Twelve months ago, Oklahoma looked like a program on the ropes.
Legendary head coach Bob Stoops had changed out four members of his coaching staff, highlighted by the addition of a new offensive coordinator in Lincoln Riley. The Sooners appeared to be counting on a Texas Tech castoff at quarterback to orchestrate their offensive attack. OU’s defense had turned to dust over the course of the prior season.
The subsequent spring practices helped Stoops and his staff lay the foundation for OU’s fall revival. This year, the Sooners are hoping to stay healthy and build a little depth as they seek to build off of their 2015 College Football Playoff appearance.
5 Storylines to Watch in Oklahoma’s Spring Practice
1. OU’s next big thing at wide receiver
If you’re looking for the biggest question facing the Sooners in 2016, this is probably it. Sterling Shepard accounted for 30 percent of OU’s receptions last season and did so while coming up huge in big games.
Does OU have a Shepard/Ryan Broyles/Kenny Stills on the roster at this point? Probably not. More likely, quarterback Baker Mayfield will spread the ball around a little more to a group headlined by Dede Westbrook and Mark Andrews.
We should know a little more in April when practices wrap up.
2. The race to be Baker Mayfield’s understudy
It’s probably not right to characterize this as a “race.”
Cody Thomas left the team for the baseball diamond, likely never to return. Trevor Knight left for Texas A&M, surely never to return. Speaking of A&M, ex-Aggie Kyler Murray will return next year after transferring from College Station.
That leaves true freshman Austin Kendall, an early enrollee from North Carolina, as the only legitimate option to play second fiddle to Mayfield, who will spend the next six months in bubble wrap. Given that Kendall will be a snap away from taking the reins from Mayfield this fall, Riley will probably take the spring session to familiarize Kendall with the offense and try to get an idea for what the newbie can and can’t handle if pressed into service.
3. A dearth of linebackers
The position group undergoing the most upheaval this offseason for OU is linebacker. Aside from replacing three of four starters, incumbent Jordan Evans will sit for much of the spring as he recovers from a torn pectoral muscle suffered during the Orange Bowl.
That means position coaches Tim Kish and Mike Stoops will have seven scholarship players to work with during the spring before reinforcements from the 2016 recruiting class arrive. On the bright side, the replacement candidates will get plenty of reps.
4. P.J. Mbanasor’s future
With Zack Sanchez off to the NFL, OU is searching for a new field cornerback. Plenty in Sooner Nation are pulling for Mbanasor, a touted four-star recruit who saw some action at corner as a true freshman in 2015, to step forward and win the job.
As talented as Mbanasor is, his skill set seemingly fits better as a boundary corner. Junior Jordan Thomas, a potential early entry candidate for the 2017 NFL Draft, is holding that spot down for at least one more year, though.
Defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks has the spring to find out if Mbanasor will work to the field side.
5. Shuffling the offensive line
OU benefited last year from youngsters Jonathan Alvarez, Orlando Brown and Dru Samia playing well beyond their years in a run to the College Football Playoff. This offseason, offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh is searching for two new blockers to join his starting five.
He may experiment with the returnees in different spots to find his best combination. Brown owns the left tackle position, but Alvarez will likely shift from guard to center permanently. Samia also could get a look at guard.
Meanwhile, count on redshirt freshman Cody Ford, senior Jamal Danley and junior college transfers Ben Powers and Ashton Julious to emerge as contenders for the two openings.
Pre-Spring Outlook for Oklahoma in the Big 12
Oklahoma tends to falter when burdened by expectations. Unfortunately for the 2016 squad, the Sooners will be wearing a bullseye throughout Big 12 play this year.
So long as the Sooners can handle the pressure, they should repeat as conference champions. The offense might not boast the same explosiveness as the ‘15 team, but an improved line should help keep the chains moving. OU also brings back plenty of key pieces from a salty defense that is built to combat the customary Big 12 aerial assaults.
In other words, don’t be shocked to see the Sooners in the final four again this fall.
— Written by Allen Kenney, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Kenney is founder and editor of BlatantHomerism.com and host of the Blatant Homerism Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BlatantHomerism.