Bradford, Halzle, Nichol competing in OU's QB race

NORMAN, Okla. -- After losing the most productive running back he's ever coached and the quarterback who led his team to the Big 12 title last season, most would expect Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops would be fretting his way through spring practice.

Not so, at least not after the first two weeks of his early work for the Sooners.

Stoops is exuding the same kind of confidence that his been his trademark throughout his coaching career -- even without the presence of Adrian Peterson and Paul Thompson on his team.

Thompson didn't assume the starting job last season until Rhett Bomar was kicked off the team the day before fall practice started. And Peterson battled injuries last season, missing the Sooners' final six regular-season games with a broken collarbone.

"When Paul transitioned from receiver to quarterback, everybody was up in arms and thinking the season was over," Stoops said. "I told everybody that our team was much more capable of helping that position and being a better offense than we were the year before."

Stoops expects more of the same this season, despite uncertainty about replacements for Peterson and Thompson. A three-way battle is playing out this spring for the starting quarterback position and a slew of talented running backs are vying for Peterson's role as the featured back.

"With all of the experience we have back -- on the offensive line, our running backs, tight end and receiver -- our offense will be much stronger to help develop those positions," Stoops said. "Now we just have to go out and do it."

The Sooners are sifting their way through a quarterback battle that likely won't be settled until fall practice. Redshirt freshman Sam Bradford, junior Joey Halzle and true freshman Keith Nichol all have had their moments during spring practices.

"You'd love to go out there in one day and know who the guy is and give him all the snaps," Stoops said. "But that realistically isn't going to happen. All of these guys need work, so you go out and work with them."

Nichol had the most competent performance in the Sooners' first scrimmage last week, completing 6 of 8 passes for 39 yards and a touchdown. He also added 24 yards on three carries.

But coaches were not asking him to do nearly as much -- understandable considering his lack of experience. Only a few months ago, the 6-foot-2, 180-pounder was strolling the halls at Lowell (Mich.) High School.

Halzle is the only quarterback on the roster with playing experience, appearing in two games last season and completing one of two passes.

And Bradford might be the best athlete among the trio after a heralded three-sport career at Putnam City (Okla.) North High School, where he excelled in football, basketball and golf.

Quarterbacks coach Josh Heupel said Halzle had a small advantage at the start of the spring because of his playing experience. But he also stressed that Bradford might have an edge because of his overall athletic ability and Nichol is blessed with potential.

"We're interested in seeing how the offense clicks with all of them and how things register," Heupel said. "You'll see a huge jump for all of them at some point. We'll be interested when that jump comes into play."

Quarterback competition has been a staple of Stoops' coaching tenure. Jason White and Nate Hybl battled throughout 2001 camp before Hybl won the job. White took over the job in the Sooners' fifth game after Hybl went out with a shoulder injury against Texas. White led the Sooners to wins over the Longhorns and Kansas, before being sidelined with an injury against Nebraska. Hybl came in for White and finished the season as the starter.

White reclaimed the job in 2002, but again injured his knee. Hybl started slowly, but finished with a flourish as he led the Sooners to the Rose Bowl to cap his career.

And the 2005 competition between Thompson and Bomar wasn't settled until after the season began. Thompson won the job but struggled in the opener. Bomar then claimed the job.

With another tight battle expected, Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson is trying to preach patience among all of the potential starters.

"Whoever is our quarterback will be supported with some decent players. He won't be scrambling all over the field because his protection isn't good or his receivers can't catch the ball," Wilson said. "The starting quarterback won't be the guy who completes the most balls in the spring. He's going to be the guy that can communicate to our offense, play with confidence, get us into the right plays and not force the football. He'll put our offense in the place it needs to go."

Peterson may be missing, but returning tailbacks Allen Patrick, Chris Brown and Jacob Gutierrez combined to rush for 1,323 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, averaging 4.6 yards per carry.

With Patrick hobbled with a bruised leg, other backs have emerged this spring. Freshman tailback DeMarco Murray excelled as a runner and a receiver at Oklahoma's first scrimmage, contributing a 65-yard touchdown run. And Mossis Madu, who could fill a two-way role like Murray, has been idled with a concussion.

"Those guys have some different styles," Stoops said. "Allen has proven to be a tough, hard downhill runner like we like. Chris is a little shiftier. Moses and DeMarco are talented guys who are a little shiftier, but also have great hands. We'll find the best ways to use all of those guys."

Top receiver Malcolm Kelly will miss spring practice as he rehabilitates from offseason knee surgery. But his absence has created playing time for wideouts Quentin Chaney, Adron Tennell, Brandon Caleb and Manuel Johnson.

The most noticeable position change defensively has been the move of Reggie Smith from safety to cornerback. Coaches believe the switch should accentuate his natural coverage skills.

"We've said that his best and most natural position has been corner," Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. "He's been pretty good at a lot of things, or else we wouldn't have done them. But we think that moving back to corner will help him."

Another big void to fill will be at middle linebacker, where Big 12 defensive player of the year Rufus Alexander departs after starting three seasons.

"You don't know who you can trust right now," Venables said. "I've known for the last three years I could trust Rufus. He showed me that from his first day as a freshman. And right now, I haven't had to rely on anybody lining up in a really critical situation, let alone those that aren't critical. The defense will have to entrust somebody or a number of guys who are consistent in making their alignments and getting the defense set."

The defense was called out by Stoops after struggling at the first scrimmage with basic tackling.

"Sloppy tackling, which is hopefully just rust," Stoops told reporters at the scrimmage. "We have some guys that are trying to get on the field that are showing you've got to either make tackles or you're going to have a hard time playing. That's why you scrimmage. And hopefully, we'll get better as we go."

Tim Griffin covers the Big 12 for the San Antonio Express-News.