Oklahoma vs. UTEP: Five things to watch

Monday, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops answered questions for nearly 30 minutes during his first weekly press conference of the season.

None were about UTEP – OU’s opponent Saturday night in El Paso.

So, with that in mind, let’s not worry too much about the Miners. Here are five things to watch from the Sooner perspective:

1. What’s the story with the defense?

People seem to forget, the Sooner defense was really good last year, except in a few spots. Torched by Texas Tech in a loss, but solid in the first half of losses against Baylor and Oklahoma State. Meanwhile, OU was sensational in wins against Florida State and Texas.

Yet, here we are, a season removed from what was considered a lost year. Long-time coordinator Brent Venables is gone, and long-time-gone coordinator Mike Stoops is back after eight seasons at Arizona.

UTEP may not be the kind of test that Florida State, Texas or even Texas Tech was, but we will get to see what kind of new attitude the Sooner defense has. The secondary was the cause for concern last year, so there have been some changes. Tony Jefferson is back at free safety, Javon Harris is the strong safety. Aaron Colvin has returned to his original corner back position.

There are lots of questions – like who is going to be at defensive tackle. Casey Walker is now out, which likely moves David King over from tackle. The defensive ends are new also with R.J. Washington and Chuka Ndulue coming in for Frank Alexander and Ronnell Lewis.

Mike Stoops has promised a new attitude – one where the Sooners are taking things personally. We’ll see how that works out Saturday.

2. How ready is Dominique Whaley?

A season ago, walk-on Dominique Whaley surprised everyone, playing so well, two Sooner running backs quit the program in the first half of the season. But Whaley only played seven games, due to suffering a season-ending broken ankle on the first play of the game against Kansas State. He had 627 yards rushing, including three games where he went for more than 100 yards.

Coach Bob Stoops says Whaley looks fine and ready to go. Sooner fans should hope he is, because there’s a lot of unknown behind Whaley. Yes, Brennan Clay is back, but he’s not a runner who can carry the ball 25 times per game. Junior college transfer Damien Williams has impressed in practice, but has yet to play a game. Roy Finch could see some carries, but he is not listed on the depth chart and is more likely to see time at slot receiver.

Whaley is a power back, who can absorb a hit as well as carry the ball 30 times per game. He’s the Sooners’ best bet – if he’s healthy.

3. Who will be the go-to receiver?

Kenny Stills is the only receiver on campus who caught a pass last year for Oklahoma.

So, how come he’s not the logical choice as the top target for quarterback Landry Jones? Well, for one, Stills hasn’t been exactly durable. He missed some time last season with injuries. Secondly, when the Sooners needed him last year after Ryan Broyles went down with an injury, he was largely ineffective, catching just one touchdown pass in the last five games of the year.

In addition, Jaz Reynolds and Kameel Jackson have been suspended. Trey Franks has been dismissed, making more of a case for Stills.

Sooner coaches say the group of receivers this year is better than last year’s group. Maybe so, but they still unknowns. Freshman Trey Metoyer was highly recruited and has impressed in the spring game and in summer workouts. Justin Brown was a starter the past two years at Penn State, but hasn’t been in a pass-first offense like the Sooners have.

We know Jones will throw it around – a lot. We just don’t know who will emerge as his top target.

4. Will the Sooners ever really commit to playing Trey Millard?

Talk to any Oklahoma coach and he’ll tell you how great of an athlete Trey Millard is.

Superior runner, great pass-catcher out of the backfield, etc.

So, how come he doesn’t get more of a chance?

Millard had just 24 carries last year from his fullback spot. He had just 13 catches.

Maybe it’s because he plays fullback, and in an offense that doesn’t feature the fullback. But if Millard is as good as Sooner coaches say he is, it might be time to feature him.

UTEP isn’t expected to stay close to the Sooners, which means it’s unlikely OU will open up the playbook. That’s bad news for Millard. And bad news for those who are waiting to see what kind of player he can be.

5. What will be different about Landry Jones?

Jones will leave Oklahoma as the most-prolific passer in school history. He threw 29 touchdown passes last year, more than 4,400 yards and heads into this year as a Heisman candidate.

He also spent part of his offseason in California working with quarterback guru George Whitfield. The result? Well, coach Bob Stoops says Jones is moving better in the pocket, has improved on his footwork and is getting the ball on target quicker.

Saturday will be a perfect chance to see it in action. UTEP shouldn’t provide too much pressure, but still it is a road game for Jones and the Sooners.