Norman — It's football time in Oklahoma! Well, spring football that is.
The Sooners opened practice to the public for the first time this spring for Wednesday's first major scrimmage on Owen Field. All eyes were on the quarterbacks, but it was redshirt freshman DeMarco Murray who stole the show.
The Las Vegas, Nev. native, who redshirted last year while nursing a turf toe injury, ran like he had a new set of toes with a 65-yard touchdown run and three impressive catches.
"I was real nervous," said Murray after the scrimmage. "I haven't played in front of a crowd since high school, so I was nervous at the beginning. Coach Gundy told me to relax, so I started relaxing and doing what I was doing, and I played better."
Murray described his 65-yard touchdown run, which was the biggest offensive play of Wednesday's scrimmage.
"I just saw it before the ball was snapped," he said. "I was reading and watching the shade (coverage) and I just saw it. It was wide open and I just took it. I went to the to the sideline, accelerated and was gone."
It was also somewhat unusual to see the offense get the better of the defense in a scrimmage, as the defense usually has the edge, especially early in the spring. In all, the offense scored on five drives (three times against the first team defense).
Nevertheless, OU head coach Bob Stoops wasn't impressed with what he saw overall.
"I wasn't very pleased," said Stoops after the scrimmage. "I had thought we had more energy the first four days in the way we came out here with our attitude and the way we competed. I didn't expect it to be perfect by a longshot in just five days execution-wise, but I wasn't pleased with our overall intensity and in the way we came out here and the way we are used to competing. So I'm not very happy."
Stoops also talked about OU's quarterback play.
"I thought they did a lot of really good things. They're learning and they've made their share of mistakes, which you'd expect them too. But they sting when they can make them. That's why you're out here. That's why you scrimmage. That's why you practice. They will learn from their experience out here. Those guys are really working together as a unit in a great way and helping one another. They have really good attitudes with each other, so that position will keep improving. But I feel good about it in five days from what I've seen in our other practices. We had a mini-scrimmage on Monday that was really pleasing.
"I thought Demarco Murray was very impressive, which he has been all along," Stoops continued. "On defense, I thought we had sloppy tackling. Hopefully it is just rust. We have some guys though that are trying to get on the field that are showing that you either have to make tackles or you're going to have a hard time playing. But again, that's why you scrimmage. Hopefully we'll get better as we go."
Below is a position-by-position look at the highlights of Wednesday's scrimmage.
All in all, it was a so-so day for the quarterbacks. That's probably not what you wanted to hear, but each had their positive and negative moments.
Joey Halzle was the first QB to take snaps followed by Sam Bradford and then Keith Nichol. Halzle finished the day 6-for-11 for 109 yards with one touchdown pass and two interceptions. Bradford was 8-for-14 for 117 yards, one touchdown and one interception, while Nichol was 6-for-8 for 40 yards and one touchdown.
If we had to pick one today we would probably go with Sam Bradford. Bradford looked great on his short routes, over the middle routes and deep outs. His only real mistake came when D.J. Wolfe picked off a deep out and returned 65-yards for a touchdown.
But the more you talk to people around the program the more you hear great things about Bradford, and did so again after today's scrimmage. You can tell they are really impressed with Nichol, but they know he has a lot to learn, while Halzle is still mistake-prone.
Halzle looked good early leading two scoring drives against the first team defense (field goal, touchdown pass to Joe Jon Finley) but he struggled later throwing two bad interceptions right into the defenses' hands.
"That's the nature of the quarterback position," said QB coach Josh Heupel. "You're only as good as your next play. You can play well early but if throw a couple of picks, then you're hurting your football team in a big way. That's the one thing he (Halzle) has to continue to work on and develop — his ability not to hurts us in a bad way."
Meanwhile, Nichol certainly didn't look like a freshman. He seemed to know where to go with the ball, even though he didn't attempt many deep passes. But he also showed tremendous pocket awareness to avoid the rush and pick up yardage on several scrambles. One only has to wonder where Nichol would be now if he had one year in the system before the season opener instead of a semester.
"I was pleased with a lot of the thingss that I saw out there," Heupel said. "But just like everyone up in the stands swill say too, you can't turn the ball over. That's the most imporatant thing you have with the QB — having the ball in your hands and then knowing where to go with the football and when to throw it on time is extremelly important. Those guys have to continue to develop and understand how not to get us beat."
Allen Patrick and Mossis Madu were held out of the scrimmage while nursing minor injuries, but they certainly weren't missed as DeMarco Murray and Chris Brown put on a show. Murray finished with 92 yards on nine carries, while Brown finished with 90 yards on 17 carries, one of which he broke for a 40-yard run.
"We held Mossis (Madu) out," said Stoops. "He got a little dinged up the other day and had a concussion. He'll be ready to go on Monday when we come back. Allen Patrick had a small bruise too. We just did not want it to get it any worse."
As for Murray, it's hard not to think 'Reggie Bush' when watching him play. Murray lined up in the I-formation, one-back shotgun, slot receiver and split out wide, and Kevin Wilson got him the ball out of every formation. In a nutshell, Murray brings the type of quickness to the slot that the Sooners haven't really had since Mark Clayton left.
However, the competition for playing time is going to be tough with Patrick, Brown, Madu and Jacob Gutierrez in the race. Murray, however, is confident he can get on the field.
"It's going to be tough with A.P., Gute, Mossis and C.B back," said Murray. "But I'm real confident that players are going to play. If I keep making big plays, I'll play."
Joe Jon Finley and Brody Eldridge started at tight end with Dane Zaslaw starting at fullback. Matt Clapp also saw time at fullback.
Finley made the play of the day for the tight ends beating Curtis Lofton on a play-action pass for a 30-yard touchdown catch. In all, Finley led the way in this group with three catches for 48 yards.
Jermaine Gresham was held out of the scrimmage with a minor injury, and that left the door open for Eric Mensik to get some snaps. And the redshirt freshman looked pretty good making a couple of nice catches over the middle in the 7-on-7 drills.
Malcolm Kelly was held out of the scrimmage, but if you put the No. 4 jersey on sophomore Adron Tennell today you would've thought he was Kelly.
Tennell was impressive leading all receivers with 88 yards on four catches. He made tough catches in traffic, one nice deep catch that he fought off a defender for and even caught a nice comeback route in which he turned around and burned by the cornerback and safety for a nice gain.
Another impressive performer today was sophomore Brandon Caleb. Caleb caught two touchdown passes, one in the back of the end zone on a 7-yard laser pass from Nichol and the other a 15-yard slant pass from Bradford.
Wide receiver coach Kevin Sumlin Tennell's performance after the scrimmage.
"Not only he, I thought Brandon Caleb played well," Sumlin said. "He came on and made some plays. I think it goes back to what we talked about last year. The experience that they gained last year preparing every week to play, I think it shows up right now. They are way ahead from where they would've been if they had redshirted.
Nevertheless, Sumlin says Tennell isn't a complete package yet.
"Pooh (Tennell) has gained some weight," said Sumlin. "He's put on about 18 pounds since he's come here even though it doesn't looke like it. But he's got a ways to go. He's got to be more physical."
Props also go to Quentin Chaney for his five-catch, 35-yard performance today. Manuel Johnson and Juaquin Iglesias also worked with the first unit, but neither stood out.
Overall, the o-line played fairly well for the first scrimmage out of the gate giving up three sacks on 33 pass attempts. They also did a great job in the run game, opening up holes for big runs by Brown and Murray.
The starting unit consisted of Phil Loadholt and Branndon Braxton at tackle, Brian Simmons and Duke Robinson at guard and Jon Cooper at center. The second team was Trent Williams and Cory Brandon at tackle, Sherrone Moore and Kody Cooke at guard and Chase Beeler at center.
"I'm glad we still have 10 practices left we because we need them," said James Patton on his group. "We did some good things, but there's also some point of attack things and the mental part of some false starts we have to be better at."
That being said, how good is that first team offensive line if Trent Williams can't crack the first group?
Defensive end Alonzo Dotson and defensive tackles Steven Coleman and DeMarcus Granger were held out of the scrimmage with minor injuries. Starting in their place was John Williams and Auston English at defensive end and Gerald McCoy and Cory Bennett at d-tackle.
Jeremy Beal, Alan Davis, Pryce Macon and Tim Johnson backed up the defensive ends, and they got more than an earful all day by coach Chris Wilson. If we had to give an 'In Your Face Award' to a coach today, it would be Wilson who clearly wasn't pleased with the play of his group on several occassions. That being said, we believe that Dotson, Williams, English and Beal are the top four guys at defensive end at this point.
As for the defensive tackles, Sooner fans will be happy to know that McCoy was in the starting rotation. And McCoy was happy as well.
"It was cool, man," said McCoy who recorded five tackles, one of which he gobbled up Jacob Gutierrez for a two-yard loss behind the line of scrimmage. "This was the first time that I'm really going heads up with the one's. Going against the one's was fun.
"I was just trying to do what coach tells me and get better. I wasn't trying to do anything special. I'm trying to get out there and get better and do what coach tells me.The trenches are where it starts on defense, but we all play as a unit. We stick together as a defense. They say offense wins games, but defense wins championships. If we play together as a defense nobody could stop us."
Interestingly enough, the defense couldn't stop anybody at times today. However, defensive coordinator Brent Venables did credit McCoy and the defensive tackles with a solid performance.
"I thought our DTs were good," Venables said. "I think those guys inside did play well. We have some good, young talent. Gerald and Adrian (Taylor) are good players. We are a lttile banged up in there without DeMarcus and Steven Coleman, but for the most part we played pretty well. And we like our young talent at defensive end. We didn't have Alonzo, but John Williams is rounding into shape."
The starting unit today consisted of Ryan Reynolds (SLB), Curtis Lofton (MLB) and Lewis Baker (WLB). The big question is why wasn't heralded juco middle linebacker Mike Reed on the first team?
Well, while Reed certainly looks the part but he is still learning the defense. And at this point, Venables says he'd rather go with guys who know the system rather than those who don't. That being said, Reed tied for the team lead with six tackles.
Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton made some huge hits, as well as dropping back in coverage and picking off a pass. Reed, Pleasant and Brandon Crow were the second team linebackers. And when the Sooners went to their nickel coverage, it was Lofton and Reynolds, who the coaches really like.
"Some good, some not so good," said Venables on the play of his defense. "We gave up too many big plays. I think everybody kind of took their turn today — the front and the middle and the back end. Today, the offense did a good job and they really capitilized on our mistakes. We gave up too many big plays."
Venables also said he was disappointed with the tackling and that the Sooners will work more on hitting when they return from spring break on Monday. He said that opens up the risk of injury, but that it needed to be done.
Cornerback is pretty much locked up with Reggie Smith, Marcus Walker and Lendy Holmes, but the big question today was how would the safeties play?
Keenan Clayton and Quinton Carter took the majority of the reps with the first unit followed by Nic Harris and Brian Jackson, who picked off one pass. Dominique Franks also saw some time at safety.
Bobby Jack Wright talked about the need for improvement at safety after the scrimmage.
"The safety position has always been a concern the last couple of years," Wright said. "We are working a lot of young guys in there and I was glad that Brian Jackson, who has never played there, showed up well today. He's physical and he'll come hit you. He made a nice play in the flat and intercepted a pass. Keenan Clayton, I thought made some improvement today. So it's good to see him starting to step up and do some things.
"We still need to be more physical at that position than we have been. We need some guys who will really come down and stone the run game. We missed several tackles still at that positon. When you miss a tackle through the middle of your defense, it's going to go all the way. Those safeties will not miss tackles. They have to be squared up and hit the man just right."
Wright also talked about the overall play of the secondary.
"It was not near as good as I would've hoped, especially with a pretty veteran group on both sides of the ball. We were a little bit sloppy early on. Defensively, I really like what our corners did. I thought they played extremely well. They had a couple of picks. D.J. Wolfe really had a good day and Reggie showed up really good. He was physical in the run game. Marcus gave up one play and for a guy that's been here as long as him, I felt like he shouldn't have given it up. But overall, I thought he was pretty good."
Speaking of Wolfe, look for him to get into the mix at strong safety when the Sooners come back from Spring break on Monday.
Is it possible that Garrett Hartley could be better than last year? Well, if today was any indication he just might be as he nailed 10 of his 12 field goal attempts, several of which were beyond 50-yards with room to spare. But it was a somewhat below average day for the punters as Michael Cohen and Mike Knall each averaged 39 yards per punt.
Reggie Smith and Juaquin Iglesias were the first team kick returners. They were followed by DeMarco Murray and Manuel Johnson. Smith, Johnson and Iglesias worked as the punt returners.
OU's next open scrimmage is set for 11 a.m. on March 31.
Murray shines in opening spring scrimmage
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