For some Sooners, like Dede Westbrook and Geno Lewis, the Sugar Bowl is all about getting some final game film for NFL scouts. Other guys, like Baker Mayfield and Orlando Brown, are just trying to win and make it through the game in one piece so they can get ready for a title run next season.
But there are a handful of OU players who are still trying to make their case for 2017, guys who will either step up or fall back as other talents move up and become the team’s playmakers. There are lots of position battles to be won this offseason. Who will fill Dede’s shoes? How young will the defense have to be? Lots of players can make a positive impression to the OU staff with a solid showing in New Orleans.
Here, then, are five guys to keep an eye on who have the most to gain from a great day on January 2:
CB Jordan Parker
If Parker thinks that his late-season stabilization of the second corner spot has earned him playing time in 2017, one look at poor Dakota Austin should disabuse him of that notion. Still, I think it’s fair to say that Parker has the chance to be the best defensive back on the team in the future. He’s just got to earn his spot and fend off challenges from newcomers like Tre Brown and Justin Broiles.
Parker’s been getting better as the season goes on, and there’s no reason to expect less in New Orleans. Sean White and the Auburn receivers will be a reasonable test—they shouldn’t scare anyone, but likewise shouldn’t be overlooked.
All Parker has to show is improvement. If he misses some tackles, draws some flags or gets burned over the top, the coaching staff will explore its options at this position. But I think it’s safe to say that Parker’s job is as safe as any listed here—OU’s just thin on the edges, and throughout the defense.
S Will Sunderland
Sunderland exploded onto the scene this year with a game-saving interception in Dallas that showed off a truly extraordinary instinct for the ball.
And... that was pretty much his season. Sunderland was never able to turn that transcendent moment into consistent production, or even a start, and through two seasons at OU has played in 15 games with 17 tackles, 1 pass breakup and, yes, 1 interception.
Sunderland can do better. He won’t start against Auburn, but he’ll see the field, and if there was ever a time to argue for Ahmad Thomas’s job, it’s now.
LB Ricky DeBerry
I’m certain I wasn’t the only one ridiculously excited when DeBerry hit the field for the first time this season after his redshirt year. A borderline five-star talent, I expected DeBerry to be a quick and consistent part of the OU linebacker rotation.
Yet even when the unit thinned, DeBerry stayed mostly on the sidelines this year even as dudes like Kapri Doucet and Caleb Kelly got extended looks. Kelly looks like the future opposite Obo Okoronkwo, but it remains to be seen if DeBerry has what it takes to replace Obo down the line.
I feel like Oklahoma will be cautious with Obo in the glorified exhibition of the Sugar Bowl. Hopefully that will give DeBerry a few minutes to make a play.
WR Jordan Smallwood
The last two guys on my list are wide receivers. Smallwood’s not a name on the front of anyone’s mind, but the redshirt junior has just one more season of college ball and there’s no doubt he intends to take advantage.
Smallwood has only eight receptions through his 32 games, five of which came this year. He’s never scored or caught a pass for more than 20 yards. I guess we can think of him as the ultimate Sugar Bowl sleeper agent—while the Tigers double-cover Dede Westbrook and stare anxiously at big Mark Andrews in the slot, maybe Smallwood has a chance for a catch or two in the Sugar.
There’s an open position for go-to receivers on next year’s Sooner squad, and Smallwood should consider the Sugar Bowl his application.
WR Mykel Jones
Jones’s talent is apparent enough. The speedy four-star freshman is already high on the list of potential breakout candidates on next year’s OU team, but he can get started early with three or four receptions in the Sugar Bowl.
Jones made a bigger impact than most freshman receivers, but Westbrook’s dominance effectively put a cap on the rest of the unit. Jones is still looking for his first OU touchdown, and the Sugar Bowl would be a great place to start. Of course, it’s entirely possible that the OU offense will be just as reliant on Westbrook, Perine and Mixon in New Orleans as it has been all season. The Sooners want to win, after all. But it would be to their benefit to change things up a bit, both from a game-planning and forward-looking perspective.
If Jones is really a big part of Lincoln Riley’s future plans—and I think he is—a few targets would be a nice way to show it. At that point, it’s all up to him.