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December 3, 2012

Tarp's Monday Morning Thoughts

Here's an overview of Texas A&M's Cotton Bowl opponent, Oklahoma:

- Like most coaches that have a long tenure at one school, Bob Stoops has evolved over his years at Oklahoma from when he first arrived in Norman in 1999.

- Stoops brought the spread to the Big 12 when he hired an unknown Kentucky assistant, Mike Leach, to be his first offensive coordinator. Leach left to become head coach at Texas Tech in 2000 and popularized the offense within the Big 12. However, Stoops legitimized it in ways that no one else could. He won a national championship with it in 2000 and then bringing in Kevin Wilson from Northwestern prior to the 2002 season to install the spread running game which introduced power concepts to what was considered a finesse attack. Wilson modified the offense to incorporate an I formation tailback in Adrian Peterson in 2004 and now the Sooners run a little bit of everything, using a fullback and tight end more than any other team in the Big 12 conference. However, they've almost come full circle with OC Josh Heupel calling more passes than runs.

- Landry Jones arrived on the scene due to Sam Bradford's injury in 2009 and put up a 2:1 TD/interception ratio despite being thrown to the wolves. He improved on that in 2010 but regressed in 2011 after Ryan Broyles got injured late in the season, throwing six picks versus just one touchdown in his last four games. Broyles was his security blanket in the short passing game and if Jones was to continue to develop as a quarterback, he had to overcome focusing on one receiver and learn to take advantage of his other targets. He's done that so far this year as he has four receivers with over 40 catches. He's still had turnover issues in big games (Kansas State and Notre Dame) but his 29/10 ratio indicates that that he has gotten better overall in protecting the football and taking what the defense gives him. He led the Sooners in late game scoring drives against West Virginia and Oklahoma State when there was no margin for error.

- The Sooners lost multiple receivers before the season started to academic issues and suspensions but senior Kenny Stills has stepped up to catch 75 passes and Fresno State transfer Jalen Saunders is a slot sized guy who has lined up all over the field and not only has the quickness to get open but has excellent run after the catch ability. Stills and Justin Brown are the bigger outside receivers who have good technique and are physical players. Backs Trey Millard and Damien Williams are solid receivers out of the backfield.

- Juco transfer Damien Williams has emerged as the team's primary runner and he and backup Brennan Clay are more quick than fast. Both average in excess of five yards a carry and have proved capable of running the ball when teams play a lot of two high safety looks and allow the Sooners to run the ball. Don't let appearances fool you: they may rank 60th nationally in yards per game but are 31st in average per rush.

- The offensive line is a tall, almost lanky group. They've overcome the loss of two preseason starters to injury and with four guys between 6 foot 4 and 6 foot 7 with long arms, they're ideally suited for pass protection duties. They've given up just 14 sacks all year but struggle at times in the running game because they can't break down and get leverage on people. Backup QB Blake Bell's size enables them to overcome this issue in short yardage situations, plus he makes it difficult for defenses to account for a running quarterback. Because of their length, they are better at outside zone and draws than power football.

- When Stoops arrived at Oklahoma, the Sooners were a cover 2 team that rotated safeties from that look down into the box to present an eight man front and stop the run. As the conference has evolved into a passing league, so have Stoops' defenses….the Sooners now use much more of a 4-2 look with an extra defensive back versus spread teams and zone blitz people out of three and four man fronts in passing situations.

- However, there has been a gradual decline in the productivity of the unit over the years. The Sooners used to produce top ten defenses but with the evolution of the Big 12 into a passing league, their defense has eroded somewhat as well, even by Big 12 standards. That's because their front seven talent is not what it used to be, especially in the front four. Oklahoma registered just 24 sacks (4th in the league) and only 43 tackles for loss (8th in the league) which is middle of the road or worse by even Big 12 standards. They don't force turnovers or get off the field very quickly (they allow a 41% third down conversion rate). They do stop big plays and allow their offense to outscore people.

- Linebackers Corey Nelson and Tom Wort can run, but neither are as big as their counterparts in the SEC. Tackle Casey Walker is really the only guy with size up front with a lot of size (6 foot 2, 309 pounds). Tackle Jamarcus McFarland and end R.J. Washington came to Oklahoma as five star prospects but have not lived up to their billing. In particular, it's a unit that seemingly lacks the athleticism to play on the opponent's side of the ball either in versus the run or pass. They give up about 180 yards rushing a game, which ranks in the bottom half of the league and had a three game stretch (Baylor, West Virginia, and Oklahoma State) where they gave up over 900 yards.

-The strength of the unit is the secondary as Oklahoma starts five upperclassmen. Senior Demontre Hurst is a very good cover corner and junior Tony Jefferson plays almost like an extra linebacker and allows the Sooners to play nickel packages most of the time as he is very physical player. People pick on the other corner, Aaron Colvin but he has four interceptions and is more physical guy than Hurst. Jefferson averages almost ten tackles a game and that is a testimony to how good of a player he is as well as just how porous Oklahoma's front seven has been.

-Under Stoops, Oklahoma has always been good in the kicking game and this team is no exception. Justin Brown is a big but elusive punt returner at 13.6 yards per return and Brennan Clay averages just over 25 yards a kickoff return. They've combined for three touchdowns this season. The Sooners do have speed in the back seven and at the skill positions which allows them to cover punts and kicks very well (top three in both categories in the Big 12).

-Overall, the Sooners are not the program that they used to be from 2000 to 2010 when they played for multiple national titles and in several BCS bowls because of the erosion of their front four talent on defense. However, they remain a program that's capable of hanging with top ten teams and beating just about everyone else (although they play more one score games than Sooner fans are accustomed to). They outscore people, win special teams, don't turn it over, and don't let people generate big plays in the passing game. They continue to be a physical program that for the most part doesn't beat itself and they're confident enough in themselves that they believe that they can find a way to beat you in close game.

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