The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

March 26, 2014

OU offense likely bigger, but better, too?

John Shinn, CNHI News Service

NORMAN, Okla. — Oklahoma’s offense is getting bigger this spring. Winter workouts are not the reason. A change in philosophy and personnel gets the credit.

The Sooners want to return the tight end spot to the every-down status it once held. The benefits were on display late in the 2013 season. Once OU made Trevor Knight the quarterback the second time around, it stayed in bigger sets.

“It’s a huge part of running the football,” OU head coach Bob Stoops said of the tight end impact.

Throwing it to them was not a major factor last season. OU’s tight ends caught four passes last season. Add in fullback Trey Millard, who did line up at tight end at times, and the number only jumps to 13 for the entire group.

OU ran the ball 59.3 percent of the time last season. The commitment to the run game, and using the quarterback as part of it, has allowed it to shift away from wide receiver-heavy personnel groups that dominated when Landry Jones was the quarterback from 2010-12 and OU threw the ball over 55 percent of the time.

Tight ends are one of offensive football’s great wildcards. The bulk forces defenses to take speedier defensive backs off the field. That chess match can create exploitable advantages.

“It makes you more versatile as an offense if you have them in there. They don’t know what personnel to put out there,” OU tight end Taylor McNamara said. You can run it, you can throw it. It’s a benefit for sure.”

How much OU can rely on the group is a question that must be answered in the spring. McNamara is the only returning tight end who’s had much of an impact. He played sparingly in 2013 as a sophomore. His only catch was a 4-yard grab for a first down in the Sugar Bowl.

He’s joined in the meeting room by junior college transfer Isaac Ijalana and Blake Bell, who has made the switch from quarterback this spring.

All of them are big targets — 6-foot-4 or taller and over 240 pounds. All must prove they can seal the edge and move linebackers on running plays before they can factor in the passing game.

The blocking ability is what is bringing the tight end back in vogue in OU’s offense.

The 3-4 defensive alignment, which has become more prevalent as a counter-measure to spread offenses, puts speedier outside linebackers on the field to cover slot receivers.

Tight ends that can block are the way of turning that defensive speed from a positive to a negative.

Stoops is more concerned with that aspect than finding tight ends OU can flex out as slot receivers like Jermaine Gresham did from 2006-08.

Adjusting the passing game plays into it as well. Since 2009, OU’s most productive receivers have lined up frequently in the slot. Ryan Broyles (2008-12) and Jalen Saunders and Sterling Shepard lined up as slot receivers on many downs.

“It’s definitely a little bit different with Jalen in there the past two seasons since I’ve been here, he’s a little shifty guy and now we’ve got these big bodies, you’re able to throw some higher balls, throw some gut shots to get it on them,” Knight said “They’re not going to win in space quite as much but for the high balls, it’s a lot different and a lot better.”

How productive the tight ends are in the spring will decide if OU’s ready to commit to making part of the base offense in the fall.

Ultimately, it’s about providing the best option.

“There’s just not a lot of Jermaine Greshams running around,” Stoops said. “They’ve got to be the right people, and they’ve got to be experienced enough that when they go on the field, they’re better than another personnel grouping you might display out there. That’s what we’ve got to deal with.”