Spring Position Preview: Tight Ends/Fullbacks

Offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson previews OU's tight ends and fullbacks heading into the spring. (Photo/SoonerPhotos.com)

The spring always seems a great time for offensive coaches to tinker with all aspects of given units. The basic concept of what the offense does is already in place, but there are so many variations that can be added or subtracted to the offense that can make it look different on every single play.

Oklahoma's offense comes into the spring with 15 different players who have started at least one game and nine starters who started most of the year last season. Only two seniors — quarterback Paul Thompson and tackle Chris Messner — graduated and junior Adrian Peterson left early for the NFL. That is a lot of talent returning to an offense that averaged 369 yards of offense and 30 points per game.

Going into the spring, the Sooners will be looking to speed up the offense and cut down on turnovers.

"If we could become a more sound football team, while also being aggressive and trying to score by taking care of the football, we could have a great team next year," said offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson. "We will typically always do well with the kicking game and we will always typically play good defense, but if we can play that up-tempo offense, yet not cross the line and turn the ball over, we can win a lot of games.

"When you look at two of the three games we lost this year we had four turnovers in the bowl game and five turnovers against Texas. Typically, when you turn it over twice you are going to lose. We had games where we turned it over two and three times and still won. That is one key this spring — to teach our guys how to be an up-tempo, attacking offense that is very sound with the football and keep the negative plays and the turnovers minimized. It is like playing fast-pace basketball without turning it over.

"I think our line, with their maturity, will give us the ability to be more aggressive in some things that we can do. We could be better in recognition, protection and picking up things where a lot of those negative plays can come. And I think the receivers coming back and all the experience coming back will give us more confidence and the ability to really push and be up-tempo.

"Bottom line, as we figure out who the starting quarterback is, it is pushing that offense to pick it up a notch to become an up-tempo, aggressive offense that plays on the edge, but an offense that doesn't cross the line and become a foolish offense. I think if those guys can play within themselves, play as a unit and play smart football, then I think we can be an aggressive offense and maybe have a lot of neat things to add on here in the spring, this year and the next couple of years coming on."

With so many talented young players returning, the coaches want to make sure that those players are not resting on last year's results.

"Another challenge for us in the spring will be with so many young players, with so many young offensive linemen, wide receivers, tight ends and running backs, that they continue to compete and that they don't level off," said Wilson. "Guys that are quality, good, young players need to continue to push themselves to take their game to another level so they will be more complete and more polished. That good sophomore offensive lineman, wide receiver or running back is playing good as a young player, but they need to continue to work and become truly great players like great teams do.

"Then with some of the skill players, get the right pieces in the right place. What we could do is look at some tailbacks that can play multiple positions, like at receiver or with two tailbacks like we did in the Fiesta Bowl. Maybe young guys like Mossis Madu and DeMarco Murray can give us some things at multiple spots.

"The bottom line will be getting the quarterback situation settled and moving in a good situation, and getting those young guys moving in a direction to become great players. We have a lot of good, young players who have played very well, but they can't become satisfied where they are at and they need to continue to push toward being great players.

Tight end is one of the strongest positions on the field with three players returning who took all the snaps a year ago.

"They did a little cleanup on Jermaine's (Gresham) knee but he'll be back for the spring," said Wilson. "Joe Jon Finley (6-6, 260) is back and Brody Eldridge (6-5, 258) is a tight end who also gives you a chance to play him at fullback. Those three are all quality players. Of those three guys, Joe Jon is the most experienced.

"Brody might be the most complete blocker that we have, and I feel one of the best players on our offense. He is not a flashy guy, but a guy who I trust and have a lot of confidence in. Jermaine is an unbelievable young kid who is just incredibly talented. I like all three of those guys. They all have their different strengths and weaknesses. I really thought Eric Mensik (6-5, 246) did very well in his first year as a redshirt guy.

"Brody gave us so much flexibility last year with his ability to play both fullback and tight end," said Wilson. "That is where I would like to maybe think a guy like Joe Jon, and maybe Jermaine, you might see those guys playing some at the receiver positions. They are all very gifted receivers who are big guys, and we can line them up in different formations and use them in different ways."

Eldridge blocked so well at both tight end and fullback that the true fullbacks had a tough time getting on the field.

"Brody's ability actually gives us a fourth tight end, but he can also be at fullback giving us four fullbacks," Wilson continued. "So you throw Brody into the mix at fullback with Dane Zaslaw (6-1, 237), Matt Clapp (6-2, 244) and Ian Pleasant (5-10, 215), who are all back. They all played last year and so we are kind of four-deep at both tight end and fullback, with Brody being kind of No. 1 at both spots.

Last season was very frustrating for Clapp, who earned a starting job out of training camp but couldn't stay healthy after the first game.

"Matt did well as our starter in our first game and then got that sprain (neck) at the end of the game, and it never healed back right," said Wilson. "We put Brody back out there and he never played fullback because Brody ended up doing as well or better than any of the fullbacks. I just liked the fact that here was a tight end that any time he went on the field one time he was a tight end and the next time he was a fullback.

"I think that made it a little bit harder for the defensive coaches to gauge exactly what we were going to do when he was on the field sometimes. Whereas when we have Dane, Matt or Ian on the field they are not quite as big as Brody, but a little more the true fullback and the defense can anticipate that maybe we are going to be in a two-back set. Matt is healthy now and he will get another chance to make his mark at fullback.

Aaron Cummings (6-4, 244, So) tried to return from a serious ankle injury toward the end of the season and bowl practices, but his ankle was still bothering him. That troublesome ankle won't allow Cummings to play football and he will go on medical scholarship.

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