By Braden Gall (@BradenGall on Twitter)
The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.
Oklahoma Sooners 2012 Spring Preview
2011 Record: 10-3, 6-3 Big 12
Spring practice: March 5-April 14
Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 7
Passing: Landry Jones, 355 of 562, 4,463 yards, 29 TD, 15 INT
Rushing: Dominique Whaley, 113 att., 627 yards, 9 TD
Receiving: Kenny Stills, 61 rec., 849 yards, 8 TD
Tackles: Aaron Colin, 84
Sacks: Corey Nelson, 5.5
Interceptions: Tony Jefferson, 4
Redshirts to watch: DT Jordan Wade, DT Jordan Phillips, DT Marquis Anderson, DE Nathan Hughes, OT Dylan Dismuke
2012 Big 12 Schedule Analysis
Sept. 1 at UTEP
Sept. 8 Florida A&M
Sept. 15 Bye Week
Sept. 22 Kansas State
Sept. 29 Bye Week
Oct. 6 at Texas Tech
Oct. 13 Texas (Cotton Bowl, Dallas, Texas)
Oct. 20 Kansas
Oct. 27 Notre Dame
Nov. 3 at Iowa State
Nov. 10 Baylor
Nov. 17 at West Virginia
Nov. 24 Oklahoma State
Dec. 1 at TCU
Offensive Strength: The line has to be considered the most stable position on the offensive side of the ball. Only one departing player needs to be replaced while five players with playing experience return, including multiple All-Big-12 performers Gabe Ikard and Tyler Evans.
Offensive Weakness: The biggest issue on offense has to be with the pass-catchers. The loss of Ryan Broyles, the NCAA's all-time leading receiver, was painfully obvious over the last month of the 2011 season. Tight end James Hanna and wideout DeJuan Miller are gone as well. Running back could be an issue, especially if Dominique Whaley doesn't return 100 percent from an ankle injury.
Defensive Strength: The back seven of the defense has to be considered the strength. The linebackers return a pair of all-conference tacklers and the secondary is absolutely loaded with upside talent. However, the coaching staff needs to get them to perform up to their potential.
Defensive Weakness: The defensive line will be the area of focus for new (and old) defensive coordinator Mike Stoops. Replacing the conference's "co-best" defensive player as well as another first-teamer at the end position will be key this spring. The Sooners lost 113 total tackles, 14 sacks and 32 tackles for a loss along the defensive line.
Spring Storylines Facing the Sooners:
1. Which Landry Jones will show up for the Sooners this fall? One wouldn't think that a 12,000-yard quarterback who is approaching 100 career touchdowns would be an issue. However, the numbers are well-documented and well-scrutinized. Jones showed major development from 2009 to 2010. He increased his completion percentage - 58.1% passing to 65.6% - and significantly dropped his interception rate - one every 32.1 attempts versus one every 51.4 attempts. Yet, 2011 saw Jones regress in both categories (63.1% and 37.5 attempts/INT). Additionally, his road record has been a major issue. He is 7-8 on the road as a starter and is 19-1 in Norman. Finally, he limped to the finish in 2011, going without a single touchdown pass in the final three games of the regular season (with five interceptions nonetheless). There is no reason to think Jones won't bounce back as a senior and the unquestioned leader of Crimson and Cream nation, but questions still hang over his head. This team will go as far as Jones takes them — which could be an eighth conference championship in 13 years.
2. A month of spring practice developing and organizing the wide receviers will go a long way to helping Jones return to form this fall. Without Broyles, this unit struggled mightily down the stretch. Kenny Stills has NFL ability and should be the go-to target for Jones this fall. Jaz Reynolds looks to be second in line but has to stay healthy. After those two, names like Kameel Jackson, Trey Franks and Sheldon McClain need to prove they can be contributors this fall. Trey Metoyer did not qualify last season, but is expected to be a key contributor in Oklahoma's receiving corps. Junior college recruit Courtney Gardner will also push Jackson, Franks and McClain for playing time.
3. The return of Mark Stoops has to have Sooners fans excited about their defense. Stoops helped build the BCS National Championship unit of 2000 — one of the greatest defensive teams ever assembled — and will be charged with refiring a stagnant unit. Brent Venables left for Clemson after a two uncharacteristically poor showings on defense: 55th nationally in total defense in 2011 and 53rd in 2010. There is uber-talent in the secondary and linebacking corps and those two areas should be the strength of this unit. But Stoops first order of business will be to develop a defensive line that watched Big 12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year Frank Alexander and first-team All-Big 12 end Ronnell Lewis depart for the NFL. Look for former elite recruit R.J. Washington, as well as David King and Geneo Grissom, to stablize the end position. Stacy McGee, Jamarkus McFarland, Casey Walker and Torrea Peterson should solidify the interior of the line.
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2012 No. 11 Recruiting Class: Oklahoma Sooners
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College Football's Top Spring Storylines for 2012
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2012 Big 12 Schedule Analysis