An air of optimism surrounded the Oklahoma spring game Saturday, which saw the White team beat the Red team, 28-13, in a (comparatively) normal scrimmage format.
According to Brandon Chatmon of ESPN.com, a school-record 43,500 fans flooded Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium, up more than 14,000 patrons from last year's attendance. After watching the Sooners beat Alabama in the 2014 Sugar Bowl, OU fans could not wait to see them in action once again.
Sugar Bowl hero Trevor Knight struggled at quarterback, completing just five of his 14 passes. Defense dominated, for the most part, the entire afternoon, which is to be expected at this time of spring (and in general with OU returning so much on that side of the ball).
But at least one offensive player—and a "newcomer" to Oklahoma, at that—made headlines with the strength of his performance, along with a couple of stars in the linebacking corps.
Here's a look at Saturday's three best performers.
Third Star: LB Jordan Evans
With Frank Shannon's mysterious absence up the middle, OU's depth at inside linebacker was and will continue to be tested. On Saturday, true sophomore Jordan Evans answered the call.
Evans was flying to the ball all afternoon, routinely finding himself in the offensive backfield. He showed a willingness to be physical and played with excellent instincts, which is rare in such a young linebacker.
He also almost murdered K.J. Young, blowing up a wide receiver screen for what turned into a diving interception by defensive tackle Jordan Wade:
Evans has been coming on strong all spring, and Saturday was a fitting way to punctuate that improvement. Bob Stoops said so himself, according to OU Football's official Twitter account:
STOOPS: "Jordan (Evans) had an excellent day again today. He's been making that improvement all spring. He's a really good player."— Oklahoma Football (@OU_Football) April 12, 2014
That is not news anybody wants to hear, and Shannon is wished the best. After leading the team with 92 tackles in 2013, his return would obviously help this football team a great deal.
If he's gone, however, at least there's a capable player behind him.
Second Star: LB Eric Striker
Evans' development was a welcome sign at inside linebacker, where, as mentioned earlier, Stoops knows the team could use some help.
At outside linebacker? Not so much.
Eric Striker resumed his dominant form on Saturday, looking every bit the unblockable edge-rusher he did in the Sugar Bowl, when he had three sacks and forced the game-clinching fumble against Alabama.
He had another multi-sack game on Saturday, this time racking up two on his teammate, Knight. Seizing the moment after sack No. 2, he paused and took a bow to the crowd:
Striker has been among the standout performers of spring camp, which was to be expected. He is looking at an expanded role in 2014, playing a lot in open space and even in coverage in nickel packages.
Bob Stoops and defensive coordinator Mike Stoops alluded to these changes after Saturday's game, while also lauding Striker's instincts:
MIKE STOOPS: "Eric (Striker) isn't only a good football player, he has a great feel for the game. He knows when to take his shots."— Oklahoma Football (@OU_Football) April 12, 2014
STOOPS: "(Eric Striker) is just a natural athlete out in open space. We just have him in a position we think he can effect the game more."— Oklahoma Football (@OU_Football) April 12, 2014
Entering his junior season, Striker has the look of an early-round NFL draft pick in 2015. Sooners fans would hate to see him go, but if he does, it would likely mean an All-Big-12 and maybe even All-American performance this season.
And honestly…that might be worth it.
First Star: QB Baker Mayfield
How could it be anybody else?
Sooners fans came out Saturday, in large part, to see how Knight performed. If you told them a different QB who started multiple games in the Big 12 last season would steal the show, they likely would have pointed toward new tight end Blake Bell.
Baker Mayfield, who transferred this winter from Texas Tech, where last season he threw for more than 2,300 yards and 12 touchdowns as a platooning freshman, finished the scrimmage 9-of-9 passing with 125 yards and two touchdowns. Especially considering the way Knight struggled, his performance became the story of the day.
This postgame photo from Bailey says it all:
Because of NCAA transfer rules, Mayfield is not eligible to play in 2014. Even if he was, he would not be a legitimate threat to Knight's Week 1 job. However, he would have provided a nice insurance option if Knight struggles in the short term (which has happened in the past) and will be ready in 2015 if Knight struggles in the long term.
Mayfield has experience starting a season hot. As a true freshman walk-on at Texas Tech last season, he threw for more than 400 yards and had five total touchdowns in Week 1 against SMU:
This is the part of the season where Mayfield shines, although fellow Red Raider freshman Davis Webb eventually took his job, which prompted his transfer to Norman. If he continues to improve this season—enough so that he can be trusted on a week-in, week-out basis—Knight may have some quality competition on his hands.
Of course, after last season, it's not like he isn't used to that.