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Oklahoma Sooners Football: Five big questions for preseason practice

The secondary and defensive line look like areas of emphasis this month.

Oklahoma v Oklahoma State Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Pandemic be damned, the Oklahoma Sooners started preseason practices last week in preparation for an opening game against the Missouri State Bears that will likely not be played on its currently-scheduled Aug. 29 date.

Like every other college football team, the biggest question hanging over OU’s program is what a season actually looks like in a country that has yet to get a grip on COVID-19. Meanwhile, coach Lincoln Riley and his staff are trying to sort out a few on-the-field issues in the event their team hits the field this fall. Here are five big ones:

Who’s playing where in the secondary?

TCU v Oklahoma Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

For a unit that brings back four of five starters from a year ago, OU’s secondary could still end up in serious flux.

Let’s start with knowns. Senior Tre Brown has one starting position at cornerback locked up. The same goes for safety Delarrin Turner-Yell, whose value last season became evident after a collarbone injury knocked him out of the Peach Bowl versus LSU. Meanwhile, even though junior safety Pat Fields may not enjoy the same level of job security, he’ll at least begin the season as a member of the first team.

Things get muddled after that. Brendan Radley-Hiles didn’t play well enough at nickelback last season to guarantee a first-team spot, especially with Tre Norwood back from an injury that knocked him out of commission in 2019. Could one of those two shift to cover the opening at CB, or does that job belong to Jaden Davis, who went through his ups and downs as a freshman backup last year?

And what will happen with versatile second-year players like Jeremiah Criddell and Woodi Washington? The coaches also have to determine where newcomers such as Joshua Eaton, Justin Harrington and Bryson Washington fit.

Will anything change on the offensive line?

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl - Alabama v Oklahoma Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

OL coach Bill Bedenbaugh loves to tinker. An experiment in 2018 with one-time guard Cody Ford unlocked his considerable potential at tackle, for instance. So expect the Sooners to look at a variety of combinations in the coming weeks.

Creed Humphrey is a given at center, and Adrian Ealy will almost certainly hold down a tackle spot. OU has a really good one at left guard in Marquis Hayes, but he may warrant an audition at the other starting tackle position. Of course, that could depend on the ability of Brey Walker to take over at guard, joining returning starter Tyrese Robinson.

Others to watch include promising redshirt freshmen Stacey Wilkins and Marcus Alexander. UCLA transfer Chris Murray also could shake up the rotations if he somehow gains eligibility this season.

Which running back takes advantage of Rhamondre Stevenson’s suspension?

The Sooners need another RB to share the load with Kennedy Brooks. Stevenson would be the top choice, but his absence to start the year will leave an opening for the other backs on the roster to stake a claim.

Junior TJ Pledger seems likely to get the first crack, but redshirt freshman Marcus Major has impressed the coaches in the past with his explosiveness and speed. Don’t be surprised if the Oklahoma City Millwood product gets some early touches when the season gets going.

Does Ronnie Perkins’ availability force some personnel shuffling on the defensive line?

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Continuing a theme, Perkins and Stevenson are sharing the same boat to start the year. Ergo, OU needs to figure out who can hold it down at strong side defensive end.

With Perkins sidelined during the Peach Bowl, the Sooners tried out defensive tackle LaRon Stokes at five tech. He made a game effort of it, but Stokes lacks the speed to make an impact the same way coming off the edge as he can from the interior.

Sophomore Marcus Stripling flashed in his rookie year and has added additional weight in the offseason. The competition for reps probably starts there. Isaiah Thomas got some run late in the season, so he will get a look. One other option: Spin down a RUSH LB (David Ugwoegbu?) temporarily to five tech.

How does Caleb Kelly’s injury change the rotations at inside linebacker?

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl - LSU v Oklahoma Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Kelly’s season has apparently come to an end after sustaining a knee injury, which means the Sooners are looking for a new configuration at ILB. Junior DaShaun White will stay on the top line of the depth chart. Who joins him?

Brian Asamoah had his moments last year at WILL, so he seems like the top candidate to move up to first string. In that scenario, White probably slides over to MIKE.

However, Asamoah’s disappearance during the second half of the season does raise questions about his standing in the eyes of position coach Brian Odom. It seems likely Odom will at least experiment with a few other alternatives, such as converted safety Robert Barnes. The redshirt junior is tipping the scales at 232 pounds, a sign he is prepared for the physical toll of playing the MIKE. Another converted safety, redshirt freshman Jamal Morris, is an intriguing option to step in at WILL, although a White-Morris pairing would leave OU vulnerable to getting bullied up front.

Perhaps newcomers like Shane Whitter and Brynden Walker can get up to speed in time, but that is a tall order with all the chaos of this offseason. Also, keep an eye out for one of the RUSH LBs (Ugwoegbu again?) to audition.

Bonus: Will Riley develop a go-to personnel grouping on offense?

Iowa State v Oklahoma Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Good offenses can deploy a variety of personnel groupings to press their advantages against opponents, but they almost always have at least one calling card. OU has a chance this year to create serious matchup problems with bigger packages featuring tight ends and H-backs.

For example, imagine being a defensive coordinator who’s trying to counter 12 personnel with Austin Stogner or Brayden Willis flexed out to the Y receiver spot and Jeremiah Hall attached to the offensive line as a wing TE. That sounds like the devastating unit OU rolled out in 2017 featuring Mark Andrews and Dmitri Flowers.

Given receiver Jadon Haselwood’s offseason injury, being comfortable playing 12 personnel likely takes on even greater importance this year.