The expectations for the 2014 Oklahoma football team skyrocketed when the Sooners upset Alabama in the Sugar Bowl back in January. While the hype has somewhat leveled off during the offseason, a first look at what the Sooners are going to be in 2014 at Saturday's Red-White game could cause the water cooler talk around the state to take off once again.
As always, there is only so much one can take out of the annual scrimmage, since it is nothing more than a scrimmage. However, there is still much to be learned about this Oklahoma team. Most of the questions surrounding the Sooners involve a younger player stepping into the void left by a senior from last year's team. There are few, if any major concerns that would cause the Sooners to struggle mightily this season if they are not addressed.
Without further ado, here's a guide to Saturday's spring game and what to watch for.
The Sooners have quite a few players who won't be participating in Saturday's spring game:
Blake Bell- MCL sprain
Sterling Shepard- pulled hamstring
Rashod Favors- knee
Durron Neal- ankle and knee
Julian Wilson- ankle
Quincy Russell- ankle
Nila Kasitati- infection
Tyler Evans, Adam Shead, Tyrus Thompson, Jordan Phillips- out with injuries from last year
OU coach Bob Stoops said the injury list for the spring is a little longer than normal, but didn't seem too concerned with any of the injuries. None of them will require surgery and all will be available when two-a-days begin in August.
The major downside is obviously Bell's injury. You'd be hard pressed to find someone who wasn't looking forward to seeing Bell's transition from quarterback to tight end played out on the field. Guess we'll have to wait on the regular season to see him in action.
One positive from the injuries comes at the wide receiver position. Shepard and Neal—Shepard especially—looked like locks for the rotation in 2014, so this will open up opportunities for younger players (see more on those below). Neal probably could have used some time on the field to solidify his spot in the rotation, but his injury shouldn't affect him too much.
Five Positions To Watch:
1. Running Back
This is a classic example of a position that has many talented options, but a decision still must be made about how the carries will be divided up. Sophomore Keith Ford looks to be the favorite to be the No. 1 running back this season, but redshirt sophomore Alex Ross has been impressive during the spring as well. Both should get plenty of carries on Saturday, along with speed back Daniel Brooks and David Smith. These backs will have a leg up of sorts on incoming freshmen Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine, but when those backs arrive this summer, they should both immediately be in the rotation, particularly Mixon. There's a lot of talent here and it's up to running backs coach Cale Gundy to figure out how to divvy up the carries.
2. Tight End
The fans won't be able to see Blake Bell, but they will be able to see Isaac Ijalana, the No. 1 junior college tight end last season. Ijalana and redshirt sophomore Taylor McNamara should provide a glimpse of how the OU offense will utilize the tight end position in 2014 and going forward. Tulsa Union's Carson Meier will arrive in the fall and provide another big, athletic body at the position. There are plenty of tight ends on the roster, so depth isn't really an excuse for not using the tight end in the offense anymore.
3. Offensive line
Junior Ty Darlington gets the unenviable task of replacing All-American Gabe Ikard in the middle of the offensive line this year. Going up against the Sooners' terrific defensive line will be a great test for Darlington on Saturday. The rest of the offensive line returns from a year ago, but only tackle Daryl Williams will be playing on Saturday. There's a great opportunity for guard Dionte Savage, tackle Josiah St. John and others to solidify their spot in the rotation for the season. Savage played guard against Alabama and did a terrific job against the Crimson Tide defensive line.
4. Wide Receiver
Thanks to the aforementioned injuries to Durron Neal and Sterling Shepard, plenty of young receivers will see the field on Saturday. Former Jenks receiver Jordan Smallwood, who redshirted last season thanks to an injury, has been impressive during the spring and should find a spot on the outside. The Sooners have so many talented receivers like K.J. Young, Derrick Woods—who made a terrific third down catch against Alabama—Dannon Cavil and Austin Bennett should all have an opportunity on Saturday to prove themselves.
Gabe Lynn's departure leaves an empty safety position that needs to be filled. Luckily, there are a few talented options for the Sooners, including sophomores Hatari Byrd and Ahmad Thomas. Those two will probably get the majority of the snaps at the position on Saturday, which is a good thing for both of them. It's quite possible former Jenks star Steven Parker will arrive in the fall and become an immediate starter. Byrd and Thomas have a prime opportunity to showcase themselves on Saturday before Parker even gets to Norman.
Biggest positional battle: Cornerback
Zach Sanchez has one cornerback spot wrapped up good and tight after a very impressive—and slightly surprising—freshman season. The other cornerback position is up for grabs, and there are plenty of options for defensive coordinator Mike Stoops to plug in. Dakota Austin, Cortez Johnson and Stanvon Taylor should all be in position to battle for the position.
While there are plenty of position battles, cornerback is arguably the most important for the Sooners in the pass-happy Big 12 conference. Austin, Johnson and Taylor all have talent and could easily be the starter. Johnson has the best size of all three, while Taylor may be the best combination of size and athleticism. Austin isn't the biggest guy—listed at 5-foot-11, 151 pounds—but he makes up for that with how he plays. Plus, he's bold enough to say he believes he's winning the competition right now. We'll get our first look at all three on Saturday, and their performances could go a long way toward who wins the starting job for the season-opener. Based on the talent of the Sooners' wide receivers, they will have plenty of quality tests on Saturday as well.
-Will Trevor Knight continue his impressive play from late in 2013?
At some point, you have to stop looking at what Knight did to the Alabama defense and ask if he can do that on a consistent basis for a whole season. All signs points to yes. Stoops and the offensive coaches didn't name Knight the starter before the season opener last season because he was terrible; they saw in practice what the rest of us saw in New Orleans. Knight is smart, has a great arm and has a natural leadership about him that endears him to his teammates. Will there still be some growing pains? Probably, but here's guessing we won't see Knight play on Saturday like he did against Louisiana-Monroe and West Virginia last season.
-How dominant will the defensive line look?
The Sooners have perhaps the best defensive line in the Big 12 and one of the best in the nation. Charles Tapper and Geneo Grissom anchor the line on the ends, while Jordan Phillips and Jordan Wade anchor the middle. However, the most intriguing piece could be seen for the first time on Saturday. Coaches have done nothing but rave about redshirt freshman Charles Walker's development over the past year and Saturday will be our first chance to see him in action. The hype may be a little much, as coaches have made him sound like the second coming of Tommie Harris, but it will be exciting to see what Walker brings to the table.
-Who will be the backup quarterback?
Knight is the unquestioned starting quarterback for the Sooners, but the backup job remains a complete mystery thanks to Bell moving to tight end and Kendal Thompson transferring to Utah. True freshman Justice Hansen and redshirt freshman Cody Thomas will be the ones battling it out for the backup position, a somewhat frightening thought as neither has played in a college game. Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield will likely see the field on Saturday, but is ineligible for the 2014 season due to transfer rules. Thomas has also been doing the balancing act of spring practice while playing baseball.