NORMAN, Okla. — By all accounts, spring football was an absolute success for the Sooners. The Sooners went into the spring ranked as one of the top two teams in the country by most football services and that certainly won't change before next year. OU wanted to develop some depth and they certainly found young players who can make some plays for them.
Oklahoma wanted to look at all four of their quarterbacks and each quarterback got an equal amount of reps. At running back the Sooners found out they have more than just one player that can play a little and at wide receiver it seems five players emerged who are good enough to start. At tight end they didn't find another Trent Smith currently on the roster, but next fall a junior college transfer could be the answer.
The Sooner offensive line came out of the spring feeling they will be bigger, stronger and more athletic next season. And in the secondary OU found out they have more at safety than just Brandon Everage. In all, there didn't seem a lot for the Sooner coaches to complain about.
"I feel good about spring practice outside of the fact that I am real disappointed in the injury suffered by Rufus Alexander, which really hurts for him because he is such a wonderful young man and a great player," said Head Coach Bob Stoops. "That injury is just too bad for him and we hate what has happened to him.Other than that we are real pleased with how the players competed and developed through the spring and where we are at coming into the break."
One of the main goals of the coaching staffs was to find out if their young players could really play and to develop across the board. Stoops says mission accomplished.
"We definitely will field the deepest team that we have had since we have been here with more players that are ready to play and play on a winning level," said Bob Stoops. "We have a lot to do through the summer here, but through the spring we did develop some good depth."
The big story centered around the quarterbacks and at press time OU still has not announced a depth chart at the position. However, by all accounts the Sooners appear to have a two horse race between senior Jason White and sophomore Brent Rawls. But Coach Stoops is certainly keeping his decision close to his vest.
"I thought all four of them did a nice job this spring," said Stoops. "I thought Jason played well in the first quarter of the spring game, especially when you consider the limited scrimmage time that he has had recently. Jason threw two interceptions, but both balls bounced off of our receivers hands and were easy catches that were tipped to someone else. Still, overall I thought he did a nice job.
"Brent came in and executed a nice drive for a score for us as well," Stoops continued. "Those two, just as far as the spring game, had the best game and the other guys (Paul Thompson and Noah Allen) have done some nice things through the spring as well. I am happy with the progress that all of them made, but we don't play tomorrow and so we don't have to make a decision on who the starter is or who his backup is tomorrow either. This will be an important summer for all of them as well."
There is a lot that goes into being the Sooner quarterback and it is certainly more than meets the eye. The Sooner coaches expect their quarterbacks to be athletic, lead the team in summer workouts, organize summer throwing sessions and to keep their act on the straight and narrow. If any of the quarterbacks don't measure up on in all areas, then red flags are raised.
White has the trust of the Sooner coaches. He obviously has ability, because has earned the starting job twice and has twice given it back with ACL tears in both knees. However, even in rehab he has earned the coaches and teammates respect with his courageous effort to get back on the playing field. White also is a proven leader, which is demonstrated by the fact his teammates named him as a team captain before the start of the 2002 season. Teammates say it is White who organizes all off-season throwing sessions and who is the leader of off-season workouts.
The only knock on White is the fact he can't stay healthy and that is a big knock. White is noted as run/pass quarterback and it was his running ability that Sooner fans will never forget as he ran past Texas in 2001. However, it was on a run later that season against Nebraska, and last season against Alabama, that White went down in a heap without being hit because one of his ACL's ripped. It was unbelievable to watch a big, strong guy like White just fall to the turf because the main ligament in his knee ripped in two, especially when nobody hit him.
White returned to the field in just six months following his second ACL surgery. The fact White was able to go through the Sooners recent spring practice in such a short time is amazing in itself, and the fact he went through two of the Sooners three scrimmages is even more amazing. White is still not 100 percent, but he served notice that by the time fall rolls around he would be 100 percent and fully ready to compete to reclaim the starting quarterback job.
"I really didn't think about my knee during the game, but it did bother me a little bit," said White immediately following the Red/White game. "It didn't stop me from competing and I thought I was moving pretty well during the game. The knee still gets sore, but that is to be expected this soon after surgery. To be honest, I am ahead of schedule and the doctors thought about not letting me work out this spring, but I proved that I was healthy enough to go through it."
"I am at about 85 percent right now, which is ahead of schedule," White continued. "I have been able to throw the ball like I want to and I have shown mobility when I needed to. I have a little over four months to get my knee totally in shape and by the time two a-days are here I will be 100 percent. There is no question that I will be 100 percent when practice picks up in August. By then my game will be back at full strength and that includes throwing and running and I will show everybody that I can be the same quarterback I was the last two years before my injuries."
The big question for White is whether the OU coaches will trust his health and whether they will hold his two knee surgeries against him?
"Not as long as he stays healthy and continues to compete like he has," said Stoops. "I am not one to sit there and ‘what if' this and ‘what if' that, or worry if he is going to get hurt again. If he is not hurt and he is playing well then he deserves the chance to be the starter and to compete for it, which he is and he will do in the fall. Whenever that is not the case then you adjust from there. We are not going to have any reservations and sit there and ‘what if' ourselves."
What Bob Stoops says goes and he will make the final decision, but no matter how you slice it there is a concern whether White can stay healthy.
"That has to be the biggest question as far as Jason is concerned, because he hasn't been totally healthy in two years," said Run game coordinator and offensive line Coach Kevin Wilson immediately following the game. "The fact that Jason competed at all this spring was fantastic and showed how tough he is, but his knee is not all the way back. In fact, it was hurting him a little bit during the game today. The good thing is that he made it through spring and only missed one or two practices and even scrimmaged with us — that is something to be honest we didn't expect as a coaching staff."
"Jason wasn't totally healthy when he started against Tulsa last year and we may have rushed him a little bit." Wilson continued. "However, he earned the starting job and he is such a tough kid that we went with him. Now deep down, it is only natural to wonder if he can hold up next season, and wonder if we can plan our season around him as our starting quarterback because of his knee injuries. As coaches we have to think about everything, but he has all summer to get as healthy as he has been in two years and during two a-days that he can convince us that he can make it through the season."
Rawls' questions have nothing to do with health or throwing ability. In fact, he has recovered fully from his broken thumb and a concussion, when he fell out of a back of a moving pickup truck and landed on his head last season. There is no question about his throwing ability as he throws the football better than anybody on the Sooner team.
Rawls' questions center around his desire to be the starting quarterback at Oklahoma, his leadership skills and his decision making on the field. Rawls made tremendous progress in all of these areas in the spring and over the final two-and-a-half weeks of spring practice, Rawls appeared to be the Sooners best quarterback. His effort has put him in the running for the starting quarterback job and now he faces the most important summer of his life.
"Brent needs to just show consistency in making plays and avoiding bad plays," said Bob Stoops. "He needs to continue to make big plays. He needs to have a big summer to show us that he is going to be a guy that we can depend on, and a guy that we can count on to had our offensive over to. That is really the key for him as much as anything, but he has made a lot of strides in that way and hopefully he will continue to make strides over the summer."
Rawls says his rebel reputation is misleading and that he has grown up a lot as a quarterback this past year.
"First of all, I am not the hellraiser that everybody makes me out to be," said Rawls. "I wasn't drinking or anything when I fell out of that pickup truck. It was stupid and a dumb mistake, but that was it and that is bad enough. It think I have grown up a lot since that incident. I think that is part of the reason why I had a pretty good spring. I think I am making better decisions and throwing the ball pretty well. I understand now what it takes to be the starting quarterback at Oklahoma, and I know that I am fully capable of doing what the coaches expect me to do to be the starting quarterback at Oklahoma."
All four quarterbacks received equal reps during the spring, but that will change once the Sooners begin two-a-day workouts.
"Obviously, you can't go into fall camp trying to rep all four guys," said Offensive Coordinator and quarterback coach Chuck Long. "You would like to get a three man mix going there, with two getting the majority and then you end up getting the majority as you get closer to the first game. I want them competing all the way through the summer. It certainly helped Jason and Nate in the past and we think it will help this group as well. We don't have a quarterback controversy this way within our football team and the competition is healthy for them and our team."
White has the most experience among the four because he has been in the system the longest, but does that mean he really has an edge in this year's quarterback race?
"Jason has the most experience and he looked pretty good in the Red/White game," said Long. "Jason had a good camp, and his overall numbers have been the best of the four if you look at pure statistics and completion percentage. So, because he has earned it twice and because he has the best numbers in this camp he deserves a shot at the starting position."
Long is another that says he can't worry about White's past knee injuries.
"What I have to do is make sure I have a number two ready, whoever that may be," said Long. "We did that last year and had a great situation with a 1A and a 1B in Nate and Jason last year. Nate stayed ready, not only did he stay hungry, but he stayed ready and he had a super season for us last year. It is my job to make sure that number two guy is ready to go, if in fact Jason wins the job."
While White posted the best numbers it was Rawls who excited the coaching staff. Finally, Rawls was making solid decisions, showing some leadership and certainly showing off that golden arm.
"I think Brent made the biggest strides of any quarterback in our camp this spring," said Long. "Over the final two weeks of the spring Brent improved a great deal and really threw the ball well. I think Brent realizes that he really wants to be the starting quarterback at Oklahoma, and he now understands what it is going to take for him to be the starting quarterback at Oklahoma. Sometimes it takes young quarterbacks a little time to really understand what the starting quarterback job entails. It is not easy, but if you understand what it takes, and you have the kind of ability that Brent has, then you can turn out to be pretty special."
Paul Thompson is still very respected by the Sooner coaches and team, but at best he is the third quarterback right now with Noah Allen behind the rest. Thompson will probably be that third quarterback in the mix, but he will need a dynamite summer to be a solid factor in the fall.
One of the key reasons why Bob Stoops feels the quarterbacks will play well next year, no matter who is under center, is because the offensive line will play much better next year.
"I am very happy with the development of our offensive line this spring," said Stoops. "We are going to be much better this year then we were a year ago because we are bigger, stronger and more athletic. That is very evident at offensive guard as sophomores Davin Joseph and Kelvin Chaisson are both big, young, athletic offensive guards — something that we haven't had since we have been here. At tackle Jammal Brown is developing into a great player and Wes Sims on the other side isn't far behind him. In fact, I think Wes had his best spring and has worked hard in the pass protection game. We don't have a lot of depth behind those guys, but we are beginning to find some young players who can play for us and we have a couple of guys coming in (Akim Millington and Brian Zimpel) who we think can help us next year."
Run Game Coordinator and offensive line coach Kevin Wilson is in his second full season at OU. Coach Wilson deserves a lot of credit for the resurgence in the offensive line. He took over a group that was down, had no confidence in itself and has developed that line into what appears to be the strength of the team.
For the first time during the Stoops era the offensive line actually won some battles against the Sooners highly-regarded defensive front, but they are by no means a finished product.
"We still aren't where we want to be at this time, but we are getting closer and closer," said Wilson. "We had a concern at tackle. Jammal and Wes have a chance to be better and I think Wes has gotten better this spring. Jammal is getting better too and is beginning to realize that he could be something special. Wes has made some strides. Last year we saw some good and some bad, as he had some protection problems early in the year, but he has picked it up this spring and he been a little more consistent. However, we needed a young tackle to come through and Chris Messner missed about a week with mono and he is still a little skinny. Brett Rayl has made some nice strides for us and he isn't quite where I want him, but he is getting better. I see the light coming on for Brett. We are not where we want to be yet, but I feel better about coming up with that third tackle."
"I really like Chris Bush, Vince Carter, Davin and Kelvin inside, and I can't leave out Abner Estrada," Wilson continued. "We wanted to play smart this spring and we don't cut our defensive line like we will our opponents during a real game. If you are not careful you end up playing high. We are much further along than we were last year and we have a chance to be pretty decent up front. However, we are not a dominating offensive line just yet. We are not an offensive line like Miami had the last couple of years where they never gave up a sack and made (Ken) Dorsey look pretty good at quarterback. You can tell by his draft status that maybe he isn't as talented as everybody thought, but he had such a good offensive line in front of him that he had time to look pretty good."
The jury is still out on the bad back of Jerod Fields. Fields had surgery on his back and at first if was thought that his career was over. However, Fields is not ready to give up on his career and hopes to return. If Fields can make it back for next season that would be a big boost for the Sooner offensive line.
At tight end the Sooners still have a solid race going for the starting spot. All the prospects received a clean slate as new tight end coach Kevin Sumlin was on board for his first spring at OU. Coach Sumlin drawed his own conclusions as to who his best tight end was.
"This has been a great spring for me and one that I will never forget," said Sumlin. "I have always respected Bob (Stoops) and his program. Now that I am working within this great coaching staff I respect what they have accomplished even more. I think the tight ends have had a good spring and I don't think we are ready to name a starter. Bubba Moses has been very impressive and he has everything you want in a tight end. I want Chris Chester to develop a little more consistency, but his upside is tremendous and Lance Donley is a veteran who gives you everything he has at every single practice. There is still competition at tight end, but I don't think there is any question that whoever we have on the field can play winning football for us."
By all accounts it looks like Moses is slowly, but surely winning the tight end job. He gets more reps with the first unit and is always on the field in two tight end sets. Chester and Donley split the other reps in the two tight end sets and Donley might have the edge in that formation because he is a better blocker.
When two-a-days start this position gets even more interesting because junior college transfer Willie Roberts will join the squad. At 6-foot-7, Roberts is considered a tremendous prospect and will come in immediately and compete for a starting job.
At wide receiver the spring was highlighted by the emergence of junior Brandon Jones as a starter and the emergence of the junior Mark Clayton as the potential go-to-guy from the slot. Will Peoples is the other starter out wide and his spring was just average. However, the OU coaches don't seem too concerned about it.
The biggest plus at wide receiver this spring centered around the ability of young receivers Travis Wilson and JeJuan Rankins to make plays. Bob Stoops is always pumping the ability of both players and throughout the spring both made big plays to assure the Sooner coaches that OU will have solid depth at wide receiver.
"What I was impressed with was the fact they worked their tails off and got better with every practice it seemed," said wide receiver coach Darrell Wyatt. "We dropped a few balls in the Red/White game and that was disappointing, but for the most part we caught the ball this spring. I think that Brandon finally is putting his game together and he will play a lot for us next year. It seemed he was always coming back from baseball, stepping on the field with us late, scoring a couple of touchdowns and then calling it a night. I think Mark is a great football player and has a chance to be something special. He has a chance to become that guy that we always look for in tight spots."
"Will was solid this spring and worked on all aspects of his game," Wyatt continued. "He wasn't always the top receiver, but he was our top receiver a year ago and we know what he can do. In the spring he became a better blocker and ran his routes better. You have to love what Travis Wilson can do in the slot. He is a young receiver, who is very strong and who will be a handful for every defense we play this year. JeJuan proved that he is ready to play regularly in our rotation and has the potential to make big plays. I think those five guys will play for us next fall and we would like to find a sixth receiver, which I think we can find in the fall."
Ataleo Ford continues to try to get into the mix in the slot, but is no better than third behind Clayton and Wilson. The Sooner coaches can't wait to see what true freshman Tristen Ross can do in the fall.
At running back the Sooners will once again go with two running backs and maybe three in their effort to replace Quentin Griffin and his 1800-plus yards from a year ago.
"All of those guys have had an excellent spring and Renaldo Works, KeJuan Jones and Donta Hickson have been outstanding," said Bob Stoops. "In particular, KeJuan and Renaldo have stepped up and really had big springs. I am real happy with the progress that Renaldo has made running inside and KeJuan showed us that he can be much more than just be a short yardage back, but we really knew that already. Plus, Donta had his best spring since he has been at Oklahoma and he is another guy that we know can play winning football for us."
It looks like the majority of playing time in the backfield will be split between Jones and Works, but how it will be split remains to be seen. Works always seemed to start out with the first unit at tailback in the one-back set with KeJuan still getting most of the first looks in the I-formation. That also flip-flopped as well and KeJuan proved that he still remembered how to juke defenders in the one-back set and Works was very impressive in the I-formation. Hickson also worked out of both and appears to be very solid. In fact, OU might play all three at times this year.
"I think that all three of those guys are going to play this year, but we hope to use a similar formula that worked for us last year," said OU running back coach Cale Gundy. "Because we were able to spell ‘Q' with KeJuan in the I-formation, ‘Q' was fresh at the end of the year. He was so fresh that we were able to ride him in the Big 12 Championship game and in the Rose Bowl. With Renaldo and KeJuan splitting time and Donta getting a few carries as well, we feel we will have a couple of running backs who will be fresh at the end of the year."
Senior Jerad Estus left the team for one practice in the spring, but returned on the advice of the Sooner coaches. The Sooner coaches love Estus and they didn't want him to leave the team with only a week left in spring practice. To Estus' credit he worked his tail off the remaining two practices and played well in the spring game, but it appears he still plans to leave the program after this semester. Estus is looking to find some playing time at a smaller program and he would leave with the coaches blessing.
Fullback J.D. Runells had an excellent spring and his role in the offense has been expanded. Runells will see more playing time in the backfield next year and he will get a few carries every game. Also look for the Sooners to throw the ball to Runells out of the backfield, much like they did in the spring game when he's scored the only offensive touchdown.
The Sooners have recruited three excellent freshman running backs, but they will be hard pressed for any of them to see playing time.
The Sooners coaches expect their quarterbacks will be playing well and the running game will be better, because the offense has diversified enough to make things more difficult for the defenses to stop Oklahoma in the fall.
"I think as much as anything the diversity in the offensive line and its development and improvement will give us a chance for our running game to be better next season," said Bob Stoops. "We have added a lot to our offense this year with more motion, more formations and different looks, and that will help our running game as well and our overall offense as well."
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