Nole Perspective: Oklahoma Sooners Preview 2010

I started the opponent preview series last year when it became clear that many of our readers had no idea what they were talking about when discussing FSU's opponents.  I hope this leads to some informed discussion of Oklahoma.

Oklahoma went 8-5 last year, but was a much better team than most 9-4 or 10-3 squads out there. Some really bad injury luck conspired to stop the Sooner Scooner before it ever got rolling. Off a 2008 season that saw a record-setting offense and a trip to the National Championship Game, people had high hopes for the Sooners. But Oklahoma would lose 5 games in what was a disaster of a season, considering the circumstances. In this preview I will briefly mention 2009 and will focus mostly on 2010.

Oklahoma has consistently been one of the best offenses in the country over the last half-decade. Stoops has a real talent for finding excellent offensive coordinators, be it Mike Leach, Mark Mangino, or Kevin Wilson. Wilson came to Oklahoma from Northwestern and he brings a pro-style spread attack that often plays a very fast no-huddle pace. Ideally, the Sooners look to stay balanced. After having one of the best offenses in the history of college football in 2008, the Oklahoma attack failed to crack the top-50 last season.

I start my preview with the offensive line. It is the most important unit on the team, and is comprised of 5 starting positions. In 2008, Oklahoma had what some called the best offensive line in college football history. While that claim was silly, OU's line did feature multiple NFL draft choices and was the best in football.

But 4 members of that line graduated. And those members were a 1st-Team All Big 12 Tackle, a 1st-Team All-Big 12 guard, a 2nd team All-Big 12 Center, and a honorable mention All-Big 12 Guard. I've never seen a team lose that much offensive line talent in a single year. It would be like FSU losing Alex Barron and Ray Willis in the same year (this did happen in the middle part of this decade), and also losing two all-conference guards in the same year. Oklahoma had a tall task to replace all that offensive line talent. But the replacements hadn't played much at all, because the all-star lineup remained perfectly healthy, and because Oklahoma also lost two backups to graduation as well.

But Oklahoma did have Trent Williams, an All-Big 12 left tackle returning. And after that? At center OU had a tiny freshman center and a Colorado State transfer long-snapper. At Guard, they had an inexperienced but talented Sophomore in Stephen Good, a dependable senior in Brian Simmons, a JUCO, and 2 freshmen. The other tackle spot had three contenders. First, was the highly-touted Donald Stephenson. Also in the mix were Junior Cory Brandon and LSU transfer Jarvis Jones, a sophomore.

Nobody was expecting a repeat performance from 2008, but neither were they expecting the calamity that was to come. When a program has a tremendous lineup of seniors, it's difficult to accumulate quality depth behind those seniors. And that problem was exposed from the opening day of camp. OU suffered multiple injuries that kept starters out of camp. The Oklahoma line had talent, but it didn't have an opportunity to develop the chemistry that is so crucial for effective offensive line play. And further troubling was that camp was being used to determine who the starters would be, which wouldn't have allowed for much gelling even if the lineups could have been quickly determined. One thing did become clearer, however, when the ultra-talented Stephenson got himself suspended for the year.

Starting a lineup that lacked any semblance of health, chemistry or experience, Oklahoma allowed 5 sacks to a very average BYU defense in the opener. Oklahoma was absolutely more talented than BYU, but the Cougar defense is a complex 3-4 scheme and Oklahoma often had two men blocking one defender while another defender exploded into the Sooner backfield untouched. One of those miscommunications would change the course of Oklahoma's season as a BYU blitzer wrecked the shoulder of Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford. Oklahoma lost the game to BYU. BYU didn't beat Oklahoma. The Sooners literally gave BYU the game because the Oklahoma offensive line was a mess. 10 offensive line penalties and 5 sacks allowed to open the season.

The line would continue to be in varying states of disarray throughout the season. Williams would start all 13 games at left tackle, but a tight end would start 7 games for OU on the oline. 5 players would start a game at guard. Two at center. And two different players split starts at right tackle. In all, Oklahoma started 10 different lineups in 13 games.

But as the season wore on, and the line began to get healthier, the Sooners talent began to shine through a bit. It would have been difficult not to given the talent level. Some quality players began to separate themselves from the pack. Ben Habern, the scrawny redshirt-freshman center held his own given his size and experience level. This year he has bulked up to 290 lbs, an impressive gain of 15 lbs. OU people think he will continue to improve and should anchor the center of the line, if he can avoid ankle troubles. Stephen Good was, excuse the pun, quite good for OU last season at guard, starting 7 games and playing in all 13. The 6'6" 310 lb Good was selected as 1st-team ALL- Big 12 by Phil Steele. Tyler Evans is perhaps the weak link at right guard, but he did play in 12 games last year, starting 4 of them. The coaches were extremely excited to get the 6'6" 290 lb Stephenson back from suspension and he is slated to start at left tackle, ahead of Jarvis Jones. That's a very nice combination of talent and experience at the left tackle spot. And Jones could also fill in at right tackle, where Senior Cory Brandon will start. The 6'7" 315 lb Brandon started 8 games last year and he looked better this Spring, now healthy. Brandon is your typical huge right tackle who isn't overly mobile but can do a nice job on in-line run blocking.  BlatantHomerism.com informs me that Jones might have pulled ahead of Brandon with the better Summer.

Oklahoma's offensive line was one of the biggest problems for the Sooners last season. But this group is talented and should be much improved assuming it doesn't fall victim to ridiculous injuries hampering its ability to work together as a unit. This should be one of the better offensive lines FSU will face this season, along with Florida and Boston College.

As I discussed above, that offensive line allowed the greatest football casualty of the 2009 season. Sam Bradford is one of the best quarterbacks in the history of college football. He won the Heisman in 2008. But when he separated his shoulder in the opening game against BYU, Oklahoma's offense was immediately in trouble. Landry Jones, a 6'4" 215 lb redshirt-freshman entered the game. And though he was a mega-recruit, he was not able to play like the Heisman-Trophy Winner. Bradford would play only 8 total quarters for Oklahoma (of a possible 104). Jones would have a very nice season for a freshman quarterback, completing 261 of 449 passes for 3200 yards and 26 TDs with 14 INTs. But that nice freshman season went unnoticed because it paled in comparison to what was expected of the returning Heisman winner.

We know that the biggest improvement for a quarterback comes in the sophomore year. Jones has the ability to be an excellent quarterback. He has good size and a good arm. He didn't make a disproportionate amount of boneheaded decisions for a freshman. He is not a major threat with his legs, but he isn't a statue. For an FSU reference, I would compare his running ability to that of Wyatt Sexton. One interesting note here is that Oklahoma's coaches call all the checks. Like a high-school team, Oklahoma looks to the sidelines for its checks or audibles. That takes pressure off Jones. Jones will be one of the better quarterbacks FSU will face this year and he is in the group with Brantley, Harris, Wilson, and Parker.

I won't get heavily into OU's backups at the quarterback position because this game is played so early in the year, making it unlikely that Jones would be injured going into the game. They have two talented but young backups. If Jones goes down, OU will not be able to volley with FSU.

For all the talk about Oklahoma's struggles in the passing game, and there were some, the bigger problem was the rushing game. The top-10 rushing game in 2008 plummeted to outside the top 80 in 2009, thanks mostly to the aforementioned offensive line struggles. Gone is Chris Brown (189 carries for 749 yards). But the Sooners do return Demarco Murray. Murray qualifies for the 10th-year senior award, given annually to the player who has seemingly played for an entire decade. Murray is a very talented back who has battled injuries over the last two years, including a hamstring surgery last season (again, Oklahoma's 2009 season was sunk with injuries). While he didn't always miss games, he was limited in his use and was unable to play at full speed. Still, he made 2nd-team All-Big 12. Murray is one of the best backs FSU will see all season. He's a rock-solid 6'0" 215 lbs, with a good blend of power and some wiggle as well. Murray has 2500 yards in his career, and now that he is finally healthy Stoops has said he will look to get him 300+ carries. Murray is also a true receiving threat, with 100+ catches and 1000+ yards in his career. Quite simply, Murray is one of the premier backs in the country when healthy. Many have forgotten about Murray as he has struggled to stay healthy for much of the last two seasons, but overlooking one of the best backs in the country would be a big mistake as he looks to be primed for a great senior year.

The backups are less settled here, though Stoops comments lead me to believe that OU will rotate its backs much less this year.

Depth is not a question at receiver as Oklahoma is loaded to the gills. Ryan Broyles is one of the best receivers in the country with 1800 yards over 120 catches in his first two seasons. He was limited last year with a fractured shoulder blade (there's that freak injury bug again). Broyles is extremely difficult for any college defensive back to cover and Oklahoma does a great job of moving the 5'11" 180 lb weapon all over the field. In their 3-wide set, Broyles typically plays the slot.

The other two positions are manned by a talented fivesome. First is 6'2" 181 lb Jazz Reynolds who caught 13 balls for 256 yards last year. Dejuan Miller stands 6'4" 224 and grabbed 36 balls for 434 yards last season. 6'1" Senior Brandon Caleb actually started 6 games last season and hauled in 26 passes for 408 yards. JUCO transfer Cameron Kenney caught 22 for 268. Finally, freshman Kenny Stills was one of the best recruits in the country and some at OU believe he can quickly work his way into the lineup. Stills is probably the only one of this group who scares a defense in terms of big-play potential, but the group is extremely solid and few teams can spread the field like Oklahoma can with 4 or 5 wide receivers.

Oklahoma did not lose TE Jermaine Gresham, a first round draft choice, because he tore up his knee in the pre-season and didn't play a single down for Oklahoma. You'll see a lot of ignorant broadcasters and writers citing the loss of 4 first round draft choices, but two of those draft choices really didn't play at all (Gresham 0 snaps and Bradford only 8 quarters). That said, Oklahoma's tight end situation is unproven. 6'3" 230 lb junior Trent Ratteree started 4 games last year and is essentially a wide receiver. Eric Mesnik could play offensive line, but as of now is listed as a tight end. At 6'6 285 lbs, he is an enormous tight end. If Oklahoma uses Mesnik at tight end, that could make for a really nice running formation, but still allow for the passing game to flourish with the 3-wide sets.

The bottom line is that Oklahoma has consistently had one of the 10-best offenses over the last decade. Last year was a huge aberration caused mostly by ridiculous injuries and some expected drop-off from the graduation of 4 all-conference linemen and the top two receivers. This year the Sooners once again have a lot of talent. But the QB isn't being rushed into an unfavorable situation. The receivers are not new. The running back isn't getting off-season surgery on his hamstring. And perhaps most importantly, the offensive line is not in a total state of disarray. There is no reason to think this offense will be anything but good. And it could be very good if it gets even a fraction of number of breaks to the good as it did to the bad last season. This offense is very talented, extremely well coached, and is now experienced. After its brief trip outside the top 50, I expect the Sooner attack to again be one of the 20 best in college football.

Inside, you'll find my look at the defense.

You might not have realized this, but last year's Oklahoma defense was tremendous. Behind only Alabama and perhaps Nebraska, the Sooner's defense was one of the best in the last half-decade. That shouldn't come as a surprise with a defensive mastermind in head coach Bob Stoops and excellent co-DCs Brent Venables and Bobby Jack-Wright. Oklahoma's defense has been the same for years now. They combine tremendous recruiting with excellent player development and a zone scheme that allows for a lot of flexibility.

This year the Sooner's defense should again be excellent, but it is unlikely to be one of the two or three best in the country. Let's take a look at what the Sooners bring to the table.

It starts up front for Oklahoma. Everyone knows about Gerald McCoy, the #3 overall draft choice at defensive tackle. Oklahoma can't replace him fully, but they can come fairly close. If a program like Oklahoma State lost a guy like McCoy, it would be different. But this is Oklahoma, and that means a new set of monsters is set to step in. OU does return three of its four defensive line starters, so let's take a look at them first.

6'3" 260 lb Senior Jeremy Beal is a flat-out stud at end. He is again a lock for 1st-team All-Big 12 and last year was 3rd-team All-America. He is in the class of players with Bowers of Clemson and Ojomo if Miami, though not as good as Robert Quinn of UNC (probably the best player in all of college football). On the other side is 6'4" 260 lb junior Frank Alexander. Alexander is a very nice compliment to Beal and really came on at the end of last season. Sophomore David King and redshirt freshman Justin Chaisson are very highly regarded recruits who can fill in in a pinch. I focus less on depth for a game like this because Oklahoma is not likely to be losing players for the FSU game due to the early-season date. Oklahoma's end tandem is one of the best in the country and the matchup between Beal and rising FSU superstar offensive tackle Andrew Datko should provide plenty of fireworks.

Defensive tackle poses a few questions and the answers could vary greatly. As I noted above, replacing McCoy is extremely difficult. But if anyone can do it, it's Jamarkus McFarland. McFarland was the #2 rated DT recruit in 2009 and played in 7 games last year. Like McCoy, he is extremely quick. Unlike McCoy, the 6'2" 300 lb McFarland is not yet a proven commodity. It's unrealistic to expect the sophomore to equal the production of the #3 overall pick in the draft. At the other tackle spot is Adrian Taylor. Taylor is really interesting because he could have headed to the NFL draft as well, but he snapped his leg in the bowl game. Now the 6'4" 295 lb Senior will be available for August camp. But there's a big difference between being in camp and playing like a star in early September. If Taylor is 100% healthy and playing great early in the year, then the rest of the country needs to look out because OU's defense will again be elite. If not, it could open the door for an early-season upset. Oklahoma has a pair of very talented defensive tackles behind Taylor and McFarland. Casey Walker is a 300 lb sophomore who should see some reps, particularly if Taylor is not 100%.

Much like what FSU's defensive line will do under Mark Stoops, Bob Stoops has his defensive line drop into pass coverage early and often. But they are still asked to play traditional DL techniques and are quite good against both the run and the pass.

For as long as Stoops has been at OU, he has had excellent linebackers. Last year was no different, as they lose Ryan Reynolds (honorable mention Big 12) and Keenan Clayton. But they return Travis Lewis. And what a player Lewis is. After winning Big 12 rookie of the year in 2008, he garnered 1st-team honors last season. Lewis has made 250 tackles in only two years and is a tremendous player. Think of him as Nigel Bradham, but with better agility. On the Strongside is Ronnell Lewis. This 6'2" 234 lb sophomore is a huge hitter and was probably the nation's best linebacker recruit of 2008 (along with FSU's Bradham). Lewis started the Bowl game and some at OU believe he is even better than the departed Keenan Clayton (4th round choice of the Eagles). FSU will need to watch for Ronnell on the zone blitzes. In the middle is redshirt freshman Tom Wort. Wort was all set to play last season before tearing his ACL. If there is a question among the linebackers, it is here. Wort isn't the biggest linebacker at only 220 lbs, but I suspect Oklahoma will play a lot of Nickel against FSU.

Oklahoma also has some very talented backups in Austin Box, Jaydin Bird, and Daniel Franklin. This linebacker group is scary good and is an embarrassment of riches. I would rate it behind only UNC among the teams on FSU's schedule and it is absolutely up there with UF, BC (Herzlich & Keuchly), Miami, and Maryland (you probably didn't realize how loaded Maryland is at linebacker).

An elite defense is typically solid in all three areas and Oklahoma is similarly talented in the secondary.

OU has one of the best safeties in the country in Senior Quinton Carter. Carter made 2nd-team All Big 12 last season and will lead the secondary this year from his free safety position. Carter has excellent range and is a comparable player to some of the guys Miami and Florida will throw out, though he is not as good as Clemson's McDaniel or UNC's Williams. At the other safety spot is Sam Proctor. Proctor is a talented safety in his own right and is a very capable player. Both Carter and Proctor are multi-year starters.

If there's a concern or a question for the OU secondary it is at corner. Remember that OU plays mostly zone defense so losing a corner is not as detrimental as it was for FSU when FSU ran its 100% man system. At one corner is Demonte Hurst. The 5'9" 165 lb sophomore is a promising player who the coaches love. At the other spot is probably Jonathan Nelson, who was honorable-mention Big 12, or Jammell Flemming. Both are quite capable options and OU people don't seem overly worried about either spot, but until one guy steps forward there is a bit of a question. Also, note that Nelson also plays safety so if Flemming bests him for the other corner spot, look for Nelson to get work as the 5th defensive back.

Note:  There's also a chance Nelson could stick at Safety and bump Proctor out.  He'll be a starter somewhere.  

The bottom line with this defense is that it is extremely talented, has experience, and will again be very well coached. There is no reason to expect a huge dropoff here. A mild drop off is assumed by most observers, due to the loss of McCoy. An important thing to remember is that these players have been in the system for years. Unlike FSU's defense, which is trying to learn the system in a single off-season, Oklahoma's players have been trained in this system for two or three off-seasons in most cases. It is not new to them. This defense should again be among the top 15 or better.

Oh, and Phil Steele says that Oklahoma could very well have the best special teams in the country.  Personally, I am not sure.  I didn't look at the special teams.  If Steele is right, watch out.  They are probably pretty good because the coverage teams will have good athletes.  Not sure on the kicking/ punting talent.

The bottom line is that Oklahoma has out-recruited FSU during the relevant time period. They have developed players much better than FSU has over the last 4 years. They are not breaking in new coordinators or new systems on either side of the ball. Oklahoma is a more talented, better developed, more experienced team. Quite simply, they are a better football team than FSU. OU's offense will be much closer to FSU's offense than FSU's defense will be to OU's defense. And the game is in Norman. It's not that FSU has no chance, it's that the chance is slim because Oklahoma has all the makings of another elite team and FSU does not. OU might be the best team FSU plays all year.  Depending on your choice of casino, Oklahoma is the 2nd or 3rd favorite to win the national championship.  I don't know if OU will win the title and I don't particularly care.  I do know that FSU will be expected to lose and lose big.  This game is so interesting because before Phil Steele came out, many were underestimating OU.  I think OU is decisively better.  But I also think FSU is flying more under the radar.  

We'll get into the gameplans and the matchups the week of the game.  I hope you enjoyed this look at one of FSU's opponents.

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