Today in our final Big 12 team preview for the coming college football season, which begins on Saturday, we take close-up look at the Oklahoma Sooners.
(10-3, 6-3 in Big 12 in 2011)
The 2011 Oklahoma Sooners began the season as the No. 1 ranked team, but finished the year with 10 wins and three losses. An overall successful year by most schools’ standards. But that is not the case at Oklahoma, and coach Bob Stoops was not happy.
It wasn’t so much the Sooners’ win total that displeased Stoops. What really disturbed him was the manner in which the OU defense was overpowered in the team’s three losses. In the 10 wins registered last season by the Sooners, the defensive unit yielded an average of 15.7 points per game and the victory margin was almost four touchdowns. But in the team’s three defeats, OU opponents averaged 43 points against that same defense.
And in the regular-season finale against in-state archrival Oklahoma State, the Oklahoma defense gave up 44 points while the offense was held to a measly 10 points, only the fifth time in the last 10 years that a Bob Stoops team has been held to 10 or fewer points in a game.
“Sure, the defensive struggles hurt my pride, but so did the offensive struggles,” said Stoops during the OU stop on the Big 12 Skywriters’ Tour earlier this month.
The Oklahoma program under Stoops has been more widely recognized as an offensive powerhouse, yet Stoops is best known for his defensive coaching skills. Stoops, in his 14th season at Oklahoma, where he has carved an exceptional record of 139-34, helped win a national championship as defensive coordinator under Steve Spurrier at Florida and won a national championship in his second year coaching at OU, largely on the strength of one of the country’s best defenses.
Allowing big offensive plays on defense, particularly in pass protection, has been a big problem for the Sooners the last several years and especially in the 2011 season. In losses to Baylor and Oklahoma State late last season, the OU secondary was burned repeatedly on long pass plays, and even in underneath coverages.
The Sooners have brought back Bob Stoops’ brother, Mike, who was the defensive coordinator on the 2000 OU national championship team and helped lead the Sooners to a second national championship game in the 2003 season. Younger brother Mike left the Sooners in 2003 to take the Arizona head coaching job, which he held until the middle of last season.
Oklahoma has made several personnel adjustments in its defensive backfield in the offseason in hopes of getting the talent it has in the best position to make plays and be successful. The addition of Mike Stoops, who was well liked in Norman when he was there the first time, should be a big plus in helping reverse the Sooners’ fortunes on the defensive side of the ball, At least that is what big brother Bob and the OU fans are hoping.
“There are no magical calls in football,” Mike Stoops cautioned in an interview with Sports Illustrated last spring. “There’s good calls, but the players make them magical by the way they play.”
Said Bob Stoops about having his brother back on the Sooners’ coaching staff: “I believe he’ll make a difference,” the head coach said. “I want to get back to having a defensive reputation like we’re used to having. But the players have to do it.
“Mike hasn’t made a play in a long time,” Bob said jokingly. “He’s way too old to do that.”
Oklahoma caught a giant break when senior quarterback Landry Jones turned down the opportunity to turn pro, where he probably would have been a first-round selection, and decided to return to school for one more go at a championship. “I enjoy being at OU, I want to accomplish the goals I set before I got here, and I look forward to graduating with the guys who were in my class when I got here,” Jones said after declaring his intentions right after the turn of the year.
The 6-5 quarterback, who owns 13 school passing records and has enjoyed as much on-the-field success as any quarterback who has every played at Oklahoma, has been maligned by many, including by Sooner fans, for the better portion of the two full years he has been the starting QB at OU, largely because he has had to follow the memory of Heisman Trophy-winning hometown favorite Sam Bradford.
“You have to leave everything else off to the side,” Jones said at the beginning of late summer preseason practice. “Other outside deals, what other people are saying, you just have to control your emotion and how you react to things,”
Jones needs just four victories this season to become the winningest quarterback in OU program history, another milestone he is almost certain to accomplish in 2011.
Jones’ backup, the man they call the “Belldozer,” 6-6 sophomore Blake Bell, will see playing time in certain situations, particularly in short-yardage third-down situations and inside the red zone on offensive drives.
The Sooners are expected to have their leading rusher from last season, running back Dominique Whaley back and healthy after suffering a season-ending broken ankle in OU’s seventh game of the season a year ago. Whaley gained over 600 yards and averaged 5.5 yards a carry in just six games last season. He is a weapon both running the ball as well as a pass receiver out of the backfield. Roy Finch and Brennan Clay will also fill in out of the backfield, and versatile fullback Trey Millard is expected to get more offensive touches this season.
When All-American wide-receiver Ryan Broyles went down with a season-ending knee injury late in the 2011 season, the OU passing attack went flatter than a two-day-old opened bottle of beer. None of the available receivers were able to step up. The last four games of the season, Jones three just one touchdown pass and had six balls intercepted. Added to that, there were numerous dropped passes on the part of the receivers.
“Everybody (said) Landry struggled,” coach Bob Stoops said. “No, he didn’t. The offense struggled. To me, it was more of an issue of the offense and the offense around him than it was (Landry).”
For a while in the offseason it appeared that the OU receiver corps might be even thinner and less experienced than what the Sooners had at the end of the 2011 season. Broyles was gone to the NFL and Jaz Reynolds and Trey Franks were indefinitely suspended, leaving only junior starter Kenny Stills, who was rarely on the field a year ago without the sure-handed Broyles.
Since preseason practice began, the wide-receiver situation has become much more promising. Freshman Trey Metoyer has been very impressive in practice, according to the Oklahoma coaches, but he has yet to play in a real game, and the Sooners picked up senior transfer Justin Brown, who was the leading receiver last season at Penn State. OU has some promising young receivers among its incoming freshman class, the true value of which is difficult to determine at this early stage.
Despite not being quite as deep in both experience and talent as the Oklahoma coaches would like to see at this key offensive position, several national preview publications rank the Sooner receivers among the top three in the Big 12 and in the top 10 nationally.
The offensive line has gone from being a team strength coming into preseason practice to an area of mild concern because of the unexpected loss of two experienced starters. Center Ben Habern was forced to announce his retirement due to a lingering neck injury and guard Tyler Evans tore his ACL in a preseason practice session. Both are seniors.
OU does have some depth at this position, but not as much game experience as it thought it was going to have. The veteran Gabe Ikard will move from guard over to center, replacing All-Big 12 center Habern.
Up front on the defensive side, David King and R.J. Washington have big shoes to fill at defensive end following the departure of 2011 Big 12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year Frank Alexander and Ronnell Lewis to the NFL. The Sooners have quality in numbers at the linebacker position, led by juniors Tom Wort and Corey Nelson.
OU has one of the country’s best punters in senior Tress Way, who not only has a strong leg but a high success rate at pinning opponents inside their 20-yard line. Place-kicking had been a dark hole for the Sooners for several years until walk-on sophomore Michael Hunnicutt came through last season on 21 of 24 field goal attempts, including a long of 53 yards, and 55 of 56 extra points.
As one popular national sports publication writes, the Sooners aren’t without flaws, but they’re better than the rest of the conference teams in more key areas of the game. OU once again enters the season as a top-five team nationally. The Sooners are a No. 4 or No. 5 pick in all of the major national polls, and if they can get by at West Virginia, Oklahoma State and at TCU in their final three games of the regular season, they have a legitimate shot at running the table and playing for the national championship, but not without a much improved defensive performance.
I predict Oklahoma will go 11-1 and 8-1 against Big 12 opposition. Projected finish in Big 12 in 2012: First.
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