NORMAN — As NFL scouts, coaches and executives studied former Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones throughout the pre-draft months, the offense in which he played and broke records came under some intense, public scrutiny.
Lots of the criticism stemmed from the fact that — for the first time in the Bob Stoops era — Oklahoma lacked a significant tight-end presence. Brannon Green caught the only three passes snagged by the Sooners' true tight ends, not including jack-of-all-trades Trey Millard, who lined up some at tight end but made most of his impact in the backfield.
Asked last week about the criticism, Stoops defended his 2012 offense, saying that the Sooners were greatly inexperienced at tight end and much better with four wide receivers on the field.
“Our best grouping was with wide receivers, which was quite obvious to anybody who watched us,” Stoops said. “Who watched us.”
Jon Gruden, who coached the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the 2003 Super Bowl title, criticized the Sooners' lack of balance offensively, specifically noting the lack of a tight end presence last season.
Then after the Pittsburgh Steelers selected Jones in the fourth round last month, Trent Dilfer called the OU offense “a joke” and its receivers “brutal.”
Dilfer, who quarterbacked the Baltimore Ravens in their 2001 Super Bowl win, later told ESPN.com the lack of a tight end hurt Jones' ability to learn “a type of football from a quarterback's perspective that's transferrable to the NFL.”
Oklahoma's 2012 tight end situation, though, was a Stoops-era aberration. In 2011, Jones' junior year, tight ends Trent Ratterree, James Hanna and Austin Haywood combined for 43 receptions, 524 yards and four touchdowns. Ratterree and Hanna each graduated, and Haywood left the team.
And despite the inexperienced tight ends, Jones' senior year was without question better than his junior season. He improved his decision making, learned to play without Ryan Broyles and recorded better statistics in virtually every passing category.
Like Stoops said, the offense was clearly best with four wide receivers. Without important contributions from Justin Brown, Kenny Stills, Jalen Saunders and Sterling Shepard, Oklahoma's 10-3 record and co-Big 12 championship might not have been attainable.
There's reason to believe the Sooners' tight end situation will improve next season, though. Freshmen Taylor McNamara and Sam Grant each redshirted last season — McNamara after an early season injury — and Green returns with more experience. The Sooners appear very deep at receiver once again, but losing Brown and Stills might create some opportunities for tight ends to become involved in the offense.
“I feel much better about (it),” Stoops said. “It's not unusual for two freshmen to come along and become stronger blockers and a bigger presence in what they're trying to do. Same thing with Brannon Green, he has more experience in what we're asking him to do.”
The unit is also getting a fresh start under new position coach Jay Boulware, who said he expects the tight ends to resume their significance in the Oklahoma offense.
“We're in the process of incorporating our tight ends more, doing some things,” Boulware said. “It's not gonna happen overnight, but as you well know, this (program) does have a great tradition of great tight ends that come through here, and we're gonna get it back to that level.”