We're still thawing out from our latest winter storm, but on Saturday, the Oklahoma Sooners will be strapping on the helmets and pads and beginning spring practice. The Sooners will be entering the spring with high expectations after finishing the 2013 season with a Bedlam win in Stillwater and a shocking, yet very impressive, victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
Oklahoma's spring game is set for April 12, and over the next month, we'll learn a bit about what the Sooners will have in the cupboard as they shoot for the program's eighth national title. Thursday, OU coach Bob Stoops met with the media and offered his thoughts on the state of his team. Here are some news and notes from the press conference, including Stoops' thought on each position group.
-Stoops began his press conference by saying strength coach Jerry Schmidt had informed him the winter workouts were among the best, if not THE best, of their time in Norman. There's certainly something to that, as Stoops mentioned he saw the younger players using the team's Sugar Bowl win as a launching point to work harder and push for greater things. However, when coaches across the country say the same thing every year, the message loses a lot of the impact.
-The list of injured players who will be sitting out spring practice includes offensive linemen Adam Shead, Tyrus Thompson and Tyler Evans, defensive tackle Jordan Phillips and cornerback Julian Wilson. Stoops said all are on schedule to participate in practice once two-a-days begin in August.
-Stoops fielded several questions about Blake Bell's transition from quarterback to tight end. Stoops said Bell is genuinely excited about the change and that he thinks it will be a success. Stoops also mentioned Bell won his first individual ‘tug-o-war' drill against a defensive lineman the other day. Stoops said Bell won't take any snaps at quarterback during spring practice, but also added the Belldozer package was not completely out of the question moving forward. "No, that's something we could still use with Blake back there, sure," Stoops said
-Stoops said he was very happy the proposed 10-second rule was dropped by the NCAA rules committee. "I never believed it would pass," Stoops said. "I just think it's the right thing to do. There isn't any statistical evidence that says that. If anything can be done in the last two minutes of a half, why can't you do it the rest of the game? You don't allow targeting the last two minutes of a half.
-Stoops listed several players who had been performing well in winter workouts, or had good showings in the Sooners' Sugar Bowl preparations. Among those were defensive tackle Charles Walker, wide receivers Jordan Smallwood and KJ Young, defensive ends Michael Onuoha and D.J. Ward and linebacker Devonte Bond.
-Quarterback: The Sooners have a solid situation at quarterback, with Trevor Knight as the starter and redshirt freshman Cody Thomas and true freshman Justice Hansen battling for the backup job. Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield is ineligible for this season, but is on the team. Stoops said having a good idea of the quarterback position doesn't change anything for the Sooners compared to last season when OU had so many questions coming into the season. Stoops also said the backup position is very important for the Sooners and will help determine a certain measure of success.
"That's a big part of our team's success is those guys coming around and getting a really consistent and good feel of what we want them to do at the quarterback position," Stoops said. "It'll be really important that we do a good job with them and they work hard through the spring."
-Running back: Oklahoma returns just 30.8 percent of its rushing yards from a year ago. There are several young players ready to step into the void left by Damien Williams, Roy Finch and Brennan Clay, including sophomore Keith Ford and true freshman Joe Mixon. Mixon won't be on campus for the spring, so the next month is an opportunity for Ford and Alex Ross to show what they have. Stoops made it very clear what he's looking for from his backs.
"I just want to see consistency; guys taking care of the football," Stoops said. "Understand what they're asked to do, protect, routes, are they doing the right things? And who can make big plays. Who can make something when there's not much there? To be honest with you, a big part is taking care of the ball."
-Wide receiver: Oklahoma also needs a lot of players to step up here. The Sooners have a lot of talent ready in the wings, but have just 32.5 percent of last season's receiving yards still on the roster. Stoops said he is excited about the position battles that will take place in the unit during spring practice.
"It's like last year, when we didn't have any defensive lineman but we did," Stoops said. "Now we don't have any wide receivers, but we do. These guys have been developing, training and are ready to take over. Derrick Woods made a huge play in the Sugar Bowl when we had to have it. Durron Neal made some plays a year ago. Those guys just have to be more consistent to stay on the field."
-Tight end: It appears the Sooners are actually going to have enough talent and experience at this position—as well as depth—for it to be a factor in the Oklahoma offense in 2014. Bell's switch to the position gives the Sooners four reasonable options, with Tulsa Union's Carson Meier providing a fifth. Stoops is happy about the talent that has come together at the position.
"Taylor McNamara is guy that caught a ball in the Sugar Bowl and has come on and we're excited about that," Stoops said. "Isaac Ijalana, the junior college guy, is another talented guy coming in. Aaron Ripkowski, to be quite honest with you, played tight end really well a year ago. You watch his games in the second half in the year, he was outstanding in that position blocking and at the point of attack."
-Offensive line: Ty Darlington is taking over for Gabe Ikard at center, and Stoops said that Nila Kasitati will be able to provide some depth at that position. Stoops also praised tackle Josiah St. John for his work at tackle over the winter, and with Thompson and Evans out for the spring (although Stoops said Evans' rehab was going very well), St. John has a great opportunity to make an impact. The Sooners have good depth across the line and experience as well.
"Nila, between he and Ty, will work in there (at center)," Stoops said. "Josiah St. John has had a really good winter and I believe he has a chance to step in at the tackle position and help with Derek Farniok."
-Defensive line: The Sooners should be very good up front after losing just one defensive lineman from last season. Stoops said he is very excited about the aforementioned Walker, who at nearly 300 pounds, ran in the 4.7s on his 40-yard dash. A trio of defensive ends, D.J. Ward, Michael Onuoha and Ogbonnia Okoronkwo should also make contributions this year in addition to the starters.
"Charles has really been impressive," Stoops said. "He really has a bright future. Charles is going to be a big factor in that defensive line to go with the rest of them. DJ (Ward) is going to do well. He's had an excellent winter lifting and running."
-Linebacker: Oklahoma has stability at the linebacker position after dealing with injuries for most of last season. Junior college transfer Devante Bond gives OU some depth at the outside linebacker position, but overall, the Sooners are pretty thin here.
"We're still thin and still recruiting linebackers," Stoops said. "Those guys are good players and Frank Shannon and Dominque (Alexander) had great years and at the outside linebacker, Eric Striker was sensational. The young guys, Jordan Evans gets in there and goes the entire Texas Tech game and played great. Those two true freshmen led the team in tackles. They're all doing good; I'm excited about them."
-Secondary: There are two starting spots up for grabs, so the competition in spring practice should be pretty fierce. Julian Wilson sitting out all of spring practice will open up the competition for a lot of younger players. Stoops said everyone is in on the competition for the starting cornerback position opposite Zach Sanchez, and talked about sophomore Dakota Austin on Thursday.
"Competitive," Stoops said about Austin. "He's smart in the way he plays; he understands what we're doing and has a great feel for it. He had a great bowl preparation as well."
-Special teams: The Sooners basically have to replace their entire return units, both punt returns and kickoff returns. That shouldn't be much of a problem, given the talent and speed the Sooners have in their young players. Stoops was quick to praise kicker Michael Hunnicutt, whom he says is one of the best in the country.
"Michael is an All-American-type guy," Stoops said. "This year I believe that will happen. He's been right on the cusp of it. In the end, he's been awesome. The kick he made in the Sugar Bowl was right down the middle when we had to have it. When your own teammates name you captain, that tells you something too."