The State of Oklahoma: A Preliminary Look at the Oxen that Make the Wagon Move, Part I

Update:  In what probably isn't good news for OU, the injuries to centers Habern and Lepak have forced OU to turn to a tight end, Brody Eldridge.  Good, therefore, is probably sticking to center regardless, although he is still a possibility.  Trent Williams reportedly has taken center snaps, but he is most certainly not sticking there.

 

With the 2009 season so agonizingly close and expectations up in the stratosphere, Texas fans are dreaming of another undefeated, national championship run.  When assessing our schedule, it is no secret that two games loom the largest as we look in our preseason crystal ball:  October 17th in Dallas and October 31st in Stillwater.  The two schools from our... favorite neighboring state up north present the most significant, and some would boldly say only, roadblocks of the season.  It is only appropriate that we keep an eye on them throughout the season and note the strengths, weaknesses, and progress of each respective team.  Thus, I here present to you the State of Oklahoma.

Note:  Certainly, some could point out that "The State of Oklahoma" could be answered for the whole season with, "Oklahoma sucks," both as a description of the school bearing the name as well as a summary of the state's education level and overall culture.  I wouldn't argue with that and it definitely has a poetic simplicity to it, but humor me as I occupy myself with writing long-winded posts.

This series will be split into two posts a week, one focusing on OU and the other looking at OSU.  Today, I'll take an introductory look at the much discussed Oklahoma offensive line and what their performance means for Sam Bradford and the team's overall national title aspirations.

More after the jump...

Oklahoma's National Championship Run Failure:  Shock and Awe

In 2008, Oklahoma was favored to win the Big 12 and was one of the favorites to appear in the national championship game.  While Oklahoma completed both of those quests, the journey was quite unlike anything anyone expected:  Instead of complete dominance, Oklahoma was derailed by Texas, and only an oft-debated tiebreaking system gave them the breaks to continue to the Big 12 title game and subsequently, the MNC game.  As angry as Texas fans were over the tiebreaker, there's no question Oklahoma fielded a very capable team.  With an experienced offensive line, deep talent at the skill positions, and Sam Bradford, OU blitzed multiple opponents with their hurry-up offense in a sort of "shock and awe" type of strategy.  Oklahoma scored a whopping 51.1 points per game and had a stretch where they scored 60 points or more in five straight games.  While we can quibble a bit about Bob Stoops running the up score, the Sooners obviously had the capability to put up a lot of points and do so in a hurry.  Because this team depended so much on a high powered offense to knock out their opponents early in the fashion of Mike Tysonas described here by The Boy (now Bill C) at Rock M Nation, it was obviously a big deal when the likes of Bradford, Gresham, and Murray decided to turn down the NFL and give the Sooners a chance to recreate their 2008 offensive success.  Although the losses against Texas and Florida showed that Oklahoma strategy was ultimately flawed, it worked well enough that they will obviously seek to have a similar offensive philosophy going into 2009.

However, not all key players returned; the majority of their much hyped offensive line departed for good after 2008, leaving a giant question mark where the Sooners were allegedly so strong for the last two years.

Sam Bradford's Protectors:  Will They Make or Break the Season?

Like it or not, Sam Bradford is an excellent college quarterback.  However, if there is one significant criticism of him, it's that he gets rattled easily by pressure, at least in comparison to his peers Colt McCoy and Tim Tebow.  For his first two seasons, this was normally not an issue for Bradford, as his offensive line allowed him to build campfires while scanning the field.  The few times it was an issue, Bradford, and Oklahoma as a whole, had moments of struggle.  Consider these games:

-at Texas Tech, 2007:  Bradford gets injured on a hit and OU falls in Lubbock
-vs. West Virginia, 2007:  Bradford is sacked three times and hounded all day by the Mountaineers, leading to another embarrassing BCS loss for Bob Stoops.
-vs. Texas, 2008:  Bradford has a good game but the Sooner offense stagnates in the second half as Texas wins the battle at the line of scrimmage, leading to constant doses of Brian Orakpo and Sergio Kindle.  The interception Bradford throws before halftime is also a direct result of pressure and the Longhorns cash in a field goal.
-vs. Florida, 2008(9):  While Bradford doesn't have as bad a game as some people say, he has some bad moments due to pressure and is sacked twice.  The Sooners score only 14 points while Florida escapes with only 24, also well below their average.

In short, of the mere 13 sacks Bradford suffered in 2008, eight of them came in three games against TCU, Texas, and Florida.  Incidentally, those were the three lowest scoring games for the Sooners.

Bradford isn't a statue, but he is most definitely not as mobile as McCoy and Tebow and gets flustered easier when defenders go at him.  While it is certainly true that all quarterbacks will struggle when faced with constant pressure (duh), Bradford's apparent inability to adapt to the rush makes this a more glaring weakness for him than his fellow Heisman finalists.  This makes the losses at offensive line even more of a concern for the Sooners, for their All-American QB could possibly have a draft stock-damaging season if they can't keep defenders away from him. 

These are the stakes:  Keep Bradford upright and a national championship is within reach.  Fail in this regard and the Sooners' best result is probably a BCS at-large berth or possibly even worse if the defense does not improve as expected.  Maintaining their overall rushing success will obviously be important as well, but that too helps keep the heat off of Bradford.  Bob Stoops knows this well, but he is not without answers.  Let's meet their projected starting line.

The New Workhorses

LT - Trent Williams, SR.  Replaces:  Phil Loadholt, 2nd round pick

If there's one recognizable name in Oklahoma's line, it's returning starter Trent Williams, who will switch from right tackle to left tackle for the 2009 season.  He was first team All-Big 12 last year and is a preseason pick for All-Big 12 this year.  He is considered one of the top tackle prospects for the draft and has been starting since his freshman year.  Kevin Wilson, OU's offensive coordinator, called Williams the best lineman he's ever had.  This can be chalked up to typical coach hyperbole, but the guy is obviously talented.  Needless to say, his return is arguably more important than Murray's and Gresham's combined.  He did not come out of high school with the highest of expectations, listed as a three star recruit by Rivals.com and not making ESPN's top 150, but he performed well as a freshman and earned a spot on the All-American Freshman team.  Having somebody with as much talent and experience as him protecting Bradford's blindside is huge for Oklahoma.

The mere fact that Loadholt was the left tackle and Williams was not last season may be cause for some slight concern, for while Loadholt dominated smaller ends, he struggled against elite ends.  Brian Orakpo embarrassed Loadholt last October, which contributed to him falling into the second round.  Williams will not have the misfortune of facing Orakpo, but he will undoubtedly get his chance against Sergio Kindle.  Thus, for Williams to be truly successful enough for OU's national title aspirations, he must do more than dominate opposing lineman significantly less talented than him; he will have to hold his own against elite college pass rushers in the Sooners' big games, something Loadholt did not do.  However, while he is not as big and strong as Loadholt, he is quicker and reportedly has superior footwork.  Being roughly 20 pounds lighter than his predecessor, Williams may have the lateral movement necessary to block pass rushers who turn the corner in a hurry, pass rushers who left Loadholt in the dust.  His presence automatically bolsters the Sooners' national championship aspirations, and a standout season from him at his new position would spell big trouble for opposing teams trying mightily to slow down the Sooner offense.

LG - Brian Simmons, SR.  Replaces:  Duke Robinson, 5th round pick

While not a starter last year, Simmons saw action in every game last season as a backup, making him the only other Sooner lineman with a large amount of game experience.  According to Rivals.com, Simmons was a four star recruit and the #2 player at his position... which was defensive tackle.  His switch has been a successful one, and he was the Sooners' most valuable backup last season along with Branndon Braxton.  If anything, his history as a defensive tackle suggests that he has decent mobility to go along with size.

Simmons played at both guard positions last season but will stick to left guard here to help defend Bradford's blind side.  With Simmons and Williams, the left side of the Sooner line is expected to be pretty solid, if not very strong.  After these two, however, the experience drops off considerably.

C - Ben Habern, RS Fr./Stephen Good, So.  Replaces:  Jon Cooper, UFA

Habern redshirted his first year after suffering an injury after playing in three games.  Going into the 2008 season, he was the #3 rated center in his class and received four stars from Rivals.  He seemed to have won the starting job after the spring, but a recent injury has apparently slipped him out of that spot, with guard Stephen Good getting reps at center.  While not a center by trade, Good is bigger and stronger than Habern currently is.  Of course, being a good center doesn't just mean you're big; centers are charged with the responsibility of making pre-snap reads and adjustments at the line.  This was something departing center Jon Cooper was known to be good at, earning himself All-Big 12 honors.  Good has little experience with center in the first place and Habern has no significant game experience to speak of, making either choice a risk for the Sooners.  Still, if they can manage that, they both have the physical talent to hold their own against opposing tackles.

RG - Stephen Good, So./Jarvis Jones, So. Replaces:  Brandon Walker, UFA (released by Houston shortly after a DUI arrest, to go along with others)

Obviously, if Good does not stick with center, he will slide right back to guard and resume his duties there.  Good looks like a prototypical guard and reportedly has great strength to go with that size, perhaps the strongest on the team.  If, however, he remains the starting center, it seems former LSU tackle Jarvis Jones might get a look at guard as well.  Both players were highly regarded tackles out of high school, with Good receiving five stars from Rivals and Jarvis Jones receiving four.  Jones saw early success at LSU, playing as a true freshman for their 2007 national championship team.  The ambiguous violation of "team rules" got Jones booted from the Tigers, and he promptly signed with Oklahoma, where he fit the culture much better :).  As a transfer, Jones could not play last season, but Good played in seven games as a reserve.  Neither has starting experience, but it would be false to say they are completely inexperienced and they certainly have talent.

Because Habern is actually a center, it may seem prudent for Oklahoma to quickly get him back and keep Good at guard, where he is most natural.  However, if Good can manage the duties of a center, it may pay dividends for the Sooners to have Jarvis Jones on the field as much as possible.  Provided, of course, he doesn't violate any "team rules," like working at the local car dealership.

RT - Cory Brandon, Jr. Replaces:  Trent Williams (above)

Brandon played in nine games last season and seven in 2007 as a reserve, and he was a four star recruit according to Rivals in 2006.  He does not seem particularly hyped up compared to others on the line, but he does represent some decent experience (relatively speaking) and he seems firmly entrenched as the starting right tackle.  It is noteworthy that he beat out the talented Jarvis Jones for the starting tackle spot, but he does have 16 games of Oklahoma experience over Jones.  He hasn't made that big of a splash in his four years in the program after redshirting due to injury, and his supporters claim that his time is now.  While not nearly as important as the LT position for Bradford's safety, Brandon has some big shoes to fill as Williams switches sides, and he will see his fair share of talented ends from the likes of Texas as well.

Other notes

Jason Hannan, who was competing for the starting center job, transferred in the spring.  Alex Williams, who was the reserve guard behind Simmons and Good, also transferred recently.  Brian Lepak, a walk-on transfer from Colorado State, may serve as a backup guard or center.  Sophomore Donald Stephenson is another scholarship player and played in seven games last year.  He will serve as a backup tackle for Trent Williams.

Potential to Production

The cupboard isn't exactly bare for the Sooners; while they lack starting experience across the line, they have several players who have playing experience and have talented options to choose from.  Still, of the mere 29 combined starts the line has, 26 of them belong to Williams.  Also, with some of their transfers, depth is a concern, especially at tackle should something happen to Williams.

While not as intimidating on paper as last year's line, this unit may prove to be the more nimble of the two, which actually might help Bradford in the long run.  Although last year's unit only gave up 13 sacks last season, Texas, Florida, and West Virginia in 2007 showed that quick pass rushers really bothered that line.  I have little doubt that this year's Sooner line can gobble up a lot of mediocre defensive lines.  The question, as it was last season, is whether or not they can live up to their potential by stonewalling elite pass rushes.  Thus, it's not so much the number of sacks given up, which almost certainly will be higher than last year's number, but when those sacks happen and who is responsible for them.  Giving up garbage sacks against patsy opponents is better than having your QB hounded in the biggest games of the year, although granted, if they're having consistent trouble protecting Sam against cupcakes, he better be wearing full armor when he goes to Dallas.

As far as the run game is concerned, of which I admittedly discussed little here, guys like Simmons and Good seem well-suited for the task.  They aren't blocking for chumps either, with Brown, Murray, and Madu in the Sooner backfield.  However, here too the question remains on how they will respond against a top D-line squad.  The Sooners churned out almost 200 yards a game last year on the ground but got snuffed out against better defenses.  Bradford's arm is still the most dangerous part of the Sooner offense, but without balance, he can and will become a sitting duck.  In the three games mentioned above, OU averaged 0.7 yards per carry against TCU, 1.8 against Texas, and 3.7 against Florida.  Bradford is a great QB and still put up good stats, but clearly, the lack of rushing success allowed these teams to gun for Bradford more regularly and exacerbate the protection problems.

Obviously, it is too early to definitively say if this year's Sooner O-line will be as strong as Oklahoma hopes or as bad as their opponents hope.  What we can say, however, is that they are not going to put chumps out there that any D-line with a pulse can get through.  The potential and talent is undoubtedly there, and Sooner fans can place their hope on that.  But potential and production are never the same thing, and if it takes too long for the new guys to gel together, the Sooners will probably be sporting at least one loss by the time they face Oklahoma State in their last game (against you know who :) ).

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