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Team countdown: No. 5 Oklahoma

Mike Huguenin
Yahoo Sports

There were sky-high expectations for Oklahoma last season, but the Sooners didn't reach them.

The Sooners went into the season ranked No. 1 but didn't even win the Big 12. Heck, they didn't even win their state. Oklahoma State won the Big 12 title and pounded the Sooners 44-10 in the regular-season finale. The Sooners finished tied for third in the league. Still, OU had 10 wins, including one over Iowa in the Insight Bowl.

This season's Oklahoma team hasn't received much national acclaim. The Sooners have been picked to win the Big 12, but there has been no talk about a national title.

The Sooners' task has been made tougher in the past two weeks, when they lost two starting offensive linemen. Senior C Ben Habern, the best at his position in the Big 12, had to give up football because of a neck injury, and senior G Tyler Evans tore his ACL in practice and will miss the season. That means a line that would've been a strength now is a mystery of sorts.

Defensively, new coordinator Mike Stoops, who returns after an eight-season run as Arizona's coach, has some work to do up front, but he has talent with which to work.

The particulars

Last season: 10-3 overall, 6-3 in Big 12 (tied for 3rd in league)
Coach: Bob Stoops (139-34, 14th season)
Returning starters (minimum 7 starts last season): Offense (5) – TB Roy Finch, G/C Gabe Ikard, QB Landry Jones, T Lane Johnson, WR Kenny Stills. Defense (8) – S Aaron Colvin (moved to CB), S Javon Harris, CB Demontre Hurst, S/LB Tony Jefferson, T Jamarkus McFarland, LB Corey Nelson, T Casey Walker, LB Tom Wort. Special teams (2) – K Michael Hunnicutt, P Tress Way.
Fast fact: Oklahoma has lost seven road games in the past three seasons; that equals the number of road losses the Sooners had in the previous seven seasons.

Offense

QB Landry Jones is heading into his fourth season as the Sooners' starter and already has thrown for a school-record 12,379 yards in his career. That total is fifth on the Big 12 career passing list. He also has 93 TD passes and 41 interceptions. He is first among active quarterbacks nationally in yardage, TDs and picks. Jones has 21 career 300-yard games and nine career 400-yard games, and has six career games with at least five passing TDs.

[Related: With so many new faces on offense, defense must lead way for Spartans]

Jones and the passing attack struggled down the stretch last season after WR Ryan Broyles was lost for the season with an injury. In the last four games, Jones threw six interceptions and just one TD pass, and

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Landry Jones slumped late last season and must rebound; he is the key to the offense. (Getty Images)

had two of his four lowest yardage games of the season.

Broyles is gone now, and the inexperience of the Sooners' wide receiver corps is a concern this season. Then again, the receiving corps could end up being a strength.

Junior Kenny Stills, who had 61 receptions and eight TDs, should become the go-to guy. He has been an important part of the rotation since stepping on campus before the 2010 season, and has 122 receptions and 13 TDs in his career. True freshman Trey Metoyer was a five-star signee in 2011 who didn't qualify; he got his academics in order, enrolled in January and had a strong spring practice. He is expected to make a big impact. The third starter is expected to be senior Justin Brown, who transferred from Penn State earlier this month; he had 35 receptions for 517 yards in the Nittany Lions' popgun passing attack last season, and if he adapts quickly to the more diversified offense, he should have a 50-catch season. Jaz Reynolds, a projected starter, and Trey Franks were reinstated after offseason suspensions, but both will miss multiple games. That duo combined for 63 receptions last season. OU signed an excellent group of receivers, and look for two or three other signees to join Metoyer in getting playing time this fall.

The Sooners will miss TE James Hanna, who had 27 receptions last season. JC transfer Brannon Green, who went through spring practice, is expected to start. He is a better blocker than receiver at this point. Depth is iffy, as the Sooners have no tight end on the roster who has caught a college pass.

There is talent at tailback, but health is a concern. Senior Dominique Whale, a transfer from NAIA program Langston (Okla.), ran for 627 yards and nine TDs in seven games (four starts) last season before suffering a season-ending ankle injury. Roy Finch, just 5 feet 7 and 175 pounds, took over and ran for 605 yards and three scores, but he seems likely to spend more time as a slot receiver this season. Junior Brennan Clay, a former four-star signee who was the No. 2 running back nationally in the 2010 recruiting class, hasn't come close to living up to the high school hype, but perhaps this will be his breakthrough season. JC transfer Damien Williams, who ran for 1,931 yards and 26 TDs last season at Arizona Western CC, is another who should see time.

FB Trey Millard, a 256-pounder, should get some short-yardage carries. That also will be the case for backup QB Blake "Belldozer" Bell, a 6-6, 254-pound sophomore who played in jumbo packages last season. He scored 13 rushing TDs, but attempted just four passes.

The recent hits to the line have hurt. It's one thing to have linemen injured in spring practice; it's quite another to have them lost for the season in August. Habern's retirement means junior Gabe Ikard, one of the best linemen in the league, will move from guard to center. Ikard started seven games at center last season because of an injury to Habern, but guard is his best position. Ikard's move plus Evans' injury means the Sooners will have two new starting guards; they should be junior Bronson Irwin and sophomore Adam Shead, who started five times last season and could be a future star.

[Related: LSU dismisses 'Honey Badger' for a violation of team rules]

A returning starter at tackle is senior Lane Johnson, a former JC transfer. At Kilgore College in Texas, Johnson (now 6-7 and 303 pounds) was a quarterback as a freshman. He played tight end and defensive end at OU before moving to the offensive line during spring practice 2011. He took quickly to the new position and started 12 games last season. The other starting tackle will be sophomore Daryl Williams, an athletic 300-pounder seen as a future star. If Williams is as good as coaches expect, he will contend for all-league honors. Depth is an issue at tackle and guard.

Defense

Mike Stoops' return has everyone associated with the defense fired up. But Stoops won't have it easy.

Oklahoma lost both starting ends, and the two new starters at the position are seniors. David King started five times last season and had two sacks. The other starter will be R.J. Washington, a former five-star recruit who was the No. 13 player nationally in the 2008 signing class but has been a disappointment. Washington has 23 tackles and 5.5 sacks in his career. Sophomore Chuka Ndulue will be the third end.

The top three tackles are seniors – starters Jamarkus McFarland and Casey Walker and backup Stacy McGee. Coaches will be looking for more production from that trio: They combined for 40 tackles and seven tackles for loss last season. OU's run defense has been spotty at times the past two seasons, and that trio is going to be a key for any improvement this fall.

The linebacker corps continues the theme of upperclassmen being important. Juniors Corey Nelson and Tom Wort are returning starters, and they will be joined in the starting lineup by senior Joseph Ibiloye. He

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Tom Wort has bulked up and should continue to be a big-play guy for Oklahoma's defense. (Getty Images)

has made five starts in his career and is adept in pass coverage, not surprising considering he was signed as a safety. Wort has added about 10 pounds and now weighs 237. He has some big-play ability, as evidenced by his 3.5 sacks and two picks last season as a middle 'backer.

The guy to watch in the secondary is junior Tony Jefferson, who has played a hybrid safety/linebacker role in his first two seasons but now strictly is a safety. Jefferson has a nose for the ball (139 career tackles, six picks, 10 pass breakups) and is a hard hitter. Senior Javon Harris is a returning starter at safety; he had three interceptions last season. Jefferson's move to safety means junior Aaron Colvin, a starter at safety last season, is back at cornerback, which he played in 2010. Senior Demontre Hurst, who received some all-league acclaim last season, is a returning starter at corner. He will be a three-year starter for OU and has two interceptions, 23 pass breakups and 119 tackles in his career. Gabe Lynn is a proven backup safety, but depth at corner is an issue.

Special teams

Oklahoma has one of the best kicker-punter duos in the nation. K Michael Hunnicutt was 21-of-24, including 4-of-4 from at least 40 yards. While he does not have the strongest leg, he did nail a 53-yarder last season. P Tress Way averaged 42.0 yards per attempt, and dropped 34 of his 63 punts inside the 20.

The return jobs are up for grabs. Brown did an acceptable job as Penn State's punt returner last season and could win that role with the Sooners.

OU did a nice job covering kickoffs last season, but the punt coverage needs vast improvement.

Schedule

Oklahoma will be able to ease into the season with non-conference games against UTEP (on the road!) and FCS member Florida A&M, but the conference schedule begins in Game 3.

The league slate is tough early (Kansas State, at Texas Tech and vs. Texas in Dallas are the first three Big 12 games) and late (at West Virginia, Oklahoma State and at TCU to close out the regular season).

There's also a non-conference game against Notre Dame on Oct. 27, sandwiched between what should be easy league games against Kansas and Iowa State.

Overview

There would be more reason to believe in the Sooners had they not lost those two starting offensive linemen so recently. Still, weep not for Bob Stoops, whose team has a lot of talent.

Despite Whaley's injury, the Sooners ran the ball much better last season than they did in 2009 and '10. That type of production (162.9 ypg) must continue; indeed, if the receiving corps has trouble early, which is a distinct possibility, the running game is going to have to take up the slack.

The schedule actually sets up nicely, with most of the tough games in the second half of the season. That will give Jones time to work with his receivers and time for the rebuilt line to mesh. Defensively, this does not have the look of an elite unit. But expect Mike Stoops' return to energize the troops, so to speak, and look for the yards-allowed-per-game average to drop about 50 or so yards from last season's 376.2 (which was 55th nationally, one spot behind USC).

OU should win at least 10 games, and an 11-win season is a definite possibility. The Sooners look to have the best offense/defense combination in the Big 12, which should mean the eighth conference title in Bob Stoops' tenure.

The recruiting side

Average recruiting ranking for past five years: 10th nationally
The buzz: The Sooners signed one of the greatest wide receiver classes in history in 2012. OU reeled in five-star prep school prospect Trey Metoyer, Rivals100 prospect Durron Neal and Rivals250 prospects Sterling Shepard and Derrick Woods. The class would've been even better has Courtney Gardner, the nation's No. 12 overall junior college prospect, made the grade; he says he now plans to enroll at OU in January. A bonus: JC WR Lacoltan Bester signed with the Sooners well after National Signing Day. – Rivals.com

Breakthrough player

WR Trey Metoyer. Metoyer was a five-star signee for OU in 2011 after catching 108 passes for 1,540 yards and 23 touchdowns as a senior at Whitehouse (Texas) High. Metoyer scored at least 15 TDs in each of his three varsity seasons at Whitehouse. But he didn't qualify academically and instead spent last fall at Chatham (Va.) Hargrave Military Academy, where he again was a five-star recruit and the No. 1 prep school player in the nation. He got his academics in order and enrolled at OU in January. Metoyer had a strong spring, capping it off by catching six passes for 72 yards in the spring game. Metoyer has good size (6-1/190) and is an advanced route-runner for a guy his age.

For more on Oklahoma throughout the season, check out SoonerScoop.com

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