NORMAN — Oklahoma enters the 2014 season with enormously high expectations, but there are still plenty of questions surrounding the team.
Who will join Sterling Shepard as the team’s starting wide receivers? Who will be the main ballcarrier? Who will take over in the depleted defensive backfield with cornerback Zack Sanchez?
Earlier this week, I released my updated rankings of the top-10 players on the current OU football roster. Here is a list of the 25 players I think could have a breakout season in 2014, listed in alphabetical order.
Dakota Austin, So., CB: Austin intercepted Trevor Knight’s first pass attempt during the open portion of Thursday’s practice, and sounds confident that he’ll be the starting cornerback opposite Sanchez this fall.
Austin Bennett, So., WR: Led all receivers with four catches for 62 yards and a touchdown in the spring game Saturday. He made one catch as a true freshman last season — an 11-yard reception in the season opener against Louisiana-Monroe.
Devante Bond, Jr., LB: The junior-college transfer showed coaches this spring that he’s a capable pass rusher. If that translates to the game field this fall, it could, in theory, allow Eric Striker to further expand his role.
Daniel Brooks, So., RB: Suffered a nasty knee injury just before he graduated high school and redshirted in 2012. He didn’t play last year at all, but was the leading rusher in Saturday’s spring game, carrying the ball eight times for 67 yards. Keith Ford and Alex Ross are the frontrunners in the backfield, and with Joe Mixon joining the team this summer, it won’t be easy for Brooks. But this kid is resilient, so don’t sleep on him.
Hatari Byrd, So., S: A few days before Signing Day 2013, Byrd told our man Trent Shadid that one of the Sooners’ starting safety spots would be his as a true freshman. That didn’t quite pan out, but the former four-star recruit appeared in five games and could be in line to make an impact this year, with the defensive backfield losing most of its starters.
Matt Dimon, So., DE: Dimon played in 12 of the Sooners’ games last season as a true freshman, blocking a punt that resulted in a safety during Oklahoma’s Oct. 19 victory at Kansas.
Jordan Evans, So., LB: It doesn’t sound like OU coaches are expecting Frank Shannon to return to the team this fall, and if that happens, Evans would enter the starting lineup at middle linebacker. The former Norman North standout played well last Oct. 26 against Texas Tech when Shannon was injured. He recorded a career-high eight tacles and broke up a pass that night. Evans looked good in the spring game.
Dimitri Flowers, Fr., FB/TE: Knight targeted Flowers on his first three pass attempts in Saturday’s spring game, and the San Antonio native finished with four receptions for 40 yards. Don’t expect the Trey Millard comparisons to end anytime soon.
Keith Ford, So., RB: Appeared in 10 contests last year, recording 23 rushes for 134 yards and a touchdown. Ford quickly became a fan favorite last year because of his tough, contact-heavy running style, but found himself in the dog house after showing a troubling fumble problem. He’ll have as good a shot as anyone to be the Sooners’ main ball carrier in 2014.
Taylor McNamara, So., TE: The San Diego native and former four-star recruit started a game as a true freshman in 2012, but suffered a shoulder injury and received a medical redshirt. He caught his first career pass in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama, and recorded two touchdown receptions in the spring game. If the tight end position is truly going to make a comeback in 2014, expect McNamara to be at the forefront of that movement.
Joe Mixon, Fr. RB: The five-star prospect from Oakley, Calif., was signing autographs and posing for pictures Saturday at the spring game, demonstrating just how excited fans are for his debut.
Durron Neal, Jr., WR: Neal has made 23 appearances with two starts throughout his career so far, with 18 career receptions for 251 yards. With the Sooners’ receiving corps depleted, Neal will certainly have an opportunity to make an impact as a junior. He missed the spring game with an injury.
Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, RFr., LB: Coaches have raved about Okoronkwo’s spring, and the player known as “Obo” delivered in the spring game, picking off a fourth-quarter pass and returning it 39 yards to set up a touchdown. Okoronkwo was originally committed to Oklahoma State before flipping in December 2012.
Michiah Quick, Fr., WR: A high-school teammate of OU safety Hatari Byrd, Quick will have an opportunity to make an instant impact in the Sooners’ inexperienced receiving corps. Like Mixon, Quick was seen signing autographs and posing for pictures with fans before Saturday’s spring game.
Steven Parker, Fr., S: The four-star signee from Jenks picked the Sooners over Auburn just before signing day, and his commitment was among the most exciting recruiting news Oklahoma fans received this year. Walk-on safety Thaddeus LaGrone — who has the best name on the team, without a doubt — played on the second-team defense Saturday and did pretty well, but the fact that OU is using a walk-on there demonstrates how important Parker could be in the fall.
Matthew Romar, RFr., DT: The former three-star recruit from Port Arthur, Texas, redshirted last season, but looked pretty good in Saturday’s spring game. Former OU defensive line standout Dusty Dvoracek raved about Romar on his Norman radio show this week.
Alex Ross, So., RB: Ross made 10 appearances last season, mostly playing special teams. Coaches have praised his effort this spring, and the former Jenks standout is seemingly right in the thick of the Sooners’ running back battle. “Maturity” is a word that gets tossed around quite a bit when coaches and teammates discuss Ross. In last year’s season opener, he picked up 7 yards on his first carry, then hit an opposing player and picked up a personal foul. Has Ross turned the corner? That remains to be seen.
Jordan Smallwood, RFr., WR: A preseason injury forced Smallwood to redshirt as a true freshman last year, but his effort this spring has been praised by coaches and teammates alike. The former Jenks standout caught three passes for 60 yards and a touchdown in the spring game.
Stanvon Taylor, So., CB: The former Tulsa East Central standout started one game last seasn as a true freshman and played in all 13 games. He’s competing with Dakota Austin and Cortez Johnson to be the Sooners’ starting cornerback opposite Sanchez in 2014.
Ahmad Thomas, So., S: Thomas made 12 appearances last season and, like Byrd, seems to be a strong candidate to contribute heavily in the secondary next season. He’s also spent time working at the nickelback spot this spring with returning starter Julian Wilson out after shoulder surgery.
Dallis Todd, Fr., WR: The La Mirada, Calif., native and four-star signee will join the team this summer, and could definitely be in line to make an immediate impact. The 6-foot-5, 210-pound receiver caught 66 passes for 1,163 yards and eight touchdowns as a senior in 2013.
Charles Walker, RFr., DT: Walker has been one of the players who has generated the most buzz this spring because of his athleticism. The Garland, Texas, native redshirted last season, but could provide the Sooners with solid depth on the defensive front behind Jordan Phillips and Jordan Wade in 2014. Dvoracek, while praising Romar this week on the radio, added that Walker looked like he was thinking a little too much during Saturday’s spring game.
D.J. Ward, RFr., DE: Ward hasn’t played in an actual football game since his junior year at Lawton High School. He tranferred to Douglass, then Southmoore before his senior year and was ruled ineligible by the OSSAA. A medical issue cost him any chance at playing time in 2013, but he’s healthy and ready to contribute this season.
Derrick Woods, So., WR: The Inglewood, Calif., native made a critical, 20-yard reception against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, and could be in line to make an impact this season as a sophomore. The former U.S. Army All-American appeared in 11 games last season.
K.J. Young, RFr., WR: Young redshirted last season, but has been one of the receivers most often praised by defensive players this spring. The Perris, Calif., product is another potential breakout player in a young, inexperienced group of wide receivers.