A couple of weeks ago we posted that EA Sports had given Oklahoma's offense a grade of 97 on their 2014 NCAA Football game. The game is promoting a "Keep it Real" theme for the newest release of their highly popular football game. The idea is to provide a more realistic experience for the game player. With this, we decided to "Keep it Real" ourselves by laying out some expectations for the Sooner offense this fall, and ultimately we put ourselves in EA Sports' shoes and provided our own grade Blake Bell and company.
Realistically, how much faith do you have in Blake Bell?
Jordan: This is a trick question, right?
Do I have faith in Blake Bell?
Yes. Do I have faith in Josh Heupel to use Blake Bell correctly? No, not until he proves me wrong. I'm not sure how anyone could attempt to argue that Heupel has shown anything but a propensity to throw the ball more than he runs it. Maybe that was a product of his personnel (i.e. Landry Jones) or maybe it is simply his preferred offensive philosophy? We're going to find out in the coming months.
If, as Heupel and other OU coaches have intimated this offseason, the offense remains as it's been in years past -- 45+ pass attempts per game -- then we'll have our answer. We'll know that the goal, as we've seen in years past, is to jam a square peg through a round hole no matter how long it takes.
With the stable of running backs Oklahoma has this season and an offensive line returning virtually intact save for Lane Johnson, it would only make sense for the running game to become a more featured aspect of this offense. Add to that the fact you're breaking in a new, inexperienced quarterback who has been rumored to be not the most accurate passer at this stage of his career and once again logic would seem to dictate running the ball more to help relieve some of the pressure on Bell.
Bell needs to be asked to throw 25-30 times a game, use his athleticism to make plays outside the pocket, at least in the early part of the season be given one, maybe two reads and a checkdown that allows him to easily get rid of the ball for positive yards. I really don't see it as that complicated. You want to put him in the best possible position to be successful and while I certainly to do get paid six figures to do so, I can tell you with the utmost confidence having him run a Landry Jones-like offense is not putting him (Bell) in a position to succeed.
I do not consider Josh Heupel (or really any OU coach for that matter) to be a stupid person. But if his offense this year features Blake Bell dropping back to pass 40-50 times a game, it will be time to seriously reevaluate that opinion.
Rich: Bell has garnered national recognition and established himself as a dominant force on the ground. In recent years, one thing that has remained a staple of this OU offense has been a reliable air attack, an area Bell lacks game stats for. Ah, the rub. Yet, he has made a visible improvement with each and every year. The name of the game remains the same as winning takes top priority. With that in mind, Bell currently has the best chance of leading the Sooners to victory. Yes, I still have my reservations concerning the QB position but I have no doubt that the hard work will manifest itself on the field. For those reasons I place roughly 72% of my faith in Bell.
Matt: I have faith in the potential of Blake Bell but am still uncertain about him as a starting quarterback. The reason why is because of his lack of experience in passing the ball. He's got the body size, moxy and charisma that you want in a starting QB but there's still the lingering fact that the coaching staff has not allowed him to throw the football. Bell is a different type of quarterback and the Sooners haven't seen a guy like him during the Bob Stoops era. The fear is that they won't exactly know how to use him properly. He can't go the Landry Jones route of throwing the ball 40-50 times per game, because he's not a pure pocket passer, and yet Josh Heupel has yet to call a balanced offensive attack. That's where the uncertainty comes in. I want to have faith in this offense and believe in Bell but unfortunately I'm going to need to see it first.
We all agree that the tools are in place for him to succeed though, right? He's got the running backs, receivers and line, so it boils down to play calling and him executing. Is that fair to say?
Jordan: Well, it's not entirely fair to lay everything at the feet of Heupel as he won't be out there under center obviously. But he is going to play a significant role in Bell's success or failure as a result of the plays that he calls and situations he puts him in.
But as you've said, Bell will play an equally significant role in his ability to execute those plays. Heupel could call a perfect play, but if Bell fails to do what is needed the play might fail and you can hardly fault Heupel in that type of situation. There are going to be some bumps along the way, but obviously the goal is to try and minimize those as much as possible. In my opinion, you do that by putting Bell into situations where (1) he is comfortable/confident and (2) not putting the success of the entire offense on his shoulders. The latter of which is something many an OU fan felt like they did with Landry Jones who at times seemed to buckle under the pressure. And yes, I would absolutely agree that all of the pieces are there on offense for Bell to be successful. For all the consternation currently surrounding Oklahoma recruiting, the one thing they definitely have not struggled with is bringing in skill position talent. And this year's offense is no exception.
Rich: Absolutely. Over the past several years, Heupel has run a predictable offense specifically in the redzone. As a coach, it is necessary to give your players the opportunity to succeed and predictability does not serve that idea well. The tools are certainly in place but will Heupel use a bit of his creativeness in order to give the players the chance they have been waiting for? That has yet to be seen.
On the flip side of that coin, it remains simple. You can have the greatest game plan known to man but without the execution of said plan, it goes down as yet another failed attempt.
Matt: All bias aside, Oklahoma's skill position players may be the best collective group in the Big Twelve. The have senior leadership at the running back position with Damien Williams also being the big play/home run threat. They have a collection of speed, size and experience at receiver and then an offensive line that returns four of last year's five starters.
I wish it was as easy as just plugging in the next quarterback and moving on but it isn't. I do agree that all of the tools are there but the game plan and execution are still a mystery.
Let's talk about the missing link in Oklahoma's offense for a second. As the Sooners "overhaul" the offense, how vital is that they get the tight end back involved as more than just an extra blocker?
Jordan: I don't view it as vitally important to the success of this offense in the coming season, but the longer they continue to omit it from the offense the more difficult I believe it will be to ever reinstate it.
Their "excuse" last year was one of personnel in that they felt Jalen Saunders/Sterling Shepard offered them a better match-up with which they could exploit the opposing defense. Well, both those guys are back as are all the same guys they had at tight end last year who couldn't crack the lineup. So what reason do we have to believe anything is going to change?
A healthy Taylor McNamara is clearly their best option for a receiving threat and Sam Grant looked the part of a solid blocker during this year's spring game while also displaying some athleticism we weren't sure he had.
If I had to bet on it, I'd predict not much changes in terms of the tight ends involvement with the offense in 2013. Yes, the coaches have told us they plan for it to be a bigger part of the offense. But we've heard that about Trey Millard for the last three plus years and yet here we stand.
Rich: The argument to be made here is rooted in the fact that Sooner fans desperately and deeply desire another National Championship. In 2000, Oklahoma TEs caught passes in every game except for two and were often used as "drive-starters." Again in the most prolific offense in 2008, the TEs recorded 72 receptions but something has gone seriously wrong since then. In case you needed evidence, fast forward to 2012 and we see that the TEs recorded a mere three receptions during a season that spanned 13 games.
In my opinion, if the Sooners are hoping to once again hoist the crystal ball it starts with redzone scoring. It just so happens that tight ends create the mismatches needed to become more effective at doing so. Oklahoma possesses a talented group in Taylor McNamara and a deceptively good Brannon Green. While the argument was their inexperience, they now have a year under their belt. To negate the TEs from the equation is, by definition, insanity.
Matt: I think it won't be as important in between the 20's but from the 20-yard line in it becomes vital. Let's not forget that the "Belldozer" package came about because the Sooners were struggling in short yardage situations. A big tight end who can be a mismatch to both linebackers and defensive backs is the best solution to your red zone woes. Oklahoma has to get that back.
Alright, I'm putting you in the EA Sports design office. How would you grade Oklahoma's offense, knowing what you know, on a scale of 1 - 100? Explain your grade.
Jordan: I think if you're grading the individual pieces of this offense, outside of quarterback, you'd have to strongly consider nineties across the board. As far as the quarterback position, no one is questioning Blake Bell's talent but at this point he's simply too unproven to warrant anything above a low-to-mid eighties grade in my opinion.
I realize that may seem low to some and there is a certain degree of ‘potential' typically taken into account when creating these ratings. But considering how crucial the quarterback is to any offense and how little we know about Bell at this point, I'm thinking somewhere in the mid-eighties seems fair.
Plus we're expecting this offensive line to be good based on a number of factors, but most importantly because they are returning four of five starters. But this has been a unit which struggled to consistently open up running lanes for the last couple years, so it's not just a given even if Heupel does choose to feature the running game that it will be successful.
Based on all of that, I'll set my Oklahoma offensive ranking at a respectful, albeit it not quite elite as they've been in years past, 85 overall rating.
Rich: The tricky part of this portion reveals itself when attempting to evaluate the potential of the product versus what will actually step on the field. I'm giving them a grade of 88. Across the board there is plenty of talent but the real question is how does it break down by position.
Against any 100 teams at random, we have to consider how the receivers stack up along with the offensive line, the quarterback, as well as the running backs. Each will warrant their own grading (for me the offensive line and receivers rank out the highest with the running backs and quarterbacks coming in a bit lower) which is to be compiled then divided to get the final grade.
Matt: Well...if we're going to keep it real then I have to go with a considerably lower grade than EA Sports actually did. The running backs, offensive line and receivers all merit grades in the mid-90's. However the big unknown is the quarterback position. Blake Bell could easily come out and put the Sooners offense on a record setting pace, but then again he could also struggle and fall flat on his face. Because of this, I've got to go with a ranking in the 80's. I think I'll go with 85 because its right in the middle and it was a national championship year.