RECRUITING: Recapping OU's offensive class

James Hale takes a look at how the Sooners 2002 offensive class took shape

OU went into the 2002 recruiting season knowing that they would try to recruit at least one quarterback. It's a given that the Sooners will recruit at least one QB each year, because of the important nature of the position. And when you consider the high profile nature of Oklahoma's signal-caller, it is a position that any number of great athletes would like to play.

The Sooners are now in a position to draw attention from the top quarterbacks in the country. The passing fancy of the Sooner offense is just what most prep signal-callers are looking for and Oklahoma's winning ways also makes the job very attractive. It also doesn't hurt that just two years Oklahoma quarterback's were the talk of college football and the runner-up to the Heisman Trophy.

However, Oklahoma is unique in that they will not recruit off the recruiting list at quarterback, and in fact don't care about a player's reputation. They will recruit a quarterback that fits their system and that is the bottom line.

"It may be hard for our fans to understand, but we may not always go after the top-rated quarterback in the country," said OU Offensive Coordinator and Quarterback Coach Chuck Long. "We will always recruit the best quarterbacks that we can find that fit our system and that isn't always the number one guy on the list. Sure, many times it will be, but if I can find a quarterback that fits our system and has the tools to play quarterback for us then we will recruit him no matter where he is ranked."

"A quarterback for our system has to be intelligent and blessed with knowledge in the passing the game and or the ability to pick up knowledge in the passing game," Long continued. "He needs to have a good arm, but just as important, he needs to have a quick release and be able to execute an entire passing game, not just one faze of it."

This explains why OU never really got into the recruiting hunt for Vincent Young of Houston Madison. Young, according to many, is the nations top run/pass quarterback and early OU was one of his top four schools. In fact, very early in the recruiting process OU was Young's number one choice.

Young is an incredible talent with a rocket arm and tremendous running ability. He isn't polished in the passing game by any means, but he has the talent to be a big-time college throwing quarterback. Every college in the country wanted Young and the Sooners were interested, but they knew they would be locked into a recruiting battle to the very end.

So, Oklahoma had to make a very important decision early and they didn't hesitate. Noah Allen of Pearland, Texas, was not a highly rated quarterback early, but OU looked at 12 different films of Allen and then happened to see him as a junior at a practice. After extensive study OU believed they had found the perfect fit for their system in Allen and fortunately for them Allen liked Oklahoma as much as OU liked him.

Oklahoma offered in the summer and Allen didn't hesitate to accept. It was a perfect fit and was proof positive what Coach Long was talking about in Oklahoma's philosophy for recruiting quarterbacks.

Allen possesses the best fundamentals of any prep quarterbacks the Sooners have recruited the last three years. He threw only one interception this past year and did not take a sack. He didn't take a sack over the last two seasons as his quick release and ability to read the blitz allowed him to get rid of the ball at the very last second. By the time Allen was committed to OU he started to get on the Texas top 100 recruiting lists, and after his banner senior year he was solid on those lists. However, Oklahoma didn't care. They had found a quarterback with talent and who was a perfect fit for their system.
However, to the Sooners good fortune the position wasn't reserved for just Allen. Paul Thompson of Leander, Texas was considered one of the best pure athletes in Texas and one of the top 50 players in state. Thompson was an excellent quarterback at Leander, but most recruiters liked him better as an athlete that they would eventually move to wide receiver or to free safety.

Thompson didn't like that talk and told everybody who would listen that he felt he was a quarterback and wanted a chance to play quarterback on the collegiate level. Bobby Jack Wright has been recruiting a long time and knows a good player when he sees one, and he always knows a diamond-in-the-rough when he sees one. Thompson is not a polished quarterback at this stage, but his upside is as good as any quarterback in the country. And the fact that he would bring a major running threat to the spread was something that Wright thought of right away.

It didn't' take long for Coach Long to be sold on him either and OU knew that with both quarterbacks they had were very good athletes who could eventually move to another position if things didn't work out under center.

Thompson's top two teams were Texas and Oklahoma and early he was a slight lean to the Longhorns. However, the Longhorns said they would not give him a shot at quarterback and recruited Thompson as a wide receiver. OU offered Thompson as a quarterback and have every intension of playing him at quarterback. Thompson could clearly see that and angered the Longhorns with an early committed to OU.

Once again, the OU coaching staff pushed all the right buttons and it paid off. Why not recruit Thompson as a QB? Aren't strong-armed quarterbacks who have the ability to run the rage in the NFL? Didn't Jason White jump-start the OU offense as much with his legs as his arm? Yes to all of the above questions and OU isn't stupid.

In Thompson, they have a quarterback who if he pans out brings a tremendous run/pass dimension to their offense. If it doesn't work out, then in a couple of years the Sooners have a big wide receiver with speed and athletic ability. The wait will be worth it either way!

Offensive Linemen
The fact that OU needed to sign offensive linemen was the worst kept secret in college football. The necessity was lessened when the Sooner coaching staff moved Jammal Brown, Brett Rayl and Chris Bush over to the offensive line at the start of the regular season. That gave the offensive line a tremendous boost in athleticism and young bodies to build toward in the future.

However, depth was still in a critical stage and OU felt they needed to sign at least five quality offensive linemen in the class.

It didn't take long for the Sooners to get commitments from 40 percent of that goal when Texas top 25 talent Jeff Lebby of Andrews, Texas, and Steve Taylor of Purcell both committed at the OU summer camp.

Getting a verbal from Lebby put the Sooners on the national recruiting map for 2002 and it served notice to Texas and Texas A&M that Oklahoma was going to be a serious challenger in the recruiting war in Texas. Lebby was injured at the OU camp and did very little physical activity. However, during that time Lebby, along with his father Mike who was also his high school coach, watched tons of game film and they spent a lot of time with then OU Offensive Coordinator and Offensive Line Coach Mark Mangino. The group hit it off right from the start and by the end of the three-day camp the Lebby family was sold on Mangino and the Sooners and the feeling was mutual.

Taylor came to the OU camp hoping to get noticed and that he did! At 6-foot-7, 310 pounds he was hard to miss and he drew intense attention from the Sooner coaching staff. When the OU coaches really feel a player is a prospect they will pull that player out of camp drills and send him through a number of individual drills. Taylor worked as much with the OU coaches on an individual basis as he did in the camp environment.

What the Sooners learned was that Taylor was raw as a football player, but he was extremely talented. He had great size, strength and was quick off the ball. For a big man he had good feet and he lived just 15 minutes up the road. Great college offensive linemen are not always the most highly recruited, and many times a good collegiate offensive lineman is one that grows up just up the road dreaming of playing for his local school. Taylor wasn't a high-profile recruit, but he is just what the Sooners were looking for. And when OU offered a week after the camp, it took Taylor about 20 seconds to accept.

Thus, two outstanding offensive line prospects were in the bag and the recruiting process was just underway. OU would have to work hard for their next two commitments and they would fail to reach their goal of five, however it wasn't because they didn't give it the "old college try".

Early on the Sooners were in on some of the top-rated offensive linemen in the country. All-American Justin Blalock of Plano East; Tony Ugoh of Houston Westfield, Texas; LeQualan McDonald of Waco, Texas; Kyle Williams of Dallas Highland Park, Texas; Ryan Carter of Groveland South Lake, Florida; Winston Justice of Long Beach Poly, California; and Cody Douglas of LaMarque, Texas were all showing a great interest in the Sooners.

Scott Rairdon of Mason City, Iowa, Robert Whitaker of Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania and Mark Farris of Pittsburgh North Hills, Pennsylvania were more national recruits that indicated that OU was among their top five.

These were some of the biggest names in the recruiting game and the Sooners were giving each player their best shot, and that was what was frustrating. Despite a great need and a great recruiting approach the Sooners began to lose out on the big-time recruits one-by-one.

Kyle Williams would first commit to Notre Dame and then shocked everybody when he signed with USC. Justin Blalock visited OU, but after visiting Texas admitted that he was always headed to the Longhorns. Carter also showed great early interest in OU, but once he visited Florida he committed to the Gators. Even after Gator Head Coach Steve Spurrier went to the Washington Redskins, Carter decided to stay with the Gators. Rairdon was also Notre Dame bound and Farris wanted to be a Pitt Panther.

Douglas played the national card and went with Tennessee. Justice was playing it cool out on the coast, but in reality the Sooners never had a chance. He always wanted to be a Trojan, and eventually signed with USC.

McDonald gave up his trump card a month before signing day when he stated that Baylor had as much potential as OU and that OU was winning now, but could start losing any day. McDonald was predicting that Baylor would be the next Oklahoma and when he said that it was pretty apparent that either he had lost his mind or that he was going to sign with the Bears. McDonald signed with the Bears.

Throughout the recruiting process the Sooners were trying to figure where to play Chris Messner of Frederick, Oklahoma. Messner was a gifted athlete who had played everywhere in high school. His senior year he complicated things for recruiters by playing quarterback.

Oklahoma knew that he wasn't a quarterback in their system, not a tight end and not defensive tackle or end. However, at 6-7 and 245 pounds Oklahoma felt that Messner had the frame to grow into a big offensive tackle. The Sooners didn't know how Messner would feel about playing on the offensive line so they called as asked him.

"I got a call from Bob Stoops and he told me that I had a scholarship at Oklahoma if I wanted to play on the offensive line," said Messner. "It took me about 10 seconds to say yes. I was kind of a shocked that they wanted me to play offensive line, but I didn't care because I just wanted to play for Oklahoma. I will need to redshirt my first year, because I will have to learn a totally new position. But that's OK, because I will be a Sooner and that is all I care about."

Sometimes it is just as good to be lucky as good in recruiting. Sooner Assistant Cale Gundy had just stopped by Carrollton Turner, Texas to check on early Sooner verbal Michael Hawkins. While waiting on Hawkins, Gundy threw on some Newman game film and just started watching. As the film rolled he couldn't help but notice an offensive lineman that was blowing defensive linemen five to ten yards off the line.

Abner Estrada was not a well-known name at the beginning of the season, but by mid-season Miami, Michigan and Nebraska all knew enough about him to offer him a scholarship. In fact, after an early visit to Michigan, Estrada was all set to sign with the Wolverines, but that was before the Sooners made their last minute run.

Gundy was able to convince Estrada to visit on the same weekend that Hawkins took his official. Both are good friends and Estrada had an extra visit to take and once he was on the OU campus the deed was signed. OU knows how to put on a good visit and Estrada was blown away by the OU coaches and players. By the time Estrada left Norman he was Oklahoma bound and out of nowhere the Sooners had landed another top 100 player in Texas.

Late in the recruiting game there was one big fish on the board. Houston lineman Tony Ugoh had narrowed his choices down to OU and Arkansas, and the Sooners were saving a scholarship for him. The Sooners were confident, but so was Arkansas. It was unique how both sides really felt they were going to land this prized offensive tackle.

However, during the final five days of recruiting all signs were pointing to Arkansas, and then on the final day of coaches contact word was out that Ugoh was committing to the Hawgs. The Sooners still had a visit set with Ugoh on that final day and they were going to take their final shot. What transpired during that final visit will go down in recruiting lore as one of the all-time classics.

Sooner assistants Bobby Jack Wright, Chuck Long and Jonathan Hayes were in Ugoh's home with Tony and his father giving them the recruiting business. You can imagine that Wright, Long and Hayes can be pretty persuasive and they were laying it on pretty thick and the Ugoh's were listening o,r at least Mr. Ugoh was listening.

Oklahoma was winning the recruiting battle with Mr. Ugoh, but not with Tony. Tony was listening, but not really listening. He was being respectful, but already had his mind made up. However, Mr. Ugoh was asking question after question and Tony had no choice but to listen. The Sooners had picked up a fourth recruiter and now Tony was getting hammered with the OU way of life.

Unannounced to Mr. Ugoh, Tony had invited the Arkansas assistant coaches over to the house a couple of hours following the Sooners visit. However, the Sooner visit was running long and when the Arkansas coaches showed up at the door OU was still in the house. When the Arkansas coaches knocked on the door the most surprised man in the house was Mr. Ugoh.

Tony got up to let the Arkansas coaches in the house and immediately Mr. Ugoh told them to get out of his house. In fact, he was screaming for them to get out of his house. Mr. Ugoh then ushered the two assistants and Tony out the front door onto the front yard where he proceeded to vent his displeasure.

All the while the OU coaches were sitting in the living-room wondering what was going on. They couldn't believe what they were seeing, but they didn't know how to proceed either. Mr. Ugoh stepped back into the house momentarily and told the OU coaches to sit tight that their situation wasn't over yet.

The OU coaches were trying to be respectful to Arkansas and they also realized at this time that Tony wasn't coming to OU. OU told Mr. Ugoh that they would leave so that Arkansas could come in for their visit.

Mr. Ugoh would hear nothing of it, saying that he knew nothing of their visit and that he never invited Arkansas to his house. Mr. Ugoh then pointed out that the house was still his and that he would invite who he wanted into it and that was Oklahoma not Arkansas.

So, the OU coaches sat tight as the Arkansas coaches got back into their car and drove off. Tony returned and for some three to four minutes there was dead silence. Finally, the coaches said that they had said their peace and that if Tony wanted to come to OU they had a scholarship for him. Tony again pointed out that he was going to Arkansas, but said that he would continue to consider it. Mr. Ugoh said that Oklahoma was his choice and that they would continue to talk about it.

And talk they did, over the next two days the Ugoh's talked and talked. Right up until signing day Mr. Ugoh stated that he wasn't going to sign the papers if Tony signed with Arkansas. Right up until signing day Mr. Ugoh was trying to persuade Tony to ink with Oklahoma. After a little drama on signing day Tony did indeed ink with the Hawgs and yes Mr. Ugoh signed the papers. However, Oklahoma gave it the old college try right up until signing day.

Wide Receivers
At the beginning of the recruiting process OU wasn't looking to sign a receiver. If a great one would come along great, but if not early it didn't appear that OU would sign a wide receiver.

That philosophy changed as the regular season went along. The OU wide receivers were only having an average season and recruiting was looking up.

At the OU summer camp Travis Wilson of Carrollton Creekview, Texas caught the Sooners eye. He was a big receiver with excellent speed and demonstrated that he had good hands and loved to go over the middle. At that time OU didn't feel they were going to offer a wide receiver, but they told him if they decided too he would know immediately.

Early in the year the Sooners receivers were struggling to match their sophomore totals and Wilson was averaging 27-yards per catch. Both developments were too good to pass up and OU called early in the season. Wilson took about a day to think about it and then became a very excited OU verbal. By the end of the year Wilson had played his way into a top 40 spot in Texas and was rated the number two wide receiver in Texas.

OU had a much tougher time signing their two other wide receivers and the Sooners used different approaches on both.

OU started the recruiting process with DaBryan Blanton of Forney, Texas early in the summer. OU was one of the first to offer Blanton and one of the first schools to recognize the fact that the nations' fastest 17-year-old was more than just a speed guy. The Sooners love speed, but they really got excited when watching tape of Blanton and they noticed that he was impossible to tackle in space, and he could leave a defender gasping for air with one slick move.

Recruiting has become a fast-pace world with so many coaches, reporters and fans involved in the recruiting process, however the old fashion first impression is still the most important aspect in recruiting. Sooner Co-Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables made his first impression count with Blanton and when Venables met Blanton's mom for the first time the Sooners took a big lead.

Blanton made it known he was a football player first, but track and field was very important to him. When you are the fastest 17-year-old in the country you can easily dream of representing the USA in the Olympics someday. Tennessee and Texas A&M were the Sooners top two challengers and both had better and more established track and field programs.

Oklahoma's track program is rebuilding under Jill Lancaster and Rodney Price, but this year the Sooners have started to make a move up the Big12 standings. Throughout the recruiting process OU would have to sell the future in track and field, while Tennessee and Texas A&M were pumping established programs.

The fact Blanton was a football player first and a track man second eventually won the battle for the Sooners. There was no doubt in Blanton's mind that OU was the best football program among his contenders. He also figured the Sooners had the best plan for him. Blanton was a prolific running back at Forney, rushing for over 2,000 yards. However, Blanton wasn't very big and to keep his speed in track he couldn't add 30 pounds to his frame. OU's H-back or slot-receiver position fit Blanton like a glove and the fact that position seems to be wide open going into the 2002 season didn't hurt.

It's didn't hurt the Sooners either that Venables had won over the Blanton family. Blanton's mom didn't want her son too far away from home, which hurt Tennessee from the beginning. College Station was as close as Norman, but the Sooners have a better football program right now and in the end Blanton thought the two track programs were the same.

"To be honest, track is an individual sport and in reality in the sprints there isn't that much difference in how each program coaches the sprints," said Blanton. "I will get good coaching in the sprints at OU and just as good as I would get if I went to Texas A&M or Tennessee. I can win track championships just as easily at OU as I can anywhere else, and I have a better chance to win national championships in football at OU than anywhere else."

The fact that OU signed JeJuan Rankins, of Windsor Bertie, North Carolina, is a perfect example of the influence of Oklahoma football. At the beginning of the recruiting process OU wasn't even in the recruiting picture. OU doesn't go into Tar Heel country very often and they didn't even have a coach assigned to the area in September.
However, thanks to the new-wave information highway the Sooners were reading on various recruiting sites down South that Rankins had a big interest in OU. Nobody knew for sure, because OU had only sent him one letter and that letter was the same letter that went out to the top 250 athletes across the country.

Each week Rankins continue to state that he would be interested in OU if they were interested in him. Finally at the end of September the Sooners listened and Steve Spurrier Jr. started the recruiting process.

From the beginning OU was very much in the hunt and as soon as they got into the game they were the leaders. Georgia, North Carolina, North Carolina State and Notre Dame were the other players, but all trailed Oklahoma as soon as they decided to get into the game.

Truth be told, once Bob Stoops saw the Rankins film there was no question that Oklahoma was going to be very aggressive in his recruiting sweepstakes. Stoops fell in love with Rankins from the start and saw some similar moves that once belonged to Joe Washington, his all-time favorite Sooner.

As the recruiting process progressed the Sooners forged a huge lead with Georgia chasing and Notre Dame looking for a head coach. Rankins was so sold on Oklahoma that he stated two days before his visit to OU that unless his visit to Norman was a total disappointment he was going to be a Sooner.

With that in mind you knew Oklahoma was in good shape. Kid's don't come to OU and have bad visits. Most leave totally awed by OU. However, there was a slight problem in the Rankins recruiting process. His position and recruiting Coach Steve Spurrier Jr, had decided to join his father with the Washington Redskins. The two had grown very close and that was part of the reason why OU was in such good shape with Rankins. JeJuan's mother Francis Rankins, also liked Spurrier a great deal and grew concerned who would be coaching her baby.

To Spurrier's credit he stayed in Norman during Rankins' visit and took responsibility for the recruiting weekend. Spurrier sat the entire basketball game with Francis and reassured JeJuan that OU would hire a great wide receiver coach. Spurrier also reiterated to Rankins that he was coming to Oklahoma because the Sooners were the best football program for him and because he liked OU the best, not because of Steve Spurrier.

Stoops wanted Rankins so badly that he would take over the Rankins recruiting effort himself. As soon as new wide receiver coach Jay Norvell officially came on board he started calling Rankins. Stoops spent the final week of January in Hawaii coaching a group of college all-stars on the Hula Bowl, thus Jonathan Hayes took the final Sooner coaches visit to Rankins' home in North Carolina nine days before signing day.

Hayes left North Carolina with Rankins still committed and still wanting to be a Sooner. OU dropped the ball a tad while Stoops was in Hawaii as Rankins did not hear from anybody from OU until the Saturday before signing day and he began to wonder if OU was still interested.

With Rankins shaken a little he took a phone call from Georgia and agreed to hear from the Bulldogs on more time that Friday. The Sooners had no idea Georgia was going to get a late home visit and by the time they found out the Bulldogs had muddied the water, Bob Stoops went to work. One thing that we have learned since Stoops has been at OU is he doesn't like to lose at anything. Stoops worked on Rankins right up until signing day. And Norvell called as well. Even as Rankins was walking into an office to sign his scholarship papers Stoops was on the phone with him talking him through the process.

Stoops feels Rankins has superstar potential and he wasn't going to let him get away. Stoops didn't hang up until he was assured by Rankins that he was going to sign on the dotted line with Oklahoma, and then as soon as Rankins signed OU's scholarship papers he called the OU coach back and told him the good news.

The Sooners love legacy players, especially when they are 6'3, 210 pounds and run a 4.5 forty-yard dash. Laenar Nixon of Miami Carol City, Florida is the son of "Fast" Freddie Nixon, who made a name for himself as a punt returner and wide receiver from 1976 to 1979. Freddie was a smallish wide receiver, who was so fast it seemed he played in a blur.

His son was a different type of talent, but appears to be as equally gifted. Because of a leg injury he had only played four games his senior year. This turned off many schools, but it didn't turn off Jackie Shipp. Shipp is the most patient recruiter on the Sooner staff and he has the poise to wait for a recruiting situation to unfold, while coaches on other staffs will panic.

While other teams wondered just how good Nixon really was, Shipp was getting the real skinny from Freddie and the Carol City coaching staff. Shipp was privy to all game film and practice tapes as well. While others wondered, Shipp knew exactly what kind of player Nixon really was.

Laenar always wanted to follow in his dad's footsteps at OU. Freddie didn't push his son to OU, Laenar truly wanted to experience what his dad experienced at OU. This wasn't a hard recruiting effort for Shipp and the Sooners, but it's one of their most pleasant stories. It's great when a young man gets his wish and plays for the college of his dreams. The fact Shipp is a cool customer paid off and he was able to thoroughly evaluate Nixon like nobody else. On signing day the Sooners landed a unique talent that can play tight end, H-back or wide receiver.

We save h-back J.D. Runnells of Midwest City Carl Albert for last, because he is the feel-good story of the class. Runnells always wanted to play at Oklahoma and after some tense moments he finally got his wish.

For the longest time it didn't' look as if the Sooners were going to offer the Big All-City Oklahoma High School Player of the Year. Runnells was a dominant player as a tight end and free safety at five-time Class 5A State Champion Carl Albert. Runnells was a three-year starter, who lettered as a freshman and was ranked as one of the top ten players in Oklahoma.

Runnells attended the Oklahoma summer camp and let the Sooners know that he wanted to be a Sooner. The problem was that OU didn't feel Runnells had the size to play tight end, the speed to play linebacker or defensive end, and they didn't feel they had a position he could play at OU.

The Sooners lack of a consistent running game in 2001 gave Runnells an opportunity to play at OU. OU decided they needed to sign a legitimate h-back or fullback type to enhance their running game in 2002. Runnells had the reputation as a tremendous blocker at tight end at Carl Albert and the Sooners felt he could be at OU as well.

It was early January and Runnells was all set to commit to Texas A&M. The Aggies had offered him as a fullback and the Aggies were the best offer on the table, until Bob Stoops called and asked him if he would be an h-back at OU.

"I was so happy that I answered yes before he even finished telling me about the scholarship," said Runnells. "Of course I would be h-back at OU. I would be waterboy, equipment manager or anything to get a scholarship at OU. I can't believe that things have turned out so well for me. I need to pinch myself, because I must be dreaming."

The 2002 recruiting season showed just how talented the Sooner coaches can be. It's well-documented how good they are on the playing field, but don't overlook their recruiting abilities. In fact, OU has proven for the last three years they have a great eye for talent and the ability to close.

As we look ahead to 2003, OU won't have many scholarships to give. Right now that total would be 13, give or take one or two. Of course this number will change as things develop on the playing field, but it goes without saying that OU will be very selective in who they go after, especially early.

The Sooners number one recruit is wide receiver Robert Meachum (6'3, 200, 4.3) of Tulsa Washington, Oklahoma. Many are already ranking Meachum as the number one wide receiver in the country and he is a dynamic punt and kick returner as well.

Linebacker Dane Zaslaw (6'2, 240, 4.6) of Edmond Memorial is a top five state talent who has already been offered by LSU and Michigan State. Grant Jones (5'11, 185, 4.4) of Pawnee is the best DB in the state, while Brian Zimple (6'5, 310, 5.2) of Broken Arrow may be the best offensive lineman in Oklahoma. Defensive end Chad Evans (6'4, 250, 4.6) of Tulsa Washington rounds out the early top five.

The Sooners are already in the hunt for all five and with so few scholarships to give, look for several early commitments this summer.

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