Sunday, July 21, 2013

Educating Heupel--Listen Up, Josh: Don't Screw This Up!

Only 42 days remain until the 2013 Sooner football season kicks off in Norman on August 31.

The opponent is Louisiana-Monroe and the game will be the fifth earliest home opener in Oklahoma's storied 119 football seasons (all since 1996.)

But that's not the only story line in the 2013 season.

The Sooners return with a completely retooled defense after the losses of virtually the entire defensive line, corner Demontre Hurst and safety Javon Harris to graduation, juniors: safety Tony Jefferson, linebacker Tom Wort and wide receiver Kenny Stills decided to enter the NFL draft early (wonder what they think about that decision now?), and of course, the biggest name: fifth-year quarterback Landry Jones.

And that is where this season's main story line will center upon: Who will be the Sooners QB?

Many have already annointed junior Blake Bell. Everyone knows about Bell's storybook two-year run as leader of the short-down "BellDozer" package. Bell rushed the ball 60 times for 222 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2012.

The most dramatic play for Bell came in last year's Bedlam finale on fourth down for a touchdown to send the game into overtime.

Now the mantle is about to be passed to Bell as the full-time starter.

Although Bob Stoops has yet to name an official starter, he has kept open the option of competition this fall, most Sooner observers believe the job is Bell's to lose. Untested freshman Trevor Knight and sophomore Kendal Thompson will compete but lack the game-time experience and accompanying moxy that those past two years brings to Bell.

It would be a shock if Knight or Thompson emerged from fall camp as the starter based upon anything other than an injury to Bell.

So, Blake Bell will assume the mantle being passed from the Jason White, Sam Bradford and Landry Jones quarterback lineage.

And That's Where The Fun Begins

Now, we fast forward to August 31 and the home opener against the Warhawks from Louisiana-

Most Sooner fans will assume the usual beat-down for the home opener. However, one fact should get the attention of the Sooner Nation: Todd Berrys' squad upset #8 Arkansas in Little Rock in last year's season opener. And, this is the same Louisiana-Monroe that beat Alabama in 2007! The Warhawks also bring a veteran squad with 17 starters returning from an 8 win season last year to Norman. And, senior quarterback Kolton Browning was recently named the Sun Belt Conference Pre-Season Offensive MVP and to the Walter Camp Player of the Year Watch List. He's also previously been named to the Davey O'Brien Quarterback Award, Maxwell Award and CFPA pre-season watch awards list. They will not be awed or intimidated by the tradition and history in Norman and will think they can pull off the biggest upset of the season again for the second straight year.

And the September schedule doesn't get any easier with West Virginia returning to Norman for the first time since 1982 the following week for the Big 12 opener and then a visit from a pesky Tulsa squad with head coach Bill Blankenship looking to ruin Blake Bell's coming out party. After an off week, a visit to South Bend looms large and a chance at redemption against Notre Dame for last years 30-13 loss at home. Any slip ups along the way and the Sooners could be not only knocked out of the BCS National Championship picture but the Big 12 Championship in September!

If you don't know the history of how fickle OU fans are just check the history with the "Chuck Chuck", and "Bury Barry" bumper stickers from the 1970's and 80's to see what would be in store for Big Game Bob if his Sooners lay an egg in September with multiple losses to any one of four very good teams capable of an upset against a Sooners squad featuring a new quarterback and inexperienced and thin defense. I am certain Bob Stoops doesn't want to see any "Bye Bye Bob" signs in Owen Field by the time Gary Patterson and his TCU Horned Frogs roll into Norman on October 5.

So with basically the entire offensive line and running backs Damien Williams and Brenan Clay returning as is fullback Trey Millard along with wide outs Jalen Saunders, Trey Metoyer, Durron Neal, Sterling Shepard and once-suspended Jaz Reynolds, the cupboard appears full for Bell's inaugural season as starter.

However, the most important person returning is offensive coordinator Josh Heupel who will be calling plays for his third straight season.

Heupel has been a lightning rod for disgruntled Sooner fans who cringe with his every play call, or so it seems. Many unjustly blame him for the Landry Jones meltdown in Stillwater in 2011 and the Kansas State debacle last year. However, it was the Notre Dame loss in Norman in 2012 that was the straw that broke Heupel's back with many of the Oklahoma faithful.

A 5th ranked Notre Dame squad invaded Norman with a stout defensive front seven led by All-American linebacker Manti Te'o. Many analysts expected the Sooners offensive coordinator to attack the perceived weakness of the Fighting Irish, their suspect secondary which was full of converted wide receivers and back ups, with the blazing speed of the Sooners wide outs.

However, as the game played out, Notre Dame primarily used its base defensive lineup the entire game and dared OU to throw the ball deep. And Heupel incredibly played right into their hands by only attempting three downfield passes the entire game.

Yes, Jalen Saunders had a career-game 15 receptions for 181 yards but that was what Notre Dame wanted to allow. The underneath routes were open all night but when the Sooners came close to the red zone the Fighting Irish defense clamped down and limited the Sooners success between the 20 yard line.

And so it goes for the offensive coordinator at the University of Oklahoma heading into the 2013 campaign. Many see Blake Bell as a legitimate Heisman candidate, who definitely has the potential based upon his limited exposure the past two seasons, but are holding their breath that Josh Heupel doesn't screw him up!

So with all that said, here are my 5 suggestions for Josh Heupel to ensure Blake Bell succeeds.

#1--Blake Bell Is Not Landry Jones

By all accounts Landry Jones had a stellar career at Oklahoma. He passed for 16,646 yards and 123 touchdowns in four years, the third highest total in major college football history, and departed as the Oklahoma all-time passing leader in completions, attempts, yardage, touchdowns and wins. His career record was 39-11, 3-straight wins against Texas, one BCS Bowl Victory, 3-1 bowl record and two Big 12 Championships. Not bad.

However, following in the shoes of Heisman winner Sam Bradford, many consider Jones to be an underachiever because he didn't win a national championship or the third Heisman by a Sooner quarterback in 10 years.

But despite an up and down career more known by fickle Sooner fans for his penchant for the intermittent unforced turnover than his records, many observers had thought Landry was the most naturally gifted quarterback and would go in the first round of the NFL draft. But the NFL brass knew something that those observers didn't because Jones slipped all the way to the 4th round.

The pre-draft criticism of Josh Heupel even reached ESPN "Monday Night Football" host Jon Gruden. Gruden interviewed Jones for his popular television show, "Jon Gruden's Quarterback Camp," where the former NFL head coach watches game film of potential NFL draftees and offers his harsh critiques of his pupils. In Jones' case, Gruden targeted his criticism at his offensive coordinator:

"I didn't really like a lot of the plays he had to run at Oklahoma. Last season, the Sooners consistently didn't have any tight ends as options in the passing game, and didn't do enough to give Jones the option to have easy outlets, which eliminated the opportunity to dump the ball off to tight ends or running backs. If I'm going to criticize anybody for that, I'm going to criticize Oklahoma. The Sooners often went with four-wideout formations, and I thought it stymied their quarterback. They lost balance and their play-action passing game. That put a lot on Jones, and it probably created a situation where he had to throw the ball too often."

So what does Josh Heupel do with Blake Bell to follow up to Landry's 4-year run and prevent the same thing from happening to him that Gruden describes above as Jones downfall in Norman?

The one thing we don't want to see is a status quo offensive package for Blake Bell. Two different players. Two different offensive packages right? Barry Switzer said as much in 2011 when the offense was struggling in short yardage situations and when the BellDozer was first introduced and the Sooner Nation was clammering for a QB change.

But that is not the thinking simply based upon past precedent. No one will be surprised if Heupel just plugs and plays Bell into the same offensive philosophy and system that Landry Jones quarterbacked for four years.

But that would be a major problem. Because Blake Bell has a different skill set and this team is not even close to the one who finished 10-3 last year by surrendering the most points in Oklahoma history!

So the first step for Josh Heupel is to listen to Jon Gruden and do not continue the same offensive philosophy with Blake Bell because he is not Landry Jones and the Sooner defense enters the season as a question mark and presents a definite potential weakness.

#2--Play to Your Strength

The Sooners return all of their offensive line starters except NFL first round pick Lane Johnson, both running backs as well as a deep and talented wide receiver corps and the versatile Trey Millard.

So why not just maintain the same offensive system in 2013 with a new quarterback?

Because it would be a major mistake.

Blake Bell is a unique quarterback who brings a different skill set to the field than Landry Jones. His passing skills are yet to be seen but by all accounts, based upon his stellar high school career in Kansas, Bell appears to have the potential to continue the up-tempo, heavy passing game OU has mastered the past few years.

But the one problem OU has this year is its' defense which has been decimated by graduation and early underclass departees to the NFL draft.

Also, only three defensive lineman return from last season. Sophomore Jordan Phillips, lightly used Torrea Peterson and Jordan Wade. Heavily recuited freshman Kerrick Huggins just declared himself academically ineligible and enrolled in junior college and incoming JUCO transfer Quincy Russell has yet to be cleared academically to play this fall. This situation is so bleak that Mike Stoops already moved defensive ends Chuka Ndulue and Rashod Favors inside to beef up the tackle roster. But Ndulue's DUI arrest last month most assuredly will result in a one game suspension thinning an already thin group.

So, although linebackers Corey Nelson and Frank Shannon return with a renewed commitment from defensive coordinator Mike Stoops, they will be hard-pressed to stop an onslaught that could overrun the porous defensive line. And, with only Aaron Colvin returning as a starter, the secondary will be full of new faces that will need time to gell.

Which is why Josh Heupel should mix things up with the Sooner play calling and create a new package that utilizes Blake Bell's unique skill set and establish the running game.

This change does two things:

1) Plays to the Sooners strength with 5 returning offensive linemen, 1,000+ yard running back Damien Williams and 500+ yard runner Brennan Clay along with Trey Millard plus newcombers Alex Ross and true freshman Keith Ford. And don't forget, Bell is 6' 6" and 263 pounds of muscle who punishes defenses with his BellDozer runs. This will be a very formidable group against any opponent.

2) Runs the clock and keeps an inexperienced and thin OU defense off of the field.

This last point is critical because OU averaged a total of 77 offensive plays per game while eating up 31.04 minutes per game in 2012. OU's opponents averaged 69 plays and 28.56 minutes per game in time of possession.

OU threw the ball 43 times per game versus 33 rushes per game. The Texas game was an anomaly that got away from them early as the Sooners featured 51 rushes en route to a 63-21 rout.

Quite frankly, OU simply doesn't have the athletes on defense, at least starting out, to keep up with this offensive pace.

Most experts will tell you that 65 plays is the magic number you can expect a defense to play and keep things in order. As evidenced by the scores last year at West Virginia and home against OSU, that fact is backed up by the 50-49 and 51-48 scores and 82 and 103 plays, respectively, including a school record 73 passing attempts against OSU.

So, Josh Heupel needs to listen to Jon Gruden and rethink his up-tempo, high level passing system and slow things down and play to his players strength by establishing a running game.

#3--Feature Trey Millard

The best offensive player OU has is Trey Millard. He is a terrifying threat to opposing defenses with his agility, size (6' 2" 259 pounds) and speed.

However, Millard barely touches the ball in Heupel's up-tempo, high octane passing system. Hell, even Blake Bell carried more times than Milliard in 2012! Millard only carried the ball 33 times in 2012 for 199 yards and a 6.0 average per carry and caught 30 passes for 337 yards and 11.2 average per reception. That's an incredible 17 yard per play average!

The highlight of his 2012 season was his SportsCenter moment in the Cotton Bowl against Texas. Millard took a short pass from Jones and bullied his way 73 yards by his hurdle of one Longhorn defender while simultaneously stiff-arming another mid-air en route to his Texas Two-Step gallop. I hope Josh Heupel has this play on rewind on his smart phone and watches it every day this summer!

So Josh Heupel needs to get Millard more involved this year while establishing the running game to maintain possession, eat clock and keep the thin defensive unit off of the field.

#4--Introduce the H-Back

This move is not as drastic as it sounds.

Millard and linebacker-converted running back Aaron Ripowski are already on the field in the BellDozer package. Ripowski primarily as a blocker but Millard as a dual run-receiver threat.

This move places the offenses best player, Millard, on the field every down and will create immediate problems for opposing defenses.

Milliard can keep defenses honest and on their toes because of his dual threat skill set. He can carry the ball in a two-back set or from a hybrid H-back formation where he becomes a receiving threat. He is simply too fast for a linebacker to cover and too strong for a safety or cornerback. Properly utilized he is virtually unstoppable and a defensive coordinator's worst nightmare.

Similar offenses have utilized this formation successfully with tight ends including Stanford, Notre Dame and Oregon in their BCS Championship season in 2010. And, of course, Alabama goes with its heavy package but primarily uses the H-back as a blocker. However, the beauty about Milliard is he is a fullback who is big and fast enough to play tight end. He gives you an imediate dual run/pass threat.

No doubt Josh Heupel likes the four receiver sets and despite what Jon Gruden said above Bob Stoops quieted critics last year by saying this format gave the Sooners the best opportunity to score points against the other high-octane Big 12 offenses. Stoops also didn't have a legitimate tight end last year and unless Brannon Green and Taylor McNamara develop quickly this season, the Sooners won't have a legitimate tight end early. It was so bad at tight end last year that defensive end Geneo Grissom was moved there at the beginning of the season.

But Landry Jones' favorite targets Justin Brown graduated and Kenny Stills left early for the NFL and the new receiving corps and quarterback as well as the defense will need time to get assimilated and in sync.

So let's feature Millard as a true hybrid H-back, line him up in multiple formation sets, run the ball featuring him as a lead blocker and give him the ball sporadically, split him out in the slot as a receiver and use him in the short yardage BellDozer formation. But whatever you do keep him on the field 100% of the time. Give an inexperienced Blake Bell the options Gruden criticized Heupel for not giving Jones last season.

Give him 20-25 touches a game. Mix in speedsters Damien Williams, Brennan Clay and potentially Alex Ross another 20-25 times to keep defenses honest. Throw the ball 25-30 times and use multiple sets but keep the base package featuring Milliard on the field 100% of the time.

#5--Eliminate Those Nerdy Sideline Play Calling Placards & Let Blake Call His Own Plays

If I see another offense line up and then stop and everyone look over to the sideline to those wacky oversized placards with cartoons, numbers and other inanimate objects with assistants waving their arms in some sort of Egyptian hieroglyphics, I am going to throw up.

The Sooners hurry up to the line and then sit around looking for a play call from a slew of assistants and goofy signs for seemingly endless minutes and then run a draw play.


I am not saying eliminate the up tempo play calling system, just simplify the offense with the H-Back formation with Millard and run the play Blake Bell sees at the line of scrimmage most of the time.

It's not rocket science. A college quarterback should be able to call his own plays 90% of the time based upon formations, personnel on the field, positional football and gameclock management. Under two minutes late in the game Heupel is going to be calling the plays anyway but why not let Blake Bell direct the offense the rest of the time?

He has been in the program for two years, knows the offense and personnel better than anyone and with a simplified H-Back formation most of the game, should be able to check off at the line of scrimmage after reading the defensive formation. This change will keep the defenses in their base formation and not allow them time to substitute.

Looking at the schedule, I don't see any intimidating defenses that will just line up and scare anyone other than possibly a loaded TCU squad. However, I do see some potent offenses in Stillwater and Waco that could drive Mike Stoops crazier than he was last year without some help from his offensive counterparts.

Let the Sooners hurry up and run the ball down the opponents throats or toss it out in the flat or the seam to Millard and watch him run.

Hurry back up to the line and do it again and take no prisoners.


This is definitely a rebuilding year for Oklahoma.

Most programs who lose a 4-year starting quarterback coming off of a 39-win career, 3 bowl wins and two conference championships expect a drop off.

However, not with Bob Stoops. Big Game Bob has done some of his best coaching in so-called rebuilding years with new quarterbacks and entirely different offensive systems and offensive coordinators.

In 2006 coming off a disappointing 8-4 season in 2005, Stoops wasted little time suspending returning starting quarterback Rhett Bomar and replacing him with converted wide receiver Paul Thompson. The Sooners responded with a powerful running game featuring Allen Patrick and a punishing defense en route to a Big 12 championship and 11-2 season before the Fiesta Bowl upset to Boise State.

He did it again in 2007 with freshman Sam Bradford calling plays in Kevin Wilsons' up-tempo, no huddle passing system. Bradford mastered the system in 2008 on his way to his Heisman winning season and a BCS national championship game against Florida.

And again in 2010, after a dismal 8-5 season after season ending injuries to Bradford and Jermaine Gresham in 2009, Stoops retooled his offense with Landry Jones in his first full season after losing Sam Bradford to injury the previous season and finished 12-2 with another Big 12 championship and Fiesta Bowl victory over Connecticut.

Josh Heupel has been on-the-job training the past two seasons and felt the wrath of the Sooner Nation for some questionable calls and game plans in key moments of big games.

He better figure out the best way to utilize his personnel to their strengths while realizing his defenses liability or the September cheers will turn into October howls this fall in Norman.

And, some enterprising Sooner entrepreneur will unveil "Hang Heupel" bumper stickers.