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OU football: Breaking down every position for 2021 season

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Spencer Rattler

Redshirt freshman quarterback Spencer Rattler runs the ball during the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic against Florida at the AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Dec. 30.

Just days after No. 6 Oklahoma’s dominant 55-20 win over No. 7 Florida in the Cotton Bowl, there’s already buzz surrounding the Sooners’ national championship potential in 2021.

OU has either starpower, depth or both at each position next season and looks prepared for a return to the College Football Playoff after narrowly missing the top four in 2020. 

Here’s a breakdown of what each position group might look like in 2021:

Offense

Quarterback

Following early season hiccups against Kansas State and Iowa State, redshirt freshman Spencer Rattler excelled after a timeout benching against Texas. He threw for 3,031 yards and 28 touchdowns on the season — putting him among the nation’s top 10 in both categories — while engineering eight-straight wins. He grew exponentially as a leader as the year wore on, too, meaning the team and the starting job are both clearly his as a redshirt sophomore in 2021. 

Should Rattler strangely falter or face injury, his eventual heir is already in the room. Five-star signee Caleb Williams was the country’s top high school quarterback, and he built a strong recruiting class around himself to position Oklahoma for success down the road. He’d significantly benefit from at least one year of limited action to learn behind Rattler, but if forced to play he has the skills and talent to take the reins of head coach Lincoln Riley’s offense.

Rattler is the man of the present and Williams is the man of the future. After those two, the quarterback room is significantly thinner than usual due to the transfers of Tanner Mordecai and Chandler Morris. Should Rattler and Williams go down, potential sixth-year senior Tanner Schafer would be next in line to play, should he accept an extra year of eligibility. But more likely than not, fans will be watching a Heisman-esque performance from Rattler as he guides the Sooners in year two and some flashes of promise from Williams.

Running back 

Senior running back Rhamondre Stevenson transformed the Sooners’ rushing attack when he returned from suspension Oct. 31 against Texas Tech. In that game, he ran for 87 yards and three scores as Oklahoma rushed for 213 yards and six touchdowns — then-season highs. The Las Vegas, Nevada native finished the season with 665 rushing yards and seven touchdowns, leading the Sooners in both categories.

Stevenson has yet to announce if he’ll come back to OU as a fifth-year senior for the 2021 season, but the Sooners will benefit from the return of Kennedy Brooks, who had over 1,000 rushing yards in 2018 and 2019 and has a career total of 18 rushing touchdowns. Brooks opted out of the 2020 season in August, but head coach Lincoln Riley confirmed he will rejoin the program Jan. 1. A running back duo of Brooks and Stevenson would arguably rival that of any in the country, if the latter decides to stay. 

If Stevenson declares the NFL Draft, Brooks will lead a position group that also houses rising sophomore Seth McGowan and rising redshirt sophomore Marcus Major. Though McGowan and Major have a sizable total of 93 carries for 557 yards between them, OU’s future running back room will be left somewhat shorthanded after T.J. Pledger decided to transfer Dec. 21 and 2021 5-star running back Camar Wheaton chose Alabama over Oklahoma on Dec. 23.

Wide receiver

The headliner of OU’s strongest offensive group is sophomore Marvin Mims, who led the Sooners with 610 yards and a freshman program record nine touchdowns in 2020. Mims' big play potential was often on display, as he caught at least one pass for 25 or more yards in seven games, but there were also times where he completely disappeared. He caught just one pass for negative yardage in Oklahoma’s regular season finale against Baylor and caught only seven passes in the second half of games, compared to 30 in first halves. The key for Mims in 2021, as Rattler’s presumed top target, will be full-game consistency.

A potential complement to Mims is five-star signee Mario Williams, who — though also a star on the baseball field — could be poised for a stellar freshman season like Mims had in 2020. Four-star signees Jalil Farooq and Cody Jackson also have exciting potential. Williams, Jackson and Farooq enter Norman at a time when the only major departure is Charleston Rambo via transfer, adding even more depth to an already chock-full room. 

Next season, the Sooners will finally have the former five-star trio of Jadon Haselwood, Theo Wease and Trejan Bridges all together again, too. Bridges played in only two games in 2020 due to suspension and Haselwood missed all but three games due to injury, COVID-19 and personal reasons. Meanwhile, Wease established himself as another key target for Rattler with 530 yards and four touchdowns. Neither of the three has entirely played up to their potential as prospects entering their junior seasons, but perhaps more snaps and consistency are on the horizon for 2021.

Fan favorite and former walk-on Drake Stoops, son of legendary former head coach Bob Stoops, was a pleasant surprise in 2020 — 215 yards and two touchdowns — and could see significant time at slot receiver again next year as a redshirt junior. Potential sixth-year seniors Theo Howard and Obi Obialo had promise when they transferred from UCLA and Marshall, respectively, but Howard had just 13 catches for 163 yards and Obialo played in only one game in 2020, without registering a catch. It’s not yet clear if either will return next season. Expect Mims and Wease to begin the year as Rattler’s top duo again as others build their rapport with the former five-star passer.

Tight end/H-back

OU’s H-back group will be among the deepest on the team in 2021 with rising junior Austin Stogner, rising redshirt senior Jeremiah Hall, rising senior Brayden Willis and rising sophomore Mikey Henderson all being currently set to return.

Stogner was the Sooners’ third-leading receiver in 2020 with 422 yards and Hall had five receiving touchdowns on the season — the second most on the team. Willis suffered an injury Sept. 26 against Kansas State that sidelined him until Nov. 21 against Oklahoma State, but it didn’t take too long for him to find his stride. Filling in for an injured Stogner, Willis caught three passes for a career-high 42 receiving yards in the Big 12 Championship game. 

Henderson was utilized in a variety of ways by Riley and company in 2020. He had 12 receptions for 168 receiving yards and nine carries for 81 rushing yards on the year, along with two total touchdowns. With his ability to line up at just about any skill position on offense, look for Henderson to still see plenty of action in 2021 despite being in a crowded position group.

Offensive line

Oklahoma will be replacing perhaps the best center in program history in Creed Humphrey, who recently declared for the 2021 NFL Draft. Walk-on and rising redshirt senior Ian McIver will likely be Humphrey’s successor, but is a relative unknown after playing in just five games each of the last two seasons. Another name to watch in the middle is rising senior Chris Murray, who played in five games at right guard in 2020 after transferring from UCLA, but was seen getting reps as a center in Cotton Bowl pregame warmups.

The Sooners will also be down a man at right tackle after Adrian Ealy declared for the NFL draft. Brey Walker backed Ealy up this season, but saw action in only three games and doesn’t look like a sure replacement ahead of his redshirt junior season. One possible replacement is rising redshirt sophomore Stacey Wilkins, who opted out of the 2020 season, but is reportedly returning in 2021. 

Four-star signee Savion Byrd has the potential to make an instant impact at the position as Ealy’s successor as well. And backup left tackle Anton Harrison played well this season and could slide over to the right side as a sophomore. Another name to watch is former four-star prospect Aaryn Parks, who redshirted in 2020, but could be ready to play next season.

Despite the losses at center and right tackle, there’s returning experience and decent depth at left tackle, and both guard spots. Possible sixth-year senior Erik Swenson will likely return to start at left tackle and could be spelled by Harrison, Byrd, Parks or Wilkins.

Rising redshirt senior Marquis Hayes announced he will be back at left guard, followed by former No. 1 guard recruit Andrew Raym, who played in eight games in 2020 thanks to special teams work. At right guard, rising redshirt senior Tyrese Robinson will likely start again, unless surpassed by his backup, Murray. Should Murray move to center, three-star signee Cullen Montgomery is an intriguing piece who could work into the rotation as Robinson’s backup.

Defense

Defensive line

Even as OU awaits the NFL Draft decision of rising senior defensive end Ronnie Perkins, the Sooners’ defensive line is primed to be the team’s defensive strong suit.

Rising redshirt senior Isaiah Thomas and rising senior Perrion Winfrey have both implied they will be returning to OU in 2021. The duo played in all of the Sooners’ 11 games in 2020. Thomas led Oklahoma with 12.5 tackles for loss, was second on the squad with eight sacks and had 31 total tackles on the year. Winfrey finished the season with 17 total tackles, three pass deflections and 0.5 sacks.

Joining Thomas and Winfrey will be rising redshirt junior Jalen Redmond, who opted out of the 2020 season on Sept. 5. Redmond led the Sooners with 6.5 sacks in 2019, and had 11 tackles for loss on the year. Riley announced Redmond will rejoin OU on Jan. 1. If Perkins decides to stay at Oklahoma, he’ll look to top his six-game performance of 5.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss from last season. Perkins missed the Sooners’ first five games due to suspension.

Regardless of Perkins’ decision, Oklahoma’s defensive line has a tremendous amount of depth next season. Kori Roberson, Josh Ellison and Jordan Kelley will also return to the team while 2021 signees Kelvin Gilliam Jr., Isaiah Coe, Ethan Downs and Nathan Rawlins-Kibonge are set to arrive in Norman over the next few months.

Linebackers

Nik Bonitto excelled at RUSH linebacker in 2020, with 11 tackles for loss and a team-high 8.5 sacks. He quickly became one of the best pass rushers in college football and locked down that starting spot for his redshirt junior season in 2021. The transfer of Bonitto’s backup, Jon-Michael Terry, likely opens more playing time for rising redshirt sophomore Joseph Weté and rising sophomore Brynden Walker. Signees Clayton Smith and Danny Stutsman are also highly regarded by defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, and should push for playing time right away.

At MIKE linebacker, rising senior DaShaun White recently tweeted he plans for 2021 to be his “Butkus Season.” Rising redshirt junior David Ugwoegbu also had a strong season after moving inside. Both had exactly 34 tackles on the year, and together the two should hold down the middle as they did in 2020, barring injury.

In the WILL linebacker spot, rising redshirt junior Brian Asamoah asserted himself in 2020, starting every game and leading OU with 66 tackles on the season. He’ll have that job secured for 2021 and will be backed up by possible sixth-year senior Bryan Mead if he returns. Rising sophomore Shane Whitter and rising redshirt sophomore Jamal Morris also played significant snaps at the spot in 2020, and could earn more reps in 2021.

The confirmed return of sixth-year senior Caleb Kelly is the most intriguing part of OU’s linebacker picture. He was expected to be the Sooners’ starter at WILL linebacker before tearing his ACL for the second time during preseason practice, but has experience at multiple positions. As a consistent player who provides veteran leadership, Kelly may play all over the field in 2021 as defensive coordinator Alex Grinch attempts to find a place for him in the lineup. 

Cornerbacks

At corner, the Sooners will be tasked with finding a replacement for Tre Brown, who had three interceptions in 2020 and declared for the NFL Draft on Dec. 21. Brown’s likely successor is redshirt freshman Woodi Washington, who had 44 total tackles, four pass deflections and two interceptions last season. Washington’s final pick of the season came in the first quarter of Oklahoma’s 55-20 win over Florida in the Cotton Bowl.

Rising junior Jaden Davis and rising sophomore D.J. Graham also showed promise in 2020 despite limited play. In seven games, Davis tallied 11 tackles and five pass deflections while Graham tallied 20 tackles, one pass deflection and an interception in six games for Oklahoma. Another name to watch heading into the offseason is rising sophomore Joshua Eaton, a 6-foot-2 native of Houston, Texas, who appeared in just four games in 2020. 

Eaton’s length makes him stand out among cornerbacks on OU’s roster, but he’s soon to be joined by 2021 four-star signees Latrell McCutchin and Damond Harmon, who are both listed at 6-foot-1. Both recruits were highly sought after by schools across the country, making it interesting to see how they’ll perform for the Sooners next season.

Safeties

Losing safety Robert Barnes and multi-positional star Tre Norwood to the transfer portal and the NFL, respectively, is a big blow, but the Sooners still return a solid group in centerfield. Rising seniors in free safety Pat Fields and strong safety Dellarin Turner-Yell will probably return as starters. Oft-criticized rising senior Brendan “Bookie” Radley-Hiles should be back at nickelback despite being benched in favor of Norwood down the stretch in 2020.

Rising redshirt sophomore Jeremiah Criddell played often late in 2020, and should get more opportunities next season. Rising sophomore Bryson Washington struggled to find the field as a freshman, but has the size and physicality to excel in year two. It’s currently unclear whether or not raw 6-foot-4 signee Jordan Mukes will play cornerback or safety, but he could be a contributor to the group.

Perhaps the most interesting player in the room is 6-foot-3 rising redshirt junior Justin Harrington, who suffered an undisclosed leg injury before arriving at OU from Bakersfield Community College. Harrington was the nation’s top junior college safety before missing 2020 at OU, and though he could end up playing cornerback, he would probably benefit the Sooners more at his main position.

Special Teams

Mims handled punt return duties with ease in his first season at Oklahoma. He finished the season with 13 returns for 162 yards, with his best performance coming in the Sooners’ season opener, where he returned three punts for 68 yards against Missouri State. Expect OU to be in good hands if Mims is once again looked at for its punt return man.

As for the Sooners’ kick returner, that job is open after losing Rambo to the transfer portal. Rambo returned 11 kicks for 255 yards in 2020, which included a 103 total-yard performance in Oklahoma’s 37-30 loss to Iowa State. Brown and Pledger also returned kicks for the Sooners last season, however, both also departed from the team. Look for Mims or Stoops to likely take over as the Sooners’ No. 1 kick return option in 2021.

Kicking and punting duties will almost certainly fall back on the shoulders of rising redshirt junior Gabe Brkic and rising redshirt senior Reeves Mundschau, respectively. Brkic was a perfect 17-of-17 on field goals in 2019, but couldn’t maintain perfection last season as he finished 20-of-26 in the category. However, Brkic is still 102-of-102 on PATs in his career. As for Mundschau, he averaged just over 39 yards per punt in 2020, which is just one yard below his career average.

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Sports Editor

Mason Young is a journalism sophomore. He's the Daily's sports editor and covers OU football. He was previously assistant sports editor and has worked as a reporter covering OU women's gym, OU wrestling and former Sooners in the NFL.

Chandler Engelbrecht is a journalism junior and the Daily's assistant sports editor. He currently covers OU football and has previously covered OU men's basketball, volleyball and men's gymnastics.

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