SPRING RECAP: Red/White Game Locker Room Report

Bob Stoops, Chuck Long, Jason White, Jammal Brown, Cale Gundy, Darrell Wyatt, Kevin Wilson, Lance Mitchell and Brent Venables break down the Sooners spring and Red/White game. OU's tight ends, including James Moses (pictured left), were one of the most improved positions this spring. (Photo by Lisa Hall)

NORMAN, Okla. — To say that the spring was anything but a tremendous success would be an understatement.

The Sooners went into the Red/White game looking to protect Heisman winning quarterback Jason White, to give back-up Paul Thompson some confidence, develop a tight end game, and to get more aggressive and more physical in the offensive line. Re-establishing a running game was also a must. On defense, OU needed to find a short-side corner, two linebackers and depth at defensive tackle.

From all accounts, it appears the Sooners met most of their goals, and the ones they didn't meet it appear, there was great competition from among some very talented players who will eventually settle all the questions.

The Sooners will go into double sessions still looking to beef up their running game, looking to get more physical in the offensive line and looking to decide on a short-side corner. That doesn't mean, however, that OU won't be a contender next year to win the Big 12 Championship and the National Championship.

"The spring went exactly as we hoped that it would," said OU Head Coach Bob Stoops. "Nobody got hurt this spring and I think we were able to develop a number of young players this spring. We have recruited well and I think it showed this spring."

QUARTERBACK
The Red/White game proved that Paul Thompson has made tremendous strides and has put himself into a different atmosphere as a Sooner signal caller. In throwing for 311 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions, Thompson is now too good to be put in 'mop' roles next season.

"Paul has certainly proven to us that he has developed into such a talented quarterback that we no longer feel he should be put into mop-up situations for us next year," said OU Head Football Coach Bob Stoops. "It is no secret that we are considering redshirting him next season and what will probably happen is that we will work him as the No. 2 quarterback, but not play him unless we have a major injury to Jason White in a game where we need Paul to win the game. At this time we are leaning towards not playing Paul, unless it is absolutely necessary to win the game and not put him in mop-up situations late in the game, where we are just trying to run out the clock anyway."

This means that redshirt freshman Tommy Grady would get those mop-up roles next year and would come into a game where the Sooners are up by 21 points, but without an injured White for the second half. The OU coaches feel Grady has improved and he was one of the pleasant surprises of the spring.

"Tommy had a great spring and showed us that he can read defenses and take command in the huddle," said OU Offensive Coordinator Chuck Long. "It goes without saying how well he throws the football, but it is the intangibles of playing quarterback where he needs to develop. He needs to continue to develop, but he made major strides in this area in the spring."

While White didn't participate in team drills this spring, he still managed to improve a great deal.

"For the first time since his first knee injury Jason is going to go into the summer and two-a-days healthy," said Long. "He will be the healthiest he has been since the knee injuries and this will give him a great attitude and ability to work in the summer and going into double sessions. This is going to be a big plus for Jason this upcoming season."

White did all he could trying to talk the coaches into letting him play in the spring game, but Coach Stoops and Long wouldn't go for it. But White gave it the old college try anyway.

"I tried to sneak into the game a couple of times, but it didn't work," said a smiling White after the game. "I didn't figure they would let me, but let everybody know that I could have played and I feel good right now."

So White is healthy and ready to get after it this summer. Paul Thompson has improved to the point that he is now to good not to redshirt, and Tommy Grady has showed to the coaches that he is farther along than they thought before Rhett Bomar — the nations top prep quarterback — will be in Norman in early June. Now, how is it that the Sporting News did not rank the OU quarterbacks No. 1 in the country?

RUNNING BACK
This is still a position that is up for grabs, but I think we know the contenders.

KeJuan Jones was the best running back in the spring, but he didn't have a good spring game. He didn't have much of an opportunity and he didn't get many carries, as the OU coaches wanted to look at the other running backs. You know that Donta Hickson will be in the mix, but you don't get the feeling he is every going to be the man.

Tashard Choice showed good speed on one carry in the spring game and he proved to the OU coaches this entire spring that he can be a very good running back. True freshman D.J. Wolfe also proved that he can be a special player in the long run.

Courtney Tennial is still intriguing to the OU coaching staff because of his size, speed and power. He had some good runs this spring, and the same can be said of Jacob Gutierrez.

"I had a number of guys that I took a good look at this spring," said OU Running Back Coach Cale Gundy. "We have a good stable of running backs. I know, as a staff, we are going to meet and separate a few of them and determine who will start to give more reps to in the fall.

"KeJuan had a great spring and he is going to play for us. Donta is a solid back that we can count on and we like the talents of Tashard Choice. Then we have all the other young running backs and they certainly showed us they have talent. We can't play them all and they understand that, and we know they are all going to continue to play hard."

Of course, the Sooners are set at fullback with J.D. Runnels, who did not play in the spring game because of a sore shoulder that he suffered on a touchdown catch in the Sooners mini-scrimmage the Wednesday before. Runnels had a great spring, but at the moment it is not clear who is back-up is going to be.

If the Sooners played tomorrow Dan Townsend would still be the back-up, but the Sooners don't have to play tomorrow and that gives Dane Zaslaw the summer and two-a-days to try to win the job.

OFFENSIVE LINE
This spring the primary goal of the OU coaching staff was to develop some depth, especially at offensive tackle.

OU is set in the front five with Wes Sims and Jammal Brown at tackles, Davin Joseph and Kevin Chaisson at guard and Vince Carter at center. Carter missed all of spring with a surgically repaired knee and his back-up (Chris Bush) missed several practices with an injured back. That forced the development of former tight end Chris Chester at center and gave walk-on John Flynn a chance to work there as well. Both struggled with the snap, but Chester is real talent and will be a factor at either center or guard for the Sooners either as a back-up player or part-time player. Don't be shocked to see Chester also in the two tight end set on goal-line situations next fall.

But the big question this spring is just how far did Chris Messner and Akim Millington develop as the back-up offensive tackles?

"They got better this spring, but they are not there yet," said Run Game Coordinator and offensive line coach Kevin Wilson. "Both competed well and I think they made strides in learning how to compete every day. They need to get mature enough to not take any days off, I think both got to the point that they were competing everyday. I think both are closer to being good players for us, but right now we still don't know if they are going to be the guys or not.

"I think it was a good spring for Brett Rayl at guard. He learned how to compete and got a little fire in his belly. Before Chris (Bush) got hurt he was having a good spring for us and J.D. Quinn, who is fresh out of high school, showed us that he is not afraid to compete. Antonn Reid was injured a great deal of the spring, but we still feel he can play for us.

"We had a good spring. It wasn't a great spring, but it was OK and we made some strides."

Brown made a decision to return to OU for his senior instead is taking his chances in the NFL draft, and he still feels good about his decision.

"Oh yeah, there is no question that I made the right decision," said Brown. "It was a tough decision for me, but I know that I still have a lot to work on. Coach Wilson is working hard with me and I am going to work as hard as I can to be the best player that I can be."

TIGHT END
This is the most improved position on the team. One of the main goals of the spring was to re-establish the tight end position in the offense, both in the run and passing game. Obviously, the improvement shows up more in the passing game, but the tight ends played a major role in the Sooner run game as well.

"I thought our tight ends had a good spring at the point of attack and they certainly showed they can catch the ball," said Long. "We wanted to introduce them back into our offense this spring and I certainly think we did that. Bubba Moses had a great spring both as a receiver and a blocker. Joe John Finley certainly showed us that he can be a big play receiver and Willie Roberts also made some great plays in the passing game. We are real happy with our tight ends and feel that position is going to be a good one for us this spring."

Don't be surprised if the Sooners find a way to play all three tight ends next season, and certainly don't be surprised if one of them is not among the top two in receiving.

WIDE RECEIVER
Coming out of the spring this is a tremendous position of strength for the Sooners. OU has as many as six players who could be considered starters and they have two rookies that proved that they are not far behind them.

"I thought Brandon Jones had the best spring of his career and he really worked hard for us," said Wide Receiver Coach Darrell Wyatt. "This was the first spring that Brandon didn't play baseball and his work ethic was tremendous. He was unstoppable at times this spring and we think he took a major step forward.

"We held Mark Clayton out of some, but we couldn't keep him out of as much as we wanted because he wouldn't hear of it. Mark is one of the best wide receivers in the country and that certainly didn't change this spring. Will Peoples was healthy and he had a great spring for us, and so did JeJuan Rankins, who scored two touchdowns for us in the spring game."

"Travis Wilson was having his best spring before he broke his finger, and it was too bad that Mark Bradley missed the spring with knee surgery," Wyatt continued. "Those six guys will make up our main wide receiver core next year, but we feel very comfortable that if we had to play our freshmen Tristen Ross or Marcus Johnson they would step up and be very good players for us.

"I have to also say that Ataleo Ford and David Robinson have both had good springs for us as well. We have a deep, experienced wide receiver core that we feel will be on of the best in the country."

The Sporting News agrees with Coach Wyatt, as they ranked the Sooners No. 1 in the nation at wide receiver. This is a group that will also contribute a great deal to the Sooners= special team effort, as Bradley will hold on field goals and is an outstanding gunner on both the punt return and punt teams. Peoples also is an excellent gunner on both of those units, and you can look for Ross to play a big role on the Sooner special team units.

All of these players work hard in the summer, but this summer will be extremely important for Bradley. Bradley has more raw talent than any other wide receiver on the team, and since he missed the spring he will have to use the summer to work on his game.

DEFENSIVE END
This was another position of strength on the OU football team this spring. The Sooners have never been as deep as they are now at defensive end, and they have never had as many good players as they have now. In Dan Cody and Jonathan Jackson, the Sooners have two defensive ends that could be All-American's, and who should land in the NFL draft next year.

Heading into the spring Larry Birdine was considered the Sooners third defensive end, but that now may have changed with the outstanding spring for junior Calvin Thibodeaux.

"I think Calvin Thibodeaux was one of our best players period this spring," said Co-Defensive Coordinator and linebacker coach Brent Venables. "He has become a bigger, stronger football player and his work ethic really picked up this spring. Calvin has showed us that he has the ability to rush the passer, and those guys are hard to find. He will play a great deal for us this fall."

After a slow start, Birdine finished on a strong note and there still may not be a player who is put together as well as Birdine. Laenar Nixon is undersized and still learning how to play defensive end, but also had a strong final two weeks and he put together and outstanding spring game.

Alonzo Dotson missed the spring game and the final week of practice with mono, but until he fell ill was playing well. John Williams was also playing well, but at this point it doesn't look as if either player can crack the two deep on the depth chart. However, they have still shown that they can be quality starters in the future.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE
The big question going into the spring was which redshirt freshmen would emerge to join Jackie Shipp's four-man rotation.

All-American candidate Dusty Dvoracek took the role of team leader this spring and there was not a better football player on the field. Lynn McGruder was thrust into a starting role and had his best spring as a Sooner. Those two positions are set and the final two will come from the ranks of Lawrence Dampeer, Steven Coleman, Carl Pendleton and junior college transfer Remi Ayodele.

Dampeer, who was dominant at the point of attack, needs to get just as busy in the classroom, but there is no mistaking his incredible talent. Dampeer is a potential All-American and a future pro.

Coleman was one of the biggest surprises of the spring. During the off-season he dropped 30 pounds and then worked hard to get his strength back. His quickness surprised all but the OU coaches, and all the talk about him moving to offense has been quieted.

The same can be said about Pendleton. He was having a good camp before the cheerleader nationals, but once he returned he picked it up another notch. Pendleton's best practice may have been in the Red/White scrimmage where he was constantly chasing Grady around the pocket. Pendleton was another rumored to be a future offensive lineman, but at the moment that couldn't be further from the truth.

If Dampeer can learn how to be a complete as a student/athlete he will be in the rotation and with two years of junior college football under his belt. Ayodele will be hard to keep out of the rotation, but Coleman and Pendleton have surprised all thus far, and if they continue to progress they could very easily be factors in the fall.

LINEBACKER
If you were not a Lance Mitchell fan then you definitely should be now. Despite being cleared to practice this spring, Mitchell was not expected to through contact drills. So, the first inside drill the Sooners had there was Mitchell lighting up the offense.

"I can't tell you how much it meant to our defense to have Lance on the field this spring," said Venables. "The doctors cleared him to play, so I left it up to him as to how much he played this spring and how much he played in the spring game. He has earned that right, and while no other linebacker has earned that right, Lance certainly has.

"There he was in our first contact drill lining up as our first guy and the ball is snapped and boom all of his natural instincts take over. Lance explodes into the hole, slides off the blocker and explodes into the running back for a loss. It was as if he had never missed a beat, and in one play he was back into the swing of the things. On that play it was as if our defense took a deep breath, because they all know how important he is to our team. And in one play, they knew that he was back."

Mitchell had a great spring and played very well in the spring game, but he knows that he still has some work to do.

"I was OK this spring, but just OK," said Mitchell. "I am still not all the way back and it is mainly because my conditioning is so bad. I get tired and when I get tired I make mental mistakes. Now I will be able to really get after it, and by the time that two-a-days role around I will be back to 100 percent."

Another big surprise of the spring was the emergence of Clint Ingram as the strong-side linebacker position. Coach Venables has always bragged on Ingram's athletic ability and his ability to strike. Ingram struggled with all the assignments at middle linebacker, thus the move to the SAM, allowed him to just play and not worry so much about making calls.

The real battle at the SAM was for the back-up linebacker job where Demarrio Pleasant turned it on the second half of the spring to return to great prospect status among the linebackers. Pleasant is the odds-on-favorite to push Russell Dennison back to special teams demon and third team SAM linebacker.

Another great surprise the spring was the emergence of Zach Latimer as the back-up middle linebacker. OU has been trying to find a position for Latimer, and finally this spring he found one. Now he may be the future at middle linebacker for the Sooners.

Latimer will have to continue to work to hold off junior Wayne Chambers in the double sessions. Chambers was banged up some this spring, but during the final two weeks when he was healthy, he proved that he was an excellent player. Redshirting is also a possibility for Chambers.

Everybody is always trying to write off senior Gayron Allen as a starter and he just won't go away. Thank goodness he won't because nobody had more tackles for losses last year than Allen when filling in for Mitchell. At the beginning of spring, sophomore Rufus Alexander and redshirt freshman Lewis Baker were the odds-on-favorites to start at the all important WILL linebacker position. However, both are young and struggled with assignments.

Enter Allen, who is the most fundamentally sound football player on the Sooner team. After a week-and-a-half of spring, Allen was moved to the WILL and he owned it the rest of the way. Now Alexander and Baker are batting for the back-up job and that position is to close too call. Baker's main job is to gain weight and strength his summer, while Alexander will continue to work to gain all his speed back form his ACL tear.

One thing is for certain, the linebacker core has quality depth. And if the young players continue to learn the defense, this group could once again be one of the best in the country.

SECONDARY
For most of the spring junior Eric Bassey was one of the best players on the field and a certain starter at the short-side corner. However, in a perfect example of how important sometimes the Red/White game can be, Bassey's performance has kept the door open heading into the summer and two-a-days.

Antonio Perkins is the certain starter at the wide-side corner, but he needs to work hard this summer to perfect his game. Jowahn Poteat has established himself at the back-up to Perkins, but he had the best spring among the corners and will also be given a look on the other side come August. Out of all the corners Poteat made the most strides this spring and now the OU coaches believe he can be a winning football player.

Darrien Williams had a solid spring, and despite some growing pains at corner as a redshirt freshman, he has the OU coaches high on his abilities. Williams could still move to safety eventually, but for the moment he is a big, physical corner that loves to compete.

Finally, you have junior college All-American Chijioke Onyenegecha who proved he had a lot of guts by playing on a surgically repaired hamstring at 75 percent. However, Onyenegecha proved that he was a competitor not missing any time due to the injury and showing time and time again that he will hit somebody. If Onyenegecha can get back to 100 percent over the summer, he can still be a factor in the fall and still eventually win a starting position.

At safety, OU feels that Brodney Pool has a chance to win the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back this upcoming year. Pool will be the best Sooner safety since Roy Williams and All-American honors should come his way this year. He will team with Donte Nicholson to form one of the best safety combos in the country. Both are future pros and both are ballhawks and excellent tacklers.

There is a tremendous battle for the third safety with sophomore Jason Carter and redshirt freshman Tony Cade. Cade is the more physical of the two and the better physical specimen. However, Carter has great speed and will hit you as well. Both were highly recruited coming out of high school and heading into double sessions this one is too tough to call.

It doesn't appear that either will be used as the nickel back anyway, as big play specialist Brandon Shelby appears to have nailed down that spot, so Cade and Carter are battling to see who might play when the Sooners go to the dime package. Both Carter and Cade will line up with the second unit at safety.

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