Scheme: Despite the departure of coordinator Kevin Wilson, Oklahoma will continue to run their multi-faceted offense that tends to move at high rates of speed and flings the ball around. The Sooners rely heavily on their passing offense and it hummed along to the tune of 343 yards per game, good for third in the country. Co-coordinators Josh Heupel (yes, the former QB) and Jay Norvell will mimic Wilson, utilizing all sorts of formations and tempos. When the offense works, it is a beauty to watch and devastatingly effective.
Quarterbacks: Sam Bradford who? While most pundits expected Oklahoma to sorely miss Bradford, it turns out that Landry Jones has been no slouch. It could be that this scheme is just conducive to churning out quarterbacks. Jones (4,718 yards, 66%, 38 TDs, 12 interceptions) had some struggles as a redshirt freshman in 2009 when he was thrust into the starting role due to Bradford’s injury, but showed no signs of a sophomore slump last year and is a legit Heisman contender as a junior. Jones has a big arm, great poise, and has all the tools the NFL craves.
The only concern here is what if an injury like Bradford’s occurs? Much like when Jones was thrust into the starting job, Oklahoma doesn’t have any backups with appreciable game experience. Sophomore Drew Allen enrolled early last year and won the backup job as a true freshman. Allen appeared in 5 games and threw 14 passes, but obviously the offense would suffer some if he had to start despite having a big arm and decent mobility. Redshirt freshman Blake Bell, a big, pro-style passer, and true freshman Kendal Thompson, who enrolled early, are battling Allen for the #2 spot.
Running Backs: DeMarco Murray, the school record holder for touchdowns and all-purpose yards, has moved on, but the Sooners are not bereft of talent here. In fact, they can trot out four guys who have tons of high school accolades. What they don’t have, though, is one runner who has proven his worth consistently at the college level.
Sophomores Roy Finch and Brennan Clay appear to be the frontrunners, for now, for the starting nod. Murray was a multi-dimensional threat (over 1,200 rushing yards plus 71 receptions) who likely cannot be replaced by one guy, but Finch and Clay combined bring a similar skill set. Finch (398 yards, 4.7 average, 2 TDs, 10 receptions) is a small (5-8, 175) back who is extremely fast with surprising power. Finch missed the Fiesta Bowl and the spring due to a broken foot, but he has the speed and skills to be a good one. Clay (127 yards, 3.5 avg, 3 receptions) was a star recruit who played in nine games last year as a true freshman. Clay has speed, smarts, and good hands and could be similar to Murray over time.
True freshman Brandon Williams is this year’s Clay. Ranked as one of the top 5 backs in the country by every service, Williams enrolled early and has done nothing but impress the coaches and fans. Williams is a slasher who can hit the home run and many expect him to win the starting job by the time the opener rolls around. Sophomore Jonathan Miller is the fourth guy in the mix. Miller got some playing time as a true freshman in 2009 and rushed for 130 yards, but missed last year due to injury. Of all the backs, he has the best cutback ability and showed promise as a youngster.
Despite their reputation as a wide-open passing team, the Sooners actually still field a traditional fullback and have two solid options there. Trey Millard earned All Big 12 status as a freshman last year and is a threat as a receiver (16 receptions, 135 yds, 1 TD, 3 rushing TDs). Classmate Marshall Musil saw action in 7 games last year and brings a nice mix of speed and blocking ability to the position.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: While Oklahoma is a long and storied program, they have only been a passing team since Bob Stoops arrived, so it isn’t a stretch to say this is probably the best WR corps in OU’s history. It begins with Ryan Broyles, but this unit is deep and talented from top to bottom.
Broyles is clearly the bell cow of this unit and probably the best WR in the college game. Broyles (131 receptions, 1622 yards, 14 TDs) shocked everyone when he skipped the NFL to return for his senior year. Not blessed with great size (5-11, 195), Broyles just has an uncanny ability to get open, catches everything, is quick and has good moves after the catch, and runs excellent routes. He’s basically unstoppable.
Focusing too much on Broyles, while tempting, could hurt you as OU can trot out 6 or 7 other guys that are capable. Sophomore Kenny Stills (61 recs, 786 yds, 5 TDs) broke all of Broyles’ freshman records as a true freshman and is very similar to Broyles in that he has good hands and runs good routes. Classmate Trey Franks (29 recs, 263 yds, 1 TD) started the last 4 games and brings 4.4 speed to the slot. Jaz Reynolds, yet another sophomore, sat out last year, but made 13 catches as a true freshman in 2009 and brings good height (6-2) off the bench. Ditto for senior Dejuan Miller (15 recs, 199 yds), who is returning from a knee injury that cut his 2010 season short. Miller brings a great combo of size (6-4, 220) and speed (New Jersey state sprinting champ in high school) as well as experience.
OU goes three deep at tight end. Senior James Hanna (18 recs, 292 yds, 7 TDs) started 9 games and has great speed and power for his size (6-4, 240). Classmate Trent Ratterree (10 recs, 198 yds, 1 TD) is a former walk-on who has started 9 games the last two years and brings a bit more size to the position than Hanna. Sophomore Austin Haywood made his mark on special teams last year, but is considered the star of the future at TE.
Offensive Line: Four full-time starters and another 2 players with starting experience return to a unit that was inconsistent last year. The line only allowed 21 sacks in over 600 pass attempts, but paved the way for a ground game that managed just 3.3 yards per carry and finished 83rd in rushing offense at 138 yards per game. The Sooners are practically everyone’s preseason favorite, but the line will need to help the offense be more balanced to make good on the hype. The coaches hope all the experience will pay off this year.
The big question mark is at RT where Erik Mensik, who started all 14 games, graduated. Seniors Donald Stephenson and Jarvis Jones split the duties at LT last year and Jones was first in line to take over for Mensik. However, Jones suffered a knee injury in spring ball and will likely miss the first few games of the season. That leaves junior Lane Johnson and redshirt freshman Daryl Williams as the leading contenders for the job. Johnson is a former tight end and defensive end who is athletic, but doesn’t have great size (6-6, 270). That being said, Mensik was a big tight end who became an athletic tackle. Williams brings prototypical size (6-4, 304) and is also expected to be a key backup at LT as well. There are no concerns at LT where Stephenson returns. Stephenson started 10 games last year and is one of the team’s best run blockers.
The Sooners have three returning starters and several good backups inside. At C, junior Ben Habern logged the most snaps of any of the linemen last year and is solid and durable. Sophomore Gabe Ikard returns after getting 12 starts at LG. Ikard started the year as a backup but quickly won the coaches over with his quickness and athleticism. At RG, junior Tyler Evans also logged 12 starts and is smart, big (6-4, 330), and strong. Depth here is solid with sophomore Austin Woods at center, senior Stephen Good at LG, and sophomore Bronson Irwin at RG. All three were top recruits who have gotten various amounts of playing time, with Good starting twice last year.
Scheme: Stoops and coordinator Brent Venables run a 4-3 in theory, but in the pass-happy Big 12 the Sooners often employed a nickel look in many games. Look for Oklahoma to continue to use 4-2-5 looks after the tragic death of LB Austin Box, which leaves them with precious little proven depth at LB. The Sooners (much like FSU) utilize mainly zone looks in coverage and throw a lot of zone blitzes at offenses. OU succeeded at getting pressure and takeaways, finishing 2010 with 37 sacks and 36 turnovers forced. They also finished fifth in the country in tackles for loss, but did struggle at times against the run, allowing nearly 150 yards per game.
Defensive Line: After having some highly rated NFL prospects the past several years, OU lacks a standout star along the defensive line after DE Jeremy Beal departed. Still, don’t feel too sorry for the Sooners since they have a collection of players who had great reputations coming out of high school. There is clearly talent here, but some guys need to emerge as difference-makers.
OU seems pretty set at end with senior Frank Alexander and junior Ronnell Lewis returning. Alexander (39 tackles, 13 for loss, 7 sacks) is very fast and has great closing speed, but also decent size (6-2, 260). Lewis (37 tackles, 5 for loss, 3.5 sacks) is a former LB who is not all that big (6-2, 240) but brings great speed and pass-rushing ability to the table. That being said, teams are likely to run at him and see if he can stand the pounding. Depth looks decent with redshirt freshman Gino Grissom and junior David King on the bench. Grissom was a big-time recruit who figures to be a situational pass rusher. King has size (6-4, 260) and experience and can hold up against the run pretty well.
The tackle spots seem to be a bit more worrisome, although OU can put two good starters on the field. Junior Stacy McGee (26 tackles, 3.5 for loss) is quick and athletic, but was pushed around a bit against some of the better running teams. His game, though, is to provide a pass rush and be disruptive. The coaches want classmate Jamarkus McFarland (23 tackles, 5 for loss, 1.5 sacks) to be the beef inside. One of the nation’s top recruits a few years back, McFarland has yet to live up to the hype, but he brings NFL size and strength, quickness, and good leverage to the table. This could be the year he blossoms. Casey Walker, a junior who appeared in 6 games with 4 starts, also brings good size and will likely battle McFarland to start. Depth is a concern as redshirt freshman Eric Humphrey is the top backup besides Walker and he is not all that big.
Linebackers: The death of Austin Box was certainly untimely and tragic. Football-wise, OU has enough bodies to replace Box, but his teammates will surely miss his friendship.
The star of the defense, and one of the best defenders in the country, returns in senior OLB Travis Lewis. Lewis (109 tackles, 5.5 for loss, 1.5 sacks, 3 interceptions) has been clocked at 4.34 in the 40-yard dash, is a big hitter, is strong, and is a student of the game who always thinks he can get better.
With the death of Box, the MLB job will fall to sophomore Tom Wort. Wort (66 tackles, 7.5 for loss, 4.5 sacks) put up decent stats, but struggled at times and was replaced in the starting lineup after 9 games by Box. Wort has excellent speed and can get from sideline-to-sideline in a hurry, but he lacks ideal size (6-0, 225) and got lost in the wash at times. A bigger option is junior Jayden Bird, a 6-2, 245-pounder who has good speed and has seen some action. The third spot will be manned depending on the formation. When OU goes with a traditional 4-3, look for junior Joseph Idiloye (13 tackles), who got 4 starts at SLB. When they use a 4-2-5, sophomore Tony Jefferson (65 tackles, 7 for loss, 2 sacks, 2 ints., 7 passes broken up) serves as the hybrid S/LB and is very productive.
One guy to look out for somewhere is sophomore Corey Nelson. Nelson (21 tackles, 2.5 for loss) was a key backup last season who was dominant in the spring and the coaching staff has said several times that he will start somewhere. He is currently listed as Lewis’ backup at WLB, but given his size (6-0, 208) could see time at the hybrid role behind Jefferson as well.
Defensive Backs: While OU gave up 213 passing yards per game, the real stat to look at is pass efficiency defense where the Sooners ranked eighth in the country. Most teams had to throw to keep up with OU’s offense, hence the relatively high number of yards per game. This unit doesn’t look amazing, but this should be a solid group once the shuffling ends. The coaches moved players around in the spring and that will likely continue as summer camp goes on.
The Sooners got a big break when senior Jamell Fleming was reinstated to the team a few weeks back. Fleming (71 tackles, 8.5 for loss, 1 sack, 5 ints., 14 PBU) is a playmaker that finished fifth on the team in tackles and led the team in picks. He was not enrolled in school in the spring, but was reinstated this summer and should be one of the Big 12’s best. Junior Demontre Hurst will start opposite Fleming. Hurst (50 tackles, 4 for loss, 1 int., 11 PBU, 3 forced fumbles) started all 14 games and is smart, tough, and dependable. Sophomore Gabe Lynn should be the nickel back and could push for some starts. Lynn was ranked by some as the top CB recruit last year and got some playing time as a true frosh. He possesses great size, speed, and playmaking ability and should only get better with seasoning.
With the move of Aaron Colvin from CB to SS, OU now has three players at the safety spots with experience. That is very necessary since starters Quinton Carter and Jonathan Nelson, who finished second and third in tackles, graduated and backup Kevin Brent transferred. Colvin (34 tackles, 3 for loss, 3 PBU) was a nickel back and special teamer who moved to SS partly due to Lynn’s emergence, but also to get more experience on the field. At FS, junior Javon Harris and senior Sam Proctor will battle to replace Carter. Harris (28 tackles, 1.5 for loss) was a key backup last season and is solid against the run. He could stand to improve when the ball is in the air. Proctor (17 tackles) was a 10-game starter in 2009, but was on the bench last year. While not elite by any stretch, Proctor has good size, experience, and athleticism and knows the defense. He is listed as the backup at FS, but can also play SS as well.
Special Teams: The Sooners should have one of the best special teams units in the country. At kicker, OU has senior Jimmy Stevens and junior Patrick O’Hara. Stevens doesn’t have a big leg, but hit on 19 of 23 attempts and is reliable from 40 yards and in. Beyond 40 yards, O’Hara will get his turn. The junior hit on 4 of 6 attempts, with a long of 46. Junior Tress Way is one of the best punters in the country. He averaged 44 yards per kick last year as OU finished fifth in the country in net punting.
The return and coverage units are the real only cause for concern. Broyles was one of the best punt returners in the country in 2009, but averaged just 7.9 yards per attempt last year. Most think he’ll bounce back. Murray and Mossis Madu were the main kick returners last year and both are gone. Clay and Finch are first in line to take over and have the speed to be good. The punt coverage unit was very good, but the kickoff coverage group allowed a whopping 4 returns for scores. While opponents averaged a modest 21.5 yards per return, giving up 4 scores is inexcusable.
Schedule: Things get off to a quick start as OU faces FSU, Missouri, and rival Texas in the first 5 games. The second half of the schedule is better, with Texas A&M and Texas Tech having to travel to Norman. The last two games, road dates with Baylor and rival Oklahoma State, could be dicey.
Overall: Most preseason prognosticators have Oklahoma tabbed as the #1 team heading into the season and you can see why. Despite the loss of Wilson to the head coaching gig at Indiana and the graduation of Murray, OU looks as dangerous as ever on offense. If the line opens some holes for the ground game, the Sooners could be close to unstoppable. On defense, the run defending has to improve and the new safeties need to hold up. If OU’s run defense doesn’t improve, it could make for tough sledding against a few of their opponents. One other thing to watch is how the Sooners do in close games. OU won 6 games that were decided by 8 points or less and it will be interesting to see if the breaks continue to go their way. The Sooners have the talent to go to the national title game, but something (the run defense, lack of depth at LB, questions about run blocking) just makes me think OU will slip up in a game or two. They look like the class of the Big 12, but I’m going to predict a 10-2 finish to the regular season.