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On Sale At Newstands March 1!
Outlook for 2009
Potential Rebuilding Mode Altered By Return of Major Components

At exactly the midway point between Christmas and national signing day, Oklahoma football fans got a late present and some early — and significantly big-time — verbal commitments.

On Jan. 14, the Sooners’ immediate future became immeasurably brighter when Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Sam Bradford, right tackle Trent Williams and tight end Jermaine Gresham all announced they’d be returning to Norman to play the 2009 season.

The news came 21 days after Christmas and 21 days before signing day — blackjack for Sooner fans fretting over the possibility of just one or two starters returning to the most prolific offense in college football history.

As big as national signing day?

“Oh, I would say much bigger,” said head coach Bob Stoops. “A lot of times those guys you project on signing day aren’t quite what you thought.”

Imagine a scenario where jumbo tight end Brody Eldridge and I-formation fullback Matt Clapp are the only “starters” back alongside running back Chris Brown and wide receiver Ryan Broyles (themselves only co-starters).

Such a scenario now remains only an uncertain dream for the Sooners. Offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson will have only a moderate bit of retooling to do in 2009.

“Obviously, it makes our team stronger, with that experience and that kind of talent back for another year,” Stoops said.

Then add the return of nine starters to the Big 12 Conference’s No. 3-ranked overall defense (No. 2 in points allowed) and 2009 takes on a whole new look.

Following yet another disappointing defeat in a Bowl Championship Series game — this time to Florida in the national championship — most early forecasts had the Sooners ranked in the top five for next season. But that number jumped to second or third when Bradford, Gresham, Williams and Gerald McCoy all announced they were putting off the NFL for a year.

With quarterback Tim Tebow and nine defensive starters back for Florida, is anyone up for a Sooners-Gators national championship rematch in the Rose Bowl?

First things first for Oklahoma. The Sooners need to find four replacements on what can now be argued as the greatest offensive line in school history. They also need to identify two receivers who can step up and fill the shoes of two of the school’s most prolific pass-catchers.

Rebuilding the offensive line could be a bit problematic, though the personnel looks impressive.

The loss of four seniors — Jon Cooper, Phil Loadholt, Duke Robinson and Brandon Walker — is hard to overcome, at least early on. That quartet combined for more than 160 career starts and included a two-time All-American (Robinson), the most efficient blocker (Walker), a tough, wise and well-respected captain (Cooper) and the biggest man ever to play at OU (Loadholt).

Bradford was sacked just 13 times in 14 games thanks to his security detail. Now, what he has back is Williams (the Sooners’ most athletic lineman), who must become an anchor for guys like guard Brian Simmons (two career starts, though for two seasons he’s routinely rotated in at both guard positions) and tackle Cory Brandon (mop-up time only, though he got lots of it in 2008).

The future remains bright. Prospects like centers Jason Hannan and Ben Habern and guard Stephen Good got plenty of game action late in blowouts, and coaches liked what they saw.
Also, LSU transfer Jarvis Jones is big enough and got playing time in Baton Rouge, and has spent a year in redshirt learning Wilson’s system. He could emerge into a dominant player. It’s likely Jones will play right tackle while Williams shifts to left tackle. Alex Williams and Donald Stephenson also are candidates outside, and Wilson has said before he likes both guys as long-term answers.

There are fewer known quantities at wide receiver.

Juaquin Iglesias blossomed into one of the Sooners’ best ever at the position, catching 74 passes for 1,150 yards and 10 touchdowns last season — the second-most prolific season ever for a Sooner wideout. Manuel Johnson endured a major elbow injury to rank fourth on the team with 42 catches, 714 yards and nine TDs. Quentin Chaney, who finally emerged with 29 catches for 504 yards and two TDs as a senior, will also be missed.

OU’s top returning receivers in 2009 include a tight end, three running backs and Broyles, who finished third on the team with 46 catches, and fourth with 687 yards and six scores during his redshirt-freshman season, working mostly out of the inside slot. Similar growth from Broyles next season would be huge.

He’ll need help outside, though, and there are no proven threats going into the offseason.

Adron Tennell will be a senior, but he hasn’t recovered well from 2007’s knee surgery. Tennell, though athletic, had just nine catches in ’08 to go along with a handful of drops. Brandon Caleb will be a junior and figures to get more duty, but he made just four catches this past year.

Maybe most promising are Jameel Owens and Dajuan Miller, who saw limited action in ’08 and combined for six catches as true freshmen. They’ll need time on task, but coaches raved about their early acumen. Corey Wilson also needs to make his presence felt at some point.

Kevin Wilson, though, is a master at utilizing what he has — he won the Frank Broyles Award in ’08 as college football’s top assistant coach — and Bradford is a wizard at finding the open man. So that could mean more throws to Gresham and up-and-coming tight end James Hanna.
More throws to Gresham would be fine with everyone. He earned All-America honors and was a Mackey Award finalist as a junior, catching 66 passes for 950 yards (both second on the team) with a team-best 14 TD grabs.

Wilson and Bradford might also need to find a way to increase the passing game roles of running backs Chris Brown and DeMarco Murray.
Brown and Murray ranked seventh and fifth on the team, respectively, in receptions this past season, with Murray catching 31 passes for 395 yards and four TDs before he suffered a torn hamstring tendon in the Big 12 championship game. (That means another offseason of rehab for Murray, who spent last offseason returning from a dislocated kneecap and only returned to form at midseason.)

With few proven downfield threats and a green offensive line, defenses likely will try to stack extra men up front and try to stuff Brown and Murray. Aggressive and efficient run blocking should be a priority for the Sooners this coming fall, because Brown and Murray can make defenses hurt. In becoming just the fourth 1,000-yard tandem in school history in ’08, they combined for nearly 165 yards per game.
Brown, who will be a senior, ended the year with 1,220 yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground.

With Murray gone, Brown carried the load with 122 yards in the Big 12 title game and 110 in the national championship game. Murray, who will be a fourth-year junior, ended up with 1,002 yards and 14 TDs. Mossis Madu, a rising junior, was a capable stand-in with 475 yards and six scores.

The first priority is keeping Bradford upright. He led the nation last year in passer efficiency (again) and touchdown passes (50) and turned down a chance to be drafted high in the first round.

(Editor's Note: This is just a portion of the 2009 outlook story that appears in the Jan.-Feb. Issue of Sooner Spectator. To subscribe, call toll free 1-877-841-8877 or go to our online store at www.soonerspectator.com)