An Oklahoma Spring Game record crowd of 43,500 watched the Sooners go against one another on Owen Field on Saturday, where the White team defeated the Red team by a score of 28-13.
As is the case with spring games, the final score is of much less importance than how the score was actually achieved. The excitement around the Sooners was evident by the record attendance, and the product on the field didn't disappoint.
Oklahoma's four quarterbacks combined to throw for 288 yards and four touchdowns while hitting 23-of-40 passes and tossing three interceptions. The Sooners' crowded running back position also performed well, with Daniel Brooks leading the way with 67 yards on eight carries.
A young receiving corps was without arguably its top two options on Saturday, as Sterling Shepard and Durron Neal sat out with injuries. Austin Bennett led the group with four catches for 62 yards and a touchdown. Jordan Smallwood and Derrick Woods each had three catches for 60 and 53 yards, respectively.
Defensively, linebacker Ruben Hunter led the team with nine tackles, while Eric Striker had two of the unit's seven sacks for the afternoon.
The Sooners managed to get through the day with no major injuries, always the biggest sign of success in a spring game. Defensive end Geneo Grissom suffered a sprained MCL in the first half and will be out six weeks. Freshman fullback Dimitri Flowers, the heir to Trey Millard, suffered a knee injury in the fourth quarter. It appeared to be serious, but ended up being nothing more than a hyperextension.
"It was just a little shock," Flowers said of his injury. "Obviously knees are a scary thing to deal with but it got better. I'll be fine."
Flowers has been drawing rave reviews from coaches since he arrived on campus in January after graduating early from high school. Flowers said he always planned on graduating early, but once he shared that plan with the OU coaches, it became a must.
"That's what the intentions were," Flowers said. "I just went in there and kept my head down and did all my hard work to get done what I needed to get done."
Knight Struggles, Mayfield Impresses
Trevor Knight wasn't the most impressive quarterback on Saturday, and didn't look much like the quarterback who shredded the Alabama secondary in the Sugar Bowl. However, it wasn't a terrible performance for Knight, certainly much better than the quarterback who started the first two games a year ago. Knight finished the day 5-of-14 for 53 yards and an interception that was tipped before being picked off.
Knight did lead two field goal drives, one of those spanning 10 plays and 45 yards.
OU coach Bob Stoops said the main reason Knight struggled was because the defense sees everything in practice every day, so the unit wasn't surprised by anything the offense did.
"It isn't one guy," Stoops said. "If no one (wide receivers) is open, no one is going to look good. The disadvantage for the offense is always that the defense is so familiar with them. They know by formation what routes and it makes it harder."
Offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said a lot of things contributed to Knight's subpar showing on Saturday, but noted Knight has continued to get better since his breakout performance against Alabama.
"Today was not his best performance," Heupel said. "It's not like he played perfect in the Sugar Bowl, no quarterback is going too. He's really good but there are things he missed in that game, too. It's a constant process of continuing to get better and understanding defenses. He's by no means a finished product. The great thing about him is he's going to come to work tomorrow and keep pushing himself to get better."
Knight said the biggest thing he has been working on is becoming a better leader for the Sooners' young quarterback group and for the team as a whole. A year ago, Knight was the youngest eligible quarterback on the roster. Now, he's the oldest and he understands the responsibility that comes with that.
"I have to step into that leadership role, not just in our meeting room but as a whole team, just getting the guys rallied around me and carrying that momentum from last year and working it into this season," Knight said. "I'm not looking over my shoulder as much. I'm stepping into that role and getting reps with the A-team guys, and we're building chemistry."
Instead of Knight, it was Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield who impressed most at the quarterback position. While some would be quick to instigate a quarterback controversy, there's no need, since Mayfield is ineligible until 2015.
Mayfield had two drives and led the offense to touchdowns on both of those. He finished 9-for-9 for 125 yards and two touchdowns through the air, the second one a beautiful, back-shoulder 28-yard pass to Jordan Smallwood.
"It went pretty well," Mayfield said. "It felt good to get back out there and get game-time experience. I needed to get that experience and have that in my mind; the stuff I need to work on heading into the summer and into the season which will be like another offseason."
Cody Thomas and Justice Hansen also had their ups and down on Saturday. Both threw a touchdown pass, including a nice 19-yard touchdown strike from Hansen to Austin Bennett (four catches, 62 yards). Heupel said he was pleased with how his young quarterbacks played, but knows there is still a long way to go.
"You've got a lot off young quarterbacks out there, so it's a learning experience for all those guys," Heupel said. "They made some plays, made some bad plays or didn't operate well in the game sometimes. There are a lot of little details that young quarterbacks will miss and they've got to learn from it. Ultimately, those guys need experience."
Tight Ends Reappear For OU Offense
The tight end position has been noticeably absent on Saturdays the past two seasons for Oklahoma, but that changed on Saturday, as tight ends were targeted frequently by OU quarterbacks. Taylor McNamara had two touchdown catches and indicated that was the direction the offense would be heading in 2014.
"I think so," McNamara said. "I think we've developed a lot as a position group in the offseason and in the spring. I think they're definitely to use us as playmakers more this year."
McNamara understood the reason the Sooners haven't been using the tight end as much in the offense the past two years has been a lack of readiness from all in the position group.
"I think that's part of it," McNamara said. "The receivers we had last year had a lot to do with it. They're going to play the best 11; that's how it works here. Those were the guys last year."
Knowing he wasn't seeing the field because he wasn't ready humbled McNamara. However, it didn't stop him from working hard to get to this position.
"It was a tough experience," McNamara said. "My first two years here were not how I scripted them. You just have to keep your head down and keep working."
With many starters returning, the OU defense looks to be the strongest it has been in several years. That notion wasn't changed on Saturday, as the first team defense consistently stifled Knight and the first team offense.
This was never more evident than the first possession of the second half, when linebacker Striker "sacked" Knight twice and then on third down, Knight, under heavy pressure, basically threw the ball into Charles Tapper's chest.
"I think this is the most complete defense we've had since we've been here," defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. "When we get our players back and get our freshmen in here, I think we can be a very deep football team, deeper than we were in the past couple of years, for sure."
Striker knows Stoops doesn't praise his defense without reason and understands the great history the Sooners have on the defensive side of the ball.
"That's good," Striker said of Stoops' comments. "With all the All-Americans that have been around here, that's a bold statement. We appreciate it, but stay humble. We're just trying to be great."
Linebacker Jordan Evans was one of those who impressed on Saturday. Evans had three tackles and a pass deflection, but it was his massive hit on KJ Young that led to an interception for Jordan Wade was the highlight of the day.
Stoops said starting middle linebacker Frank Shannon—who didn't play on Saturday—was away from the team dealing with a personal issue. Evans' development becomes much more important if these issues keep Shannon out into the fall.
"I haven't even thought like that," Evans said when asked if he's preparing to take Shannon's place. "Opportunities always come and you have to be ready for them. You either take advantage of them or not."
The Oklahoma secondary also performed well, auditioning several different players for the open cornerback and safety positions. Returning starting quarterback Zach Sanchez says the youth the Sooners boast at the position is a great thing for the program.
"I think it's really good for the future, getting the experience for the guys that didn't get it last year," Sanchez said. "Just getting those younger guys ready to come in and compete and kind of do what I did last year but be more prepared than I was."
Overall, Sanchez thought the defense put on a solid performance, even if it meant he and his fellow secondary players didn't have to do a lot.
"I felt that we played really good, the ones especially," Sanchez said. "We have Striker out there so that kind of makes your job easier, but the defensive line and the linebackers did a great job stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback, so it wasn't that hard in the back end."
There is still plenty of work for the Sooners to do before being considered a national championship contender, and the glow from January's Sugar Bowl win can only last so long. In order to be great, the Sooners have to be great for more than just one game.
"Hopefully our kids understand that they're only going to be as good as their next performance," Heupel said. "I do think that the energy is a positive thing for this program. Our kids understand that we're not that far away from being where we want to be. They're pushing for it every day."