NORMAN — Oklahoma is handing out grades to its students this week, so why not give out some grades for the Sooners and their 9-3 regular season? Sure, the Insight Bowl is still ahead, but we'll consider that extra credit for a team that had designs on much higher goals this fall.
Too high? We don't think so. Name one game that Landry Jones cost the Sooners. Bedlam? No, he was one of a dozen Sooners to play poorly. Can't pin it squarely on him. In addition to Jones throwing for 4,302 yards and having a 2-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, consider the fact that a third-stringer came off the bench to rescue the middling goal-line offense. Blake Bell's 10 rushing touchdowns might have taken away from Jones' numbers in the final weeks, but it helped the offense produce after losing Ryan Broyles.
Jones' percentage rate and yardage went down without Broyles, but he couldn't help the drops. Did he have a perfect season? Absolutely not. He's good for those three ‘why-did-he-do-that?' passes a game, virtually every game. But he helped the Sooners a lot more than he hurt ‘em.
RUNNING BACKS: A-
Dominique Whaley emerged from nowhere, at least as far as the public knew, to be an All-Big 12 candidate in the first half of the year. He might have been on the all-conference team, too, if not for the ankle injury that ended his season Oct. 29. That's when Roy Finch turned it on for the second half of the season.
They figure to be a great thunder-and-lightning tandem next season. Combined, Whaley and Finch combined for 1,228 yards and 12 touchdowns. They were OU's No. 1 back, for all intents and purposes, since they didn't really play together much at the same time. (Why was that, again?)
Brennan Clay (3.5 yards a carry) didn't offer much. Brandon Williams' fumbling problems, in practice and late in games, prevented more playing time as a freshman.
WIDE RECEIVERS: B+
Really, it would be great to slice this into two categories. Because Broyles was an A-plus in his time, prior to the injury. Heck, he wound up being an All-American, despite going down Nov. 5 and missing the last three games. And Jaz Reynolds should get a lot of credit, too, for emerging as a third threat, to take heat off Broyles and Kenny Stills.
Speaking of Stills, where did the unstoppable dude from the Texas game go? He was clutch late against Florida State, too. Anyone recall any highlights from him the past month? Two?
Dejuan Miller's career continued down the path of make a catch, drop two passes. Trey Franks had promise, but never showed it consistently. He's still young. Broyles and Reynolds save the grade.
OFFENSIVE LINE: B+
Jones didn't spend much time on his backside, and the run blocking wasn't too bad most of the year. There were some issues in the red zone, but once Bell was inserted as the short-yardage situation, those dudes really got after it up front. There were only a few missed assignments in the Belldozer thing.
The line held together even though anchor Ben Habern missed half the season with a broken forearm. Credit future captain Gabe Ikard for holding things together, moving seamlessly over to center. Adam Shead was also big during that stretch, emerging at left guard.
The tackles, Donald Stephenson and Lane Johnson, weren't wildly impressive, but they were serviceable. Tyler Evans goes unnoticed at right guard – and that's not a bad thing at all for a lineman. Pretty much everyone's back from a group that really did a nice job.
DEFENSIVE LINE: A
Weak link? No way. Frank Alexander and Ronnell Lewis came light years in what figures to be their final years. They were the best two ends in the league. That's saying something, after the Sooners lost Jeremy Beal. Having David King and R.J. Washington develop into contributors was nearly as big as Alexander and Lewis playing well. Next year, it'll be King and Washington's turns to try and pull off what Alexander and Lewis just did.
The tackles were efficient. Casey Walker, Stacy McGee and Jamarkus McFarland were a nice trio to rotate through the two spots. This was a solid group. Credit Bobby Jack Wright and Jackie Shipp for that.
Tony Jefferson had a solid sophomore season, including that binge of four interceptions in two games – three in one quarter. But he didn't have another after Texas. He seemed to be away from the ball in some games, and there's still the mystery of why he didn't play against Texas A&M. If it was his knee, why didn't Brent Venables say it was his knee, when given the chance?
Travis Lewis spent more time talking than tackling. He lost a lot of support from fans and teammates, despite coming back his senior season. Tom Wort was violent and effective at times – never better than Florida State – but he looked lost some, too. He was also banged-up a lot of the time, potentially because he sometimes plays recklessly.
Corey Nelson has real potential, but he's still learning. Great at times, green at others. Joe Ibiloye was used sparingly, in emergencies. He didn't seem to cover well. Neither did Lewis, still bothered by the broken foot. This bunch often looked slow and undersized.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: C-
Jamell Fleming and Demontre Hurst covered well, for the most part. They're big, physical corners that play tough against the run and pass. But it doesn't mean they were flawless. Hurst was beaten a few times against Texas Tech.
Javon Harris gave up entirely too many big plays, trying to be a hero going for interceptions. OU needed a safety for its safety. Aaron Colvin played fairly well most of the year. Gabe Lynn struggled mightily in relief of Fleming against Texas Tech, eventually forcing Colvin out of his natural position. Jefferson seemed to be a good addition at free for Bedlam; there weren't too many instances in which OSU beat the Sooners deep (only one).
This group has a lot of talent, but it didn't always show up – at least not consistently.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B
After Michael Hunnicutt missed the field goal late against Texas Tech, this grade appeared to be headed south. But the freshman, who took over in September from made-‘em-but-ugly Jimmy Stevens, really did rebound to have an above-average season (20 for 23, including all four beyond 40) and show promise for the future.
Tress Way was solid throughout the bulk of the season, only missing a punt here or there. His average was lower, maybe, but he had 33 of 57 punts inside the 20 and didn't have a touchback until November.
The kick coverage team improved after giving up the return to Fozzy Whittaker in the Texas game.
Franks provided a little spark toward the end of the year on kick returns, but OU's still not getting nearly enough, considering it recruits some of the fastest guys in the country. Losing Broyles hurt on punt returns.
All this said, a special teams coordinator could be a good move for OU in the future. Generally, this area of the game isn't taken advantage of enough at the college level.
It started in the preseason, when Bob Stoops chose to put even greater expectations on his team. He thought he had something in this group. But he didn't need to draw attention to the bull's-eye that already existed – the one that always exists with OU teams.
And if the team struggled to be ready to play each week, the bulk of the responsibility lies with the coaches. They either evaluated incorrectly the types of players that were recruited and signed, or they didn't get out of them whatever was required to play up to potential. Or both.
You hear bits and pieces about the defensive scheme being too complicated, too hard for the players to run, but surely there are guys who can play in the system. One thing the defensive coaches didn't do was yank players from games quickly enough. Lynn was in against Texas Tech one series too long. Same for Harris against Baylor. Know your guys. Know when they don't have it that particular day. Get them off the field.
Ending on a high note, when the Sooners were good, they were excellent. So, at some point in the unevenness, the coaches got something from the players. Just not every week.
You'll notice the above grades, for the most part, aren't all that bad. Not bad at all, really. Offense graded out high. Defense, at least up front, was solid. So, what gives? That would be the between-the-ears part. You never know whether a team has “it” until it's tested. Well, at least that's the norm. With this team, you didn't learn about it until it played teams it should beat with ease. Whether it be Missouri, Kansas – and then the more obvious, the losses to Texas Tech and Baylor – it just never could string together consistent weeks of good play.
In hindsight, it's almost harder to believe the Sooners could go to Manhattan and destroy Kansas State the way they did than lost at home by three to Texas Tech.
This team could motivate itself for big games, but it struggled for internal fortitude from week to week. Good teams do that and make BCS games. Great teams do that and play for national championships.
The Sooners have done both in recent years, because they've played with passion and drive.
This team lacked “it.”
Nine-and-three is great in a lot of places – heck, throw a parade in Waco! – but it's nothing special when expectations for 12-0, or at least 11-1, were hand-fed in the preseason.