The Sooners average 234 rushing yards per game and have leaned on that running game to carry the offense this season while their passing game has been inconsistent. Running the ball, controlling the clock and converting on third downs is a formula the Sooners used to defeat Texas Tech, 38-30, in their last game.

“If we can limit the opportunities they get by not turning it over and converting on third downs we help our cause,” OU co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. “It’s not a complicated formula, but it’s important that we get the type of execution we had a week ago.”

Ideally, OU will have to find a way to get a lead then use its running game and short-passing game to run out the clock while Petty and company helplessly watch from the bench. The approach has been widely discussed in the halls of the Switzer Center over the past week as the Sooners know their offense and defense must work as one unit to slow the Bears’ explosive attack.

“The short passes have to be like runs,” Norvell said. “They’ve [OU receivers] got to be catch the ball no nonsense and get up the field, no dancing, and that’s the mentality we have to play with. We’ve got to make a three-yard catch eight yards and a six-yard catch nine yards. We’ve got to get the first down first and then worry about making something flashy happen.”

OU is converting just 40.7 percent of its third down conversion attempts, ranking fifth in the conference. But the Sooners have improved in recent weeks, converting 14 of 28 attempts combined against Texas Tech and Kansas in back-to-back weeks. Like any big game, making key plays in key moments will decide the outcome.

“It’s critical that we stay ahead of the chains, not get in third and long,” quarterback Blake Bell said.

In its lone loss to Texas, on third down OU had to gain six or more yards on 50 of its 59 plays against the Longhorns. It averaged -0.31 yards per play on third down. Quite simply, the Sooners won’t win if they have another performance like they did against the Longhorns.

“Staying on the field obviously comes down to your first- and second-down plays,” guard Bronson Irwin said. “I think getting yards on those plays puts you at third-and-manageable, whereas if you’re at third-and-long your percentages for staying on the field are going to be a little lower. I think being effective and efficient on first and second downs is going to be a huge part of this game.”

The moral of the story? OU wants to make this game ugly because its not sure it can win pretty. It’s an approach that has been pushed upon them by the struggles of its passing game but one the Sooners have grown to embrace.

“That’s kind of the mentality we have,” Norvell said. “This team has become a blue collar team. We kind of felt that way in the spring, and we’ve got a fighter’s mentality. We’re going to pound on you for four quarters and then try to win it in the fourth. That’s the way we’ve got to be, and that’s okay. It doesn’t matter how pretty it is. If we end up on the right side of the ledger that’s really all that matters.”
NORMAN, Okla. -- Unpleasant would be a great word to describe Oklahoma's ride home after Texas hammered the Sooners 36-20 in the Red River Rivalry in Dallas last Saturday.

“Silence,” cornerback Zack Sanchez said of the 193-mile trip from the Cotton Bowl to Norman. “Guys were in their own zone, thinking about plays we could have made, should have made.”

[+] EnlargeBlake Bell
Jackson Laizure/Getty ImagesThe ineffectiveness of the Oklahoma passing game has Blake Bell's status as starting quarterback under scrutiny.
It’s not the first time the Sooners have been in this situation. At this time a year ago, the Sooners had already suffered a loss to Kansas State in Big 12 Conference play, yet they took the field in the regular season finale at TCU with the chance to win the conference outright if Kansas State were to lose to Texas. The Wildcats defeated the Longhorns the night after the Sooners' win over TCU, thus OU shared the conference title with KSU.

There’s no reason to think the Sooners can’t accomplish a similar result in 2013.

“The Big 12 is a great conference and you never know,” defensive end Geneo Grissom said. “We definitely think we are still in the running.”

But Oklahoma has work to do and it'll need help to make its goal of another Big 12 title a reality. Basically, its loss to Texas means its destiny is no longer in their hands.

“It was a reality check for everybody,” guard Adam Shead said. “The Big 12 is a pretty tough conference this year. You don’t have the big offenses anymore, the defenses are stepping up.”

All other conference results aside, if they have any hope of winning the Big 12 title, the Sooners' offense must put fear in Big 12 defenses again. The lackluster production of TCU’s offense has been a topic of conversation in Big 12 circles but the Sooners are averaging 0.7 more points per game in conference play than TCU (18.7 to 18.0). It’s a far cry from last season's squad which led the league with 41.9 points per game in conference play.

Even though OU spent the offseason disappointed with its ability to run the ball in key moments, the Sooners' running game isn’t the problem, as OU ranks second in the Big 12 with 216.33 rushing yards per game, averaging 5.07 yards per carry.

Its horrible passing game deserves the majority of the blame. OU has passed for 160 yards or less in conference play just 14 times since 2004 yet hasn’t been able to surpass 160 passing yards in any of its Big 12 games this season.

The Sooners’ offensive coaches insist they are close to having a breakout game through the air and are hopeful it starts this week against Kansas. Co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell believes quarterback Blake Bell and the receivers just need to find the in-game chemistry that results in big plays instead of narrow misses.

“That kind of chemistry comes from playing in games and making big plays,” Norvell said. “When guys make big plays in a game, they gain confidence in each other and that’s when it grows. That just doesn’t happen overnight, it happens from playing and throwing balls and making big plays on third down and having a guy you can trust. We’re building that.”

Make no mistake, Bell is under fire as the starting quarterback. Some people think Trevor Knight, who was originally named the starter, should get another chance while others think Kendal Thompson, the only one of the three quarterbacks who has not taken a snap this season, should get a shot.

The Sooners’ quarterback position is in flux, as OU coach Bob Stoops hinted this week that a change could be made if Bell’s play doesn’t improve -- and the junior knows it.

“All I can do is get in the film room, learn from my mistakes and get better,” Bell said.

If he does, OU will have the chance to get back into the Big 12 title race. If he doesn’t, the Sooners will have to turn to Knight or Thompson because, no matter what, OU will not compete for a Big 12 title without a improved passing game.

“In this league, you better be able to throw the ball and be balanced,” Norvell said. “We’ve got to do a good job at both [running and passing] to have the success we want to have going down the stretch.”

Planning for success: Oklahoma

October, 17, 2013
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NORMAN, Okla. -- Oklahoma’s offense has struggled in the month of October.

The Sooners are averaging 20 points per game this month as their offense has taken a few steps backward after a couple of steps forward with Blake Bell under center. It has been disappointing for Sooners fans after the offense looked like it had found its rhythm with Bell at quarterback in wins over Tulsa and Notre Dame, scoring 51 and 35 points respectively.

[+] EnlargeJalen Saunders
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesThe Sooners need more production out of wideout Jalen Saunders, who has 25 receptions this season.
Bell, who replaced Trevor Knight after two games, remains the starter heading into Saturday’s game against Kansas. The junior is 32-of-57 passing for 285 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions in the past two games. Bell is averaging five yards per attempt in those games.

Yet, the Sooners coaches insist Bell is not to solely blame for his lackluster numbers.

“It’s a combination of everything,” offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. “Blake has some things open that he needs to hit. Our wide receivers need to win a couple of times for him as well. He has got to get himself within his progression with what they’re doing defensively and get them in the right spots, too.”

OU has been unable to get the ball into the hands of explosive playmakers Jalen Saunders and Sterling Shepard in its past two games. Saunders has eight receptions for 48 yards while Shepard has five receptions for 37 yards.

“We always want to get the ball to those guys,” receivers coach Jay Norvell said. “Those are guys that can do big things when they catch it, so we always want to get the ball to Jalen and Shep. We’re just going to keep working.”

OU is averaging 4.8 yards per play in October leading to questions about Bell’s security at QB and Heupel’s ability to put the Sooners’ playmakers in position to succeed. Knight and Kendal Thompson give OU options at the position if Bell's play does not improve, while Heupel simply needs to do a better job spreading the ball around and coming up with creative ways to get the ball in the hands of playmakers like Saunders, Shepard and running back Roy Finch.

“At the end of the day, I’ve got to do a better job of giving these guys an opportunity to win at times,” Heupel said.

OU has the talent to get the job done. Saunders is one of the conference’s most explosive receivers, and the Sooners feature four quality running backs and a solid, experienced offensive line. They don’t think they are too far away from regaining the high-scoring reputation of recent years.

“We haven’t been very good the last couple weeks,” Norvell said. “We just got to tidy up our execution. We got to do a better job of route-running. We got to do a better job of hitting open guys. There’s really no magic to it. We just have to get back to work and get going at it.”

Best Big 12 recruiters 

October, 15, 2013
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Editor's note: For a look at the national recruiter power rankings based only on Class of 2014 success, click here.

The best college football coaches will tell you that when it comes to recruiting, their business is an art. It’s a craft you must perfect if you want to have the best players commit and ultimately sign. Recruiting isn’t for everybody, but those who are good at it -- particularly for building the 2014 class -- should be recognized, as the business is extremely competitive.

Here are 10 of the top recruiters from the Big 12.

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