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College Football Preview 2015-2016: 19. Oklahoma Sooners

Samaje Perine
19. Oklahoma Sooners 

2014-2015 Record: 8-5 (5-4 Big 12)
Coach: Bob Stoops, 17th year (168-44 overall)
Recruiting Rundown
Key Losses: DT Jordan Phillips, OT Tyrus Thompson
Heisman Hopeful: RB Samaje Perine
Breakout Player: QB Baker Mayfield

A flaming end to the 2013-2014 season left many Oklahoma fans and college football experts (including me) thinking big entering 2015. Many saw Bob Stoops' program as a College Football Playoff favorite and the clear-cut team to beat in the Big 12 beginning last year. But, things unraveled and while there were some highlights, an extremely poor defense and inconsistent QB play left the Sooners at a mediocre 8-5. After last season's disappointment, expectations will be tampered in Norman this year, but championships are still regular goals in Oklahoma. Perhaps lessened expectations, the addition of an impact transfer, along with new offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, could mean the Sooners take major steps this year and give Baylor and TCU a run for their money in the Big 12.

Backfield: A breakout 2014 Sugar Bowl saw Trevor Knight on many Heisman watch lists entering 2015 despite a rather pedestrian regular season. Though, as some expected, the quarterback was never able to meet those expectations. He wasn't terrible; the redshirt sophomore still managed to throw for 2,300 yards and 14 touchdowns throughout the year. Interceptions and poor decision-making was a serious problem (12 interceptions a year ago) and he never showed the confidence or "swagger" he showed against that star-studded Alabama defense in the 2014 Sugar Bowl. Entering 2015, that leaves the quarterback situation in an interesting place. Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield is now fully eligible and he has the chance to push Knight for the starting gig. In Kliff Kingsbury's first year as head coach at TTU, Mayfield dazzled at times, using his big arm and exciting playmaking to push the Red Raiders off to a hot 7-0 start. An impressive spring game only further pointed to the fact that Mayfield may be ready to push Knight off the starting gig. In first-year offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley's system, Mayfield could truly shine. Riley is bringing back Oklahoma's "Air Raid" attack that produced Heisman Trophy winners like Sam Bradford and Jason White. Mayfield has the big arm and awareness to be able to get the ball down the field to Oklahoma's big play receivers constantly. Sophomore Cody Thomas is the other option in the quarterback competition, but he is definitely seen as the long shot. While the quarterback situation is talented and interesting but murky, the tailback position is certainly a strength. Since Demarco Murray and Adrian Peterson years ago, the Sooners have been searching for a true game-changing back. They certainly have found one in sophomore Samaje Perine, who earned All-American honors in 2014-2015. Perine would finish with 1,713 yards on the year, including breaking the NCAA single game rushing record against Kansas after Melvin Gordon had broken it a week earlier. Perine is the perfect mix of speed and strength and he has excellent vision. It is truly amazing that he managed to put together such an impressive first year with Oklahoma, he will only grow and improve with the Sooners. That is a scary, scary thought for the rest of the Big 12. Perine is very much a serious Heisman candidate, especially in a conference not known at all for having suffocating defenses. Oklahoma's leading returning rusher beyond Perine is going to be redshirt junior Alex Ross, who managed 595 yards last year on nearly seven yards per carry. Ross is also an extremely explosive athlete who is always ready to bust open up huge runs. Before last season, Joe Mixon's college football career was in a terrible place, before it had even begun. A big-time recruit for Stoops and the Sooners, Mixon was accused of punching a woman in the face at a bar and many called for his dismissal from the program. Mixon ended up being suspended for the entirety of 2014, but now has an opportunity to put his career in Norman on the right track. He will be an intriguing change-of-pace to Perine and Ross.

Receivers: Riley's new system could have real success in Oklahoma not just because of Mayfield's big arm, but because of the abundance of playmakers that the Sooners have on their roster. That list begins with senior Sterling Shepard, who earned All-Big 12 honors last season after picking up 51 catches for 970 yards, along with five touchdowns. The veteran clearly proved to be an explosive weapon through the air, averaging 19 yards every catch. Those numbers are even more impressive when you consider Shepard did it with Knight struggling often. Clearly Oklahoma's top receiver, Shepard should do even more damage to opposing defenses in the Sooners' new scheme. Joining Shepard will be fellow senior Durron Neal, who is the Sooners' second returning leading receiver. Neal also proved to be a very explosive weapon last year, showcasing world class speed and tremendous athleticism en route to 513 receiving yards. With defenses focusing more on Shepard most likely, Neal could sneakily put up huge numbers. Big things are expected in 2015 from sophomore Michiah Quick. A pretty big recruit for Stoops and Oklahoma from Fresno, Quick showed some real potential. He recorded 25 receptions for 237 yards in 2014 as a true freshman despite being pretty deep in the depth chart. Quick's name fits very well; the sophomore is extremely quick and explosive. He is still growing as a route runner and has to improve as a run blocker, but he has all the tools to be a breakout candidate for Oklahoma this year. Also returning is going to be sophomore K.J. Young (19 catches, 225 yards in '14) who is joined by JUCO transfer Dede Westbrook. Rated the No. 4 junior college receiver by ESPN, Westbrook has all the talent to immediately make an impact in Norman. He is arriving from Blinn College, the same junior college that produced Cam Newton before Auburn. The tight end position could be a question for the Sooners this year, with the departure of Blake Bell. The former quarterback, who earned the nickname the "Belldozer" for his powerful goal line QB sneaks, was very good in his transition to tight end last season. He caught four touchdown passes and averaged over 13 yards per reception. It will be interesting to see what he tries to do at the next level (he was selected in the fourth round by San Francisco). His departure opens the door for two redshirt freshman to battle for the job, in Carson Meier and Mark Andrews. Both are very similar players; they aren't overwhelmingly dangerous in the passing game but are big, physical weapons in the red zone who are very strong blockers. Meier may have the leg-up in the competition, but Riley will likely try to utilize both in a multitude of ways.

Offensive Line: The Sooners' offensive line was decimated this offseason with the departures of beastly offensive tackles Tyrus Thompson and Daryl Williams, along with a number of other interior linemen that contributed to the Oklahoma offensive effort a season ago. That leaves Oklahoma with just two starters back on the unit, but center Ty Darlington could compete for All-Big 12 honors in his senior season. The veteran linemen is a gigantic wall in the heart of the Oklahoma offensive line who recognizes blitzes and defenses as well as anybody. Riley and Stoops will lean on him to also open up some major holes for Perine and others to run for. Joining Darlington will be another senior in Nila Kasitati, who is slated to take at the right guard position. Kasitati is also strong run blocker with solid athleticism. Having those two interior linemen will clearly help the Oklahoma offense, but there is still significant worry around the perimeter of the unit, without Thompson and Williams. The left tackle position could fall to senior Josiah St. John, who at least has a strong grasp of the system and what life is like in the trenches for Oklahoma. Orlando Brown is a rising redshirt freshman who was strong in the spring and could certainly steal the job away from St. John. Brown is massive, at over 350 pounds, but is still relatively limited as a blocker. He doesn't have a very high football IQ, but the raw tools he has are tremendous and he should get chances. At the other tackle spot, junior Sam Grant is likely to take over. Grant has the versatility to play at either tackle spot, but Oklahoma could need him more at right tackle. Standing at 6'7", Grant is certainly not easy to push over and he moves well side to side. The other position in question on the Sooners' O-Line is at left guard, where two juniors are fighting for the starting gig. Jamal Danley and Dylan Hartsook are two competitive players with a high work ethic and definitely loads of talent. Danley, rated the No.1 junior college guard transfer by most recruiting services, may have the edge up, but both will push for the starting spot deep into fall camp. The addition of four-star offensive tackle, Bobby Evans, will only help with the depth in the unit. Rapidly improving sophomore Jonathan Alvarez will also help in that department, though the depth chart throughout the offensive line is generally extremely young and inexperienced.

Defensive Line: Several pieces are gone from Oklahoma's front seven, including defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, but the defensive line still has plenty of talent, and an unquestioned leader in senior Charles Tapper. Phillips will be playing on Sundays, and was pretty productive in Norman, but he is not a loss that the Sooners can't overcome, especially with a number of fresh recruits coming in. Geneo Grissom, a solid pass rusher, also is gone after graduating. Grissom did add 3.5 sacks but his departure could open the doors for Tapper to take over as Oklahoma's top pass rushing linemen. Tapper posted 37 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and three sacks in 2014. Solid numbers all across the board, but defensive coordinator Mike Stoops will be hopeful that Tapper can become even more dangerous. He has the talent, and the physical frame to be a sack machine. But, he has to improve his stamina and there are thoughts he quits on plays. Sure to see action opposite Tapper will be junior Matt Dimon, who was pretty quiet a year ago. Though, Dimon will also see increased snaps with Grissom and solid Chuka Ndulue departed. Expect, the well-rounded junior to constantly be making plays in opposing backfields. Another end that should also see increased action will be redshirt freshman Dwayne Orso. Orso, a talent out of Birmingham, Alabama, knows how to play physical in the trenches, after posting great numbers in high school playing against future SEC competition. He may struggle to put up huge numbers this year, but the future is bright for him. The big question for Oklahoma is certainly replacing Phillips. Junior Jordan Wade and sophomore Matt Romar are the two fighting for the duty. Wade is an explosive athlete who could grow into a very skilled pass rusher soon enough. Romar isn't the biggest, standing at just six feet and a shade over 290 pounds, but he is a help in run support and uses crafty moves to get into opposing backfields. Neither have the talent of Phillips or have many NFL scouts drooling like Phillips did, but they could grow into very capable replacements. Two players that could also fight their way into the rotation on the defensive line are Marquise Overton and Neville Gallimore, both four-star finds. Overton is a physical, still growing tackle from inside the pipeline who has a bright future. The Sooners went over the border to snatch up Gallimore, a talent from St. Catherine's, Canada at the Canada Prep Football Academy.

Linebackers: Few players strike fear into opponents' hearts like Eric Striker. The senior's name fits his game style perfectly; he is an aggressive linebacker with no fear who is ready so strike at any time. That 2014 Sugar Bowl was also a coming-out-party for Striker, but unlike Knight, he followed it up with a terrific 2014 season. The senior would finish with 68 tackles, 17 of those for a loss and also led the team with nine sacks. He capped it all off with All-Big 12 and All-American honors, and he will once more be primed to lead Oklahoma's linebacker corps. Striker has the versatility to play on the inside or outside; he has the pass rushing for weakside but is a strong enough tackler and run defender to stay inside. Wherever he is, Striker will find ways to make plays and pump up the rest of the defense. He truly is the heart-and-soul of the Oklahoma defense, and he will have a monster 2015 season. Though, Striker isn't the only talent that the Sooners have lurking at the linebacker position. Junior Dominique Alexander is also returning, after also earning All-Conference honors with his fantastic performance last season. Alexander led the Sooners with total tackles, finishing up 2014 with 107 in all. He proved to be a truly elite run stopper, who was always finding and closing lanes for the opposing tailback. He isn't the big name that Striker is, but Alexander is clearly an elite talent who is always around the ball. Also returning is junior Jordan Evans, who also showcased his wonderful all-around game throughout last season. Evans was second on the team, only behind Alexander, in tackles picking up 93 and 6.5 TFL. Evans also forced two fumbles and also plays all over the field, but a little bit smarter than Striker or Alexander. Big things were expected of Frank Shannon heading into the 2014 season. But, sexual assault allegations left him suspended for a year and his future with Oklahoma seemed iffy at best. Though, he is apparently back with the team and ready to contribute once more. Shannon is a terrific talent who will only improve an already stacked linebacker corps and rush defense. He is blessed with terrific instincts and is also a solid coverage 'backer with decent ball skills. The final linebacker slot in Oklahoma's 3-4 defense is likely to fall to D.J. Ward, though. The sophomore was buried deep in the Sooners' depth chart last season, managing just five tackles. But, he has the speed and quickness towards the ball to also be a superb run defender. Senior Devante Bond is extremely dangerous, after picking up four tackles for loss last season despite seeing limited action. The veteran is always ready to attack backfields, but weaknesses in other parts of his game leave him only as a sub at this point in his career. Sophomore Charles Walker has the size and ferocity to possibly even see action on the defensive line, but he definitely fits better as an outside linebacker who will work for snaps. Even if Shannon doesn't fully return to the Sooners, the linebackers on this team are terrific, with three likely to be legitimate All-Big 12 contributors. Mike Stoops definitely recognizes this, and he will not be afraid to unleash Striker and the rest of the talent on this unit against opponents. The Sooners were rated as the Big 12's second-rated rush defense a year ago, though the talent returning this year could make it the top.

Zack Sanchez
Secondary: There is also significant talent returning to the Oklahoma secondary, a good thing as well, considering that the Sooners were not very good against the pass in 2014, ranking near the bottom of the conference. The clear stud of the defensive backfield is going to be cornerback Zack Sanchez, a junior who met high expectations this past season. Sanchez proved to be a ball hawking corner each and every game last year, picking off six passes and recording eight pass deflections. The junior isn't the biggest corner in the world, but he is a strong, sturdy defender who won't get pushed around and knows when and how to jump routes. The other returning starter in the Oklahoma secondary is junior free safety Ahmad Thomas, a fellow junior. Thomas proved to be a very effective last line of defense, recording 75 tackles. He isn't the most aggressive or rangy safety but he always steps up and makes plays when needed. He will be backed up by another strong veteran in yet another junior, Hatari Byrd. Byrd isn't a game-changer either, but he is a well-built defensive back who is disciplined and intelligent. The cornerback slot opposite of Sanchez could be a problem, especially considering nearly every quarterback will attempt to throw the ball away from the All-Big 12 performer. Junior Dakota Austin, sophomore Jordan Thomas and even true freshman P.J. Mbanasor could all compete for the job. Mbanasor would qualify as the most intriguing of the trio. Rated by many as the Sooners' top prospect in the Class of 2015, Mbanasor has all the tools to be a possibly dominant corner someday in Norman. He has good size, impressive athleticism and also has great hands. The strong safety position is also up for grabs after the departure of Quentin Hayes. Hayes was a productive safety in his time with the Sooners and his 52 tackles will not easily be replaced. Sophomore Steven Parker certainly has talent, but he is unproven and will have to adjust quickly. Redshirt freshman Cameron Cotton, a prospect straight out of Tulsa, could really grow into something someday and really worked on getting stronger and quicker in his redshirt year. Will Sunderland Jr. is a four-star recruit from inside Oklahoma who will also compete for opportunities at one of the safety slots.

Special Teams: The Sooners and Bob Stoops will be an unusual predicament this upcoming season. For the first time in years, Michael Hunnicutt is not slated as the starting kicker after he graduated. He slumped at times last season though, and perhaps new blood isn't a bad thing. Senior Nick Hodgson has a good chance to start but Illinois product Austin Seibert is the nation's top kicker in the 2015 Class and will give him a run for his money.

Entering his 17th year in Norman, there is certainly some pressure on Bob Stoops. The Sooners looked downright average throughout 2014 and a 40-6 meltdown in the Russell Athletic Bowl against Clemson did not help. The program hasn't won an outright Big 12 title since 2010, and Sooners' fans expect championships every single year. Though, perhaps dampened expectations, sitting behind TCU and Baylor, will serve as motivation and help this Oklahoma team. It is hard to imagine a first-year offensive system working flawlessly, but Riley's system seems like it will be a good fit. And, even if Mayfield nor Knight completely overwhelms at QB, having a Heisman candidate like Perine at back is certainly a huge help. With a truly nasty defense, Oklahoma once more has the talent to win the Big 12 and even get to the CFB Playoff, a year later than expected. That is assuming they can get past a mid-September meeting with Tennessee and then a scary three-game finale stretch that includes TCU, Baylor and archrival Oklahoma State.

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