Oklahoma Sooners: Nila Kasitati

During the summer, ESPN.com is taking a closer look at each scholarship player on Oklahoma’s roster in our Crimson Countdown series. Each day, we analyze each player’s impact on the program since arriving on campus, his potential impact this fall, and his long-term projection. Starting with No. 1 Dominique Alexander, the series follows the roster numerically through No. 98 Chuka Ndulue.

No. 54 Nila Kasitati, guard/center, 6-foot-4, 315 pounds, junior

Impact thus far: Injuries have been the only thing that have really kept Kasitati off the field during his time in Norman, Oklahoma. After a redshirt season in 2011, he was beginning to force himself into the lineup until an early-October ACL injury against Texas Tech as a redshirt freshman forced him to miss the rest of the season. Last season he returned to play in all 13 games including seven starts at right guard.

Impact in 2014: His versatility makes it a near certainty he will be a key member of OU’s offensive line. Kasitati can play center and guard so don’t be surprised to see him line up at either position in 2014 as the Sooners strive to get their top five offensive linemen on the field.

Long term upside: He should be a core member of the offensive line during the next two seasons.

Evaluation grade for Kasitati: A. He wasn’t a five-star recruit but he’s had a significant impact since his redshirt freshman season. Kasitati brings a toughness and aggression to the lineup that helps set the tone for the entire offensive front.

Development grade for Kasitati: A. The Sooners have done a good job with the junior, particularly during his redshirt freshman season when they inserted him into the offensive line rotation before his injury. When he’s healthy, he tends to make an impact for OU.
Earlier Thursday, we concluded our 22-round draft of current Big 12 players. Below are the three lineup outcomes of that draft, and as you can see, each of us went in different directions.

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Like the St. Louis Rams, Max and Brandon built up their defensive lines before worrying about the rest of their rosters. While I grabbed the best quarterback in the league and surrounded him with protection and weapons.

After each lineup, read our final takes on our teams. Then, decide who drafted best in the weekly Big 12 poll.

BRANDON CHATMON’S TEAM

OFFENSE
DEFENSE
What Brandon says about his team: “Offensively, as soon as Petty was gone with the first pick I knew I wouldn’t take a quarterback until my final pick. Knight could be the steal of the draft. Versatility is the name of the game with the rest of the offense. We can put Pierson and Smallwood in the backfield and go read option or really ruin your Saturday and throw Daje back there in the Diamond. When you bring more guys in the box, you leave Seales and Lockett one-on-one. Or we can just go five wide and you can try to cover running backs who run routes like receivers with your linebackers. And an experienced offensive line will be the foundation of it all. Defensively, it would be wise for opposing quarterbacks to tell their families to stay home when facing this group. We’re going to man up and have our mail forwarded to the opposing backfield and make you want to take your ball and go home. And with a secondary full of coverage guys, I’m not concerned about the back end of the defense holding up. We’ll win more battles than we lose. By the final whistle, my team will have earned the moniker 'Chatmon’s chaos creators' with Tapper, Reed, Brown, Hunter, Alexander and Robertson living in your backfield.”

MAX OLSON'S TEAM

OFFENSE
DEFENSE
What Max says about his team: “You do not want to play against my team. That was my goal going in, and I constructed exactly the team I wanted. I have a great QB in Webb who gets to throw to Goodley, one of the nation's best receivers, and he'd help Jaxon Shipley put up Jordan Shipley numbers. I have the two-back punch of Linwood and Gray. I have Hill, who can do everything, and a good line. We're going to spread the ball around like crazy. Good luck stopping that. On defense, you have Fields, Oakman and Grissom all rushing the passer. That's deadly. We can go three-man fronts or even put Oakman in the middle, letting the 6-foot-8 stud swat your passes down. And while you're worrying about him and Grissom, you have the Big 12's best defensive player [Fields] coming after you. Hager and Shannon will hold it down at the second level, and the secondary is full of playmakers. This is a fun team, plain and simple, and one that can frustrate the heck out of anybody.”

JAKE TROTTER’S TEAM

OFFENSE
DEFENSE
What Jake says about his team: “Max and Brandon are good at talking smack. I’ll give them that. But my players do their talking on the field. Once I was fortunate to land reigning Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year Bryce Petty as my quarterback, my goal was two-fold: to keep him upright from pressure off the edge; and, to surround him with firepower. I accomplished both ends, and then some. I wasn’t able to get either of the two elite receivers in the league in Goodley or Lockett. But I put together the best overall receiving corps in Grant, Shepard and Bundrage, who could all deliver 1,000-yard receiving seasons in 2014. On top of that, I snagged the best pass-catching tight end on the board in Bibbs, as well as Brown, so that we can pound the ball between the tackles when we need. Speaking of tackles, aware that Brandon and Max were focused almost solely on their pass rush in the early rounds, I also added two of the most reliable pass-protecting bookends in the league in Drango and Williams. Defensively, I can bring pressure, too, with Mueller and Striker, who last season respectively placed second and fourth in the Big 12 in sacks. Castleman and Britz are roadblocks, Heeney and Dawson are tackle machines and my entire secondary has All-Big 12 potential. We don’t talk. We just dominate.”
Following up on NFL draft weekend, we’ve been conducting our own draft, picking from current Big 12 players to fill out three 22-man lineups.

Below is a recap of the first 15 rounds of the draft from the past two days, followed by rounds 16-22.

As another reminder, this is NOT a Top 25 player ranking. It’s only an exercise in determining where the value of the league lies, and the different strategies to putting a team together from the league’s present talent pool.

Jake Trotter:
Brandon Chatmon:
Max Olson:
Round 16

  • Olson: WR/RB Tyreek Hill, Oklahoma State
  • Chatmon: OLB Pete Robertson, Texas Tech
  • Trotter: OLB Brandon Golson, West Virginia
  • Analysis: "To combat the offensive attacks I would face in the Big 12, I'm going with a 3-4 on defense. Golson, who led the Big 12 in forced fumbles last season, is another playmaking outside linebacker who would fit in nicely in this scheme opposite Striker." -- Trotter
[+] EnlargeJohnathan Gray, Tanner Jacobson
AP Photo/Eric GayGetting potential Big 12 rushing leader Johnathan Gray in the 17th round could be a big steal for Max Olson.
Round 17

  • Trotter: LB Paul Dawson, TCU
  • Chatmon: C Dominic Espinosa, Texas
  • Olson: RB Johnathan Gray, Texas
  • Analysis: “I ended up getting a potential All-Big 12 running back in the 17th round. So I feel pretty good about that. Gray should be healthy for the opener, and he leads all returning Big 12 rushers with 86 rushing yards per game last season." -- Olson
Round 18

  • Olson: OT Troy Baker, Baylor
  • Chatmon: SS Quentin Hayes, Oklahoma
  • Trotter: OG Mark Glowinski, West Virginia
  • Analysis: "I wanted a safety who is comfortable in holding his own in coverage, while also having the ability to make plays all over the field. Hayes is the guy. With Worley, Shepherd, White, Barnett and Hayes in the secondary, I can unleash the rest of my defense on the quarterback and feel comfortable about my secondary holding its own against anyone." -- Chatmon
Round 19

  • Trotter: OG Nila Kasitati, Oklahoma
  • Chatmon: WR Tony Pierson, Kansas
  • Olson: SS Terrell Burt, Baylor
  • Analysis: "With Max and Brandon hoarding centers, I needed to attack the interior of my offensive line. Kasitati can excel manning either guard or center, and Glowinski is one of the league’s top returning guards." -- Trotter
Round 20

  • Olson: OT Halapoulivaati Vaitai, TCU
  • Chatmon: WR Jhajuan Seales, Oklahoma State
  • Trotter: WR Quenton Bundrage, Iowa State
  • Analysis: "The guys I wanted for my second guard spot weren't available at this round, so I'm going with the mammoth "Big V" Vaitai (6-foot-6, 308 pounds) and moving one of my other tackle selections inside. I ended up with a fairly good offensive line, which was pretty much my plan going in." -- Olson
Round 21

  • Trotter: CB Nigel Tribune, Iowa State
  • Chatmon: WR Wendell Smallwood, West Virginia
  • Olson: LB Nick Kwiatkoski, West Virginia
  • Analysis: “I picked up Bundrage in the previous round to seal up what I feel is the best all-around receiving corps, even if I didn’t get Goodley or Lockett. Tribune, the only true freshman to play for Iowa State in the past two seasons, is a corner with a ton of upside and, paired with Kevin Peterson, should provide me plenty of tenaciousness against the pass.” -- Trotter
Round 22

  • Olson: WR Jaxon Shipley, Texas
  • Chatmon: QB Trevor Knight, Oklahoma
  • Trotter: C Jared Kaster, Texas Tech
  • Analysis: “I just got the steal of the draft, and I knew I would wait until the final round to do so. As soon as Jake snapped up Petty, I knew I would be content with Davis Webb or Trevor Knight and wouldn’t draft a quarterback until the final round. The fact that Max opted for Webb made things even better for me as Knight has the versatility to run a run-heavy offense or spread things out and use his arm. He fits perfectly with the versatility I was striving for with each pick.” -- Chatmon
Several players will decide the success of the Oklahoma Sooners this fall.

Some Sooners will have more of an impact than others and will be counted on to be the foundation of the 2014 squad. This week we’ll count down the five most important players on offense, taking into account their expected contribution, the quality of their backups and their previous production. On Tuesday we continue with No. 4.

No. 4: Guard Nila Kasitati, junior

2013 role: Kasitati played in all 13 games, starting seven at guard. He brings versatility and a nasty streak to the offensive line. Various injuries have hampered him for a good portion of his career but when he stays healthy, he’s an impact player.

Expected 2014 role: Kasitati should start along the interior and should allow offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh to find OU’s best five offensive linemen thanks to his ability to play guard or center. He should be an anchor of the offensive line that sets the tone with his nasty streak in the running game.

Why he’s important: Kasitati is versatile, athletic and tough. He’s been a productive player when healthy. As OU continues to try to be more physical along the offensive line, Kasitati could be the guy Bedenbaugh turns to as the example of what he’s looking for. The junior’s importance is all about the tone he can set for the line and offense in general.

If he was missing: The Sooners have experienced playing without Kasitati and his loss wouldn’t be a season-changing absence but it’s very difficult to replace his mindset and aggressive instincts. OU has other talented guards including Adam Shead, Dionte Savage and Tyler Evans who can fill the void but Kasitati’s attitude would be difficult to match or replace.

The list

No. 5: FB Aaron Ripkowski
For the past two weeks, we’ve been ranking the best units in the Big 12 by position.

Now, in our weekly poll, we’re asking for your opinion: Who has the league’s best offensive unit regardless of position?

We’re going to exclude the quarterback position, since that’s more about one player than the collective strength of an entire unit.

Sorry, Bryce Petty.

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Petty’s receivers at Baylor, though, have a strong claim as the best offensive unit in the league. The Bears return four players who finished with at least 30 receptions last season, including Antwan Goodley, who produced 71 catches for 1,339 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2013. Baylor will also be adding arguably the deepest and most talented signing class at the position in the country, headlined by ESPN 300 receiver K.D. Cannon.

The Bears, however, aren’t the only ones loaded at receiver.

Texas Tech features the dynamic receiving trio of Jakeem Grant, Bradley Marquez and Reginald Davis, who combined for four touchdowns in the National University Holiday Bowl win over Arizona State. D.J. Polite-Bray emerged over the spring as a downfield burner on the outside. The Red Raiders have also added their top overall recruit from last year to the rotation in Devin Lauderdale, who was forced to attend junior college for a year after failing to initially qualify. Four-star slot receivers Byron Daniels and Ian Sadler will be joining the squad in the summer.

As deep as the Bears and Red Raiders are at receiver, there might not be a positional group in the Big 12 as deep as West Virginia’s running backs.

In their backfield, the Mountaineers have Dreamius Smith (the No. 1 juco back in 2013), Wendell Smallwood (who played as a true freshman), Rushel Shell (who before transferring in from Pitt, set Pennsylvania’s state high school career rushing record), Andrew Buie (the team’s leading rusher from 2012) and Dustin Garrison, the team’s leading rusher from 2011 who had a tremendous spring following a string of injuries the previous three seasons. If that weren’t enough, four-star signee Donte Thomas-Williams will be arriving in Morgantown this summer.

While not as deep, Texas’ three-headed monster in the backfield is more proven than West Virginia’s, though not without questions. Johnathan Gray is coming off an Achilles injury, and Joe Bergeron was barred from the team during the spring due to academics. But when together and healthy, the threesome of Malcolm Brown, Gray (both All-Big 12-caliber runners) and Bergeron is as fearsome as any in the country.

Last fall, the Texas backs ran behind the most experienced offensive line in the Big 12. This season, that distinction belongs to the Sooners, whose offensive line unit caps the poll.

All told, Oklahoma boasts 107 career starts along its offensive line, headlined by senior tackle Daryl Williams and guard Adam Shead, who have been starting since their redshirt freshman seasons. Guard/center Nila Kasitati and tackle Tyrus Thompson are also returning starters on an offense that placed second in the Big 12 in rushing last season.

So who does have the best offensive unit in the Big 12?

Baylor's or Texas Tech’s wide receivers? West Virginia's or Texas’ running backs? Or Oklahoma’s offensive line?
One gauge for uncovering the true contenders as well as the surprise teams in college football might be analyzing offensive line experience.

Heading into 2013, virtually no one viewed Duke as a possible threat in the ACC. But with the third-most career offensive line starts returning in the country, the Blue Devils won their first ACC Coastal Division title.

Of course, offensive line experience doesn’t necessarily guarantee a winning team.

And the lack of it doesn’t preclude success, either.

Baylor ranked 98th nationally in offensive line experience last year and wound up winning its first Big 12 title. Oklahoma State ranked 109th and won 10 games.

Yet examining an offensive line’s experience can be a useful indicator in determining how a team might fare.

Michigan State was ninth in career offensive line starts going into last season and won the Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl. Florida State was one spot behind the Spartans and captured the national title.

No team, actually, entered 2013 with more offensive line starts than Texas, which led the nation with 124. For all their issues elsewhere, which included losing starting QB David Ash for the year, the Longhorns still had a chance to win the Big 12 on the final day of the regular season.

Underscoring the strength of its veteran offensive line, Texas ranked third in the Big 12 in rushing and second in fewest sacks allowed.

This year, Oklahoma is the Big 12 leader in career offensive line starts coming back, and one reason why many people are picking the Sooners to open in the top 5 of the polls.

Guard Adam Shead and tackle Daryl Williams are entering their third seasons as starters. Oklahoma also will be returning guard Tyler Evans, who, before tearing his knee twice in successive years, was a three-year starter. Tackle Tyrus Thompson and guard Nila Kasitati also have a lot of starting experience, and round out what could be Oklahoma’s most imposing offensive line since 2008.

The team with the second-most returning starts up front in the league? That's Iowa State.

Because of injuries, the Cyclones had to use nine different starting offensive line combinations last season. But now, they return 87 career starts along the line, including six players with at least eight career starts. Four year-starting center Tom Farniok leads the way with 35 career starts. He joins Texas center Dominic Espinosa and Kansas State center B.J. Finney as the only three offensive linemen in the Big 12 with at least 30 career starts; Espinosa and Finney both have 39.

Below is a breakdown of career offensive line starts returning across the entire league, from most to least:

Oklahoma: 107

Tyler Evans 29, Adam Shead 28, Daryl Williams 24, Tyrus Thompson 16, Nila Kasitati 7, Ty Darlington 1, Dionte Savage 1, Derek Farniok 1

Iowa State: 87

Tom Farniok 35, Jacob Gannon 12 ,Brock Dagel 11, Oni Omoile 9, Jamison Lalk 8, Daniel Burton 8 ,Ben Loth 2, Jacob Dunning 1, Ben Boesen 1

Texas Tech: 75

Le'Raven Clark 26, Jared Kaster 13, Rashad Fortenberry 13, Alfredo Morales 13, James Polk 7, Baylen Brown 3

Kansas State: 70

B.J. Finney 39, Cody Whitehair 25, Boston Stiverson 6

Baylor: 64

Spencer Drango 22, Troy Baker 15, Desmine Hilliard 13, Blake Muir 12 (Hawaii), Pat Colbert 2

TCU: 57

Aviante Collins 22, Joey Hunt 13, Tayo Fabuluje 12, Halapoulivaati Vaitai 7, Jamelle Naff 2, Patrick Morris 1

Texas: 49

Dominic Espinosa 39, Kennedy Estelle 8, Sedrick Flowers 1, Kent Perkins 1

West Virginia: 45

Quinton Spain 26, Mark Glowinski 12, Marquis Lucas 4, Tyler Orlosky 3

Oklahoma State: 38

Daniel Koenig 22, Chris Grisbhy 8, Brandon Garrett 4, Devin Davis 2, Zac Veatch 1, Paul Lewis 1

Kansas: 34

Ngalu Fusimalohi 12, Mike Smithburg 8, Pat Lewandowski 6, Damon Martin 5, Zach Fondal 3
Over the next two weeks, we’ll be analyzing the depth charts of every Big 12 team coming out of the spring. On Tuesday, we continue the series with Oklahoma:

Offense (projected starters in bold)

QB: Trevor Knight (So.), Cody Thomas (RFr.), Justice Hansen (Fr.)

[+] EnlargeKeith Ford
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsAfter receiving only 23 carries last season as a freshman, OU's Keith Ford will likely be the starting tailback in 2014.
The Sooners feel great about putting the offense in the hands of Knight after his Allstate Sugar Bowl MVP performance against Alabama. The sophomore looked like a future star against the Crimson Tide while leading the Sooners to a 45-31 upset win. OU is inexperienced behind Knight with a pair of freshman in Thomas and Hansen. Former Texas Tech quarterback Baker Mayfield, who transferred to OU in January, would be the perfect fit behind Knight but won’t be eligible to play until 2015. If he plays consistent and remains healthy, Knight could lead his team to a College Football Playoff berth. If not, OU could flounder below expectations and look back upon the 2014 season as a missed opportunity.

RB: Keith Ford (So.), Alex Ross (So.), Daniel Brooks (So.)

Ford exits spring as the favorite to start in the backfield, but he didn’t take the job and hide during 15 spring practices. Ross was one of the stars of the spring as he continually made plays during scrimmages, and Brooks was one of the standouts during the spring game. OU has several talented options at running back and is poised to add two top freshman runners in Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine.

FB/TE: Aaron Ripkowski (Sr.), Dimitri Flowers (Fr.), Blake Bell (Sr.)

OU uses fullbacks and tight ends in similar ways as both positions spend their meeting time with tight ends coach Jay Boulware. Ripkowski is one of the unsung heroes on the entire roster. He played a critical role during the team's strong finish to the 2013 season. Flowers has stepped on campus ready to make an impact with his versatility and football IQ after enrolling in school early. Bell has moved over from quarterback and looks poised to make an impact as a pass catcher with his size and athleticism. It’s a talented and versatile group that is likely to get overlooked this fall but could be the foundation of any success the team has on offense.

WR: Sterling Shepard (Jr.), Derrick Woods (So.), Durron Neal (Jr.), K.J. Young (RFr.), Jordan Smallwood (RFr.), Austin Bennett (So.)

Shepard should be one of the Big 12’s top receivers if Knight continues to develop as a passer. OU badly needs someone to emerge alongside Shepard if it hopes to have a strong passing game to help make the 2014 version of the offense more balanced than the 2013 version. There’s talent on campus but nobody separated themselves during the spring, opening the door for a freshman like Michiah Quick to step on campus and into the lineup this fall.

C: Ty Darlington (Jr.)

G: Dionte Savage (Sr.), Nila Kasitati (Jr.), Tony Feo (Sr.), Adam Shead (Sr.), Tyler Evans (Sr.)

T: Tyrus Thompson (Sr.), Daryl Williams (Sr.), Josiah St. John (Sr.)

Darlington has been groomed to replace All-Big 12 center Gabe Ikard and could slide into the starting lineup with ease. Nonetheless, adding competition at this position would help the Sooners. OU is fairly deep at guard and tackle which should allow competition for playing time to help everyone improve. Williams is the anchor of the entire offensive line and should be one of the Big 12’s top tackles this fall. The Sooners should have one of the better offensive lines in the Big 12.

DEFENSE

DE: Charles Tapper (Jr.), Geneo Grissom (Sr.), Matt Dimon (So.)

DT: Jordan Phillips (Jr.) or Chuka Ndulue (Sr.), Jordan Wade (So.)

[+] EnlargeDominique Alexander
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsSooners linebacker Dominique Alexander emerged as a playmaker as a freshman.
OU’s defensive line could be one of the most disruptive and deepest in the nation. The Sooners should easily go six or seven deep along the defensive line, particularly if Phillips returns to his early 2013 form after suffering a back injury last season. Tapper and Grissom have the ability to be disruptive against anyone, and the overall depth on the roster should allow OU to come at offenses in waves with fresh bodies rotating throughout games. If OU makes a national title run, the defensive line will likely be the driving force.

LB: Dominique Alexander (So.), Frank Shannon (Jr.), Eric Striker (Jr.), Jordan Evans (So.), Devante Bond (Jr.)

Striker could be the Big 12’s best pass rusher, Alexander has the potential to be one of the Big 12’s best before his career is over, Evans could take a major step forward as a sophomore and Bond impressed as a junior college transfer this spring. If Shannon returns to good standing after missing part of spring due to personal issues, this is a good, experienced group. OU’s linebackers are one of the main reasons its defense could be the most athletic and versatile in the conference this fall.

CB: Zack Sanchez (So.), Julian Wilson (Sr.), Dakota Austin (So.), Stanvon Taylor (So.), Cortez Johnson (Jr.)

Here’s where things get interesting for the defense. Wilson returns as the starting nickelback and a productive veteran in the secondary. Sanchez is solid and took his game to another level this spring as he strives to be the type of coverage cornerback that teams don’t want to test. But the Sooners need someone to step up on the opposite side of the field with Austin ending the spring as a starter but remaining untested. No matter who wins the job, they will be picked on repeatedly until they prove they aren’t the weak link of the secondary. Defensive back is one of the few unsettled and unproven spots on the entire roster.

S: Quentin Hayes (Sr.), Hatari Byrd (So.), Ahmad Thomas (So.)

Hayes was quietly one of the better safeties in the Big 12 in 2013. He was productive with 75 tackles and solid in coverage. Byrd and Thomas have matured and started to develop as sophomores and should be key contributors this fall. Nonetheless, freshman Steven Parker has the talent to step in an earn a role this summer. If Parker is as good as advertised, OU will go two deep with talented options.
It was a quiet and productive spring at Oklahoma. The Sooners emerged relatively free of injuries and were able to tinker with their systems on both sides of the ball. This week we'll review OU's spring.

On Monday, we began with five questions that were answered during the Sooners' 15 practices. On Tuesday, we reviewed five questions that remain unanswered. On Wednesday, we took a look at five surprising Sooners. Today, we highlight the five disappointing developments of the spring.

[+] EnlargeBlake Bell
AP Photo/Darron CummingsAn injury limited what OU QB-turned-TE Blake Bell could do at his new position this spring.
Blake Bell's injury: Sooner nation was robbed of the chance to see Bell in his new tight end position after a MCL sprain forced him to miss the end of spring. It also robbed Bell of critical reps he could have used to improve at his new position. Luckily he should return in the summer, allowing him to get even more time at the position before preseason camp begins because once the Sooners start preparing for the season, all bets are off and it will be time for Bell to battle for a role in the offense.

Stanvon Taylor's development: The sophomore cornerback is a better player than he’s showing. Taylor earned the praise of Bob Stoops and Mike Stoops on signing day, as the two brothers compared him to Aaron Colvin. He stepped on campus with a hungry desire to make an impact and started against Tulsa early in his freshman season but he hasn’t made the jump you would expect from a player of his talent as a sophomore. Dakota Austin passed him on the depth chart, and Taylor currently doesn’t look like a guy who can slide into Colvin’s spot without a drop off. Taylor isn’t a bust nor is a guy who won’t contribute this fall -- he just needs to take his game to another level if he’s going fulfill the upside that made him the No. 199 player in the ESPN 300 for the Class of 2013.

No dominant No. 2 receiver: Ideally, the Sooners would have seen one receiver emerge from the competition to show he wants to be a starter and centerpiece in OU’s passing game. Jordan Smallwood is the closest to filling that description, but he hasn’t run away from the competition with K.J. Young, Dannon Cavil and Derrick Woods among the receivers nipping at his heels. Sterling Shepard will be OU’s No. 1 target and will make plenty of plays as a junior, but someone else needs to step up as the No. 2 guy and force defenses to account for them if OU’s offense is going to really take off in 2014.

Offensive line injuries: The Sooners never really could get their entire offensive line together this spring with injuries to guard Nila Kasitati, tackle Tyrus Thompson, guard Adam Shead and others during spring practices. Center Ty Darlington's smooth transition into the starting center spot got overlooked in the spring, but the uncertainty along the rest of the offensive line could hurt the Sooners in the fall or could pay off since it seasoned the overall depth of OU’s offensive front. It was a disappointing spring because a roster full of healthy bodies would have spurred competition and forced returning starters to get better, much like it did on with the Sooners’ defensive line.

Offensive production in the spring game: Baker Mayfield was the lone quarterback to pass for more than 60 yards, Daniel Brooks was the lone running back to rush for more than 30 yards and no OU receiver recorded more than 62 receiving yards. To be fair, OU didn’t exactly break out its full arsenal on offense, but more individual playmaking would have made the Sooners’ coaching staff head into the summer with more confidence. The Sooners' offense didn’t look like a unit that was overflowing with players who will make game-changing plays this fall. OU has talented skill players; they just need those guys to continue to develop and, once the games really matter, to become consistent, productive playmakers.

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.

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