Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Oklahoma Spring Football Preview


What are the three lingering memories you have from OU’s 2006 campaign? 1) OU getting screwed in Eugene, 2) Adrian Peterson breaking his collarbone, and 3) OU walking into a hornet’s nest of trick plays in the Fiesta Bowl against Boise State. You’d think this was a disappointing season. It wasn’t.

Most analysts handed the conference title to Texas at the beginning of the season, and after UT whooped OU in Dallas, it seemed like a done deal. However, OU ripped off eight straight wins while nobody was looking, and UT stumbled late in the season against K-State and ATM, and suddenly it was the Sooners thumping Nebraska in the Big XII title game instead of the Longhorns. Of course, that set them up for the craziness that was the Boise State game, but oh well. No matter what, the season was a success.

What was impressive about OU’s success in 2006 was the fact that the two biggest question marks entering the season—QB and O-line play—were two of the stronger aspects of OU’s play. Senior Paul Thompson was steady and error-free most of the season and allowed OU’s weapons—namely, Adrian Peterson and Malcolm Kelly—to make plays. When Peterson went down, Allen Patrick filled in admirably. Patrick was a workhorse back, carrying the ball 30+ times in wins over Colorado, Missouri, and Texas A&M and when he went down, Chris Brown was strong too.

Coming into 2006, the defense was supposed to be one of Bob Stoops’ best, and for the first month of the season they were anything but. Against UAB, Washington, and Oregon, OU gave up almost 400 yards per game. However, something clicked around the Texas loss, and things started to turn around. They held Colorado to 113 total yards and 5 first downs, they picked off Chase Daniel 3 times, they held Baylor to 140 total yards (-48 rushing), and they gave up only 100 points in the 8 games following the Texas loss...which is enough to forgive the 43 points they gave up in the Fiesta Bowl, ahem. In the end, they finished #16 in the nation in total defense...a very impressive recovery from a horrid non-conference start.

Key Returnees

The good news is, OU only lost 10 lettermen from last year’s squad. The bad news is, that 10 included Adrian Peterson, Paul Thompson, and Rufus Alexander. And their top three DE’s. The secondary, WR corps, and O-line return almost completely intact, though, and that’s huge.

There are all-conference candidates everywhere—RB Allen Patrick, WR Malcolm Kelly, OL Jon Cooper, DT DeMarcus Granger, safeties Reggie Smith and Darien Walker, etc., and OU always brings in a strong recruiting class. There is, however, a giant, gaping hole at QB. Paul Thompson was nothing if not steady filling in for the disgraced and departed Rhett Bomar. Thompson’s replacement doesn’t have to be flashy, but he can’t lose games.

Spring Developments

It seems 90% of the attention in the spring has been paid to the QB competition. Heck, their Spring Game was on ESPN (how unfair is that??), and that’s pretty much all the announcers talked about for two hours. The two main candidates are junior Joey Halzle and RSFr Sam Bradford. Bradford looked phenomenal in the Spring Game—I know this because it was on ESPN...have I mentioned how unfair that is? Down the line, I expect him to take the job, but Sooner coaches might try to be as cautious as possible with the young Bradford. Keith Nichol, a true freshman, graduated HS early and was in for spring ball, but he appeared to be a few steps behind. I assume he’ll redshirt.

Another development of spring practices was the emergence of yet another stud running back, redshirt freshman Demarco Murray. At the very least, he appears to have taken over the main kick return duties for the fall, but with his staggering numbers (16 carries, 132 yards in the 2nd scrimmage), he butted his way into the RB picture as well. Stoops likes to break freshmen in shortly (Adrian Peterson didn’t start until a few games into his freshman season), so I would figure Patrick is still #1 to start the season. With OU breaking in a new QB, though, you figure there will be plenty of carries to go around for Patrick, Murray, and Chris Brown.

The new QB will also have some strong weapons ready to catch some passes. Everybody knows about Malcolm Kelly, but RSFr Adron Tennell emerged as a strong threat in the spring, and sophomore TE Jermaine Gresham has started to prove why he was the #1 TE recruit in the country coming out of high school. This OU offense, with a strong load of freshmen and sophomores, could be OU’s most explosive offense in quite a while, but with such young personnel, OU fans must worry a bit about inconsistency.

As for the defense, there were quite a few new faces to work into the mix on the D-line (doesn’t it seem like every school in the conference lost their DE’s??). You never worry about OU’s talent level, but the same inconsistency bug I mentioned regarding the offense could bite the D as well.

LB Ryan Reynolds was lost for the spring to a knee injury—after being lost all of last season due to a knee injury—and that was a disappointment, but JUCO transfer Mike Reed and junior Curtis Lofton emerged as big-time hitters. Overall, the offense crushed the defense in the Spring Game, and while you don’t want to read too much into that, a scenario in which the defense starts slow and improves throughout the season (a la 2006) is definitely plausible.

Fun With Numbers

By the numbers*, here are the five biggest keys to success for OU in 2006:

(* The numbers have changed slightly from this linked post as I tinker with ways to calculate correlation)

1. Opponents’ Completion %
2. Penalty Yards
3. Opponents’ Yards Per Pass Attempt
4. First Down Ratio
5. Opponents’ Rushing Yards

First of all, this does suggest that OU’s breaking in of a new QB won’t be the make-or-break issue for OU in 2007. Like everybody else in the conference, OU will be breaking in new pass-rushers, and how fast they find them (Alonzo Dotson appears to be the most likely candidate) will dictate how quickly the pieces of the defense fall into place. If the opponent’s QB is under pressure and the pass defense is solid, then OU will likely find success, new QB or no new QB.

OU was also the only team in the conference whose success was so strongly altered by their number of penalty yards. A team with this level of experience (and, one would hope, more discipline) on the O-line and in the secondary should be able to cut their overall number of penalties, and taking that out of the equation could lead to more success.

It would behoove the Sooners to not wait a month before playing defense like last season, though with this year’s slate, they might get away with it. Last year’s trip to Eugene is replaced this year with a trip to Tulsa—definitely not a gimme, but being that they’ll have half the fans in the stands, it’s definitely a better situation. Last year they hosted Washington, this year it’s Miami-FL. Sadly, Miami isn’t much of a step up from Washington, but you know they have athletes. Breaking in a new QB and playing so many freshmen and sophomores on offense, you could definitely see OU slipping up at some point, but I have to think that they still have pretty good odds of duplicating last year’s 10-2 regular season record, especially if they emerge from the non-conference slate unscathed.