Oklahoma Sooners: Nila Kasitati

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Oklahoma held its spring game on Saturday with excitement around the program continuing to build this offseason. Here are some postgame thoughts, offense only, on OU’s spring finale. Check back later today for a defense only post. To be clear, this is an informal collection of my observations after the spring game. For a more formal and general spring game review, check out this post from earlier today.

  • Undoubtedly some Sooners fans left the stadium disappointed with what they saw from Trevor Knight. He finished 5-of-14 for 53 yards with one interception. Yet it’s not time to panic, for several reasons. First, Sterling Shepard was on the sidelines. The junior will be Knight’s go-to receiver and could become one of the Big 12’s best playmakers. Two, Knight was going against a solid and athletic defense while using a relatively vanilla offense. Three, injuries along the offensive line didn’t make things any easier, with multiple projected starters out of the spring game. Finally, Knight's ability to make plays with his feet was taken away with his blue, no-hit jersey limiting his impact in the running game.
  • [+] EnlargeTrevor Knight
    Mark D. Smith/USA TODAY SportsTrevor Knight had a rough outing on Saturday.
    Nonetheless, Knight must play better. Period. Some people have been quick to insert his name among the nation’s best after his Allstate Sugar Bowl performance. He’s still young, relatively inexperienced and has been inconsistent at times early in his career. Let’s wait until he’s consistently efficient before we anoint him as one of the nation’s, or even the Big 12’s, top quarterbacks.
  • Anyone who was surprised by Baker Mayfield’s performance must have missed the rest of the Big 12 in 2013. The former Texas Tech quarterback was the Big 12 offensive freshman of the year for a reason.
  • Mayfield seemed genuinely excited to be a Sooner. He grew up an OU fan and said he would have decided to join the Sooners even if Blake Bell had not changed positions and Kendal Thompson did not transfer. While he is ineligible to play this fall, his presence could pay off big time. OU’s defense will be tested in ways you normally wouldn’t expect from a scout-team quarterback and the Sooners defense should make Mayfield a much better player with its overall talent and playmakers all over the field.
  • Tight end Taylor McNamara had two touchdown catches in the spring game. Could a pass-catching tight end return to OU’s weekly game plans this fall? Maybe. A wait-and-see approach would be wise, as adding a big receiving threat has been a goal for the past two seasons. McNamara and former quarterback Bell, who missed the spring game with an injury, appear to be the most likely candidates at tight end if it does happen.
  • Speaking of receiving threats, true freshman Dimitri Flowers should make an impact this fall. He spent a lot of time with the first-team offense before a hyper-extended knee ended his day. He can block, he can catch and he’s picked up the offense as if he’s entering his junior season. It appears OU has found a hidden gem in the three-star Class of 2014 signee. Don’t be surprised if he emerges as the big-bodied receiving threat OU’s offense has been lacking as his blocking and overall versatility could secure a key role in the offense, allowing the Sooners to adapt on the fly.
  • OU has talented receivers but will miss Jalen Saunders, a likely NFL draft pick. K.J. Young and Austin Bennett, Jordan Smallwood and Derrick Woods each showed flashes of ability but need to develop quickly if the Sooners hope to provide quality receiving options for Knight this fall.
  • Nobody seized the starting running back spot with a eye-opening day. Daniel Brooks led the way with eight carries for 67 yards and Keith Ford finished with nine carries for 29 yards. Alex Ross, who had been praised throughout the spring, added three carries for six yards. The door is wide open for Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine, two ESPN 300 running back signees, to make an immediate impression on the coaching staff and earn carries this fall. The Sooners need someone to step up and make defenses account for them from the running back position this fall. It doesn’t matter who it is.
  • OU could end up looking back at this spring as a critical time for developing depth along the offensive line. Several linemen, including guards Adam Shead and Nila Kasitati and tackle Tyrus Thompson, sat out the spring game, allowing backups such as tackles Josiah St. John and Sam Grant to get plenty of chances. The offensive line struggled at times.
  • The backup quarterback position remains up in the air, but Cody Thomas, a redshirt freshman, looked solid, going 5-of-9 for 52 yards and a touchdown. Justice Hansen, a true freshman, struggled with the speed of the game at times, finishing 4-of-8 for 58 yards and one touchdown but with some good moments.
The injury bug has hit Norman, Okla. this spring.

Oklahoma will be without several players during its spring game on Saturday but none of the injuries are major.

Nickelback Julian Wilson, defensive lineman Rashod Favors, defensive tackle Quincy Russell, receiver Sterling Shepard, receiver Durron Neal, tight end Blake Bell, guard Adam Shead, tackle Tyrus Thompson, guard Nila Kasitati and guard Tyler Evans will miss the action due to various injuries but none of them require surgery and head coach Bob Stoops said he expects all of them to return after a short hiatus.

Those injuries have opened the door for several young players on the roster.

“They’re getting more snaps and having to step up,” Stoops said.

Here’s a closer look at how those injuries could open up spring game opportunities for several players on the roster.

[+] EnlargeEric Striker
Robin Alam/Icon SMIOLB Eric Striker has been taking some reps at nickelback this spring.
Wilson: The senior has missed the spring anyway, allowing Ahmad Thomas, Eric Striker and others to get the reps at nickelback. Thomas is showing great versatility and carving himself a role on the defense. Striker, a returning All-Big 12 second teamer, will be on the field regardless, it’s just a matter of where. Both guys get the chance to prove they can fill a variety of roles on Saturday.

Favors: Several young defensive ends including Mike Onuoha are showing good upside this spring and Favors' injury gives them more chances to impress in the spring game. Onuoha was right alongside returning Big 12 first teamer Charles Tapper as the future at the position before a shoulder injury forced him to miss his sophomore season while Tapper starred. He could be hungry to prove he could have made a similar impact. Matt Dimon and D.J. Ward are other young defensive ends who could end up providing quality depth this fall.

Russell: This injury hurts Russell in the race to earn playing time in 2014 and opens up additional opportunities for redshirt freshman Charles Walker to show he’s ready to make an impact in the fall. It also gives the opportunity for another redshirt freshman, Matt Romar, to show Walker isn’t the only youngster looking to force his way into the lineup along a veteran defensive line.

Bell: More than anything Bell’s injury robs us of the opportunity to see the Belldozer play tight end before the fall. And, quite frankly, that’s all anyone is going to think about when it comes to Bell’s absence on Saturday. The overriding question about Bell is not if he can win the starting tight end job, it's can he prove to be one of the best 11 players on offense? That answer will define his playing time and it won't come until the fall.

Shepard and Neal: Redshirt freshman Jordan Smallwood, K.J. Young and Dannon Cavil could have lost all right to complain about a lack of opportunities with these injuries. Don’t be surprised if Smallwood is one of the stars of the spring game, Young is silky smooth and Cavil brings a unique size and athleticism to the receiving corps. Sophomores Derrick Woods and Austin Bennett will also get the chance to shine after limited duty as freshmen in 2013.

Offensive line: Injuries have hammered the offensive line throughout the spring, so being thrown into duty in the spring game will be nothing new for guys like tackle Sam Grant, tackle Christian Daimler and guard Kyle Marrs. They’ll get the chance to get a bunch of reps against a deep defensive line and potentially secure a reputation for themselves before a talented group of offensive line signees arrive in the summer looking to rise past them on the Sooners' depth chart.
Oklahoma had one of the nation’s best running games in 2013. The Sooners rode their ground game to an Allstate Sugar Bowl win and 11-2 record.

[+] EnlargeTy Darlington
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsTy Darlington will take the reins at center for the Sooners in 2014.
OU’s offensive line was the foundation of the team's success a season ago but it will be retooled in 2014.

Gabe Ikard won’t be around to anchor Oklahoma’s offensive line for the first time in four years, but the overall depth and quality of the group could take the unit to new heights.

Injuries at the end of the season have sidelined guard Adam Shead and tackle Tyrus Thompson, both of whom have extensive playing experience, giving several younger linemen the opportunity to get additional practice snaps this spring.

“We’re missing a guy or two but we have some guys that have played a lot of football,” offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. “We have some backups that haven’t played a ton but have seen some action and they’re going to get a bulk of the work in spring ball. It’s an opportunity for them to grow and mature and prove they belong on the football field.”

Tackle Daryl Williams is the experienced veteran of the group and guards Nila Kasitati and Dionte Savage along with tackle Derek Farniok return after starting games in 2013. This spring is the chance for guys like tackles Sam Grant, after a recent move from tight end, and Josiah St. John to make an impression before six offensive line signees arrive this summer.

“I think we’re definitely light-years ahead of where we were last year,” junior center Ty Darlington said. “We’re getting to get a lot of guys reps, which is awesome -- a lot of guys that probably normally wouldn’t get reps are getting reps, and that’s good. I think we’re definitely making some progress.”

As the guy slated to replace Ikard, Darlington is clearly the man in the spotlight. He saw spot duty behind the All-American and three-time All-Big 12 interior lineman during his first two seasons on campus and is excited for the next step in his career.

“I’m excited for the opportunity,” he said. “This is why I came here, to be able to step into a role. Gabe was great to me for two years. He really took me under his wing and taught me everything he knew. He was a great friend on and off the field. Now he’s gone, and I’ve got to step up and fill that void as the center and in a leadership position. I’m excited for it.”

It went largely overlooked but Ikard was the main reason the Sooners could play musical chairs at quarterback n in 2013. The senior handled all the calls and brought a calm and consistent voice to the offense while Trevor Knight, Blake Bell and Kendal Thompson took turns behind center. It’s those areas where Ikard could be missed most.

But Darlington feels his mentorship under Ikard and offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh will pay off as he steps into the starting lineup.

“I’m more confident than I’ve ever been as far as just understanding the whole scheme of football,” Darlington said. “I learned so much in the past year with Coach [Bill] Bedenbaugh. I’m continuing to learn a lot more. From fronts to coverages and blitzes, we’re learning so much as a group. I feel like I’m definitely better than I’ve ever been as far as the mental part of the game.”

If Darlington can step in for Ikard without a letdown, the Sooners offensive line could cement its spot among the Big 12’s best for the second straight season and be the foundation of what might be a special season.

Big 12 pre-spring breakdown: OL

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As we wait for the start of spring ball, we’re examining and ranking the positional situations of every team, continuing Friday with offensive line. Some of these outlooks will look different after the spring. But here’s how we see the offensive lines at the moment:

1. Oklahoma: The Sooners lose their captain in All-American Gabe Ikard, who kept the line together through several moving pieces. Those pieces, however, are almost all back. Tyrus Thompson and Daryl Williams are steady veterans at tackle. Inside, guards Dionte Savage and Nila Kasitati both started the Sugar Bowl, and former starter Tyler Evans returns after sitting out the last two years with injury. The Sooners also have been grooming Ikard’s replacement at center in Ty Darlington, who has played well in a reserve role the last two years. Even without Ikard, this is a seasoned unit.

[+] EnlargeJoe Wickline
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiJoe Wickline's move from the OSU staff to Texas is an important storyline in the Big 12.
2. Kansas State: The Wildcats will be stout inside. Guard Cody Whitehair and center BJ Finney are All-Big 12 caliber. Veteran starters Cornelius Lucas and Tavon Rooks are gone at tackle, but Bill Snyder signed two of the top 15 juco tackles in the country in A.J. Allen and Luke Hayes. If Allen and Hayes can solidify the bookends, K-State could be stout up front.

3. Texas: The Longhorns return veteran center Dominic Espinosa, who has 39 career starts. But with three starters gone, the Longhorns really need the light to come up for Desmond Harrison. The talent is there, and if Harrison can put it all together, he’ll give Texas a much-needed bookend on the left side. There’s potential elsewhere in freshman guard Rami Hammad and sophomore tackle Kent Perkins, who could both earn starting roles this spring. The biggest addition to this group will be new assistant Joe Wickline, who worked magic with the offensive lines in Stillwater.

4. Baylor: The Bears need left tackle Spencer Drango to make a healthy recovery from his back injury. After Drango was injured in November, Baylor struggled at times to keep quarterback Bryce Petty upright. Departing unanimous All-American guard Cyril Richardson is irreplaceable, though Desmine Hilliard had a solid sophomore season at right guard. Sophomore Kyle Fuller looks ready to take over at center, but the Bears will need another piece or two to emerge. The skill talent is in place for the Baylor offense to keep humming. How the players up front perform will determine whether it will.

5. Oklahoma State: The key for the Cowboys here will be a healthy return of left tackle Devin Davis. Davis might have been Oklahoma State’s best lineman last season, but suffered a torn ACL during a preseason that knocked him out for the year. Davis has NFL ability, and if he resumes his role, that will allow Daniel Koenig to move back to right tackle. The O-line in Stillwater was something never to worry about because of Wickline’s masterful track record of mixing and matching to get a right fit. It will be interesting to see how the line performs next season with Wickline now at Texas.

[+] EnlargeLe'Raven Clark
John Albright/Icon SMITexas Tech's Le'Raven Clark is one of the best offensive tackles in the Big 12.
6. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders have an NFL talent in left tackle Le'Raven Clark, who earned All-Big 12 honors as a sophomore. Despite Clark, the Red Raiders line struggled last year, giving up 33 sacks (second-worst in the Big 12). But it should be improved in 2014. Juco tackles Dominique Robertson (ESPN JC 50) and Shaq Davis are on the way, and 2013 RT starter Rashad Fortenberry could be back, too, if the NCAA grants him a medical hardship waiver. Losing guard Beau Carpenter to dismissal hurts, but Baylen Brown has starting experience. Brown, Alfredo Morales, James Polk and center Jared Kaster all return after combining for 31 starts along the interior last season.

7. West Virginia: The good news is that the Mountaineers should be superb inside. Quinton Spain is one of the best returning guards in the league, and Mark Glowinski had a solid season at the other guard spot. Tackle, however, is the biggest question on the entire squad going into the spring, outside QB. Coach Dana Holgorsen said Friday that guard Marquis Lucas would be swinging to the outside to compete with Adam Pankey, Marcell Lazard and Sylvester Townes.

8. Iowa State: A healthy Tom Farniok at center would go a long way in stabilizing an inconsistent offensive line that gave up a Big 12-high 38 sacks last season. Farniok was never healthy last year, and it showed. The Cyclones are excited about the potential of Brock Dagel as a cornerstone at left tackle. Jacob Gannon will battle Jake Campos for the other tackle spot, while Jamison Lalk, Oni Omoile and juco transfer Wendell Taiese will compete for the guard spot opposite Daniel Burton. Under the new offensive regime, this line could enjoy huge improvement from 2013.

9. TCU: The line was one of many reasons why the TCU offense struggled so much in 2013. Getting Matt Pryor on the field would be a big help. Pryor is massive at 6-foot-7, 350 pounds, and could fill a need a tackle. Getting Tayo Fabuluje back after a year away from football could help, too, assuming he’s not too rusty. Juco guard Frank Kee, who chose the Horned Frogs over Oklahoma, could fill a spot inside immediately. True freshman Ty Barrett, the prize in a hotly contested recruiting battle, could challenge for time quickly, too.

10. Kansas: John Reagan takes over at offensive coordinator and line coach, and he’ll have some talented newcomers to weave into the rotation. Devon Williams and Keyon Haughton both arrived as three-star guards from Georgia Military College. Haughton is already on campus and could start right away. Freshman Jacob Bragg, the No. 3 center recruit in the country, could vie for time immediately, too, at the vacancy at center (2013 backup center Dylan Admire has moved to fullback/tight end).
Spring football could be a critical time for several Oklahoma football players.

Some Sooners will prove they are ready to make a major impact in 2014, while others could show they might need more seasoning before they earn a permanent place in OU’s plans for the future. This week we will look at five players to keep an eye on during spring football, continuing with No. 4.

[+] EnlargeTy Darlington
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesTy Darlington has the unenviable task of stepping into the shoes of Gabe Ikard.
No. 4: Center Ty Darlington

Why: For the past two seasons, OU has enjoyed the security of having All-Big 12 center Gabe Ikard in the middle of its offensive line. The Sooners need someone to step up to fill that void, and Darlington could be the guy. He did it as a freshman against Baylor, so there’s no reason to think it won’t be a seamless transition.

Yet if Darlington falters, the future at the position becomes less secure. With strong line play set to be the foundation of OU’s offensive success, Darlington’s spring is worth keeping tabs on.

Best-case scenario: Darlington takes control of the position while proving he is ready to handle and command the offensive line the way Ikard did. He brings similar traits with his intelligence, mental focus and maturity. The Florida native played in spot duty as a freshman and sophomore and appears ready for a bigger role in the offense. This spring is his chance to show he has the potential to give OU an All-Big 12 center for the third consecutive season.

Worst-case scenario: Darlington looks like he was regressed since his freshman season. Recent signee Alex Dalton provides depth. and junior Nila Kasitati has the versatility to play the center spot. But Darlington is the ideal candidate to step right in for Ikard with minimal drop-off. Thus, if he doesn’t take command of the position in the spring, seeds of doubt could be planted, adding one more concern for the coaching staff heading into the summer months.

No. 5: Tight end Blake Bell

State of the position: Center

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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. State of the position will look at the playmakers, up-and-comers and current commitments or targets at each position as recruiting really heats up during these final weeks before signing day on Feb. 5. On Tuesday, we take a closer look at the center position.

Starter/contributors: None

Gabe Ikard started 25 games at center as a junior and senior after beginning his career at guard. He’s headed to the NFL after anchoring one of the best offensive lines in the Big 12 in 2013.

On the cusp: Ty Darlington (So.)

Darlington should be able to slide right in to replace Ikard. He did it against Baylor as a true freshman so there’s no reason to think he’s gone backward since that November 2012 game. He’s smart, dependable and mature and, in a lot of ways, he’s the ideal replacement for Ikard.

Nila Kasitati, who started several games at guard in 2013, can slide inside to this position at a moment’s notice if Darlington were to get injured or if offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh tries to make sure everyone has to compete to earn their spot.

On the recruiting trail: Alex Dalton (Troy, Ohio/Troy)

A four-star prospect, Dalton brings terrific size and athleticism to the center position. It wouldn’t be shocking to see him have a similar impact as Darlington during his true freshman season.

Overall Grade: B-

Darlington earned player of the game honors in the only start of his Sooners’ career, so the position appears to be in good hands despite losing Ikard, a four-year starter who rarely missed a game. Dalton and Kasitati should provide solid depth behind him.
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 during these final weeks before signing day on Feb. 5. On Monday, we take a closer look at the offensive guard position.

Starter/contributors: Adam Shead (Sr.), Dionte Savage (Sr.), Nila Kasitati (Jr.)

Shead has been a major contributor since his redshirt freshman season, but various injuries have derailed his career. When healthy he’s a solid option and his experience would be helpful, but it’s hard to build around him with the knowledge that he has had his season cut short by injury in back-to-back years.

Kasitati fought his way into the lineup this season and started seven games in 2013 despite the Sooners returning starters at both guard positions. He brings a nasty streak and athleticism to the offensive interior. He also has a versatility to slide inside to center if needed.

Savage started in the Sugar Bowl and held up well against Alabama’s defensive line. He brings great size to the table and should make the Sooners feel good about their depth at guard heading into the 2014 season.

On the cusp: Tony Feo (Sr.), John-Philip Hughes (Jr.)

Feo and Hughes both contributed on special teams last year and should provide quality depth in 2014. Don’t expect them to force themselves onto the field the way Kasitati did this season, but they can be contributors on special teams and offense.

Sophomore Kyle Marrs could also figure in the mix if he improves during the offseason.

On the recruiting trail: Jonathan Alvarez (Mesquite, Texas/Horn), Natrell Curtis (Phoenix,/Mountain Pointe), Joseph Paul (New Orleans/Saint Augustine)

It’s unlikely any of the three current commitments will secure a role with the Sooners as a true freshman but stranger things have happened and offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh has shown he will put the best players on the field regardless.

Curtis, a four-star prospect, is the highest ranked of the three players and has the highest upside but could use a redshirt season. Paul is an aggressive, physical player who fits very well with OU’s new offensive approach. Alvarez is a more versatile prospect who can project to multiple positions in the mold of Kasitati.

Overall Grade: A

From potential starters to depth, the Sooners look pretty good at the guard position. And OU has three quality commitments who have different strengths and could mesh well together in the future. The only reason this grade is not an A+ is because OU did lose a two-year starter in Bronson Irwin off the Sugar Bowl championship squad.

Sooners' report card: Offense

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Unlike previous campaigns, Oklahoma’s offense was not the envy of the rest of the Big 12 this season. The Sooners running game was second to none and provided a foundation that allowed OU to stay in games, control the ball and create opportunities in its passing game. But it’s lack of explosiveness through the air, leading to poor offensive balance, made this year’s offense one of the worst in Norman, Okla. in recent memory. Yet the Sooners limited turnovers and mental mistakes while running the ball well enough to earn 10 wins, which should quiet critics considering a double-digit win season was unexpected heading into the season.

Quarterback: C+. Where are all the Landry Jones haters now? A quick glance at the Sooners passing stats (186.67 ypg, No. 99 in FBS) makes this grade seem way too high. But a quick glance at the win column makes everything clear. OU never got consistency from the position, as Blake Bell and Trevor Knight each had their moments of success and failure. Bell was the starter in Sooners’ losses to Texas and Baylor, and looked uncomfortable in both games, but played a key role in road wins at Notre Dame and Oklahoma State. And Knight showed flashes of big-time upside but also showed the inexperience of a redshirt freshman. Through it all the Sooners found a way to get 10 wins and the quarterbacks played a key role in that success. A significant drop off from Jones yet OU finished the regular season with the exact same record Jones led them to as a senior.

[+] EnlargeBrennan Clay
Jackson Laizure/Getty ImagesSenior Brennan Clay led a cadre of Oklahoma running backs which helped the Sooners rush for over 3,000 yards as a team this season.

Running back: A+. Who knows how the Sooners’ season would have ended up if it wasn’t for a talented and deep group of running backs led by Brennan Clay. The senior led the Sooners with 913 rushing yards, averaging 5.78 yards per carry, but Damien Williams (553 rushing yards) and Roy Finch (347 rushing yards) joined him as quality threats in the backfield. The Sooners running backs brought a physical running style and game-breaking ability which helped offset OU’s ugly passing attack.

Receiver: B-. The quarterbacks shouldered a bunch of the blame for OU’s passing troubles, but the Sooners receivers deserve their share of the burden. Jalen Saunders performed like an “A” student and Sterling Shepard wasn’t far behind. After those two playmakers, the Sooners receivers left plenty to be desired. Lacolton Bester had good moments but wasn’t the constant threat that Saunders and Shepard were in 2013 and the overall depth seemed nonexistent as young players such as Durron Neal never emerged as difference makers at the receiver spot.

Offensive line: A-. OU rushed for nearly 3,000 yards yet didn’t feature a single 1,000-yard rusher, speaking volumes for the offensive line. The only reason the Sooners’ starting front didn’t get a A+ was lackluster efforts against Texas and Baylor, helping to contribute to OU’s only losses. Center Gabe Ikard was the anchor and star of the offensive front, but tackle Daryl Williams made an overlooked but valuable contribution as the other all-Big 12 level performer on the squad. Tackle Tyrus Thompson, guard Nila Kasitati, guard Bronson Irwin and guard Adam Shead each played well while helping pave the way for OU’s running game and limiting opponents to 15 total sacks.

Overall: B-. The lack of balance keeps this grade from being higher but OU averaged more than 31.8 points and 5.84 yards per game, ranking them in the top half of the Big 12. The Sooners running game was superb and overcame the passing game struggles while protecting the football. OU's offense is not an national championship-level offense, but it's not as bad as it appeared at various times either.

Five Sooners who have stepped up

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NORMAN, Okla. -- There were questions abound as Oklahoma’s 2013 season opened on Aug. 31. Three Saturdays later, several questions have been answered and some potential holes look like they could become strengths. Here is a look at five players who have stepped up for the Sooners in their first three games:

[+] EnlargeZack Sanchez
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiRedshirt freshman defensive back Zack Sanchez has taken away the starting cornerback position from Arizona transfer Cortez Johnson.
Cornerback Zack Sanchez: Not much was expected from the redshirt freshman, especially after an average showing in the spring. He arrived in the fall with renewed focus and took advantage when Cortez Johnson missed the season opener due to suspension. Sanchez hasn’t relinquished the starting job opposite Aaron Colvin and has played extremely well thus far. The Texas native isn’t afraid to get involved in the running game and has provided solid coverage. He ranks third on the team with 15 tackles including .5 for loss along with two pass breakups and two passes defensed. If Sanchez continues to play well, the Sooners will have yet another solid cover man to help deal with Big 12 offenses.

Defensive tackle Jordan Phillips: If Phillips can provide consistent penetration in the middle of OU’s three-man front, he can single-handledly transform the Sooners' defense. Phillips has all the skills and is starting to match his upside with production. His numbers aren’t eye-popping but if he continues to play this way, he’ll demand double teams and open playmaking opportunities for teammates. He has five tackles including one tackle for loss, a quarterback hurry and half a sack. Phillips could be a critical piece that allows Geneo Grissom, Charles Tapper, Corey Nelson, Frank Shannon and the rest of the Sooners' defense to get one-on-one situations in pass-rush scenarios.

Guard Nila Kasitati: Offensive line was never a position of need and was considered a strength with five starters returning. It didn’t matter to Kasitati who has forced himself into the lineup with his physical play and nasty attitude at guard. His emergence helps to make the Sooners’ offensive interior arguably the deepest group on the entire roster. His healthy return from a knee injury last season has also allowed Bronson Irwin to spend some time at tackle and improved the overall depth along the offensive line.

Linebacker Eric Striker: The sophomore is all over the field. All the time. It’s hard to watch the Sooners' defense play without noticing No. 19. Whether he’s blitzing on the edge, pursuing a running back or dropping in coverage, Striker is around the football. He has 10 tackles including one tackle for loss and two quarterback hurries this season. He could be a important piece as defensive coordinator Mike Stoops designs defenses to stop Big 12 offenses.

Safety Quentin Hayes: Hayes went unnoticed throughout the offseason despite a strong spring. Many expected the Sooners to play multiple true freshman in the secondary but Hayes and Gabe Lynn are having none of that. Hayes has brought athleticism, range and coverage skills that OU didn’t have at the safety spot in 2012. He has 12 tackles including .5 tackles for loss and one forced fumble.
You’ve seen them while prepping your fantasy football team. Or reading ESPN Insider Chad Ford while getting ready for the NBA Draft. The “tier system” is an effective way of making sense, differentiating and analyzing a cluster of players. Everyone from pro sport general managers to college coaches out on the trail recruiting employ this method.

With this is mind, SoonerNation has parsed out Oklahoma’s roster into 10 separate tiers. Here they are:

Tier 1: The Elite (Guys who could play for almost anyone)


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During the summer months, SoonerNation will take a closer look at each player on Oklahoma’s roster in our Crimson Countdown series. Each day, we will analyze each player’s impact on the program since arriving on campus, his potential impact this fall and his long-term impact. Starting with No. 1 Kendal Thompson, the series will follow the roster numerically through our final analysis of No. 99 Chaz Nelson.

No. 54 Nila Kasitati
Center/guard, 6-foot-4, 309 pounds, sophomore



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The Oklahoma Sooners open spring practice this weekend with change in the air. Let's take a closer look.

Schedule: The Sooners begin spring ball Saturday, the first of 15 NCAA-allowed practices. OU will hold its spring game April 13.

What's new: What’s not? Bob Stoops brought in three new assistants, seven defensive starters are gone, and for the first time in six years, the Sooners have a quarterback competition. After back-to-back three-loss seasons, this is lining up to be the most important -- and most intriguing -- spring of the Stoops era in Norman.

All eyes on: The quarterback derby, which will be the dominant storyline of the spring. Junior Blake Bell, sophomore Kendal Thompson and freshman Trevor Knight are all vying to replace four-year starter Landry Jones. Bell is the favorite because of his age and experience in the “Belldozer” package, but insiders around the program believe Knight is capable of unseating him. Whatever happens in the spring, don’t expect a starter to be named. Stoops waited until the fall to declare Sam Bradford his starter in 2007, and figures to do the same here.

New faces: The Sooners welcome four mid-semester enrollees, and all four have a chance to make immediate impacts. Toronto native Josiah St. John, the No. 1 junior-college offensive tackle in the country, figures to be no worse than a key backup. Wide receiver Dannon Cavil, who grew up a Texas fan, has great size and should vie for a rotation spot at outside receiver. Defensively, Ahmad Thomas will be given every opportunity to start at safety, and defensive end D.J. Ward, the top player coming out of the state of Oklahoma, could boost a defensive front that ranked 108th nationally in tackles for loss last season.

Question marks: With only 11 starters back, the Sooners have plenty. On top of the quarterback battle, OU must overhaul virtually the entire defense, with All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin the only returning impact defender. Defensive tackle and back safety are especially tenuous. The Sooners have only three defensive tackles on the roster to practice with at the moment, and no one other than Colvin has a down of experience at back safety. Mike Stoops will have to be creative just to get through the spring, until reinforcements arrive over the summer.

Don’t forget about: Wide receiver Trey Metoyer, who was the star of last spring as a true freshman. Metoyer, however, failed to carry that momentum into the fall, lost his starting job and eventually fell out of the rotation. A new year and new quarterback should re-energize Metoyer, who has all the tools to become a dominant outside receiver.

On the mend: Guards Tyler Evans and Nila Kasitati, who are both coming off season-ending knee injuries. Both, however, are hoping to be at least limited participants in the spring, which would spur them into summer workouts.

Coaches' corner: OL Dionte Savage

February, 21, 2013
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After recruiting them for several months, Oklahoma's coaching staff was finally able to talk publicly about the players the Sooners added to the program on signing day. Over the next week or so, SoonerNation will review some of the key things coaches had to say about the players signed at each position group during their signing day webcast on Soonersports.com.

Oklahoma is looking to get tougher, more physical along its offensive front. Guard Dionte Savage (Flint, Mich./Arizona Western) should help the Sooners reach that goal. At 6-foot-5, 340 pounds, Savage brings unique size to OU's interior line.

"This guy has size on top of size," co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. "What a physical presence he brings. When you say full-grown man when he walks in a room, this kid is a full-grown man. We had a lot of injuries last year and it was tough at the end getting healthy bodies out there. This guy is a big strong guy who can help us with our running game and depth."

After ending the 2012 season with very limited bodies at guard, Savage joins returning starters Adam Shead and Bronson Irwin along with Tyler Evans and Nila Kasitati, who are returning from injuries. Savage brings a better body than any of the Sooners returnees.

"He is a specimen," running backs coach Cale Gundy said. "He’s someone we expect can come in and give us some help, possibly be one of our starting guards.”

The Sooners were impressed by Savage's dedication, as the former 400-pounder lost more than 60 pounds to get into better shape for his second season at Arizona Western.

"Dionte Savage is a big, strong, physical guy," head coach Bob Stoops said. "A huge weightlifter and a powerful, strong guy. He’s got great ability to move and great strength, so I believe he is going to help us be more physical in there. Just really powerful, an excellent young man. Loved having him on campus, he loves to work. He’s going to help us be more physical."

Roundtable: OU's priority in 2014 

February, 14, 2013
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Every Thursday, the SoonerNation staff will answer a roundtable question about OU football. Leave a comment or talk about it in our "There's Only One" forum.

Which position should be the Sooners' priority for the Class of 2014?


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Who was up and who was down in Oklahoma’s 41-13 loss to Texas A&M in the AT&T Cotton Bowl.

THREE UP

1. FB Trey Millard: With 28 yards on four carries, Millard was one of the few Sooners to have a decent day. More importantly, Millard declared during the postgame that after contemplating going pro he has decided to come back to school for his senior season. Millard has been one of OU’s best players the last three seasons, and his return gives the Sooners one of their best playmakers and blockers for another season.

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