Oklahoma Sooners: Samaje Perine

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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.

Spring game review: Oklahoma

April, 14, 2014
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The excitement surrounding Oklahoma’s football program is night and day compared to a year ago. The Sooners announced 43,500 fans in attendance for their spring game on Saturday, a school record. Last year’s announced crowd was 29,200. With the Trevor Knight era fully underway, here’s a recap of OU’s spring game.

[+] EnlargeMayfield
Mark D. Smith/USA TODAY SportsFormer Texas Tech quarterback Baker Mayfield was impressive in the spring game.
Best offensive performance: Baker Mayfield stole the show, completing 9 of 9 pass attempts for 125 yards and two touchdowns. The former Texas Tech quarterback, who transferred to OU in January after earning Big 12 offensive freshman of the year honors last season, is ineligible for the 2014 season. Nonetheless, Mayfield outshined Knight, the Sooners’ projected starter this fall, with his flawless outing. Mayfield has Big 12 game experience, and it showed throughout the spring game. He’ll spend this fall giving OU’s defense fits while leading the scout team.

Best defensive performance: Linebacker Eric Striker looked like he was in midseason form with two sacks and one tackle for loss. Striker, who starred in OU’s Allstate Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama, picked up right where he left off. He continually got into the offensive backfield and appeared unblockable at times coming off the edge. He could be poised for a dominant junior season.

Best debut: True freshman Dimitri Flowers looks ready to help the offense immediately. One of the scariest scenes of the spring game was Flowers lying on the ground, clutching his knee. Fortunately for the Sooners, it was just a hyper-extended knee for the fullback/tight end hybrid. Flowers has impressed with his football IQ and receiving skills during his short time on campus as an early enrollee. He tied for the team high with four receptions and finished with 40 receiving yards. He should be a key contributor this fall.

Notable play: Sophomore linebacker Jordan Evans had the hit of the day against K.J. Young on a receiver screen. Evans’ hit popped the ball up in the air, allowing defensive tackle Jordan Wade to secure Knight’s lone interception of the day. It was a key play because Evans played with the No. 1 defense after returning starter Frank Shannon, OU's leading tackler in 2013, missed the game for personal reasons. Shannon's status remains unclear, so the Sooners could turn to Evans to be the man alongside Dominique Alexander this fall if Shannon is unable to return. Evans looked ready for the task on Saturday.

Developing storyline: OU’s defense clearly won the day. The Sooners are young, talented and versatile on that side of the ball, led by Striker and returning All-Big 12 defensive end Charles Tapper. OU’s secondary, a potential concern with the loss of two-time All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin, had a strong day in coverage, particularly the starting unit. Sophomore Dakota Austin was solid sliding into Colvin’s former spot opposite Zack Sanchez. If this unit continues to develop, it could be one of the best and more versatile defenses in the nation.

Biggest question answered: Few, if any, questions got answered. The defense was dominant, but that wasn't surprising, and nobody separated themselves in the running back derby or backup quarterback race. Keith Ford and Alex Ross will welcome true freshmen Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine into the running back competition this summer. At quarterback, Cody Thomas outperformed Justice Hansen, but didn’t put a stranglehold on the backup quarterback position heading into the summer. The best development of the game was a relatively injury-free outing.

Biggest question emerging: Which Knight will lead the Sooners in 2014? He didn't look like the Allstate Sugar Bowl MVP, going 5-of-14 for 53 yards and one interception. Evans' hit led to his lone pick, but he was inefficient and unproductive. The defense carries a large portion of the blame and the receiving corps, without top target Sterling Shepard and potential starter Durron Neal, also contributed to Knight's underwhelming spring finale. Knight knows he will have to perform much better for OU's national title dreams to approach reality.

Quotable: “I don’t know that you ever get anything answered in 15 practices. What I feel like is there has been improvement. Players that haven’t had a ton of experience have more now. We’ll build on it.” -- OU coach Bob Stoops
Finding a running back isn’t a concern that immediately comes to mind when projecting the 2014 Sooners' offense, mainly because of the many options on the fingertips of running backs coach Cale Gundy.

Yet someone needs to step up and become the face of the running game.

“They’re doing a really good job of competing,” quarterback Trevor Knight said. “They come in every day working extremely hard. I’m really excited about them. I feel like everyone’s just got a little juice under them right now. It’s fun to work with guys like that.”

[+] EnlargeKeith Ford
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiKeith Ford is one of many OU RBs competing for carries this spring.
Sophomores Keith Ford and Alex Ross spent the 2013 season in the shadows of OU’s three senior running backs, with Ford seeing limited action before fumble troubles returned him to the sideline. Ford took steps to correcting his fumble problems during Sugar Bowl preparations and is focused on ball security this spring.

“It’s just one of those learning curves for me,” Ford said. “It’s just one of those things adjusting to the college game style and the gameplay, and the speed and how everybody is bigger, faster and stronger than high school.”

Ford already got a small level of redemption with three carries for 15 yards in the Sugar Bowl after going five straight games without a carry after his fumble against Kansas.

“He didn’t fumble it in the bowl game, he’s taking care of it,” coach Bob Stoops said. “Keith is an excellent player.”

The Sooners are hopeful he’s not the only quality running back on the roster. OU has leaned on multiple backs for the past three seasons, so it would take someone running away with the job for OU to put the entire focus of its running game on one running back.

Thus, the competition for carries should be fierce and ongoing throughout the year.

“We’re all good backs,” Ford said. “We all work hard each day. We all have each other’s backs, we’re all competing and we’re all a family, and that’s the most important. We work hard every day and we just grind. That’s all we can do, take it day by day.”

This could be a do-or-die spring for Ross, who could watch multiple younger running backs rise by him on the depth chart if he doesn’t begin to fulfill his playmaking potential and remain healthy. His talent is not in question so he could be ready to finally have a breakout spring and set himself up to make an impact in his redshirt sophomore season.

“I believe he is,” Stoops said when asked if Ross could be ready to contribute. “He’s had a really good winter, he had good bowl practices. So, I believe he is ready for that to happen.”

David Smith and Daniel Brooks round out the spring competitors who are aiming to secure a role before ESPN 300 running backs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine arrive in the summer.

“Those guys will have their opportunities, and a lot of them here through the spring,” said Stoops of the running back competition.
Oklahoma began its spring practices last weekend with back-to-back practices Saturday and Sunday. The Sooners get back to work today with an eye on capturing another Big 12 title under Bob Stoops. Here are some things to watch this spring:

Offensive returner ready to take next step: Sophomore running back Keith Ford could be ready to take the next step in the Sooners' offense. OU needs someone to fill the void left by departed running backs Brennan Clay, Damien Williams and Roy Finch, who combined for 4,824 career rushing yards in crimson and cream. Ford earned himself some carries as a freshman, but fumble troubles put him in the doghouse for a portion of his first season. This spring, Ford could lock down a major role in the offense with his power, decisiveness and quickness.

[+] EnlargeAhmad Thomas
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsAhmad Thomas' blend of size and athleticism makes him a candidate to step in at safety as a sophomore.
Defensive returner ready to take the next step: Safety Ahmad Thomas didn’t get major time on the Sooners' defense as a freshman. But the versatile defensive back appears poised to become a key piece of OU’s defensive plan as a sophomore. At 6-foot and 218 pounds, Thomas brings terrific size, athleticism and aggressiveness to the Sooners secondary. If he continues to improve and develop, he could be too good to leave on the sidelines, forcing defensive coordinator Mike Stoops to find ways to get him involved.

Redshirt freshman to watch: Defensive tackle Charles Walker was an unknown with an underwhelming offer list when he signed with OU in February 2013. But Walker was one of the guys who repeatedly earned praise during discussions of scout-team stars last fall. At 6-2 and 289 pounds, Walker moves like a much smaller man and could force his way onto the field with his play this spring and provide young, quality depth along the defensive line.

Most significant position battle: The battle to replace two-time All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin should be entertaining. There is no clear favorite among a group of talented cornerbacks that includes Stanvon Taylor, Cortez Johnson and Dakota Austin. This spring provides the opportunity for someone to step up in Colvin’s absence and become a trustworthy cover man on the perimeter of OU’s defense. If that doesn’t happen, the Sooners could be forced to account for a weak link in the secondary, particularly if none of the freshman arrivals in the summer (Tito Windham, Jordan Thomas, Marcus Green) proves they can slide into Colvin’s spot.

Key midterm enrollee: Linebacker Devante Bond already is making an impression during his short time at OU. An outside linebacker with pass rush skills, Bond isn’t going to replace Eric Striker in the Sooners lineup. Yet if he proves to be one of the best pass rushers on the squad this spring, Stoops could pair him with Striker to give Big 12 quarterbacks headaches this fall.

Question that could be answered: Will Trevor Knight build on his Sugar Bowl MVP performance? The sophomore ended his first season with a bang, leading OU to a upset win over Alabama. This spring will show if Knight is hungry for more and striving to play at a championship level every Saturday this fall, or if he could return to the inconsistency that hampered his play in 2013.

Question that won’t be answered until fall: Who will get the majority of the carries in OU’s backfield this fall? Even if Ford has an exceptional spring, there’s no guarantee he can hold off the talents of incoming freshmen Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine in the summer. The lone certainty is that there will be a bunch of talented options for running backs coach Cale Gundy.
Oklahoma's hopeful journey toward national title contention status begins this coming weekend.

An exceptional Sugar Bowl performance, a young and talented defense and renewed confidence in quarterback Trevor Knight has the Sooners eyeing a national championship run in 2014. Yet, that won’t happen without growth at several key positions, starting Saturday when OU kicks off spring practice. This week we’ll make five spring predictions.

[+] EnlargeKeith Ford
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiIf Keith Ford can lock down the running back spot, the Sooners could be national title contenders in 2014.
No. 5: Sophomore running back Keith Ford cements himself as a part of the offense.

Why it matters: Ford could be the key to OU’s offense in 2014. At 5-foot-11, 205 pounds, Ford packs a punch even when he doesn’t have the football in his hands. His physical style of play earned notice on special teams immediately last season, and he showed he combines that mindset with determination when he has the ball in his hands. He didn’t have a stellar freshman season (23 carries, 134 yards, one touchdown), but the limited glimpses of Ford running the ball gave Sooners fans hope for the future.

What it would mean: It wouldn’t matter how quickly the Sooners' true freshman running backs, Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine, transition into college football, and Alex Ross' development would not need to be hurried. Mixon appears ready to make an immediate impact, but it would be nice to allow him to develop at his own pace. Perine could bring a physical, slashing style to the offense but, much like Mixon, his development as a complete running back will determine his role. And Ross is continuing to progress but hasn’t proved he should be a major part of the offense heading into his sophomore year.

Thus, Ford’s continued development is key for an OU offense that will need to be balanced if the Sooners plan to compete for a Big 12 title and national championship this fall. The way he forced his way onto the field as a true freshman, earning carries despite the Sooners returning three senior running backs, is a sign Ford could be a special player in crimson and cream. If he starts to fulfill that potential this spring, OU’s offense could be deadly as long as Knight continues to develop as well.

OU spring position battles: No. 1

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Spring football provides the opportunity for players to put themselves in the driver’s seat when it comes to position battles. Several Oklahoma Sooners will have the chance to make a statement and make themselves the favorite to start or become a significant contributor during spring drills with several starting spots open heading into 2014. This week we reviewed the top five position battles to keep an eye on this spring. On Friday, we finish the series with the running back position.

No. 1: Running back

Why it’s important: It’s critical for the Sooners offense to be balanced. Lack of balance hampered OU’s offense in 2013 but Trevor Knight’s Sugar Bowl performance gives the passing game hope. Now it’s important to find a quality running back who can keep defenses honest.

Competitors

[+] EnlargeKeith Ford
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiKeith Ford looks like the favorite to be the No. 1 RB, but he'll have plenty of competition this spring.
Sophomore Keith Ford: The Texas native started making a name for himself on special teams before carving out a role on offense early in Big 12 play. Fumble problems placed him in the doghouse but he finished his freshman season with 23 carries for 134 yards and one touchdown. He’s the favorite to sit atop the depth chart after spring.

Sophomore Alex Ross: He brings a terrific size/speed ratio at 6-foot-1, 209 pounds, but he needs to improve his performance in all aspects of the position. This spring is his opportunity to show he deserves some carries in 2014.

Sophomore David Smith: This spring is Smith’s opportunity to prove he can make an impact as a running back. With two top freshmen poised to join the program in the summer, it could be the most important spring of Smith’s career.

Summer arrivals

Freshman Joe Mixon: The ESPN 300 running back is extremely versatile and could end up being used a lot of different ways in the fall.

Freshman Samaje Perine: Another ESPN 300 running back, Perine will bring a physical, slashing style to the program in the summer.

Potential outcomes

Best-case scenario: Ford and Ross wage a competitive battle to sit atop the depth chart after the spring. The duo could complement each other well and this spring might be the first glimpse at their potential together. Ideally all three running backs show they can help the Sooners because you can never have too many running backs.

Worst-case scenario: Ford continues to fumble, Ross continues to struggle to be a complete running back and Smith doesn’t look like he can make an impact. That opens the door for Mixon and/or Perine to skyrocket up the depth chart in August.

Spring preview capsules: Big 12

February, 24, 2014
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Spring football is rapidly approaching.

Here's a team-by-team look at what to watch in the Big 12 this spring:

Baylor

Spring start: Feb. 28

Spring game: April 5

What to watch: Who will replace Lache Seastrunk? The Bears' running back was the engine that helped keep the Baylor offense balanced and defenses honest. Shock Linwood will step in, but is he ready to handle the burden of keeping the offense balanced? . . . Baylor, the 2013 regular-season champion, has to find key replacements on a defense that is losing half of its starters. But several second-teamers -- including Jamal Palmer, Shawn Oakman, Andrew Billings and Orion Stewart -- are poised to fill the void . . . The Bears need to replace guard Cyril Richardson along the offensive line. Several candidates, including junior college transfer Jarell Broxton, will battle for the job. Baylor has arguably the league's best group of skill position players, but that will mean nothing if its offensive line takes a step backward.

Iowa State

Spring start: March 10

Spring game: April 12

What to watch: New offensive coordinator Mark Mangino arrives in Ames to bring more points and creativity to the Cyclones’ offense. The spring is the first opportunity for Mangino to get a feel for the playmakers and the players to get a feel for Mangino’s expectations . . . The quarterback competition is another thing to keep an eye on. Grant Rohach ended the season as the starter, but Sam B. Richardson could take his job back with a strong spring. And there are other young quarterbacks on campus who could insert themselves into the mix . . . Defensively, the Cyclones need to replace linebacker Jeremiah George and safety Jacques Washington, who finished 1-2 in tackles in the Big 12 in 2013 and finished their careers with 59 career starts combined. Iowa State seems to always have quality linebackers, so finding a replacement for Washington could be the defense’s top priority in the spring.

Kansas

Spring start: March 4

Spring game: April 12

What to watch: Shuffling the offensive coaching staff has been the theme of the offseason. New offensive coordinator John Reagan, who was a KU assistant from 2005 to 2009, returns to the Jayhawks after running Rice’s offense last season. The spring is Reagan’s first chance to identify the playmakers who will be the foundation of his offense this fall. Expect wide-open competition across the board after KU finished 115th in the FBS in points scored ... The quarterback position will grab the headlines, with T.J. Millweard joining the competition with Jake Heaps and Montell Cozart, who each started games in 2013. Millweard transferred to KU from UCLA before the 2013 season.

Kansas State

Spring start: April 2

Spring game: April 26

What to watch: Finding John Hubert’s replacement sits high on the Wildcats’ priority list. The former running back carried the ground attack for the past three seasons, and there’s no clear favorite to step into his shoes. Will someone step up during spring football? . . . What will happen with quarterback Daniel Sams? The Wildcats have a proven Big 12 playmaker in Sams, a junior, and another proven quarterback in Jake Waters. Sams is an exceptional open-field runner who started two games in 2013, but look for Kansas State to start exploring ways to have both on the field together this spring . . . Replacing Ty Zimmerman’s playmaking and leadership on defense is another key this spring. The defense has to replace several starters in the secondary and at linebacker. Keep an eye on junior college defensive back Danzel McDaniel, who has the versatility to step in at several different spots.

Oklahoma

Spring start: March 8

Spring game: April 12

What to watch: With Trevor Knight poised to start at quarterback in 2014, Blake Bell moves to tight end after starting eight games under center in 2013. Bell’s transition to tight end will be the talk of the spring, with the senior’s commitment to the program and OU's need for help at the position . . . The battle to be the starting running back is another storyline, with sophomores Keith Ford and Alex Ross hoping to make a statement this spring before ESPN 300 running backs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine arrive in the summer. Ford forced his way into the lineup as a freshman before an injury slowed him . . . The Sooners will be looking to shore up the secondary after the departure of All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin and starting safety Gabe Lynn. Sophomore Stanvon Taylor could be set to replace Colvin, while sophomores Hatari Byrd and Ahmad Thomas will battle to replace Lynn.

Oklahoma State

Spring start: March 10

Final spring practice: April 5

What to watch: Incoming freshman Mason Rudolph enrolled early to participate in spring football with the hope of replacing quarterback Clint Chelf. J.W. Walsh has won a lot of games in a Cowboys uniform, but will have to hold off stern competition to earn the starting spot as a junior . . . The Cowboys lose seven seniors off one of their best defenses in recent memory. The overall quality might be upgraded, but spring football will be the first chance to see if those talented yet inexperienced defenders are ready to step into the fire. Defensive end Jimmy Bean, linebacker Ryan Simmons and cornerback Kevin Peterson could emerge as the foundation of the defense . . . Who will step up at receiver? The Cowboys lose three of their top four receivers, with Jhajuan Seales as the lone returnee. But several youngsters appear poised to step in, including sophomore Marcell Ateman and redshirt freshman Ra'Shaad Samples.

TCU

Spring start: March 1

Final spring practice: April 5

What to watch: Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie have arrived to take over as co-offensive coordinators at TCU. The Horned Frogs need a jump start and could get it from the “Air Raid”-style offense the duo will bring to the table. This spring will be an important first step in improving the offense . . . Who will be the quarterback? Trevone Boykin started several games in 2013 but might actually be TCU’s top receiver. Tyler Matthews, a redshirt freshman, also saw time under center, but he faces stiff competition. Don’t expect the battle to end until fall camp . . . TCU needs someone to step up in the secondary, with Jason Verrett NFL-bound after spending the past two seasons as one of the Big 12’s top coverage cornerbacks. Ranthony Texada and Travoskey Garrett are among several young defensive backs who could try to fill the void.

Texas

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 19

What to watch: David Ash's health will be one of the main storylines of Texas’ first spring under coach Charlie Strong. Ash has the talent to be a key piece of the puzzle, but head injuries are always tough to overcome. If Ash is 100 percent healthy, the Longhorns will feel better about the overall status at quarterback . . . Strong has talked of instilling a tough mindset in Austin since he arrived in January, and spring football will be the first real taste of what the Longhorns’ new coach is trying to bring to the program . . . Where are the playmakers? Texas has a talent-laden roster, but didn’t have the exceptional talent who could consistently change games. This spring gives several returning skill players, including receiver Jaxon Shipley and all-purpose standout Daje Johnson, the chance to become the foundation of the offense in 2014.

Texas Tech

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 12

What to watch: Davis Webb's health is the No. 1 priority for the Red Raiders, who have seen three quarterbacks leave the program since the beginning of the 2013 season. Coach Kliff Kingsbury could have the toughest job of the spring as he tries to manage the lack of quarterbacks with the desire to have a productive spring for the roster as a whole . . . The Red Raiders have some consistency among the defensive coaching staff, meaning they could improve in 2014 despite losing multiple starters, including defensive tackle Kerry Hyder, linebacker Will Smith and safety Tre' Porter. Tech could start seeing dividends of that continuity . . . The Red Raiders have to replace Jace Amaro and Eric Ward, who combined to catch 189 passes for 2,299 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. Jakeem Grant and Bradley Marquez made a bunch of plays in 2013 and Devin Lauderdale, a junior college transfer and early enrollee, will get the chance to show why he had Texas Tech fans buzzing when he initially signed in February 2013.

West Virginia

Spring start: March 2

Spring game: April 12

What to watch: Finding a quarterback is critical for the Mountaineers, who have talent at the skill positions but won’t transform into an explosive offense without efficient quarterback play. Clint Trickett is recovering from shoulder surgery, meaning Paul Millard, junior college transfer Skyler Howard and former receiver Logan Moore will run the offense this spring . . . Tony Gibson takes over as WVU’s defensive coordinator after coaching the safeties in 2013. His promotion allows some continuity on the defense after former DC Keith Patterson left for Arizona State after the season . . . Replacing defensive tackle Shaq Rowell and defensive end Will Clarke, who started 56 combined career games for WVU, won’t be easy. The Mountaineers will lean heavily on veteran juniors Isaiah Bruce and Karl Joseph, who have started since their freshman seasons.
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 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. 3.

[+] EnlargeKeith Ford
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiKeith Ford could slide into the role as featured back for the Sooners.
No. 3: Running back Keith Ford

Why: The Sooners have to replace three senior running backs including Brennan Clay and Roy Finch, who had been the foundation of OU’s running game for the past three seasons. Ford is the favorite to be the guy in the backfield after making a strong impression as a true freshman. His physical, relentless running style will make him tough to beat out in the battle for carries this fall.

Incoming freshmen Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine bring their own unique traits, and sophomore Alex Ross has a combination of size and speed that is difficult to match. The quality competition at running back makes this spring an important group of practices for Ford, who will have the chance to cement himself a role in the offense before the freshmen arrive in the summer.

Best-case scenario: Ford looks like a three-down back who can handle the rigors of being an every-down running back while displaying the versatility to do anything the coaching staff asks of him. And, most importantly, he shows his struggles with fumbling the football are over. If that happens, the Sooners coaches can spend the summer coming up with ways to involve him in the offense.

Worst-case scenario: Ford continues to have trouble taking care of the football and loses his favorite status heading into the summer. Realistically, the Sooners have enough talent at the position to overcome any struggles Ford might have, but he’s an exceptional talent who should play regardless how many other talented backs are on the roster. So curing his fumble woes is a priority so he can help provide a quality running option alongside quarterback Trevor Knight.

No. 4: Center Ty Darlington

No. 5: Tight end Blake Bell
The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's regular feature, giving you a daily dose of recruiting in the mornings. Today’s offerings: Auburn already has one of the top 2014 classes, but it got even better this week after adding a solid, three-star junior college defensive back; and you didn’t see any Big 12 coaches on the final ESPN recruiter power rankings, but there were still several coaches who did plenty of good things on signing day.


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Spring football is just over the horizon.

Oklahoma is coming off a banner 2013 campaign featuring an 11-win season and a Sugar Bowl win over SEC power Alabama. Yet, the Sooners have several position groups they need to address if they hope to make a national title run in 2014. This week, we’ll take a closer look at the top-five position groups that need to improve during OU’s spring practices. On Tuesday, we continue the series with the Sooners running backs at No. 4.

The breakdown

[+] EnlargeKeith Ford
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiKeith Ford showed flashes of potential as a freshman and could be the favorite to become Oklahoma's featured back.
On campus: Keith Ford, So.; Alex Ross, So.; David Smith, So.

Summer arrivals: Joe Mixon, Fr.; Samaje Perine, Fr.

Summary: Oklahoma is replacing three departed seniors -- Damien Williams, Brennan Clay and Roy Finch -- who rushed for 4,824 yards during their careers in crimson and cream with a group full of sophomores and freshmen. The Sooners built their running game on the shoulders of the departed seniors for the past three seasons, a realization which brings concern and hope. The concern is about the lack of experience on the current roster, while the hope is from the understanding that Finch and Clay handled the burden of OU’s running game as sophomores.

Ford is the favorite to win the job after forcing himself into the lineup as a true freshman despite sitting alongside three veteran runners in the film room. Ford issues with fumbling the ball, but he averaged 5.8 yards per carry as a freshman and brings a tough, slashing running style to the table. Ford can prove his fumble troubles are behind him this spring and remove all doubt, while making himself the clear favorite to get the bulk of the carries in 2014.

Ross has a size/speed ratio that is difficult to match but has struggled with the miscellaneous duties of lining up at the running back position for the Sooners. If he ever begins to excel in his duties without the football, he’ll get more opportunities to show his special skills with the ball in his hands. And if it happens this spring, he could secure himself a role before elite recruits Mixon and Perine arrive in the summer.

Smith, who is well-liked by his teammates and respected for his commitment to the program, faces a long road to making a major impact in the backfield. This spring provides him the opportunity to change that.

Mixon will step on campus as the most versatile running back on the roster. He can run like an elite running back and catches the ball like a receiver. He could make an immediate impact.

Perine brings a tough, physical runner into the mix. He’s been quietly overlooked since committing to the Sooners last spring, but he joined Mixon in the ESPN 300 and could be the perfect complement to his fellow 2014 signee.

The list

No. 5: Tight ends

Top position classes: RBs 

February, 11, 2014
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With national signing day in the books, RecruitingNation is looking at the top position classes. For the full series, click here.

Nationally (and SEC)
Tennessee went into the 2014 class with a gigantic future need at running back, and coach Butch Jones and staff delivered for Volunteers fans in a big way. The Vols' running back haul includes not only ESPN 300 backs Jalen Hurd (Hendersonville, Tenn./Beech) and Derrell Scott (Havelock, N.C./Havelock) but also four-star Treyvon Paulk (Alpharetta, Ga./Milton). With different body types, styles and strengths, Tennessee added talent and depth for years to come as well as many different skill sets within the position. Hurd is tall, lean and chock-full of speed, athleticism and versatility, and Scott is a slasher with excellent ball skills out of the backfield. Paulk is a compact, downhill back with leg drive and power.

The Volunteers had the nation's best RB class; here's which schools had the best in each of the remaining power conferences:


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In the next few weeks leading into signing day it’s a great time to take a position-by-position glance at Oklahoma’s returning roster. This series, called State of the Position, will look at the playmakers, up-and-comers and current commitments or targets at each position for the Sooners as recruiting really heats up before signing day on Feb. 5. After kicking the series off with quarterbacks on Monday, we continue with running backs.

Starter/contributors: Keith Ford (sophomore)

The lone non-senior to see significant carries in OU’s backfield in 2013, Ford could have been a bigger contributor if he hadn’t suffered a case of fumblitis as he was starting to get into the rotation. He had at least five carries against Texas and Kansas and was emerging as a main threat at running back until his fumble against the Jayhawks. He never regained the coaches' trust until the Allstate Sugar Bowl when he resurfaced with the starters. He should be a main contributor in 2014 with his physical running style and decisive cuts. He had 23 carries for 134 yards and one touchdown.

On the cusp: Alex Ross (sophomore), David Smith (sophomore)

Ross is another talented youngster who could play a major role in OU’s backfield in 2014, although it’s clear Ford passed him on the depth chart last season. Ross brings a combination of size and speed that is hard to duplicate but he needs to bring consistency and gain the trust of the coaching staff before he becomes a guy the coaches can build a game plan around.

Smith didn’t have a carry as a redshirt freshman so he’ll have to take his game to another level to carve himself a role in the offense.

On the recruiting trail: Joe Mixon (Oakley, Calif./Freedom), Samaje Perine (Pflugerville, Texas/Hendrickson)

Mixon and Perine, two members of the ESPN 300, could become a nightmare duo for Big 12 defenses. Perine is a physical runner who will make defenders pay while running the ball and Mixon’s slippery running style and versatility could get him on the field alongside his fellow running backs. If both freshmen are ready to play -- meaning they’re ready to handle pass blocking responsibilities and everything outside of carrying the football -- the Sooners could have a deeply talented and young group.

Overall Grade: C

It’s going to be nice for running backs coach Cale Gundy to have a meeting room full of potential stars this fall. But none of them have accomplished anything as a Big 12 running back. Can they carry the load? Can they bring durability, dependability and versatility to OU’s offense? Can they make game-changing plays when the Sooners need a spark? Those questions are unanswered. Upside has never gained a first down … but it would be a surprise to watch the Sooners’ grade remain below a B at this time next year. There’s too much talent on the roster.
Oklahoma did what many thought couldn’t be done -- it shocked two-time defending BCS champion Alabama and ended its 2013 season with a 45-31 victory in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. The Sooners, a two-touchdown underdog entering the game, finished the year with an 11-2 record and left the Mercedes-Benz Superdome with one of the biggest wins in the program’s history.

Recruiting season has now hit Norman, and the Sooners hope to build off this win to find stars in the 2014 class. There are a couple of voids to fill from this year’s squad.


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Recruiting season is about to kick into high gear. As soon as Bedlam is over on Dec. 7, Oklahoma will hit the recruiting trails hard looking to secure the future.

[+] EnlargeDominique Alexander
William Purnell/Icon SMIOU didn't offer Dominique Alexander a scholarship until last October. Now he's a starting linebacker.
OU has been superb at finding late hidden gems in recent seasons, with cornerback Zack Sanchez, a redshirt freshman from the Class of 2012, and linebacker Dominique Alexander, a true freshman from the Class of 2013, already making an impact on the program after getting relatively late offers from the Sooners.

Here are some priority spots for the Sooners to address in their 2014 class during the final two months of this recruiting cycle. Keep in mind, this list has everything to do with the young players on campus at each position, not necessarily the guys who are playing at that position each Saturday in 2013.

Offensive tackle: Derek Farniok and Christian Daimler are the lone underclassmen at offensive tackle. OU badly needs depth at the position and should be aiming to land at least two offensive tackle prospects in this class. If redshirt freshman tight end Sam Grant ends up at tackle, that would help the cause and lessen the urgency, but its a high priority position in this year's class. Worse yet, there doesn't seem to be a lot of hope at the position with top prospects mentioning OU on their lists. Finding a hidden gem in December could be the top priority for offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh.

Defensive tackle: This position looks a lot better right now than it did a year ago with the early play of Jordan Phillips, a sophomore, and the emergence of Jordan Wade, a redshirt freshman. Nevertheless, there is no such thing as too many quality defensive tackles. The Sooners have one commit in Irving (Texas) Ranchview's Brandon Glenn, but that's not enough. OU needs to secure at least one more defensive tackle prospect to join Glenn and redshirting freshmen Matthew Romar and Charles Walker as the future at the position.

Linebacker: OU rallied to bring in two quality linebackers late in last year’s recruiting cycle with Alexander and Jordan Evans. Each committed to OU late in the process and became impact freshmen this fall. The Sooners need to supplement that duo with a least one more playmaker to join Allen (Texas) linebacker Tay Evans and Murrieta (Calif.) Vista Murrieta linebacker Curtis Bolton on their commit list. Several linebackers could be in play and keep in mind the Sooners did secure Alexander and Evans late in the process.

Running back: You can never have too many running backs. And OU loses three quality ball carriers in Brennan Clay, Roy Finch and the recently dismissed Damien Williams. Redshirt freshman Alex Ross has a good size/speed ratio, true freshman Keith Ford has terrific upside, and commitment Samaje Perine (Pflugerville, Texas/Hendrickson) is a member of the ESPN 300. But the Sooners need to add another quality runner into the mix. Oakley (Calif.) Freedom running back Joe Mixon, No. 72 in the ESPN300, would be an outstanding addition to this class.

Receiver: Even though the Sooners seem to have some solid youngsters already on campus, they don't have a proven game-breaking receiver outside of Sterling Shepard returning in 2014. But, and this is critical, they can't just use a scholarship to bring in another guy. With Tulsa (Okla.) Union receiver Jeffery Mead and La Mirada (Calif.) receiver Dallis Todd already committed, receivers coach Jay Norvell should think elite receiver or bust. Norvell should join Mike Stoops in doing whatever it takes to land Michiah Quick (Fresno, Calif/Central East), then fight for him to end up on the offensive side of the ball.
When the Red River Rivalry is played, records are thrown out the window. When the game’s over, some love looking into the future to play “what if” with the next batch of talented college players.

While both teams have some room to land uncommitted recruits, both are pretty happy with where they are currently. Texas has 24 commits, and Oklahoma has 14, and when comparing ESPN 300 athletes, Texas only has a 7-5 lead.

Which team has the Red River Rivalry recruiting edge this year? Here’s a breakdown of eight positions and which team holds the edge for now.

Quarterback

Perhaps the most competitive comparison between the schools is at quarterback. ESPN 300s Justice Hansen (Edmond, Okla./Santa Fe) and Jerrod Heard (Denton, Texas/Guyer) are the nation’s No. 4 and No. 5 dual-threat quarterbacks. Hansen is the Sooners’ top-ranked commit and has proven himself a first-class leader of the class. Heard already has one state championship ring, and he’s hoping for a repeat performance in December before arriving at the Forty Acres.

Advantage: Oklahoma

Dallis Todd
Erik McKinney/ESPNOklahoma will get 6-foot-5 playmaker Daliis Todd in its 2014 class.
Running back

There are high expectations for both ESPN 300 Samaje Perine (Pflugerville, Texas/Hendrickson) and Donald "Duke" Catalon (Houston/Eisenhower). Perine is a physical specimen with the combination of power and finesse at 6-foot and 213 pounds. Catalon, at 5-10 and 193 pounds, has the agility and overall balance to make him a potential every-down back. Texas also has three-star Kevin Shorter (Newton, Texas/Newton), a player who plays with a chip on his shoulder, looking to show that he should be mentioned with the elite talent.

Advantage: Texas

Wide receiver

Neither Texas nor Oklahoma will be complaining about their receiver crop. The Longhorns have an ESPN 300 player in Armanti Foreman (Texas City, Texas/Texas City), a rising star in Emanuel Porter (Dallas/Lincoln) and a player in Garrett Gray (Marble Falls, Texas/Marble Falls) who caught 13 passes for 293 yards and five touchdowns in a game last year. Oklahoma has size and athleticism in 6-5, 210-pound ESPN 300 receiver Dallis Todd (La Mirada, Calif./La Mirada) and a 6-7, 180-pound end zone threat in Jeffery Mead (Tulsa, Okla/Union)

Advantage: Texas

Tight end

Oklahoma has done well with recruiting tight ends and was able to land ESPN 300 players Carson Meier (Tulsa, Okla./Union) and Mark Andrews (Scottsdale, Ariz./Desert Mountain). Meier is the No. 5 Y-tight end in the country, while Andrews is the No. 8 H-tight end. Texas also has a good one in junior college pledge John Thomas (Bossier City, La./Trinity Valley Community College). At 6-6 and 255 pounds, Thomas can be used as both a reliable blocker and receiver.

Advantage: Oklahoma

Offensive line

It’s hard to believe that between the two schools, only three offensive linemen are committed.

Sooners commit Alex Dalton (Troy, Ohio/Troy) is considered one of the nation’s top centers, and guard Jonathan Alvarez (Mesquite, Texas/Horn), with his work ethic alone, will surprise a lot of people in a couple of years. Texas, like Oklahoma, has a four-star center committed in Terrell Cuney (Jasper, Texas/Jasper). Cuney is a player who might see immediate playing time as a freshman.

Advantage: Texas

Defensive line


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