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Four Deciding Factors For Sooner Success

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Saturday marks the start of the college football season for the No. 19 Oklahoma Sooners when they host the University of Akron in front of their 99th consecutive sold out crowd. The start of any season brings a lot of hype, along with plenty of predictions, so here’s a potential forecast of what could happen with the OU football team this fall.   

Running Back Committee

Last year Sooner fans watched the indestructible Semaje Perine rumble his way to 1,713 yards on the ground while also setting the NCAA single game rushing record with 427 yards against Kansas. Putting up those types of statistics in back-to-back years won’t be an easy task for Perine to accomplish, especially since fellow running back Joe Mixon is now eligible to play after completing his suspension.

Oklahoma is no stranger to garnering more than one elite running back on its roster. In 2008, both Demarco Murray and Chris Brown stapled their legacy on the OU football program when they each rushed for 1,000 yards while making a trip to the BCS National Championship game. Head coach Bob Stoops also had a solid tandem of runners when Adrian Peterson and Kejuan Jones shared a backfield, so this is not foreign territory for the second longest tenured coach in the country. There’s no question that Perine will get a large bulk of the carries, but Mixon is too talented to merely sit back and watch. Some would even suggest that Mixon’s playing style would fit better in offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley’s air raid offense due to his pass catching ability, but it’s definitely safe to say that both running backs will have their time to shine in this new offense.

Improved Receiving Corps

A lot of the end of season problems for OU revolved around the lack of receiver production after Sterling Shepard was injured at the beginning of November. In the final four games of last season against Texas Tech, Kansas, Oklahoma State and Clemson, the Sooners only produced three receiving touchdowns, which is completely out of the norm for a team that’s averaged nearly 31 receiving touchdowns per season over the last decade.

Fortunately for the Sooners, Shepard opted to return to Norman for his senior season, and he’s set to lead a much improved group of wide outs. Durron Neal has promised a big season after failing to fill the void that Shepard left at the end of last year, while high-upside play makers such as Dede Westbrook, Jarvis Baxter and Jeffrey Mead will all be instrumental in the success of the offense.  

Speaking of the offense, Riley is likely to put the group of receivers in a better position to excel. In the five years Riley spent as the offensive coordinator at East Carolina, the Pirates averaged 31 receiving touchdowns per year, and the addition of Baker Mayfield at quarterback should be beneficial to the receiving unit as well.  

Defensive Backfield a Question Mark

There’s plenty of excitement around the Oklahoma football program, but one of the question marks would probably have to be the secondary. The Sooners have a new secondary coach in Kerry Cooks, and he’ll have the responsibility of patching up a group that relinquished 396 passing yards to Baylor last season and also ranked last in the Big 12 conference in passing yards allowed.  

Coach Stoops listed five starting defensive backs on the depth chart and it’s apparent the Sooners will depend heavily on this secondary unit to make plays and force turnovers. Junior cornerback Zach Sanchez has plenty of experience and has made a name for himself over these last two seasons, but there appears to be more questions than answers among this group. Listed safety starters, Ahmad Thomas and Hatari Byrd, each still have a lot to prove, but so do their backups. Out of the five players listed as reserves on the Oklahoma two-deep depth chart that was released on Monday, four of the players are freshman-- Marcus Green, Kahlil Haughton, Will Sunderland, P.J. Mbanasor.

One secondary player Sooner fans should definitely be excited for is Steven Parker. The sophomore impressed last season, and the sky’s the limit for the Jenks product who’s listed as the starter at nickelback, but will presumably move over to free safety when the Sooners put only four defensive backs on the field.

Depth on Defensive Front

Even though there are some things to be figured out in the Oklahoma secondary, the front seven of the defense should be very good this season. Led by Charles Tapper and Eric Striker, the pass rush should be suffocating for opposing quarterbacks while depth at the linebacker position is a bona fide strength of the team. Dominique Alexander and Jordan Evans are tackling machines, while backup Frank Shannon is returning after a year-long suspension. In 2013, Shannon was an instrumental part of the Sooner defense and totaled 92 tackles.

Oklahoma lost defensive lineman Jordan Phillips to the NFL, but Mike Stoops still has solid talent putting their hands down in the trenches for his defense. Matt Romar, Matt Dimon and Charles Walker all appear to be difference makers and are expected to cause havoc. 

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