NORMAN, Okla. — Oklahoma football opens its 2013 season against Louisiana-Monroe at 6 p.m. on Saturday at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. The matchup marks the first meeting between the two programs.
Louisiana-Monroe quarterback Kolton Browning is the school leader in career touchdown passes with 60.
The No. 16 Sooners return eight starters on offense from a team that averaged over 497 yards per game last season--the 12th best total offense in 2012. Four starters return to the line, including senior center Gabe Ikard, who was named preseason All-American by Sports Illustrated and ESPN earlier this month.
The offense also returns a plethora of proven playmakers at the running back and wide receiver positions. Three senior backs including Damien Williams, Brennan Clay and Roy Finch round out the rotation for OU’s running game while senior Trey Millard is also expected to get some touches at the fullback position.
Senior Jalen Saunders and sophomore Sterling Shepard return to lead the wide receiving corps following the graduation of Justin Brown and the early departure of Kenny Stills. Saunders--who finished third on the team with 829 yards through nine games last year---is listed to start on the outside while Shepard--who finished with 629 yards his freshman outing---will start as OU’s slot receiver.
While the multitude of tested players gives this offense an edge to put a lot of points on the board this season, the anticipation for this year’s home opener surrounds the introduction of red shirt freshman quarterback Trevor Knight, who was named the starter last week following an intense quarterback derby during fall camp. The San Antonio native made waves his senior year at Reagan high school, throwing for 2,092 yards and 27 touchdowns while tossing just three interceptions. Knight also earned the distinction as a mobile quarterback after gaining 943 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns.
Knight’s ability to command the scout team during the Cotton Bowl practices last year helped the young passer leapfrog junior Blake Bell for the starting role, but head coach Bob Stoops especially liked Knight’s consistency.
“I saw it everyday in practice and you see it early in the year and then mid-year and it didn’t change,” Stoops said. “He’s on the mark and throws a great ball. All of us knew watching practice a year ago and would shake our heads and think ‘Wow, did you see what he just did?’”
While most eyes will be on Knight’s performance, the area of most concern on Saturday is OU’s defensive line. After giving up a league second-worst 192.2 rushing yards to opponents, the Sooners graduated eight starters on a defense from a year ago to further deplete a group that struggled last season. Junior Chuka Ndulue’s one-game suspension is also expected to be served this Saturday, which means the group returns a line with just one combined start.
But Stoops remains optimistic the secondary and the team’s linebackers will step up to make plays., including senior captain Corey Nelson.
“I’m really excited about Corey and his opportunity to make plays,” Stoops said. “When we blitz him different ways he has a good knack for it as does (sophomore linebacker) Eric Striker.”
The defense will be tasked to disrupt ULM’s senior quarterback Kolton Browning, the Sun Belt conference’s offensive player of the year in 2012 that finished with a league-high 29 touchdowns while finishing with over 3,000 passing yards.
Stoops also gave a lot of respect for the veteran gunslinger during his Monday meeting with the media.
“Kolton Browning: I understand (he) is probably the best offensive player in that league and from what I’ve watched on tape, I concur,” Stoops said. “He has a lot of experience around him, has a lot of returning receivers and four or five offensive lineman back.”
One of the players that gives Browning that experience is center Josh Allen, a senior that has 30 starts and who landed on a the preseason Lombardi Award watch list, an award annually given to the nation’s best lineman or linebacker.
The Warhawks aren’t a pushover team either and have started their past five seasons against ranked opponents. After upsetting then-No.8 Arkansas in last season’s opener, the team averaged 33.8 points per game before finishing the season with an 8-5 record, including a 45-14 loss to Ohio in the Independence Bowl.
“I think everyone is aware of what they did a year ago and they have 18 starters coming back this season,” Stoops said. “They’re a team that went to Arkansas a year ago and won 31-28. With all these starters back, they’re a team that's very used to coming into stadiums and places like this and playing well.”
And Stoops and Co. are hoping to avoid that type of upset this weekend in Norman.
--Head coach Todd Berry is in his fourth season as ULM head coach, with one bowl victory and a 17-20 overall record.
--The Warhawks start the season against a ranked opponent for the sixth consecutive season.
--Browning is the school career touchdown leader with his 60 tosses.
--Seven Warhawks earned preseason Sun Belt Conference honors, including Browning, as well as offensive lineman Josh Allen, nose tackle Kentarius Caldwell, wide receivers Je'Ron Hamm and Tavarese Maye, kicker Justin Manton and safety Isaiah Newsome.
--ULM made its first postseason appearance in the BCS era last year, but did lose the Independence Bowl in doing so.