The Oklahoma Sooners started spring practice on Monday, hoping to put images of a very disappointing 2009 season behind them.
In 2009, the Sooners were riddled with injuries and inconsistency, and struggled to an 8-5 record. Oklahoma showed signs of improvement down the stretch, shutting out archrival Oklahoma State and defeating Stanford in the Sun Bowl.
This year looks to be a year of improvement for the Sooners with several key starters returning in quarterback Landry Jones, DeMarco Murray, Ryan Broyles, Jeremy Beal, and Travis Lewis. The Sooners also bring in an excellent recruiting class that was ranked as high as second in the country by Scout.com.
However, just because Oklahoma looks extremely improved on paper (barring injuries and other unforeseen issues), that doesn't mean they are without question marks.
Here are five pressing questions facing the Sooners as they head into spring practice.
One of, if not the, biggest inconsistencies for the Sooners in 2009 was the play of quarterback Landry Jones. Jones was thrust into the starting lineup when Sam Bradford went down for the season with a shoulder injury. Jones had his moments, throwing for a school record six touchdowns against Tulsa and five against Texas A&M. However he also had his down moments, throwing five interceptions at Nebraska in a game that the Sooners easily could have won with a bit of offense.
Jones had problems with targeting receivers too early and not checking down to other options. He also appeared to be trying too hard in some cases, such as forcing passes into impossible windows or looking for the big play too often. He will have to change that if he is going to be a solid option at quarterback for the Sooners this year.
As Jones becomes more comfortable in the pocket, things will improve. If not, it's possible we could see Drew Allen at quarterback later in the season.
This is an interesting point of concern. I think that the offensive line for Oklahoma got a bad rap last season.
Yes, there were problems, but they really weren't as bad as people made them out to be. The line as unit functioned remarkably well for having a different starting five almost every single game, culminating with All-American tackle Trent Williams starting at center for the Sooners in the Sun Bowl.
The main problem for the line last year was the lack of ability to run-block. One year after producing two 1,000 yard rushers, the line wasn't able to produce a single 800-yard rusher. The pass protection remained strong, with the line giving up only 15 sacks on the year.
Improvements must be made for the Sooners offense to truly be a force on the national level. Gone are Williams and Brian Simmons, the two most experienced members of last year's line.
Center Ben Habern and guard Jarvis Jones are still recovering from injuries sustained last season and may miss most of spring practice.
The good thing is that the Sooners have a lot of players that have game experience and are bringing in several excellent recruits that can have an immediate impact, mainly in pushing the returners for their starting jobs. The talent is there for the line, but chemistry must be established if this unit is going to be a strength.
DeMarco Murray has the ability to change a game with his play-making ability. This season, with Chris Brown having graduated, Murray is now the feature back of the Sooners' offense.
The question is, can he handle it?
Murray has missed time every season in his college career because of injuries. The most notable games he missed were the Sooners 2008 Fiesta Bowl matchup against West Virginia and 2009 National Championship Game against Florida, both losses.
This past season, Murray only missed part of the Texas game and all of the Kansas game, but the fact remains that he missed more time because of injury. Being the feature back requires more touches and with more touches come more opportunities to get hit and hurt.
The Sooners have reloaded once again at running back, picking up recruits Brennan Clay and Roy Finch, both of whom have tremendous upside. The Sooners also have Jeramie Calhoun and Jonathan Miller waiting in the wings.
There is plenty of talent behind Murray, but none have proven to have the same level of game-changing ability as Murray.
Oklahoma needs Murray on the field this year to keep opponents honest. Without Murray, opponents can be a bit more aggressive on defense because besides Ryan Broyles, the Sooners do not have a proven playmaker on offense.
Defensive tackle is an interesting position of concern for Oklahoma, one that probably not many people saw coming unless they actually looked at a depth chart.
The Sooners went into last season with six defensive tackles on the roster and lost three of them: Demarcus Granger and Cordero Moore to graduation and Gerald McCoy to the NFL.
The remaining three aren't exactly in the best shape either. Adrian Taylor is still recovering from a gruesome ankle injury suffered in the Sun Bowl, but he should be ready in time for the season. Casey Walker is a redshirt sophomore and really hasn't seen much action.
Jamarkus McFarland is really the only returning defensive tackle that is in solid shape, both physically and in experience. Justin Chaisson is expected to get some time at tackle to boost depth.
The Sooners desperately need some of their defensive tackle recruits to step up and extremely quickly too. The Sooners signed four, with Daniel Noble and Torrea Peterson being the two with the potential to have the biggest impact immediately.
As they do every year, the Sooners have put together a very challenging non-conference schedule to go along with the always tough Big 12 schedule. However, many are feeling that this year, with the state of them team, the Sooners are biting off more than they can chew.
Oklahoma starts the year with five straight games before an off week. That alone is taxing on any team, much less one with an extremely tough schedule like Oklahoma's.
The Sooners start with three straight home games against Utah State, Florida State, and Air Force. These three games are followed by a trip to Cincinnati and the annual game with Texas in Dallas.
After their off week, the Sooners alternate home and away games by hosting Iowa State, traveling to Mizzou, hosting Colorado, traveling to Texas A&M and hosting Texas Tech. They close the year with road games at Baylor and Oklahoma State.
Is this a tough schedule? Absolutely.
Is it too much? I don't think so at all.
Many critics are pointing to last year's debacle as proof that this schedule is way too challenging for the Sooners.
The Sooners lost four of their five games by a total of 12 points while not having the reigning Heisman Trophy winner along with numerous other starters. Oklahoma easily could have been in a BCS bowl game with a full complement of players.
This schedule will challenge the Sooners, but all of the extremely tough games will be played at Owen Field or on the Cotton Bowl. This bodes extremely well for the Sooners, who have won 30 straight games in Norman.
Cincinnati will be a tough road test, but the Bearcats lost many stars on offense and their defense struggle mightily down the stretch last year, so I don't think that will be as difficult as most are making it out to be.
Oklahoma has many questions to answer, but if they are able to come together as a team and get their problems solved, they will once again be contending for a Big 12 title and possibly a national championship.