There’s a lot to be excited about if you’re an OU football fan, seeing the Sooners are fresh off an Orange Bowl appearance and have a lot of hype surrounding the program for the 2016 season. Saturday is another stepping stone on that path towards the start of September as the Sooners kick off spring practice today in Norman.
Here are a few things to keep an eye on throughout the spring practices:
Austin Kendall has the confidence to be QB2
Freshman quarterback Austin Kendall enters spring with a little more weight on his shoulders than your average early enrollee, seeing the North Carolina product is the likely favorite to land the backup quarterback gig in the fall. OU returns starting quarterback Baker Mayfield, but besides the Heisman contending gunslinger, Kendall’s the only other eligible quarterback on the OU roster who possesses a scholarship.
“Well not yet, we haven’t seen him on the field,” Stoops said when asked if Kendall would for sure be the backup. “But I think we will be fairly comfortable with it by the end of summer sessions. He’s a talented guy. Just watching him out there running around with other players, he fits in.”
Kendall will likely command one of the two rotating offenses throughout spring practice, and he appears to already have the confidence necessary to play quarterback at a prestigious school like Oklahoma, and that was made apparent through his recruiting process.
Despite the Sooners bringing in the highly touted transfer and former five-star quarterback Kyler Murray in December, Kendall never wavered on his commitment to the Sooners and has be a strong staple in the 2016 recruiting class. Many times in today’s world we see recruits decommit from various schools because they’re shying away from competition, but that clearly isn’t the case for someone like Kendall.
“I don’t think there’s any question he has great confidence. I love watching him out there right now,” Stoops said of Kendall. “He fits in like he’s been here for three years. Not a lot of freshmen come in that way. I think it shows a lot about his character and confidence for sure.”
Murray has to sit out the entire 2016 season due to transfer rules; therefore Kendall will have a head start in showing the coaches he’s prepared to lead a high power offense like Oklahoma’s.
Who will take over in the passing game?
With Sterling Shepard and Durron Neal headed to the NFL, there are some shoes to fill at the receiver position if the Sooners want to see continued success in Lincoln Riley’s “Air Raid” offense.
Dede Westbrook returns as the Sooners’ leading receiver after totaling 46 receptions for 743 yards and four touchdowns last season in his first year on campus, and he’ll be expected to carry more of a load on the outside.
Along with Westbrook, Stoops listed a few other guys who could make an impact next season with some more work.
“You’ve got guys like Jeffery Mead. He’s had a huge winter. He’s really showed up,” Stoops said. “Michiah Quick, same thing, has a chance to really make a big jump. Jordan Smallwood, a guy that a year ago, going into the last week of spring, we were as pleased with him as anybody we had outside of maybe Sterling that we were excited about. He tore his ACL. Now, he’s back to full strength and looks good.”
Another guy who could make an impact at wideout is Penn State transfer Geno Lewis, who ranked No. 16 on the Nittany Lions’ career receptions list with 90 grabs. Lewis is the second former Penn State player to transfer to OU in the last four years, with Justin Brown doing the same thing back in 2012 when the Sooners were similarly thin at the receiver position.
“Justin’s a little bit taller, but I think [Lewis] will have a chance to make a similar impact. Justin was a great fit for us, and it worked out really well for him and us,” Stoops said. “I feel like Geno has the same type of capability and have an impact.”
Lewis’ vast experience should also come in handy for OU, seeing the Sooners will lose the strong leadership of both Shepard and Neal.
“[Lewis] has played competitively and played well at this level,” Stoops said. “Watching him out there running around and doing the drills that we’re doing, he’s a very strong, powerful guy. Listening to the players, talking to the quarterbacks, he catches the ball really, really well.”
Stoops also stated that tight end Mark Andrews will have an increased role after recording 19 receptions for 318 yards and seven touchdowns last season as a redshirt freshman.
Another gaping hole in OU’s starting lineup is the cornerback position opposite of emerging star Jordan Thomas. Zack Sanchez (15 career INT) opted to forgo his final season of eligibility for the NFL draft, therefore there will be a position battle to see who replaces the former ball hawk.
Dakota Austin, P.J. Mbanasor and Will Johnson are all favorites to duke it out for that starting spot and all saw the field at times last season.
Mbanasor had some early season struggles after a tough performance against Tulsa, but Austin showed some promise in two starts and Johnson started at nickelback throughout the second half of the season.
“All those guys, I believe, will be better than they were a year ago,” Stoops said.