NORMAN — Oklahoma opened spring football practices Saturday, beginning its early preparations for Bob Stoops' 15th season as the Sooners' head coach.
Despite another 10-win season and Big 12 title, Stoops was clearly displeased with much about the direction in which his program seemed headed, as evidenced by the three assistant coaches he fired.
But, as they say, hope springs eternal. Each year at this time, all college football programs exude optimism about their futures.
Here are 10 things Oklahoma's 2013 spring football practices will be about.
Quarterbacks are competing to be Oklahoma's starter for the first time since 2007, when Sam Bradford outshined Keith Nichol and Joey Halzle to earn the job. That competition continued into late August, and OU coaches said not to be surprised if this one — between Blake Bell, Trevor Knight and Kendal Thompson — goes as long.
“We're gonna name a guy when he's earned it,” said co-offensive coordinator Josh Heupel.
Bell was Jones' backup last season, and has seen lots of action the past two seasons out of the Belldozer package.
“I think those opportunities, those experiences can help him,” Heupel said. “But we'll find out if ultimately that helps him be the guy.”
ESTABLISHING A NEW OFFENSIVE IDENTITY
For all the things Landry Jones did well, he was never very mobile. No matter who wins the quarterback job for 2013, the Sooners' offense is guaranteed to have that extra dimension.
“We will never give up anything as far as our quarterback having the ability to pass,” Heupel said. “That's our first, primary focus with our guys.”
Heupel said it's tough to make any firm, specific schematic decisions until a quarterback is named and his strengths are clearly identified.
“We can use their ability to extend and make plays with their feet,” Heupel said. “How many times we'll have designed play calls for them? I can't tell you right now, but that's certainly something we'll probably look at here in the spring.”
BREAKING IN NEW RECEIVERS
Oklahoma brings back several talented, experienced receivers, but also lost leaders Kenny Stills and Justin Brown.
Senior Jalen Saunders and sophomore Sterling Shepard played lots last season. Sophomore Trey Metoyer started early in 2012, but didn't adjust to the college game as quickly as many expected.
Sophomore Durron Neal and redshirt freshman Derrick Woods are expected to contribute, and senior Jaz Reynolds — coming off a year-long suspension — could have an opportunity to re-establish himself as an OU playmaker.
A STRENGTHENED OFFENSIVE LINE
Oklahoma's offensive line got a new position coach, and also gets back guards Nila Kasitati and Tyler Evans from 2012 ACL tears.
Kasitati is still recovering and won't go participate in spring practices, Stoops said, but Evans will.
Projected top-10 NFL Draft pick Lane Johnson is the 2012 offensive line's only full-time starter who won't return.
“We need to be better up front,” Heupel said. “They need to play with more urgency, they need to be tougher, more physical, be better fundamentally. If they do that, they've got a chance to catapult us offensively and allow us to be as efficient as we want to be.”
DEFENSE SCHEMATIC CHANGES
Will Oklahoma run a 3-4 defense in 2013? Sooners head coach Bob Stoops and defensive coordinator Mike Stoops acknowledged last week that they'll use the system, but wouldn't designate it as their primary scheme.
If OU runs a 3-4, it's possible that traditional defensive ends play more as pass rushing outside linebackers.
“When we kick into a (three-man front), some of it will be some of those guys standing up once in a while,” Bob Stoops said, adding that those players will work mostly with defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery in practice.
BUILDING UP LINEBACKERS
When high-powered, spread offenses began torching Oklahoma's defense late last season, coaches experimented with one — and sometimes zero — linebackers on the field.
Tom Wort admitted being discouraged last year, and opted to declare for the 2013 NFL Draft rather than return for his senior season.
Senior Corey Nelson, who was once considered among the best players on the team, returns along with sophomore Frank Shannon. Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said linebackers will be more included this season, and even admitted the unit was done an “injustice” in 2012.
REPLACING SEVERAL KEY DEFENDERS
Oklahoma isn't just changing up its defensive philosophy. The Sooners are doing it with an almost entirely new cast of characters.
Cornerback Aaron Colvin, defensive end Chuka Ndulue, Nelson and Shannon are Oklahoma's most experienced returnees on defense.
Versatile safety Tony Jefferson, who left early for the NFL, will be difficult to replace, Mike Stoops said.
“The productivity of Tony Jefferson will be dearly missed,” Mike Stoops said. “Tony was a playmaker for us.
“We'll move Gabe Lynn, who has great flexibility in his game, over to the free safety and Julian will step in at nickel.
“Quentin Hayes will go to strong safety. ... Who plays that other corner position will be our biggest challenge.”
The quarterback battle might get most of the attention, but Oklahoma has another longtime, reliable player to replace in 2013: Punter Tress Way.
Newcomer Jed Barnett, who is with the team for spring football, averaged 41.3 yards per punt last season at Laney College in Oakland, Calif.
“No one gets really excited about Jed, until next year when you're punting the ball,” Bob Stoops said on signing day. “He's got a big leg, and I really believe he's going to be a key ingredient for us when we're on the field next fall.”
TEACHING FUNDAMENTALS TO YOUNG PLAYERS
Bob Stoops said spring is a “fun time for coaches” because they can focus on fundamentals.
“You get to work with everybody,” Stoops said. “During the season, you're working with everybody, but you're focused a little more on first- and second-team guys that are getting the most snaps. This way, you're bringing everybody along.
“It's really about building depth at every position, getting more players ready to play not only on offense and defense, but also even on special teams.”
ADJUSTING TO NEW COACHES
For defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery, offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh and tight ends/special teams coach Jay Boulware, this spring will be about becoming acquainted with their new players.
“I'm a teacher first,” Montgomery said. “I'm a high-energy guy. I'm not into dog-cussing kids. If you do something right, I'm gonna rah-rah. If you do something wrong, I'm gonna teach you how to do it better.
“That's my style. That's who I am. And that's what you guys will see on the football field.”