Oklahoma Sooners: Stanvon Taylor

Spring football has come to a close at Oklahoma.

[+] EnlargeDakota Austin
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesOklahoma's Dakota Austin ended the spring as the starter at cornerback opposite Zack Sanchez.
The Sooners' 15 practices answered some questions, but others still remain. Now is the perfect time to update the some of the position battles that made this spring intriguing in Norman, Okla. On Tuesday we took a look at the offense. Today, all eyes turn to the defense.

Cornerback

Pre-spring: A trio of Sooners entered the spring set to battle to replace Aaron Colvin. Sophomores Stanvon Taylor and Dakota Austin joined junior Cortez Johnson in the competition. None of the three entered the spring as the clear favorite to secure the spot.

Post-spring: Austin had the best spring of the bunch, taking the field with the Sooners’ first-team defense in the spring game and holding his own. The sophomore is undersized (5-foot-11, 162 pounds) but good in coverage and has a chip on his shoulder. Injuries hampered Johnson’s spring, and Taylor didn’t make the move you would expect from a guy who stepped on campus with lofty expectations.

Summer outlook: Someone needs to seize the opportunity by taking their game to another level. Austin sent a message with a strong spring, but a few incoming recruits, including Tito Windham and Jordan Thomas, arrive in the summer with an eye on stepping up if nobody else makes it their spot to lose.

Free safety

Pre-spring: Sophomores Ahmad Thomas and Hatari Byrd each saw action as freshmen in 2013. With Quentin Hayes comfortably manning the other safety spot, letting the Class of 2013 signees compete for a starting spot was the plan.

Post-spring: Both guys look like they could be solid, trustworthy options at the position. Thomas has emerged as a player who should see the field regardless thanks to his versatility and athleticism, while Byrd has progressed as a playmaker.

Summer outlook: Depth, not the starters, is the main concern at safety. Thomas or Byrd could do the job, and Steven Parker arrives in the summer with a unique skill set that could make him tough to keep on the sidelines. Though the name of the starter at free safety remains unclear, the position doesn’t look like a potential weak link in the defense this fall.

Linebacker depth

Pre-spring: OU returned its two leading tacklers at the linebacker spot with Dominique Alexander and Frank Shannon, along with pass-rushing dynamo Eric Striker. It was a unit full of playmakers but questionable depth.

Post-spring: The depth questions remain and could get worse if Shannon, whose status is unclear after missing the spring game for personal reasons, does not return. Fortunately for OU, Jordan Evans looks ready to step in and fill the void if needed. Additionally, Devante Bond should provide another option for Mike Stoops’ defense, and defensive end Geneo Grissom even spent time at linebacker this spring. Alexander is a terrific foundation and Evans is unusually athletic at linebacker, so developing more depth is the lingering question.

Summer outlook: Shannon’s status is the main storyline of the summer. If he returns it's a big boost for the Sooners. If not, OU will likely turns to Evans, which is another hit to its depth. Incoming recruits Curtis Bolton and Tay Evans might be called upon sooner than anticipated.
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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, defense only, on OU’s spring finale. To be clear, this is an informal collection of my thoughts and observations after the spring game. For a more formal and general spring game review, check out this post from earlier today.

  • Linebacker Frank Shannon’s absence is disappointing, but Jordan Evans filled in at linebacker without looking like a weak link, much as he did against Texas Tech during his true freshman season a year ago. Evans is very athletic and comfortable in coverage. If Shannon, who is dealing with personal issues, is unable to return, OU can feel good about Evans’ spring-game production.
  • Ahmad Thomas looks like a potential difference-maker. He can play multiple positions in the secondary and he was consistently around the ball. A breakout sophomore campaign could be on the horizon.
  • The defensive line should be deep, athletic and productive. This unit could spark a special season if everyone continues to develop. From Charles Tapper to Jordan Wade to Charles Walker, it’s a very solid group of defensive linemen from top to bottom. Games are won in the trenches, so the Sooners should feel good about their chances this fall.
  • [+] EnlargeQuentin Hayes
    Mark D. Smith/USA TODAY SportsQuentin Hayes is a returning starter at safety, but depth is a concern there.
    Cornerback Zack Sanchez is another Sooner who looks as if he’s taken a step forward. If he continues to progress, Sanchez could become a player who opponents think twice about testing. He was competitive and active on Saturday and played like OU's best cornerback.
  • Sophomore Dakota Austin looked solid opposite Sanchez, but the search for the other half of OU’s cornerback duo should carry deep into preseason camp. Stanvon Taylor and Cortez Johnson are also in the mix, but nobody has taken the job and run away with it. The Sooners need to shore up this spot, as this concern could be considered the top priority on the defensive side of the ball heading into the summer.
  • Linebacker Eric Striker is on the road to making several appearances on "SportsCenter" this fall. The pass-rushing dynamo was terrific as a sophomore and it looks like he could be even better as a junior. He's exceptionally quick off the edge and has a knack for getting to the quarterback.
  • The safety position looks like it is in good hands with Quentin Hayes and Hatari Byrd, but the depth behind them is a major summer storyline. Thomas and Julian Wilson, who sat out the spring, could help at the position and incoming freshman Steven Parker has the talent to step in immediately. It’s not a problem if OU remains injury-free, but it’s football, so heading into the season without a Plan B is fool’s gold.
  • Kicker Michael Hunnicutt has earned his nickname “Munnicutt” and his leg strength has improved. He made two 40-plus-yard field goals, one with the wind at his back and one into the wind. He’s one of the nation’s most consistent kickers, so increased long-range production is a major bonus.
  • Final thought: The excitement surrounding the Sooners program heading into 2014 is well-earned. This team could find itself in the College Football Playoff if Trevor Knight is consistent and efficient under center and the defense takes another step forward this fall. But don't lock them into the national title conversation quite yet, as several young players need to continue to develop and take their games to another level and show they are ready to perform at a championship level, week in and week out.
Oklahoma’s defense appears loaded.

The Sooners defensive line could be the foundation of the defense and several playmaking linebackers return along with three of five starters in the secondary. There don’t appear to be many holes in a defensive unit that ranked among the Big 12’s best a year ago.

Cornerback is clearly the biggest question mark on the defense as the Sooners try to replace All-Big 12 performer Aaron Colvin. Stanvon Taylor, Dakota Austin and Cortez Johnson are battling to replace Colvin but nobody has clearly pulled away from the competition.

[+] EnlargeStanvon Taylor
John Rivera/Icon SMIStanvon Taylor is one of several OU players battling for time at cornerback.
“Stanvon Taylor and Dakota Thomas are playing the best out there at corner,” coach Bob Stoops said. “[But] Cortez is still in that mix very strongly.”

They’re competing hard but it’s been a friendly competition built upon learning and improving as an overall group at cornerback.

“Everyone’s working really hard and pushing each other,” Taylor said. “We’re all a team and we push each other to work every day.”

All three players saw limited action in 2013 with Taylor and Johnson earning starts when Colvin was injured and Austin seeing snaps in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Yet none of them played well enough to emerge as the favorite to replace Colvin heading into the spring and that hasn’t changed with the end of spring on the horizon.

“We are very competitive,” Johnson said. “Coach [Stoops] will make the call on who’s going to start, so I’m just going to keep being competitive.”

While Colvin is the man the Sooners are looking to replace, he will be gone but not forgotten this fall. He made a point to tutor Taylor and Austin during their true freshman seasons. He taught Taylor, who essentially arrived on campus as his protege, to forget his failings if he hoped to survive the ups and downs of the position.

“Just play and stay positive,” Taylor said of the best advice Colvin gave him. “I used to get frustrated a lot and he would tell me to keep my head up and keep getting better.”

Austin noticed completely different traits from the former Sooners standout.

“I learned instincts and just staying poised,” Austin said. “[I also learned] the speed of the game, certain antics that the offense does, just picking up on film work. That’s really the main thing, picking up on things the other team likes to do. He was really heavy on film and that’s something that I would like to adopt in my game.”

Saturday’s spring game could go a long way in helping to crown a winner of the battle if one of the trio pulls away from the competition with a breakout performance. The battle to replace Colvin has been one of the top storylines of the spring and it will continue to be the biggest concern on the Sooners’ defense until it’s resolved. And even then every team will test the victor until he proves he’s not the weak link on OU's defense.

“I know we’re going to get challenged and I feel like we have a group that’s up for it,” Austin said. “We really have a lot of aggressive guys, guys that are going to get after it. I wouldn’t want to do it with another group. I feel like we’re really going to get the job done. We’re really underrated and that’s what’s going to make it so much sweeter in the end.”
Oklahoma will hold its spring game on Saturday, and there are several storylines to keep an eye on for the Allstate Sugar Bowl champions. Here's a closer look at what to watch in OU's spring game.

When: Saturday at 2 p.m.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Knight
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesTrevor Knight won't play a lot in OU's spring game, but he has a chance to showcase his development.
Where: Oklahoma Memorial Stadium

What to watch for:

  • Has Trevor Knight continued to develop? Don’t expect the Sooners quarterback to get a lot of work during the spring game as his health is a top priority. Yet, Knight is still a young and relatively inexperienced quarterback who needs quality reps. The spring game will show if he carries himself like a veteran and if his teammates are responding to him as the man in command of OU’s offense. A strong one or two series would show Knight is continuing to develop as a player despite not being pushed by daily competition for the starting job.
  • What about behind him? Quarterbacks Cody Thomas, a redshirt freshman, and Justice Hansen, a true freshman, are raw and untested. The spring game gives the duo the chance to show they can handle the No. 2 quarterback job if called upon in the fall. Thomas has been splitting his time with the Sooners’ baseball team with no ill effects on his football duties, while Hansen enrolled early and is adjusting to life as a college football player.
  • Who will get the bulk of the carries? OU will welcome ESPN 300 signees Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine to its running backs group this summer. So this spring is the opportunity for sophomore running backs Keith Ford and Alex Ross to cement their spots at the front of the line alongside Knight. Ford was a pleasant surprise as a true freshman. He earned carries before fumble troubles placed him on the sideline. Ross has been one of the stars of the spring with coaches and teammates alike lauding his explosiveness in scrimmages. Saturday is their chance to show they’re ready to fill the void left by the departures of Brennan Clay, Damien Williams and Roy Finch.
  • DB Ahmad Thomas: It would be a surprise if Thomas doesn’t see the field a lot this fall. The sophomore is proving to be versatile and talented while lining up at multiple positions in OU’s defense. After enrolling early in January 2012, Thomas played in 12 games as a true freshman and finished with nine tackles in limited action. Now, he appears poised to be a key piece of the Sooners defense as a sophomore. The Sooners are tinkering to find the best spot for Thomas, but a strong spring game could reaffirm his place as one of the breakout stars this spring.
  • New names: Several young players are creating a buzz, including receiver Jordan Smallwood, cornerback Dakota Austin and defensive tackle Charles Walker. Smallwood’s name has repeatedly come up this spring, as he’s made a solid impression after missing the 2013 season with a broken foot. Austin has been competing with Stanvon Taylor and Cortez Johnson to replace All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin, and, while undersized, his coverage ability and competitive nature have shone through. Walker has earned a reputation as a future star with his exceptional size and speed combination, so Saturday will be the first glimpse at the redshirt freshman. The spring game will give that trio and many other young Sooners the opportunity to show they can be contributors on offense or defense in 2014.
Spring football at Oklahoma provides opportunities for players to make a move and become names to know for the future. It's also a opportunity for us to decode what the coaches and players have to say. So let's take a shot at it. Here’s a look at some things that have been said, and what it could mean for the future:

[+] EnlargeTrevor Knight
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesHow good can Trevor Knight be for the Sooners in 2014?
Offensive coordinator Josh Heupel on the quarterback’s progress: “They’re all young. I mean Trevor [Knight] is heading into his second year. The rest of those guys have been out of high school less than 12 months. They’re all young so they make some mistakes, some simple things that you’d like them to make sometimes.”

What it could mean: Let’s settle down on the Trevor Knight hype. The Sooners, understandably, would want to slow down the hype machine on Knight, who has been called, in some circles, one of the best young quarterbacks in the nation. And it’s mostly based off one exceptional game.

Every time Heupel is asked about the quarterbacks behind Knight, he reminds everyone that Knight is approaching his redshirt sophomore season and is still a young player. It’s smart of Heupel to put a damper on expectations because it would be nearly impossible to match his Sugar Bowl performance on a weekly basis this fall, particularly since Knight is in line to make just the sixth start of his career against Louisiana Tech on Aug. 30.

Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops on the depth at safety: “We are playing a walk-on as our backup No. 2 safety, so there is going to be opportunities, and hopefully those guys will come in and produce for us. They are going to have to.”

What it could mean: Steven Parker, you better be ready to play. Parker, an ESPN 300 safety and one of the headliners of OU’s recruiting class, has the talent to make an immediate impact. Stoops' words show OU will need him to help right away. It’s not crazy to think he could work his way into the starting lineup but he should, at the very least, make an appearance on the two-deep this fall. Stoops didn't call Parker out by name, but Parker needs to be prepared.

Charles Tapper on the Sooners’ overall approach: “This is a new year, a new season and a new beginning. We have to keep that same chip we had on our shoulder all last year and just keep getting better.”

What it could mean: This could be the most important thing that was said so far this spring. The Sooners had a major chip on their shoulder heading into the Allstate Sugar Bowl, and Alabama paid the price in a 45-31 Sooners win. If OU players and coaches keep the same chip on their shoulder and same hunger they carried into the final stretch of 2013, they could make a national title run in 2014.

Mike Stoops on replacing Aaron Colvin at cornerback: “All three of them [Stanvon Taylor, Dakota Austin and Cortez Johnson] have improvement to make, but they are getting better. They are working at it and just need to be more consistent. There is too much up and down, one good play and one bad play.”

What it could mean: Freshmen Jordan Thomas and Tito Windham could have an opportunity to make an immediate impact, just like Parker. While the cornerback situation is not as dire at the safety spot, Thomas and Windham could play their way onto the field with strong summer and August performances. The three competitors this spring are inexperienced but talented, yet they clearly aren’t as consistent as Stoops would like to see.

Bob Stoops on leadership:Daryl [Williams] has been awesome with the whole team and offense and has really taken hold of that in the weight room and in our workouts and here at practice.”

What it could mean: Any time Stoops is asked about leadership, Williams comes to his mind immediately. The OU coach is hoping Williams takes a role similar to Gabe Ikard, whose leadership was critical during the Sooners’ Sugar Bowl run. The similarities are striking, with Williams entering his senior season with a ton of experience and being considered the cornerstone of the offensive line. Whether it’s Williams or someone else, it will be critical for the Sooners to have good leadership and veterans policing the locker room if they hope to be in title contention this fall.
Zack Sanchez grew a lot during his redshirt freshman season at Oklahoma.

The Sooners cornerback was thrown into the fire, starting his first collegiate game after Cortez Johnson was suspended for the first game of 2013. Sanchez seized the opportunity and never let go, starting 13 games and earning FWAA Freshman All-American honors while leading the team with 13 pass breakups.

[+] EnlargeZack Sanchez
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiZack Sanchez led Oklahoma in pass breakups as a redshirt freshman and will be counted on as a leader in the Sooners' secondary.
This spring, OU’s defense is counting on Sanchez to continue to exceed expectations. Despite preparing for his sophomore season, he’s become the veteran of the Sooners cornerback group with Aaron Colvin heading to the NFL. The eyes that turned to Colvin during tough times in 2013 will now turn Sanchez’s way when adversity hits this fall.

With the mantle passed to him, Sanchez began to try to step up his leadership during winter workouts.

“I had to take essentially the same role as [Colvin],” Sanchez said. “Being the oldest guy or most experienced guy at corner, I had to take the leadership role through winter workouts and spring. I have to be more vocal to the younger guys and lead by example so they see that I’m doing it right and not just talking about it.”

Sophomores Stanvon Taylor and Dakota Austin fill the bill as young guys who could learn from Sanchez’s experience in 2013 even though they’re in the same boat eligibility-wise. Sanchez had ups and downs but, thanks in part to Colvin, was able to prevent the valleys of his freshman season from becoming canyons.

“He went through a learning process a year ago and has become a better player,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “I think you learn from your experiences and that’s what playing does for you, it gives you a lot of experience to fall back on, and I think that’s what he’ll do this year. He’ll be a much more complete player than he was a year ago. Hopefully he’ll be much bigger and stronger player, he needs to become that.”

OU is turning to him to become a leader, but he needs to become a better cornerback as well. Teams picked on Sanchez in 2013, but he competed well enough to win his share of battles. But this season he’ll be asked to do even more for OU’s defense, including trying to slow the likes of Baylor’s Antwan Goodley and Kansas State’s Tyler Lockett as the Sooners’ top cornerback.

Sanchez is hopeful the experience and mentality he gained as a redshirt freshman will pay off in 2014, not only for himself but for his teammates as well.

“I grew up really fast,” he said “I think I had to. Being young can’t be an excuse for that long or you’ll get pulled off the field. I learned from a lot of things and I feel really strong going into spring and I’m excited for what the future holds.”
Spring practice is in its infant stages but Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops has some encouraging words for anyone concerned about replacing All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin.

“They’re competing at a higher level and that’s what we need,” said Stoops, of those battling to fill the void in OU’s secondary.

[+] EnlargeStanvon Taylor
John Rivera/Icon SMIStanvon Taylor is in prime position to earn a starting cornerback job this spring.
Sophomore Stanvon Taylor, junior Cortez Johnson and sophomore Dakota Austin are the cornerbacks battling to replace Colvin. All three players saw time behind Colvin in 2013 but none of them separated themselves with their performances.

With Colvin battling a head injury, Taylor started in his third collegiate game against Tulsa, but his production tapered off as his freshman season progressed.

“It’s a lot faster game,” Taylor said of getting his feet wet as a true freshman. “You’ve got to be able to read a lot of stuff and know the offense and know formations -- all the things that come with football. You’ve just got to be ready to go.”

Johnson started against Iowa State and Kansas State but didn’t lock down "favorite to start" status heading into the spring. Austin saw limited duty on defense but has strong coverage skills. OU is hopeful their 2013 playing time, although limited, will pay off this fall.

“They’re green in a lot of ways,” Stoops said. “Just getting them out there and getting them in that environment, I think they understand how much they need to improve to get out there and play confidently. That’s the lesson they learned, that they need to get a lot better. Those experiences, hopefully, will process to them that they need to be in a better position than they were a year ago.”

OU returns Zack Sanchez on the opposite side of the defense, giving the Sooners' secondary at least one proven cornerback to build around this fall. He knows the importance of having a solid pair of bookend cornerbacks.

“It’s huge,” Sanchez said. “Stanvon, Dakota and Cortez are all doing a great job. They’re all making plays and it’s kind of up in the air right now. It’s going to be a tough decision for coach. All those guys are competing and all look really good.”

Colvin’s inner drive and competitiveness make replacing him an unenviable task. Taylor was mentored to slide into the spot but the job is open for the taking with all three players in hot pursuit this spring. If nobody steps up it creates a potential problem in a unit that could be one of the Big 12’s best. Stoops would have to turn to a true freshman (Tito Windham or Jordan Thomas) or prepare to provide help for one of the most important spots in his defensive system.

“We’re getting better,” Stoops said. “I think there’s improvement. We’re all kind of finding our way and we need one or two of them to, hopefully, separate themselves and take control of that position. I don’t think anyone’s done that at this point but, overall, we’re better at that position with those three guys. But I’m not saying that they’re at the same level as Aaron. They’re heading in the right direction.”
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.
NORMAN, Okla. -- Oklahoma’s Sugar Bowl win over Alabama could end up being a blessing or a curse.

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.

[+] EnlargeKeith Ford
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiSophomore running back Keith Ford is one of many hungry young Sooners that are eager to build on last season's success.
OU coach Bob Stoops is confident that won’t happen to his team. The veteran coach is convinced his team is as hungry as ever as OU’s spring football gets under way on Saturday.

“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.”
Oklahoma begins its spring football drills on Saturday.

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:

[+] EnlargeStanvon Taylor
John Rivera/Icon SMIStanvon Taylor looks ready to make a leap in his sophomore season and become another stalwart in Oklahoma's 2013 class.
No. 2: The Sooners’ Class of 2013 shows signs it was vastly underrated.

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.

OU spring position battles: No. 2

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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 themselves the favorite to start or become a significant contributor during spring drills with several starting spots open heading into 2014. This week we’ll review the top five position battles to keep an eye on this spring, continuing with cornerback.

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.

Competitors

[+] EnlargeCortez Johnson
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsCortez Johnson provides some experience in the secondary.
Junior Cortez Johnson: The Arizona transfer brings size (6-foot-2, 201 pounds) and he started two games in 2013. He’s the most experienced cornerback in the competition.

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.

Summer arrivals

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.

Potential outcomes

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.

Big 12 pre-spring breakdown: DBs

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
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As we await the start of spring ball, we’re examining and ranking the positional situations of every team in the Big 12, continuing Wednesday with defensive backs. Some of these outlooks will look different after the spring. But here’s how we see the defensive back groups going into the spring:

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.
Spring practice is just over the horizon for Oklahoma. The Sooners defense could develop into the Big 12’s best in 2014. It won’t reach those heights without replacing two-time All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin.

Here's a look at the battle to replace Colvin:

[+] EnlargeStanvon Taylor
John Rivera/Icon SMIStanvon Taylor could be poised to take over for All-Big 12 corner Aaron Colvin in Oklahoma's secondary.
Departed (2013 stats): Colvin was fifth on the team with 55 tackles in 2013. He added three pass breakups, one sack, one interception and one fumble recovery. His competitive nature and leadership example will be missed.

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.
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 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

[+] EnlargeCody Thomas
AP Photo/Alonzo AdamsCody Thomas hopes to emerge as Trevor Knight's backup this spring for Oklahoma.
Why:With Blake Bell's move to tight end and Kendal Thompson's transfer, the Sooners need someone to step up and emerge as Trevor Knight's backup. Thomas will be splitting his time with the baseball team, making his development and ability to focus even more important this spring.

“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
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 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.

[+] EnlargeStanvon Taylor
John Rivera/Icon SMIBig things are expected from Stanvon Taylor this season.
No. 2: Cornerback Stanvon Taylor

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

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