Flaherty on the Texas Linebackers
When Jordan Hicks suffered his season-ending injury against Ole Miss, it pretty much spelled the death knell for consistency from last year's linebacking corps. Why was Hicks such a huge loss? Consider this: In the Big 12, teams have to employ nickel lineups consistently to keep pace with the proliferation of no-huddle spread attacks. For Texas, that typically means two linebackers on the field at any time. Now, imagine that one of those two linebackers is an All-Big 12 caliber player, and the only linebacker on roster who had taken serious snaps the previous year — Steve Edmond had taken a few here and there, but not consistently — and he becomes especially important. It's a glass half-full versus a glass all empty scenario. When Hicks was in, half of the Longhorns' linebacking corps knew what they were doing (Hicks had 23 tackles and three tackles for loss in two and a half games). When he went out, the Longhorns didn't have any linebackers truly sure of what they were doing themselves, much less knowing enough to direct traffic.
That shouldn't be an issue this year. Texas returns every scholarship linebacker from a year ago, with Hicks joining with Steve Edmond (second on the team in tackles with 103) and Kendall Thompson (fifth on the team with 60 tackles) to add more consistency. But Edmond and Thompson might not be Hicks's co-starters. Dalton Santos dropped 20 pounds from last year and had an excellent spring, pushing Edmond for the starting spot. And Peter Jinkens, who came on late last year, worked with the starting lineup this spring, as did pass-rusher Tevin Jackson. Both bloomed late in the year, with Jinkens starting three of the final four games and Jackson starting the last two. Add in Demarco Cobbs, who missed the spring with an injury, but who logged six starts a year ago, and Texas returns a whopping seven linebackers who started at least a game a year ago. Hicks will add stability, while the others can rotate through depending on the situation … the Longhorns even experimented some with bringing the 260-plus pound Edmond off the edge in passing situations.
This is a group that should play much faster, and more gap-sound, than it did a year ago, a huge key in defensive coordinator Manny Diaz's defense. So whether Texas decides to go with two linebackers, as in nickel, or four, with three linebackers and Edmond playing an edge rusher, the Longhorns should be infinitely better equipped than they were last year.
Flaherty's Edge: Oklahoma
While I think that the Texas linebacking corps will be significantly better — and deeper in quality, than it was a year ago — I'm not sure that's enough to better Oklahoma's backfield group. There's depth in the Sooner backfield, but the main trio of pieces includes a top-half Big 12 running back in Damien Williams, as well as potentially the country's top fullback in Trey Millard, a playmaker at a position not typically prone to playmaking. Add in Blake Bell, who I think will put up big-time numbers in a full-time role while representing a constant run-pass threat, and Oklahoma is pretty much loaded in the backfield.
Helmer on the Oklahoma Running Backs
The Sooners lose Dominique Whaley, but they return a whole lot more. Last year's two leading rushers Williams and Brennan Clay, who together tallied more than 1,500 yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground, are both back and at it again for their senior seasons. Roy Finch is another playmaker at running back that, if the Sooners can find the right way to use the elusive 5-foot-7, 167-pounder, could present some matchup problems for Big 12 defenses. Then, you throw in All-Big 12 fullback Millard, who can beat you both on the ground and as a pass-catching force out of the backfield, and it's truly the complete package. He rushed for less than 200 yards, but Longhorn fans probably remember him most for his rumbling, bumbling, stumbling 73-yard reception, and that's actually where he made most of his hay last season. Millard accumulated 337 receiving yards and four touchdowns before electing to come back for his senior season. All of these guys are legitimate threats for opponents to have to deal with.
Still, there's questions as to another member of the Sooner running back corps. Redshirt freshman Alex Ross could be unleashed this year, and he's a bruiser that could and probably will develop into a big time player in the backfield in future years. At 6-foot-1, 218, he's actually bigger than the physical Williams and so that lends toward him putting a charge in OU's attempt to get back to the more physical ground game. And, as Kevin stated, if you want to extend it beyond all these guys at running back and fullback and include what will be the entire scope of the Sooner running game, Bell presents some serious challenges additionally. He's strong and can and will get tough yards in short-yardage situations as the starting signal caller.
After stating all this, it's important to mention OU has a new offensive line coach in Bill Bedenbaugh, who arrives from West Virginia, and takes over for the departed James Patton and Bruce Kittle. Though OU netted 5.2 yards per carry in 2012, which escalated from recent poor years, head coach Bob Stoops wants more. He wanted so much more that he got rid of a coach that clearly produced on the interior with All-Big 12 linemen and one on the outside who did a lot considering injuries he dealt with. Nonetheless, Bedenbaugh is the man for the job and expected to get it where these backs can bust through holes to exploit Big 12 defenses.
Helmer's Edge: Oklahoma
The main thing to mention here is OU has a stable of running backs that are clearly above average players in the Big 12 and perhaps amongst the best. Williams could rush for 1,000 yards, and Clay really hit his stride when he turned in a game-winning touchdown against Oklahoma State last year. Finch was under-utilized but showed in the spring game he could have a breakout senior year. With the additional running threats of Millard and Bell, it just seems like, given the talent, there is enough multiplicity for the Texas linebackers to have to deal with where the edge would have to go to OU unless they're at the top of their game. Hicks and co. will have their hands full in this matchup.