Oklahoma Sooners: Stanvon Taylor
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.
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.
The nation watched with eyebrows raised as the Sooners throttled the two-time reigning BCS champions 45-31 in January then rode the momentum from that victory to a strong finish on the recruiting trail. The win could be a blessing as it showed the Sooners their potential, bringing visions of a national championship run into focus.
The downside? Those same players could hear the praise showered upon them in the offseason while forgetting the little steps and hard work that helped the Sooners overcome their inconsistent passing game to win 11 games.
“Talking to Jerry Schmidt, our strength coach, and all of our coaches who have been working and developing our guys out of season really believe that it’s been our best or one of our best years,” he said. “We’re really excited about the overall attitude and preparation and the way our guys are working.”
OU needs that dedication to continue, as the Sooners could be counting on several young players to fill critical roles in 2014, including sophomore running back Keith Ford, sophomore cornerback Stanvon Taylor and sophomore safety Ahmad Thomas. Those three are just a few signees from the Sooners' Class of 2013 who need to step up if a national title run is realistic.
Those young players get their chance to shine, as the start of spring marks the beginning of an intriguing time of year for Stoops.
“It’s really exciting,” Stoops said. “Probably my most exciting time of the year because you get to see the young guys that we’ve seen in practice now in a more competitive setting and fighting for jobs and making plays.”
OU’s closed-practice policy means those young players start to make their move out of the public eye. Nonetheless, those players who make names for themselves in March and April often become contributors in the fall. Defensive end Charles Tapper’s strong spring in 2013 was a precursor of his All-Big 12 performance as a sophomore last season.
“Not everybody in the outside world gets to see it,” Stoops said. “As a coach, [you] get to see it in scrimmages or when we go good against good, we start to see them make those kind of plays. It’s exciting when guys start to really figure it out and get ready to play.”
Ford, Taylor and Thomas are among several Sooners who played limited roles as true freshman as OU went 11-2 during their first season. But making an impact on special teams and proving themselves ready to become regulars in their second season are two different things. Those special teams duties can give them a taste of performing on the big stage while making them hungry to make an even bigger impact in the future. It’s one reason Stoops expects a hungry team to take the field this weekend.
“It’s always that way,” Stoops said. “Guys who have played a little bit or haven’t played at all are really champing at the bit to show they’re ready for it and that it’s their time now. That’s why it’s always so exciting.”
The Sooners' reaction to last season's success could be a concern because the majority of the roster had never won 11 games or a BCS bowl before last season. Safety Quentin Hayes, nickelback Julian Wilson, tight end Blake Bell and defensive lineman Chuka Ndulue are among several Sooners who were redshirting when OU last accomplished both of those feats in 2010, but nobody had been a core contributor on a Sooners squad that had that type of success before the 2013 campaign.
Yet Stoops seemed unconcerned during his pre-spring media session on Thursday.
“We’ve had probably the best winter we’ve ever had,” he said. “So, they’re not sitting back thinking about that and not doing what they need to do to move forward. I think more than anything, it’s made them hungrier to build on and to keep improving.”
An exceptional Sugar Bowl performance, a young and talented defense and renewed confidence in quarterback Trevor Knight has the Sooners eyeing a national title run in 2014. Yet that won’t happen without growth at several key positions, starting this spring. This week we’ll make five spring predictions, continuing with No. 2:
Why it matters: OU fans were less than impressed when the Sooners inked ESPN.com’s No. 17 recruiting class in February 2013. While the Sooners coaching staff swooped in to land a few late bloomers and potential hidden gems, OU fans were lamenting the recruits they had missed out on. Now, one year later, that class appears poised to have a significant impact on the program.
What it would mean: First off, it would underscore the value of evaluation and development. Secondly, it would mean the Sooners have a bright future ahead.
Linebacker Dominique Alexander was the Big 12 newcomer of the year, while running back Keith Ford, cornerback Stanvon Taylor, safety Ahmad Thomas, safety Hatari Byrd, receiver K.J. Young and guard Dionte Savage are on the verge of locking up starting spots. Cornerback Dakota Austin, receiver Austin Bennett, receiver Jordan Smallwood, defensive tackle Charles Walker, linebacker Jordan Evans, defensive end Matt Dimon and quarterback Cody Thomas are among several members of the class who could be contributors.
Over half the class appears ready to make an impact (or already has made an impact) heading into their second season on campus. This spring provides the opportunity for the majority of this class to prove they are ready and able to help spark a successful 2014 season in Norman, Okla.
While the class is appearing to develop quickly, OU has its fingers crossed that its development continues. OU’s hopes of competing for a Big 12 title and national title this fall rests on several members of this class. It’s critical for sophomores such as Ford, Taylor, Byrd and Young to become key pieces of the 2014 squad, otherwise the Sooners could be forced to turn to true freshmen.
No. 2: Cornerback
Why it’s important: The Sooners need someone to step into Aaron Colvin’s starting spot. Colvin was one of the Big 12’s top cover men in the past two seasons and helped a young defense exceed expectations in 2013. Replacing the three-year starter is easier said than done and the Sooners’ defensive system counts on its defensive backs to be able to hold their own in coverage.
Sophomore Stanvon Taylor: He started one game as a true freshman but will need to take his game to another level if he hopes to step into Colvin’s spot. He was groomed to be the guy but it won’t be given to him.
Sophomore Dakota Austin: He plays with a chip on his shoulder and has strong coverage skills but his lack of size (5-foot-11, 151 pounds) will always be a burden.
Freshman Tito Windham: The Sooners might have found a hidden gem in SEC country with the Mississippi native. He has the physical tools to insert himself into the competition.
Freshman Jordan Thomas: OU swooped in late to land Thomas but the key will be how quickly he transitions to college football. He’s a versatile defensive back who can play multiple positions.
Freshman Marcus Green: He could end up at cornerback, nickelback or safety in the Sooners’ system so it could take a while for him to settle in at one spot.
Best-case scenario: The Sooners use the spring to find a capable replacement, even if that means shuffling around the current secondary. Or Taylor rises to the occasion and locks down the position during the spring. He was Colvin’s protégé, has exceptional talent and probably the highest upside of any cornerback on campus.
Worst-case scenario: Johnson, Taylor and Austin have a competition that drags into the summer with none of them giving the Sooners confidence they can handle the starting spot. That would force the Sooners to search for ways to solidify the cornerback spot, which will be critical if they hope to have any success this fall.
1. TCU: TCU has been tenacious defending the pass since joining the league, and even without potential first-round pick Jason Verrett, that shouldn’t change in 2014. Sam Carter was the only non-senior to earn first-team or second-team All-Big 12 honors in the secondary last season, and Chris Hackett was one of the best underclassman defensive backs in the league last year. Derrick Kindred is primed to step into TCU’s third safety spot after playing a key role in the rotation. The Horned Frogs also add the nation’s No. 3 juco safety in Kenny Iloka. Throw in senior Geoff Hooker, and the Horned Frogs have an impressive five-man rotation at safety. At corner, Kevin White was honorable mention All-Big 12 last year, and will take over for Verrett as the primary corner. The Horned Frogs have several options at the other corner, including incoming three-star recruit Nick Foster.
2. Texas: After playing the nickel role last year, Quandre Diggs will settle back at cornerback in place of Carrington Byndom. Opposite Diggs will be the ultra-athletic Duke Thomas, who was so good in spring ball last year, he forced the coaches to move Diggs to nickelback. Together, Diggs and Thomas could give the Longhorns the best cornerback tandem in the league. Antwuan Davis, who redshirted in his first year, was an ESPN 300 signee and figures to play a big role somewhere in the secondary. Josh Turner (37 appearances) and Mykkele Thompson (12 starts in 2013) each bring a lot of experience at safety.
3. Oklahoma: Oklahoma graduates the heart and soul of the secondary in cornerback Aaron Colvin, who gutted his way through an array of injuries last year. But if the Sooners can find an adequate replacement for him, the Big 12’s best pass defense statistically in 2013 should be stout again. Julian Wilson (nickelback), Zack Sanchez (cornerback) and Quentin Hayes (strong safety) all return as starters, though Hayes could be pushed by Ahmad Thomas and incoming freshman Steven Parker for time. Hatari Byrd, an ESPN 300 signee last year, should step into the vacant spot at free safety. Cortez Johnson will try to fend off Stanvon Taylor, who played as a true freshman, for Colvin’s spot in the only real uncertain area of this secondary.
4. Kansas State: The Wildcats will miss All-Big 12 performer Ty Zimmerman, but his cohort, Dante Barnett, was one of the best young safeties in the league last year. Barnett was third on the team with 75 tackles and first with four interceptions. Randall Evans also returns after leading the team in pass breakups and gives the Wildcats a versatile defensive back. As usual, Bill Snyder will also be looking for some juco impact. He should get it in Danzel McDaniel, who was the No. 4 juco CB recruit in the country. Cornerback Jesse Mack also could prove to be a key juco signee. If both players pan out, this could become one of the better defensive backfields in the league.
5. West Virginia: The bad news is the Mountaineers had the Big 12’s worst pass defense last year. The good news is they bring back three starters. Karl Joseph has started the last two seasons at free safety, though he could slide to the strong side with Darwin Cook gone. Joseph has All-Big 12 potential, and he needs to elevate his game for the West Virginia defense to take another step forward. Veteran K.J. Dillon could be the front-runner for the job alongside Joseph, though Jeremy Tyler and Jarrod Harper will also be in the mix. West Virginia also brings back both starting cornerbacks in senior Ishmael Banks and Daryl Worley, who started as a freshman. The Mountaineers also signed Keishawn Richardson, the No. 8 juco CB, and Jaylon Myers, the No. 9 juco safety, for depth. Cornerback Dravon Henry, an ESPN 300 signee who had offers from Alabama, Florida State and Ohio State, could play immediately if one of West Virginia’s veterans struggle.
6. Kansas: The Jayhawks return all five starters from their secondary, including last year’s Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year, strong safety Isaiah Johnson. Returning cornerbacks Dexter McDonald and JaCorey Shepherd, a converted wide receiver, were both honorable mention All-Big 12 selections and give the Jayhawks one of the better corner duos in the league. Free safety Cassius Sendish started every game and had 12 tackles in Kansas’ only Big 12 victory in 2013, over West Virginia. Nickelback Courtney Arnick started in six games as a redshirt freshman. If this group collectively improves, Kansas could field a solid defense in 2014.
7. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys lose All-Big 12 cornerback Justin Gilbert, who might be selected high in the first round of the NFL draft after a stellar combine performance. The Cowboys welcome back one of the best young corners in the league in Kevin Peterson, who was terrific as a sophomore in coverage opposite Gilbert. Ashton Lampkin has experience, and he will likely fill the other corner spot unless someone else emerges. Lyndell Johnson, who made a transition from linebacker to safety last season, will take over full time at strong safety. The Cowboys will need someone else to emerge at the other safety in place of departed veteran starter Daytawion Lowe. Deric Robertson, Tre Flowers, Jordan Sterns, Taylor Lewis and Darius Curry, all from the 2013 recruiting class, are possibilities.
8. Texas Tech: How the Red Raiders retool here will be on one of the bigger spring storylines in Lubbock. Keenon Ward and Justis Nelson were thrown in the fire as freshmen last year, and they will be counted on to fill bigger roles. The gem of the incoming recruiting class, four-star cornerback Nigel Bethel II, could be asked – and has the capability – to play right away. The Red Raiders have to replace both starting safeties, including freshman Tanner Jacobson, who is going on a Mormon mission. To compensate, Tech signed six safeties, including Josh Keys, the No. 5 juco safety in the country, who had offers from Auburn, Georgia and Oklahoma State. Getting strong safety J.J. Gaines back from a season-ending injury will be a boost, too.
9. Baylor: The Bears are one of several teams in the league that were decimated in the secondary by graduation. Baylor loses four of its five starters, including All-American safety Ahmad Dixon. Safety Terrell Burt is the only returning starter, leaving the other four spots up for grabs. The Bears signed juco corners Tion Wright and Chris Sanders to help fill the void. Both are already on campus and will be battling Xavien Howard, Ryan Reid and Tyler Stephenson for a starting job. Orion Stewart, who backed up Dixon as a redshirt freshman, will likely step in his role, and fellow sophomore Kiante’ Griffin will be the favorite to take over at the nickel.
10. Iowa State: Cornerback Nigel Tribune was the only true freshman to play for the Cyclones last year, and he received votes as Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year. Tribune, however, is the only returning starter. Veteran safety mainstays Jacques Washington and Deon Broomfield are gone. In response, the Cyclones will look for Devron Moore and Qujuan Floyd, the Nos. 6 and 7 juco safety recruits, respectively, to step in immediately.
Here's a look at the battle to replace Colvin:
Spring contenders: Sophomore Stanvon Taylor; sophomore Dakota Austin; junior Cortez Johnson.
Summer contenders: Freshman Tito Windham; freshman Jordan Thomas.
The skinny: The Sooners won’t be able to replace Colvin, who was the best player in the secondary for the past three seasons.
Nonetheless OU needs someone to step up at the cornerback position opposite Zack Sanchez, a FWAA Freshman All-American who started all 13 games in 2013. Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops depends heavily on his defensive backs to be able to hold up in man coverage so he can come up with creative ways to terrorize opposing quarterbacks. That game plan falls apart if there’s a weak link in the secondary that is consistently being exposed.
Taylor, who started one game as a true freshman, spent the 2013 season as Colvin’s protégé, watching in the background while preparing to slide into his spot in 2014. That won’t happen if Taylor doesn’t take his game to another level, beginning this spring. The starting spot is there for the taking, but he’ll have to earn it with several other talented cornerbacks on campus.
Johnson, who started against Kansas State and Iowa State in Colvin’s absence, would bring an upgrade in size at the cornerback spot. At 6-foot-2, 201 pounds, he brings a physical presence that is unmatched by any of the other competitors.
Austin could be the most competitive of the contenders, but his lack of size (5-11, 151) is a major concern. The sophomore will be able to hold up in man-to-man coverage, but he’ll have to prove he can overcome his size limitations and play like he’s twice his size if he hopes to earn the starting spot.
Windham and Thomas arrive in the summer and could throw themselves into the competition as true freshman. Taylor and Austin escaped redshirt seasons in 2013 so there’s no reason to think Windham and Thomas can’t battle for immediate playing time.
Prediction: Don’t be surprised if there is some shuffling among some of the returning players in the secondary to help fill this void. If not, Johnson emerges as the front runner after spring. He passed Taylor on the depth chart during the 2013 season, so unless Taylor takes his game to another level, Johnson will emerge atop the depth chart. But, with two talented freshmen on the way, the lone certainty is that this battle will wage on deep into August.
Some Sooners will prove they are ready to make a major impact in 2014, while others could show they may 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, finishing with No. 1.
No. 1: Quarterback Cody Thomas
“I think he’s going to get, out of the football side of it, everything that he needs to,” OU offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said.
Thomas has the skills to be Knight’s backup and had a solid showing during his redshirt season.
“He’s a hard worker,” head coach Bob Stoops said. “He’s had a great fall with us. He’ll be OK.”
Watching how Thomas is progressing will be important for the Sooners, who will need a quality backup for Knight this fall. The coaching staff clearly has confidence Thomas can handle everything thrown at him, but the spring is his chance to prove it.
Best case scenario: Thomas handles his two-sport responsibilities with ease and proves ready to run the Sooners' offense if called upon. He shows the potential to be a starting quarterback in the near future and even provides strong competition for Knight, who is essentially entering the spring as the unquestioned starter.
Worst case scenario: Thomas doesn’t develop as quickly as necessary, leaving true freshman Justice Hansen as the top option as Knight’s backup. Uncertainty behind Knight could result in disaster this fall if the Sooners starting quarterback is forced to miss any time.
No. 2: Cornerback Stanvon Taylor
No. 3: Running back Keith Ford
No. 4: Center Ty Darlington
No. 5: Tight end Blake Bell
Some Sooners will prove they are ready to make a major impact in 2014 while others could show they may 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.
Why: Taylor is the first in line to replace Aaron Colvin, a two-time All-Big 12 cornerback. Colvin was at the heart of a lot of things the Sooners did to create problems for opposing offenses during the past two seasons. Taylor spent his freshman season as an understudy to Colvin, trying to soak in as much as he could from the Sooners’ top cornerback. This spring is his first opportunity to show what he learned.
Taylor started one game in 2013 and was a consistent presence on OU’s special teams, playing in all 13 games.
Best-case scenario: Taylor looks ready to start and be a consistent playmaker. The sophomore showed he was ready for college football during his first semester on campus but questions remain about his readiness to step into the starting lineup. The Tulsa (Okla.) native can remove all doubt with a strong spring that locks up a starting spot.
Worst-case scenario: Taylor isn’t ready to be a major part of the defense. He has a subpar spring and the Sooners are forced to turn to someone else to fill Colvin’s shoes. OU will have several other talented options on campus but Taylor was stamped with the heir apparent label for a reason.
No. 3: Running back Keith Ford
No. 4: Center Ty Darlington
No. 5: Tight end Blake Bell
Oklahoma is coming off a banner 2013 campaign, featuring an 11-win season and a Sugar Bowl victory over SEC power Alabama, but 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 Wednesday, we continue the series with the Sooners cornerbacks at No. 3.
On campus: Zack Sanchez, So.; Stanvon Taylor, So.; Cortez Johnson, Jr.; Dakota Austin, So.; L.J. Moore, So.; Daniel Brooks, So.
Summary: Similar to the running back position, the Sooners are loaded with talent at cornerback. But outside of Sanchez, Oklahoma is largely inexperienced. Aaron Colvin, a two-time All-Big 12 cornerback and three-year starter, and Kass Everett have moved on, leaving a void that will be difficult to fill. That void also means plenty of opportunity and competition this spring.
Sanchez showed his competitiveness and playmaking ability during a redshirt freshman campaign. He was picked on week after week with teams unwilling to challenge Colvin. Sanchez responded with 46 tackles and a team-high 13 pass breakups, as he started in all 13 games. Now, he needs to take on a mentor role as the most experienced cornerback on the roster.
Taylor was groomed to step in for Colvin during his first season with the Sooners. He started one game and played a key special teams role as a freshman. He has a strong hunger to succeed, which could push him into starting lineup as a sophomore. The spring will be his opportunity to show the coaches he’s ready to step up and try to fill Colvin’s shoes.
Austin arguably was the most surprising freshman to play his way out of a redshirt season in 2013. He’s undersized at 5-foot-11 and 151 pounds, but has exceptional feet and quickness. Don’t be surprised if he uses the spring to earn some type of role in the Sooners defense with his coverage skills.
Johnson started against Kansas State and played a backup role during his first season in crimson and cream after transferring from Arizona. He brings a terrific size/athleticism combination to the cornerback group, which could help distinguish him in the cornerback competition.
Moore is another talented sophomore who has the talent to earn a starting spot during the spring. He played the least of OU’s true freshman trio at the position, but he brings good height (6-1) and versatility.
Brooks didn’t play much on defense or special teams during his redshirt freshman season. He’ll have to use the spring to make an impression if he hopes to earn playing time in 2014.
Windham went from unknown to Semper Fidelis All-American after the Sooners unearthed what they hope will be a hidden gem. A Mississippi native, he has terrific speed, playmaking ability and ball skills, making an immediate impact well within the realm of possibility.
The Sooners hope Thomas develops into a versatile cover cornerback. He has good size (6-1, 175). Thomas joined the recruiting class late in the process, but he could insert himself into the cornerback competition immediately with his quickness and athleticism.
Thus it’s the perfect time to look back at OU’s last five recruiting classes. On Friday we end the series with an early review of the Class of 2013 including recruits who exceeded expectations, recruits who were solid signees and complete busts.
Linebacker Dominique Alexander: The Big 12 freshman of the year looks like a future star in the Sooners’ defense. His unusual maturity, instincts and hunger to improve should make him one of the Big 12’s top linebackers. He had 80 tackles and two forced fumbles in 13 games (8 starts) as a true freshman. The No. 115 athlete in the nation, Alexander is one of the top hidden gems the Sooners have unearthed in the past five years.
Running back Keith Ford: It went largely unnoticed due to the score but Ford was arguably OU’s featured back during a 36-20 loss to Texas. If fumble troubles had not emerged the No. 27 player in the ESPN 300 likely would have cemented himself as the Sooners’ back of the future as a true freshman, having surpassed Alex Ross on the depth chart. Nonetheless he appears set to have a bright future.
Cornerback Stanvon Taylor: The No. 199 player in the ESPN 300, Taylor started his third collegiate game against Tulsa. He played on special teams in all 13 games and will be in the competition to replace All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin after mentoring under the Sooners’ star for one season.
Linebacker Jordan Evans: Evans stepped in to have an exceptional game against Texas Tech to cement himself as an exciting prospect. The No. 82 defensive end in the nation, Evans could end up being a major contributor for the next few seasons in Mike Stoops' defense.
Guard Dionte Savage: The senior made his first start in the Sugar Bowl and had a solid performance in OU’s win over Alabama. OU signed him to provide depth in case injuries hit and he ended up providing depth when injuries hit, making it an ideal signing.
Defensive end Matt Dimon: The No. 284 player in the ESPN 300 worked his way onto the field as a true freshman and should be in the rotation as a sophomore. He played a special teams role as well including a blocked punt against Kansas.
Defensive tackle Charles Walker: The No. 40 defensive tackle in the nation, Walker redshirted in 2013 but already has been anointed as one of the most impressive redshirting players in the class. Don’t be surprised if he makes an impact as a redshirt freshman this fall.
Receiver K.J. Young: Much like Walker, Young has taken advantage of his redshirt freshman season and seems poised to see the field this fall. He impressed with his ball skills as soon as he arrived on campus but couldn’t play his way out of a redshirt season. Now, with OU looking for playmakers at receiver, Young could make a name for himself this fall.
Completely missed the mark
Tackle Josiah St. John: Junior college players are brought in to play immediately and have an impact in Year 1. The No. 6 player in the ESPN JC 50 did not make an impact despite some injuries at the tackle position.
Overall grade: A
This class has already made a major impact on the Sooners’ program in the 12 months since they signed. Alexander is the star of the class with several other true freshmen consistently seeing the field on special teams. And multiple freshmen who redshirted could earn spots on the field this fall. It’s early but this already looks like a quality class and much better than the No. 17 class in the nation.
Sanchez had ups and downs during his redshirt season but started all 13 games as his competitiveness never wavered. He gave up big plays against Kansas State and Alabama, then bounced back to make key interceptions against both squads. He was picked on throughout the season but matured into a key player on at the end of his first college season. Sanchez led the squad with 13 pass breakups, twice as many as any other Sooner.
Taylor started the third game of his college career against Tulsa and held up well. The Sooners will be looking for him to help fill the void left by two-time All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin. Taylor mentored under Colvin in 2013 and should be ready for a bigger role in the defense.
Johnson started against Kansas State and played a backup role in 2013, finishing with 16 tackles. He should compete to replace Colvin and earn more playing time as a junior.
On the cusp: Dakota Austin (So.)
Austin saw limited duty as a freshman, playing in four games and recording four tackles. He’s undersized but competitive with good coverage skills, so he could factor into the plans in 2014.
Daniel Brooks, a sophomore, is a small, quick prospect who has played multiple positions and bounced around from offense to defense during his first two years on campus, but he has the talent to work himself into a role.
On the recruiting trail: Tito Windham (Gulfport, Miss./Harrison Central)
The Sooners are confident they’ve found a hidden gem in Windham. They ventured into SEC country to find the Mississippi native. He can play a lot of different positions but appears destined to play cornerback. He’ll need some time to get used to playing corner, but he has the physical gifts to excel as early as 2014.
Overall Grade: A-
It will be impossible to replace Colvin, but the Sooners do return three cornerbacks who started games in 2013. Taylor, who has arguably the best upside of the group, was placed under Colvin’s wing as a freshman and gives OU a potential star at the spot. Johnson, Austin and Windham are talented and can provide quality depth.
Oklahoma's defense was the foundation of the team's drive to the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Mike Stoops' unit finished atop the Big 12 in passing yards allowed and total yards allowed while making sure the Sooners had the chance to win every game they played, even with constant uncertainty at quarterback. The defensive line was surprisingly good, the linebackers were much more productive than in 2012 and the secondary replaced several starters with relative ease.
Here are the position-by-position grades for the Sooners' defense.
Linebackers: A-. OU’s linebackers showed terrific improvement in 2013. Junior Frank Shannon and freshman Dominique Alexander, the Big 12 defensive newcomer of the year, finished 1-2 in tackles. Shannon played through nicks and bruises to finish with 85 tackles while Alexander finished with 75 stops after being thrust into the starting role against Texas. Add linebacker/defensive end hybrid Eric Striker to the mix and the linebackers were among the most productive groups on the squad. The versatility of Shannon and Alexander and Striker’s pass rushing skills are one reason the Sooners finished second in the Big 12 and No. 13 among FBS teams in third-down conversion percentage at 32.5 percent.
Cornerbacks: A-. Two-time All-Big 12 performer Aaron Colvin is an “A+++” performer. He showed toughness, leadership and exceptional coverage skills as a senior. With Colvin on the other side, redshirt freshman Zack Sanchez was constantly picked on by opponents but held up well and, most importantly, displayed the competitive nature every cornerback needs to succeed. Behind Colvin and Sanchez, freshman Stanvon Taylor and sophomore Cortez Johnson both made starts and earned valuable experience while providing quality depth. And nickelback Julian Wilson was stellar in his first season as a starter while tying for the team lead with three interceptions. OU led the Big 12 with 198 passing yards allowed per game, largely because of quality play from its cornerbacks and Wilson.
Safeties: A-. As good as the cornerbacks were, the safeties held their own in the defensive backfield. OU’s safeties were better in coverage this season than in 2012 while limiting big plays in the running and passing game. Gabe Lynn and Quentin Hayes weren’t dominant forces in the secondary but they were very good and played key roles while helping the Sooners to their 10-2 record.
Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops had just announced defensive tackle Jordan Phillips would miss the remainder of the season with a back injury during his weekly press conference in mid-October. One week earlier, Stoops had announced linebacker Corey Nelson would miss the rest of the year with a pectoral injury.
Just that quickly, the Sooners were eyeing the bulk of their Big 12 conference schedule without two of their top defenders. Phillips had been emerging as a force in the middle after the season opened with lots of questions about OU’s defensive interior, and Nelson had become the anchor of OU’s defense after the season began with major concerns about the lack of production from the linebackers.
A clear step backward was expected.
But it hasn’t really happened. For all intents and purposes, this Sooners defense has proven to have much better depth than anyone would have anticipated when the season began.
“No one thought we had any D-Linemen, now we’re two-deep,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “Dominique was a pleasant surprise, coming in and playing at the level he’s played at. We needed that or we couldn’t have survived. Guys have really come through.”
The stats have jumped in the last five games since Phillips and Nelson were lost for the year, with points allowed per game, yards per play and yards per game increasing. But so has the quality of the competition. And OU’s defense has remained the best and most consistent unit on the team, even without Nelson and Phillips.
“Some of the younger guys are playing are playing above their age,” defensive end Chuka Ndulue said. “They’re playing at a higher level than most young guys are expected to play.”
Alexander has 52 tackles in the last five games, averaging 10.4 tackles per game while becoming one of the most productive players on the defense. Wade and Peterson haven’t done much to be noticed, which is a good thing. As the anchors of a 3-man front, they aren’t expected to get numbers as much as they’re counted on not to get pushed around. The fact Alexander and fellow linebacker Frank Shannon usually sit atop the postgame tackle list speaks to solid contributions by Wade and Peterson, who are allowing the linebacker duo the freedom to make plays.
“We have a lot of positives our guys are taking away, even though you lose players it’s helping us transition,” Mike Stoops said. “Those are good things.”
The Sooners defensive coordinator points to the expectation of being a Sooner and the mental approach as the foundation of OU’s ability to handle the injuries without complete and total disaster.
“Consistently being tough and having pride about the way we play, that’s where it all starts,” Mike Stoops said. “That’s the most important element of defense, your attitude about it, regardless of who is in there, nobody cares who is playing. It’s how you play and how you attack each preparation each week. Our guys have been really consistent in those departments and that’s given us a chance.”
The ability to overcome those injuries has OU excited about the future, particularly with Alexander and Wade each in their freshman seasons and several other freshman, like cornerbacks Zack Sanchez and Stanvon Taylor, showing good long-term upside.
“You lose two leaders and two impact players, but at the same time it shows you what we can do with the players we have right now,” Ndulue said. “We’re playing at a high level with those two guys gone, so imagine the possibility if they were still here. We’re Oklahoma. We have pride. We have good players. Whoever is up to play has to be ready to step out there and make plays.”
The Sooners defense isn’t littered with five-star talent, a trend that’s led to some unrest by the Sooner faithful, yet the defense seems littered with plenty of young talent that has upgraded the overall speed and athleticism of the unit. Seeing young players like Alexander and Sanchez step up this season has validated the Sooners’ ability to evaluate somewhat overlooked recruits who can make an impact early in their careers.
“Watching some of our younger players play Saturday, we have a lot of good players that just haven’t had the opportunities,” Mike Stoops said.
But most importantly it’s been the expectation to excel which seems to have allowed OU to handle the loss of two critical pieces in the middle of the season and continue to field a defense that’s played well enough to win every game this season.
“If they’re at Oklahoma, they’re expected to play at a high level,” Mike Stoops said. “That’s all there is to it.”
ISU’s 2.5 yards per play on third down: Mike Stoops defense was dominant on third down, allowing just 35 yards on 14 third-down plays while holding ISU to 5 of 14 third down conversions. Frank Shannon, Gabe Lynn and Eric Striker each recorded sacks and safety Quentin Hayes grabbed his interception on third-down plays. OU’s defense stepped up in those clutch moments on Saturday.
OU’s 212-yard margin in the third quarter: The Sooners gained 231 yards in the third quarter compared to the Cyclones' 19 yards as OU pulled away after halftime. Brennan Clay had a 63-yard touchdown run and Williams added a 69-yard touchdown run as OU put the game away by averaging 14.93 yards per carry during the third quarter. OU came out of the locker room with a different focus and execution, allowing it to impose its will on ISU in the final half.
OU’s pass defense expected points added: The Sooners pass defense finished with 7.38 expected points added, an ESPN metric which essentially means that OU's pass defense contributed 7.38 points to the win. They rallied after ending the first quarter at minus-3.14 expected points added. They added 2.39 points in the second quarter, 3.35 points in the third and capped it off by adding 4.79 points in the fourth. Playing without All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin, the Sooners' secondary was solid with Cortez Johnson and Stanvon Taylor each playing well in Colvin’s absence.
OU’s 3.73 points per drive: The Sooners averaged 3.73 points per drive against the Cyclones, including a game-high six points per drive in the third quarter. OU is averaging 2.21 points per drive this season and the Big 12 average is 2.06. Florida State leads the nation with a 3.84 points per drive average. It was the second-most points per drive for the OU offense this season behind its 4.64 average against Tulsa. Seeing OU’s offense be so prolific with Knight, a redshirt freshman, behind center could be an encouraging sign for the future.
The true freshman has come a long way since preseason camp opened in August.
"I'm playing faster since my first start; I'm seeing things," Alexander said. "My coaches said my vision has gotten a lot better, seeing the whole play. I can see things a lot better with the more games I've played. I have a lot more confidence since my first game."
Alexander has been one of the most productive players on the Sooners' defense since Corey Nelson was injured against TCU. He has stepped into Nelson's role and recorded double-digit tackles in two of the four games, including an 11-tackle effort against Baylor last Thursday. He ranks third on the squad with 51 tackles.
"For a guy who has not been in the system at all until this summer he has shown great maturity on and off the field," defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. "He's a guy we can lean on and will be a strong player in this system."
Alexander has been a shining light during some cloudy days for the Sooners, who have lost two of their last four contests. And he isn't the only reason for hope for the future on the defensive side of the football.
OU entered the season with an inexperienced defensive unit, yet thanks in part to strong contributions from young, inexperienced players like Alexander, the defense has emerged as the strongest unit on the team. Alexander, linebacker Eric Striker, cornerback Zack Sanchez, defensive tackle Jordan Wade and defensive end Charles Tapper are among several freshmen and sophomores who have shown they can be the foundation of the Sooners defense in the future.
"All those guys show signs of building for the future," Stoops said. "I'm excited about all of our young players."
Striker is the Sooners' top pass rusher and has been terrorizing quarterbacks throughout the season. He has proven very difficult to block with one blocker in passing situations, and the sophomore is tied for the team lead with seven quarterback hurries to go with his 2.5 sacks.
Tapper has looked like one of the best defenders on the team at various times during his sophomore season. His strength, athleticism, quickness and speed could make him the nest great defensive end in Norman. He leads the team with 4.5 sacks and seven tackles for loss along with his seven hurries to tie Striker.
Sanchez has had ups-and-downs during his redshirt freshman campaign but has displayed the competitive nature that many stellar cornerbacks possess. He went from afterthought to starting every game of his first season on the field and should be a key contributor for years to come. He has been picked on throughout the season and has responded with a team-high 10 pass breakups.
Wade has stepped in for Jordan Phillips, who was lost for the season with a back injury. The redshirt freshman hasn't been the anchor or disruptive force that Phillips was becoming, but he has shown signs he could be a quality defensive tackle for the Sooners during his career. He has blocked two kicks and recorded one sack this season.
Several other youngsters, including cornerback Stanvon Taylor, defensive end Matt Dimon and linebacker Jordan Evans have had their moments, as well, during their true freshmen seasons and look like they could become the foundation of what the Sooners hope can be a championship defense in the future.
"I couldn't be more excited about what we are doing with a lot of these guys," Stoops said. "They show a strong desire to want to be good. They show a very competitive element. There's a lot to build on."
Top Returning Players: Big 12
BIG 12 SCOREBOARD
Final Washington State 45 Colorado State 48 Final 20 Fresno State 20 25 USC 45 Final Buffalo 24 San Diego State 49 Final Tulane 21 Louisiana-Lafayette 24
Final Pittsburgh 30 Bowling Green 27 Final Utah State 21 23 Northern Illinois 14
Final Marshall 31 Maryland 20 Final Syracuse 21 Minnesota 17 Final Brigham Young 16 Washington 31
Final Rutgers 16 Notre Dame 29 Final Cincinnati 17 North Carolina 39 Final Miami (FL) 9 18 Louisville 36 Final Michigan 14 Kansas State 31
Final Middle Tennessee 6 Navy 24 Final Ole Miss 25 Georgia Tech 17 Final 10 Oregon 30 Texas 7 Final 14 Arizona State 23 Texas Tech 37
Final Arizona 42 Boston College 19 Final Virginia Tech 12 17 UCLA 42 Final Rice 7 Mississippi State 44 Final 24 Duke 48 21 Texas A&M 52
Final Nebraska 24 22 Georgia 19 Final UNLV 14 North Texas 36 Final Iowa 14 16 LSU 21 Final 19 Wisconsin 24 9 South Carolina 34 Final 5 Stanford 20 4 Michigan State 24 Final 15 UCF 52 6 Baylor 42
Final 13 Oklahoma State 31 8 Missouri 41 Final 12 Clemson 40 7 Ohio State 35