OU football: The five most important Sooners of the 2020 season
NORMAN — It was a wild season for OU football. From the 0-2 start to Big 12 play to the four-overtime thriller in the Red River Showdown to a Bedlam blowout to a conference title game win to a destruction of Florida in the Cotton Bowl.
Here’s a look at the five players who were most important in shaping the Sooners’ season and what their performances mean moving forward:
Tre Norwood, DB
2020: Norwood was a key piece of the Sooners’ secondary in 2017 and 2018, moving all around in the backfield proving to be a versatile weapon. But after missing the 2019 season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, Norwood’s season got off to a slow start but his playing time steadily grew before breaking back in as a starter in Lubbock on Halloween. Norwood made his presence known with two first-quarter interceptions in that game and kept them coming, finishing with five interceptions including one he returned for a touchdown in the Cotton Bowl. He started at both safety and nickelback this season and was solid at both spots.
Moving forward: Norwood, who has graduated, declared for the NFL Draft though he could’ve played for two more seasons. But Norwood is a bridge from the past Sooners’ defense to the future. Norwood’s emergence helped solidify the secondary this season and helped Alex Grinch bring along a group of young defensive backs who will play big roles for the Sooners the next few years, players like Jeremiah Criddell, Woodi Washington and D.J. Graham.
Ronnie Perkins, DL
2020: Perkins’ season defined the Sooners’ year as much as anyone. Without him early, during the five games he was suspended to start the season, the defense had plenty of moments but lacked a definitive leader. But once Perkins returned, Oct. 31 at Texas Tech, he immediately became that leader and looked like the best defender in the Big 12 during those six games he played. Perkins’ impact began on his very first play, as he chased down a Texas Tech running back, preventing a touchdown. He finished with 5.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss and eight quarterback hurries.
Moving forward: Perkins’ NFL Draft stock rose sharply after his return, so it wasn't exactly a surprise when he declared for the NFL Draft on Saturday. Perkins has a chance to be a first-round pick with solid showings leading up to the draft. Even without him, the Sooners' defensive line has plenty of depth, especially with the return of Jalen Redmond after Redmond opted out in 2020.
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Spencer Rattler, QB
2020: Rattler entered the season with sky-high expectations on his shoulders. Though he didn’t make a Heisman Trophy push like some expected, struggling with interceptions in losses to Kansas State and Iowa State, Rattler’s season was nothing but a success. He completed more than 2/3 of his passes for 3,031 yards and 28 touchdowns. His decision-making improved greatly after being benched in the second quarter against Texas. Rattler made jaw-dropping throws regularly and though he didn’t run much, he regularly kept plays alive with his feet, becoming one of the best quarterbacks in college football at throwing from outside the pocket.
Moving forward: Rattler went through growing pains this season, something a Sooners' quarterback hadn’t gone through during Lincoln Riley’s tenure. But Rattler did nothing to dim those high expectations moving forward, as he’s already been tabbed by several betting services as the Heisman favorite next season. If Rattler keeps progressing as he did throughout his redshirt freshman season, the Sooners will remain in very good shape at quarterback and offensively overall.
Rhamondre Stevenson, RB
2020: Like Perkins, Stevenson’s return against Texas Tech helped set the tone for the rest of the season. The Sooners had struggled to run the ball consistently before that game but Stevenson’s impact was immediate — with three first-half touchdowns against the Red Raiders. He averaged 6.6 yards per carry and also became a favorite target of Rattler’s in the passing game, especially after Austin Stogner’s injury. Stevenson had a monster game in the Cotton Bowl, ending his Sooner career with 186 rushing yards and a touchdown against Florida.
Moving forward: Stevenson declared for the NFL Draft, which was little surprise after his Cotton Bowl performance. Kennedy Brooks, who was twice rushed for more than 1,000 yards, returns after he opted out in 2020. With T.J. Pledger transferring, Brooks figures to be the No. 1 running back for OU. The Sooners also have Marcus Major and Seth McGowan returning at the position.
Isaiah Thomas, DL
2020: Though Thomas had played in 20 games over the previous two seasons, he burst onto the scene this season, filling at defensive end early when Perkins was suspended. When Perkins returned, Thomas’ impact didn’t wane. It only continued to grow. He filled in for an injured LaRon Stokes on the inside, while still moving outside at times as situations dictated. Thomas had a sack against Iowa State, helped on sacks against Texas and Oklahoma State and had 2.5 of them against Baylor to help the Sooners clinch a Big 12 Championship Game berth. He finished with a team-high 12.5 tackles for loss and his eight sacks were just 0.5 behind Nik Bonitto. His versatility might’ve hurt him when it came to voting on postseason awards — Thomas wasn’t on the coaches’ All-Big 12 first team — because it was impossible to categorize him as a defensive tackle or defensive end, it was invaluable for the Sooners.
Moving forward: With Perkins declaring for the draft, Thomas would be a more-than-capable replacement in that spot or can move where needed. His versatility gives Calvin Thibodeaux, Jamar Cain and Alex Grinch plenty of options moving forward.
Ryan Aber covers OU athletics, especially football. You can send your story ideas to him at email@example.com or on Twitter at @ryaber. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.