(image via RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN)
Heading into the 2016 season, five major position battles will be taking place in Norman. Finding replacements for players of Sterling Shepard, Zack Sanchez, and Dominique Alexander’s caliber will not be easy for the coaching staff. With Jonathan Alvarez making the move over to center, it will open up both spots at the offensive guard positions. Despite losing Ty Darlington and Nila Kasitati, the future may look brighter at those positions than they were in 2015.
CONTENDERS: Cody Ford and Ashton Julious
ANALYSIS: Ashton Julious has dropped a reported 29 lbs, per TFB. That’s a lot of work put into the offseason and can not be taken lightly. However, Cody Ford got the nod in the Spring Game, and he is continuing to get rave reviews out of Norman for his “nastiness” so to speak. Ford was not a highly touted recruit in the 2015 class, only holding six offers, of which only three were from P5 teams. That said, he certainly fits the mold of most of Oklahoma’s big time offensive lineman. Bob Stoops and company thrive off of getting the most out of their low-rated recruits. With Ashton Julious putting in the work to lose weight this summer, can the JUCO transfer find his way into the starting lineup over Cody Ford?
WINNER: Ashton Julious. I just believe Coach Bedenbaugh will lean to experience with this year’s offensive line, and Julious has three years at Lackawanna College under his belt. He has lost nearly thirty pounds to this point, which shows his dedication to winning the job. His ability was never questioned, it was only Julious’ weight. With the weight now under control, I think he will take over the left guard spot.
CONTENDERS: Ben Powers and Jamal Danley
ANALYSIS: Jamal Danley came out of East Mississippi Community College with lots of hype. Coming into Norman, the JUCO standout was expected to start over, now center, Jonathan Alvarez. An undisclosed injury first set him back. Two concussions later, and rumors of a lack of dedication may have put him back further. Heading into the spring, it was Danley’s job to lose. Well, Ben Powers came in and took it from him. Powers is, in many ways, a lot like Cody Ford in terms of his “nastiness”. Powers’ ability to lock onto a defender and drive him wherever he wants is second to none. Where Danley is athletic, Powers is more physical.
WINNER: Jamal Danley. Although I believe Ben Powers ends up starting towards the end of the season, I just do not see Danley holding anything back to earn this job. Athletes find an inner-fire inside them going into their last chance to play. Danley has the athleticism and ability to become a solid player along the offensive line, and I believe Bedenbaugh will side with experience yet again here early on in the season.
CONTENDERS: Dede Westbrook, Geno Lewis, and Mark Andrews
ANALYSIS: Now, this is not a position battle so to say, but more of finding the “go-to” receiver for Baker Mayfield. The overwhelming favorite here is Dede Westbrook.. Westbrook showed flashes of greatness in 2015, but was somewhat overshadowed by how good Sterling Shepard was. Westbrook has the ability to be the “go-to” guy, but Mark Andrews and Geno Lewis can separate themselves from defenders incredibly well, too.
Geno Lewis found his home in Norman after transferring from Penn State. Trying to follow the foot steps of Justin Brown in 2012 for Landry Jones, Lewis may be a safety blanket for Baker Mayfield in 2016. Geno Lewis is a long, rangy receiver with an ability to create separation.
Mark Andrews is matchup nightmare when he is lined up inside against a safety or an outside linebacker. Where Westbrook and Lewis are quick, shiftier athletes, Andrews is big, physical presence across the middle. We’ve seen what he can do in the red zone, but can Andrews become consistent receiver in 2016?
WINNER: Dede Westbrook. He stayed another year in college to become a leader and “the guy” in the Oklahoma receiving corp. Baker Mayfield has previously mentioned in an interview with Dean Blevins that Westbrook is taking another step in the right direction. Expect him to have an even bigger year than last.
CONTENDERS: Tay Evans or Curtis Bolton
ANALYSIS: This is one of the more defined position battles for the 2016 season. Nothing but positives remarks when Tay Evans’ name is brought up. Evans is physical, has great sideline-to-sideline athleticism, and plays discipline football. Stuck behind Dominique Alexander and Jordan Evans, Tay Evans (so many Evans) has received limited time late in the games the last two seasons. Curtis Bolton is Tay Evans’ competition to start in 2016. Bolton is a little more athletic than Evans, but Bolton’s reviews speak that he is nowhere near as physical or disciplined. This gives Tay Evans’ the overall edge here.
WINNER: Tay Evans. Obviously, I am high on Evans for reasons. He should be a good fit to be Jordan Evans’ counterpart.
CONTENDERS: Dakota Austin, PJ Mbanasor, Michiah Quick, Jordan Parker, or Antoine Stephens
ANALYSIS: Yes, this is by far the most open position battle heading into the 2016 season. Here is a player-by-player breakdown:
Dakota Austin~ Austin has put on fifteen pounds this summer, and is primed to take over this position heading into 2016. The only knack on him? He is still undersized. Despite adding good weight this summer, Austin is still undersized to be a corner in the Mike Stoops style of defense. Where he is undersized, he does play with an incredible chip on his shoulder. He has great ball skills and plays physical. With attaining some experience in the 2015 season, Austin has an edge in terms of comfortability with the defense on game day.
PJ Mbanasor~ Mbanasor came into Norman last year with rave reviews. A physical, bump and run high school corner fought for and earned the back up position as a true freshman in 2015. After a pedestrian showing in his first career start against Tulsa, Mbanasor was relieved of those duties. Mbanasor does have the most ability of all the guys competing. I think it will come down to Mbanasor believing in himself and the schemes in order to win the job.
Michiah Quick~ Making the transition from wide receiver to corner this summer, Quick has had nothing but rave reviews. “Natural”, “his real fit”, and “should have been a corner all along” are phrases that have been in response to questions about his ability. In terms of experience, he does lack it, obviously. I do think this will hinder his chances of starting in 2016.
Jordan Parker~ When you mention Parker in a conversation, the term “swagger” is brought up a lot. Parker has not been afraid to let people know he is coming to start this season as a true freshman. Now, will he start at some point in 2016? Likely not, but his ball skills and speed is second to none for an 18 year old. It would not be a shock to see him on the field on gameday, but Parker will be the headliner in this conversation again in 2017.
Antoine Stephens~ A dark horse here. Antoine Stephens is slowly starting to get some rumbles of putting himself into this conversation. Some of the knocks on Stephens coming into college was that he was not twitchy enough to turn and run with a receiver, or be able to break on a comeback route. He struggled in last year’s fall camp, but has since taken off. He is starting to come into his own and not be a primary zone player. A lot like Jordan Parker, expect Stephens to be back in this conversation next year.
WINNER: Dakota Austin. Once again, I am rolling with experience and comfortability over ability to start out the 2016 season. Austin just has the “it” to him. The only question mark surrounding him is if he is physical enough to come up in run fits for a full game or a full season.
CONCLUSION: With Oklahoma having early marquee match-ups against Houston and Ohio State, experience is going to play big in deciding who starts early in the season. Oklahoma does not have a quarterback or extensive position battles besides the one opposite cornerback spot of Jordan Thomas. With the Sooners being a contender, they will need all the experience they can get. Fortunately, they will not need to fill too many holes on either side of the ball.