Oklahoma Sooners Football: What You Need to Know About 2012 Seniors
Lately it seems like I've been focusing most of my attention on the incoming freshmen. We all want to know who is going to be able to step in right away and contribute—admittedly, this is an important topic, especially considering the positions the Sooners are thin at (wide receiver, tight end).
What has been lost in all the hype surrounding the incoming class, though, is the fact that the Sooners still boast plenty of experience on both sides of the ball. There are 20 seniors on the roster, and it's quite possible that they all receive playing time this season.
I've featured 16 of the 20 in this slideshow. I'll apologize in advance for those of you wanting to know more about wide receiver Derrick Bradley, linebacker Daniel Franklin, fullback Joel Ossum and defensive back Jesse Paulsen—while they're all fine players, their lack of playtime/statistical relevance make them decidedly less noteworthy in an article like this.
However, of the 16 I've listed, 13 are going to be starters, and the other three are going to be solid rotation guys. What's this mean? I guess, after this article, it's going to be time to focus on the freshmen again, because the Sooners are going to be in rebuilding mode after this season.
As for now, the Sooners' experience is going to be a major factor this season. The freshmen may be oozing with potential, but it's going to be up to the seniors to lead this team to a national championship.
Landry Jones: Quarterback
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Let's start the slideshow with arguably the most important senior on the roster: quarterback Landry Jones. Actually, let's scratch that notion—Jones is the most important player on the roster this season, period.
This shouldn't come as much of a surprise, as a team's quarterback is the leader, the heart, the backbone; the player that (normally) dictates the outcome of a game. This can be argued for teams that are primarily focused on the ground game, but for a team that runs a spread offense like Oklahoma, the quarterback has to play well.
Jones is no stranger to the spotlight, as this will be his fourth consecutive year starting at quarterback for the Sooners. After being thrown into a leadership role during his freshman season after former quarterback Sam Bradford went down with an injury, Jones responded about as well as you would expect. However, despite the up-and-down play, Jones did lead the Sooners to a bowl victory.
Statistically (and maybe actually), Jones peaked during his sophomore season. He posted career highs across the board: 4,718 passing yards (65.6 completion percentage); 38 touchdowns to only 12 interceptions; 146.3 passer rating.
Despite falling to both Missouri and Texas A&M that season, Jones really seemed to be clicking. He led the Sooners to a Fiesta Bowl victory over UConn, and it seemed he would only continue to get better and grow as a quarterback/player/leader.
However, Jones took a step back in every statistical category last season, and while that could be partly due to injuries around him—Ryan Broyles and Dominique Whaley missing significant time last year certainly didn't help—Jones has to take some of the blame for his sometimes underwhelming performance.
Deciding to fore go the NFL Draft in order to come back for his senior season was a very wise move. Since finishing last season, Jones has dedicated his time to becoming a better quarterback, starting a week's worth of time with quarterback guru George Whitfield.
Jones is making it his responsibility to take his team far this season, and that's just the way it needs to be.
Dominique Whaley: Running Back
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There wasn't a better story than Dominique Whaley last season. Before the season began, most expected the Sooners to employ a running back committee, led by Roy Finch and Brennan Clay. Then the first game happened.
"Who the &!%$ is Dominique Whaley and why is he killing it right now?" -Everyone
Whaley led the Sooners with 18 carries for 131 yards and four rushing touchdowns in a 47-14 season opener trouncing of in-state foe Tulsa. He broke the school record for rushing yards in a career debut. After that, there was no questioning who was going to be starting at running back.
As you're all well aware by now, the reason this story was so great wasn't just because Whaley was virtually unheard of before the season began, it's because he was virtually unheard of AND a walk-on. The previous season he had played at Langston University where he only carried the ball 58 times for 258 yards and two touchdowns.
It just didn't make sense. Guys don't just walk-on to major programs and start shredding their opponents. Whaley is the poster-boy for hard-working guys who think they deserve a chance. His ability to out perform highly-recruited scholarship backs for a starting job speaks highly of his dedication.
Whaley and his feel-good story continued to light up defenses and headlines as the season went on. In fact, Whaley was able to top the century mark in rushing three times in his first six games, which is a major feat on a team that focuses so much attention on the passing game. Six games through the season, Whaley had already amassed 627 yards rushing and nine touchdowns.
Then it all fell apart. Whaley's hard work was upended after suffering a season-ending ankle injury on the first play of the Kansas State game. While Finch did his best to fill in for Whaley down the stretch of the season, Whaley's presence was greatly missed.
Luckily, Sooner fans were hit with some good news earlier in the week when head coach Bob Stoops announced that Whaley had been cleared for fall practice. If Whaley is able to shake off the rust, he should once again be the favorite to lead the Sooners' ground attack.
Being that it's his senior year and final chance to play at the Division I level, I fully expect Whaley to bring everything he's got to every game, even if he isn't 100 percent.
Ben Habern: Center
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Time to move on to the offensive line, and believe me when I say that this is going to be a special group of guys this season. The often-forgotten boys up front have three senior starters this season, though every projected starter has experience starting.
In 2010, the offensive line gave up 19 sacks. With a year's more experience, the offensive line only gave up 10 sacks. With even another year of experience, there's no telling how dominant this group of guys can get, and that dominance starts in the center; the heart of the line.
Senior Ben Habern will be back at the helm of the line for the fourth straight season. After missing five games last season due to an arm injury, Habern will be motivated to stay on the field as much as possible to finish his career as a Sooner.
Last season wasn't the first time Habern has been bitten by the injury bug, though. After playing in just three games during his freshman year, Habern had to receive medical hardship after suffering an ankle injury. He rebounded well, playing in every game during his pseudo freshman and sophomore seasons.
Habern has great size for a center at 6'4" and 292 pounds, and a healthy, successful season could prove to go a long way in helping his case to be drafted. Right now, CBS Sports only has Habern ranked as the No. 9 center prospect in the 2013 draft class.
Lane Johnson: Left Tackle
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Lane Johnson is a guy who has had a very strange career as a Sooner. Thanks to an unexpected growth spurt, Johnson has switched positions every season.
Johnson was recruited as a tight end, where he stayed his entire freshman season. As a sophomore, Johnson was moved to defensive end. After continuing to grow, Johnson finally found a home last season at right tackle where he started 12 of 13 games.
However, Johnson is still on the move. The Sooners now have a void on the left side of the line, and Johnson's size and athleticism make him the perfect candidate to take over for Donald Stephenson at left tackle. Stephenson, who is now with the Kansas City Chiefs, has left big shoes to fill. If there's anyone that can handle it, though, it's Johnson.
At 6'6" and 296 pounds, Johnson still has elite athleticism and quickness. If he has even a decent season, Johnson is the kind of guy who is going to rise up draft boards—he's going to post terrific numbers at the combine.
Is Johnson completely done growing? If by some divine miracle he's not, he may have found a home full-time at left tackle, including at the next level. However, Johnson's ability to be shuffled from position to position truly show his versatility as a player. If he does have to move to a different position in the NFL, he should have no problem handling it.
Tyler Evans: Right Guard
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Tyler Evans is a very solid piece to an experienced group. This will be Evans' third straight year as a full-time starter, and he even earned four starts as a true freshman.
At 6'5" and 315 pounds, Evans has great size and produces well at his position (77 knockdowns last season). However, what's really remarkable is his durability. Evans has lined up for just under 1,600 snaps over the last two seasons, which will be a great stat for NFL scouts (barring any injuries this season, of course).
Evans was an Honorable mention All-Big-12 by AP and coaches last season, and he figures to be in the talks for a first or second team honor this season.
Evans, along with Habern and Johnson, will have the responsibility of both protecting Jones (who I've already deemed the most important player) and being vocal leaders in the huddle this season.
Now that I've talked about all the seniors on the offensive line, I can finally say something on a more personal note: I can't wait to see this offensive line take on Texas' defensive line. That might be the best thing to watch in this season's Red River Rivalry.
Tress Way: Punter
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I'm just going to put this out there: Tress Way may be the most underrated player on the Sooners. In terms of earning recognition, he's admittedly at a disadvantage because he's a punter, but the guy deserves all the credit in the world for being such a consistently great player each season.
Way has been a starter since his redshirt freshman season in 2009. That year, Way averaged a career high 45.7 yards per punt and immediately earned attention. He was a Sporting News third team All-American, All-Big-12 first team and All-Big-12 freshman while leading the Big 12 and ranking third nationally in punting.
Since that season, Way has seen his punting average drop to 44 yards per punt as a sophomore and 42 yards per punt as a junior, but anything over 40 yards per punt still deserves to be talked about. He has consistently been a special teams force since coming to Norman.
In last season's win against Texas A&M, Way had a career high nine punts, and four of them he booted over 50 yards. In last season's Insight Bowl victory, Way punted six times for an average of 53.3 yards per punt.
As a sophomore, Way punted a ball 87 yards. Yes, you read that correctly; 87 yards. I'll say it again: Way is the most underrated player on the Sooners.
David King: Defensive End
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It's officially time to switch from offense to defense, and there's no better place to find seniors than Oklahoma's defensive line. The Sooners will miss the production that defensive ends Frank Alexander and Ronnell Lewis left behind, but their experience will hopefully prove to be productive as well.
Defensive end David King is the one guy on the defensive line that I'm expecting to be productive, or, at least, more productive than he was last season. Though he did earn five starts last season, King played mostly in a backup role to Alexander and Lewis. Still, he was able to produce 31 tackles and two sacks and he even returned a fumble for a touchdown.
King is a mammoth of a man. At 6'5" and 286 pounds, King is seemingly all muscle—he is the most physically imposing player I've seen in person without pads on. King is able to use his elite athleticism against opposing offensive tackles, but what might be the most impressive part about his game is his speed.
If King was in the game last season and there was a run to the outside, you could almost bet that he would be in pursuit. Many times I saw King run from across the field to catch a running back that was half his size.
If there's one player I had to pick to have a breakout season, it would be King. He is likely going to help his draft stock tremendously this year.
R.J. Washington: Defensive End
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Sooner fans have been waiting a long time to see defensive end R.J. Washington live up to his potential. Coming out of high school, Washington was ranked as the No. 1 defensive end in the country according to both Rivals and ESPN, and was the No. 11 player overall according to ESPN.
It's safe to say that his career has been underwhelming, but don't be so fast to call him a bust. With Alexander and Lewis gone, Washington figures to slide in to a starting role opposite of King this season. After only playing in 13 games combined during his freshman and sophomore seasons, Washington made appearances in all 13 games as a junior.
Last season, he finally started to look like a former No. 1 recruit. Playing sparingly, Washington was able to accumulate 16 tackles, but what was really impressive were his five sacks (finished only behind Alexander, Lewis and Corey Nelson) and his five pass breakups (second most amongst defensive ends on the team).
Washington's ability to recognize his potential last season bodes well for this upcoming season. Though he doesn't have the size or the speed of King, his fundamentals and savvy should play into him having a great senior season.
While I believe King is the defensive end that is going to cause the most havoc this season, Washington is more than ready to have a breakout season himself.
Jamarkus McFarland: Defensive Tackle
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Moving over to the middle of the line, the Sooners have all three of their rotational defensive tackles back this season—oh, yeah, all three of them are seniors. That means that all five (I count all three defensive tackles as starters) members of the defensive line will be graduating after this season.
Scary to think about, really. Luckily, the Sooners have a few younger guys that will be poised and ready to step into the spotlight next season—but this isn't about them, let's get back to the seniors.
Arguably the leader of the defensive tackles, senior Jamarkus McFarland has also had an underwhelming career (much like Washington) considering how highly touted he was coming into the program. However, unlike Washington, McFarland has had his experience as a starter, including last season where he started in seven of the Sooner's 13 games.
Even though McFarland started in four more games last season than he did as a junior, his production still went down from 23 tackles to 20 tackles, and from 1.5 sacks to 0.5 sacks. He is going to have to step his game up as a senior if he wants to stay a starter.
It's not just McFarland, though. All three rotational defensive tackles need to step up their production in a big way next season, as the Sooners got very little out of them last season.
Casey Walker: Defensive Tackle
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Along with McFarland, Casey Walker is the other defensive tackle to start the majority of last season's games (eight, to be exact). However, like McFarland, Walker is going to be thrown under the bus early if he can't get his production up to par.
Walker did post career highs in both tackles (17) and sacks (one) last season, but those numbers are still pedestrian for where they need to be. He's a solid defensive tackle definitely worthy of his starts, but I still feel like Walker could maximize his potential as a senior.
Maybe not, though. After getting so many dominant defensive tackles to come through Norman in years past, such as Gerald McCoy and Tommie Harris, maybe I'm just devaluing Walker and McFarland's play thus far in an unfair light.
Whatever the case, Walker has a chance to be a three-year starter at Oklahoma, but he may not be the best choice to start as a senior. That position could belong to the guy on the next slide.
Stacy McGee: Defensive Tackle
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Stacy McGee has started in 14 of the 28 games he's appeared in as a Sooner, though he started in just three games as a junior last season. Still, I think he may be a slightly better, slightly more solid defensive tackle than either McFarland or Walker.
After redshirting in 2008 and playing a minimal role as a freshman in 2009, McGee became a full-time starter at defensive tackle as a sophomore. He recorded 26 tackles after starting in 11 of the Sooner's 14 games, which are both career highs.
McGee saw his production slip a bit last season, which was likely due to seeing less snaps, but he did finish the season with 1.5 sacks—the first sacks of his Sooner career. I'd imagine McGee gets a few more starts this season and sees more snaps.
At 6'4" and 299 pounds, McGee has the best size of any rotational defensive tackle. His size and solid on-field performances make him the most eligible Sooner to play defensive tackle at the next level. However, with good senior seasons, all three defensive tackles could get some looks from NFL teams next year.
Jaydan Bird: Linebacker
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Linebacker Jaydan Bird has been a major contributor in each of his seasons at Oklahoma, though box scores may not ever show it. He hasn't ever started a game, but Bird has appeared in 39 games as a Sooner.
During his freshman and sophomore years, Bird was relegated to roles on various special teams, such as kick coverage. As a sophomore, Bird recorded tackles in nine of the 14 games he appeared in and forced his first fumble against Florida State.
While Bird was still a main player on special teams as a junior, he also played backup middle linebacker to Tom Wort. When Wort went down with an injury versus Texas, Bird stepped in and finished with a career high six tackles. As a whole, Bird recorded 16 tackles as a junior, including his first career sack.
With Wort still around, Bird will likely play the same role as a senior, though his continually solid play may earn him a few more snaps this season. At 6'2" and 236 pounds, Bird does have really nice size for a linebacker.
What might be the best thing about Bird's career as a Sooner, though, could be the fact that he's made the first team Academic All-Big 12 team two years in a row. This is just a testament to the kind of player Bird has been for the Sooners—smart and consistent.
Joseph Ibiloye: Linebacker/Nickelback
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Linebacker Joseph Ibiloye has been a solid reserve throughout his career as a Sooner, but his production has always been just so-so. After appearing in all 13 games as a freshman, Ibiloye saw his playing time increase as a sophomore and even started in four games. However, his playing time was the only thing that increased while he was the on the field.
Last season, Ibiloye played in 12 games, still as a reserve, but started to see more playing time towards the end of the season after Tony Jefferson moved to safety to replace Javon Harris. Ibiloye had a career-high eight tackles against Oklahoma State and also came up big with five tackles in the Insight Bowl.
As a senior, Ibiloye will likely continue to see his playing time increase, as he is currently battling for a starting position at weak side linebacker. However, he's going to have to make a pretty big impression in the fall to beat out junior Corey Nelson.
Regardless of whether or not he's a starter, Ibiloye will still provide productive minutes for the Sooners as as a senior. His size (6'3" and 218 pounds) and speed (4.56 40-yard dash), make him a valuable contributor at linebacker.
Javon Harris: Strong Safety
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Javon Harris had a very interesting season as a junior, and he earned my respect more than once despite his ups-and-downs as a defender.
To elaborate, Harris stepped into a full-time starting role for the first time last season, and, early in the season, looked poised to have a tremendous season. Against Florida State, Harris played arguably the best game of anyone on the field, as he was able to come up with two huge interceptions that helped the Sooners hold on to a huge early season victory.
However, as the season progressed, Harris looked more and more confused playing free safety. He continued to rely on his athleticism instead of fundamentally breaking down his position. More often than not, Harris would get caught either ball-watching or trying too hard to make "the big play." More often than not, this resulted in touchdowns for opposing teams.
This came to light the most in last season's loss to Baylor—the first time the Baylor Bears have ever beaten the Sooners. Granted, the Bears were a really solid team last season led by Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III and a bevy of talented receivers, so maybe Harris just got fooled or outplayed a few times—that's all Griffin needed to make a defense look foolish.
It wasn't just Harris that continued to look lost in the defensive backfield, though. Every defensive back was victim to the occasional slip up last season, but Harris took the majority of the criticism. After the Baylor game, Harris sat at a podium and took all the media's criticism like a champ, while at the same time vowing to turn his game around, look at the film and learn from his mistakes.
Harris is a really smart, really athletic defensive back that was prone to jumping routes last season. The fact that he couldn't get past that really hurt his playing time towards the end of the year—though he finished the season with 47 tackles, he had just 12 in his last six games.
Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops wanted to make it a priority to keep Harris on the field, as he knows exactly what kind of player Harris can be. This season, Harris will make the move from free safety to strong safety, while last season's strong safety Aaron Colvin will move over to cornerback.
Harris is going to get every opportunity to succeed as a senior, but if he continues to struggle, Colvin could very well move back into his old spot and Harris could be pushed back to a reserve role.
It's all on Harris now, but when was it ever not?
Lamar Harris: Cornerback
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If you're asking yourself why you're reading a slide about a guy that hasn't recorded a tackle in three seasons while playing minimally in just 13 games, I suppose you have a pretty valid question on your hands.
After leaving off four seniors from this slideshow based on their lack of statistical relevance to the team the last three seasons, using Harris does seem contradictory. However, if you haven't heard, this is going to be the year Harris earns an ample amount of playing time.
With former cornerback Jamell Fleming off to the NFL, Demontre Hurst (don't worry, his slide is coming) becomes the No. 1 cornerback on the roster. Before defensive coordinator Mike Stoops decided to move Aaron Colvin to cornerback, Harris was majorly vying for that No. 2 spot on the depth chart.
Still, Harris will be the first cornerback off the bench for the Sooners this season, and there's even a chance he could finish the year as a starter. However, this all depends on the play of Javon Harris. If Harris proves to be incapable of playing the pass, Colvin could move back to strong safety, opening up a position for Harris as the boundary cornerback.
Harris brings great size to the cornerback position at 6'1" and 187 pounds, and he has had an impressive spring—he may have been the most impressive defensive back during the spring game, recording four tackles and playing well in coverage.
So, if you're unclear who Harris is and why you're reading about him, remember his name, because you may be hearing it quite a bit this season.
Demontre Hurst: Cornerback
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We've reached the end, and there's a reason I've saved cornerback Demontre Hurst for the last slide of the article.
Remember how we started the article with Landry Jones? Remember how I deemed him the most important player on the team this season? Well, Hurst may be the most important defensive player on the team this season. I'm all about symmetry—start with importance, end with importance.
Hurst has been a major factor for the Sooners throughout his career. As a freshman, Hurst played in all 13 games as a backup cornerback, but also played a major part in special teams. As a sophomore, Hurst moved into a full-time starting role and really shined.
As a first-time starter, Hurst finished second on the team with 11 pass breakups and tied for the team lead with three forced fumbles. His productivity carried over to his junior year, but he, like the rest of the secondary, seemingly took a step backward.
Still, Hurst led the team last season with 11 pass breakups and had a career high 55 tackles. Fleming was undoubtedly the leader of the secondary last season, and Hurst has to follow his lead this year. He has to be vocal and take on more responsibility this season.
Hurst isn't the biggest guy in the world at 5'10" and 183 pounds, but his hustle and leaping ability make up for the few extra inches he may surrender in coverage. All in all, much like Jones with the offense, Hurst's play will very much dictate what kind of season the secondary has.
That's a lot of responsibility, but Hurst, who is projected as just the No. 12 best cornerback in the 2013 draft class according to CBS Sports, is going to have a lot to prove this season.