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Young Guns and Muscle Primed To Step Up in 2009
Thanks to the return of Sam Bradford, Trent Williams, Jermaine Gresham and Gerald McCoy, Oklahoma won’t need to empty its cupboard of future prospects in order to fill out its roster for the 2009 season.
However, that doesn’t mean Bob Stoops and his staff won’t have to rely on the rapid maturation of at least a handful of inexperienced players this coming spring and fall.
The defense returns most of its starters from a year ago, but Nic Harris and Lendy Holmes will have to be replaced, which means Bobby Jack Wright will be looking for two new safeties in ’09.
Juaquin Iglesias, Manny Johnson and Quentin Chaney are gone, leaving much of the receiver rotation wide open. And of course, the Sooners also lose the bulk of their exceptional offensive line.
Spring practices will become a battleground for any number of jobs, especially along the offensive line, where carrying on the tradition of protecting quarterback Sam Bradford is paramount.
“That’s right,” answered coach James Patton when told a lot will be riding on his rebuilt offensive line next season. “No question. It will be a great challenge for them and I think because they’re young players, they’re hungry to play.”
Patton already has at least one piece in place with Trent Williams returning for his senior season, even if the senior-to-be will be taking on a new role as the starting left tackle.
Brian Simmons is also a likely starter at the right guard position, but after those two spots are taken, it’s a veritable free-for-all across the lineup.
One of the most intriguing young prospects in the program is LSU transfer Jarvis Jones, who transferred in last fall. He’s been practicing with the team, biding his time for a return to the field.
There’s a good chance, Jones could line up opposite Williams at the right tackle spot next season.
“He’s really good,” said Patton. “He’s really athletic and he could play guard too, but right now I’ll probably have him at tackle. He played tackle on the scout team all year. He was a transfer kid and ineligible, but he is long, tough, athletic and he’s big and lean.”
Cory Brandon will likely battle Jones for that starting right tackle spot during the spring. Brandon served as Phil Loadholt’s understudy the past two seasons and he’s chomping at the bit for a shot at one of the tackle spots.
Another player who will potentially factor into the equation at tackle is Donald Stephenson, who drew rave reviews from coaches this past fall before undergoing shoulder surgery. Now he’s trying to get back up to his pre-surgery weight in order to make a run at a starting job.
“Donald is an unbelievable athlete,” said Patton. “His whole thing is that he had that shoulder injury his first year and he redshirted and he’s starting to get his weight back up. He’s about 285 or 287. I expect him to have an unbelievable winter and spring here being a full-time player.”
The other position battle to watch during the coming months will be between former Rivals.com five-star offensive tackle Stephen Good and a handful of contenders. The 6-foot-5, 305-pound Good has all the measurables Patton looks for in an offensive lineman. He’s made a move to left guard and he’s one of the few players on the OU roster who could possibly have the impact of a Loadholt or Duke Robinson.
“He’s really good,” said Patton of Good. “I expect big things and right now he’s playing guard and that’s what he played this year. Shoot, he’s gotten a lot better this season with his footwork and agility. He’s so strong and he’s athletic.”
Alex Williams will be the next player on the roster to stake his claim on one of the guard positions.
Meanwhile, Ben Habern and Jason Hannan are the two players who figure to battle it out in the quest to replace four-year starting center Jon Cooper. Hannan served as Cooper’s backup this season, but Habern received reps this season, as well.
Both players will split time in the spring and fall until a starter emerges.
“Ben’s probably a little more athletic than Jason, but Jason’s played a little more and Jason played guard too.”
Patton believes either player could be a factor for a key role at the guard position as a starter or a key contributor. But someone will have to win the starting job at center.
One thing is certain, Patton believes this group has the potential to be great. If any team can replace four starters on the offensive line, Oklahoma feels it has the talent to do just that.
“I’ve got a real good feel about them,” Patton said. “I guess we’ll see what kind of a coach I am. It’ll be a lot of fun.
“We’re losing those great players and the seniors we have, but those guys are going to be hungry. I say they’re young but they’ve been in the program for a couple of years. They don’t have the starting experience those guys had for three years, but when I first got here, neither did Duke or all those other guys. Phil, Trent, Brandon Walker, all those guys, they were all young players.”
Patton knows there will be plenty of motivation to go around.
“They’re going to want to block their butts off for Sam and all these great players they’ve got around them — the running backs like Demarco and Chris Brown,” Patton said. “They’re going to take a lot of pride in that.”
And Patton isn’t the only one who believes the O-line has a chance to be really good in hurry.
“A lot of people are worried about the offensive line. Believe me, I’ve played against those young guys in practice every day and I can tell you we’ve got some muscle up there,” said defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. “Honestly, we’re going to be all right up there this coming season.”
Outside the offensive line, most OU fans are curious to know about the progress of two other five-star signees from last season — Jermie Calhoun and R.J. Washington.
Oklahoma appears to be loaded at running back heading into the offseason with Murray, Brown and Mossis Madu all returning. But Calhoun’s high school hype suggests he’s a special back and potentially ready to contribute.
Bob Stoops’ staff started to see something extra out of Calhoun as he got more comfortable in practices throughout the year.
“I thought in the bowl practices, (Jermie) really showed up well,” said offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson. “He had a lot more confidence and knowledge. I know the guys thought he did a great job on the scout team. He’s a great kid and I like his work habits. I came out of bowl practices thinking this guy is going to be really good.”
With Murray shelved due to injury, Calhoun’s stock really improved thanks to extra reps he got as the Sooners prepared for the BCS title game. Madu sat out several practices with a hand injury, which led coaches to insert Calhoun into the practice lineup on a regular basis.
“We gave a lot to Jermie and he looked really good,” said Wilson of the redshirted running back.
Washington is the other component to last season’s super class. The five-star defensive end was one of the most explosive players in high school football two years ago. But with so much depth at defensive end, coach Chris Wilson didn’t want to burn his redshirt season for spot duty in ’08.
That’s something Wilson hopes he won’t have to worry about next season.
“It’s been a typical freshman year,” explained Wilson. “Obviously for R.J., it’s just been learning the ropes and trying to learn our system. The biggest thing with both him and David (King) — they’ve been getting used to getting with Schmitty in the morning and going to class on time. So it’s just been a typical year for them.
“What they’ve shown over the fall is that they’re going to be really good players. Hopefully, you develop those two young guys. You really want to see them get a lot of reps and get a lot of opportunities to see what they can do.”
Another key area of development for OU during the offseason will be the wide receivers. Heisman winner Sam Bradford will have to spend extra time working with his group of returning pass catchers during the offseason.
Ryan Broyles returns to lead the unit, but look for Brandon Caleb and Adron Tennell to lead the way among other veteran returnees. Dejuan Miller looks like the most capable of the young receivers, while Jameel Owens isn’t too far behind.
At safety, Quinton Carter and Sam Proctor possibly have the best shots at replacing Harris and Holmes, but Bobby Jack Wright has also been very complimentary of Joseph Ibiloye at free safety during his redshirt freshman season.
Also look for big things from former Muskogee High School standout Stacy McGee at defensive tackle. With Demarcus Granger’s career in limbo after late-season back surgery and Cory Bennett playing out his eligibility, the Sooners will need another player on the interior.
McGee has been trying to add weight and muscle to strengthen his 6-foot-4 frame, after making the move from defensive end to defensive tackle.
“I think he’s going to be a tremendous player for us, a really good player,” said Chris Wilson. “He’s got all the tools to be a really successful player here, and I mean that.”
With the return of Jermaine Gresham, tight end James Hanna may end up being redshirted this fall after coaches played him in ’08 in case Gresham did take off early for the NFL.
But that doesn’t mean Hanna can’t be included on the list of stars in waiting.
“He needs to play a lot when it’s his time to play,” said Kevin Wilson of Hanna. “He’s a guy that’s gaining strength and he will be a lot better in his blocking. He will be a very well-rounded guy. He’s still young, he’s still getting stronger and bigger and getting better at his blocking assignments and he has good ball skills.”
(Editor's Note: This story appears in the Jan.-Feb. 2009 issue of Sooner Spectator. To subscribe, call toll free 1-877-841-8877.)