NORMAN, Okla. -- In Bob Stoops’ first season in 1999, Oklahoma spread everyone out and threw it around.
In 2004, the Sooners put Jason White under center and handed off to Adrian Peterson.
As Stoops pointed out last week, the Sooners have often "played to their personnel." That includes last season, when, after it became abundantly clear the Sooners’ fourth-best receiver was better than any tight end, OU went almost exclusively with four-wide formations.
“We had some young [tight ends], a new guy from junior college,” Stoops said. “We weren’t the same with them on the field. Our best grouping was with wide receivers, which was quite obvious to anybody who watched us.”
In recent weeks, the Sooners have taken criticism from ESPN analysts Trent Dilfer and Jon Gruden for not using tight ends. They say it put too much pressure on quarterback Landry Jones to throw the ball downfield.
In several OU victories, Jones’ arm was good enough to overcome the limitations of not having a tight end checking off a route underneath the coverage, streaking down the middle of the field or helping to block in the run game.
But in the Sooners’ three 2012 losses, not having a tight end came back to haunt them, as OU was unable to maintain balance with the run or attack the Kansas State, Notre Dame and Texas A&M defenses off play-action.
The OU coaching staff recognized this liability and tried to lure another junior-college tight end to Norman before signing day. But after losing out on Beau Sandland and Emmanuel Bibbs -- the two juco tight ends they thought could provide an immediate impact -- the Sooners were forced to go with what they have.
Only this time, they won’t have Jones’ arm to fall back on. To be successful in 2013, the Sooners will have to run the ball with better efficiency. And they’ll have to also be lethal with play-action. Which means Sam Grant, Taylor McNamara and Brannon Green, whom the Sooners deemed weren’t ready last year, had better be ready to play this time around.
“I feel much better about it,” Stoops said. “The two freshmen [Grant and McNamara] have come along, are stronger blockers, have a stronger presence about what they’re trying to do. Same thing with Brannon Green, more experience in what we want him to do.
“I believe they’ll have more opportunities.”
Despite losing Kenny Stills and Justin Brown, the Sooners figure to be strong at wideout again. Jalen Saunders and Sterling Shepard should be prolific, and Trey Metoyer, Durron Neal, Dannon Cavil, Jaz Reynolds and others have big-play ability. But as OU transitions to an offense more reliant on the ground game -- as well as the running ability of its inexperienced quarterbacks -- tight end play will be paramount.
It’s no coincidence that when the Sooners have run the ball best, they’ve had stellar tight end play.
Even Adrian Peterson had James "Bubba" Moses and Joe Jon Finley.
Stoops says he likes what he saw from the tight ends in the spring. After redshirting last year, Grant showed promise as a blocking specialist. McNamara has put on weight and is finally healthy after undergoing shoulder surgery last season, then tweaking a hamstring after being cleared for spring ball. Green has come along, too.
They’ll never be confused with the 2007 tight end grouping of Gresham, Eldridge and Finley. But if they can be just solid enough to be used, that might be adequate.
The Sooners are always going to play to their personnel. But OU has always been better when the tight ends are included.