The Oklahoma Sooners extended their bowl-winning streak to three games with a victory in the Insight Bowl last December. Still, the win came after a disappointing 6-3 record against Big 12 opponents.
2012 brings about a fresh start and offers new opportunities to many members of the 2011 unit which squandered them last year.
If the Sooners are to return to national championship form in 2012, these five players must step up in a big way next season.
Landry Jones' 2011 season was disappointing by nearly all accounts. After progressing statically throughout his first two years, Jones took a small step backwards last season.
His completions, attempts, yards, touchdowns and rating were all down from 2010 and there was a marked decline in Landry's performance following the loss of Ryan Broyles.
Jones elected to return for his senior campaign and Jake Trotter of ESPN.com suggests areas in which he needs to improve in 2012 if he hopes to take the next step up:
He has to prove he can win without his crutch otherwise known as Broyles. He has to improve his footwork, something he plans on refining extensively this spring through drills. He has to eliminate the lapses in decision-making.
Co-offensive coordinator Josh Heupel outlined the areas in which he'd like to see Jones improve as well.
"Can he be better in understanding our offense? Can he have more command? Can he play smarter? Yes," Heupel said. "Can he be a better leader? Absolutely. Is he continuing to make strides in these areas? I believe that he is."
Dominique Whaley has filled a number of different roles in just a short amount of time for the Sooners. The walk-on evolved into the team's leading rusher last season before suffering a broken ankle in Week 6.
The injury ended his season, but Whaley had left his mark with 627 yards, nine touchdowns and 5.5 yards per carry. The damage has been done on the field, and now the hopes are that no irreparable damage has been done to the ankle.
“He looks good,” running backs coach Cale Gundy told the paper. “I saw a little bit more stuff (Tuesday than I normally see) and he was running around a little bit faster. He's amazing. He did a tremendous job of motivating himself [during the rehab process]. He works just as hard on individual stuff that he has to do. Compared with what everybody else is doing with weights he's doing his own stuff just as hard.”
The starting job is Whaley's to lose and if he's at full health, there's little reason to believe that'll happen, based on the sample we saw in 2011.
Tony Jefferson has worked predominantly from the Roybacker, or strong-side linebacker slot for the Sooners during his first two seasons. The role gained its name from former Oklahoma playmaker Roy Williams.
Mike Stoops, brother of head coach Bob Stoops and owner of the new defensive coordinator role, sees similarities between the two athletes.
“They’re similar in some ways, and they both understand football very well,” said Stoops per The Oklahoman. “When you teach them, they pick up things very well. Tony’s not as big as Roy, but he has a lot of the same components. He has a knack for making big plays.”
That deep football knowledge and playmaking tendency is what will allow Jefferson to make a seamless transition to a new full-time position in 2012. In a move to utilize the most talent at the most time, Jefferson will be slotted at safety next season.
“That’s where we feel like we can utilize his abilities and his strengths,” said Mike Stoops per ESPN.com. “Tony is a very, very talented player. He can be good anywhere he plays. He’s very easy to coach, highly instinctual and is a tremendous tackler.”
His presence should go a long way in calming a unit which allowed 243.6 passing yards a game in 2011.
Trey Metoyer was expected to make an impact in 2012 regardless of the talent in front of him on the depth chart. He's the first five-star-caliber recruit at receiver throughout the entire span of the Bob Stoops era.
But with the recent indefinite suspension of three wideouts, Metoyer may be in line for more guaranteed snaps than was first thought. Considering his sky-high potential and the fact that he draws comparisons to Dez Bryant and it's hard not to see that as a positive development.
Jake Trotter of ESPN.com highlights Metoyer among players who had breakout performances this spring.
The true freshman had the best spring of any wide receiver on the OU roster, then capped it by leading the Sooners in receiving in the spring game. Metoyer has all but solidified a starting spot at wide receiver, and should help fill the massive production gap left by the graduation of Ryan Broyles.
ESPNDallas.com's David Ubben goes one step further, saying Metoyer could have had the best spring out of anyone in the Big 12 conference.
Metoyer may have had the best spring of anyone in the Big 12. The physical freshman spent last season in prep school, but walked in this spring and essentially earned a starting job. Then three Sooners receivers were suspended indefinitely. Metoyer was already going to play and probably going to start. Now, with Oklahoma's passing offense and Landry Jones throwing the ball, it's a near certainty that he'll have a huge impact.
A second-team All-Big 12 selection in 2011, Demontre Hurst returns for his senior year in 2012. He has spent the winter working to put last season in the rear view.
"Being a senior, just trying to remember the games we lost last year, kind of how the secondary played," Hurst said in comments reported by Tulsa World. "We don't want to be like that no more, so this whole winter, we've been embracing with each other, riding together, really going through workouts together. We've been strong the whole winter, bringing it over to the spring so we're gonna be stronger here."
While some pieces shift in the Sooners' defensive backfield, one thing is for certain—Hurst is staying put at corner. The three-year starter ranks fifth among seniors in a CBSSports listing of players eligible for the 2013 draft.
"Demontre is a very experienced player who plays with great technique," Mike Stoops said. "I think that's what you get from Demontre every time he steps on the field. That's got to be a consistent element to our team for us to be effective. He's the leader back there."