NORMAN, Okla. — This will be an interesting spring for the offensive line. For the first time during the Bob Stoops era, the Sooners will be experienced up front. OU returns all five starters from a year ago and in senior right tackle Jammal Brown and senior center Vince Carter, the Sooners have two who athletes stand a good chance to earn All-American honors.
Senior Wes Sims will be starting for the fourth year at left tackle, and despite the fact he may be better suited to play guard, the Sooners can't find anybody better than Sims at left tackle. Junior Davin Joseph is coming off a year where he battled some minor injuries and he didn't play as well as he expected, but there may not be a more raw and talented offensive linemen on the team.
There is an old saying that a unit is only as strong as its weakest link, and that is certainly the case at left guard with junior Kelvin Chaisson. Chaisson put together a solid season a year ago and if he is the Sooner weakest link, then that proves the Sooners are a very good offensive line. Throw in junior Chris Bush as the sixth man of this group and for the first time in a long while OU will be an experienced football team up front.
"Never since we have been here do we have so much quality experience in our offensive line," said OU Head Coach Bob Stoops. "I want to point out that quality is the key word here. Our offensive line has improved a great deal over the last couple of years. They did a pretty good job protecting a Heisman Trophy winning quarterback last year and the year before we had a rusher run for close to 2,000 yards. Developing some depth will be important for us this spring, but we have recruited well in that area and it is time for some of those young players to step up and make a name for themselves.
In fact, finding the next great offensive tackle may be the top priority for the Sooners this spring. Sophomore Chris Messner started one game a year ago and played some in the Sugar Bowl, but getting his weight up to 300-pounds is still a chore for the OU strength and conditioning team. OU got by redshirting Akim Millington a year ago and that will turn out to be the best thing for him. Millington had an up-and-down year as he battled the freshman blues. The Sooners need for Millington to start showing that he has the ability to start.
"Many times at that position it is not an overnight quick success," said offensive line Coach Kevin Wilson. "A lot of times it is a two to three year process to get those guys to develop. Messner is coming into year three and Akim year two. And this spring, which will culminate year two and year one for those guys, will be big for both those guys. Then the summer, preseason and as we move into the season every day will be important for both players. Both of them have to realize that they are one play away from helping us win right now anyway. Those two senior tackles have been three-year starters for us. Both have been solid players for us, but we need to get the next guys ready for sure."
The fact is, OU isn't sure if their next tackles are on campus or not. They may be Messner and Millington, or at least one of them may be one of the answers. The future could come from the offensive line group just recruited as Brandon Braxton of Youngstown, Ohio, Randy McAdams of Leander, Texas, and Cameron Schacht of Coppell, Texas, all will be tried at offensive tackle when they arrive at OU. If none of the six mentioned can cut it then OU will go into the 2005 recruiting year still looking for the next great offensive tackles. However, first things first: Messner and Millington will get their chance.
"Both are young guys that have to learn to play hard all the time, to play physical. And as much as we pass the ball, they have to be athletic enough to protect our quarterback," said Wilson. "The main thing is to make sure they are tough enough to be physical and to be physical for 14 to 15 weeks. Those young guys can't do that right now. They don't have the strength and maturity to go out there consistently. They go through preseason, play 11 or 12 game schedule, play a championship game and hopefully you have an open date in there somewhere. But that is 14 to 15 weeks straight and they have to learn how to handle that. Even the most experienced players wear down up against that kind of schedule."
"We need those young guys to add toughness and to go out and compete each and every day," Wilson continued. "Then they need to develop the athleticism, especially as much as we pass, to protect our quarterback. I was sitting in the office the other day talking to Jammal and Wes and Peyton Manning just signed a contract for 99 million dollars. Well, if you are going to be a pro player then you have to realize that guy doesn't get touched. They have too much money invested in that guy. The last couple of years I think we have done OK, but I still think we are getting our quarterback hit too much. Especially at the end of this year, when we became pass-oriented down the stretch and we weren't running as much as we were at the beginning of the year. Our sack total went up and our quarterback got hit a lot and Jason didn't play as well."
Depth is a critical concern that the Sooners will try to solve this spring. Bush is the only back-up player that Coach Wilson has a lot of confidence in right now.
"Bush has played and played pretty well," said Coach Wilson. "We are considering moving Chris Chester in there. Chester is our best blocking tight end, but he maybe isn't the pass catcher that you are used to like when we had Trent (Smith), and we feel that Bubba (Moses), Joe John (Finley) and Willie (Roberts) can be. However, he is stronger and tougher and he might be an inside player. But if we need him to go back and be our tight end and give us a physical presence at tight end, he will be a better blocker because he is going to be stronger. That will force Joe John, Willie and Bubba to get a boat load of reps and force feed that tight end spot per say. At the same time, if Chester is our best blocking tight end and we still need him for short-yardage and goal-line situations, which you have seen us do this past year, then we will kick him back out for those roles."
"If Chester comes inside I think he has a chance to be pretty good, because he is very athletic," Wilson continued. "Antonn Reid has a chance to be pretty good in there, and it just seems like we have better players. You have five or six guys that are pretty good athletes. The guys we signed with Braxton, McAdams and Schacht coming in, especially with Schacht being a guard and tackle, and with Akim and Messner and the other young freshman that we redshirted that is not too far off is (Stephen Tremaine). With those three young guys we have six young bodies at the tackle spot. We also have Brett Rayl who seems more comfortable at guard than tackle. Tackle is a tough position to play. You have to be big enough and strong enough out there to knock them down, but you have to be nimble enough to take care of that wide rush guy."
As long as the injury bug stays away the Sooners starting five will be strength of the football team, but this spring they do have obvious goals to get better.
"It was a goal of our last year and we were on track. We had only 11 sacks through ten games and not all of those were on the offensive line," said Wilson. "We need take the negative sack out of our offense. As a team we finished up with 27 sacks and the year before that we gave up 29 to 30. We need to get back down to that 16 to 20 range. And as much as we throw that is tough to do, but that has to be a goal of ours. I think we are smart in our protection, our scheme and our assignments. If we compete and take pride in being a better protecting team then we can become that."
"We also need to get back to having a physical presence," Wilson continued. "We have five starters back that need to be stronger and tougher. We need to be a tougher line through the entire season that can compete and finish at the end of the season. As good as our offense was and as good of a year that we had, we weren't tough enough to finish. Our line is very athletic, but we need to get to continue to get more physical and get more of a girth to it. We can run very well, but we need to become more of a drive blocking unit."
Freshman J.D. Quinn had his wrist scoped recently and he may be the only offensive lineman who can't go through the physical portion of spring practice. When healthy, Quinn will practice at center and guard. Carter also has a knee that the coaches will treat with special care this spring, which will give Bush a number of snaps at first team center. Reid would work at the back-up center if Carter is held out or can't go at practice. Reid will also work at guard. Walk-on John Flynn will also work at guard and will start the spring as the second team right guard.
Spring Preview: Offensive Line
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