The Oklahoma Sooners will come into the 2011 season with one thing on their mind: winning the program's eighth national championship. In order to do that, head coach Bob Stoops will have to replace some players at key positions on both sides of the ball.
The Sooners will be bringing back 17 starters, but the five that they are losing will be hard to replace. On the offensive side, Oklahoma loses their all-time leader in touchdowns in DeMarco Murray and offensive tackle Eric Mensik. On defense, end Jeremy Beal is gone as well as safeties Jonathan Nelson and All-American Quinton Carter.
Not all of these question marks will be replaced through this season's recruiting class. In fact, there are very few positions where freshmen will be called upon immediately to fill a need. However, that is not to say that the incoming freshmen cannot make a big impact when they step on campus.
Here are the biggest areas where the Sooners need players to step up and fill the shoes of those that have gone before them.
This was the biggest need for Oklahoma in 2010 and it remains the biggest need in 2011. Adrian Taylor is gone and the depth at the position is pretty unproven. The Sooners have several tackles on the roster returning, including several freshmen from last year that didn't see the field a whole lot.
The group is led by Jamarkus McFarland and Casey Walker. Stacy McGee also contributed significant minutes as well as freshman Daniel Noble. While there are lots of bodies, there isn't much as far as proven ability.
The Sooners are signing three defensive tackles—Marquis Anderson (pictured above), Jordan Phillips and Jordan Wade—all of which rank in the top 15 players at the position according to ESPN. While none of them have the skill set or size to come in and start no questions asked, they will be invaluable to the future of the Sooners and provide lots of competition for the other players on the roster. However, any one of them could see the field at some point this season. All three have great potential to be solid players for Oklahoma.
Gone is Jeremy Beal, one of the best defensive players Oklahoma has ever had. While Beal didn't fill the stat sheet with gaudy numbers, he was a great leader and overall a great player. His leadership and talents will be missed.
Also gone is surprise 2010 standout Pryce Macon, who was a tribute to players across the country who never give up and patiently wait their turn to make an impact on the field, no matter when that happens.
Most of this replacement job will come from within. Frank Alexander will be a senior in 2011 and he is poised to be the next great pass rusher at OU. Ronnell Lewis has also found a home on the defensive line, often rushing the quarterback from a stand up position off the end. David King and RJ Washington also will contribute valuable minutes as juniors.
The wild cards will be the new guys. The Sooners will bring in Nathan Hughes and Cooper Washington in their 2011 class. Hughes has the potential, with a filled-out frame, to be a JJ Watt type player, while Washington will provide good depth.
The biggest addition has already been with Oklahoma for a year. Geneo Grissom was injured all of last season and was forced to take a redshirt. However, coaches have raved about his ability as a speed rusher and he will play a huge role in the defensive end rotation.
All-American Quinton Carter is gone along with fellow safety Jonathan Nelson. Carter will be a first or second round draft pick for the NFL come April and his hard hits will be sorely missed in Norman. Nelson was solid as a safety in 2010 after breaking into the rotation in 2009. His best game was against Cincinnati, when he saved two touchdowns by forcing a fumble on a breakaway run and intercepting a pass in the end zone.
The Sooners have no defensive back recruits in their 2011 class, but all is well because of the number of young secondary players already on the roster. Of all the defensive backs that received playing time in 2010 and will see the field in 2011, FOUR were upperclassmen: the two departed seniors, and juniors Jamell Fleming and Sam Proctor. Everyone else was a sophomore or freshman.
Javon Harris and Proctor will be given the starting roles at safety unless someone else emerges in spring camp or fall practice. Proctor was a starter in 2009 and Harris filled in during Bedlam, when Nelson went out with an injury and made several key third down stops for the Sooners.
The Sooners brought in a couple of defensive backs in 2010, most of whom redshirted. This is a position of youth, but also of great depth for the Sooners. It will be a strength in years to come.
DeMarco Murray is gone after one of the most illustrious careers in Oklahoma Sooners history. Murray finished his career as the sixth all-time leading rusher in Sooners history with 3,685 yards. He also compiled 157 receptions for 1,571 yards. Murray also set the all-time scoring mark for the Sooners this season, ending his career with 65 touchdowns. Whoever comes next in the line of great Oklahoma running backs will have some major shoes to fill.
Also gone is backup running back Mossis Madu, who served as a very capable backup, with his biggest moment coming in the 2008 Big 12 Championship game against Missouri when he filled in for Murray and ran for 114 yards and three touchdowns on only 15 carries.
Oklahoma has a plethora of running backs at its disposal. The likely person to fill the shoes of the departed Murray will be Roy Finch. A freshman in 2010, Finch dazzled the crowd with his quickness and speed, as well as his power. Brennan Clay, another freshman in 2010, and Jermie Calhoun, who missed most of 2010 with a knee injury, will also get a lot of carries in 2011. But two newcomers could also make a lot of noise in the Sooners backfield.
The Sooners are bringing in 5-star recruit Brandon Williams as part of the 2011 recruiting class. Many are predicting that Williams could be the best running back in this class of backs, which is saying a lot considering that the class contains athletes such as Isaiah Crowell, James Wilder and Malcolm Brown to name a few.
Also, the Sooners will be welcoming in Iowa transfer Brandon Wegher, who sat out the 2010 season for personal reasons, and it is unclear at this point whether or not that will satisfy the one year sit out for transfer players.