With spring showers come April Flowers, but also for Sooner fans an early preview of the 2013 Oklahoma football team and the new college football season. The Sooners will unveil some new looks and some new faces in key positions this fall, some of which will be on display for public viewing in the annual spring game to be held on Saturday afternoon at Gaylord Family-OU Memorial Stadium.
For the first time in quite a while, the 2013 edition of Sooner football has some big question marks in several important areas. Although the spring game will not offer clear-cut answers on how and with whom Oklahoma will go about shoring up some of its problem areas, it will offer a glimpse at who some of the key contributors are likely to be on both sides of the ball, especially on defense, where the Sooners return only four starters, and at quarterback, where someone other than Landry Jones will be taking snaps for the first time in four seasons.
As is typical of spring games like this, the play calling will be mostly vanilla and not reveal any major changes or new schemes Bob Stoops and his coaching staff may be considering or working on for the fall. This is a fairly common practice by most all teams at this time of year.
Head coach Bob Stoops said in his press conference this week that many of the returning senior starters would see limited or no action in Saturday's spring game, stating the obvious: that the coaching staff already knows what the seniors can do and the unnecessary need to risk of injury to key personnel. What that does, though, is provide a better look at the many other players who are fighting for positions and to improve their placement on the depth chart.
What to keep an eye on in the 2013 spring game
The "Bulldozer," junior Blake Bell, probably has a slight leg up because of his backup role last season, but Bob Stoops says this is yet to be decided. There have been concerns that Bell's ability as a passer are below what fans have become used to with his two immediate predecessors (Bradford and Jones). Redshirt freshman Trevor Knight made a very favorable impression on the Sooner coaches while quarterbacking the scout team offense last season. Both Bell and Knight provide mobility in the pocket and a running dimension that the Sooners have not had since a one-year tease with Rhett Bomar in 2005 and back before Jason White injured his knee for the first time. We know both Bell and Knight can run with the ball, and it will be interesting to see how they do in game-like conditions throwing the medium and deep-route passes. Another QB in the mix is sophomore Kendal Thompson, the son of former OU quarterback Charles Thompson (1987-88).
Only Aaron Colvin returns from last season's secondary, considered one of the best in the conference. Gone, however, are starting cornerback Demontre Hurst and safeties Javon Harris and Tony Jefferson. A player to keep an eye on in the spring game is Cortez Johnson, a DB transfer from Arizona, where Sooner defensive coordinator Mike Stoops coached. Johnson sat out last season due to the transfer rule, and is a strong candidate to fill in the corner spot vacated by the departed Hurst. At the safety position, junior Quentin Hayes and true freshman Ahmad Thomas, who is already on campus, are the top candidates at strong safety. Former wide receiver Trey Franks, who was suspended all of last season, is back and will convert to the defensive side of the ball, where he is being looked at as a free safety, along with senior Gabe Lynn. Both Lynn and Franks could also wind up as a nickelback in the secondary. Julian Wilson, made 31 tackles last season in a backup role in the secondary. It will be interesting to watch all the new players vying for the open positions in the defensive secondary in Saturday's scrimmage. The OU coaches also are high on a couple of incoming freshman from this year's recruiting class - Hatari Byrd and L.J. Moore - who are four-star secondary prospects. Byrd and Moore will not be available, however, until the fall.
Penn State transfer Justin Brown, the Sooners leading receiver last season, has graduated and No. 2 receiver Kenny Stills has declared for the NFL Draft. Ordinarily, you would think this would leave the OU passing game severely depleted, especially with a new quarterback taking over the reins, and in need of rebuilding. The Sooners should be better off in this area than many people expect, because they return 57 percent of their receiving yards from last season. Back for his senior season is Jalen Saunders, who caught 62 passes for 829 yards and 13 yards per reception in only nine games a year ago. Sophomore Sterling Shepard had a terrific freshman season, and should benefit in 2013 with the experienced gained in his first year. Senior Jaz Reynolds did not play at all last season due to a suspension, but he was one of the Sooners best receivers in the 2011 season, with 41 receptions for 715 yards and five touchdowns.. The coaches are also expecting stronger contributions this fall from sophomores Durron Neal and Trey Metoyer. Someone else to watch for is redshirt freshman Derrick Woods. Bob Stoops would also like to get more production in 2013 from the tight end position, where Brannon Green and redshirt freshman Taylor McNamara appear to be the lead candidates.
The defensive line may pose one of the biggest concerns coming into the new season. OU loses the bulk of its defensive front, with only junior Chuck Ndulue returning. The Sooners will need to replace defensive ends David King and R.J. Washington, along with down linemen Casey Walker and Jamarkus McFarland. New players to watch for in the spring and fall are Rashod Favors, Jordan Phillips and Geneo Grissom, who saw action a year ago. JUCO transfer Chaz Nelson, who redshirted in 2012, is another name fans may be hearing more about come fall. Freshman D.J. Ward was declared eligible this week. He is on campus and someone the coaching staff is looking for good things from for the next several years. "We hope to get him (Ward) schooled enough that we can get him some reps on Saturday," Bob Stoops said.
Gone from a year ago are Tom Wort, Jaydan Bird and Joseph Ibiloye. On multiple occasions last season defensive coordinator Mike Stoops went with seven defensive backs and no linebackers in an effort to combat the numerous spread offenses and multiple-receiver sets used throughout the Big 12. Stoops said he will return to the more traditional use of linebacker sets in the coming season, and returning senior Corey Nelson brings the most experience to the position. Frank Shannon saw quite a bit of action as a freshman, and sophomore Eric Striker could also see a lot of playing time in the fall if he performs well in the spring game. Aaron Franklin is another name to watch for at linebacker. The coaches also have been working out former fullback Marshall Musil, who is coming off a knee injury, at linebacker this spring.
With Tress Way gone, after four solid seasons as one of the top punters in the Big 12, OU will be breaking in a new punter for the coming season. Junior college transfer Jed Barnett is the lead candidate to replace Way. Barnett is reported to have a strong leg and impressive hang time on his kicks. Dylan Seibert and Jack Steed are Barnett's top challengers.
New assistant coaches
The Sooners have added three new assistants to the coaching staff this season. Bill Bedenbaugh takes over as the offensive line coach after a couple of season in the same position at West Virginia. Before West Virginia, he was an assistant at Arizona under Mike Stoops, and prior to that he coached under Mike Leach at Texas Tech. Jerry Montgomery is the new defensive line coach. A former defensive tackle in the late 1990s at Iowa, where Bob and Mike Stoops both played and coached, Montgomery comes to OU from Michigan, where he was also in charge of the defensive line. He also served as an assistant at Wyoming and Northern Iowa. Jay Boulware joins the OU coaching staff this season as the new tight ends coach and special teams coordinator. Boulware, who has been an assistant coach since 1996, has been in charge of special teams at four other schools (Auburn, Iowa State, Utah, Stanford and Arizona), and he had responsibility for the tight ends at Texas, North Texas, Utah and Auburn, which was his most recent assignment (from 2009-12).