NORMAN — After a second straight 10-3 season, Oklahoma appears to be in a holding pattern. Yes, it shared the Big 12 Conference title with Kansas State this past season — OU’s eighth conference title since 2000. But did it elevate its play from the previous year?
Some key personnel will change as the Sooners prepare for the 2013 season. Key players from the last three seasons — Landry Jones, Kenny Stills, Tony Jefferson and Tom Wort — are gone. OU’s coordinators — Josh Heupel and Mike Stoops — remain in place, but how well they handle a league where offenses continue to put up record-setting totals, while defenses seemingly fall farther behind.
The Sooners are in a rebuilding mode. They need to come up with a plan that not only keeps as the perennial team to beat in the Big 12, but one capable of staying in the national championship hunt and winning it.
“We’re gonna do all we can to improve and compete for the Big 12 and hopefully the national (championship),” he said. “That’s what we try and do every year.”
Here’s five things OU must improve on for it to happen in 2013:
Improved production from the defensive line: The Sooners were 112th in tackles for loss with 55. The total was the lowest about half of what OU averaged the previous five seasons (102.2).
Stoops said some of decrease was due to OU blitzing less under Mike Stoops than it did under previous defensive coordinator Brent Venables.
The defensive line struggled to come up with negative plays. Less than half of the tackles for loss were made by linemen. The Sooners must create more pressure on offenses than it did this season and starts up front.
“Can we find a better balance? Hopefully,” Stoops said. “We can blitz more and do some things stun wise to get more tackles for loss and still not give up big plays.”
Achieve offensive balance: The Sooners threw 56.8 percent of the time this past season. There was nothing wrong with the decision. They had the personnel to do it.
However, the Blake Bell era begins this spring. He still has to prove he can handle all throws OU’s playbook requires. However, offensive coordinator Josh Heupel also has to tailor the offense to Bell. The 6-foot-6, 255-pound Bell must run the ball. Having running backs Damien Williams, Brennan Clay and Trey Millard all back means the rushing attack will be the most proven part of OU’s offense heading into the 2013 season.
Becoming a better running team falls under Stoops’ top priority for next season.
“I think just overall as a team, I want to be more physical. I don’t think you can ever be physical enough. It’s definitely something you want to keep working on. Both in recruiting and how you develop them. We’re aware and always, always every year talking about how we get more physical,” he said.
Blake Bell could be the second coming of Sam Bradford in the pocket, but he’s still going to be a first-year starter. The best way to break in a new quarterback is build the offense around the running game.
Emphasize Trey Millard: One of OU’s biggest accomplishments since the regular season ended has been convincing Millard to stay for his senior year. Because of that, it has a bruising running back, the best blocking back in college football and an effective tight end to use next season.
They need to figure out a way to utilize all of those talents in every game.
“We always look for it, and we’ll keep doing that, because we feel he’s one of our best players,” Stoops said.
Millard is a player who should be on the field for just about every snap. He wasn’t this season; that should change in his senior year.
There’s just too many things he does that helps teams win to have standing on the sideline for 20 offensive plays a game.
Use the linebackers more: There was a reason OU didn’t use them much this season. There weren’t any receivers they could cover in man-to-man coverage. But it left gapping holes in the run defense.
“It’s just where do you put your pieces? Are you gonna be stronger defending the pass or stronger defending the run? That’s the game everybody’s playing,” Stoops said. “We’ve got to find a better balance of it.”
The Sooners sank to 89th in the country in rush defense and not having linebackers on the field had a lot to do with it. Opponents exploited it throughout the second half of the season. OU never adjusted.
Embrace the underdog role: The 2013 Sooners won’t have the burden of preseason expectations that most of Stoops’ teams carried.
They won’t be the overwhelming pick to win the Big 12 title next season, and likely won’t start the year ranked in the top 10. They’re going to play some games they won’t be favored to win.
OU hasn’t had a team that really had to prove itself in the nation’s eyes since 2000. That team embraced the underdog role and rode it to a national championship.
“We didn’t seem very close when we had a shot at it in 2000,” Stoops said. “You never know when it’s coming. We’re gonna work hard for it, and we’ll try and make some improvements through the winter and spring and hopefully have a chance to be better next year.”
John ShinnFollow me @firstname.lastname@example.org