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Sooners Turn Their Focus To Future Success In 2008
Three of the best players on Oklahomaâ€™s 2007 football team were all but unknown in 2006.
Who, then, will be the Sam Bradford, Auston English and Curtis Lofton of 2008? Who will emerge from redshirt, from injury, from two years as a backup to become one of college footballâ€™s top players at his position?
That canâ€™t be known, of course, until perhaps October. As usual with the Sooners, there are plenty of candidates.
But one thing is certain: without the record-setting efforts of Bradford at quarterback, without the inspiring play of English at defensive end, without the relentless pursuit of Lofton at middle linebacker, the Sooners in â€™07 wouldnâ€™t have been near the team they were.
Bradford, a redshirt freshman, led the nation in passing efficiency, set an NCAA freshman record for touchdown passes and set a school record for completion percentage. English, a sophomore, might have set a school record for sacks before an injury slowed his progress. And Lofton, a consensus All-America pick as a junior, recorded more tackles in a single than any Sooner in 26 years, and single-handedly turned the fortunes of five Big 12 games.
Easily lost in the smoke from the Fiesta Bowl implosion is the fact that this OU team lapped the rest of the Big 12 Conference and, if not for uncharacteristic stumbles in Boulder, Colo., and Lubbock, Texas, might have been in New Orleans for the national championship.
Depending on which underclassmen return for â€™08, the Sooners are certain to join the chase for Miami and the â€™08 national championship.
A group of juniors deemed one of the most talented in Bob Stoopsâ€™ tenure will be seniors.
Most of them, anyway.
With wide receiver Malcolm Kelly headed to NFL next fall, but plenty of other seniors-to-be, many who will be four-year starters, figure to be back to strengthen OUâ€™s championship pursuit.
Wideout Juaquin Iglesias, who blossomed with a move from flanker to end and led the team in receptions and receiving yards, will team up with slot receiver Manuel Johnson, who came on strong late in â€™07. Another senior wideout who should help next year is Quentin Chaney, who for the second year in a row was idle in the regular season only to replace Kelly with a career game â€” four catches, 129 yards and a TD â€” in the Fiesta Bowl.
The offense can once more lean on a veteran offensive line, and all were juniors in â€™07. Left guard Duke Robinson earned consensus All-American honors. Left tackle Phil Loadholt, a junior college transfer, started hot in â€™07 but leveled out and should be much better in â€™08.
Center Jon Cooper is another four-year starter who is often overlooked by fans and media.
Right guard Brandon Walker was the Soonersâ€™ most efficient blocker this past season and will be a three-year starter in â€™08. Right tackle Branndon Braxton had a strong junior season after a broken leg in â€™06 and will have plenty of starting experience going into this fall.
Two others â€” sophomores Brian Simmons and Trent Williams â€” have frontline ability and should continue to add depth next season. Simmons would probably be the starter at left guard if Robinson opted to leave.
Early departures to pro football could affect OUâ€™s defense in 2008. Lofton and Reggie Smith opted to leave for the pros, and finding replacements for them will be critical for the OU coaching staff.
Helping provide leadership and stability will be safety Nic Harris and Lendy Holmes.
The 2007 senior class was tiny in number (13 on the two-deep), and only a bit larger in contribution, so there wonâ€™t be a lot of holes to fill next season.
Allen Patrick finished with class, rushing for 1,007 yards as a senior. Joe Jon Finley became one of the most productive tight ends in school history (62 catches, 775 yards, 10 TDs). Safety D.J. Wolfe had a big senior season (83 tackles, four interceptions, two fumble recoveries). Lewis Baker, Alonzo Dotson and Marcus Walker were solid.
One senior who will be tough to replace is place-kicker Garrett Hartley, who moved up to third in career kick scoring (310 points) with 110 points this season, second-best all-time at OU.
Plan for success
Schedule-making sounds a lot easier than it is. When OU put together the contracts for the 2007 season, Utah State, North Texas, Miami and Tulsa were all coming off winning seasons. By the time â€™07 actually arrived, Miami was in full rebuild mode, and North Texas and Utah State had plummeted to two of the nationâ€™s worst teams.
Still, 2008 looks promising for that ever-prominent strength of schedule â€” a must-have for teams hoping to contend for the BCS title game.
The season starts Sept. 6 with Cincinnati, a surprisingly-good 10-3 club in 2007. OU visits Washington on Sept. 13. The Huskies were just 4-9 in 2007, but played eight ranked teams and were within one touchdown in five of their defeats. And TCU, 8-5 last season and purveyors of one of the greatest upsets in OU history in the 2005 opener, is back at Memorial Stadium. The Sooners may also land a Division I-AA opponent for the second time in school history if Joe Castiglione canâ€™t find a Division I-A soon.
Back, and better
Who will ever forget the impact an unknown redshirt freshman had on the Sooners and on college football in 2007? Sam Bradford won a tight year-long competition, then threw a record 36 TD passes (second in OU annals, behind Jason Whiteâ€™s 40 in 2003), completed 69.5 percent of his passes and was intercepted just eight times.
And guess what? Heâ€™ll only be better in 2008.
So will running back DeMarco Murray, another redshirt freshman who lit up Texas and rushed for 764 yards and 13 touchdowns and averaged 6.0 yards per carry before suffering a dislocated kneecap at Texas Tech. Murray also scored two TDs and averaged more than 29 yards on kickoff returns.
Jermaine Gresham caught 37 passes for 518 yards as a sophomore and led the team with 11 TD catches. Heâ€™ll be a major weapon again this coming fall.
And Iglesias had the kind of season often reserved for All-Big 12 honors â€” 68 catches, 907 yards and five TDs. If Kelly doesnâ€™t return, Iglesias showed he has the skills to be a big-play threat. Iglesias also shattered the school record with 826 yards and averaged nearly 29 yards on kickoff returns.
And speaking of special teams, punter Mike Knall, who took over full-time midway through 2007, is back. So is steady deep snapper Derek Shaw, although holder Hays McEachern said heâ€™ll be moving on.
With Lofton and Baker gone, some changes will take place at linebacker. Freshman Austin Box is a leading candidate to replace Baker. Redshirt freshman Brandon Crow should be ready for duty at any of the three linebacker spots. And it would be nice if junior Mike Reed, a transfer who didnâ€™t play in â€™07 and has just one year of eligibility remaining, could get on the field, either as a linebacker or perhaps as a defensive end.
Finding defensive backs will also be a priority, particularly since Smith is leaving. Redshirt freshman Dominique Franks, who replaced Smith in the Fiesta Bowl, is ready to step in for Marcus Walker. Sophomore Brian Jackson should be ready after a lot of work in the spring and fall. Keenan Clayton might move back to strong safety, where heâ€™d be a candidate replace D.J. Wolfe, or Clayton could stay at linebacker.
(Editor's Note: This story appears in the January 2008 issue of Sooner Spectator. Subscribe today by calling toll free 1-877-841-8877)