More than just a center

NORMAN, Okla. — Shortly after starting center Ben Habern concluded his career due to lingering neck and back injuries, head coach Bob Stoops suggested at the August Sooner Caravan that the offensive line would be fine.

He had full confidence in the entire unit, and there was a reason why.

That reason was Gabe Ikard, who shifted over from guard to center the year before when Habern suffered a broken wrist and proved more than capable of doing so.

Ikard did so again in 2012 and anchored an offense that's amassed more than 6,000 yards of total offense, including 505.9 yards per game and 59 touchdowns.

"He's a good player," said centers and guards coach James Patton. "Yeah, he's been really important."

As productive as he is on the field in terms of protecting signal caller Landry Jones and opening up holes for the many talented Sooner tailbacks, perhaps his biggest asset to this group has been his veteran presence.

With that, he's helped keep an offensive line together that not only lost its center but has suffered many other setbacks along the way.

The unit had to use a pair of unexpected starting guards in Adam Shead and Bronson Irwin when starter Tyler Evans went down with a torn ACL and also battled an injury to left tackle Daryl Williams, who missed the final two games of the regular season and will sit out the Cotton Bowl with a sprained MCL.

Along the way, he's helped pull all these guys along.

"You know, he's a leader," Patton said. "He just sets the tone for the guys. I mean he's got great communication skills. He's a very tough, relentless player. He could do a lot of things. I mean obviously moving back from center to guard's not an issue with him and he knows what everybody does. He knows the offense, knows how we do it, so it's been valuable."

However, knowing his potential to step in and not miss a beat didn't lessen the blow of losing the senior captain Habern.

"Obviously Ben played a lot of great football for us, so it was disappointing when that news came," Patton said. "But I had a plan. I mean there was a backup plan. You always gotta have a plan, and if you don't prepare for things like that, it can set you back. But yeah, I mean there was certainly a plan and Gabe grows up to it, and unfortunately Ben couldn't play, but the next guy had to step up.

"It's been that way all year. Tyler Evans going down, Nila [Kasitati] going down, Bronson [Irwin] stepping up, Woody [Austin Woods] and just Ty Darlington. But yeah, Gabe's done a heck of a job. I'm proud of him."

Ikard, as humble as he is in his success, credits Habern for playing a part in that.

"When he can make it to practice, yeah we still [talk]," Ikard said. "[He's] giving me tips. I tell him to watch me, and I say watch me and forget the other two guys and just let me know. He's always there to help and that's just the kind of person he is. He's always put others before himself, so he helps in any way he can, whether it comes to practice or off the field stuff."

It sounds like those two have quite a bit in common in that aspect.

Very selfless individuals, and ones that can step up and show the way all at the same time.

"I mean the guys are accountable, but he's gonna call ‘em out if somebody's not doing something in a way that is encouraging but yet let's get it right, get it fixed," Patton said. "So, he's pretty good that way. That's what leadership does."

And helping keep an offense afloat without a pair of expected starters heading into the season is what a great leader and productive offensive lineman does.

Ikard has been able to accomplish just that in 2012 and has one more chance to make a statement when the Sooners face off against Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl Jan. 4 at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

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