NORMAN, Okla. — Less than 12 hours after completing their first workout of the 2003 season, the Oklahoma football team returned to the practice field Thursday morning.
If you think the Sooners caught a break by starting practice at 8:30 a.m. think again. OU worked out in shorts, jerseys, shoulder pads and helmets with the heat index reaching as high as 105 degrees.
But still, the Sooners appeared to be at full strength with no noticeable players absent from practice. Sophomore running back Kejuan Jones, who was carted off on Wednesday after suffering from cramps, was also back on the field at full strength this morning.
OU Head Coach Bob Stoops got his second chance to see his true freshmen in action and had high praise for the rookies after practice.
"We have a very good group of freshmen," said Stoops. "They are tremendous athletes and we have some players who are going to be able to help us right away."
One freshmen who is already making a run at the two-deep is offensive lineman Akim Millington. Millington, who received reps as a second team guard and tackle today, drew praise from Stoops.
"Akim Millington is a very mature lineman with outstanding ability," said Stoops. "I think he'll be able to play for us this year."
So who else is Stoops impressed with?
"Tony Cade and Darien Williams in the secondary are also outstanding players. Cade has the size we're looking for in at safety and he will play for us this year," Stoops said. "At wide receiver we're really impressed with Marcus Johnson and Tristen Ross. Tristen is a very mature receiver in how he runs his routes and goes about his business. He doesn't look like a freshmen. Joe John (Finley) has been one of the best surprises at camp. Well, maybe not a surprise, because we knew he could play."
Speaking of Finley, after watching the first two days of practice we it appears that he is ahead junior college transfer Willie Roberts.
This is an example of the importance of how attending the offseason workouts can help a player get a leg up on the competition. Finley was in Norman this summer working out and playing in the 7-on-7 drills, while Roberts was still clearing up his eligibility status. And it has clearly helped Finley so far.
Finley is in better shape, knows the routes, runs them well and catches the ball well. Meanwhile, Roberts seems to be struggling with his conditioning, looks confused sometimes on his routes and has dropped several passes. There is no doubt Roberts is a talent, but it may take a bit longer for him to contribute than expected.
If you forced us to give an ‘MVP for today's practice that honor would have to go to Mark Clayton. Clayton really seems to be establishing himself as OU's go-to receiver and frustrated defensive backs with his moves after the catch this morning. Jejuan Rankins, who is anoter receiver wth the same type of ‘jitterbug' style Clayton possesses, was also very impressive today.
Will Peoples continues his solid play at wide receiver and Travis Wilson looks like he's ready to emerge as a factor. Look for more on why Wilson thinks he'll make a bigger impact this year in today's ‘two minute drill' interview.
At running back it looks like Renaldo Works seemed to be getting more snaps with the first unit over Kejuan Jones. Both players still rotate with the first team offense, but today it was Works who got the first reps and chance to impress. Donta Hickson appears to still be the solid No. 3.
OU has planned since this spring to use fullback J.D. Runnels more and it appears as though that is still going to happen. Runnels was very involved in the offensive gameplan today catching passes and even getting some running plays.
Jason White threw the ball exceptionally well again on Thursday, while backup Paul Thompson had a day of mixed reviews.
It was easy to tell the difference between the two on back-to-back plays this morning. On one play White went through his progressions and found his fourth option (Mark Clayton) for a 12-yard gain on an out-route. As soon as White released the ball OU QB Coach Chuck Long screamed, ‘Great throw J'. But on the very next play, and on the exact same play call, Thompson couldn't read the progression fast enough and threw the same pass out-route pass to his fourth option and it was picked off by freshmen Darien Williams for what would have been a touchdown. As soon as Thompson released the ball Long yelled, ‘No! No! No!'.
Brent Rawls is still running as the fourth team quarterback, and got very little work with the first team. For example, if the first team runs 20 plays White will get 11 reps, Thompson gets 5 and Allen and Rawls each end up with two apiece.
On defense, well, the unit was solid as usual.
Junior defensive lineman Tommie Harris looked to be at full strength, despite some reports that he was limping on Wednesday. Harris had his lower left calve taped, but went through every drill and looked to be explosive and in fine shape.
Darien Williams and Antonio Perkins both picked off passes, while Jowahn Poteat misses an easy interception from a Noah Allen pass that would have went back for a touchdown.
Brandon Everage and Donte Nicholson continue to man the starting spots at safety with Matt McCoy and Michael Thompson backing them up. Tony Cade and Jason Carter backed up McCoy and Thompson. As mentioned above, Stoops thinks Cade can help this year, so it will be interesting to see when he starts making his move up the depth chart.
One of the other positions that OU looked to upgrade in recruiting last year was the punter. True freshmen Cody Freeby struggled in his first practice on Wednesday after the conditioning to open the practice, but showed what he can today. When Blake Ferguson shanks a punt it goes 15 yards, but when Freeby misses it goes 30. Freeby's punts also seem to hook, and backup return man Mark Clayton said Freeby's punts are very difficult to catch for a returner.
On the defensive line, Jonathan Jackson and Dan Cody continued to impress while batting down passes at the line of scrimmage. Larry Birdine also blew up a pass with a knockdown.
All in all, the always positive Bob Stoops was pleased with Thursday morning's workout.
"I'm pretty happy with how things are going," said Stoops. "Jason is throwing the ball around and we're really catching it well. We'll know more about our defense when they start hitting, but you can tell they're very athletic."
NOTE: Friday's practice start time has been changed from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
8/6 Practice Report: Freshmen catch Stoops' eye
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