With just a few weeks until the start of a much anticipated 2010 season for the Oklahoma Sooners, it looks like all systems are go in Norman.
Preseason practice is halfway over (12 of 24 practices) and in full swing with basically all the starters set. The repetition of practice working to steel the mind of the young athletes, every snap counting down to the chance for them to go prove it on the field in an actual game.
That's what the fans and critics alike are looking for from OU this year: proof.
Proof that the Oklahoma football can stay intact as a group after a year that saw many of the Sooner position groups left thin, for just almost as many reasons.
The injury bug left town, so that takes care of that part.
So, for the other part, I ranked just where the Sooners' position groups stand going in to the new season, starting from what I believe is the best down to the worst.
Just to inform, I combined all areas of special teams together, corners and safeties as secondary, as well as tight ends in to the receiving corps.
Also, the offensive backfield was separated into two groups, quarterbacks and running backs.
Boasting what is arguably the best linebacker corp in the game, defensive coordinator Brent Venables has once again stocked the cupboards with talent. After the last two years of depth problems, the Sooners are stacked three-deep at every linebacker position.
Even though four of the top six guys are freshmen or sophomores, the only one that does not have significant playing time is Tom Wort, and he projects as the MLB starter over highly touted junior Austin Box.
The SLB will have the heavy-hitting Ronnell Lewis, with Daniel Franklin backing him (both are sophomores), and two time leading tackler Travis Lewis will once again hold down the WLB spot. Lewis is eyeing the all-time lead for tackles at OU, just another sign of what's to come from this group.
Linebackers have always been a strength at Oklahoma under Stoops and long-time DC Venables. With the talent pool they have collected, this position group will be the glue that holds it all together for one of the nation's best defensive units.
Third overall pick in the draft DT Gerald McCoy gone. Adrian Taylor likely out for the first two or three games.
Some believe that the interior defensive line may be a hidden weak spot for OU, I disagree.
Sophomores DT's Jamarkus McFarland and Stacy McGee showed that they can play at a high level in last years Sun Bowl against a very solid Stanford offensive line, after both McCoy and Taylor went down with injuries. Other backups, like newcomers Daniel Noble and Torrea Peterson, should round out a solid rotation.
At the defensive end spot, Oklahoma is second to none.
Senior Jeremy Beal ranks fifth and counting on OU's all-time sack list, the other side will see sophomore Frank Alexander, a guy that has gone under the radar so far, even though his play has been outstanding.
Both can power through blockers, as well as speed around them, which also allows the tandem to wreak havoc in the running game, as well.
Add in backups like very highly touted R.J. Washington, Pryce Macon, and David King, who played exceptionally well when given the chance, and you can see how this position group will continue it's long run of dominance.
Placekicking holds special teams back from maybe being the top position group for Oklahoma.
While Jimmy Stephens and fan favorite Patrick "Patty" O'Hara still have not shown the type of consistency that Bob Stoops likes at the position, both are capable guys, and both are reportedly showing improvement. So it looks like a toss-up for now, with O'Hara holding a slight edge.
Both the kick-off and punt return groups are deadly. Ryan Bloyles has proven to be one of the nation's best return men, with a Stoops era high 16.3 yards per return. Astounding when you recall that guys like Antonio Perkins and Reggie Smith returned for Stoops also.
On the other side, Matt Moreland improves with every kick. Heading a scary coverage squad that suffocated opposing teams return game, allowing only one touchdown. Coverage was a problem for the Sooners a few years ago, now it's a strength. Nothing new for this staff.
The definite X-factor for the Sooners is punter Tress Way , who led the Big XII and ranked third nationally with a whopping 45.7 yards per attempt in 2009. Way's booming kicks were a major reason for the limited success of last year, staking offenses deep in their own territory remains a vital weapon, no matter how many fail to realize it.
While last year began with drop after drive killing drop, the last half of the season saw some spectacular receiver play, ending with a season-high 418 yards receiving against the Cardinal defense.
Headed by the much heralded Ryan Broyles, this group may be the reason OU didn't fold late last year. When the receiving corps had a bad game, like against Nebraska and Texas Tech, Oklahoma lost.
This season should see a much improved bunch, as the top three receivers are back from last year. True frosh Kenny Stills comes straight in snagging a starting role. The last skill position player to do that was Adrian Peterson. I'm just saying.
Don't sleep on junior DeJuan Miller, who came on strong late and was the only receiver to play in all thirteen games. DeJuan gets it. No where but up from here.
The tight ends could be anywhere from a solid bunch, to a deadly weapon under OC Kevin Wilsons' command. Wilson loves to mix it up with the TE group, as long as he has the horses to run with.
Can juniors Trent "Danger" Ratterree or James Hanna be a viable option as pass-threats?
Can junior Lane Johnson or sophomore Josh New emerge from the shadows of obscurity?
Will freshmen Austin Haywood or Trey Millard be able to block at the college level?
It's DeMarco Murrays' time.
The feeling has spread more with each passing day.
For the first time since 2007, he will be the featured back in the OU running game. Though most question if the injury plagued Murray can shoulder 20-30 carries a game, he may not have to with all the competition for playing time.
So the two-back will likely be in play like past teams, there is just to much talent in this stable of backs to keep sidelined. A stable that sees the return of Mossis Madu from his stint as a receiver, adding even more experience to the fold.
Last year Jeremie Calhoun started to live up to the stars by his name, and Jonathan Miller came out of no where with his slashing play. Though Miller still has a slight tear in his meniscus and may be out for a few games to half the season.
Not to worry though, because much hyped true frosh Brennan Clay, and Red/White game star Marshall Musil comes in game-ready and not scared to go downhill.
Florida speedster Roy Finch has done nothing but amazed from the word go in both the running and passing game. Look for him early and often for a change of pace.
Much to the chagrin of the student section, the 'Stache is gone.
Thankfully Landry Jones isn't.
Throwing for 3,198 yards and 26 td's. Stepping up in an all-of-the-sudden fashion twice, one of those coming against Texas. Then ending the season with a tough win against Stanford, where he threw an Oklahoma record 418 yards passing.
There is nothing to suggest that Jones won't continue to play at a high level under the watch of quarterbacks coach Josh Heuple. A Heisman, or a good run at one, isn't out of the question either.
But what if Jones goes down? Has the coaching staff learned from last years injury to Sam Bradford?
Even if they have, will Drew Allen or Blake Bell suffice as serviceable signal callers?
If you can answer that with any conviction based in fact, your better than me.
Had Dominique Franks stayed for his senior year, this position group might have been as high as fourth on this list.
That's how close it is.
Pre-season All-Big XII, on the Jim Thorpe watch list, and the Sooners second-leading tackler Quinton Carter is the crown jewel for the secondary at free safety.
Sam Proctor will get his chance at the SS spot, with Joseph Ibiloye vying for playing time behind him.
Freshman Tony Jefferson continues to turn heads in practice, blowing up RB Jeremie Calhoun in practice and causing a fumble. He looks like a perfect fit for DC Brent Venables "Royback" position, named after Roy "Superman" Williams, who Jefferson draws many comparisons to.
Now all he has to do is win the Nagurski and Thorpe awards, along with a few All-American tags, and the comparison will be complete.
The low ranking is due to the new guys at corner back. DeMontre Hurst will hold down defenses number ones at FCB, and senior Jonathan Nelson gets the nod at BCB after a career of solid play as a back-up.
After those two, only Jamell Fleming can draw on any significant playing time. The talent is there, but not the experience.
Under new position coach Willie Martinez, the placement of talent seems to be in order, a crucial part of the success of a secondary unit. A part that has been a problem in the past at OU, if you can recall the shuffle that took place with players like Reggie Smith, D.J. Wolfe, and Lendy Holmes. All playing multiple secondary positions, many times in the same season.
I project some time for growth, with a progressive maturation of play. They may get beat once and cause points for the other team, but not to the point that will cause a loss. This bunch loves to hit, and goes full speed at every snap. Once they start to gel as a unit, the 2010 secondary will be a big concern for opposing offenses.
Somebody had to be the worst. Still no surprise though.
A lot of last year's troubles were directly related to the offensive line play. Not to dog on them, but to show how important they are to winning.
All the word is that things are looking up though, with a firm starting five in place. Still, I can recall last off-season, so I have to see it to believe it.
Ben Habern is finally healthy at center.
Donald Stevenson and Stephen Good are finally living up to the long-winded hype on the left side.
Tyler Evans nabbed the right guard spot away from tough competition, and converted TE Eric Mensic looks to continue to be a blocking machine at right tackle (bet defenses won't doubt him again).
Though the coaching staff would like to be three-deep at all offensive line positions, its more like two-deep as of now, and who knows if this starting five will have staying power.
The big guys up front are the most important position group to me, and the Sooners' success will lie heavily on their play. Pass blocking has remained exceptional, if the 2010 line can consistently run block then Oklahoma will have a real chance for a BCS run.
Bob Stoops ands Kevin Wilson say they can.
Not calling them liars or anything, but like I said, I got to see it to believe it.
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