As fall camp is now over and the team is finalizing game prep for the much-anticipated opener with the Sooners, it’s time for a look at how the key position battles turned out (as identified previously).
Key Position Battle Results
As camp opened on Aug 3, I broke down the position battles into three categories—open or unsettled starting spots, key backup spots, and locked down spots. Within each of those, I gave some thoughts to the various positions. Here is how those battled turned out:
1. Open Starting Spots (OL, WR, CB, DT, ST)
• Offensive Line—This position has lived up to its billing as there has been plenty of drama on the line over the last three weeks. Matt Reynolds, the lone returning starter, broke his hand and missed most of camp, although is expected to start in the opener. Jason Speredon, the tentative starter at left guard, tore a rotator cuff and will miss the season due to surgery. Jesse Taufi has not yet qualified academically (although he may be able to join the team at some point during the season). Houston Reynolds, expected to be a backup, is out for the season with an ACL. The surprise of camp is Marco “Moose” Thorson (6-3, 321 So) who seems to have locked down the left guard spot over Braden Hansen and Ryan Freeman. Likely starters are Matt Reynolds (LT), Moose Thorson (LG), RJ Willing (C), Terrence Brown (RG), Nick Alletto (RT).
• Wide Receiver—McKay Jacobsen and O’Neill Chambers are locks as expected. Luke Ashworth and Spencer Hofoka have been the next two in. Brett Thompson (6-3, 216 Fr) has been performing well in practice and will likely crack the rotation before the season is over.
• Corner Back—Several injuries at this spot have created a revolving door. Brandon Bradley’s tendonitis in the knee flared up during the first week, and still has not fully recovered. He was expected to start at boundary corner, but JC transfer Lee Aguirre has taken advantage of the opportunity to showcase his skills, creating some question as to who will actually start on Saturday. At the other side, freshman Robbie Buckner was an early surprise locking down a spot with the ones, before he was sidelined with injury. Another JC transfer Brian Logan, has performed well enough to win the spot in his absence, but will be playing with a broken finger come game day.
• Defensive Tackle—a bright spot of camp. Russell T was able to join the team, Romney Fuga has been able to quickly regain his pre-mission form, and Tevita Hola has been declared the most improved player on the team by Bronco. Bronco has also been personally coaching this position during camp as a way to get back to what he loves.
• Special Teams—Jacobsen and Chambers have locked down kick return as expected. Riley Stephenson has also been very good as punter. It is kickoffs and field goals that have been surprisingly competitive as Mitch Payne was somewhat inconsistent on field goals and kickoffs during camp. He is still listed as the starter and hopefully will be able to perform come game time, but Stephenson could fill in well if called upon.
2. Key Backup Spots (QB, RB)
• Quarterback—Brendon Gaskins backed up Hall last season and was slotted to do so again this year, at least for the beginning of the season. However, Riley Nelson will be the only returning quarterback on the roster next year, and Bronco stated that he wanted to get him at least 12 quarters of football this season. Gaskins, approached Bronco and suggested that Riley be given the backup spot in an effort to prepare him for next season—it was going to happen at some point during the season, but it was big of Gaskins to expedite it for the good of the team at his own expense.
• Running Back—Two year starter Harvey Unga was held out of much of fall practice as a precautionary measure and still managed to pull a hamstring, but is expected to play Saturday. Manase Tonga was cleared to enroll in school and has picked up where he left off—he will be expected to immediately take some of the burden off of Unga. JJ DiLuigi showed enough to secure the third spot—backup tailback—and Brian Kariya will back up Tonga.
3. Locked Down Spots (LB, S, DE, TE)
• Linebacker—the starters are the same here, but it is notable that Brandon Ogletree (5-11, 222 Fr) and Jordan Atkinson (6-3, 243 Jr) cracked the two-deep. Shiloah Te’o, backup strong safety, also played some at backer as part of a nickel package.
• Safety—Scott Johnson and Andrew Rich consistently performed well in camp and should make this position the strength of the defense. True freshman Craig Bills (6-1, 209 Fr) impressed coaches and teammates this fall and earned the right to backup Johnson at free safety. He will likely see the field sooner than later—possibly in every game.
• Defensive End—With starters Jan Jorgenson and Brett Denney locked in, the only notable development is the solid play of Vic So’oto, an athletic tight end-turned-linebacker-turned-defensive end.
• Tight End—Braden Brown earned the third spot behind Dennis Pitta and Andrew George and will be the heir apparent next season.