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College Football Preview 2016-2017: 4. Oklahoma Sooners

Baker Mayfield
4. Oklahoma Sooners

Conference: Big 12
Location: Norman, Oklahoma
2015-2016 Record: 11-2 (8-1 Big 12)
Bowl Result: Loss in Orange Bowl (Playoff Semifinal)
Breakout Player: DL Charles Walker
Heisman Hopeful: QB Baker Mayfield
X-Factor: WR DeDe Westbrook
Recruiting Rundown  (via Rivals)

Oklahoma entered last season eager to prove that 2014 was a fluke, after the Sooners stumbled to an 8-5 overall record and 5-4 conference mark in the '14 campaign. Oklahoma did just that; new QB Baker Mayfield led a recharged offense, Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon orchestrated a dominant rushing attack, Sterling Shepard was one of the Big 12's best at receiver and the defense did enough to aid the Sooners to a 11-1 regular season record. While the loss included a head-scratching defeat to Red River rival Texas, Oklahoma won their first outright Big 12 title since all the way back in 2010, and beat a number of great teams on the way (Tennessee, Baylor, Oklahoma State). An Orange Bowl defeat to Clemson in the College Football Playoff was a disappointing end to the season, but 2015 should still be considered a massive success. With Mayfield returning, along with the two-headed monster in the backfield, OU very well could repeat as Big 12 Champs.

Backfield: By fall camp, it was beginning to become clear that Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield was going to overtake incumbent starter Trevor Knight as quarterback in '15. Knight had been mediocre all of 2014 after his big Sugar Bowl performance against Alabama a few months prior, and Mayfield had the energy and big arm to fit new offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley's air raid scheme. Mayfield did end up winning the job and did not disappoint. The undersized (6'1") but fearless signal-caller ended up throwing for 3,700 yards and 36 touchdowns, while also rushing for 405 yards and seven more scores. Mayfield was right in the thick of the Heisman race much of the season, before he was banged up later in the year. Many college football fans see similarities in Mayfield's game to a former infamous college football QB: Johnny Manziel. Both play pretty reckless at times but can dominate a game despite their smaller stature. While Mayfield will lose his top target in Sterling Shepard at receiver, he should still put up huge numbers again in the second season of Riley's offense. Mayfield will be joined by junior Samaje Perine and sophomore Joe Mixon at running back. Perine has proven on countless occasions that he can punish opposing defenses, as he holds the FBS record for rushing yards in a single game after rushing for 427 yards against Kansas in '14. Perine is another relatively small guy height-wise, but he can still bulldoze over runners with his strong, compact frame. He rushed for 1,349 yards and 16 touchdowns and even an offense that often prioritizes the pass, he could find himself in the mix for the Heisman. Mixon's Oklahoma career began very, very shaky. A highly touted recruit, Mixon was involved in an incident at a bar and a video surfaced of him punching a woman. Mixon was suspended all of 2014, and the incident still overshadows his career. While Mixon will certainly have to answer questions off the field that he has matured, his performance on the field was impressive. With the same powerful manner of Perine, Mixon rushed for 753 yards and seven touchdowns last season, showing even more burst than Perine, averaging 6.7 yards per carry. Perine will still enter the year as the starter, but expect OU to give the sophomore plenty of action in '16. Alex Ross (172 yards in 2015) transferred to Missouri, leaving redshirt freshman Rodney Anderson as the third-string back.

Receivers: While Lincoln Riley's offensive scheme benefited quite a bit of Oklahoma players, it didn't help one more than Sterling Shepard last season. Shepard was the clear-cut top option throw the air and he showcased his superb speed and reliable hands, reeling in 86 balls for 1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns. His performance helped him earn All-American honors and eventually increased his draft stock enough to go in the second round to the Giants. His departure leaves OU searching for answers at the receiver position. The cupboard is far from bare, but it remains to be seen if any of the returning Oklahoma receivers can take over the role as No. 1 receiver. Senior DeDe Westbrook is most likely the top candidate. Westbrook is a former junior college transfer with blazing speed, which he used to his advantage last season, en route to 46 catches for 743 yards. However, Westbrook has had issues with drops in his career and isn't the established route runner that Shepard was. Another former transfer, Geno Lewis, could also compete for the top receiver role. Lewis was formerly at Penn State, and has proven he can make big plays. He could be quite the helper in his final season of college football, coming in as a grad transfer. Junior Jeffery Mead, sophomore AD Miller and junior Michiah Quick are other candidates fighting for greater roles. Miller had just two receptions as a true freshman but is a wonderful athlete, while Mead proved he could move the chains last year. Quick is a former sought-after recruit who has shown flashes of big-time potential, but hasn't been able to get on the field enough. He had nine catches for 103 yards last year, but could be a serious breakout candidate, with wonderful speed and explosiveness. The tight end spot should be a major strength for the Sooners this season. Mark Andrews set a OU frosh record with seven touchdown grabs, and is back for his sophomore season. Beyond him, however, Oklahoma is pretty thin at the position, although that shouldn't be a major worry, as the tight end position doesn't play a huge role in their offense.

Offensive Line: While the Sooners' flashy skill position players were making big plays throughout all of 2015, the offensive line had some significant ups-and-downs. For the most part, the line played very well, especially in the second half of the season, but there is still plenty of room for improvement as they enter the 2016 campaign. Three starters will depart from the unit, most notably All-Big 12 center Ty Darlington, who has been an anchor on the Sooners' offensive line for years. Even without Darlington, the center position could still be a strength of the group, as sophomore Jonathan Alvarez could start there. Alvarez was very good last season, but mostly at the left guard spot. Switching Alvarez to center, where he is still pretty comfortable, gives Oklahoma an established run blocker up the middle, giving Perine and Mixon even more punch between the tackles. Oklahoma should also be very good at both tackle spots. Sophomore Orlando Brown emerged as a prime talent last season after impressing people late in fall camp. Brown should lock down the left tackle starting job after making 13 starts last season and earning himself a spot on the All-Big 12 team. At 6'8", 340 pounds, nobody will be able to get past the gigantic tackle with simply using power or strength. At right tackle, the Sooners will turn to fellow sophomore Dru Samia. Samia was switched around quite a bit a year ago, but seems like a good fit at RT. Samia isn't quite the giant that Brown is, but gets by with good footwork and technique. The guard positions are definitely going to be the question off this O-Line. Former JUCO transfer Ben Powers has impressed in spring and was well regarded coming out of the junior college ranks. Another former JUCO guy, Jamal Danley, could also fight for snaps at either guard spot. Redshirt freshman Cody Ford, junior Preston Morgan and another junior college prospect, Ashton Julious, are the other blockers fighting for a starting gig at either guard slot. Oklahoma is also hoping for big things from another newcomer, Erik Swenson. Swenson is a four-star commit out of Illinois that brings as much upside as anybody in the 2016 class.

Defensive Line: This past season, Oklahoma proved they could get after the quarterback, with 40 team sacks. Now, five of their top six defensive linemen from '15 are back, with the lone loss being end Charles Tapper. Tapper is not a small loss, however, as the veteran had 50 tackles and seven sacks last year, and made two All-Big 12 teams in his time in Norman. Tapper's production will not be easy to replicate, but a lot of people feel that his replacement this season could be even better. Expect that replacement to be junior Charles Walker, who had 36 tackles and six sacks despite not starting a single game for the Sooners in 2015. Walker is a powerful, disruptive force that finds ways to make plays. Blockers may pay more attention to him this season, but expect the talented defender to still make a major impact. Opposite of Walker, Oklahoma will turn to senior Matt Dimon, who isn't quite the pass rushing presence that Tapper was, but is still a quality defensive end. Dimon is a great run defender, utilizing good instincts and athleticism, as he had 4.5 tackles for loss last season. Do not expect the veteran to be dominant, but he is a well-built defender that does the little things well. In the middle, OU will turn to stout and powerful junior Matthew Romar at nose tackle. Romar is a solid run defender who recorded 23 tackles last year. He will give Oklahoma an experienced, physical piece in the interior to work with. Romar will also be joined by senior Jordan Wade and sophomore Marquise Overton, who will bring depth. Overton has loads of potential and could push Romar, while Wade had 23 tackles last season and made a start. The Sooners are very excited to see what a pair of unproven young defensive linemen can do. Redshirt freshman Du'Vonta Lumpkin has the power and motor to be a force in the long run for OU, while true freshman Amani Bledsoe oozes with talent. Bledsoe is a four-star prospect out of Lawrence, Kansas, who should be able to do special things at either tackle or end.

Linebackers: The Sooners will have to move on from a dynamic playmaker in their linebacker corps after Eric Striker graduated this offseason. Striker wasn't much of a run defender but he got after the quarterback, with 7.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss in '15. While the loss of Striker makes this unit a relative question mark, it has some young promising talent. Senior Jordan Evans is back at middle linebacker and should put together a big season after finishing off second on the Sooners in tackles this past season. Evans uses impressive athleticism and speed to rack up tackles, as he had 83 last year with four tackles for loss. The questions arise at outside linebacker, where there isn't much proven players. Sophomore Tay Evans has a great mix of athleticism and ferocity, but he played in just ten games and had eight tackles last year, it is hard to imagine him becoming one of the team's premier defenders. At the hybrid "Jack" position, Oklahoma could turn to junior Ogbonnia Okoronkwo to get after the quarterback. Okoronkwo is raw but is a strong, physical playmaker. Despite very limited action this past season, the junior managed two sacks, and he could be a pleasant surprise this season. That leaves OU also searching for answers at another outside linebacker position, where there appears a good chance true freshman Caleb Kelly will start. Kelly is one of the highest rated prospects of the 2016 recruiting class, coming in as a five-star out of Fresno. It showed just how strong of a recruiter Bob Stoops is that he went out on to the West Coast and landed the elite linebacker over other Big 12 and Pac-12 schools. With how think Oklahoma is at 'backer, Kelly will almost certainly see some important role, even if he doesn't start. Juniors Dalton Rodriguez and Emmanuel Beal could be a couple of deep reserves that see increased action this season, and could play a pretty key role. Beal is a relatively low rated junior college transfer who comes from Lackawanna Community College up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, which has formed an interesting pipeline with Oklahoma over the past few years. High-upside pass rusher Kapri Doucet also comes from Lackawanna CC in this year's class.

Jordan Thomas (7)
Secondary: Despite facing some dangerous passing attacks in the pass-happy Big 12 (Texas Tech,
TCU, West Virginia, Baylor), the Sooners' pass defense was pretty strong a season ago. It could take a hit in '16 as top corner Zack Sanchez departs. Sanchez was a rock-solid defensive back that rarely made mistakes. While the secondary will undergo a transition as Sanchez departs, there are plenty of people that believe junior Jordan Thomas is the better corner. Thomas showed he could make plays last year, with 46 tackles and an impressive five interceptions. Thomas is slightly bigger and stronger than Sanchez which is important; he will face a lot of lengthy, athletic Big 12 targets and will have to hold his ground. Thomas' interception totals may decrease as he plays more man coverage this season, but he should put together an all-around better campaign. Senior Ahmad Thomas is also back to the defensive backfield after earning All-Big 12 honors in 2015. Ahmad had 75 tackles and three picks himself and returns to his field his pivotal free safety position. He'll be joined at safety by Steve Parker, who should put together a solid 2016 season. Parker isn't a wonderful athlete, but he has a good feel for the game and should continue to improve. OU is eager to see who will take over the cornerback slot opposite of Thomas. Sophomore P.J. Mbanasor is a favorite, as he was a highly regarded recruit in last year's cycle and he showed flashes, with seven tackles. Mbanasor but not be the pure playmaker Jordan Thomas is but he is a great coverage option and should be shutdown. Senior Dakota Austin is also going to compete for the starting gig; he may not have the upside Mbanasor presents, but he has more experience. However, Oklahoma is pretty thin beyond them at cornerback. Michiah Quick, the receiver I mentioned earlier, has been experimenting at cornerback, as he has the versatility and the Sooners have the need. He will need time to adjust and it is unknown how much he'll play of either way in '16, but he could be an intriguing player to watch. The Sooners are banking on newcomer Jordan Parker to make plays this season. Parker is a well-rounded prospect who also comes from the West Coast.

Special Teams: Oklahoma is blessed with a wonderful leg to guide their special teams in sophomore Austin Seibert. Seibert, just a sophomore, was a Ray Guy seminfinalist last season (for best punter in the nation) but should also handle kicking duties. The return game will have to replace the transferred Alex Ross and graduated Sterling Shepard.

A deflating 20-point defeat at the hands of Clemson in the Playoff semifinal really dampened the hype for Oklahoma entering 2016, but they should not be overlooked; they can hang up there with the likes of Alabama and Clemson. Baker Mayfield is sometimes erratic, but there is no denying he is a legit Heisman threat, and there isn't any team in the nation that can really counter a 1-2 combo of Mixon and Perine. That should guide Oklahoma much of the season, but a receiver has to fill the major void left by Shepard, and the defense has some leadership issues. Those questions, when combined with non-conference dates with Houston and Ohio State leave OU without a simple road in '16. However, Bob Stoops has proven his Oklahoma teams can produce and hang with the best in the nation, and they should once more be in the thick of the National Championship mix this year.

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