When we look at an individual player’s situation during the offseason, we tend to think about it in terms of what it means to them, such as winning a position battle or improving draft stock. Teams need big offseasons from players, too – some more than others.
With the Oklahoma Sooners in their first season of spring football under new coach Brent Venables, here are five players whose development in the coming weeks will play an outsized role in OU’s success this fall.
Jalil Farooq, So., WR
Surprised Farooq is still a Sooner? You’re not alone.
The sophomore from the Washington, D.C. area caught just four balls for 69 yards last season, so he seemed like an obvious transfer candidate to follow coach Lincoln Riley and QB Caleb Williams to USC. Sticking it out, however, has positioned Farooq to become a key contributor to the offense this fall.
From a physical standpoint, OU’s roster lacks the size offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby generally prefers at wideout. Farooq (6-1, 205 pounds) and Theo Wease (6-2, 201) make for notable exceptions. We know what we’re getting from Wease, who had 35 receptions for 530 yards and four touchdowns in 11 games in 2020. Farooq has the potential to match that kind of production and solidify the receiver rotation in 2022. That takes on even greater importance when you factor in Wease’s injury history.
OU could use a big spring from Farooq in which he builds on the momentum from a strong finish to 2021.
Billy Bowman, So., DB
The previous coaching staff asked a lot of Bowman as a true freshman. He was the starting nickel in OU’s first game last year and played solid ball through the first six contests of the season. With injuries mounting, the coaching staff tried to capitalize on his versatility by shifting Bowman to cornerback. He clearly struggled in the role and became a non-factor in the second half of the campaign.
Bowman stands to benefit as much as any other player from a fresh start with the new regime. He comes off as a natural fit at one of the deep safeties in Venables’ defensive scheme, but he could also make a home at nickel (again).
The bottom line with Bowman is that OU would benefit from having his athleticism and instincts on the field this year. It’s on Bowman to seize the opportunity.
Savion Byrd, R-Fr., OT
The consensus around Norman seems to be that Byrd has the highest ceiling of any offensive lineman on the team. That makes his development this spring of the utmost importance for OU.
The reality is that the Sooners have been juggling a lot of “least-bad” options at tackle for about three seasons. The lack of players developing on the edge kept Erik Swenson in the mix during that period despite his body breaking down repeatedly. It also forced Tyrese Robinson from his preferred spot on the interior out to right tackle last season.
Plenty of people close to the program would argue the reason for the deterioration at tackle is doing yoga in Southern California now. That doesn’t relieve the pressure on offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh to sort out the position now. By taking major steps forward this spring, Byrd would give OU a strong option for one of the two spots and hopefully force the other contenders, Wanya Morris and Anton Harrison, to level up.
Shane Whitter, Jr., LB
In year one, Venables is meshing personnel he inherited with his own defensive schemes. The SAM linebacker presents one of his biggest challenges.
Historically, the SAM in Venables’ scheme really looks more like a classic safety. The idea is to have a hybrid-type player lining up to the strong side of the offensive formation. (It’s also referred to as an Apex LB.) He usually can play in space better than than a run-stuffing LB. In his stint as defensive coordinator at OU, Venables installed players like Keenan Clayton and Tony Jefferson at the position.
The Sooners don’t have many obvious candidates to fill that role on this squad, but OU handed us a context clue when the spring roster dropped. Whitter, who played inside LB in Alex Grinch’s defense, dropped nine pounds from his 2021 playing weight down to 216 pounds.
Whitter has the speed to meet the demands of the SAM role. We’ll see if he can pick up the nuances of the position now. If so, it will provide some of the flexibility Venables has shown he covets in a defense.
Nick Evers, Fr., QB
The Sooners don’t have any questions at the top of the quarterback depth chart. Lebby has made no bones about the fact that junior Dillon Gabriel is OU’s starter. OU will have to live this season with the uncomfortable reality that QB1 missed all but three of his games at Central Florida last year with a broken collarbone.
That makes developing adequate depth behind Gabriel this offseason paramount for Lebby, who also serves as QBs coach. As a true freshman, Evers doesn’t have the backup spot locked up by any stretch. You have to imagine, however, that Lebby would prefer the rookie came along quickly enough before August to claim the job.
If Evers doesn’t get up to speed and Gabriel misses any time, OU is facing the prospect of rolling with sophomore Micah Bowens or redshirt freshman Ralph Rucker, who walked on the team last year. Neither has the same type of tools as Evers.
Note that the Sooners may find themselves seeking out a transfer QB in the coming weeks.