NORMAN — Oklahoma began fall practices Thursday morning, and has already suffered a major setback with sophomore quarterback Kendal Thompson's foot injury.
Despite the quarterback battle's intrigue taking a small hit, there are still plenty of interesting storylines to follow as the Sooners — ranked No. 16 in the preseason coaches' poll — begin their 2013 campaign.
Here's a primer of some key things to watch as OU prepares for its season opener, Aug. 31 against Louisiana-Monroe on Owen Field.
Blake Bell: Has long been considered the favorite to win the job, and Thompson's broken foot Thursday would seem to solidify his frontrunner status. He's got game experience — in big moments — but it's only come in the short-yardage “Belldozer” package. Bell has shown his passing ability in each of the last two spring games, and coaches insist he's capable of manning the full OU offense.
Trevor Knight: Wowed coaches and teammates alike on the scout team last season as a true freshman. He's got a high ceiling and could benefit from the extra reps he'll earn in practice now that Thompson is out.
Kendal Thompson: Before spring practices, Thompson was widely thought of as the least likely of the three quarterbacks to ultimately win the job. But, by all accounts, he was outstanding and might have risen to become Bell's primary challenger. But his chances to start the season opener against Louisiana-Monroe were shattered with his broken foot. Coach Bob Stoops is hopeful that he'll return early in the season, and could play a role when healthy.
TOP POSITION BATTLES
Defensive ends: Oklahoma lost key contributors R.J. Washington and David King to graduation, and junior Chuka Ndulue shifted inside to defensive tackle, meaning playing time is up for grabs for inexperienced Sooner defensive ends such as Chaz Nelson, Michael Onuoha, Charles Tapper, D.J. Ward and others. Junior Geneo Grissom began his OU career as a defensive end and moved to tight end last preseason before switching back in the middle of 2012. He's a probable starter, but the other spot remains there for the taking.
Defensive tackles: Ndulue and sophomore Jordan Phillips were Oklahoma's two starting defensive tackles in the spring game. Those two remain the most likely starters — although Ndulue may be suspended for the season opener after his DUI arrest last month. The Sooners are still waiting on junior-college transfer Quincy Russell, who is still expected to make it but not until mid-August. Junior Torrea Peterson and redshirt freshman Jordan Wade will also be expected to contribute to this thin group.
Safeties: Junior Quentin Hayes and senior Gabe Lynn started with the first unit in April's spring game, but they'll face plenty of stiff competition from freshmen Hatari Byrd and Ahmad Thomas. Junior Trey Franks — who, along with Hayes, was suspended for all of last season — switched from receiver to safety and played well in the spring game, so he could be in line for some playing time, also.
Running backs: Seniors Damien Williams, Brennan Clay and Roy Finch will fight for carries in a crowded backfield that also includes standout fullback Trey Millard. Look out for redshirt freshmen Alex Ross and David Smith as well.
Wide receivers: The Sooners lost last year's two leading receivers — Kenny Stills and Justin Brown — but bring back loads of talented pass catchers, plus added a few more, like true freshman Dannon Cavil, who was an early enrollee and impressed throughout spring ball. Senior Lacoltan Bester didn't play much after transferring in from junior college last year, but left spring practices at the top of the depth chart. Senior Jalen Saunders and sophomore Sterling Shepard are locks to start in the slot positions, and sophomores Durron Neal and Trey Metoyer will compete for playing time on the outside.
NEWCOMERS TO WATCH
Hatari Byrd, S: The impressive safety from California told The Oklahoman before signing day that he was guaranteed a starting spot by OU coaches. Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops shot that notion down, but there's no question that Byrd is physically capable of contributing immediately in a secondary depleted by graduation.
Jordan Evans, LB: The former Norman North standout said last spring that he fully expects to contribute right away. Oklahoma seems set with Corey Nelson and Frank Shannon as its top two linebackers, but there's plenty of opportunity behind them to play a key role.
Dominique Alexander, LB: Like Evans, Alexander could be relied upon immediately in the Sooners' inexperienced linebacker unit. The Tulsa Washington product was recruited as an “athlete,” and played in virtually every defensive position possible in high school, but he's firmly set as an OU linebacker.
Stanvon Taylor, CB: Another locally grown talent, Taylor was The Oklahoman's All-State Defensive Player of the Year after an impressive senior season at Tulsa East Central. Senior Aaron Colvin and sophomore Cortez Johnson are tabbed as starters currently, but Johnson's spot could be up for grabs if someone like Taylor — or fellow freshman cornerback L.J. Moore — steps up and takes it in fall camp.
Josiah St. John, OT: St. John, a junior-college transfer, provides immediate — and desperately needed — depth for Oklahoma's offensive tackles. There were questions about his academic status while St. John missed summer workouts, but he arrived just before practices began. Tyrus Thompson and Daryl Williams are the starters, but St. John is talented and capable of carving out an important role for himself.
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