Our Notre Dame pre-spring opponent preview series continues with a look at Oklahoma. Notre Dame's 30-13 win over the Sooners last October in Norman was the victory that vaulted the Irish into legitimate national title contention.
This fall, the home-and-home series concludes when Oklahoma visits South Bend for the first time in 14 years, looking for its first win over the Fighting Irish since 1956. Four-year starting quarterback Landry Jones is gone, as are three longtime assistant coaches from what has historically been a cohesive staff under head coach Bob Stoops.
As the Sooners begin preparations to chase their sixth Big 12 title in eight years on March 5, leading up to their spring game on April 13, let's take an early look at what Notre Dame will be facing when Oklahoma rolls into Notre Dame Stadium.
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Date: Sept. 28
Site: Notre Dame Stadium (Notre Dame, Ind.)
Last Meeting: Notre Dame 30, Oklahoma 13 (2012)
Last Meeting in South Bend: Notre Dame 34, Oklahoma 30 (1999)
Current Win Streak: Notre Dame - 7
Record: 10-3 (8-1 Big 12)
Bowl: Cotton (lost to Texas A&M, 41-13)
Leading Passer: Landry Jones (Sr.) - 367-for-555, 4267 yards, 30 TDs, 11 INTs
Leading Rusher: Damien Williams (Jr.) - 176 carries, 946 yards, 11 TDs
Leading Receiver: Kenny Stills (Jr.) - 82 receptions, 959 yards, 11 TDs
The Irish got their first taste of the “Belldozer” last season in Norman, when Blake Bell scored the first rushing touchdown against Notre Dame all season. With Jones off to the NFL, Bell will go from short-yardage specialist to every-down quarterback.
He does not have a cannon for an arm, but he is more fundamentally sound than one would expect based on how he was used in his first two seasons in Norman. His 6’6” frame is his biggest asset, and he’ll again present a challenge for the Irish defensive front.
Bell completed nine-of-16 passes last season, but ran for 11 touchdowns, tied for the most on the team. The Sept. 28 game in South Bend will be Bell’s first road start.
The offense will change a bit with Bell under center, but the Sooners remain loaded in the backfield, with Dominique Whaley the lone loss.
Damien Williams should again be the top back, after bursting onto the scene last yards with 167 yards in the Red River Rivalry blowout of Texas. He was far less productive against Notre Dame, as the Irish's stout front seven held Williams to just 29 yards on 13 carries.
Behind Williams is fellow senior Brennan Clay, but don't count out an early impact from true freshman Keith Ford. Oklahoma again dipped into the Lone Star State to land Ford, who was not offered a scholarship by Texas.
To say Notre Dame frustrated the temperamental Kenny Stills last season would be an understatement. Stills left early for the NFL, but Oklahoma has little to be concerned with on the outside.
Sophomore Trey Metoyer didn't quite live up to massive expectations with just 17 catches, but his future remains bright. Sterling Shepard was the most productive of the group of first-year receivers, finishing with 45 catches and three touchdowns.
Fellow sophomore Durron Neal and a pair of seniors, Jaz Reynolds and Jalen Saunders, give the Sooners five quality options at receiver. The tight end is not often featured in the Oklahoma offense, but Taylor McNamara, a 2012 signee who Notre Dame showed interest in, could change that if he continues to develop.
Oklahoma's offensive line was gutted prior to last season when center Ben Habern was forced to give up football and right guard Tyler Evans tore his ACL. Gabe Ikard slid over from guard to center, and was an All-Big 12 performer despite being on the wrong end of most of his one-on-one battles with Louis Nix against Notre Dame.
Ikard returns, as do guards Adam Shead and Bronson Irwin, who were forced into the starting lineup last year after injuries to Habern and Evans. Left tackle Lane Johnson is the lone loss, with junior Tyrus Thompson likely to step in.
Despite allowing their first rushing touchdown of the season last year in Norman, the Irish defensive line had its way in the trenches for much of the evening, holding the Sooners to just 15 yards on the ground. As long as Thompson can hold up on Bell's blind side, this should be a much improved unit.
The state of the Oklahoma defensive front may help explain why longtime assistant Jackie Shipp is no longer with the program. There is no Tommie Harris, Gerald McCoy or Frank Alexander on the roster, as recruiting at an all important position has slipped in recent years.
Three starters are gone up front, including both defensive tackles. The team's sack leader, junior Chuka Ndulue returns, but he'll be surrounded by youth. A pair of sophomores, Jordan Phillips and Jordan Wade, appear to be the favorites to earn the two starting tackle positions.
The end position vacated by David King (who overcame tremendous obstacles to graduate from Oklahoma) likely falls to junior Rashad Favors, who missed all but one of the team's final seven games. This unit is the biggest question mark this spring for the Sooners.
Oklahoma often plays a hybrid 4-2-5 alignment, using a nickel back as a roving linebacker/safety. Playing just two linebackers may be in defensive coordinator Mike Stoops' best interest this fall, as the Sooners surprisingly lost middle linebacker Tom Wort to the NFL a year early.
Corey Nelson is a bit undersized at weakside linebacker, but has tremendous athleticism. He needs to become more consistent every week. Sophomore Frank Shannon should take over for Wort in the middle, with junior Daniel Franklin the top backup.
Nelson is the key to this relatively thin unit. He's shown flashes of brilliance, but anything short of an All-Big 12 season probably means the Sooners' record isn't what they would like it to be. His nine tackles against Notre Dame last year were a career high.
The Sooners generally start five defensive backs, and three of those positions are open this spring. Senior Aaron Colvin has one of the cornerback spots on lockdown after starting 25 games over the past two seasons.
Arizona transfer Cortez Johnson could take over for the departed Demontre Hurst at the other cornerback position after sitting out the 2012 season, but is currently on probation for a marijuana arrest. Sophomores Gary Simon and Zach Sanchez will also compete for the spot.
All-Big 12 safety Tony Jefferson left early for the NFL (which was probably a good thing given these remarks), and Javon Harris also must be replaced. Senior Gabe Lynn and junior Julian Wilson will assume two of the safety spots, with the nickelback spot wide open. There's still talent in the secondary, but nowhere near the experience of the 2012 unit.
Junior Michael Hunnicutt should be one of the Sooners' biggest weapons in 2013. The placekicker has converted 38-of-45 field goal attempts over the past two seasons, including both attempts against the Fighting Irish last season.
Punter Tress Way is gone after appearing in 53 consecutive games for the Sooners. His 44 yards per punt average was second in the Big 12 last season. Sophomore Dylan Seibert is next in line, but has yet to appear in a game.
Clay and Saunders should handle kickoff and punt returns since both shared those roles last season. Saunders had a critical punt return touchdown last season in an overtime win over rival Oklahoma State. Clay's 25 yards per return average ranked in the top 30 nationally.
Despite eight outright or shared Big 12 titles in Coach Stoops' 14 seasons, things have gotten a bit stale in Norman. 2013 is a critical year for the program, as the Sooners will likely have their lowest preseason ranking since winning the national title in 2000.
The schedule isn't easy after opening with three straight home games. The trip to Notre Dame is followed by games with TCU and Texas. The Sooners close with three of four on the road, with games at Baylor, Kansas State and Oklahoma State.
If Oklahoma hopes to snap its seven-game, 57-year losing streak to Notre Dame in September, Bell must quickly become more than just a one-dimensional quarterback. The low expectations might be a good thing for the Sooners, who have struggled of late in big games in which the opposing team is not wearing burnt orange. Regardless, seeing these two iconic programs on the same field in South Bend will again be a sight to behold.