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Breaking Down The Offense
Quarterback Race Takes Spring Spotlight
Chuck Long almost can't go wrong.
Does he choose the big, strong, fast, athletic quarterback with the steely eyes and unwavering determination?
Or does he choose the can't-miss kid with the rocket-pack feet and spring-loaded arm?
Or does he choose the second-floor passer with surprisingly taut nerves and PlayStation accuracy?
â€śIt's very close. They each have had their great days. They each have had their average days," Long said halfway through spring practice. "You're not only looking for a guy to hopefully separate, but you're also looking for consistency from each one of them on a day-to-day basis. It's tight right now. There's no leader. I anticipate that going into the fall."
You know their names. Junior Paul Thompson, 6-foot-4 and athletic, got backup snaps behind Jason White during Oklahoma's 2003 run to the national title game. Third-year sophomore Tommy Grady, 6-7 and a marvel of accuracy in the mold of White, did the same last season. Redshirt freshman Rhett Bomar, 6-3 and quick of foot with an even quicker release, was the No. 1-ranked high school quarterback in the country in 2003, and spent the '04 season studying quietly.
Bob Stoops says the quarterback who makes the most plays and the fewest mistakes while giving the Sooners the best chance to win is the quarterback who will play this fall.
That wasn't determined during the spring.
â€śFor a young group," Long said, â€śthey've really taken care of the ball. I remember those other guys (White, Nate Hybl and Brent Rawls) were young, and they were throwing those balls into those guys a lot this time of year. These guys have taken great care of the football so far, and that's been impressive to me.''
Midway through spring, Grady appeared to make a slight move ahead of the others. Long loved his confidence and his accuracy. He started the first major scrimmage â€”somebody had to, Long said â€” and went 9-of-14 for 88 yards and a touchdown, and also led another scoring drive and got six first downs in 26 snaps.
At the same time, Thompson might have slid back a little. He was the third quarterback in the scrimmage â€” don't read too much into that, either, Long said â€” and went just 7-of-17 for 40 yards. He collected just two first downs in 33 snaps and was 2-of-8 passing on third down.
Bomar started slow in the scrimmage but heated up, at one point completing 10-of-12 passes. He finished 10-of-16 for 84 yards and a score and directed an additional TD drive. Bomar picked up 12 first downs in 38 snaps and was 3-for-4 on third down. Four of Bomar's five possessions were with the Sooners' No. 2 offense (against the No. 2 defense).
One thing the quarterback position will have more of than it has in the past: mobility. Not since White's pre-knee injury days has a Sooner QB scampered around like Thompson and Bomar. Even Grady has busted out of the pocket a few times.
Either way, the battle has been intense, with players moving up or moving down every week, every day, every snap.
``Yeah, I love it. I'm a competitor, and I love competing," Thompson said. ``I love going out there and showcasing my skills."
``The best thing is just being out here and practicing, working with some of the older guys and the competition," Bomar said. ``I'm a competitor. All three of us are. We all get along. We're all friends. But we're all trying to outdo each other, because our No. 1 goal is to start for Oklahoma."
Early public opinion presumed that either the more experienced Thompson or the more dynamic Bomar would be the starter. But Grady was quietly the best over the first half of spring.
``The press can think what they want, but the coach is going to make the decisions," Grady said. ``I'm going out every day and competing the same way."
Long's assessment at the midway point of the spring was concise, but he didn't tip his hand.
``I thought they had pretty good pace. Some of the tempo slowed up a little bit, but I like their resolve in coming back and putting some drives together," Long said. ``There were times where they misread some things, but that's just part of the deal and learning. But overall, I thought they looked pretty good for their first scrimmage."
Long said he noticed Grady's consistency, and he noticed Bomar's playmaking. He also noticed Thompson's struggles.
``Tommy was pretty consistent (in the first scrimmage). He put some nice drives together," Long said. ``Rhett came in and put some nice drives together, and got rid of the ball quick. Paul had struggled a little bit, but he's had a good camp so far and has been really steady. Knowing Paul, he'll come back and have nice practices."
Senior running back Kejuan Jones probably won't get a vote when the time comes to name the starter, but he endorsed all three.
â€śIt's a three-way tie, you know," Jones said. â€śWhoever is the starting quarterback, the backup quarterback or the third-string quarterback, those guys are all good. If they went anywhere else in the country, they'd be starting. We're just blessed to have three great quarterbacks."
Jones represents part of another dilemma entirely for the Sooners in the spring. He's an experienced running back who doesn't need a whole lot of work, but with starter Adrian Peterson out the entire spring following shoulder surgery, Jones â€” despite an illness â€” has been forced into action with Donta Hickson and Jacob Gutierrez.
The offense this fall will lean heavily on Peterson no matter who the quarterback is. Peterson's absence this spring is a good thing in that he's getting to rest up for what will be a busy season, and certainly his shoulder needed repair. And others get a chance to get work behind him.
But his absence is a bad thing in that whoever wins the quarterback job, and however the offensive line shapes up, and whoever is the core group of receivers, isn't getting to work with the offense's most important player.
Long didn't expect that would be an issue, however.
â€śNo, because he came into training camp last year for the first time in the fall. He wasn't here in the spring last year, and we got in his tempo and he got in ours pretty quick," Long said.â€ťI think the summer is going to be real big for Adrian. He's going to be here over the summer and he'll work on all that tempo and handoffs. Then once we get in training camp, we have to hone in and make sure he gets enough work there."
The offensive line could have five players in new positions.
Start with senior left tackle Davin Joseph, who was an all-star at right guard last season. Senior Kelvin Chaisson played strictly left guard in 2004 but spent the first part of spring at center. Versatile senior Chris Bush has backed up at center and right guard and even started at left guard, where he spent most of spring. He could play either center or guard. Senior Chris Chester, who has backed up at center and been a jumbo-set tight end, worked exclusively as the right guard early in the spring but may be on his way to center. And third-year sophomore Akim Millington has taken over the right tackle duties from graduated All-American Jammal Brown.
Wide receiver is something of a dilemma in that OU loses four proven and experienced players at the position, and returns only two in seniors Travis Wilson and Jejuan Rankins. Wilson led the team with 11 TD catches last year, but Rankins may have been the team's best wideout in the spring. And redshirt freshman Quentin Chaney emerged as a consistent pass-catching threat, while guys like sophomore Tristen Ross and redshirt freshmen Lendy Holmes and Fred Strong showed plenty of playmaking ability.
â€śWe're excited about the potential of this group and this combination of veteran guys in Wilson and Rankins and young talented guys in Chaney, Holmes, Strong and Ross," said receivers coach Darrell Wyatt. â€śI expect those guys to come in and compete for a starting job, for playing time, and to continue to give us the depth we've had over the course of the last six years."
The offensive line and the receiver corps will be strengthened by the addition of some incoming players in the fall. And the running back position will change completely when Peterson returns for two-a-days.
The tight ends and fullbacks didn't lose anyone from last year's team and took over in the spring roles of both leadership and playmaking.
``They're probably the most veteran group on the team right now," said tight ends/fullbacks coach Kevin Sumlin.
(John E. Hoover is the OU football beat writer for the Tulsa World.)