Sooners ride momentum into spring practice

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) — The Oklahoma football program believes it is on the cusp of returning to elite status after beating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

Spring practice, which starts Saturday, is the next step in the proud program's expected rise back to the top. Coach Bob Stoops said the hungry Sooners might have had their best winter of preparation since he became head coach in 1999.

"It's been one of our best, if not the best out of season we've ever had, the way the players are working, the gains they're making and their attitudes, " Stoops said. "That's what I'm most pleased with."

Most of the intrigue heading into the spring is on offense, since the Sooners return 11 starters on defense.

Trevor Knight enters the spring as the undisputed starting quarterback after his showing in the Sugar Bowl. He passed for 348 yards and four touchdowns in the 45-31 win over Alabama. His performance while just a freshman was strong enough for Stoops to move quarterback Blake Bell, a former starter, to tight end.

Stoops said Knight's breakout performance didn't surprise him.

"To be quite honest, as coaches, we've seen a lot of that over the last year and a half," he said. "It didn't come to fruition early in the season like we thought it might, but it certainly did by the end of the season."

Stoops sees Knight's youth as an advantage. He said Knight is mature and focused on improving.

"We're excited about the fact that he's just a sophomore, and the development, we feel, will just continue in a very strong way," he said.

There will be some questions around Knight. The Sooners lost nearly 70 percent of both their yards receiving and rushing from last year's team.

The Sooners lost running backs Brennan Clay, Damien Williams and Roy Finch. Clay ran for 957 yards and six touchdowns, Williams rushed for 553 yards and seven scores and Finch ran for 368 yards. Knight is the team's top returning rusher.

Keith Ford and Alex Ross will be key running backs in the spring. Ford ran for 134 yards last season and Ross had just 19. Joe Mixon, a top recruit at running back, and Samaje Perine, a 238-pound freshman, should be in the mix in the fall. Despite the inexperience, Stoops said the talent pool is strong.

The Sooners lost top receiver Jalen Saunders. He had 61 catches for 729 yards and eight scores last season, but again, Stoops said there is plenty to offer.

The top returning receiver is Sterling Shepard. He had 51 catches for 603 yards and seven touchdowns last season. Durron Neal is next on the list with 13 catches for 176 yards. Stoops also spoke highly of Derrick Woods.

"These guys have been developing, training, and they're ready to take over," Stoops said. "It's a strong group. They just haven't had a lot of time on the field."

As for Bell, he's playing tight end, the position his uncle, Mike Bell, played for the Kansas City Chiefs. Bell's father, Mark, played defensive end for the Seattle Seahawks and Indianapolis Colts. With Bell heading into his senior season and Knight's emergence, Stoops said the move made sense.

"I think Blake realizes to have a chance to play in the NFL, tight end may be his better opportunity," Stoops said.

Bell will get competition from Taylor McNamara, Aaron Ripkowski and JUCO transfer Isaac Ijalana.

Offensive tackle Tyrus Thompson (leg), offensive guard Adam Shead (back), defensive tackle Jordan Phillips (back), offensive guard Tyler Evans (knee) and safety Julian Wilson (shoulder) will sit out the spring. Stoops said all should be ready for practice to begin in August. Thompson, Phillips and Wilson are returning starters.

Other than those injuries, all is positive for Stoops. He expects a productive month, especially with the momentum from the win over Alabama.

"They're not sitting back thinking about that and not doing what they need to do moving forward," Stoops said. "I think, more than anything, it's made them hungrier to build on it and to keep improving."

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Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP .