Oklahoma became an even more intriguing playoff-caliber team when the team added former Missouri wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham this summer. However, the Sooners could head into the 2014 season without one of their top playmakers from a year ago.
In an email statement on Monday, Oklahoma president David Boren said that linebacker Frank Shannon had been suspended for the year. The suspension was handed down on June 18 due to the findings of a Title IX investigation linked to an alleged sexual assault in January. However, Shannon appealed the suspension six days later and was awarded a stay, allowing him to remain enrolled at Oklahoma and participate with the team.
Jason Kersey of The Oklahoman has more details of the process, but essentially, the university is asking the Oklahoma Supreme Court to prohibit the stay issued two months ago. From Boren's statement:
The University is unable to enforce its process at this time. The University has and is taking every legal step possible to move this process forward. The University is currently seeking to enforce its decision so that it may be in compliance with federal law requiring responses by institutions to such matters in a timely manner. With the fall semester beginning August 18, time is of the essence.
As the No. 3 preseason team in the country, according to the USA Today Amway coaches poll, there are lofty expectations for the Sooners. While those expectations are rooted in part by the potential of quarterback Trevor Knight, the defense is also returning its entire front seven. Geneo Grissom, Eric Striker, Charles Tapper—they're all back. That plays a role in Oklahoma being picked, per the Big 12's official website, as the preseason favorites to win the Big 12 in the conference's preseason media poll, too.
If the Sooners play without Shannon, though, they'll be losing their top defender from a statistics standpoint. The redshirt junior was the team's leading tackler in 2013 (92) and finished third with seven tackles for loss. It's difficult to replace that kind of production—but not impossible.
Oklahoma's coaching staff has been preparing for life without Shannon. Sophomore Jordan Evans has been practicing as the No. 1 middle linebacker since the spring. According to Kersey, following the program's spring game, "Shannon’s return is highly questionable after a recent sexual assault allegation, likely leaving Evans as the Sooners’ starting middle linebacker."
"Jordan has really improved and is much more sound and disciplined in schemes and where he needs to be," head coach Bob Stoops said after the spring game, via Brandon Chatmon of ESPN.com. "He has got great range and great athleticism."
Evans also filled in for Shannon in OU's 38-30 win over Texas Tech, recording eight tackles.
Oklahoma has dealt with this kind of situation before. Last year, freshman linebacker Dominique Alexander moved up to a starting role after Corey Nelson tore a pectoral muscle that sidelined him for the year. Alexander finished as the team's second-leading tackler.
The talent among the backups has been there when Oklahoma needed it, so the Sooners' playoff chances shouldn't ride on Evans alone. The problem, rather, is the linebacker depth behind Evans, as documented by Ryan Aber of The Oklahoman:
After Evans, though, things would get awfully thin at his inside linebacker spot.
The likely backups there would be either freshman Tay Evans or senior Aaron Franklin, who had six tackles last season and has just 31 in his three seasons at Norman.
This could force Oklahoma's defensive staff to move players around and get creative with the team's personnel packages. Junior college transfer Devante Bond could move in from outside linebacker, as could Striker if the situation desperately called for it.
Oklahoma primarily ran a defense with only three down linemen last year to offset depth concerns at defensive line. This time around, depth concerns are at middle linebacker. Given that Oklahoma's biggest weakness on defense in '13 was stopping downhill running attacks, a thin middle raises legitimate concerns.
Overall, Oklahoma should be OK provided it stays healthy on defense. Of course, that's asking an awful lot for football players. If health becomes a problem during the year, the Sooners' playoff hopes could be in greater jeopardy.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All stats courtesy of Oklahoma athletics.