Today marks the first day of spring football for our Oklahoma Sooners and for the first time in what really hasn't been that long but feels like forever, we can discuss actual football as it is taking place. Admittedly with Bob Stoops' total lockdown policy on practices and scrimmages, the information might be limited but this time of year we'll take whatever we can get.
So with that thought in mind, we're going to preview what we expect/hope to see with both the offense and the defense over the next couple weeks.
QUARTERBACKS - With a (basically) four year starter returning, there really isn't much in doubt regarding the quarterback position for the Sooners as they head into the spring. Now as many an OU fan will tell you, that certainly doesn't mean there are things Landry Jones cannot improve on. Many of which can be worked on during spring practices, but it's more likely given Stoops' track record that the players behind Jones are given ample opportunity under center. So while there many be some of you out there hoping to here how Landry doesn't stare down his receivers anymore or freak out and throw the ball up for grabs at the slightest sign of pressure, well you may be disappointed. Unfortunately, we won't actually get those answers until the season starts.
However Landry Jones' return doesn't mean there are no relevant story lines surrounding the quarterback position this spring. After his emergence in the 'Bell-dozer' package last year, this spring figures to be a potentially make or break moment for Blake Bell. Sooner fans are anxiously awaiting to see if he has or can be developed more as a passer to become more than just a running threat in this OU offense. Can Bell definitively surpass incumbent backup Drew Allen and firmly position himself as the heir apparent to Landry Jones?
In addition to Bell, it will be interesting to see how much redshirt freshman Kendal Thompson is used and how far along he's come as a passer with a full year under Josh Heupel now behind him.
RUNNING BACKS - With 2012 signee Damien Williams yet to arrive on campus and Dominique Whaley still recovering from his ankle injury, the Sooners will be working with a depleted set of backs. It is a situation very similar to last year at this time which led to the chance Whaley was given and obviously took advantage of. The Sooners will only have two backs with any experience available this spring in Brennan Clay and Roy Finch (crazy to think these guys are already juniors). The only other available backs on the current roster are Danzel Williams, who redshirted last year, and Julian Winters, who was listed as a corner back last year.
Given the durability issues that we've seen with both Clay (injuries) and Finch (size), you would have to expect the OU coaches to avoid overloading any one guy to try and minimize a chance of injury as much as possible. The only problem with that is Williams isn't all that much bigger (5'8" 186) than Finch and Winters is obviously a guy who wasn't even at the position last year. Maybe that forces the coaches to give guys like Trey Millard or Marshall Musil more carries?
WIDE RECEIVERS - One of the positions this spring that will be under the spotlight as they try to replace the greatest receiver in OU history and look for that player or players to step their game up. However much like the running back position, the receivers won't be quite as bad off but will be dealing with a limited group of players.
Kenny Stills didn't get the credit he deserved last year for playing his way through injuries that obviously limited his effectiveness. Now healthy, he is the primary candidate to step up and take that number one spot vacated by Broyles.
Jaz Reynolds is not expected to take part in spring practices, so the only other receivers with experience returning are Trey Franks and Kameel Jackson. Franks has been one of the more frustrating players for OU fans who continue to be baffled by his uncanny ability to trip over his own feet. Jackson was a player who impressed the coaches enough last summer to earn playing time as a true freshman. Jackson looks like the most likely successor to Broyles at slot receiver and at this point any production from Franks just has to be considered a bonus.
Unquestionably, one of the players OU fans are most anxious to see is Trey Metoyer. His delayed arrival after failing initially to qualify academically has only increased the anticipation of Sooner Nation to see him in action. He appears to have a significant opportunity to lock down a starting spot given Reynolds absence and Franks disappointing performances thus far. The Sooners signed the top wide receiver class in the country this past year, so there will be several talented players arriving this summer. Therefore it will be key for Metoyer to do as much as he can to earn his spot in the rotation while he has the advantage of being here this spring.
TIGHT ENDS - Easily the most intrigue surrounding an offensive position this spring will be what the Sooners can get out of the tight end position. Losing two seniors and a talented young player to transfer, the Sooners don't have a single returning scholarship player at the position. In fact, OU will only have three tight ends this spring and only have that many thanks to two early enrollees from this most recent recruiting class.
Brannon Green was a JUCO recruit who enrolled in January and is expected, fair or unfair, almost by default to be the starter at tight end. He is known for his blocking ability so the hope is that he can be a big asset in the Sooners run game. However there have been some early reports that he has impressed coaches with his hands which appear to be better than some initially gave him credit for.
The other early enrollee, Taylor McNamara, is considered to be the best receiving threat at tight end of the four the Sooners signed earlier this year. McNamara is still a little raw as a player, so OU fans will need to keep that in mind when setting their expectations for the talented young freshman. In an ideal year, McNamara would redshirt and use the year to work on his game. He will not have that luxury, so ready or not he'll be a part of this offense in 2012. How much or how little depends on how he develops and of course whether or not OC Josh Heupel actually uses his tight ends this season.
The third and final player, John Phillip-Hughes, is a name many probably do not know, but as it's been explained to me is a pretty decent player in his own right. One thing is for sure, he'll have plenty of chances to prove it this spring.
OFFENSIVE LINE - The o-line never gets the same kind of attention as the skill positions, but perhaps no position is more important to the OU offense's success this coming season. We won't even go so far as to say a dominant run game, though that would be super, but just a consistent run game could do wonders not just for this offense but also Landry Jones. If they could take some of the pressure off Jones, which he so clearly does not respond well to, maybe we see less of the back breaking mistakes from the fifth year senior.
The Sooners lose their starting left tackle, but return the other four starters along the line. Daryl Williams, who is expected to win the left tackle job, could have the highest ceiling of any lineman on the roster. The only thing keeping him from being a star according to talk around the program is himself. He won the starting right tackle job last year, but sprained an ankle in the opener and never regained his starting job. The hope is that the light clicks on upstairs for him and he takes advantage of the opportunity in front of him.
If there is a player on the line who has drawn the deserved attention of Sooner Nation, it's guard Adam Shead. He wowed OU fans last year with his physicality and has the look of a potential superstar along the interior. Amazingly though, for all he showed last year he's not even assured a starting spot heading into this year. Primarily because of the always solid Gabe Ikard and senior to be Tyler Evans. Personally, Shead not playing over Evans would be a mistake but the coaches will obviously have the final say.
At center, the steadying force that is Ben Habern is back for his senior season and OU fans couldn't be happier. The Sooners have had a great run at the center position with both Habern and Jon Cooper before him and could have another in Ty Darlington who will arrive this summer.
At right tackle, it looks like Lane Johnson will continue to man the spot at least (and if) until JUCO signee Will Latu arrives this summer. Johnson is coming off his first year ever as an offensive lineman at any level and while he certainly wasn't horrible last year, there were definitely instances where you could see his inexperience at the position.
Some names, aside from those above, to keep an eye on this spring should be:
- Nila Kasitati - A player with a similar style to Shead, that should make your mouth water! He could be another star at guard for the Sooners. Expect him to get plenty of snaps this spring.
- Derek Farniok - A massive (6'9" 325) presence at tackle, he could be a real physical force along the line for the Sooners. At his size, footwork will always be key to his development.
- Tyrus Thompson - Another young tackle who could take advantage of the lack of depth at the position this spring.
The defensive spring practice primer will be up later today, so keep an eye out for that.