Sooners have few holes, many veterans
NORMAN, Okla. -- So, Oklahoma is likely to be the consensus preseason No. 1. You say ho, I say hum. The Sooners have lived on college football's Park Avenue for so long that no one raises an eyebrow when they become April's Team -- least of all the Sooners.
Head coach Bob Stoops is sitting in his favorite Mexican lunch joint, where they know to bring him a small bowl of jalapenos that clear out your sinuses so fast they should be sold by Walgreen's. The choice of fare fits the man. Stoops does not like sugarcoating.
His Sooners, coming off a 12-2 season, will defend their Big 12 championship with their lineup largely intact. Oklahoma has its issues. The defensive line is young. The secondary is younger. There is no proven every-down tailback.
But the rest of this team is talented and experienced. Oklahoma will not be unprepared for the burden of a high preseason ranking. These Sooners have been here before.
When Stoops says, "They're smart enough to know it takes a lot of work and improvement to be one of those kind of teams," he knows how they acquired those smarts -- the hard way.
In 2009, Oklahoma began the season ranked No. 3. Yet the Sooners had to win their last two games in order to finish 8-5. Quarterback Sam Bradford, the 2008 Heisman Trophy winner, didn't make it out of the first half of the season's first game. He suffered a shoulder injury that eventually snuffed out his season before it ever gained traction. And Bradford wasn't even the first star to suffer a major injury that season. Tight end Jermaine Gresham went out for the year with a knee injury in August.
Both would be selected in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft, along with two teammates who did play, offensive tackle Trent Williams and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. Other injuries forced first- and second-year players into the lineup before their time.
"Everyone was pretty miserable," redshirt junior Landry Jones said of that 2009 season. "A lot of people around this place don't forget things very easily."
Least of all Jones, who went from the comfort of backing up a Heisman-winning quarterback -- otherwise known as Dude, Where's My Clipboard? -- to the discomfort of replacing him in the course of one snap. Injuries took a huge bite out of the Sooners. The players replacing them had little or no experience.
"I remember going into that Texas game," center Ben Habern said, "talking to [graduate assistant] John Flynn, who helps out with the offensive line, saying, 'I don't understand these blitzes that Texas is bringing.'"
That's not what you want to hear from your starting center. The Longhorns sacked Bradford and Jones four times, knocking the former out of the season for good, in a 16-13 victory over the Sooners. Injuries and inexperience can't be helped. But Jones doesn't lay all the blame at fate's feet.
"We really just expected it to happen," Jones said of success. "We had a lot of guys who had always been good around this place. I don't know. Maybe we got complacent, where, 'Hey, we're just going to step onto the field and it's going to happen for us.'"
Stoops has won 129 games in 12 seasons because he doesn't cotton to complacency. The young Sooners showed some life at the end of that season. They knocked Oklahoma State out of BCS bowl contention and they beat Stanford in the Sun Bowl. Good, yes, but not enough. One of Stoops' favorite coaching tenets is that you are what your record says you are. Even with those two big wins, Oklahoma finished 8-5.
"Is that Oklahoma?" Stoops challenged his team. "Is that what we are? What are we going to do to change it? What do we want to be? Big 12 champion and compete for a national [title]. That's what our standards are. What are going to do?"
Last season, the Sooners won the Big 12 for the seventh time in Stoops' 12 seasons. They dominated UConn in the Fiesta Bowl. Jones became one of the most prolific passers in the nation. As he matured, Oklahoma matured.
"In his redshirt freshman year and on into [last] year," Habern said of Jones, "he would throw the ball and he would just get frustrated with himself. He wasn't making good decisions. Now he's at the point where he really doesn't make those [bad] decisions anymore. He's just so quick. He's so quick with his reads now and he understands our offense so well now. He's been in the film room so much that he knows exactly where he's going with the ball."
It's a good thing that Jones is capable of performing better. His head coach is demanding it. Stoops enjoyed the improvement from last season, even as he challenged Oklahoma to step up again.
"What are we going to do to make it different?" Stoops said he reminded the Sooners. "Are we satisfied with that? What are going to do? Are we going to put in the work in the weight room? Are we going to pay attention to detail and be physical in spring ball to get ourselves sharper? Are we going to build or are we going to remain this way?"
Jones, as Habern described, is leading by example. He is no longer the freshman in the huddle, wondering if the older offensive linemen will take him seriously. This spring Jones is taking a dozen or teammates to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to help in the continuing recovery from the 2010 earthquake.
"My life changed a lot from being a backup to being thrown into the fire," Jones said. "I remember going into it and not knowing how to prepare for games. One thing that was huge for me was to understand that every day in practice, every snap matters. That will carry over. How you practice will carry over into Saturday. How you watch film will carry over into Saturday."
The Sooners have a lot of experience and a few holes. They have the high goals that are as much a part of Oklahoma football as Stoops himself. The head coach likes this team. He trusts that the down times of two years ago will bear fruit this fall. Sometimes, the burden of high expectations doesn't outweigh the heft of experience.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.
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