Oklahoma Sooners: Trevor Knight
Who will be the starting running back? The competition promises to continue into August, but don't be surprised if it continues deep into the season. OU has plenty of good options including sophomores Keith Ford and Alex Ross, but this competition could be decided by what the Sooners' running backs do without the ball in their hands. Ross had an excellent spring but didn’t star in the spring game while Ford showed he can play at a Big 12 level as a freshman. The running back battle could be the most exciting battle to monitor this fall.
How will Ahmad Thomas be used? The sophomore has really come on since the middle of last season. He saw time against Alabama and held his own, then built upon that performance with a strong spring. It would be a surprise if he’s not a major contributor on OU’s defense; it’s just a matter of where he plays. Thomas is a versatile defensive back who can play safety or nickelback. He’s the type of guy the Sooners can leave on the field -- regardless of the offense they’re facing -- and feel confident he will make an positive impact against the run or pass.
Who will back up Knight? Baker Mayfield is the obvious choice … in 2015. The former Texas Tech quarterback was the standout of the spring game and will have Knight feeling like his starting spot is never secure when he becomes eligible to play for the Sooners after sitting out the 2014 season. This fall, however, Knight’s backup remains a question mark. Redshirt freshman Cody Thomas looks like he could develop into a quality quarterback, and the new NCAA rules will allow the Sooners to quicken his development like never before. Thomas should be considered the favorite to win the No. 2 job but Justice Hansen's decision to enroll early has allowed him to get one spring under his belt and he could arrive in the fall much more comfortable than the average freshman. This is another battle that could last deep into August.
Who will make big plays in the passing game? Austin Bennett. Blake Bell. Jordan Smallwood. Durron Neal. K.J. Young. Those names could emerge as key targets for Knight this fall but none of them have locked down a spot in the offense quite yet. Smallwood, who probably had the best spring of the bunch, will undoubtedly play a role but OU needs someone to emerge as a legit, consistent threat alongside Sterling Shepard or risk watching one of the Big 12’s top returning receivers be double teamed constantly.
- New summer rules could help West Virginia start to narrow down its quarterback battle.
- A look at West Virginia's defensive line after spring football.
- The Mountaineers have a bunch of quality running backs. That's a good problem to have.
- Kansas State's offensive line is a work in progress. Multiple starters return but position changes and replacing both tackles makes spring practices a key time at KSU.
- Is Pasta-gate a thing of the past? Former Oklahoma center Gabe Ikard likes what a potential NCAA rule change could mean for walk-on athletes.
- Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury remains a fan of former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel and he says a social life is just one plane ride away.
- Baylor landed another speedy athlete for its Class of 2015.
- Iowa State players enjoyed the schedule change for the Cyclones spring practices this spring. ISU started spring drills before spring break, splitting up the 15 practices into two sections.
- Don't be too concerned about Trevor Knight's poor performance in OU's spring game.
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. beginning with the offense.
Pre-spring: This was arguably the biggest offensive concern heading into the spring. Two freshmen, Cody Thomas and Justice Hansen, are behind projected starter Trevor Knight and preparing them for the backup role was one of the spring’s most important goals.
Post-spring: Those questions still remain. Thomas, who was splitting time with OU’s baseball team during the spring, is clearly ahead of Hansen, who threw two interceptions in the spring game after enrolling early to participate in spring drills. Even though Thomas performed better in the spring game he hasn’t appeared to run away with the job.
Summer outlook: The four months until August are the best news for the Sooners. That extra time to develop could be critical for Thomas and Hansen because one of them will need to be the No. 2 quarterback. Either way, OU must have its fingers crossed that Knight stays healthy.
Starting running back
Pre-spring: Keith Ford was considered the favorite to take over as OU’s starting running back after a solid freshman debut. His determination and physical running style earned him carries in a senior-laden backfield in 2013.
Post-spring: Even though he had a lackluster spring game (three carries, six yards), Alex Ross made a move during spring drills. Coach Bob Stoops consistently praised the sophomore, who continually made plays during spring scrimmages. Fellow sophomore Daniel Brooks also looked healthy for the first time in a Sooners’ uniform during the spring game, giving OU more options at the position. The spring left the position murkier than ever but it’s a good problem because the Sooners have several talented options to carry the ball, much like they did in 2013.
Summer outlook: February signees Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine are expected to arrive in the summer, kicking up the competition at the position to an even higher level. Stoops expects multiple running backs to get carries this fall, so expect this competition to rage on into the season.
No. 2 receiver
Pre-spring: Sterling Shepard is a proven playmaker and emerging leader. Junior Durron Neal was the clubhouse favorite to emerge alongside Shepard with sophomore Derrick Woods and others ready to battle to become key contributors.
Post-spring: This battle is far from over but redshirt freshman Jordan Smallwood could join Shepard as one of Knight’s favorite targets. The buzz surrounding Smallwood has been unrelenting since he stepped on campus last summer, only to be muffled after a foot injury forced him to redshirt. He returned for bowl practices and the buzz wasn’t far behind. With three receptions for 60 yards and one touchdown in the spring game, the redshirt freshman showed his size, athleticism, route running and ball skills could make him a consistent part of OU’s offense.
Summer outlook: Several receivers could become receiving targets this fall but outside of Smallwood, nobody looks like they’ve cemented a role in the offense. Thus, the competition continues and four freshmen, including potential game-breaker Michiah Quick, will arrive in the summer with an eye on surpassing their older teammates on the depth chart.
Oklahoma held its spring game on Saturday with excitement around the program continuing to build this offseason. Here are some postgame thoughts, offense only, on OU’s spring finale. Check back later today for a defense only post. To be clear, this is an informal collection of my observations after the spring game. For a more formal and general spring game review, check out this post from earlier today.
- Undoubtedly some Sooners fans left the stadium disappointed with what they saw from Trevor Knight. He finished 5-of-14 for 53 yards with one interception. Yet it’s not time to panic, for several reasons. First, Sterling Shepard was on the sidelines. The junior will be Knight’s go-to receiver and could become one of the Big 12’s best playmakers. Two, Knight was going against a solid and athletic defense while using a relatively vanilla offense. Three, injuries along the offensive line didn’t make things any easier, with multiple projected starters out of the spring game. Finally, Knight's ability to make plays with his feet was taken away with his blue, no-hit jersey limiting his impact in the running game.
- Nonetheless, Knight must play better. Period. Some people have been quick to insert his name among the nation’s best after his Allstate Sugar Bowl performance. He’s still young, relatively inexperienced and has been inconsistent at times early in his career. Let’s wait until he’s consistently efficient before we anoint him as one of the nation’s, or even the Big 12’s, top quarterbacks.[+] EnlargeMark D. Smith/USA TODAY SportsTrevor Knight had a rough outing on Saturday.
- Anyone who was surprised by Baker Mayfield’s performance must have missed the rest of the Big 12 in 2013. The former Texas Tech quarterback was the Big 12 offensive freshman of the year for a reason.
- Mayfield seemed genuinely excited to be a Sooner. He grew up an OU fan and said he would have decided to join the Sooners even if Blake Bell had not changed positions and Kendal Thompson did not transfer. While he is ineligible to play this fall, his presence could pay off big time. OU’s defense will be tested in ways you normally wouldn’t expect from a scout-team quarterback and the Sooners defense should make Mayfield a much better player with its overall talent and playmakers all over the field.
- Tight end Taylor McNamara had two touchdown catches in the spring game. Could a pass-catching tight end return to OU’s weekly game plans this fall? Maybe. A wait-and-see approach would be wise, as adding a big receiving threat has been a goal for the past two seasons. McNamara and former quarterback Bell, who missed the spring game with an injury, appear to be the most likely candidates at tight end if it does happen.
- Speaking of receiving threats, true freshman Dimitri Flowers should make an impact this fall. He spent a lot of time with the first-team offense before a hyper-extended knee ended his day. He can block, he can catch and he’s picked up the offense as if he’s entering his junior season. It appears OU has found a hidden gem in the three-star Class of 2014 signee. Don’t be surprised if he emerges as the big-bodied receiving threat OU’s offense has been lacking as his blocking and overall versatility could secure a key role in the offense, allowing the Sooners to adapt on the fly.
- OU has talented receivers but will miss Jalen Saunders, a likely NFL draft pick. K.J. Young and Austin Bennett, Jordan Smallwood and Derrick Woods each showed flashes of ability but need to develop quickly if the Sooners hope to provide quality receiving options for Knight this fall.
- Nobody seized the starting running back spot with a eye-opening day. Daniel Brooks led the way with eight carries for 67 yards and Keith Ford finished with nine carries for 29 yards. Alex Ross, who had been praised throughout the spring, added three carries for six yards. The door is wide open for Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine, two ESPN 300 running back signees, to make an immediate impression on the coaching staff and earn carries this fall. The Sooners need someone to step up and make defenses account for them from the running back position this fall. It doesn’t matter who it is.
- OU could end up looking back at this spring as a critical time for developing depth along the offensive line. Several linemen, including guards Adam Shead and Nila Kasitati and tackle Tyrus Thompson, sat out the spring game, allowing backups such as tackles Josiah St. John and Sam Grant to get plenty of chances. The offensive line struggled at times.
- The backup quarterback position remains up in the air, but Cody Thomas, a redshirt freshman, looked solid, going 5-of-9 for 52 yards and a touchdown. Justice Hansen, a true freshman, struggled with the speed of the game at times, finishing 4-of-8 for 58 yards and one touchdown but with some good moments.
The excitement surrounding Oklahoma’s football program is night and day compared to a year ago. The Sooners announced 43,500 fans in attendance for their spring game on Saturday, a school record. Last year’s announced crowd was 29,200. With the Trevor Knight era fully underway, here’s a recap of OU’s spring game.
Best defensive performance: Linebacker Eric Striker looked like he was in midseason form with two sacks and one tackle for loss. Striker, who starred in OU’s Allstate Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama, picked up right where he left off. He continually got into the offensive backfield and appeared unblockable at times coming off the edge. He could be poised for a dominant junior season.
Best debut: True freshman Dimitri Flowers looks ready to help the offense immediately. One of the scariest scenes of the spring game was Flowers lying on the ground, clutching his knee. Fortunately for the Sooners, it was just a hyper-extended knee for the fullback/tight end hybrid. Flowers has impressed with his football IQ and receiving skills during his short time on campus as an early enrollee. He tied for the team high with four receptions and finished with 40 receiving yards. He should be a key contributor this fall.
Notable play: Sophomore linebacker Jordan Evans had the hit of the day against K.J. Young on a receiver screen. Evans’ hit popped the ball up in the air, allowing defensive tackle Jordan Wade to secure Knight’s lone interception of the day. It was a key play because Evans played with the No. 1 defense after returning starter Frank Shannon, OU's leading tackler in 2013, missed the game for personal reasons. Shannon's status remains unclear, so the Sooners could turn to Evans to be the man alongside Dominique Alexander this fall if Shannon is unable to return. Evans looked ready for the task on Saturday.
Developing storyline: OU’s defense clearly won the day. The Sooners are young, talented and versatile on that side of the ball, led by Striker and returning All-Big 12 defensive end Charles Tapper. OU’s secondary, a potential concern with the loss of two-time All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin, had a strong day in coverage, particularly the starting unit. Sophomore Dakota Austin was solid sliding into Colvin’s former spot opposite Zack Sanchez. If this unit continues to develop, it could be one of the best and more versatile defenses in the nation.
Biggest question answered: Few, if any, questions got answered. The defense was dominant, but that wasn't surprising, and nobody separated themselves in the running back derby or backup quarterback race. Keith Ford and Alex Ross will welcome true freshmen Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine into the running back competition this summer. At quarterback, Cody Thomas outperformed Justice Hansen, but didn’t put a stranglehold on the backup quarterback position heading into the summer. The best development of the game was a relatively injury-free outing.
Biggest question emerging: Which Knight will lead the Sooners in 2014? He didn't look like the Allstate Sugar Bowl MVP, going 5-of-14 for 53 yards and one interception. Evans' hit led to his lone pick, but he was inefficient and unproductive. The defense carries a large portion of the blame and the receiving corps, without top target Sterling Shepard and potential starter Durron Neal, also contributed to Knight's underwhelming spring finale. Knight knows he will have to perform much better for OU's national title dreams to approach reality.
Quotable: “I don’t know that you ever get anything answered in 15 practices. What I feel like is there has been improvement. Players that haven’t had a ton of experience have more now. We’ll build on it.” -- OU coach Bob Stoops
To the 'bag...
@Jake_Trotter best newcomers this spring?Trotter: So far, Oklahoma State running back/receiver Tyreek Hill, TCU safety Kenny Iloka and Kansas receiver Nick Harwell. With his speed, Hill could lead the league in all-purpose yards. Iloka is going to be a key piece in the best secondary in the Big 12. And Harwell should finally give the Jayhawks that go-to receiver they haven’t had since Dezmon Briscoe.
— Eric Bowman (@E_ROCK12) April 10, 2014
@Jake_Trotter this far out if you had to pick this year's Paul Rhoads upset special who would it beTrotter: The Cyclones get K-State in Ames the second week of the season, which could be a dangerous game for the Wildcats, who might get caught looking ahead to that Thursday night clash with Auburn. Another team that must pay heed is Oklahoma. The Sooners go to Iowa State the week before hosting Baylor in a game that could determine the Big 12 crown. OU can't afford to be looking ahead, either.
— Ted Flint (@TedFlintKansas) April 10, 2014
@Jake_Trotter What's your over/under on Kansas conference wins this coming season? #big12mailbagTrotter: I'm going to set it at 1 1/2, and I think I would actually bet the over. The Jayhawks are going to be better this season, and quite possibly good enough to steal two conference wins.
— Michael Nichols (@mdn_13) April 10, 2014
@Jake_Trotter @ESPN_Big12 what is TTU going to do with all these young QBs? Webb, Mahomes, Stidham #big12mailbagTrotter: Right now, the Red Raiders have one on campus, and that's well below the national average. I don't see an issue. The way Davis Webb has improved in the last five months, he's going to be the guy the next three seasons barring something unforeseen. That would still give Jarrett Stidham three seasons of eligibility to be the starter, if he redshirted next year. Patrick Mahomes will get this chances, too. Seems like what TTU is going to do is be really good at quarterback the next six years.
— Matt McNicoll (@Matt_McNicoll) April 10, 2014
@Jake_Trotter you think OU/TX will have a 2:30 kickoff? It's hard for us college students to make the noon kickoffs, heck hard for anybody — Konnor Lohman (@konnorlohman) April 10, 2014Trotter: I have no inside info here, but if the game is at 11 a.m. again, hit me up in the fall and I'll share with you my shortcut to the Texas State Fair.
@Jake_Trotter how do you see the Daniel Sams move to WR working out for #KState? — Corbin McGuire (@CorbinMcGuire1) April 10, 2014Trotter: It was a move that had to be made. Sams is too talented to be standing on the sidelines. He's not going to instantly become an All-Big 12 receiver. But if they can devise ways to get Sams the ball in space, the move could work out well. I see Sams getting a lot of his touches through flares, screens, reverses and maybe a handoff or Wildcat formation here or there. If they can get Sams the ball 10 times a game, that will only help the K-State offense. Think Trevone Boykin in TCU's offense late last year. That's how I see Sams best fitting in.
@Jake_Trotter Do you see Kenny Williams starting on both sides of the ball next year?Trotter: Playing? Yes. Starting? No. I think Williams ultimately favors one side of the ball. The most likely scenario is he still keeps a major role at running back, then gives coordinator Matt Wallerstedt 15-20 plays at outside linebacker, which is more than I would have predicted at the beginning of the spring. Williams can really help the defense, but not at the expense of playing 130 snaps.
— Michael Bates (@BatesTheDoulos) April 10, 2014
@Jake_Trotter which big 12 coach's job is the most secure and who has to win right now?Trotter: Bob Stoops, Art Briles, Mike Gundy, Bill Snyder and Gary Patterson have ironclad job security. Paul Rhoads and Kliff Kingsbury have nothing to worry about, either, and Charlie Strong is too new to have to worry (though in Austin, that could change fast). That leaves Charlie Weis and Dana Holgorsen, whose seats are warmest among Big 12 coaches. I think Weis just has to show improvement this season. He can't go 0-12. Holgorsen is the most interesting to watch. Considering the brutal schedule, it's very possible West Virginia is better than last year and still goes 5-7, which might not be enough for Holgorsen to keep his job. But if the Mountaineers go, say, 7-5 against that slate, then I would think Holgorsen would be deserving of another year. West Virginia has been recruiting at an impressive clip, and the schedule will line up more favorably in 2015.
— David Leake (@DavidLeake) April 10, 2014
Trotter: Appreciate it, sir. Cannon was actually on the poll for Offensive Freshman of the Year two weeks ago. The newcomer poll was for transfers, which is why you didn't see him there.
Trotter: I actually released a power poll in January that went this way: OU, Baylor, K-State, Texas, Oklahoma State, Tech, TCU, Iowa State, West Virginia, Kansas. I'll be updating it, though, after spring ball concludes.
The Knights were in Austin for nearly every UT home game, and Trevor fondly remembers going to Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium the week before the Longhorns played Oklahoma in the Red River Rivalry game in Dallas.
“I hated 'em,” Knight said of the Sooners. “I did. Going to Texas games, I’d go to the one right before the Red River Rivalry game and yell, ‘OU sucks!’”
But the day before Knight was scheduled to make his official visit to UT in February 2012, the Longhorns received a verbal commitment from quarterback Connor Brewer of Scottsdale, Ariz. Knight never made a visit to Austin and verbally committed to play at Texas A&M before flipping to Oklahoma after an official visit to Norman.
Instead of playing quarterback for Texas, he ended up playing for the team the Longhorns dislike the most.
“It was a blessing in disguise,” Knight said. “Going through the recruiting process, you realize you have to pick the best place for you. The whole fan aspect goes out [the window]. I grew up a huge Texas fan and hated A&M and OU but committed to A&M and ended up at OU. It’s how it works out. It’s funny because I grew up hating OU and now I love it.”
After two years at OU, it seems pretty clear that Knight made the correct decision. Heading into his sophomore season, Knight is the Sooners’ undisputed starting quarterback after throwing for a career-high 348 yards with four touchdowns on 32-for-44 passing in a 45-31 victory over Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
“I think a lot of positives came from it,” Knight said. “Obviously, recognition came from it. It’s a good thing to play well and be recognized for playing well. People have been saying, ‘It’s one game.’ You’ve got to build off of it and continue to move in the right direction.”
Before Knight’s breakout performance against the Crimson Tide, he had endured an up-and-down first season as Oklahoma’s quarterback in 2013. He won a tight quarterback competition and started the first two games before spraining his knee in a 16-7 win over West Virginia on Sept. 7. Blake Bell replaced Knight and kept the starting job for eight games until suffering an injury late in the season.
Knight’s performance against Alabama ended any speculation about who would be OU’s quarterback in 2014. So much so that Bell decided to move to tight end during the offseason and Kendal Thompson, another backup quarterback, transferred to Utah.
OU coach Bob Stoops said he wasn’t surprised Knight played well against Alabama. In fact, it’s what Stoops expected from his quarterback all along.
“When you go through the entire spring and two-a-days, we saw a lot of great throws and his ability to run and do things,” Stoops said. “It’s why he started the season. We don’t name a starter haphazardly.”
Added Knight: “I think there was a light switch for our whole team. Just the confidence we had and focus we had was different. We were carrying a chip on our shoulders. Nobody gave us a chance. They were fighting to keep us from trying to run out of the tunnel because we were so ready to play.”
Now it’s up to Knight to build on the Sugar Bowl and continue to get better. As good as he looked against Alabama, Knight was still wildly inconsistent last season. In eight games, Knight completed 59 percent of his passes for 819 yards with nine touchdowns and five interceptions. He also ran for 445 yards with two scores and was sacked four times.
“He is definitely coming along,” Stoops said. “It’s easy to say it’s because of the Sugar Bowl, but I think it’s because of natural maturity and the number of snaps he’s taken. He’s progressed. I think the Sugar Bowl allowed him to be a leader and take over the team.”
Moving Bell to another position also allowed Knight to take ownership of OU’s offense, according to Stoops.
“I think it helps so much now that he’s 'the guy,’” said OU center Ty Darlington, Knight’s roommate. “He’s not looking over his shoulder.”
Since setting an OU bowl record with four touchdown passes against Alabama, Knight has been the center of attention around campus. Darlington said it’s rare that Knight isn’t asked to take a photograph or sign an autograph when they attend sporting events or go out for late-night meals.
“Trevor hasn’t changed a ton,” Darlington said. “I would say the way people treat Trevor has changed. It’s different. We’ve always gone everywhere together. Now it’s like we can’t go anywhere. He’s done a good job of embracing it but hasn’t let it go to his head.”
Not that Darlington or Knight’s fraternal twin brother would let his head get too big. Connor Knight is a sophomore tight end for the Sooners and played on special teams last season.
“He hasn’t changed at all,” Connor Knight said.
OU fans will have to wait until the Aug. 30 season opener against Louisiana Tech to find how much better he’ll be this season. They hope to see the quarterback who lit up Alabama’s vaunted defense instead of the one who struggled to keep the starting job.
“It was refreshing to play well and obviously to win a big game like that,” Knight said. “That is what you dream of doing. Internally, it wasn’t a surprise to us. We really did come together and peak at the right time. I think it’s a vote of confidence. It’s nice to play that way in your last game because it carries into the offseason. We just want to build on it and ride the wave and be the best we can be.”
When: Saturday at 2 p.m.
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.
The Oklahoma quarterback enrolled early to participate in spring football with his new team. And, with Kendal Thompson’s departure and Blake Bell’s shift to tight end, Hansen is getting plenty of opportunities to impress.
“It’s extremely hard on every one of our players who come in here, but especially on our quarterbacks,” offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. “It’s extremely difficult. There’s so much thrown at you so quickly. Within six weeks of being here, you’re on the practice field going against guys that have been here, they’ve been through the system and understand the system.”
The Under Armour All-American and former ESPN 300 prospect's talent has been on display, but so has his inexperience.
“Justice coming right from high school has the biggest adjustment,” coach Bob Stoops said. “He’s really a talented guy with his arm and how he’s worked.”
Hansen is having the normal ups and downs of a freshman with good days and good throws alongside bad throws and mental mistakes. But, more importantly, he’s improving and learning from the setbacks.
“It’s overwhelming at times,” said Heupel, who also coaches the Sooners’ quarterbacks. “But the first four days before spring break you saw him get better each day. Since they've been back, he’s comprehended things even better.”
OU needs Hansen or redshirt freshman Cody Thomas to prove they’re ready to handle backup duties behind starter Trevor Knight. Saturday’s spring game could go a long way in showing if Hansen is ready to handle the task or if he’ll have to postpone his arrival as a impact player until a much later date. With some much to learn, Hansen would have to be considered the dark horse candidate to earn the No. 2 quarterback role as he joins Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield, who is ineligible for the 2014 season, as lone newcomers to the quarterbacks room. Yet, if his development continues or even accelerates, he could be ready sooner rather than later.
“I think by the time you finish spring ball, you get through summer and you come back into fall camp, he’ll be really comfortable with what we’re doing,” Heupel said. “I expect him to grow leaps and bounds by the time fall ends.”
No matter what happens, the early enrollee has impressed Knight, who is the veteran of the group even though he’s preparing for his redshirt sophomore season. One trait in particular has stood out to OU’s incumbent starter.
“His composure, he stays really composed, it’s not a 'rah, rah' thing,” Knight said. “He takes constructive criticism extremely well. He comes in the meeting room and works as hard as he can and he’s answering questions, he’s done a really good job.”
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.
It has been two years since a tight end caught more than three passes in a season at OU, although Trey Millard filled a tight end/fullback role in 2012 and 2013, catching 30 passes in 2012 and 11 passes in 2013.
“The Sooners are hopeful a strong receiving threat emerges this season with Blake Bell, Taylor McNamara, Connor Knight and Isaac Ijalana competing for time at tight end. OU has used players in the role of tight ends, with Millard and Aaron Ripkowski filling the void, during the past two seasons. But a passing threat like Gresham has escaped its grasp.
When you're young you want to blame it on other things. As I've matured I've realized, anywhere you go, they want to play the best players, get the best 11 on the field. And I think I can be one of those [eleven] here.” -- Oklahoma TE Taylor McNamara
“There’s just not a lot of Jermaine Greshams running around,” coach Bob Stoops said. “You have to have the right people and they have to be experienced, so when they go on the field they have to be better than another personnel grouping you might have out there.”
The Sooners’ depth at receiver made wideout-heavy personnel groupings in passing situations the right move during the past two seasons with OU preferring to have Jalen Saunders and Sterling Shepard working the middle of the field instead of a bigger threat.
As OU builds the offense around Trevor Knight, the desire for a versatile threat at tight end increases thanks to Knight’s run-pass skills.
“It makes it more versatile as an offense,” McNamara said of the use of versatile tight ends. “If you have them in there and don’t know what personnel to put out there, you can run it and throw it so it’s a benefit, for sure.”
And McNamara is hoping to be that guy.
The junior’s development has been overshadowed by Bell’s move to tight end and Ijalana’s recent arrival from the junior college ranks but the California native stepped on campus with plenty of accolades of his own. A four-star signee and Army All-American, a lot was expected from McNamara but he will enter his redshirt sophomore season without much fanfare. Yet, after briefly wondering if OU was the right place for him, McNamara decided he was willing to shoulder the blame for his lack of an impact during his first two years in Norman, Okla.
“When you’re young you want to blame it on other things,” he said. “As I’ve matured I’ve realized, anywhere you go, they want to play the best players, get the best 11 on the field. And I think I can be one of those  here.”
His progress as a redshirt freshman brings hope that he can fulfill the promise he brought with him as an early enrollee in the spring of 2012. After a strong showing in bowl preparations, McNamara’s lone catch in crimson and cream is a four-yard reception in the Sooners’ Allstate Sugar Bowl win over Alabama.
“The whole year I was working to get better,” he said. “Eventually I got good enough to help the team and get to play a little bit. Getting to play at all was a blessing, it’s a lot more fun when you’re involved.”
This spring is a critical time for McNamara, who at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds brings good size and could become the receiving threat the Sooners have been searching for in recent years.
“I’m here to play,” McNamara said. “I don’t want to sit my whole career here. I want to make an impact.”
Like with the Cowboys, big-time triplets usually translate to big-time offense. And the Big 12 over the years has showcased several notable ones. Oklahoma’s Jason White, Adrian Peterson and Mark Clayton in 2004. Oklahoma State’s Brandon Weeden, Joseph Randle and Justin Blackmon in 2011. West Virginia’s Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey in 2012. Even last season, Baylor boasted one of the best triplets in the country in Bryce Petty, Lache Seastrunk and Antwan Goodley.
So which Big 12 teams will feature the most prolific offensive triplets in 2014? We rank them below:
QB Bryce Petty, RB Shock Linwood, WR Antwan Goodley
The Bears remain atop this list, even with Seastrunk bolting early for the NFL draft. Despite being Baylor’s third-string running back last season, Linwood still finished sixth in the Big 12 in rushing and shined as the featured back while Seastrunk and Glasco Martin were injured. After totaling 46 touchdowns throwing and rushing, Petty should be even better in his second season as a starter. Goodley is an All-American-caliber wideout.
QB Trevor Knight, RB Keith Ford, WR Sterling Shepard
Knight finally live up to his preseason billing with a sparkling Sugar Bowl performance against Alabama. Knight has the talent and potential to be one of the best dual-threat QBs in the country. Ford was one of the top running back recruits in 2013, and would have played more as a freshman had the Sooners not also had four senior running backs on the roster. Shepard has been a dependable starter the last two seasons, and he already has 96 career receptions going into his junior season. He seems ready to take over for Jalen Saunders as the go-to receiver.
3. Texas Tech
QB Davis Webb, RB Kenny Williams, WR Jakeem Grant
Webb broke out with a tremendous performance in the National University Holiday Bowl, throwing for 403 yards and four touchdowns in an upset of Arizona State. He had his moments during the regular season, too, and could be in for a monster sophomore campaign in Kliff Kingsbury’s air-it-out offense. Williams is a solid pass-catching running back out of the backfield, and he led the Red Raiders with 497 rushing yards and eight touchdowns last season. Williams has been taking first-team snaps at outside linebacker this spring, so he could wind up deferring carries to DeAndre Washington, who has been a capable backup. Grant is electric with the ball, burning Arizona State with a pair of touchdown catches. Grant was sixth in the Big 12 last season in receiving, and with Jace Amaro and Eric Ward gone, should take on an expanded role offensively.
QB David Ash, RB Malcolm Brown, WR Jaxon Shipley
The possibilities of this threesome hinges heavily on the health of Ash, who missed virtually all of the 2013 season with concussion issues. Ash is back with the team this spring, and he has had moments before of performing at a high level. After Johnathan Gray’s Achilles injury, Brown took over as the starting running back and performed admirably, rushing for more than 100 yards in each of Texas’ final three games. Shipley has sure hands, is a precise route runner and is capable of catching 70-plus passes in the right quarterback situation.
5. Kansas State
QB Jake Waters, RB DeMarcus Robinson, WR Tyler Lockett
The Wildcats would be ranked second here if John Hubert had another season of eligibility. But running back is a major question, with no back on the roster holding much experience. Robinson might be the favorite to win the job, but he’ll have to fend off Jarvis Leverett and incoming freshman Dalvin Warmack. Lockett is the best receiver in the Big 12 and one of the best in the country. Waters improved dramatically in his first season as the starter in 2013. If a running back emerges, the Wildcats could surge up this list.
6. Iowa State
QB Grant Rohach, RB Aaron Wimberly, WR Quenton Bundrage
Rohach first must win the starting quarterback derby this spring over Sam B. Richardson. But he played well down the stretch while leading Iowa State to a pair of wins to finish last year. Wimberly was banged up for much of last season, but he can be dynamic when healthy. Bundrage was third in the Big 12 in receiving touchdowns in 2013, and with a little more consistency, could be an all-league receiver. This could be the best triplet combination coach Paul Rhoads has enjoyed in Ames.
7. Oklahoma State
QB J.W. Walsh, RB Desmond Roland, WR Jhajuan Seales
Walsh was fifth in college football in Adjusted Total QBR as a redshirt freshman, but he took a step back as a sophomore and eventually lost the starting gig back to Clint Chelf. If he plays like he did as a freshman, Walsh could be one of the five-best QBs in the league. If he performs like his sophomore season, he could lose the job again. Roland is a touchdown machine and is as good as any back in the league in short-yardage situations. Seales could be on the verge of breaking out in a big way after starting as a freshman.
8. West Virginia
QB Clint Trickett, RB Dreamius Smith, WR Kevin White
The Mountaineers have plenty of weapons, but they will only score more points with more consistent QB play. Trickett tops the projected depth chart for now, but he’ll have to outperform Paul Millard, Skyler Howard and William Crest to stick there. Smith was very impressive at times last season backing up Charles Sims. He’ll get the first crack at starting, but Pittsburgh transfer Rushel Shell will be looming if Smith sputters. White gets the nod as the No. 1 wideout, but Daikiel Shorts and Mario Alford are not far behind as part of a deep and balanced wide receiving corps.
QB Trevone Boykin, RB B.J. Catalon, WR Josh Doctson
Boykin is back at quarterback again after splitting time at receiver the last two seasons. Boykin struggled as the starting QB last season but got little help from his offensive line or receivers. Reports are that he has been sharp this spring in the new Doug Meacham/Sonny Cumbie offense. Catalon is a solid cog at running back, and he averaged 5.3 yards per carry despite playing in an anemic attack last year. Brandon Carter was supposed to be the No. 1 receiver last season -- and still could be in 2014 -- but he wasn’t reliable on or off the field. In Carter’s stead, Doctson surfaced after transferring in from Wyoming, and led the Horned Frogs with 36 receptions and 440 receiving yards.
QB Jake Heaps, RB Brandon Bourbon, WR Nick Harwell
Harwell should give Kansas what it hasn’t had in a long time -- a go-to receiver. Harwell was the nation’s second-leading receiver in 2011 at Miami (Ohio), and he should give the Kansas offense a much needed shot in the arm. Heaps lost time to freshman Montell Cozart last fall, but he has reasserted himself this spring amid a three-way competition with Cozart and UCLA transfer T.J. Millweard. Bourbon is battling Taylor Cox and Darrian Miller to see who replaces All-Big 12 running back James Sims.
Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight is growing into his role as “the man” behind center this spring. His leadership in the hallways and meeting rooms of OU’s football building could be a key to the 2014 season.
For the majority of the 2013 season the quarterback spot remained unclear as Knight was joined by Kendal Thompson and Blake Bell as options at the position. Now, after Knight’s stellar Allstate Sugar Bowl, the sophomore is the unquestioned starter and the guy the offense will turn to for leadership when adversity hits.
“[It’s] his ability to speak with a louder stick in the weight room and locker room,” offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. “For him to [show] more of his personality and [put his] stamp on the offense.”
Yet, Knight’s role has undertaken a bigger change than his daily approach. Heupel often praised his work ethic and habits while he was redshirting in 2012, saying Knight was preparing as if he was the starter despite being the scout team quarterback at the time.
That part of Knight’s personality is as present as ever.
“I don’t know if it’s necessarily a change in his demeanor,” Heupel said. “He’s a great leader, a great kid on and off the field. He’s extremely competitive. He’s the same guy every day, in the meeting room or on the field, he doesn’t change. Hopefully that will transcend through entire football team.”
Those traits are one of the reasons the coaching staff didn’t think twice about naming him the opening day starter a year ago.
“I don’t notice it being much different,” coach Bob Stoops said. “Because he always did what you wanted him to do.”
It’s easy to forget that Knight is still a young player with three years to play and plenty of improvement to make. He’s the oldest player in the quarterback room with Baker Mayfield (who is ineligible for 2014 after transferring from Texas Tech after his true freshman season), redshirt freshman Cody Thomas and true freshman Justice Hansen alongside him.
“It’s nice to be the oldest guy and be that leader,” Knight said. “But I know that I haven’t accomplished much yet. I’m still a young guy so I want to build off of that and get better and better every day.”
This spring isn’t just about becoming comfortable as the focal point and leader of the offense. Knight needs to become a better quarterback.
“He continues to progress,” Heupel said. “We think he has a great command of what we’re doing and he’s understanding defenses better. He should only get better at every practice with every rep.”
These lists won’t include junior college or freshman signees who haven’t arrived on campus yet. Rather, they will include only the players on their teams this spring. Some of these rankings might look different after the spring, but this is how we see them now.
On Tuesday, we continue with Allstate Sugar Bowl champion Oklahoma.
2. Linebacker Eric Striker: One of the Big 12’s top pass rushers, Striker showed what he can do during his three-sack performance in the Sugar Bowl. His relentlessness on the edge should continue to terrorize quarterbacks this fall.
3. Defensive end Charles Tapper: The former basketball player is coming off an All-Big 12 season, but he still hasn’t scratched the surface of his potential in a lot of ways. He’s continuing to grow as a football player, but his natural instincts and exceptional physical ability to cement himself near the top of this list until he leaves Norman, Okla.
4. Receiver Sterling Shepard: Shepard has been a key piece of the offense since he stepped on campus two years ago. His tendency to play his best in OU’s biggest games, particularly against Alabama, Oklahoma State and Notre Dame, is what makes him a special player.
5. Safety Quentin Hayes: He goes somewhat unnoticed, but Hayes' versatility is a critical piece in OU’s defense. He has the ability to cover receivers yet always remains active and around the ball. This spring Hayes needs to emerge as a leader in the secondary as the veteran in the group.
6. Quarterback Trevor Knight: If Knight can consistently play like he did in the Sugar Bowl, he’ll rise to the top of this list quickly. Even with several stellar performances by teammates, Knight was easily the Sooners' best player against Alabama, but the same cannot be said for the other seven appearances of his redshirt freshman season.
7. Linebacker Dominique Alexander: The Big 12 defensive freshman of the year joins Shannon and Striker to give the Sooners one of the Big 12’s top linebacker units. Alexander had 80 tackles while recording double-digit stops in four of the nine games he started as a true freshman. The sky is the limit for Alexander, who should be even better as a sophomore.
8. Tackle Daryl Williams: Injuries are the only thing that have kept Williams from being productive during his time in crimson and cream. He earned second-team All-Big 12 honors as a junior and should be the veteran anchor of the offensive line in 2014.
9. Defensive end Geneo Grissom: He finally started to realize his upside as a junior, capping it off with an outstanding performance against Alabama. Much like Knight, if he can consistently play at that level, he would skyrocket up this list.
10. Cornerback Zack Sanchez: He stepped up in a big way during his redshirt freshman year. Sanchez had major ups and downs but his competitiveness rose to the forefront on several occasions. He finished with a team-high 13 pass breakups along with 46 tackles and two interceptions. He’ll need to become a leader as a sophomore.
Spring Game Wrap-Up
BIG 12 SCOREBOARD
TBD North Dakota State Iowa State TBD Louisiana Tech Oklahoma TBD North Texas Texas TBD Stephen F. Austin Kansas State TBD Samford TCU TBD Central Arkansas Texas Tech 3:30 PM ET West Virginia Alabama 8:00 PM ET Florida State Oklahoma State