Spring Position Preview: Offensive Line

Oklahoma offensive line coach Kevin Wilson says he'll attempt to build his new group around senior Davin Joseph (pictured above) this spring. See inside for Wilson's comments on who might fit in where when spring practice begins in March. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)<br>

NORMAN — When OU offensive line coach Kevin Wilson arrived in 2002, one of the first things he set out to do was to establish a physical presence and identity within the offensive line. The process was slow in coming, but over the last two years the Sooner line has formed into one of the best and most physical units in college football.

"I think we have improved and have played better, but we are still not as good as we can be," said Wilson. "Last year we were pretty good, but there were times that we didn't play as well as we wanted. As a coach, I can always find something that I want improved, but in reality we played well last year and that unit went a long way in establishing a good tradition of what we want to be in the offensive line at OU. Now, the key thing is to continue what we have established over the last two years and work to improve it by the end of the year."

The Sooners graduated three outstanding players from a year ago, and all three played a big role in building the tradition that Coach Wilson so desperately wants to establish. Jammal Brown won the Outland Trophy a year ago and earned first team All-American honors. Vince Carter was a four-year starter and a first-team All-American, and Wes Sims was a four-year starter. All three are expected to be drafted in the upcoming NFL draft, with Brown projected as a first round draft choice.

Oklahoma heads into the spring with three returning starters in seniors Davin Joseph, Kelvin Chaisson and Chris Bush. Bush was considered a starter a year ago as he split time with Chaisson at left guard and started five games. In fact, experience is one of the factors that Coach Wilson likes so much about next year's offensive line.

"I feel pretty good about our situation because we have five seniors, four fifth-year players, except for Davin, who is a fourth-year senior and the best player of the whole group." said Wilson. "Three years ago when I first got here everybody was complaining that our offensive line wasn't any good, but we were all young and we lost a couple of good players. Then, a year ago, we had no seniors. And the year before that, we had (Mike) Skinner and Brad Davis, who had never played. So, this is a much more veteran group and you would like to think that some senior leadership will not be void. There is some talent in our young guys and we have some holes to fill, but I don't think we are void with experience and players who have been a part of our program."

Thus, the Sooner optimism centers on not so much more of a talented group, but a group that understands what it takes to be good.

"I would like to think that we can build on what we have established with David, Chris and Kelvin," said Wilson. "Then we have Brett Rayl, who has been here for five years, and Chris Chester, who has played a lot for us. I am still going to use him in the short-yardage situations, but I am really going to push him hard to see if we can get him to compete to become more of an every day lineman.

"With five guys who understand the standard and how to practice and prepare, we should be better off. From my understanding, Coach (Jerry) Schmidt says in our strength and conditioning program typically the big guys struggle because of all the running and agility groups that we do. But he says this group is really, really doing well. So, even though we are losing great players I think the veteran side of the deal is carrying us right now, and hopefully it will carry us when we get out there and start playing and performing.

"In this off-season development time, we have some players that need to step up. However, it is a little bit better to have some experience or older guys stepping up than first-year rookies."

It seems like every off-season we hear the name of Bret Rayland how he has made a move to challenge for a starting job. That is the case once again, but maybe this time Rayl will really become a factor.

"He has a chance to be a starter," said Wilson. "Physically, he is as good looking as any linemen we have, and he does a great job with his work. Potentially, he is our strongest, biggest and still most athletic lineman. He is a well over a 400-pound bencher, his vertical is 32-inches, and he runs well. He has never produced well as a player, as a young guy. I don't now if it wasn't natural for him or what, but he wasn't as efficient to be as talented as he was. Some guys can run through the cones looking good, but you still have to go out and play.

"There are some guys who are horrible in the lifting programs, but they are good football players. His talent is awfully high and he is working awfully hard. I would like to think that we can get him to click, and maybe he can be a very consistent performer. He has not performed as well as his talent says he should, but maybe with Wes, Jammal and Vince gone he can feel as if he has a better opportunity and things will click for him.

"I know he hasn't done it yet, but he is way too talented to not perform at a high level, and going into his senior year it would be nice to see it finally click for him. I am not putting a bunch of eggs in his basket and saying that he has a job, but we are going to try real hard to get him playing up to his talent level. If we can get him there, then we have a good football player."

Wilson has always said that he will find the five best players among his offensive linemen and then he will figure out their positions and how they will start. He likes to have at least eight players who can play, and he says he can find playing time for eight. As he goes into spring, Wilson is still looking for his starting five and that precious eight.

"With experienced guys, I don't think it is in the best interest to move guys all around, but some guys can handle that better than others," said Wilson. "I think they are mature enough that we can practice Davin at left tackle, yet he might end up being at right guard based on how other guys do. Brandon Braxton played a little more left tackle in high school, but we need to find out if he is a left or a right.

"I think Akim (Millington) feels a little more suited and feels a little more comfortable on the right side. It will be interesting to see when Brandon Keith comes in and where he fits in. We might go into the spring and say that Davin is our best left tackle, but maybe when Brandon or Duke (Robinson) come in and they are good enough to be on the left side, then maybe that frees Davin to move to right tackle or back into right guard."

You also have to throw junior Chris Messner into the tackle race, and if Messner emerges the Sooners may be much deeper with more talented players than they have been in several years. If the tackles can step up, then the Sooners' offensive line should be good because of the experience they return inside. However, finding a starting center is a key.

"I am going to look real hard at Kelvin Chaisson at the center spot," Wilson said. "He is very good at it, but we have not needed him there. He has always been a guy who has snapped, and when we get into our one-on-one drills and our pass pro he has actually shown signs at being really good at that position. Vince had settled into the center spot and he was very consistent there, and I didn't think Vince could go to a different position. We always left Vince at center, but Kelvin might actually be a better center talent than Vince was. Chris Bush has always been a center, and of course we had Chris Chester playing there. We have three guys at center who have talent and we have two really good one's that we signed coming in.

"What we need to do is find a guy that is consistent snapping that ball in the shotgun because as much as we are in that formation we can't be erratic in that area. The center actually throws the ball more than our quarterback does, and even though it is a five-yard exchange if that thing is not consistent it throws off the timing of a number of our plays. Kelvin has played guard and he has played pretty well over there, but he might be our best center. We are going to go into spring and push him pretty hard at that spot."

If Chaisson is able to make the move to center, then that opens the door for Bush to move elsewhere.

"I think that will free Chris Bush to be our left guard with Chris Chester going to center and maybe right guard," Wilson continued. "That is how we will play the inside guys with J.D. Quinn in there behind them. Ben Barresi might be a guard or he might be a tackle, but we are not sure yet. Cameron Schacht is in the same situation, but I think he might be a guard.

"I think our inside guys will be the three seniors (Bush, Chaisson and Chester), and that is not counting Davin Joseph who has been the best guy inside. It will be interesting to see if Kelvin can evolve into becoming a quality center. I have a hunch that he probably can."

After all, if that is where each player ends up playing this is playing spring, who are the likely starters?

"If it is Kelvin or Chester at center, I would like to settle Bush in at left guard," said Wilson. "Then I can leave Chester alone at right guard and make him an emergency back-up center. We have J.D. Quinn in there at right guard and then Schacht at left guard. We will see what happens with Barresi and where he falls. The tackle spot then goes to Davin starting out at left with Akim at right. Messner has played more left, but we might put Messner over at right with Akim and let Braxton settle in there behind Davin as the second team left. That allows us to just see how Akim plays as a starter, how Davin plays on the left side, how far Braxton comes and then we see what Big Duke and big Brandon Keith are when they show up."

The odds are solid that Joseph will prove he can play left tackle. Pro scouts tell Coach Wilson they feel Joseph is an offensive tackle in the pros and high draft choice. In many ways, this spring will provide the building block for the offensive line, but it isn't clear that it will be the finished product. When you have talented players like Keith and Duke coming in the fall, the competition will be far from over.

"That is the unknown. That is why I say that we will come up with something settled coming out of spring, but time will tell during the summer what kind of competition we are going to have in the fall," said Wilson. "We have some very talented players coming in the fall and they will be able to go through our off-season workouts this summer. Another key is how well Braxton continues to develop. I have been told that he is doing great in off-season workouts. Our two young centers are excellent prospects and maybe they can help us right away, and big Brandon Keith will be as athletic as any offensive lineman that we have. Will they be competitive early with their conditioning level, work ethic? And how long will it take them to be our style of guys and our kind of guys?"

Braxton was measured at 6-foot-7 by Coach Schmidt, which means he is bigger than both Sims and Brown. He is a good athlete with quick feet. Braxton showed up at 338 pounds and he is already down to 322. So, the odds are he will be in shape when spring drills get underway.

Thus the cupboard is not bare for Wilson in the spring. He has another star to build the offensive line around in Joseph and will work to get him at left tackle, the most difficult position on the offensive line. He has two other experienced players in Chaisson and Bush. If Chaisson can play center, that frees up left guard for Bush and the left side of the line is set. It is time for Millington to show if he is the real deal or not, and Chester finally has a chance to become a starter.

On top of that, the spring will give us a look at the future as Braxton and Barresi give it their first go as Sooners, and Quinn and Schacht will try to establish their position among the main group. Rayl could upset the best laid plans and become that starter at right guard if he plays up to his potential. And then this fall, Robinson and Keith could prove to be to good to leave off the field when they show up in the summer.

Yes, there are number of questions within the offensive line, but the talent is there to be very good again. Finally, Coach Wilson is beginning to get some depth as he will have 10 scholarship offensive linemen in the spring and with five more coming in the fall he. Thus, he will finally have 15 offensive linemen on scholarship.

On paper, the future looks good in the offensive line. And after the spring, we should have an idea how things are going to shake out in the fall, but the starting lineup will not be set in stone.

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