Oklahoma Football: 5 Areas Needing Improvement for Sooners
There were only a few big questions leading into the 2011 season for Bob Stoops and his highly-ranked Sooners, and most of them have been answered.
The running back situation sorted itself out with walk-on junior Dominique Whaley grabbing the starting job with his electrifying performances.
A few early errors had fans worried, but the inexperienced defensive secondary has come together and is playing at a very high level.
Landry Jones seems to have turned the corner as a quarterback. He is making smart decisions and some incredible throws, including the 3rd-and-25 strike to Jaz Reynolds for a first down last week against Texas.
The team seems to be growing and coming together like all Stoops teams, but there are still a few places the squad needs to improve if they wish to cash in on the program's eighth National Title.
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This has been the most frustrating gripe for Sooner fans over the past few seasons. To me, it is also one of the strangest. When Stoops came to Norman, one of his trademarks was using starters on the kickoff coverage team, ensuring costly returns would never be a problem.
This is still the policy in Norman, but for whatever reason, our ability to cover kickoffs has fallen apart. From the 2008 season to last weekend, the Sooners have allowed 10 kickoff returns for touchdowns, the absolute worst in all of college football.
There have been some absolute back-breakers in there as well. Two come to mind off the top of my head: Last season against Missouri when the Tigers returned the opening kickoff to the house and Jordan Shipley's sprint in 2008 in the Red River Rivalry. The Sooners were knocked from the No. 1 ranking in both of those games.
Bob Stoops' decision to not hire a dedicated special teams coach in the offseason was lightly criticized over the Summer, but after Texas returned two kickoffs for touchdowns last week (one called back for a penalty) the heat is on Stoops to get the problem fixed immediately.
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It's not that we are having problems getting points out of our red-zone trips, its that we are having trouble scoring touchdowns when we get inside the 20.
Our overall 88.9 percent red-zone scoring is great, but we are only scoring touchdowns on 59.3 percent of our trips, ranking 67th in the country. Teams like Wisconsin, Stanford and LSU all rank in the top 10 in that category with red-zone touchdown percentages all topping 80 percent.
It is difficult to put your finger on what this problem actually comes down too. Many fans are quick to point to play-calling, but a lack of execution by the players can also hamper your chances. A small mistake like a missed block or penalty can affect a drive in midfield, but an error like that can destroy your changes of hitting pay dirt from close. Play-calling options for 3nd-and-goal from the 22 are hard to come by.
If Dejuan Miller could figure out how to catch a ball, his 6'4" frame would be deadly inside the 20.
Given our remaining schedule, this likely won't come into play until we play Oklahoma State in the final game of the regular season. If the Sooners spend the first quarter trading off field goals and touchdowns with the Cowboys things will get ugly fast.
Involve the Tight Ends, Full Back
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Bob Stoops has enjoyed a rich history of talented pass-catching tight ends during his tenure in Norman. Trent Smith, Joe Jon Finley and Jermaine Gresham all became stars racking up yards and touchdowns in Stoops' past offenses.
This year, seniors James Hanna and Trent Ratterree split time with sophomore Austin Haywood to give the Sooners the most depth they have ever had at the position. The result? A combined 17 of the 150 total receptions (11.3 percent) so far this year for 175 yards and a single touchdown.
The exclusion in the offense is not from a lack of talent, either. The receiving abilities of the unit, especially Hanna and Haywood, are well known but the team has still not figured out how to get them the ball.
This goes for exciting fullback Trey Millard, as well. He has seen only 12 touches all season but has impressed when called upon. His 5.7 YPC leads the backfield and he displayed his power in the Missouri game, bulldozing over a hapless defender much to the pleasure of the fans.
Sure, there are plenty of weapons for Landry to chose from and he would rather have the ball in the hands of Jaz Reynolds or Roy Finch if Broyles and Stills are covered, but in order to win a championship, the Sooners are going to need all hands on deck.
If an opposing team knows they don't have to worry about the tight ends or fullback, it makes their job just a little bit easier. If Oklahoma is to beat the likes of Alabama or LSU in the BCS title game we are going to need all the help we can get.
Get Roy Finch the Ball
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This has been the most perplexing aspect of the entire season for me. What the heck has happened to Roy Finch's role in this offense?!
Roy was the second-leading rusher in 2010 and his skatback style electrified the field over and over again last year. He is the perfect third down/change of pace back.
I understand the emergence of Dominique Whaley as the starting running back has cut into his carries, but Finch has virtually disappeared this season. After running for 398 yards on 85 carries last year, leading the team with 4.7 YPC, the dynamic back has only 10 carries and seven receptions in 2011.
Its not like he has lost a step. The few times he has managed to get the ball in his hands this year he has looked every bit as elusive as he did last season, extending plays with his relentless running style.
Brennan Clay is second in carries this year with 42 but has not looked like he is ready for top level football quite yet, showing very little flair or creativity. True freshman Brandon Williams even has more carries than Finch! His fumble against Texas last week will likely slide him back down the list, however.
Finch needs to be the second string back, spelling Whaley on third downs and passing situations. Clay and Williams still have a long way to go and Finch is a proven talent. Bob Stoops needs to bury whatever grudge he has with Finch because it is holding his team back.
Make the switch, coach!
Get the Starters out Sooner
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I have noticed a new trend this year for Stoops and, while it may have its benefits, the costs could be detrimental to the season.
Stoops has been leaving the starters in the game far too long during blowouts this year. I understand you want your one's to get plenty of game-speed reps, but the possible downside to this practice is an injury to a key player.
He has been pushing the envelope a little further each game this year, and it almost caught up with him against Texas. MLB Tom Wort collided with a teammate in the fourth quarter last week against Texas and had to be helped off the field with a lower leg injury.
Tom does not appear on the injury report for their upcoming game against Kansas, so Stoops avoided a bullet...big time.
Coach Stoops has been good about this in the past, pulling starters as early as halftime in a blowout in an attempt to preserve the health of the team while letting younger players earn valuable, in-game reps.
I don't need to remind Sooner fans how quickly injuries can derail a season. All it took in 2009 was a twist here and a missed block there to keep a loaded Sooners squad (including Sam Bradford and Jermaine Gresham, pictured above in street clothes) from realizing its full potential.