Recruiting Recap: OU fills needs and then some

In the first of two installments, James Hale takes a look at how Oklahoma's defensive class was formed before signing day

Another recruiting season is in the bag and once again Bob Stoops and the Sooner coaching staff has proven they can match recruiting skills with any school in the country. For the second straight year the Sooners hauled in a top ten recruiting class, ranked as high as fourth and as low as 13th.

The low ranking was provided by ESPN's Tom Lemming, who seems to be so misled about the OU class that we are going to throw it out and give OU a low of number eight in the country. I guess OU doesn't subscribe to Mr. Lemming's material, or maybe it's the fact that they are not located up north, or maybe it's because they are not Notre Dame or just maybe it is because it seems that Texas Longhorn skipper Mack Brown has Lemming in his hip pocket. Whatever the reason, Mr. Lemming is so dramatically off base concerning the OU class that we have to assume that he went on vacation and an imposter did the Sooner ranking, so we tossed it out. It is really for Mr. Lemming's own good that we treated it this way, because this way his credibility remains intact.

The Sooners went into the recruiting season in desperate state at linebacker, defensive end and in the offensive line. Speed is always a priority in the OU recruiting class and OU needed to get bigger with this class. OU concentrated primarily in Texas signing nine athletes and Oklahoma, where they inked five. The Sooners also reaffirmed their status as a national recruiting school bringing in athletes from nine different states. The Sooners hit the road and signed three from California, two from Florida and one each from Colorado, Louisiana, Missouri, Montana and North Carolina.

OU was a popular recruiting school this season as many athletes listed OU just so their recruiting resume would look good. This also allowed the Sooners to get involved with a number of athletes, who just two years ago would not have given the Sooners the time of day.

On signing day Oklahoma inked 22 athletes, but signed 24 overall as junior college stars Pasha Jackson and Lance Mitchell signed early and were already enrolled at OU.

"The good thing about this group is that we filled our needs and once again concentrated on speed," said OU Head Coach Bob Stoops. "This group can really run and even our big guys move very well. Most of our guys are multi-sport guys and some could have earned scholarships in other sports."

"Our skills guys are fantastic. In DaBryan Blanton, OU signed the fastest 17-year old in the country and he is not the only one that can run. We added two quarterbacks to our roster that are very talented and fit our system perfectly. We couldn't be happier with our class."

At linebacker the Sooners had to have great patience, because at times throughout the recruiting process it seemed the Sooners were bombing on their top recruits. The Sooners quickly got involved with Aaron Harris of North Mesquite, Texas, Garnett Smith of Arlington Lamar, Texas, Marvin Byrdsong of Longview, Texas, Nate Harris of Miami Madison, Florida and Scott White of San Diego Mission Bay, California. Aaron Harris was the top inside linebacker in Texas, Byrdsong wasn't far behind and Smith was the top outside. Nate Harris was a top 20 player in Texas and White was drawing tremendous attention in California.

OU got off to a great start at linebacker scoring big early as middle linebacker Wayne Chambers of Grandview, Missouri took all of his visits in the summer and fell in love with Norman before July was over.

Oklahoma would sign three more linebackers, but none would be easy and at times it appeared that OU was going to fall way short of their goals at linebacker. By December the Sooners had struck out with Harris and Smith, both picking the Texas Longhorns over the Sooners.

Smith was terribly frustrating because he committed to OU twice, but the problem was that he also committed to Arkansas and Texas as well, before finally deciding on the Longhorns. His parents wanted him to be a Longhorn and thus he will. Harris admitted that he liked Oklahoma, but he grew up a Texas fan and in reality, the Sooners didn't have a chance. Byrdsong had a great interest in OU, but the Sooners realized he couldn't qualify and they knew they had to look in another direction.

By November, the Sooners didn't have a great chance at Nate Harris either and already the Sooners were scouting other linebackers. Fortunately for them, other great linebackers still had an interest in OU.

The Sooners also received a visit from Kai Parham of Virginia Beach, Virginia. Parham may be the best LB prospect in the country, but the Sooners did well to just get a visit out of Parham, because they really had no chance.

At San Francisco City College, two All-Americans were leading their squad to their second straight National Title and both were interested in OU. OU Co-Defensive Coordinator and linebacker coach Brent Venables took the recruitment of the two on himself and put together a very creative and solid plan together to sign them.

As Jackson and Mitchell started taking visits in late November, Oklahoma looked very good for signing both. By mid-December Jackson was in the bag and Mitchell looked close. However, Mitchell scheduled a last minute visit to Florida, but the Gators didn't appear to be a threat. The Gators had hardly paid Mitchell any attention and they never really came up in any conversation with Mitchell.

However, by the time he returned from Gainesville, Florida the Sooners had a big, big problem. It wasn't so much that Mitchell had fallen in love with the Florida program, but had become very fond of the Southeast Conference. Mitchell came back smitten with what he felt was the best college football conference in the land and the fact he would play at Florida and inside that conference was good enough for him. In one shocking development OU was knocked out by a conference, that wasn't as good as the one they were playing in, and by a school that had already recruited the best junior college linebacker in the country for a week.

Please tell me that recruiting isn't whacky!

During the mad recruiting race for the JUCO stars, Venables learned of another speed linebacker in Baton Rouge, Louisiana through a reporter who casually mentioned that Rufus Alexander was still looking around. The name of the reporter is still a mystery, but we know he is not related to Bean Bag in anyway and he is a friend of Who could that masked reporter be?

Venables didn't waste any time and quickly caught the next flight from Dallas to Baton Rouge. Alexander and his guardian/coach David Barham liked Venables first sales pitch so much that a visit was set that night. OU had jumped into the picture almost overnight were locked into a battle with Texas.

OU had several things going for them this time in their battle with the Longhorns. Texas had already had commitments from Smith, who was the best in the Lone Star State, and who played the same position as Alexander. Plus Alexander wasn't really a big city guy and Norman was closer than Austin. Most of all, Venables was working for Oklahoma, which would turn out to be a key factor in this recruiting race.

Once Alexander visited Norman he was hooked on the Sooners. This reporter knew that he was a commitment, but Alexander wasn't going to announce it publicly. I posted as confidently as I could that Alexander was going to be a Sooner so that those on this site would know the facts. Other sites doubted us and many copied us, but in the end those on knew the real scoop.

The most amazing thing happened while Alexander was silently climbing on board with the Sooners. The Sooners got lucky!

Mitchell was already going to class and already working out with the Florida football team when he learned that he was not eligible to play in the Southeast Conference. The Gators had dropped the ball on this one as they failed to check all the academic avenues to see if all of Mitchell's JUCO credits could transfer. Mitchell's credits were fine to graduate from San Francisco City College, but they weren't good enough to transfer into Florida University because had one English course that the Southeast Conference would not accept.

In a matter of moments, Mitchell was on the phone to his good friend Pasha Jackson and Jackson was on the phone with Venables, who ironically was watching Alexander at basketball practice. So, while Venables was in Baton Rouge making sure everything was OK with Alexander, he was on the cell phone with Mitchell and OU's academic people seeing if Mitchell could transfer his credits to get in at OU and the Big 12 Conference. When the answer was yes, Oklahoma's top defensive recruit was on a plane out of Gainesville and headed to Norman.

Publicly, Alexander made it look like he was sweating over his decision, but in reality he had committed two weeks earlier. Alexander wanted to play for Venables and he wanted to fulfill that possibility.

Thus, in an amazing two weeks, the Sooners turned around a desperate situation at linebacker into one of the nations best crews. Sure they were a little lucky, but as always the Sooner coaching staff handled every situation perfectly and when Mitchell got the bad news at Florida he knew exactly where he wanted to go. If Venables had made one wrong move, even when he lost Mitchell to Florida, OU would have never got him back on the rebound. If Venables didn't cross all his T's and dot his I's then Alexander never picks the Sooners over the Longhorns.

One thing that always comes across with the OU coaching staff is that they are a class group that the parents and players a lot enjoy dealing with more than any other staff. That certainly was the case with Jackson, Mitchell, Alexander and Chambers, and they way the coaching staff handled each situation was the key factor in the Sooners signing one of the top linebacker classes in the country.

Defensive Ends
Defensive end is another position where the Sooners missed out on some high profile players, but now that the smoke has cleared they feel they ended up with a great group.

Many feel that Zac Latimer of Aurora Gateway, Colorado is one of the top three defensive end prospects in the country.

Calvin Thibodeaux of Houston Westbury, Texas and Larry Birdine of Lawton (Eisenhower), Oklahoma were not highly rated national guys, but as their senior seasons went along they grabbed more and more attention.

Thibodeaux and Birdine are similar players in that they don't possess blazing speed, but they seem to run fast enough on the football field to make play after play. That sounds like Cory Heinecke to me. Both play with fast motors and a mean aggression that makes them stand out on the field. Both tackle very well.

The Sooners lost out on a couple of defensive ends that everybody in the country was recruiting. We got to know Larry Dibbles of Lancaster, Texas very well and I developed a very good relationship with him. A tremendous talent, Dibbles has the size of a defensive tackle, but the speed to play defensive end.

If Dibbles was born in any other state but Texas, OU would have signed him. However, Dibbles was Texas born and Texas loyal despite a tremendous fondness for OU. The Sooners really never had a chance.

"The only negative against Oklahoma was that it was not in Texas," said Dibbles on signing day. "I loved Oklahoma and the coaches at Oklahoma, but the more I thought about my decision the more I realized that I wasn't going to leave the state of Texas. I can honestly say if Oklahoma had been located anywhere in Texas I would have probably gone there, but I wasn't going to cross that border. UT is a great school and a school that I have always liked. It's a great choice for me and now I have to look forward to playing Oklahoma in the Red River Battle, and I can't wait. I know Oklahoma will be great, but I think we are going to be a great as well."

Dibbles will be interesting to watch over the next few years, because many feel he will be a defensive end after his first year in college. He is already so big that most project him as a defensive tackle.

Michael Williams of Lindale, Texas is more of the prototype defensive end the Sooners recruited and they almost had Williams many times! He committed to OU at least six times during the recruiting process only to decommit an hour later or the next day.

To say that Williams was one of the most perplexing and frustrating recruits Bob Stoops and company have recruited since they arrived is an understatement!

Sure, young men have changed their minds before after committing to OU and Williams won't be last, but I have not seen a player yet that could seem so committed and solid one minute to only find out that he was saying just the opposite a couple of hours later.

I have been taking a lot of heat from Texas fans because in one of my 100 posts I have written about Williams, I said that he lied to OU and to this reporter on a number of occasions. Texas fans state that I was out of line with my statements, especially when dealing with an 18-year old athlete. They say that I was too harsh in my statement and that I was taking pot shots at him just because he signed with Texas.

None of that garbage could be further from the truth. I realize that I can't win with Texas fans no matter what I said, but I ask in this case what would you call the recruiting process for Williams?

We could say that he fibbed, was confused, mixed up, to young to make this decision, was flippant, was inexperienced dealing with the media and college coaches, didn't tell the truth, couldn't tell anybody no and all of those would have been true. Just like stating that he lied was true.

I want to point out here that I am not calling Williams a "Liar", which has been expressed by those Texas fans who just look to make trouble. If I call a person a liar I call that person that out of hatred and spite. I am certainly not looking to be mean and I certainly don't want to inflict verbal pain toward that individual. Never in any post I have ever had about a recruit, including Michael Williams, have I called them a liar. However, I have indicated they weren't telling the truth before and I certainly did in this case. There is a total difference in their meaning.

I talked with Williams three different times on my radio show and on each show he either said that he was committed to OU or that he was a soft commitment to OU. On each one of those occasions Williams would then talk to a recruiting service out of Texas later that day and say just the opposite to them. This of course would give those recruiting sites ammunition to say that I wasn't credible and that I was making stuff up. Of course those that listened to my show heard Williams commit to OU, so they heard from his own lips that he was committing to OU.

What is amazing is that each time I became aware that he was telling other recruiting sites that he was not committed to OU and that he was stating that he never said that he was committed to OU, I would contact Williams and ask him what was going on. He would then tell me that he was really still committed to OU and that he was trying to keep the Texas guys off his back. So, he was playing both sides? Again, he wouldn't be the first recruit to play both sides of the fence.

Outside of the radio I interviewed Williams nine other times during the recruiting process, including the day before signing day. On five of those interviews Williams told me that he was committed to OU and said that he had just go off the phone with OU coaches reconfirming that he was committed to the Sooners. Of course, I would then report my interview with Williams only to find out that a few hours later or the next day Williams had said was not committed to OU and that he was committed to Texas.

It was so unbelievable really that when I would hear what he was saying on other sites I would go back and check my audio tapes to make sure that I what I heard on my end was correct.

However, the topper of misinformation came one night when Williams called me from his house and told me that he had just got off the phone with Coach Bob Stoops and that he was going national and telling everybody that he was committing to OU. Sooner assistant Bobby Jack Wright was at his home and his father and brother were signing Boomer Sooner in the background. That sounds like a sure deal, right?

However, during that phone call I asked Williams to come back on my radio show that next morning to talk about his latest commitment and then the next morning he didn't show. Then, you guessed it, that night he told several recruiting sites in Texas that he had never committed to OU and that was an incorrect report.

You have to figure that OU wasn't happy how Williams was handling the situation either, but what could they do about it? They are grown men, and they could handle it if Williams would tell them that he wanted to go to Texas. It wouldn't be the first Texas athlete that would choose Texas and it won't be the last. In fact, they wanted the truth and it wasn't until very late in the recruiting process they felt they learned the truth. I wonder what they thought when they would ask him point blank what he was thinking and then he would commit to them only to find out later that he said to Texas recruiting sites that he wasn't committed to any school and that he was a lean to Texas?

So, for most of the recruiting process OU held a scholarship for Williams and even when they were reading elsewhere that he was headed to Texas, they still had to held a scholarship for him, because he was telling OU that he was going to be a Sooner. Of course, the OU coaches are not dumb and they realized things probably weren't what they seemed, but still they weren't real happy with how things went down either. Of course, they recruited other defensive ends, but still this had to leave a bad taste in their mouth.

Bottom line, in the grand scheme of things this really doesn't matter. Williams signed with the University of Texas and good for him. That is where his heart really was and Texas gets an outstanding prospect at defensive end. However, considering how much publicity my comments have been received on the Texas sites I feel this situation needed to be addressed.

I will say again that throughout the recruiting process I had a very good relationship with Williams. In fact, the day before signing day we wished each other luck in the future and he thanked me for having him on my radio show. However, facts are facts and I ask again how do you interpret his actions?

Was he playing OU? Was he playing this reporter? Was it a joke? Was he lying to OU? Was he lying to me? Was he just confused? Was he truly torn between the two schools, or was it Texas all the way? Why would he tell this reporter one thing and then a Texas recruiting site something different?

To be honest, Williams can do as he wants and I don't hold anything against him. I am not mad at Williams, because he is not the first recruit that was confused or told a fib to a reporter or coach. However, I have never seen a case like this where literally the athlete was doing a complete 180 just hours after saying one thing to OU or to this reporter, and he does several times over.

I have reported on this story a million different ways this past year and only in one post did I mention that Williams lied to OU and certainly lied to this reporter. I didn't mean it maliciously and wasn't trying to depict Williams in poor taste. I realize that he is a young man and doesn't have a wealth of experience in these situations and I am very sensitive in these issues.

I have also protected Williams on our message boards by defending him against aggressive attacks against him or we have deleted posts that were aggressive against him.

However, because of my post I have been the talk of Texas Longhorn football recently and they have been vicious in their attacks. However, I don't back down from my post or any of my posts that I have written concerning Michael Williams. The facts are the facts and you can take them as you wish.

I did take an aggressive approach on one of my posts, but did I not tell the truth? I have been told that I have no right to say such a negative thing about an 18-year-old-athlete, however was what I said really that that negative? Was it not the truth? Again I didn't say he was a liar and didn't imply that his behavior was bad. I have never implied that he was a bad person. I never implied that Williams is a rotten guy. I never did that. I just pointed out in one post that he lied to OU and this reporter. That doesn't mean that I think Williams is a bad person and in fact I think just the opposite.

Out of all the Texas fans taking shots at me, none of them know Williams as much as I do. In fact, 95 percent of them have never talked to him at all or even met him once. It was a Texas fan or the webmaster of the Texas site that posted the headline that I called Williams a liar, and yet I never used such a strong word.

This is life on the Internet and this is one reason why many people in my profession won't work message boards. Many journalists and reporters will write stories for websites and even do a chat every once in a while, but they don't want to work message boards, because they have no idea who they are dealing with it. We are the only one's posting our real names and we are in an unfair advantage in struggles such as these. This has been an eye opening experience for me and it hasn't been enjoyable.

What I learned about the Internet is that depending on what team you root for you may not want to the truth on certain subjects. However, I stand behind each statement that I made and I have facts to back it up. Don't kill the messenger, as the messenger just reports what is reported to him.

Defensive Backs
In the secondary the Sooners hauled in one of the top recruiting classes in the country. According to some recruiting services, the Sooners signed four All-American's and no other team in the country signed as many.

The only player of note the Sooners really missed out on was free safety prospect Vickiel Vaughn of Plano (West) Texas. Family ties proved too tough for the Sooners to overcome and Vaughn inked with Arkansas instead.

Vaughn's father is good friends with Arkansas Head Coach Houston Nutt and his sister is on scholarship with the Arkansas volleyball team.

The Sooners tried to recruit Leon Washington out of Jacksonville (Andrews) Florida, and did get a visit out of the Florida flash. However, they never really had a chance as Washington didn't want to leave Florida and he signed with Florida State.

All-American A.J. Davis of Durham (Northern), North Carolina talked to OU, but never really gave OU a serious look.

No problem, the Sooners landed two of the top cornerbacks in the country in Michael Hawkins of Carrollton (Turner), Texas and Aaron Miller of Fresno (Edison), California.

Hawkins' story is tragic and the fact he has overcome growing up without his parents to sign with a quality program like OU is heartwarming.

Hawkins has lived with various families throughout his high school career and he didn't start playing football until his junior year. However, at OU's summer camps he proved he had star qualities and the Sooners offered him on the spot. Oklahoma and Hawkins meshed early and there was never any doubt that Hawkins was going to be a Sooner.

Miller was a different story, and only some precision recruiting earned the Sooners the signature on signing day. Miller has been one of the best in California the past couple of years. In the recent California-Florida All-Star game Miller was named the Defensive Player of the Game.

Once Miller visited OU he was hooked on the Sooners. His grandmother was on the visit as well and things looked cool for OU. However, once he returned home the hometown teams (USC and UCLA) hit him and his family hard about distance and opportunity following graduation.

Sooner Offensive Coordinator Chuck Long was the point man in this recruiting operation and he, along with Head Coach Bob Stoops and Co-Defensive Coordinator Mike Stoops, played every card correct in landing Miller. If they had made one mistake or mishandled one situation Miller would have stayed on the coast and gone to USC.

However, the Sooners had a great feel on when to push and when not to push Miller. Miller's grandmother was really worried about the distance factor and that issue was becoming a negative issue for the Sooners. OU had every other angle covered, but what could they say about distance? Distance is distance.

The hook was that Aaron really wanted to be a Sooner and he was showing great patience as signing day approached. Thus, the Sooners showed great patience as well by answering every question with compassionate answers and never did OU push the situation. That won the signature of Miller.

In December the Sooners earned the verbal of Brodney Poole of Houston (Westbury), Texas and he may be the steal of the class. Poole wasn't well-known during preseason recruiting, but after intercepting 11 passes during his senior year Poole earned All-American honors. The first time the Sooners saw Poole on film, they knew he was a great one and they were one of the first schools to offer him. Poole committed early and despite a slight scare from LSU, he was pretty solid during the recruiting process.

As it turns out Jenks, Oklahoma safety Jason Carter was pretty solid as well. Carter has been a life long OU fan and committed to OU in December. He had been a heavy lean to OU since the summer and it was no surprise that he was going to OU.

It was surprising when he took visits to OSU, Tulsa and Arkansas in January. It was hard to figure why such an Oklahoma fan would risk a scholarship at OU to take visits to other school. Carter talked noise that he was worried about playing time at OU, that they wouldn't let him play safety and that he also wanted to play safety and OU didn't want him to.

Was Carter serious about OSU and these other schools? I really don't think so and a week before signing day Carter said he was just playing with the media. Carter never decommitted from OU so I would have to agree with him.

Defensive linemen
OU only signed one defensive tackle, but he is the talented Davin Joseph out of Hallandale, Florida. Joseph is a tremendous athlete and is also the Florida heavyweight wrestling champ and is currently ranked as the seventh best high school heavyweight in the country.

Once again OU assistant Jackie Shipp was brilliant in his recruiting effort of Joseph. Shipp has the amazing ability to become instant friends with those that he recruits and their parents. They start trusting him immediately and despite Shipp's straight-forward nature with them he gets closer to his recruits than most assistant coaches do.

Shipp was recruiting two athletes in Florida in Joseph and Kareem Brown of Miami (Norland), Florida. Both cases were unique in their own right.

Joseph was a dominant performer on both sides of the ball and in fact, dominated Manuel Wright of Long Beach Poly, California in the California-Florida all-star game as an offensive lineman. However, Joseph wants to play defensive tackle and he was dealing with the right coach from Oklahoma in that regard. Shipp liked Joseph's potential at defensive tackle and had no problem promising Joseph that he would get every opportunity to play defensive tackle at OU.

Joseph was different than most Florida prep stars in that he didn't want to stay in state, despite great programs at Florida, Florida State and Miami in the area. He had offers from all three schools, but wanted to go out of state.

Joseph visited OU early and that visit won the recruiting battle. From that point on every school was being compared to OU and they weren't matching up. OU had a solid lead from day one and once signing day approached Joseph appeared to waiver a little. His decision came down to OU and Michigan State, and Joseph's high school coached had close ties with Michigan State. However, Joseph's tie with Shipp and Oklahoma's commitment to play him at defensive tackle won him over.

The Sooners weren't so lucky with Brown, but it wasn't because Shipp and OU didn't do a good job. In fact, if OU had been in Florida Brown would have been a Sooner. Brown thought long and hard about leaving Florida, but in the end couldn't.

Brown didn't play football his senior year, because of transfer rules, yet he was still ranked as one of the top forty players in the country. A big defensive end with speed, Brown is a rare talent that has size and speed at defensive end. Both Miami and Florida wanted him, while Oklahoma was his top choice out of state.

Shipp and Sooner Head Coach Bob Stoops won over Kareem and his mom. When Stoops and Shipp visited Brown together Kareem's mom served up a full serving of various Cuban food that I am told was out of this world. When the Sooner coaches left Kareem said that his mom was totally taken with them and that they were the best coaches that she met throughout the recruiting process.

OU had Kareem won over and his mom, but OU is not in Florida. Mom didn't want to travel that far to watch her son play, thus he signed with Florida.

The recruiting of both Florida athletes was another prime example of OU working the recruiting process the right way. They couldn't overcome distance with Brown, but recruited both Brown and Joseph perfectly and pushed all the right buttons.

My next report will deal with players on the offensive side of the ball.

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