Sooner fans everywhere are looking forward to the 2004 season. Could it be the best team of the Stoops era? Will the Sooners continue to dominate the BCS rankings and capture the schools eighth national championship?
While those questions are seven months away from an answer, this year's spring drills concluded on April 17 and gave us an early peek at the upcoming season, not mention rising stars.
Inside OU Sports had a chance to sit down with Merv Johnson, director of football operations at Oklahoma, and discuss the upcoming possibilities, and examine a few questions that lie ahead.
INSIDE OU SPORTS: The 2003 season was one where the Sooners dominated the entire season, garnered almost every major award, and held the BCS No. 1 slot from start to finish, yet the Sugar Bowl loss ended the dream. Do the coaches have as tough of a time as fans in getting that ending out of their thoughts?
JOHNSON: Fans and coaches both search for specific answers after a season like we had last year in which only a national championship would satisfy the expectations that grew each week. But sometimes the answers just aren't there. We began the year ranked No. 1, but we realized that put a big target on our backs and we'd have to perform every week because we were going to get everyone's best shot.
And, yes, we thought we were capable of winning every game, but at the same time we were well aware of the odds against doing it — no team was able to do it last year.
But no question the loss in the national championship game hurt. Understandably, it's hard for fans to stop dwelling on it and move on. However, coaches don't have a choice. We have to move on, recruit, refine, continue to develop, to improve, and improvise.
INSIDE OU SPORTS: It's almost inconceivable that one team would win the Heisman, Butkus, Thorpe, Lombardi, Bednarik, O'Brien, and Nagurski all in the same year and place five All Americans on the AP first team. That's a dramatic change in perception from five years ago when this staff took the reigns.
JOHNSON: Yes it is. And to emphasize that point, I cannot ever remember when a team lost its last two games yet finished as the consensus No. 3 team in the country.
INSIDE OU SPORTS: Although the Sooners did not win it all, last season further extended the current belief that Oklahoma is a dominant force on the college football landscape; probably the No. 1 or 2 program in the country right now. Has this general perception translated into recruiting success?
JOHNSON: It most certainly has. The one national championship season in 2000 did not immediately bring recruiting success. It's the consistency of winning and being atop the BCS rankings that reaps the most good. Players now recognize that Oklahoma has a total package unmatched in college football. It's a much easier sell.
Some of that shows in the outstanding class we just signed in February. And, again, we see it now as we get serious inquiries from prospects coast to coast. They're contacting us. And when we do inquire about them, they're flattered that Oklahoma is showing interest. It's a feather in their cap and a huge testimony to their talent to be able to report that the University of Oklahoma coaches are looking at them.
It's all a product of the enormous publicity and exposure the program is now getting, and those individual awards we spoke of a moment ago only underscore that.
INSIDE OU SPORTS: Does going national in recruiting put an additional strain on the coaching staff?
JOHNSON: No, not really. It may actually make it a bit easier. As we begin to look at video and film of prospective recruits in February and March, we know that in most cases we at least have a chance on the great ones. Where some schools may have to look at hundreds of prospects, knowing that they really don't have a very good chance at those kids outside their normal recruiting area.
A lot of the high-profile recruits already have Oklahoma penciled in as a possibility before we ever contact them. In most cases they realize that they possess exceptional ability and they expect to play for one of the elite teams. When we do call they are usually very receptive.
It's actually a very easy sell job. And, really, it's not just football. Take a look around at the entire campus and the university as a whole under President Boren. We sell the total package, and there are not but two or three schools in the country that can match what we have to offer in success, development, tradition, facilities, and academics.
INSIDE OU SPORTS: We just finished spring ball. What were the positives coming out of the spring?
JOHNSON: Well, first of all there were no serious injuries. If you lose a starter to injuries in the spring it can negate an otherwise productive session, and a couple of serious injuries can really get you in trouble.
The play at quarterback from start to finish was very encouraging. We developed some depth and both Paul Thompson and Tommy Grady showed that they are capable if Jason happens to go down. Contrast that with a year ago when we had no idea if Jason could even come back 100 percent and none of our backups had any meaningful experience.
Next, I'd say that the questions at linebacker were answered by the improvement of the entire group. I'm not sure we identified all the starters, but we know from the group that we have what we need to get it done. Brent moved some people around and I think he's pretty happy with the results.
INSIDE OU SPORTS: You probably know more about offensive line play than almost anyone. What's the difference between an adequate offensive line and a dominant line?
JOHNSON: Short-yardage success and probably the ability to blow people off the line and score from inside the 10-yard line – regardless of the opponent. This group has a chance to really play well, but we're still a little thin at the back-up positions. As a whole, they have not progressed to the level of the starters yet.
INSIDE OU SPORTS: How much did the backups progress and did they close the gap a bit?
JOHNSON: (Akim) Millington, (Chris) Messner, (Brett) Rayl, (Antonn) Reid, (Jacob) Flynn and (J.D.) Quinn all got better, and they actually did a pretty good job with pass protection in the spring game. Optimistically, you have to hope that they'll continue to mature, but you have to be patient and keep making progress in small steps.
INSIDE OU SPORTS: Why does it take so long to develop as an offensive lineman?
JOHNSON: The old adage, "It's not the size of the dog in the fight, but rather the size of the fight in the dog," doesn't hold true when speaking of offensive linemen. You really do need good size to play on the offensive line, and on top of that exceptional strength and technique.
It's a natural maturation process that combines all of those attributes, and it can't be rushed. It just takes time to mature physically and to develop the strength to handle a Tommie Harris or a Dusty Dvoracek down after down.
Beyond that, today's offenses require an offensive lineman to be technically balanced. They must pass protect and run block equally well. Pass protection usually develops faster than run blocking; it used to be just the opposite. Those are not the same skills and they just require time to cultivate.
I think we'll be much better than adequate this year. Yet, even when we were not dominant, under this coaching staff the offensive line has had a track record of playing well as a unit every year.
INSIDE OU SPORTS: You said last fall that Chris Bush was a key to the offensive line. Is that still true?
JOHNSON: Yes, Chris is still a valuable commodity because he can play almost every position along the line. That gives a coach a great deal of comfort knowing we have someone that can play very well regardless of the assi
INSIDE OU SPORTS: Does it look like any of the younger defensive linemen might be candidates to make the switch to offense as Jammal Brown did several years ago?
JOHNSON: Probably not. Coach Shipp is pretty protective of his group and thinks that they all can eventually help us on defense. I don't look for any to move; they're all playing pretty well.
INSIDE OU SPORTS: With three seniors and two juniors on the offensive line, is this a year where we might look to bring in a junior college guy?
JOHNSON: It's possible, but unless you know he's going to have a great chance to start right away it's not worth it. Now if you can find a guy that's graduating at semester break and can get him for the spring, that's an added bonus.
But to have someone show up in August and start a month later is a pretty big stretch at this level. That may be something we look at next fall, but I don't think you automatically want to go that route as a first option.
INSIDE OU SPORTS: Every year the offense takes on a slightly different look due to changes in personnel. With almost the entire offense returning, do you expect to see any changes this year?
JOHNSON: We'll probably get more production out of our tight end. Last year we probably didn't utilize the position as much for a couple of reasons. One, Jason was throwing the ball downfield so well. Two, although he was a very good blocker, we didn't have a tight end that had the ability to get open quite as well as in past years.
Bubba Moses is really playing well and (Willie) Roberts and (Joe Jon) Finley have shown they have the ability to make things happen as well.
If teams are playing to stop the run and are also in zone coverage, it can really open up the possibilities for the tight end. In man coverage, the tight end is normally covered by a safety, but in zone the tight end goes up against a linebacker. As a tight end that's the match up that you prefer.
But you have to be balanced. You can get lulled to sleep by an over dependence on the tight end. As an example, we may have made that mistake in the '87 season when we were 11-0 and playing Miami for a national championship. We had built the offense around the tight-end side and had been dominant running to the tight-end side all season -- almost unstoppable.
In the Orange Bowl, however, we faced a more athletic team than we'd seen all year. They were able to stop it, and by the third quarter we realized that what had worked all year was not going to work that night. But we were running out of time and eventually lost the game, 20-14.
INSIDE OU SPORTS: What else would you look for offensively this season?
JOHNSON: I would think that they want to be as balanced as possible. Chuck (Long) and Kevin (Wilson) have done a great job of that and I'd expect it to continue. I know we'll want to have an effective run game. We may see more play-action passes this year, but that's speculation. In my opinion, we probably could have done a bit more of that last year.
I know this: if Paul gets that two spot he'll drive the opponents nuts with fakes. He's learning that it opens up all kinds of possibilities for him and he's worked hard on it. It's becoming a very important part of his game.
INSIDE OU SPORTS: There's a lot of speculation and anticipation about a few incoming freshmen. You were here when the last national No. 1 back showed up in 1982. What was that like?
JOHNSON: We knew Marcus Dupree was an outstanding high-school running back. But, because he was bigger and faster than anyone he played against, we had no idea if he was really going to do the same things in college. Well, he shows up weighing somewhere around 235 and probably running a 4.4 or better, but he was also still showing a bit of baby fat. We were frankly thinking he'd likely redshirt because we knew he couldn't block very well and a wishbone halfback had to block.
Our defense that year was very similar to what we have now. It was dominant -- leading the nation in defense -- and had almost everyone returning for '82.
Marcus lines up in that first scrimmage and goes 60 yards against the No. 1s. Then he does it again. Naturally we're thinking, "Wow," but until we see film we have no idea of what actually happened. It was pretty unbelievable.
We tried to postpone the inevitable for a few weeks. Then, in the Texas game, he goes in after a few series and on his first play we run a sweep with Dupree and he fakes a reverse, goes all the way, touchdown. We upset Texas, 28-22, that day and he had set the tempo.
Marcus started every game afterwards and then we were trying to figure ways we could get this guy that couldn't block a lick the ball, because no one could catch him. If I remember, he had a touchdown run of 60 yards or more in every game except OSU as a freshman. If he would have stayed he could have won two or three Heismans. He was that good.
INSIDE OU SPORTS: Would you be surprised if any of the new kids are that good?
JOHNSON: Extremely surprised.
INSIDE OU SPORTS: As long as there are quarterbacks we'll probably always have a quarterback controversy. You'd think a returning Heisman winner's job is probably pretty safe, but is it reasonable to think we could see earlier substitution at that position in order to rest and protect the starter?
JOHNSON: You can substitute literally everywhere except at that one position. On the defensive line you can do it all day. Receivers are no big deal and you'll want to do it there as well. But quarterback is just so different. Certainly you'd like to rest and protect your starter, but the key is when to substitute and not jeopardize the game. With today's offenses a game can literally turn on one bad play. You sure don't want to have to bring your starter back in to rescue an ugly situation.
INSIDE OU SPORTS: The 2004 schedule looks pretty good now compared to what we may have had just a few months ago.
JOHNSON: Yes, it does, and we need to really be appreciative of the job Joe Castiglione has done in getting us a schedule that can get us enough strength-of-schedule points to play in the national-championship game.
We saw LSU edge out USC last year because of strength of schedule and it won't be the last time it happens to an otherwise deserving team. We started out with three open slots and, believe me, not too many good teams want to come to Norman right now.
INSIDE OU SPORTS: Give us your early scouting report on the three non-conference opponents.
JOHNSON: Any of the three could catch you napping and ruin your season right off the bat.
Bowling Green starts it off and they'll be much better than what we'd like them to be. We know what they've done in the past few years. They humiliated Missouri two years ago when we struggled to beat Mizzou. Last year they went 11-3, beat Purdue, Northwestern, and stayed within a touchdown of Ohio State. They did lose an excellent quarterback, but they have a quality replacement (Florida phenom Omar Jacobs, who is 6-4, 220 pounds). They'll come in here with plenty of weapons to compete with. Their defense is built on speed and quickness and is one of the best in the MAC.
Coach Briles has done a terrific job at Houston. They'll run a wide-open, spread-the-field offense, but at the same time average over 200 yards rushing. Contrast that to Texas Tech where they may average 25 yards rushing a game. The Cougars accomplished all of this last year with a true-freshman quarterback.
They also return nine starters on defense. So, if people think Houston's going to come in here and just roll over they may be in for a shock. They'll be a handful. It may be one of the most entertaining games of the year, and is certainly not a guaranteed win. I would be very surprised if Houston's not a bowl team this year.
Oregon has been a Pac-10 power team the last few seasons. They just missed on a chance to play in the national championship game a couple of years ago. Last year they beat Michigan and went 8-4.
They'll be well coached and their trademark is one of great speed and quickness. This is another team very capable of beating you if you play anywhere less than 100 percent.
Q&A with Merv Johnson
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