A new defensive look and job openings at running back are some of the big stories of spring football for the Sooners
After a short period of scuffling, the 2015 and ‘16 campaigns represented a welcome return to normalcy at Oklahoma. The Sooners followed up their College Football Playoff appearance in ‘15 with a season that was pretty much par for Bob Stoops’ course: double-digit wins, a second consecutive conference championship and a major bowl win.
A number of standouts who helped lead OU’s rise back to college football’s upper crust have moved on – Joe Mixon, Samaje Perine, Jordan Evans, Dede Westbrook. Stoops still has plenty of raw materials to work with, though, including quarterback Baker Mayfield. This spring, OU’s coaching staff will look to identify replacements who can keep the Big Crimson Machine rolling.
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1. Adjusting to a four-man defensive front
The Stoops brothers historically preferred four-man defensive fronts, but they switched to a 3-4 base defense in 2013 and stuck with the odd-man front almost exclusively for four seasons. Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops announced on National Signing Day that the Sooners are reverting to more of a 4-3 look, ostensibly to generate more quarterback pressure.
The down linemen appear set with Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and D.J. Ward at defensive end and Matt Romar and Neville Gallimore on the interior. How will the coaching staff opt to fill out the linebacker positions, though?
Expect Stoops and linebackers coach Tim Kish to tinker with a variety of personnel groupings. Jon-Michael Terry and Ricky DeBerry, in particular, need big springs as they are competing for the opening at middle linebacker.
2. Setting the running back rotation
Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine left early for the NFL, so it’s up to a new crop of precocious ball carriers to take their places. Rodney Anderson and Abdul Adams already have accrued at least a year in OU’s offense, putting them in prime position to share the bulk of the carries this fall.
Newcomers Marcelias Sutton and Trey Sermon can use the spring session to show out for the fall. Notably, offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley can experiment with strategies for taking advantage of Sutton’s versatility as a runner and receiver.
3. Who’s the new No. 1 receiver?
Following the graduation of Dede Westbrook, receivers coaches Dennis Simmons and Cale Gundy will be holding auditions for a new go-to wideout during spring practices. Holdovers such as Mark Andrews, Mykel Jones, Jeffery Mead and Nick Basquine already have their names in the hat. That group will look to build on their existing bodies of work.
Junior college transfer Marquise Brown gives the Sooners another intriguing option. Like Westbrook, Brown can fly, and he has the skills to contribute immediately. Unlike Westbrook, however, Brown is stepping into a situation without an obvious No. 1 receiver already on campus. In fact, he might be it already.
4. The race for backup quarterback
Former five-star recruit quarterback Kyler Murray made waves when he left Texas A&M after just one season to come to OU. After sitting out his transfer year, Murray now has the chance to compete for playing time.
However, with Murray playing baseball this spring, his chances to supplant Austin Kendall as Baker Mayfield’s understudy this season are limited. As such, spring ball will likely be more about whether or not Kendall can solidify his spot on the second line of the depth chart.
Maybe touted freshman Chris Robison makes a move of his own?
5. Secondary personnel
The details of OU’s new defensive alignment remain scarce, but it’s a good bet that the Sooners will primarily play five defensive backs most of the time. The corner positions are likely set with Jordan Thomas and Jordan Parker, as is one of the safety spots with Steven Parker.
The safety position vacated by veteran Ahmad Thomas could come down to third-year players Will Sunderland and Kahlil Haughton, neither of whom has made as much of an impact as would be expected of prospects with their credentials. It’s possible that the safety who doesn’t get Thomas’ former job will play nickel back instead, although incumbent Will Johnson will have something to say about that.
Pre-Spring Outlook for Oklahoma in the Big 12
There’s nothing fun about pegging OU as the preseason favorite in the Big 12. The Sooners have ended the season with the conference title in hand more often than not since Bob Stoops was hired in 1999. Not exactly stepping out on a ledge to predict history will keep repeating itself.
Unfortunately for those seeking a little variety in their preseason picks, OU still looks like the class of the conference. Despite the high-profile losses at the skill positions, the Sooners bring back arguably the best QB in the country and the entirety of their offensive line. OU won’t have the same level of firepower as the last couple of years, but this is a program that has a deserved reputation for its plug-and-play offense.
More importantly, for as poorly as OU’s defense played overall last season, the Sooners started coming together on that side of the ball late in the year. That probably has a lot to do with the maturation of freshmen studs Caleb Kelly and Jordan Parker, who were pressed into service at outside linebacker and cornerback, respectively. They’re now two cornerstones of a D that returns seven of the top 10 tacklers from a year ago. The coaches also have four freshman defenders on campus this spring as early enrollees, which should help put the newcomers in position to provide depth in the fall.
The reality is that six months before the start of the season, OU still looks like more of a sure thing than any other team in the Big 12.
— 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.