If you want to get a line on third-ranked Oklahoma this season, start with two units on opposite sides of the ball – the offensive line and the linebackers. How well both groups perform will go a long way toward deciding the Sooners’ season.
With quarterback Baker Mayfield plus running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, Oklahoma’s offense has plenty of star power. With Perine poised to become the school’s career rushing leader and Mixon a backup who would start on most teams, OU’s running game figures to be among the nation’s best.
“We’ve got a Heisman candidate in Baker but I don’t know why Samaje wouldn’t be a candidate, too,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. “We want to be really strong at running it and passing it. If the defense wants to defend one or the other, it gives you a better opportunity to hurt ‘em.”
While finding a receiver who was productive and clutch as Sterling Shepard will be a challenge, perhaps the biggest concern involves the offensive line.
Three starters return, but there are only two seniors among the top 10 linemen. There’s good chance that OU will start three sophomores and a junior.
“Ideally you’d like to have a two-deep,” offensive line coach Bill Benenbaugh said. “(But) that doesn’t happen very often. What you’d like to have is eight guys, a starting five and then a tackle that can play both positions and a backup center. I don’t know how it’s going to work out. We’re still young and inexperienced so we’ll see how it shakes out. But if we can get eight guys and some guys can roll, then we’ll be fine.”
On the defensive side, the biggest worry is at linebacker. Senior Jordan Evans is the only returning starter; Eric Striker ran out of eligibility and Dominique Alexander skipped his senior season to enter the NFL Draft.
Depending on the alignment schemes deployed by defensive coordinator Mike Stoops, the Sooners need either three or four linebackers on the field.
Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, a 6-foot-2, 240-pound junior, is considered a top candidate to replace Striker, whose all-around abilities included blitzing from the outside linebacker spot. The other linebacker candidate to team with Evans at inside linebacker is Tay Evans, a 6-foot-2, 240-pound sophomore. Will Johnson, a 6-foot, 185-pound junior, could be the starter at nickel back, which is a hybrid linebacker/defensive back in the OU scheme.
Stoops says that OU has a “great group” of young linebackers. Caleb Kelly, Mark Jackson, John Michael Terry and Parrish Cobb (who originally signed at Baylor but was released after the offseason problems in Waco) are freshmen who all could see playing time as reserves.
Oklahoma’s two losses last season had a spooky mirror image statistic. Texas outgained OU 313-67 on the ground while Clemson had a 312-67 edge in rushing yardage.
The O-line’s ability to make the running game roll and the linebackers’ ability to keep opposing offenses from running roughshod will likely determine the Sooners’ success.
Oklahoma at a glance
2015: 11-2, 8-1 in Big 12, first
Coach: Bob Stoops
Returning starters: 7 on offense, 7 on defense
Impact players: Jr. QB Baker Mayfield, Jr. RB Samaje Perine, Soph. RB Joe Mixon, Soph. TE Mark Andrews, Soph. OL Orlando Brown, Jr. DL Charles Walker, Sr. LB Jordan Evans, Jr. DB Steven Parker, Jr. DB Jordan Thomas, Soph. K/P Austin Seibert
3 reasons to hope
- Baker Mayfield not only makes plays, his emotional style provides hot juice for the entire team, not just the offense. Add in the fact that Mayfield has a year’s experience with offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, and the Sooners should boom when they have the ball.
- If it wasn’t for Mayfield, junior running back Samaje Perine would be Oklahoma’s top Heisman candidate. He’s on pace to become the school’s career rushing leader. Plus, sophomore Joe Mixon is a backup who would start on most teams.
- There was a drop-off in recruiting earlier this decade that led the Sooners to four consecutive seasons without winning a Big 12 title. The talent pipeline is flowing again, and Oklahoma once again has first- and second-year players who were four stars or better.
3 reasons to worry
- The schedule, especially the opening month, is brutal. Oklahoma opens at No. 15 Houston and two weeks later hosts No. 6 Ohio State. After an open date, the Sooners open Big 12 play with a road game at No. 13 TCU – the team that nearly knocked OU out of the College Football Playoff, losing by a point in Norman.
- Sterling Shepard, Eric Striker, Charles Tapper, Dominique Alexander, Zack Sanchez – those last four were leaders and playmakers for last season’s Oklahoma defense. Shepard had 40 more receptions than OU’s second-leading receiver. Finding their replacements won’t be easy.
- Baker Mayfield’s competitive fire and devil-may-care scrambling is exciting, but it’s dangerous when there’s an unproven backup. Freshman Austin Kendall arrived on campus early to participate in spring practice. He’s earned praise, but he’s the only other eligible scholarship quarterback on the roster.
Difference maker on offense: Baker Mayfield. Last season, he exceeded expectations and finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy balloting. His passing ability made the Oklahoma offense unstoppable, especially over the last half of the season. Plus, Mayfield’s running ability and mobility in the pocket drove opposing defenses crazy.
Difference maker on defense: Jordan Evans. The senior is the only experienced linebacker OU has on the roster. With the defensive line and secondary expected to be solid to outstanding, finding two new starters plus backups to play alongside Evans is a priority.
It’s a fact: This is hard to believe, but Oklahoma allowed 41 sacks last season – one for every 11 pass attempts. That was with a veteran offensive line and a scrambling quarterback.
Projected final record: 10-2. The Sooners’ return to the College Football Playoff will likely be determined in their first four games. If Oklahoma starts 4-0, the Red River Rivalry with Texas on Oct. 8 looms large. The Longhorns have won two of the last three, including last season’s shocker.
|Sept. 3||at Houston|
|Sept. 17||Ohio State|
|Oct. 1||at TCU*|
|Oct. 8||Texas* (at Dallas)|
|Oct. 15||Kansas State*|
|Oct. 22||at Texas Tech*|
|Oct . 29||Kansas*|
|Nov. 3||at Iowa State*|
|Nov. 19||at West Virginia*|
|Dec. 3||Oklahoma State*|
|* – Conference game|