Welcome to Spring in Norman, Oklahoma. Here the Sooners hope to improve on their surprising 2015 College Football Playoff run which, unfortunately, was ended by the Clemson Tigers in a 37-17 drubbing. A somewhat harsh ending to what was a wonderful resurgence by the Crimson and Cream.
Luckily for OU fans, a lot of the faces that played an integral part in winning the Big 12 in 2015 return for 2016. Notably among them are quarterback Baker Mayfield, left tackle Orlando Brown, defensive tackle Charles Walker, safety Steven Parker and running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon. This is spring football though, where the unknowns, underclassmen and late-bloomers come to shine, so let’s take an early look at the Sooners.
To improve on their 2015 season, Oklahoma looks to enhance four major factors upon their current roster:
- A stronger/more physical presence in the trenches
- Linebacker depth
- Who’s behind Mayfield
- Replacing the production of Sterling Shepard
Returning sophomores Orlando Brown and Dru Samia anchor the tackle spots. While they showed inconsistencies last season, for freshmen, they were spectacular and look to build upon their performance. The most improvement, however, needs to happen on the interior of the line. With the insertion of Jonathan Alvarez into the center position, the size is certainly upgraded on paper – but can Alvarez improve on his solid freshman season is key factor to progress.
The most depleted position for Oklahoma is the linebacker spot. The graduations of Eric Striker and Devante Bond, along with the early departure of Dominique Alexander, leaves only Jordan Evans returning at inside linebacker. For Oklahoma to continue their defensive renaissance, the linebacker position must remain strong and improve from last year’s impressive run. Fortunately, there’s some talent in the wings. Redshirt freshman Ricky DeBerry will certainly be the hot commodity through the spring along with a guy nicknamed “the Hulk”, Arthur McGinnis. They also have five-star freshman linebacker Caleb Kelly joining the team in the fall, and Mike Stoops has shown praise for Tay Evans as well. Their development through spring ball and fall camp will be crucial for the Sooners to shore up the middle of the field.
Surprisingly all eyes will not be on Baker Mayfield at the quarterback spot, but rather his backup. The Sooners find themselves in an odd position. With the transfer of Trevor Knight, and Cody Thomas’ choice to focus on baseball, OU finds themselves short on QB depth. Should Mayfield go down, the Sooners will be looking to true freshman, and early spring-enrollee, Austin Kendall to take the reins. True freshman have wowed in the conference before, but given the number of star quarterbacks that went down with injury last season (and how it changed the path for a couple conference contenders), Sooner Nation has to be a bit nervous.
To add to the already weird situation, former five-star and Texas A&M transfer quarterback Kyler Murray will add to the excitement of the Spring Game, but is ineligible for play in the 2016 year – so the excitement will have to be put on a shelf for the time being.
Offensively speaking, the most glaring hole to fill is the loss of Sterling Shepard. Shepard had been a great receiver for four years and elevated his game more so last year to garner NFL praise. For the Sooners to improve on this loss it will be a group effort.
Returning Big 12 Newcomer of the Year Dede Westbrook showed flashes of brilliance sprinkled with consistent play. His speed alone should be enough to keep the deep ball residing in Memorial Stadium but needs to take the next step towards all-conference/all-American play. Tight end Mark Andrews, who had a record-breaking season as a freshman, will more than likely become the safety net for Mayfield that Shepard provided. Add Jarvis Baxter and incoming Penn State transfer Geno Lewis and you have one of the most balanced wide receiver units in the conference.
Another young players to be excited for is Canadian defensive tackle Neville Gallimore, who will look to step into the role Charles Walker will leave after this season. Bob Stoops has certainly made an effort to get bigger and faster on the defensive line and it has shown in recruiting.
On the other side of the ball, Dalton Wood is intriguing. The Oklahoma recruit of a year ago decided to sit out last season. He has returned to the team as a walk-on for 2016. The talent and size are there for a tight end, but will the year off hold him back from any kind of production in the fall? If he can contribute, a lineup featuring Mark Andrews and Dalton Wood sounds exciting.
For Stoops and the Sooners, the message is improvement. Two years ago at this time, people were still patting the Sooners on the back for the Sugar Bowl upset of Alabama, which resulted in a disastrous 2014 season. Complacency and praise should be the enemy of this current squad – not only to return to the playoff, but to win it. Oklahoma has the horses, but it depends on development, and the spring is where it all starts.