Spring Game Preview: What to look for

James Hale breaks down the five keys to watch for during Saturday's Annual Red/White game. Kick-off is set for 1 p.m. Gates will open at 11:30 a.m. The game will also be televised nationally on ESPN. All eyes will be on Chris Messner (pictured above) and the offensive line.

The Oklahoma Sooners will play in their final big scrimmage of the spring Saturday in the annual Red/White game at the Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium.

While this spring has been void of a position controversy, there are still plenty of position battles going on and player developments to make the spring game very interesting.

The following are five key areas to pay attention to on Saturday.

#1 OFFENSIVE LINE

The offensive line this spring is a work in progress and the competition will change dramatically when two-a-days roll around. The Sooners lack of depth this spring has been tough to work through, but that situation has not hampered drills.

"We have good players in the offensive line, but just not a lot of depth," said OU offensive line coach James Patton following a recent practice. "So while it is not an ideal situation for us, we do have talent in the offensive line and those talented players are getting all the reps. If we had more depth they wouldn't have that opportunity, so for those that are playing this spring the lack of depth has been a major benefit for them.

"That benefit is not only in actual experience on the field, but they gain mental toughness because they learn to play hard and play through mental and physical fatigue when they are tired. I think it is has been a good spring for us. We are learning to play hard, play tough and play through tough situations, which they will be in several times during their career."

Branndon Braxton and Chris Messner have settled into the offensive tackle spots this spring, and Braxton's development is a key for the fall. He has improved greatly since the start of the spring and has a chance to be an outstanding player. Duke Robinson will also get a few reps at left tackle, but he has been very good at left guard and that is his primary position. He is another talented player who has a chance to be a great one.

Watch the battle at right guard between Sherrone Moore and Brian Simmons. Simmons will also work at both guard positions. At center, true freshman Chad Roark plays with great effort and has proven that he can compete with the best at OU. Cameron Schacht has resurrected his career and is fighting for playing time at center. Both Roark and Schacht will play center on Saturday.

In the fall, injured potential starters Jon Cooper and J.D. Quinn return and juco transfer Brandon Walker all figure to jump into the mix for a starting job. Also, Ben Barresi figures to be healthy in the fall.

The foundation that these seven players build this spring will go along way the developing a solid two deep, and how they hold up Saturday will determine what kind of game the Sooners will have.

#2 FULLBACKS AND TIGHT ENDS

With four practices remaining, who will start at fullback is still up in the air. And just how the tight ends are going to be used next season is still to be determined.

"I have just told the guys at both those positions that I want to see great effort out of them and I want to see them play smart, fundamental football," said OU offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson. "How well they play and how hard they play will determine how much we use those two positions in the fall, but we don't always have to have a fullback or tight end on the field.

"We can come out in formations where we don't have a fullback or tight end on the field. They have to show us that they can make plays, play smart and play with great effort. One thing that we are trying to do this spring is make sure our guys learn how to play, and that is to play hard and play physical, and to attack as we do that.

"That being said, I think that both Daze Zaslaw and Matt Clapp are playing with good effort and have done some good things," Wilson continued. "Joe Jon looks like he is playing well because he has a couple of catches, but in the blocking game Brody Eldridge was significantly better (last scrimmage). Joe Jon didn't knock one guy on the ground all day Saturday, and at fullback we didn't knock a guy down all day Saturday.

"Again, I don't know if we are over-coaching them or if they are thinking too much. But we are trying to get them from A to B and playing fast, to hit people and staying after it. In our last scrimmage, we had guys thinking and hitting, but not staying after their blocks. The emphasis this week is for them to show us they can play smart and let's start playing some physical, tough football on offense.

The competition between Zaslaw and Clapp at fullback and the physical execution of them and the tight ends, Finley and Eldridge, will be important elements to watch on Saturday.

#3 KICKING GAME

The Sooners will use the kicking game Saturday and how well Garrett Hartley and Mike Knall kick with 40-thousand people in the stands is something the coaches are curious about.

"We will be looking for some consistency from both our place kicker and punter," said wide receiver and special teams coach Kevin Sumlin. "We would like to take the guess work out of it and get an idea what these guys can do. I think we know what have that for the most part with Garrett, but he can be more consistent and he knows that.

"With Mike, we are still finding out a lot about him as he gets more reps. We need to know if he is going average 40 yards a punt with hang time or 43-yards with a little less hang time? Whatever he can do we need to get him doing it on a consistent basis."

The job is Knall's to keep as of now and how he performs Saturday may determine how aggressively the OU coaches try to find another punter this summer.

#4 THE PLAY OF THE SAFETIES

I know going into the spring that the cornerback position was drawing more interest than at safety, but with the emergence of Reggie Smith as a star at corner and the emergence of Lendy Holmes from wide receiver and corner, along with the super play of D.J. Wolfe, the cornerback position has become a position of strength this spring.

The competition at safety is very intense as sophomore Nic Harris, redshirt freshman Keenan Clayton and true freshman Quentin Carter are also getting a ton of reps. This week, Harris has worked a great deal with the first unit in place of junior Darien Williams.

Williams and senior Jason Carter are expected to start and work on the first unit, with Harris and Clayton working on the 2's, but both Harris and Clayton can make a solid case to start with an outstanding effort in the Red/White game.

 #5 THE DEVELOPMENT OF JOEY HALZLE

I realize that the talent of Halzle never comes into question unless something happens to starter Rhett Bomar. But we all know that the health of quarterbacks in college and pro football is always in jeopardy, thus all great teams must have a talented back-up quarterback.

Halzle started out great this spring, but has tailed off a little during the third week as he has hit the wall as the Sooners' defense threw more at him. Halzle already has the confidence of quarterback coach Josh and head coach Bob Stoops, but a good game would certainly make the OU coaches feel great about their situation at quarterback and leave no unanswered questions. Obviously, the play of receivers Paul Thompson, Quentin Chaney, Fred Strong and Eric Huggins will be interesting to watch. OU knows that they have players at receiver who can play in Malcolm Kelly, Juaquin Iglesias and Manual Johnson, but OU needs a deeper receiver corp. and the Red/White scrimmage will give others a chance to step up and become a factor. Plus, the battle between sophomore Ryan Reynolds and junior Demarrio Pleasant at strongside linebacker is also a very close race going into the game.

The Red/White game will kick-off at 1 p.m. CST. The game will also be televised nationally on ESPN. Gates open at 11:30 a.m. Fans will only be allowed to enter through gates 1, 5, 7, 11 and 12. For those who do not have tickets, tickets will go on sale beginning at 9 a.m. at gates 5 and 7 (cash purchases only).

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