Oklahoma Sooners: Sterling Shepard
Oklahoma receivers coach Jay Norvell has several pass catchers in his meeting room who have made occasional plays for the Sooners, showing glimpses of their playmaking ability. This season OU is counting on those players to transform into consistent playmakers. If they don’t, OU could find itself with a passing offense that is shooting blanks.
Sterling Shepard qualifies as "really good".
The Sooners’ leading returning receiver will take over for Jalen Saunders as OU’s go-to receiver after two seasons as a complementary piece in OU’s offense. Outside of Shepard, the Sooners' returning receivers combined for 17 receptions and 228 receiving yards in 2013.
Durron Neal's 22-yard catch against Kansas State and Derrick Woods' 20-yard reception against Alabama provided glimpses of their potential. The duo joined Shepard in the same recruiting class but have been looking up at him on the depth chart for their first two years on campus. Neal was one of the nation’s top receiver recruits out of high school, and the Sooners held off a late charge from USC to secure Woods.
Making the occasional play is no longer acceptable for Neal or Woods; it’s either step up or lose their spot. Sophomore Austin Bennett joins redshirt freshmen Dannon Cavil, Jordan Smallwood and K.J. Young as highly regarded receivers nipping at their heels this spring. And four freshmen signees, including ESPN 300 receiver Michiah Quick, will arrive this summer with the goal of forcing themselves into the competition.
The overall depth of talent at the position is one reason the Sooners aren’t overly concerned about finding pass catchers for starting quarterback Trevor Knight.
“It’s a good group, they just haven’t had a ton of time on the field,” said Sooners coach Bob Stoops, who likened the receiver position to OU’s defensive line group, which was a major question mark last spring before blossoming into a major asset in the fall.
“These guys have been developing, training [and are] ready to take over. Those guys are just going to have to be more consistent [to] stay on the field.”
Shepard is the lone known commodity, with all-conference honors in his sights after 51 receptions for 603 yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore. He’s tough as nails, competitive and rises to the occasion in big games, with four of his seven scores coming in wins over Notre Dame, Kansas State and Alabama.
The Sooners' search for consistent receivers is reminiscent of two springs ago in Norman, Okla., when OU had just lost NCAA all-time receptions leader Ryan Broyles and returned Kenny Stills, who had been a key player during his first two seasons but was being counted on to anchor the receiver spot for the first time in his career. Norvell turned to Stills to raise his overall game and leadership that spring, much like he’s asking from Shepard over the next 12 practices.
“When you become a leader, you gotta make everybody else better,” Norvell said of his only veteran receiver. “He’s not competing against guys here, he’s competing against guys around our league, around the country. He’s got to raise the standard in his game.”
OU hopes the similarities between 2012 and 2014 stop at the concerns about the receiver spot during spring football. In 2012, the Sooners added transfers Justin Brown (Penn State) and Saunders (Fresno State) in the summer after post-spring suspensions took Jaz Reynolds and Trey Franks out of the equation. OU hopes its young receivers improve enough this spring to remove all doubt about the position heading into the summer while creating depth that can withstand any unexpected hits before August.
“It’s a competitive group,” Norvell said. “We’re extremely competitive in the spring, the whole group gets graded every single day on every snap, so it's really easy to know who the best players are. We have a bunch of young guys who have shown flashes but now it’s about being able to go out every day compete and make plays. So, we’ll see who rises to the top.”
With an exceptional Sugar Bowl performance, a young and talented defense and renewed confidence in quarterback Trevor Knight, the Sooners are 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 at five spring predictions, continuing with No. 4:
Why it matters: The Sooners need to find balance and consistency on offense. It’s hard to imagine that scenario with Sterling Shepard as the lone consistent playmaker on the end of Knight’s passes. Oklahoma has a receivers meeting room overflowing with talent but Shepard is the only proven commodity. The Sooners need at least two other receivers to step up and become playmakers this spring.
What it would mean: OU wouldn’t need one of its four receiver signees to make an immediate impact this fall. Michiah Quick’s playmaking might earn him a role regardless, but the Sooners don’t want to count on one of those youngsters this fall. The football I.Q. and attention to detail required to excel as a true freshman receiver makes it a slippery slope to lean on those newcomers when chasing a national title.
It’s hard to believe that none of the Sooners receivers will step up this spring. Durron Neal, Derrick Woods, K.J. Young and Jordan Smallwood are legit candidates to help provide additional targets alongside Shepard. Young has impressed with his hands and ability to make plays on the scout team; Smallwood might have played immediately without a foot injury last summer and Neal understands this spring is his opportunity to start fulfilling the promise he showed when he signed in February 2012. Austin Bennett and Dannon Cavil also have the chance to rise to the occasion this spring.
Quite frankly, it doesn’t matter who steps up, as long as two or more Sooners’ pass-catchers recognize and seize their chance to become a critical part of OU’s offense. Keep an eye on Young and Smallwood, who would bring a unique playmaking combination alongside Shepard.
With spring practice off and rolling, plenty of questions surround the league’s programs. And while many of those won’t be fully answered until the season begins in the fall, here are some of the biggest ones Baylor, Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State and Oklahoma will face this spring:
How will Baylor replenish its secondary?
Can Mangino turn Iowa State’s offense around?
As a big part of their disappointing 3-9 record last season, the Cyclones ranked ahead of only Kansas in Big 12 scoring offense. As a result, Paul Rhoads fired offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham and brought in Mark Mangino to revive the Iowa State attack. Mangino was offensive coordinator during Oklahoma’s national championship season, and he took Kansas to the Orange Bowl. His track record as an offensive mind is not in dispute. But can he turn around an offense that hasn’t ranked higher than ninth in the Big 12 in scoring since 2005? Mangino will have some pieces to work with. Wideout Quenton Bundrage, running back Aaron Wimberly and quarterback Grant Rohach all had moments in 2013. Whether Mangino can put them in position to produce a lot more of those moments will go a long way in determining if Iowa State can bounce back.
Can Harwell fill Kansas’ go-to WR need?
Kansas’ lack of production at receiver the past few seasons has been astounding. Justin McCay caught a touchdown pass in the 2013 opener to become the first Kansas receiver to catch a touchdown in almost two full seasons. But Kansas receivers would catch only two more touchdowns the rest of the season (for context, Baylor receivers totaled 35 such grabs). Senior transfer Nick Harwell, however, could be the answer to that woeful drought. Two years ago at Miami (Ohio), Harwell led the Mid-American Conference with 7.6 receptions and 96.7 receiving yards per game while earning All-MAC honors. Going into his final college season, Harwell already has 229 receptions for 3,166 yards in his career. Oh yeah, he has 23 touchdowns over those three years, too. The Jayhawks have desperately been in search of a go-to receiver. They’ll find out this spring whether they can stop that search.
What will K-State do with Sams?
Daniel Sams proved to be one of the league’s best playmakers last season, leading all Big 12 quarterbacks with 807 rushing yards and 15 total touchdowns. Sams’ role, however, diminished late in the season, as Jake Waters emerged as the majority-of-the-time quarterback. Sams is too dynamic with the ball in his hands to watch games from the sidelines. But Waters isn’t going anywhere at quarterback, either. Before the bowl, Sams hinted that he’d like to try another position to get onto the field more. K-State whiffed on signing a quarterback last month, so Sams will still have to keep ties with his old position for depth purposes. But the spring will also give the Wildcats the opportunity to experiment using Sams elsewhere -- like receiver -- if they so choose.
How will Oklahoma build on the Sugar Bowl?
By beating Alabama, the Sooners notched arguably the program’s most significant win since defeating Florida State all the way back in the 2000 national championship game. After struggling at times during the 2013 season, the Sooners suddenly have the look of a preseason top-five team going into 2014. Yet, in many ways, this is still a very young team. QB Trevor Knight has only five career starts, two of which he left early due to injury. Projected starting running back Keith Ford has loads of potential, but only 23 carries in his college career. And of the returning receivers, only Sterling Shepard delivered more than 13 catches last season. In the Sugar Bowl, OU flashed its capability. And the Sooners have tons of momentum, underscored by their furious recruiting finish. But to be a legitimate national title contender this fall, the Sooners can’t rest on their laurels of besting the Tide. And OU’s young players have to continue building off that experience.
1. TCU: Honorable mention All-Big 12 place-kicker Jaden Oberkrom was 13 of 14 on field goals inside the 50 last season and drilled a 56-yarder late in the fourth quarter at Kansas State. B.J. Catalon was second in the league in kickoff returns and took one to the house in the opener against LSU. Freshman Cameron Echols-Luper took his first punt return 51 yards and had a 41-yarder in the season finale against Baylor. Brandon Carter has had moments in the return game in the past as well. Ethan Perry will be a three-year starter at punter, rounding out a formidable special teams unit.
2. Baylor: Corey Coleman led the league in kick returns, and Levi Norwood scored twice off punt returns. The Bears are loaded with potential game-breakers in the return game and welcome back All-Big 12 punter Spencer Roth. If Kyle Peterson proves to be a reliable replacement for departing kicker Aaron Jones, this special teams unit will have no weakness.
4. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders will feature a lethal one-two punch in the return game in Jakeem Grant and Reginald Davis, who took a kick back for a touchdown in the bowl game. Receiver Jordan Davis also has return experience. Kicker Ryan Bustin returns after garnering honorable mention All-Big 12 honors last year.
5. Oklahoma: The Sooners lose the most explosive return duo in the league in Jalen Saunders and Roy Finch. Sterling Shepard and Alex Ross could be among the players who replace them. Oklahoma boasts the league’s most efficient returning place-kicker in Michael Hunnicutt, who nailed 24 of 27 field goal tries last season. The Sooners have a secret weapon in Nick Hodgson, who led the league in touchback kickoffs last season. Jed Barnett, fifth in the Big 12 in punting average last season, returns as well.
6. Iowa State: The Cyclones had four players make first- or second-team All-Big 12 last season, and departing punter Kirby Van Der Kamp was one of them. Replacing his production won’t be easy, though incoming three-star freshman Colin Downing will try. DeVondrick Nealy, Jarvis West and Aaron Wimberly all had several dynamite moments returning kicks. Cole Netten was 13-of-18 on field goals as a freshman,
7. West Virginia: Nick O'Toole leads the Mountaineers on special teams. The “Boomstache” was 15th nationally in punting last season. The Mountaineers have all their returners back in Wendell Smallwood, Mario Alford and Jordan Thompson, though more big plays are needed from this group -- the Mountaineers ranked last in the league in both punt and kick returns in 2013. Josh Lambert comes back after making 17 of 23 field goals as a freshman. The Mountaineers also enjoy a luxury in Michael Molinari, who can do a little bit of everything.
8. Texas: The Longhorns lose their punter and their kicker in consensus All-American Anthony Fera. That hurts. Nick Jordan, who made nine of 15 field goals in 2012, could reclaim his job. Daje Johnson -- who returned a punt for a TD against Oklahoma -- Duke Thomas, Quandre Diggs, Marcus Johnson, Kendall Sanders and Jaxon Shipley all have experience returning.
9. Kansas: Return men Connor Embree (punts) and JaCorey Shepherd (kicks) both come back. The Jayhawks also return kicker Matthew Wyman, who connected on a game-winning 52-yard field goal to beat Louisiana Tech. The freshman, however, only made two field goals after that and eventually lost that job to departing senior Ron Doherty. Trevor Pardula was third in the Big 12 in punting as a junior and received votes for Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Year.
10. Oklahoma State: After enjoying All-Americans Dan Bailey and Quinn Sharp the last few years, the Cowboys were finally mediocre in the kicking game last season. Ben Grogan struggled as a freshman, making just 11 of 18 field goals while missing two critical attempts in the early-season loss at West Virginia. The Cowboys were also last in the league in punting. Oklahoma State signed three-star kicker Zach Sinor with hopes of curing some of those ills. The Cowboys were still dynamic in the return game, but with Justin Gilbert and Josh Stewart both gone, Oklahoma State could lean on juco transfer and track star Tyreek Hill for a jolt on returns.
Poor quarterback play was the main culprit, but the conference’s lack of elite signal-callers wasn’t the lone reason for the general absence of explosive playmaking in Big 12 stadiums last fall.
Conference pass catchers earned their share of the blame as well.
Yards after catch is one way Big 12 running backs, tight ends and receivers can take ownership over their offense’s success. While the accuracy of the quarterback impacts the opportunities for yards after catch, there has been a correlation between yards after catch and team success in the Big 12 in recent seasons. With the help of ESPN Stats and Information, a closer look at the yards after catch for each Big 12 team during the past three seasons reveals some interesting trends.
- Ten Big 12 teams have finished the season with at least 2,000 yards after catch during the past three seasons. Those teams averaged 8.9 wins per season, with half of them winning at least 10 games.
- Baylor’s record-setting offense was spurred by its highest yards-after-catch percentage in the past three years. The 2013 Bears gained 2,281 yards after catch, 48.9 percent of their 4,668 receiving yards during their Big 12 title season. In 2012, 41.6 percent of their receiving yards came after the catch. In 2011, 44.8 percent of their yards came after the catch.
- Goodley led the league with 598 yards after catch. His yards after catch total would have been no higher than third in the conference in 2012 and 2011. Five different receivers had at least 698 yards after catch in the past three seasons, with Tavon Austin’s 992 for West Virginia in 2012 ranking as the highest individual total during that span.
- Oklahoma State’s 2,851 yards after catch in 2011 is the highest total during the past three seasons and 56.6 percent of its 5,034 total. The Cowboys went 12-1 and won their first-ever Big 12 championship during that season. Justin Blackmon’s 794 yards after catch led the Big 12 in 2011.
- Oklahoma struggled with quarterback play throughout the 2013 season, but the Sooners led the league with 58 percent of their receiving yards coming after the catch, the highest percentage in conference during the past three seasons. OU had 2,588 receiving yards, with 1,500 of those coming after the catch. Sterling Shepard paced the way for OU with 384 yards after the catch.
- Kansas, which has struggled to find playmaking receivers in recent years, hasn’t had more than 1,000 yards after catch in the past three seasons.
- Not surprisingly, Kansas State is the lone Big 12 team that is barely impacted by yards after catch numbers. The Wildcats recorded a 39.4 yards after catch percentage during the past three seasons for a total of 2,991 yards after catch during that span.
- Dana Holgorsen’s offense at West Virginia is built around getting athletes in one on one situations and letting them make plays in the open field. The Mountaineers gained 55.3 percent of their receiving yards after the catch during the past three seasons. Although they only spent two of those seasons in the Big 12, the Mountaineers are the only current Big 12 squad who gained at least 50 percent of their yards after catch in each of the past three seasons.
Here’s a detailed breakdown of the numbers via ESPN Stats and Information:
No. 3: Receiver
Why it’s important: Trevor Knight is going to need options when he drops back to throw the football. Sterling Shepard is a bona fide playmaker, and has been proving it since he stepped on campus in the summer of 2012. Yet the junior is the lone known playmaker returning to the receiving corps in 2014. OU needs two or more receivers to step their game up in the spring and show they’re ready to be on the receiving end of Knight’s spirals.
Junior Durron Neal: Neal arrived on campus with Shepard but hasn’t made a similar impact. He’s shown potential but he needs to become more consistent and earn the coaches trust if he hopes to fulfill the expectations placed upon him when he signed in the Class of 2012.
Redshirt freshman K.J. Young: A smooth slot receiver who had a terrific redshirt year and is looking to show he will be a playmaker this fall. A strong spring could cement himself a role in the offense heading into the summer.
Redshirt freshman Jordan Smallwood: A physical presence with terrific ball skills, Smallwood appears poised to make an impact after a foot injury forced him to redshirt in 2013.
Redshirt freshman Dannon Cavil: He brings great height (6-foot-5, 214 pounds) and the spring gives him the opportunity to get a leg up on the competition before a freshman class that features three guys over 6-4 will arrive in the summer.
Sophomore Austin Bennett: Easily the most overlooked freshman receiver and the only one who escaped a redshirt season in 2013. This spring is his chance to show why for this intriguing slot receiver.
Freshman Michiah Quick: The ESPN300 signee is an exceptional playmaker who is dynamic with the ball in his hands. Don’t be surprised if he forces his way onto the field as a true freshman.
Freshman Dallis Todd: The California native has the size and speed to be ready to pounce if any of the receivers currently on campus aren’t ready to play.
Freshman: Jeffrey Mead: A raw talent who could become a matchup nightmare for Big 12 defenses as he starts to focus on football after starring in three sports in high school.
Freshman Mark Andrews: Another big body (6-6, 220) who could overwhelm defenders with his size and ball skills.
Best-case scenario: Neal or Woods emerge as a trustworthy sidekick alongside Shepard and one or more of the young receivers on campus show they are ready to take advantage of the one-on-one opportunities the Sooners’ offense will create. If at least four of the receivers currently on campus try to secure themselves a spot in the starting lineup with strong performances this spring, the Sooners offense has a chance to be scary.
Worst-case scenario: None of the receivers on campus look like different players in the spring. They continue to perform the way they have to this point in their careers forcing the Sooners’ coaches to know they may have to lean on one or more of the true freshman to play immediately this fall. It would really handicap the offense if Shepard is the only trustworthy receiver on the roster heading into August.
2. Kansas State: The Wildcats have the Big 12’s finest receiver in Tyler Lockett, which warrants them a high ranking even if the supporting cast isn’t tantalizing. Lockett was basically uncoverable downfield last season, and exploded once QB Jake Waters got more comfortable. Curry Sexton has turned into a reliable possession target. The Wildcats also welcome one of the best juco receivers in the country in Andre Davis. If Davis pans out, this has a chance to be among the best receiving corps Bill Snyder has ever had.
3. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders lose an ultra-productive player in Eric Ward and a superstar in tight end Jace Amaro, but this position remains stocked with talent. Jitterbug slot man Jakeem Grant was sixth in the league last year in receiving, and showed in the Holiday Bowl how dangerous he can be when 100 percent focused. Bradley Marquez and Jordan Davis are reliable pass-catchers, but the player to watch here is Reginald Davis. A former high school quarterback, Davis has gradually picked up the nuances of playing receiver. But as he flashed in a kickoff return touchdown against Arizona State, Davis is a playmaker with the ball in his hands, and could be a major factor.
4. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys lose their top three receivers, but outside Baylor, no team in the Big 12 has more WRs ready to contribute in 2014 than Oklahoma State. Jhajuan Seales and Marcell Ateman combined for 61 receptions as freshmen, and will give the Cowboys a physical presence on the perimeter. Brandon Sheperd and David Glidden were also part of the regular rotation, and Austin Hays, who started nine games in 2012, would have been had he not missed virtually the entire season with injury. The two to watch here, though, have yet to play a down, but will bring major speed. Former ESPN 300 recruit Ra’Shaad Samples redshirted last year, but reportedly ran a 4.3-second 40 last summer. That might seem slow compared to Tyreek Hill, the nation’s No. 4 juco recruit, who doubles as a track phenom.
5. Texas: Jaxon Shipley isn’t his brother Jordan, but he’s still a quality college receiver. Even with all of Texas’ QB issues, Shipley already has 159 career receptions. The Longhorns have speed and playmaking elsewhere in downfield burner Marcus Johnson, Kendall Sanders and the versatile Daje Johnson. The Longhorns also signed one of three best incoming WRs in the Big 12 in Armanti Foreman. This group could really thrive with an uptick in QB play.
7. Iowa State: Quenton Bundrage is one of the more underrated receivers in the league despite ranking third in the Big 12 in touchdowns. With Amaro gone, E.J. Bibbs becomes the best receiving tight end in the league after hauling in 39 passes last year. Iowa State’s standing here, though, is contingent on incoming freshman Allen Lazard, one the most highly touted WRs Iowa State has ever signed. If Lazard can make an immediate impact, like the Iowa State coaching staff is banking on, this could become one of the better units in the league.
8. West Virginia: There’s no corps in the Big 12 that could move up more spots than West Virginia’s. The Mountaineers didn’t have a receiver rank in the top 15 in the Big 12 in receiving last year, but Kevin White, Mario Alford and Daikiel Shorts all ranked in the top 20. All three are back, too, as is the diminutive Jordan Thompson, who finally came alive the second half of the season. Former ESPN 300 recruit Shelton Gibson, who redshirted, will also join the rotation. The Mountaineers rank eighth for now, but they are closer to Kansas State than to Kansas.
9. TCU: This week, TCU kicked receiver LaDarius Brown off the team. Considering Brown tied for the team lead in receptions last year, it’s a tough loss. This unit is obviously better with Trevone Boykin, but he might have to play QB, at least until someone else emerges there. The Horned Frogs desperately need Brandon Carter to become a No. 1 receiver. After a promising sophomore year, Carter was basically a non-factor, before showing signs of bouncing back the last month of the season. TCU needs him in a big way in 2014.
10. Kansas: The Jayhawks didn’t have a receiver with more than 11 catches last year. Some of that was the quarterbacks. Some of it was, well, the receivers. The group had little overall impact, which put tremendous pressure on James Sims and the running game. With Sims gone, the receivers have to elevate their game significantly for Kansas to have a chance of taking a step forward. The Jayhawks do have a solid tight end in Jimmay Mundine, who had five TD catches. And Tony Pierson could play more receiver this year. But somebody else needs to emerge.
Oklahoma is coming off a banner 2013 campaign featuring an 11-win season and a Sugar Bowl victory over SEC power Alabama, yet the Sooners have several position groups they need to address if they hope to make a national title run in 2014. This week, we’ll take a closer look at the top five position groups that need to improve during OU’s spring practices. On Thursday, we continue the series with the Sooners receivers at No. 2.
Summer arrivals: Mark Andrews, Fr.; Jeffery Mead, Fr.; Michiah Quick, Fr.; Dallis Todd, Fr.
Summary: The Sooners appear on the cusp of having a receiver selected in the NFL draft for the third consecutive season if Jalen Saunders hears his name called in May, following the footsteps of Ryan Broyles and Kenny Stills. Yet if OU hopes to make a national title run, its receivers will have to be much more productive in 2014 than they were in 2013. Fortunately the receivers room is overflowing with talent, so the competition to play should be fierce and force everyone to raise their overall level of play.
Shepard, who had 96 receptions for 1,224 yards and 10 touchdowns in his first two seasons, could have an all-conference season as Trevor Knight’s top target and the most experienced receiver on the roster as a junior. He’s competitive, tough and athletic. Spring is his first opportunity to show he can handle being “the man” in the passing game, but there’s no reason to think he’s not ready to carry that burden.
It’s an important season for Neal, who stepped on campus as a highly regarded recruit but hasn’t made as big an impact as Shepard, a fellow Class of 2012 signee. The junior has shown signs of being a playmaker but hasn’t forced his way into the lineup the way Shepard did during their first two seasons. Spring is his chance to show he deserves a bigger role in the offense.
Woods is coming off a redshirt freshman season in which he made an impact on special teams with limited duty on offense. As the former high school quarterback gets more comfortable as a college receiver, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him make a major jump from his freshman to sophomore season. Spring will be the first glimpse of his readiness to be a factor at receiver.
Bennett was the lone freshman receiver to escape a redshirt in 2013, playing on special teams. He can be the playmaker in the slot that the Sooners need, particularly with Saunders out of the picture.
At 6-foot-5 and 214 pounds, Cavil brings unique size and good speed. Unlike most 2013 signees, he’s been on campus for a full year, so Cavil should be comfortable with the demands of playing college football and ready to show if he can be an impact player as a redshirt freshman.
There’s been a buzz about Young since his arrival last summer. Comparisons to Broyles have begun thanks to his ball skills and quickness in the slot. The first step for Young, however, is to have a great spring and start proving he can turn his potential into production.
Smallwood might have played as a true freshman if he hadn’t injured his foot before the season began. The coaches love the physicality he brings as a receiver, so this spring should be his first chance to show what he can do in crimson and cream.
Don’t be surprised if Quick makes an immediate impact, even though he could use a year in the Sooners’ strength and conditioning program. A lack of bulk never held Saunders back, so there’s no reason to think Quick won’t use his exceptional talent to overcome any size limitations just like Saunders did.
Andrews has the athleticism and ball skills to be a matchup nightmare for defensive backs. How well he transitions to Big 12 receiver will ultimately decide how quickly he sees the field.
The sky is the limit for Mead, a three-sport star at Tulsa (Okla.) Union, as the recent signee could develop into a major contributor once he starts to focus on football in the fall. He has terrific size and athleticism with plenty of room to grow as a receiver.
Todd (6-5, 210) moves like a much smaller man. His quickness and speed will surprise defenders, yet he maintains the strength expected of someone his size. His unique combination of skills could help him earn a role early in his OU career.
No. 3: Cornerbacks
No. 4: Running backs
No. 5: Tight ends
OU landed 11 four-star recruits in 2012, including five members of the ESPN 150, and while it’s relatively early in their careers, several signees, including defensive end Charles Tapper, linebacker Eric Striker, quarterback Trevor Knight and receiver Sterling Shepard, have already made major contributions. The class was ranked No. 11 nationally by ESPN.com.
Defensive end Charles Tapper: He was the rawest signee in the class. Now, two years later, he’s an All-Big 12 defensive end with an NFL future. OU deserves a ton of credit for finding this hidden gem and Tapper deserves just as much credit for pushing himself to greatness and turning his potential into on-field production. Not bad for the nation’s No. 74-ranked defensive end.
Quarterback Trevor Knight: The sophomore quarterback was showing unique traits before he even stepped on campus, organizing fellow recruits and displaying leadership ability before he signed with OU. The No. 22-ranked quarterback in the nation, Knight won the starting job last August and, after some ups and downs during the regular season, lifted up the Sugar Bowl MVP trophy in early January after leading OU to an impressive win over Alabama. OU will build its offense around his talents this offseason and if he plays like he did in the Sugar Bowl, the sky is the limit for the Sooners in 2014.
Receiver Sterling Shepard: As soon as the Under Armour All-American stepped on campus everyone knew Shepard would be a key part of the Sooners’ plans. He was one reason OU went to a four-receiver base package in 2012 as they aimed to get their top 11 players on the field and he hasn’t disappointed with 96 receptions for 1,224 yards and 10 touchdowns in his first two seasons. The No. 60 player in the ESPN 150, Shepard should be Knight’s primary target in 2014.
Linebacker Eric Striker: Sooners running backs were complaining about having to try to block Striker during his freshman year but he rarely saw the field on defense in 2012. That changed in 2013 as he became one of the Big 12’s most feared pass rushers. His acceleration and knack for getting to the quarterback made him a critical part of the defense as a sophomore and earned him All-Big 12 second team honors after stepping on campus as the No. 62 safety in the nation.
Cornerback Zack Sanchez: The No. 64 cornerback in the nation, Sanchez has started every game of his young career and has displayed the competitiveness required to excel at cornerback. He’s already exceeding expectations.
Center Ty Darlington: He could be the anchor of OU’s offensive line as a junior after two quality years behind All-Big 12 center Gabe Ikard. Darlington was No. 148 in the ESPN 150.
Receiver Lacoltan Bester: A late junior college signee, Bester did exactly what he was brought in to do. He provided veteran depth and competition to the receiving corps during his two seasons.
Receiver Durron Neal: His junior year is a big one for Neal. He’s seen spot duty during his first two seasons but needs to step up and secure a spot in the starting lineup this fall. Neal was No. 64 in the ESPN 150.
Receiver Derrick Woods: Woods made an impact on special teams as a redshirt freshman and his Sugar Bowl catch was a glimpse at his potential to make an impact on offense. Woods was No. 137 in the ESPN 150.
Running back Damien Williams: Williams did what he was brought in to do, provide competition and big plays at the running back spot for two seasons. Even though his Sooners’ career ended with his dismissal, he gave the program two productive seasons.
Tight end Brannon Green: Green was a valuable blocker and overlooked key to OU’s running success during his two years in Norman, Okla.
Completely missed the mark
Offensive lineman John Michael McGee: It always was odd for the Sooners to sign McGee, who said he didn’t love football during the recruiting process. Therefore, it really was no surprise when he quit the team before his freshman season even began.
Overall grade: A+
This class has been on campus for two years and already features an All-Big 12 first teamer, All-Big 12 second teamer, a freshman All-American and a Sugar Bowl MVP. Anyone expecting more from a recruiting class that has been on campus for 18 months needs to re-think their expectations.
Starter/contributors: Sterling Shepard (Jr.)
The lone major contributor returning at receiver, Shepard has the skills to be one of the Big 12’s bests in 2014. He finished with 51 receptions for 603 yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore. His toughness, quickness and competitive nature will make him part of the foundation of OU’s offense next season. But he’ll need a teammate or two to emerge or risk seeing double coverage for the majority of his junior season. He’s a special player who takes his game to another level in big games.
On the cusp: Durron Neal (Jr.), K.J. Young (redshirt freshman), Derrick Woods (So.), Jordan Smallwood (redshirt freshman), Trey Franks (Sr.)
The Sooners will need a few of these young, talented receivers to transform into productive, skilled playmakers. Neal has yet to emerge as the player he was expected to become when he signed in 2012 but has had moments that displayed his potential.
Woods is one of the better athletes on the squad and contributed on special teams. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him emerge as a receiving option.
Young was one of the stars of the scout team last fall. His hands and quickness have likened comparisons to Sooners’ legend Ryan Broyles, so if Young can continue to develop during the spring and summer he could make an immediate impact.
Smallwood might have played himself out of a redshirt season in 2013 if he hadn’t broken his foot. He’ll bring much needed size and ball skills to the receiver spot.
Dannon Cavil (redshirt freshman) and Austin Bennett (So.) join that foursome as potential impact players. Bennett gives OU another quick slot receiver and Cavil has unmatched size (6-foot-5, 214 pounds) .
Franks brings a veteran presence to the receiving spot but saw limited time at receiver in 2013 after a stint at safety.
On the recruiting trail: Dallis Todd (La Mirada, Calif./La Mirada), Mark Andrews (Scottsdale, Ariz./Desert Mountain), Jeffery Mead (Tulsa, Okla./Union)
Todd, the No. 265 player in the ESPN 300, is another big receiver (6-5, 210) who could create mismatches with his size and athleticism. He has terrific feet and surprising speed which could earn him a spot in the rotation, particularly with so many spots to fill.
Much like Todd, Andrews has unusual feet and ball skills for a player his size (6-6, 220). The No. 295 player in the ESPN 300, Andrews could provide another big target in the passing game.
Mead (6-5, 179) is very similar to Todd but more of a raw talent. A three-sport star in high school, Mead’s ball skills could help him become a nightmare matchup on third downs and in the red zone. He has the talent to play immediately but it could be a tough transition into a full-time football player.
Overall Grade: B-
Shepard is the only reason this grade is not much lower. The junior should become one of the Big 12’s top receivers during his third year on campus, so that’s a terrific foundation to build upon. Yet Jay Norvell’s meeting room will be full of inexperienced players who haven’t proven they can excel in Big 12 stadiums. But there are several unique talents on the roster and if two or three of those players develop into playmakers the combination of size, quickness and ball skills among this group could challenge defenses in ways no other Big 12 squad can match.
Here’s a look at some of the Big 12’s top clutch players in 2013. For this stat-based list, any Big 12 players statistic recorded in the second half during a one-possession game is defined as a clutch statistic. Because sometimes it’s not about the gaudy numbers you’ve put up, it’s about when you put up those numbers.
Quarterback Bryce Petty, Baylor: The Bears didn’t have the same opportunities to be clutch as Sooners’ players did in 2013. Yet, Petty still was clutch and led the Big 12 in touchdowns with six scores in clutch scenarios. He finished 21 of 35 for 344 yards with four touchdown passes and two touchdown runs while finishing with a 76.3 raw QBR, second only to Bell in the Big 12. And he only turned the ball over once, which separated him from Kansas State’s Daniel Sams who also accounted for six touchdowns but turned the ball over an eye-popping seven times in clutch scenarios. Even though he spent the majority of his second halves thinking about his postgame plans, Petty’s 5 of 8 for 63 yards and two touchdowns to help BU secure the Big 12 title against Texas and pretty much cemented his spot on this list as a clutch performer.
Running back Brennan Clay, Oklahoma: The second Sooner on the list speaks to how many close games OU had to win this season. Clay led the Big 12 with 47 carries for 310 yards, 6.6 yards per carry, and two touchdowns in those clutch scenarios. His 76-yard touchdown with the Sooners holding a 13-10 lead over TCU in the fourth quarter helped secure his spot on this list. He also added six carries for 105 yards against West Virginia, helping OU win that close game while Knight struggled against the Mountaineers. He doesn’t come to mind when thinking of the Big 12’s top running backs but Clay could easily be considered the most overlooked contributor to OU’s success in 2013.
Tight end Jace Amaro, Texas Tech: Come on, now, you can’t be surprised to see the Big 12’s top tight end on this list. Amaro had 13 receptions for 232 yards and one touchdown in those clutch situations. His performance against West Virginia (4 receptions, 72 yards, TD) helped cement his spot on this list. In addition eight of those 13 receptions resulted in Red Raider first downs and his 17.85 yards per play from scrimmage led the Big 12. The NFL early entry will be missed in Lubbock, Texas in 2014.
Running back Charles Sims, West Virginia: His 291 yards from scrimmage in those clutch scenarios was third in the Big 12 behind Clay and OU’s Damien Williams. Sims averaged 5.02 yards per play with 240 rushing yards, one touchdown and 51 receiving yards with two scores. His key plays in key moments helped the Mountaineers earn their best wins of the season against OSU (10 touches for 60 yards) and TCU (14 touches for 72 yards, TD). He was easily the Mountaineers’ top offensive threat in 2013, things could have ended up a lot worse without the Houston transfer in WVU's backfield.
Other clutch players who barely missed earning a spot on the list: WR Sterling Shepard, Oklahoma (19 receptions, 244 yards, 3 TDs in 8 games); WR Tyler Lockett, Kansas State (12 receptions, 159 yards, 2 TDs in four games); RB Desmond Roland, Oklahoma State (171 rushing yards, 4 total TDs); QB/WR Trevone Boykin, TCU (5 total TDs, 516 yards of total offense); QB Davis Webb, Texas Tech (67.5 raw QBR, 522 passing yards, 5 TD, INT).
They went into Bedlam last month against an Oklahoma State team that was the heavy favorite and pulled off a stunner. Now they hope to do it again against No. 3 Alabama tonight in the AllState Sugar Bowl in New Orleans (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). Here are three keys for the Sooners against the Crimson Tide:
Establish the run game: No matter what Stoops’ quarterback plan is, Oklahoma must get its rushing attack rolling early to stress the Tide defense. The Sooners put up 261.3 rushing yards per game in their 10 victories and a veteran duo in Brennan Clay and Roy Finch that is capable of breaking big runs. In losses to Texas and Baylor, OU averaged 108.5 yards on the ground. What can Clay and Finch do against the No. 9 run defense in the country?
Game-changing turnovers: Alabama has turned the ball over just 12 times this season, which ranks fifth-best in FBS. Oklahoma’s defense has been pretty average in that department, forcing just 20. Chris Davis’ game-winning touchdown return for Auburn was the first non-offensive score Bama allowed all year. If Oklahoma’s best defenders, like Aaron Colvin and Eric Striker, can snag a few turnovers, they can swing the game.
Battle of the playmakers: Everyone knows AJ McCarron can hit bombs to Amari Cooper and that running back T.J. Yeldon is a handful in the open field. They’ll be a handful. But who’s going to answer the challenge for the Sooners? Jalen Saunders did a little bit of everything as a receiver and returner in the win over OSU. Saunders, Sterling Shepard and the rest of the OU receivers need to thrive against an Alabama secondary whose corners have been inconsistent.
Unlike previous campaigns, Oklahoma’s offense was not the envy of the rest of the Big 12 this season. The Sooners running game was second to none and provided a foundation that allowed OU to stay in games, control the ball and create opportunities in its passing game. But it’s lack of explosiveness through the air, leading to poor offensive balance, made this year’s offense one of the worst in Norman, Okla. in recent memory. Yet the Sooners limited turnovers and mental mistakes while running the ball well enough to earn 10 wins, which should quiet critics considering a double-digit win season was unexpected heading into the season.
Quarterback: C+. Where are all the Landry Jones haters now? A quick glance at the Sooners passing stats (186.67 ypg, No. 99 in FBS) makes this grade seem way too high. But a quick glance at the win column makes everything clear. OU never got consistency from the position, as Blake Bell and Trevor Knight each had their moments of success and failure. Bell was the starter in Sooners’ losses to Texas and Baylor, and looked uncomfortable in both games, but played a key role in road wins at Notre Dame and Oklahoma State. And Knight showed flashes of big-time upside but also showed the inexperience of a redshirt freshman. Through it all the Sooners found a way to get 10 wins and the quarterbacks played a key role in that success. A significant drop off from Jones yet OU finished the regular season with the exact same record Jones led them to as a senior.
Running back: A+. Who knows how the Sooners’ season would have ended up if it wasn’t for a talented and deep group of running backs led by Brennan Clay. The senior led the Sooners with 913 rushing yards, averaging 5.78 yards per carry, but Damien Williams (553 rushing yards) and Roy Finch (347 rushing yards) joined him as quality threats in the backfield. The Sooners running backs brought a physical running style and game-breaking ability which helped offset OU’s ugly passing attack.
Receiver: B-. The quarterbacks shouldered a bunch of the blame for OU’s passing troubles, but the Sooners receivers deserve their share of the burden. Jalen Saunders performed like an “A” student and Sterling Shepard wasn’t far behind. After those two playmakers, the Sooners receivers left plenty to be desired. Lacolton Bester had good moments but wasn’t the constant threat that Saunders and Shepard were in 2013 and the overall depth seemed nonexistent as young players such as Durron Neal never emerged as difference makers at the receiver spot.
Offensive line: A-. OU rushed for nearly 3,000 yards yet didn’t feature a single 1,000-yard rusher, speaking volumes for the offensive line. The only reason the Sooners’ starting front didn’t get a A+ was lackluster efforts against Texas and Baylor, helping to contribute to OU’s only losses. Center Gabe Ikard was the anchor and star of the offensive front, but tackle Daryl Williams made an overlooked but valuable contribution as the other all-Big 12 level performer on the squad. Tackle Tyrus Thompson, guard Nila Kasitati, guard Bronson Irwin and guard Adam Shead each played well while helping pave the way for OU’s running game and limiting opponents to 15 total sacks.
Overall: B-. The lack of balance keeps this grade from being higher but OU averaged more than 31.8 points and 5.84 yards per game, ranking them in the top half of the Big 12. The Sooners running game was superb and overcame the passing game struggles while protecting the football. OU's offense is not an national championship-level offense, but it's not as bad as it appeared at various times either.
Oklahoma finished the season with 10 wins but could have lost several close games without big plays in key moments from several different players. Jalen Saunders' punt returns, Brennan Clay touchdown runs and key defensive plays played a role in OU's 10-2 record while two key plays in the Sooners' losses also pushed them down the road to a loss.
Here are the top 10 plays that helped define OU’s season.
1. Jalen Saunders' game-winning touchdown catch in Bedlam. Blake Bell made a perfect throw and Saunders ran a terrific route on the 7-yard touchdown that vaulted OU into the Sugar Bowl with a 33-24 win. It capped off a improbable drive in one of the best Bedlam games in recent memory. This play completely cemented the quality job done by Bob Stoops as his squad reached the 10-win mark in a season that was billed as a rebuilding campaign.
3. Saunders' punt return in Bedlam. There wasn’t a lot going right for OU’s offense when Saunders returned a punt 64 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter against Oklahoma State to tie the game 7-7. OU had gained 54 yards in the first quarter, yet entered the second quarter tied with the Cowboys thanks to Saunders. It was an important play in the win that transformed OU’s season from good to great.
4. Red zone disappointments against Baylor. It’s not one play, but this sequence completely changed the game in OU’s 41-12 blowout loss to the Bears. The Sooners were inside the Bears’ 10-yard line on back-to-back drives yet came away with three total points. BU’s headline-making offense had just three points early in the second quarter, so if the Sooners could have punched in at least one touchdown they could have played with a lead against that explosive offense. Instead they were forced to try to score to keep up with the Bears.
5. Brennan Clay's 76-yard run against TCU. The senior running back’s long touchdown run helped create a cushion against the Horned Frogs in a game that saw the Sooners offense struggle to put points on the scoreboard. Clay’s scoring gallop with under five minutes left gave OU an two-possession lead which it ended up needing when the Horned Frogs scored a touchdown late in the 20-17 win. A loss in this game could have transformed OU's season into the rebuilding campaign that many expected.
6. Trevor Knight's touchdown pass to Sterling Shepard against K-State. It wasn’t a game-changing score but it sent a clear message that Knight had brought his “A” game in OU's 41-31 win over Kansas State. The redshirt freshman played the best game of his season, finishing with a 90 adjusted QBR against the Wildcats after opening the game with a 12-yard touchdown pass to Shepard. And it was clear Knight was going to play at a high level after the first drive and touchdown to Shepard.
7. Shepard’s catch-and-run against the Irish. With the Irish threatening to make a comeback bid, Shepard caught a short pass and turned on the afterburners to pull away from the ND defense for a 54-yard touchdown to give the Sooners a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter. Notre Dame had outscored OU 14-6 in the second half before the sophomore scored that momentum-changing touchdown.
8. Chris Whaley's interception return for touchdown in the Red River Rivalry. The Texas defensive tackle changed the momentum of the Longhorns’ 36-20 win over OU with a key first quarter interception of Bell and return for touchdown. Bell never really looked the same after the play, lacking confidence as the Sooners offense struggled to get anything going throughout the afternoon and Bell finished with a 6.4 adjusted QBR. Whaley's interception made it clear the Longhorns weren't going to get blown out as many expected heading into the game and OU appeared shell-shocked from that point forward.
9. Saunders' punt return against Iowa State. There seems to be a theme here. It’s Saunders, yet again, with a game-changing play for the Sooners. OU trailed Iowa State 10-3 late in the second half and looked ready to head into the locker room trailing a team that was winless in the Big 12. Instead they went into the locker room tied and the Cyclones watched as the Sooners scored 38 second-half points to cruise to a 48-10 win. His punt return pretty much sucked the life out of the ISU locker room.
10. Lacoltan Bester's touchdown pass to Shepard against Kansas. Another theme here ... With OU’s offense struggling, Bester found Shepard for a 49-yard touchdown that gave the Sooners their first lead of the game. It looked like the Sooners might fall in Lawrence, Kan., before Bester’s perfect throw to a wide-open Shepard. OU took it from there and secured the 34-19 win.
OU finished the season 10-2 including a 7-2 Big 12 record as some likely and unlikely candidates stepped up to make a difference during a season that was initially billed as a rebuilding year but will end with the Sooners playing in a BCS bowl.
Here is a regular season review of the standout players and coaches during OU’s BCS journey.
Offensive MVP: Center Gabe Ikard. It’s not often that an offensive lineman is the clear MVP of a 10-win team. But Ikard’s not your normal offensive lineman. A four-year starter, Ikard’s experience and intelligence helped the Sooners overcome an season-ending injury to fullback Trey Millard, a quarterback carousel and multiple running backs taking turns as the lead ball carrier. Through it all the offensive line helped the Sooners average 235.83 rushing yards per game and allowed 15 sacks with Ikard’s leadership and example.
Defensive MVP: Linebacker Frank Shannon. The sophomore fought off injuries to play in all 12 games and lead the squad with 85 tackles along with seven tackles for loss, two sacks and one interception. When senior linebacker Corey Nelson was lost for the season in early October, Shannon went from an understudy to a on-field leadership role. His presence also helped true freshman Dominique Alexander excel in Nelson’s absence.
Special teams MVP: Jalen Saunders. The senior receiver changed the game with punt returns for touchdowns against Iowa State and Oklahoma State during the Sooners’ three-game win streak to end the regular season. Without those two returns, who knows how those games could have turned out. He averaged 16.78 yards per punt return and had five punt returns for more than 20 yards.
Assistant coach of the year: Defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery. The season began with a defensive line full of unknowns and inexperience. Yet, it performed like a veteran group and even shook off an season-ending injury to Jordan Phillips to finish No. 1 in the Big 12 in yards allowed per game. Several inexperienced players including Charles Tapper and Jordan Wade played important roles under Montgomery's coaching.
Undervalued contributor on offense: Receiver Sterling Shepard. The sophomore wasn’t the No. 1 guy like Saunders, but when he wasn’t involved OU’s passing attack wasn’t as potent. He finished with 44 receptions for 540 yards and six touchdowns. His 67.7 completion percentage (44 receptions in 65 targets) led the squad. Shepard stepped up in key games and provided a quality big play threat when teams focused on Saunders.
Undervalued contributor on defense: Linebacker Eric Striker. The Florida native helped transform the Sooners’ defense with his relentlessness and quickness off the edge. Playing a standup linebacker who consistently blitzed on passing downs, Striker proved to be one of OU’s top pass rushing threats with 3.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss. He wasn't among the team leaders in tackles but he was always active when he was on the field.
Newcomer of the year: Alexander. The coaching staff had raved about Alexander since the preseason but his opportunities were limited until Nelson’s injury. He had 10 tackles in his first four games but had 19 tackles in his first start against Texas after Nelson was sidelined. He finished with 75 tackles, second on the squad.
Most improved player: Tapper. The defensive end stepped on campus as a raw former basketball star with plenty of potential. He ends his sophomore season leading the Sooners in sacks (5.5) and tackle for losses (9). His size, speed and quickness will make him one of the Big 12’s most feared defenders in 2014.
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