If you’ve been consuming a smorgasboard of preseason previews with the same voracious appetite of Homerism, you’re no doubt aware that this is supposed to be Oklahoma’s biggest challenge heading into 2009. ESPN, Phil Steele, Dr. Saturday and even The Wall Street Journal–just to name a few–have all offered some variation on this theme.
Now, obviously, I’d prefer five All-American redshirt seniors with indestructible ACLs returning up front. But you go war with the army you’ve got, and Homerism will tell you why that’s not such a bad thing in this case.
What has been lost in all the consternation over losing 80 percent of the Sooners’ starting offensive linemen from ’08? Fans and pundits alike grossly overrated that group, primarily the left side of tackle Phil Loadholt and guard Duke Robinson.
(But, prior to the national championship game, didn’t Lee Corso tell us all that OU’s 2008 o-line was the best college football had seen in 20 years? Not so fast, my friend–that should tell you what his analysis is really worth.)
For all the accolades and talk of keeping Sam Bradford’s jersey clean last year, OU’s big uglies played sloppy, undisciplined football all season. From a physical standpoint, they were good enough to roll through squads like Oklahoma State and Washington. However, the accumulation of critical mental errors and poor technique caught up to them against the best defenses OU faced.
If you need proof, check out check out exhibits A through C–the rushing stats and sacks against TCU, Texas and Florida, the three best Ds the Sooners faced all season. Then, there was the NFL draft, in which supposed first rounders Loadholt and Robinson dropped precipitously.
So why should this season be any different? Well, first of all, according to the coaching staff’s grades for last season, OU’s best lineman is the one coming back. Trent Williams, a four-year starter who will be watching Bradford’s blind side, turned down possible first round money from the NFL to return for his senior year. With yet another year of offseason work under his belt, Williams could end up being the best lineman OU has had in coach Bob Stoops’ career in Norman, not to mention a top-10 draft pick.
Second, guard Brian Simmons joins Williams on the left side. Simmons has a handful of starts in his three years in Norman, plus plenty of snaps as a substitute. Therefore, although the Sooners technically did lose four players from 2008′s starting line, Simmons brings the equivalent of a starter’s experience to the table.
Third, for all the poise and leadership Jon Cooper provided last year, his replacement actually may provide an upgrade at center this season. Besides being the strongest player on OU’s team, Ben Habern has demonstrated the same kind of smarts and tenacity that Cooper possessed. He saw some action prior to suffering a season-ending injury in ’08 and excelled during the spring. Bottom line with Habern: he looks like an All-American in the making. The Sooners won’t miss a beat with him at center.
Fourth, the talent possessed by this unit is undeniable. Williams should have a long career in the NFL. Habern made every national All-American team imaginable in high school. LSU transfer Jarvis Jones, currently locked in a battle with Cory Brandon for the starting right tackle job, saw action as a freshman on the Tigers’ 2007 national championship team. And we haven’t even gotten to right guard Stephen Good, a stud prospect out of Texas who saw time last season as a true freshman.
OK, now that Homerism has blown all that smoke, let’s acknowledge that there are, in fact, concerns here that must be addressed.
This group is thin. Think “180-degrees-opposite-of-Mark-Mangino” thin. With backup center Jason Hannan’s transfer and Alex Williams’ dismissal, the o-line simply lacks bodies, let alone proven talent. The runner-up in the right tackle derby should be able to contribute. Colorado State transfer Brian Lepak probably can handle meaningful snaps. After that… who knows? I firmly believe that “inexperienced” often just masquerades as “unproven,” but a little more “proven” would still be nice.
More importantly, when it comes to offensive line play, talented collections of blockers tend to struggle when they lack that ineffable element of chemistry. Timing, signals, reads–if it doesn’t click for a line, the results can be disastrous.
Those are two big “ifs,” but that doesn’t mean they won’t swing in OU’s favor. At the end of the day, Homerism’s advice is to ignore all the doom and gloom about who won’t be part of the Sooners’ o-line in ’09. Instead, take a long look at who will be there.