Oklahoma Football: 2012 Starting Lineup Projection
With bowl season upon us, it's hard to believe talking about next season is appropriate yet, but it's never too early to look ahead.
The Oklahoma football starting lineup for next season will see many familiar faces but also the departure of several big names, including Travis Lewis, Ronnell Lewis and Frank Alexander, but returning quarterback Landry Jones will bring experience and potential to the OU offense once again.
Although 2011 was a disappointing season overall for the Sooners, it was a season of remarkable performances; an astounding 19 players received All-Big 12 or higher honors for their play, with several more earning academic honors—another great sign from this still young team.
OU will have plenty of talent next year; experience is the only variable among a team with the caliber of players Oklahoma fields.
With that in mind, here is an early and tentative (emphasis on tentative) look at the 2012 starting lineup for the Oklahoma Sooners.
Quarterback: Landry Jones
Jones made the right call by deciding to return for his senior season. Although he turned in another good season statistically, he lacked poise and was unimpressive at times in big games.
He will profit from staying in Norman one more season by gaining more experience and ironing out the weaknesses in his game.
Expect Jones to turn in a strong performance in 2012; he will be motivated to redeem himself and make the most of his last opportunity to win a national title as a Sooner.
Halfback: Dominique Whaley
One of the biggest disappointments of the 2011 season has to be the injury to Dom Whaley. The walk-on junior was off to an incredibly hot start to the season, gaining 627 rushing yards and scoring nine touchdowns before breaking his ankle against Kansas State, ending his season.
Whaley's performance was impressive enough to earn him a scholarship and likely the starting halfback position in 2012, provided he fully recovers from the injury.
The Sooners have several capable backs in sophomores Roy Finch, the current starter, and Brennan Clay, but based on the potential Whaley showed in his limited time this season, he should be in line to climb back to the top of the depth chart.
Fullback: Trey Millard
Millard will be the starting fullback in 2012. After a freshman campaign in which he showed considerable versatility and potential, he turned in a somewhat modest sophomore season for the Sooners yet still garnered All-Big 12 First Team honors.
The sophomore brings a lot to the table as a blocker, ball-carrier and receiver, and his abilities are too valuable not to be utilized. Jaydan Bird and Aaron Ripkowski also saw time at fullback this season and should see time next year, but Millard will get the starting nod in 2012.
Wide Receiver: Kenny Stills
Kenny Stills is in line to be the number one receiver next season.
Stills inherited the role after Ryan Broyles' injury ended his Sooner career, and his production declined considerably, a testament to the impact Broyles has on the Sooner offense overall.
But Stills is undoubtedly the top receiver in Norman right now, and he will reprise that role next year.
Wide Receiver: Jaz Reynolds
The second receiver slot should go to junior Jaz Reynolds, who had a nice season for the Sooners and has shown considerable athleticism with multiple one-handed catches.
Although Trey Franks, who would theoretically be Reynolds' competition for the starting role, will start the Insight Bowl due to Jaz's kidney injury, Reynolds has started five games this season, while Franks has only started one. Statistically, Reynolds has outshone Franks also, catching twice the number of passes and totaling 715 yards and five touchdowns to Franks' 187 yards and zero touchdowns.
The OU receiving corps should be talented next season with incoming five-star receiver Trey Metoyer set to don the Crimson and Cream along with two other four-star recruits. It's possible that Metoyer will compete for a starting role, but for now, Stills and Reynolds are in line to be the starters.
Tight End: Taylor McNamara
The Sooners recently signed McNamara, the No. 2 tight end in the nation according to rivals.com. He is a 6-foot-5, 235-pound San Diego prospect who had offers from Alabama, Florida and USC, among many other schools.
McNamara is the third tight end in OU's 2012 recruiting class, joining junior college signee Brannon Green, a sophomore from Fort Scott (Kansas) Community College, and Laith Harlow, a three star recruit out of Tallahassee.
Nothing is set in stone, but right now McNamara has to be the favorite to fill the shoes of seniors James Hanna and Trent Ratterree. But Williams should compete with him in spring practice, and we may not know who will be the starter until the beginning of the regular season.
Regardless, it's good to see the Sooners have three capable recruits lined up to take over the tight end position.
Left Tackle: Tyrus Thompson
Senior Donald Stephenson started all 12 games this season, bringing experience and size to the crucial left tackle spot. But the redshirt freshman Tyrus Thompson, his backup, still saw action in five games.
He will likely be the one to fill Stephenson's shoes in arguably the most important position on the offensive line while also being the most inexperienced of OU's 2012 o-line starters.
Thompson will be aided by several highly-experienced players, however, which will ease his transition into the starting role.
Left Guard: Gabe Ikard
Ikard is one of the anchors of the offensive line at left guard. He has started 24 consecutive games and has been the glue that holds the o-line together, even filling in for injured Ben Habern at center for a portion of the season.
The sophomore, who received multiple All-American honors as well as first-team All-Big 12 and Academic All-Big 12 recognition, turned in another solid season in 2011 and will undoubtedly be in the starting lineup next season.
The Sooners will count on Ikard to be a leader again in 2012; his reliability, intelligence and general presence will be a key ingredient to the Sooners' offensive success for as long as he remains in Norman.
Center: Ben Habern
The center position has been a strong point for OU with junior Ben Habern fulfilling the role. He will be a four-year starter at the position provided he returns for his senior year.
Habern recently filed NFL Draft paperwork "to just see what would happen" (via newsok.com), but based on his comments, it seems he is leaning toward returning for his senior year.
If Habern does leave for the NFL Draft, OU may shift Ikard to center and start Adam Shead at left guard. Shead started five games this season as a redshirt freshman and is listed as Ikard's backup.
Despite a forearm injury that sidelined him for five games this season, Habern is an integral facet of the offensive line and will (hopefully) bring talent and poise to the offense in 2012 for the Sooners.
Right Guard: Tyler Evans
Evans earned AP and Coaches All-Big 12 Honorable Mention honors this season and started all 12 games.
The junior will be another valued force on the line next season; he has started 28 games and will be highly seasoned entering his senior year.
The 6-foot-5, 304-pound Evans tallied an impressive 77 knockdowns this season, as well.
Right Tackle: Lane Johnson
Although redshirt freshman Daryl Williams won the staring right tackle spot before this season, he was injured in the Tulsa game, surrendering the starting role to junior Lane Johnson, who started in every game thereafter. Williams did see action in eight games, however.
Based on Johnson's seniority and the fact that he started 11 of 12 games at right tackle, one must expect he will be the starter again next season. But it will be interesting to see if Williams competes for the position.
Defensive End: David King
King, a senior, and Ronnell Lewis, who is leaving OU for the NFL Draft, have collectively started all 12 games for the Sooners at the defensive end position opposite Frank Alexander.
King was the "third defensive end" for the Sooners, at times entering the game and joining Alexander and Lewis in the "50 defense." He started four games combined, including the season finale against Oklahoma State, which Lewis missed due to injury.
With Lewis gone, King is the logical starter for next season.
Defensive Tackle: Casey Walker
The 6-foot-2, 308-pound junior out of Garland, Texas, while not dazzling in the statistics department, was reliable for OU this year. He started eight games and played in 11, missing the Texas Tech contest due to injury.
Walker will have high expectations for his senior season. With star end Frank Alexander departing, someone will need to step up and be the new leader of the defensive line, and Walker could be the guy to do it. The Insight Bowl will be his 13th start and 22nd game overall, and his experience will be important for continuity heading into the 2012 season.
Defensive Tackle: Jamarkus McFarland
McFarland will also bring valuable experience to the defensive tackle position next season. He played in every game this season and started six.
Although McFarland is technically the starter, Stacy McGee has been a consistent contributor on the d-line this season, and he will reprise his role as a member of the defensive tackle rotation next season.
In other words, defensive tackle has been a position by committee for Oklahoma this season, with McFarland, McGee and Walker all being significant contributors. So, while McFarland and Walker will likely be the "starters" in 2012, all three will have important roles.
Defensive End: R.J. Washington
Washington will be tasked with the lofty objective of replacing senior Frank Alexander at defensive end next season.
Alexander was drenched with honors for his play this season, including AP Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and Hendricks Award finalist recognition for the trophy given to the nations' top defensive end. His presence on the defense will be missed.
However, Washington, a highly touted recruit coming out of high school, has all the tools to be the next great defensive end at OU.
He will be a fifth-year senior next season and had three sacks and five passed broken up this season.
Although he might not turn out to be as dominating as Alexander was, there's no reason not to expect greatness from Washington.
Strong Linebacker/Nickelback: Tony Jefferson
Jefferson, one of the young stars of the Sooner D, turned in another impressive season in the hybrid linebacker/nickelback role created for him.
The sophomore had four interceptions, three of them against Ball State, 4.5 sacks and 67 total tackles, proving, for any skeptics that remained, that his sensational freshman season was not a fluke, as he earned AP/Coaches All-Big 12 Honorable Mention accolades.
His versatility has led Jefferson to also see time at safety. In fact OU has shuffled its defensive lineup throughout the season to take advantage of their athleticism, including moving around Jefferson, Colvin and Corey Nelson and bringing in Joseph Ibiloye to fill in for Jefferson at strong-side linebacker when Jefferson moves to safety. This shuffling will likely continue next season.
Sooner fans should be excited about Jefferson, as he is still young and will be a crucial part of the OU defense for at least next season and hopefully 2013, depending on whether he leaves OU early for the NFL Draft.
Middle Linebacker: Tom Wort
Another Honorable Mention selection by the Big 12 coaches was the fiery linebacker from England. Wort made significant progress in his sophomore season; he seemed to have a much better understanding of the game than in his freshman campaign, when he seemed to be confused at times.
Wort has tremendous talent and drive, and it's exciting to see him getting a better handle of the mental aspect of the game. Once he has that down, he will blossom. Look for a huge season out of the middle linebacker in 2012.
Weak Linebacker: Corey Nelson
Sure, losing Travis Lewis will be unfortunate; he had a remarkable career at OU and has to be considered one of the best linebackers in Oklahoma history.
But Corey Nelson is about the best possible man to replace Lewis you could find. The sophomore joined the score of fellow Sooners to earn Honorable Mention All-Big 12 honors and played in all 12 games, making 10 starts at multiple positions. He also boasts a mark of 5.5 sacks, tops among Sooner linebackers this season and the second-highest total for a linebacker in OU history.
Nelson is another example of a rising star on the defense who is poised to have a sensational season in 2012 provided he stays healthy.
Cornerback: Gabe Lynn
With the only senior in the defensive backfield being Jamell Fleming, it appears (for now) that this will be the sole change to the starting lineup in this area next year.
Sophomore Gabe Lynn is Fleming's backup, yet he has gotten plenty of experience this season, playing in ten games and starting two.
Lynn was the No. 1 cornerback in the nation coming out of high school according to scout.com, so it will be exciting to see his talent utilized, and it will be interesting to see if he is able to replace one of the cornerstones of OU's defense in Fleming.
Strong Safety: Aaron Colvin
No surprise here. Colvin started 11 games this season, gaining invaluable experience as a sophomore.
Amazingly, Colvin also recorded the most tackles for OU this season, beating out Travis Lewis 80-79.
Colvin will be a comforting presence to have in the defensive backfield next season as OU will look to improve on a pass defense that was inconsistent in 2011.
Free Safety: Javon Harris
After splitting time at free safety with senior Sam Proctor this season, the position should be all Harris next year.
Harris had eight starts and intercepted three passes, second only to Tony Jefferson. He is poised to have a huge season next year.
Cornerback: Demontre Hurst
Hurst is one of the most promising players on the defense, and he has started every game the past two seasons.
He has been a consistent stud on the OU D in his three seasons in Norman, and his experience will make him one of the senior leaders next year.
Kicker: Michael Hunnicutt
Hunnicutt was an important factor in OU's success this season as he brought consistency to the kicker position, something OU was in desperate need of after a frustrating lack of stability last year.
The redshirt freshman made 20 of 23 field goals and 51 of 51 PATs, earning All-Big 12 Honorable Mention in the process.
Jimmy Stephens chipped in at the kicker position also this season, but he is a senior, so Hunnicutt should start every game next year.
Punter: Tress Way
Way rounds out a special teams unit that will be in good shape heading into 2012.
He is a three-year starter who has shown a consistently strong leg in times of need for OU, and nobody will threaten him for the starting role in his senior season.
Kick Returners: Trey Franks and Roy Finch
Punt Returner: Kenny Stills
Kickoffs: Patrick O'Hara
Holder: Nyko Symonds
Long Snapper: Austin Woods