Another run at the College Football Playoff and a Big 12 title is certainly within reach for Oklahoma. The Sooners return 12 starters from last year’s 11-2 team, including Heisman Trophy candidate Baker Mayfield and talented running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon. Replacing Sterling Shepard and rebuilding the line are the biggest concern on offense for coordinator Lincoln Riley. Scoring points won’t be a problem for the Sooners, but there are concerns on defense after the departure of end Charles Tapper, linebacker Eric Striker and cornerback Zack Sanchez. The schedule is favorable, but a two-game stretch early in the year against Ohio State and TCU could be a road block in Oklahoma’s path to another playoff berth.
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Previewing Oklahoma’s Offense
Baker Mayfield was forced to wait to make his Oklahoma debut, sitting out the 2014 season after transferring from Texas Tech, where he was a walk-on. For the Sooners, he was well worth it. Mayfield delivered a swashbuckling style that energized the program. And with the style, there was substance, too, as he threw for 3,700 yards and 36 touchdowns, adding another 405 yards and seven touchdowns rushing. He’ll enter 2016 as a prominent Heisman Trophy candidate.
There’s work to do, Mayfield says, with better ball protection his emphasis in the offseason. He threw only seven interceptions last season, but two came in the season-ending Orange Bowl loss to Clemson.
“That’s the most important thing,” Mayfield says. “And if I do that, we’re going to win come this fall.”
The offense is geared to win, with Mayfield and a running back duo of Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon that rivals any in the country. Still, there are question marks. Two new starters are needed along the offensive line, with young and inexperienced replacements in position to take over. And even with Dede Westbrook returning, there’s a shortage of proven commodities at receiver to guarantee that the Sooners’ spread offense will continue clicking.
Previewing Oklahoma’s Defense
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The Sooners lost most of their premier playmakers from the 2015 defense, with Eric Striker, Charles Tapper, Dominique Alexander and Zack Sanchez all moving on. That’s four first-team All-Big 12 selections, 265 tackles, 16.5 sacks and nine interceptions out the door. So the search is on for new stars and new leaders on the defensive side.
There are logical candidates, as end Charles Walker, linebacker Jordan Evans, safety Ahmad Thomas and cornerback Jordan Thomas were all good enough to draw second-team All-Big 12 notice a year ago. And all are poised for bigger years in the spotlight. Walker anchors what should be a solid front, while the Thomas tandem headlines an experienced cast in the secondary.
“I feel like we are all comfortable out there,” says safety Steven Parker. “It’s about building depth, going out there every day with a chip on our shoulder. It was great last year, but we want to be even greater this year.”
The major concern is at linebacker, where only Evans is back, flanked by an inexperienced cast of hopefuls who failed to move the meter in the spring. With 83 tackles last season, Evans finished as the team’s No. 2 tackler.
Previewing Oklahoma’s Specialists
With Mixon in a time-share at running back, he’s free to lend his talents to the return game, giving the Sooners a potentially dynamic element. With Alex Ross transferring, Mixon could shoulder more of the workload on returns. The kicking duties are in good shape with Austin Seibert, who punted and handled placement duties as a freshman a year ago, averaging 42.0 yards on punts and booting 18 field goals.
Mayfield offers an “it” factor for the Sooners, an inspiring and invaluable intangible that adds to all his special skills at the most important position on the field. With Mayfield heading a group of 12 returning starters from a squad that advanced to the College Football Playoff a year ago, the Sooners are fixed on making another run. “Oh yeah, we’re even more hungry,” Mayfield says.
If the question marks on the offensive line, at receiver and linebacker can be transformed into solid answers, Oklahoma is built for another big year. The Sooners will be the favorite in the Big 12, yet before getting there they’ll have to navigate a rugged non-conference schedule that includes a trip to on-the-rise Houston in the opener and a home clash with Ohio State.