The Oklahoma Sooners have plenty of household names on the roster this year, but with gaps to fill on both sides of the ball, expect to hear some new—or at least unfamiliar—names this season.
Here are five players you could be hearing a lot about as the 2014 season rolls along.
1. Safety- Steven Parker (6-1, 197, freshman)
The freshman safety from Jenks is drawing a lot of praise from coaches and teammates alike for his performance during practice. The Sooners have an opening at safety and have experimented with Parker at both safety positions, as well as nickel back. There's no doubt Parker is a rare talent and his maturity—both physically and mentally—is very impressive for a freshman that's only been on campus a couple of months. This was arguably the Sooners' most important signing in this past recruiting class, keeping the state's top player from leaving the state (and the conference). It's very possible Parker starts this year, but even if he doesn't, Mike Stoops is going to have a difficult time keeping Parker beside him on the sidelines.
2. Wide receiver- Durron Neal (5-11, 201, junior)
Sterling Shepard is the unquestioned leader of the wide receivers, but Neal is being counted on as a veteran presence that needs to step up on the field. Neal may not have the kind of experience Shepard has, but this will be his third season in Norman and he has seen action in 23 games over his first two years for OU. 18 career receptions isn't a lot of on-field experience, but it's much more than the other receivers on the roster—besides Shepard—have. Neal showed he has what it takes to be a go-to guy this past year. Against Tulsa, he snagged four passes for 64 yards and finished the year with 13 catches for 176 yards. Now, it's time for that veteran presence to translate into production on the field. Based on how coaches have talked about his play in practice, it seems Neal is answering the call.
3. Running back- Keith Ford (5-11, 206, sophomore)
With Joe Mixon suspended for the year, it is more important than ever Ford step up and lead a running back group that severely lacks experience. Ford showed flashes of potential in limited touches a year ago, showcasing a bruising style that sent several unfortunate defenders flying backwards over the course of the year. Ford's most impressive stat from a year ago was that in his 23 carries, he didn't have a run for negative yards. Despite the impressive running style, the reason why Ford didn't get more attention a year ago was a problem holding onto the football. Ford had a couple of fumbles a year ago and a lost fumble at Kansas cost him playing time for much of the remainder of the year until the Sugar Bowl came around.
The Sooners can't afford their most experienced back to be putting the ball on the ground, especially when there aren't a ton of other options to turn to. Ford has the talent to be the feature back for the Sooners this year, but he won't see the field if he hasn't learned to hold onto the football.
4. Linebacker- Dominique Alexander (6-0, 227, sophomore)
Alexander is probably already a familiar name to most OU fans, but that's because he was thrown into a difficult situation as a true freshman a year ago. When senior leader Corey Nelson went down with a torn pectoral injury in the TCU game, Mike Stoops turned to the Booker T. Washington product to fill the void. Alexander's first start came against Texas and all he did was lead the team with 19 tackles and had a tackle for loss. Since last year, Stoops has praised Alexander as one of the most prepared freshmen he's ever coached. Alexander finished the year second on the team in tackles with 80, but still looked like a true freshman at times, missing assignments and getting mixed up in coverages.
This year, Alexander is no longer the freshman thrown into the fiery furnace; he's the leader of the unit. With middle linebacker Frank Shannon's status for the season still in limbo, Alexander will be counted on to lead arguably the thinnest group on the team. There isn't a ton of depth at linebacker, but Alexander's experience from a year ago makes the potential turnover at the position much easier to handle.
5. Cornerback- Jordan Thomas (6-1, 183, freshman)
Not a big deal was made Jordan Thomas flipped his commitment from Northwestern to Oklahoma last year. The three-star recruit from Klein, Texas seemed like just another cornerback to bolster the depth in Mike Stoops' secondary, one that would eventually find his way onto the field. Little did anyone expect that Thomas would be pushing hard for the open starting spot opposite Zach Sanchez. Thomas has been commended by Stoops for his intelligence as well as his great football sense. Bob Stoops went a step further, calling Thomas, “as good as a player at corner as we've ever recruited.” High praise for a player who had completely flown under the radar until those comments.
It's still a battle at the cornerback position, especially with veterans Julian Wilson and Cortez Johnson, along with sophomore Dakota Austin battling for the starting role. Even if Thomas doesn't find himself starting, it appears he's ready to play a critical role in the Sooners' pass defense and provide depth to an already deep and talented unit.