OU's line suffering from a run of bad luck

See inside for a detailed look back at just what happened to Oklahoma's offensive line.

One of the biggest issues with the OU Football team this year is the lack of numbers along the offensive line. This season has been directly effected by two starters walking away from the Sooner program just two days before the start of the season, and their struggles to try to make up for those two starters.

Of course, common sense will tell you that any team is going to struggle if they lose two starters among the offensive line in any season. Some teams will handle it better than others, but losing two starters on the offensive line will effect your football team at any level.

Before I go any further, I want to point out that I say two starters, because in Akim Millington you had a player who was slated to start the opening game this season against TCU. And in Brandon Keith, you had a player called one of the best talents ever recruited in the offensive line since Bob Stoops was named head coach in 1999.

So, you have to figure that eventually if Keith had decided to play he would have worked his way into the starting lin-up, or he certainly would have been the guy to step in for Millington. Either way, I look it as two starters in the offensive line who decided game week to leave the program, both for different reasons.

Of course, this followed an apparent trend within the offensive line of players leaving the OU program for one reason or another since Coach Stoops has been at Oklahoma. None of the players were of the caliber of Millington or Ketih, but for one reason or another the Sooners never have been able to build up their numbers in the offensive line. And thus, they haven't always had the depth to cover up for the loss of one starter and certainly not two they way they would like.

Why has there been so much attrition within the offensive line? There are all kinds of theories out there and most of them lay blame with a too aggressive off-season program, too aggressive offensive line coach or to a lack of compassion from the head coach. All of which I say is totally wrong, or at least partially wrong.

In each individual case, you might find a part of any of the three so-called issues in play, but for the most part you find each athlete left because he either couldn't stay eligible, lost his desire to play the game, violated team policy or because he just figured he wasn't every going to play at OU.

The Sooners got behind the eight ball in Coach Stoops' first year when then offensive line coach, Mark Mangino, decided to not offer any of the offensive linemen that the Sooners were recruiting at the time under the former staff of John Blake. Due to this decision, it would take years for the Sooners to recover from a numbers standpoint in the offensive line, and in many ways they have never recovered.

Most teams have at least 15 scholarship offensive linemen on campus, and if Millington and Keith had stayed with the program things were going to be all right at this point. OU knew that they were going to graduate five offensive linemen this year, but they felt good going into next spring with nine solid offensive linemen on scholarship knowing that five or six more would be on the way from the 2006 recruiting class. Now, they will have only seven scholarship offensive linemen going into the spring, which proves just how quickly a good situation can turn into a bad one.

What really happened with many of the offensive linemen who left the program? We look back at as many as we can to try to find out the real reasons why players left the program.

The first two offensive linemen of note to leave the OU program did so when Coach Mangino was still the offensive line coach. OU wanted to reload in a hurry in the offensive line, and looked to the Juco ranks to do so. Jon Hawk and Clint Werth were two of the best junior college offensive linemen in the country, and the Sooners signed them both. However, neither player ever made it out through the summer workout program.

Both cited that the program was too tough and both went back to junior college before Werth eventually transferred to Colorado and Hawk to Wyoming. That year no other players quit during the Sooner summer workouts, including the likes of walk-on offensive lineman Bubba Burcham, who would go on to be the starting center for the 2000 National Champion team. Those early workouts under the guidance of Strength and Conditioning Coach Jerry Schmidt are considered the workouts that laid the foundation for the Sooners' success during the Stoops era, including the National Championship year.

The last recruiting class under Mangino, which is the one that current offensive line coach Kevin Wilson inherited, consisted of Chris Messner, Abner Estrada, Jeff Lebby and Steve Taylor.

Messner has stuck with the program and is now the starting right tackle as a junior. Lebby was considered one of the best offensive linemen in Texas coming out of high school, but a neck injury forced him to medical his first year. The first day after the bad news, he joined the Sooner coaching staff as a student assistant and has been a part of the coaching staff ever since.

Estrada showed some promise his freshman year and actually play during his freshman year. However, it was well-known that Estrada didn't like school and he didn't like to workout during the off-season, and early in the summer he decided he didn't want to play football any more. He has never found the itch to return to the game, as he never transferred to another school. And he has never tried to play football again joining the work force back in his hometown instead.

Steve Taylor stuck with the program for one year, but realized he was going to have to work incredibly hard to play at Oklahoma. So instead of staying with the program trying to improve, he decided before the start of the summer workout program that he was going to transfer to Wyoming saying that he was going to learn how to be a welder. Taylor never played football at Wyoming.

Another offensive lineman I want to throw in here that tried to play, but lost his battle to injury was Jerrod Fields. Fields was with the program in 2000, 2001 and played against Missouri in 2002, but eventually had to give up the game due to back problems.

The first class recruited by Coach Wilson in 2005 was Akim Millington, Ryan Schuler, Brian Zimple, Antonn Reid and Brandon Keith. On paper, this recruiting class was shaping up to be a great one. Schuler and Millington were regarded as two of the top 15 offensive tackles in the country, and Zimple and Keith were the top two offensive line prospects in state.

This class totally flopped. Schuler was the first to commit, but he never made it to OU. I went ahead and included him in this group because his defection to Nebraska certainly put a negative connotation on this group. He was committed to OU until two weeks before signing day when his mother said that the Lord had sent a sign that her son indicating that he should play at Nebraska. That was quite a blow to the Sooner recruiting class that year. As it turned out, Schuler never really played at Nebraska as he had to medical due to an injury.

Of course, Millington's defection is wel- documented, as he left right on the verge of starting. Maybe we should have seen this coming when Millington quit the team for three weeks during the summer leading up to the 2005 season. It is not unusual for a player to get frustrated in the summer and leave for a day or two, but they don't normally stay away for three weeks.

Coach Schmidt and the OU coaches let him back on the team at that point. Then Millington left before the TCU game, because he didn't like sharing reps with Messner during game week. Up until that time, Millington was considered the Sooners up-and-coming star in the offensive line and he was expected to be a fixture at right tackle for three seasons. Instead, the Sooners best laid plans for the offensive line were blown to pieces and that played a big part in their loss to TCU.

By the weekend, Millington had realized that he had made a foolish mistake and he asked to be reinstated back on the team. Coach Stoops agreed to let him back on the team, but when a player quits and then asks to come back, it goes without saying that he has to earn his way back on the team.

The following Monday, Millington returned to practice. But as you might expect, he worked with the scout team, which is the expected punishment for a guy who let his entire team down by quitting during the opening game week. He quits the team, the team loses, and he expects to step right back into the starting line-up? I mean, what is he thinking?

Following that practice the OU players held a team meeting and a lot of things were said at that meeting. The team captains called out Millington for his lack of dedication to the program. He was challenged to make a commitment to the program and to dedicate himself to the program. His own roommate, Davin Joseph, told him to shape up or quit. The next day Millington quit the program for a second time.

Zimple was dismissed from the team after his first semester because of academic problems and off-the-field problems. It was decided that his scholarship was not going to be renewed at Oklahoma and he decided to transfer to Independence Junior College, where he has been a starter for two years.

Keith was signed with the understanding that he wasn't going to qualify. OU wanted him to know that they wanted him back if he was able to graduate from junior college and they helped place him at NEO. Reid was signed as a last minute replacement for Schuler. At that point, OU was looking for another player to throw into the OL mix and they knew they had to role the dice on somebody.

Coach Wilson chose Reid over Ian Cunningham, who said at the time he liked OU a great deal. However, OU liked Reid better and Cunningham, who eventually signed with Virginia. Cunningham played a little as a freshman at Virginia, and he is currently a junior backing up a freshman at offensive guard.

The next recruiting class with Coach Wilson on staff was Randy McAdams, Cameron Schacht, J.D. Quinn and Branndon Braxton.

McAdams was not a highly rated player, but he was tall and athletic and the Sooners took a chance on him hoping to develop him for the future. McAdams was not a hard worker and when challenged to work harder before the start of the second semester, he decided to quit the program. He transferred to Texas State and also quit the football program there.

Schacht and Quinn committed very early in the summer of 2004, both out of the state of Texas. Quinn is currently playing part-time at right guard. Schacht quit the team during two-a-days this year and also left for a brief period during the summer. Before the team broke camp, he asked for another chance be reinstated to the team. He is more or less on probation, but he is going through workouts and he works mostly on the scout team. Schacht still needs to get bigger and stronger as he currently weights 265 pounds.

Braxton failed to qualify his first year out of high school, but to his credit he moved to Norman anyway, continued to take the ACT, which he eventually passed and he is currently playing this season at right tackle. Braxton has started three games and he is currently the back-up right tackle behind Messner. His future is very bright.

Then, of course, last year the Sooners went out and signed Jon Cooper, Duke Robinson, Ben Barresi, Jesse White, Keith, and Braxton actually falls into this class. This is the best recruiting OL group under Wilson yet, proving that OU is recruiting better athletes in the OL with each class.

Keith wanted to play at Oklahoma all his life and worked hard academically at NEO to make it to OU. He had to go to summer school and then once at OU he enrolled in intersession courses. He did a great job academically over the summer and once at OU did a great job in the Sooner summer workout program.

Based on his work in the summer everything looked great for Keith until practice started. Keith become frustrated when he didn't work on the first or second unit the first couple of days of training camp, but on the third day he was told that he would be running with the number one's and two's and given his opportunity to earn a starting job. After that meeting, he went AWOL and the Sooners didn't see him for two weeks.

Keith was going through a tough time emotionally. He had lost a grandmother and uncle, who he was very close to. Also, Keith had a girlfriend who didn't want him at OU and that girlfriend had more influence on him than the OU coaches or his personal family.

Despite the family's objection, Keith decided to quit the team and asked to be released from his scholarship. The family knew he was making a major mistake. Keith doesn't come from much and they know that a full scholarship and expected playing time at Oklahoma could set him up for life.

The University of Oklahoma agreed with the family's assessment. When his request went before the University board that handles such requests, Keith was denied that request. The University deemed that he didn't have enough reason to transfer and thus Keith couldn't transfer.

The OU coaches stuck with Keith counseling him and working with him in any way they could. They didn't push him to return to the team instead, telling him to get adjusted to college life and to return to the team when he felt he was ready. Keith eventually returned to the team working out for two days, only to later quit one day after Millington.

Keith is currently going to school at OU, on scholarship, and there is no word if he is going to transfer to play football again. Millington says he has no interest in football any more, and he is currently trying to decide what to do.

Reportedly, former OU quarterback Tommy Grady has called Millington about transferring to Utah to play football with him. Again, there is no word if Millington is looking to do that. He is already a redshirt junior and if he decides to transfer to D-1, he will have to sit out next season leaving him with only one year to play. Keith is in worse shape, as he is using his redshirt year this year and he will also lose one year when he transfers leaving him only one year to play.

Both players have cost themsleves a chance at careers in the NFL over emotional outbursts and bad decisions. It is unbelievable what they have decided to do.

Cooper is doing well and is splitting time with Quinn at right guard. Cooper is considered a future star, while Robinson and Braxton get the same high marks as well. Barresi is redshirting, but Coach Wilson likes his athletic ability and fight, and feels he is going to be a good one.

White is redshirting as well, but he is currently suffering from a back injury that will knock him out of action for two weeks. However, Wilson also likes his future as a center and he believes he is going to be a good player at OU.

In all, since Coach Stoops has been at OU the Sooners have lost 10 offensive linemen due to injury or quitting the program. That is 10 players in seven years, which when you really think about it is not so bad if you are signing five offensive lineman a year go boost your numbers. However, the Sooners haven't been able to sign that many and that has hurt their ability to overcome a numbers crunch such as they are going through right now.

If Lebby and Fields were healthy you would be talking about two additional starting players. And in Lebby, you would have been bragging about an all Big 12 guard and debating what round he was going to go in the next NFL draft. The fact that both were injured has nothing to do with anything but bad luck.

For the rest of the players, they always have reasons why they quit. Yes, some blame the toughness of the summer workouts, some want to say the coaches were to tough on them and some want to say they weren't given a fair shot. However, the bottom line on all of them is that they were going through the same program as everybody else and the majority of the team is not quitting.

For every offensive lineman who quit, saying that Coach Wilson is too tough, you have others who love him, play hard for him and after graduation still call him once or twice a week.

The second person that Wes Sims called after he learned that he was promoted to the active roster of the San Diego Chargers recently was Coach Wilson. I mean, hey, big Wes is always going to call mom and dad first, right? Jammal Brown, Vince Carter and many other former offensive linemen at OU stay in touch with Coach Wilson all the time.

There is no question that he is a tough coach and he works his players hard, but he doesn't work them any harder than any other offensive line coach I have been around. He is pretty typical with the others that I have watched, and that includes Merv Johnson and Mangino — two of the best offensive line coaches ever at OU.

Coach Wilson is not out of line at all in how he applies his discipline and coaching techniques, but some players can't handle any discipline or any coaching period. That has been the case with most of the offensive linemen who have quit the program.

The summer workout program at OU is a program that is going to challenge the athlete. It is designed to improve the athletic ability of each and every player, and to get him into the best possible shape for the upcoming season. Every D-1 college football program in the country has a summer off-season program that is supposedly voluntary for the athlete to attend, but in reality it is mandatory to attend. Every college feels their summer program is the best and all will brag on their program before the year is over.

The OU program under Jerry Schmidt is considered one of the nation's best and is recognized by most other programs as well. In fact, every year Coach Schmidt answers questions from strength and conditioning coaches from all over the country that want to pick his brain about his innovative methods. Every year Coach Schmidt has had offers to leave the OU program, not only from other D-1 colleges, but from the NFL as well. And fortunately for the Sooners, he has always decided to stay.

His program is tough, but it is well thought out and idesigned with different athletes at different positions in mind. No single athlete is asked to do more in the program than any other athlete, so why one athlete struggles within the program is always an individual problem.

"The basics of our program are that we work hard as a team," said Coach Schmidt recently after practice. "If they work at it as a team they get in there and see each other working and it motivates them to do the best they can. We always bring the offensive line in together as a group and we are working on shorter stuff, because their movements are explosive at the point of attack. What happens there and what their position calls for is for them to come off the ball, have really quick feet and for 10 yards to be able to be explosive play after play after play."

"So we are very demanding on what they do as far as explosiveness, their agility and all that stuff. But as far as being more demanding on them than other positions?" asked Schmidt. "No, we just gear what are doing in our workouts to what they are doing in the field. We are going to take our offensive linemen and consistently work every day on just getting stronger, more explosive and getting better at the things they need to do throughout the off-season to help them out on the field.

"We are not requiring any one position to do any more than anybody else. It is just a matter of having some toughness and the will to develop, like a Jammal Brown or a Matt O'Neal when I first got here. We did a lot more long distance running when I first got here for guys, like Matt and Bubba Burcham. Since then, the guys that have come through here are a lot more athletic like Jammal and Davin Joseph, so it is just a matter of putting your head down, gritting your teeth and becoming mentally tougher. As a young player, they need to get tougher and become more physical."

What irks Coach Schmidt is that there are so many positive offensive linemen stories within the summer workout program, yet most people want to focus on the one or two athletes who didn't cut it or decided they didn't want to go through it.

"Look at Brett Rayl, who is now is in his fifth year. He has been able to handle our program at a very high level," said Schmidt. "He had some dehydration stuff this summer, but up until that point he is a guy who has been able to handle the volume that we have had. What impresses me about Brett is that he knew what it was going to take coming in and knew how to handle it. His workouts never wavered, even though he has never really been a starter in our program. I always admire guys who realize it is a great privilege to be a part of this team and they work like they are supposed to, without complaint, because they want to be apart of this team."

"Like I said, it just takes some mental toughness. That is all football is," Schmidt continued. "You have to have a little bit of mental toughness, especially up front, in the offensive line. If you have some toughness mentally and have some good feet you are going to pretty well in the offensive line. We are going to work them hard, reach new levels because our goals are to win championships here.

"Take a guy like Jammal, who came in here as a defensive lineman and was overweight at first. However, he got his weight down just through working hard, as he accepted and bought into the program and lost the weight. He got his feet quicker, got an explosive punch and now he is the Outland Trophy winner, No. 1 pick in the NFL and a starter for the New Orleans Saints. Some guys are not going to be as athletic as Jammal, but every one of those offensive linemen that go through our program and want to get better will. It is just a matter of having mental toughness and wanting to improve."

There is no question that the summer conditioning program is tougher on big guys, and that includes defensive lineman as well. Let's face the facts, it's the skill athletes who are used to running all the time and that is their game, while the big guys are use to hand-to-hand combat and explosive movements at the line of scrimmage. So any kind of running, whether a 40-yard dash or three mile run is, is going to be tougher on a big guy than a skill athlete.

It goes without saying that all the big guys struggle with the running program in the summer. Coach Schmidt has tailored the workouts for the big guys to the point that they are not doing as much running as in the past, choosing instead to work on movements that will make them more successful.

The workouts are tough, but tougher on one athlete more than the other? If that is the case, then that is the problem of that one individual who just didn't like the workouts and not a fault of Coach Schmidt for running the program as he does. If a player quits because of the summer workout program, then it is his fault and he can't blame anybody else. Too many players make it and get better to let one or two players who fail because they don't make it to say that the program is to hard or barbaric.

One thing that has really hurt the Sooners' recruiting of the elite OL for some time was the fact there didn't appear to be any room for playing time. For three straight years, Coach Wilson basically played Wes Sims, Jammal Brown, Vince Carter, Kelvin Chaisson, Davin Joseph and Chris Bush along the OL. Sims, Brown, Carter and Joseph were all high profile guys in college football and recruits didn't see any way they could make an immediate impact. Even on the OL, an elite recruits' desire to go to a program where they can make an immediate impact. And starting in 2002, that wasn't really available.

If you notice last year, and even the year before, elite OL recruits started to show more interest in OU because they knew that core group for the Sooners would soon be graduating opening up early opportunities for playing time. That certainly paid off for the Sooners last year in the recruitment of Robinson, Cooper and Braxton. Sticking with that same thinking, OU should be able to bring in a great class of OL recruits in 2006 because there is still immediate opportunity along the OL.

What is the answer to all this? There are always a number of factors why a player quits a program and there are always to sides to every story as well. However, in most cases involving the OU offensive linemen who left they left early in their career once they realized they weren't going to play, or when they realized they didn't want to put in the work that it takes to be an Oklahoma football player, never mind that of an offensive lineman.

The problem with the majority of these cases does not rest with the coaching of Kevin Wilson or Jerry Schmidt. Each coach on the Sooner staff has players that love them, not love them as much, and even a few players will not like their position coach.

So, no matter who the Sooners recruit they are rolling the dice somewhat. How do you know what the character a certain player is going to be? Coaches today don't get the opportunity to get to know recruits like they once did. So, coaches talk to high schools coaches, counselors and anybody they can to get to know the character of a recruit, but there is still a risk involved when you sign a player that he may not be tough enough mentally to play college football.

To offset the possible defection in the future, Oklahoma will start recruiting more offensive linemen in each class. This year OU hopes to sign at least eight offensive linemen, with as many as two to three junior college players among that group.

I also think OU will start recruiting more in-state offensive linemen and more offensive linemen, who have grown up with Oklahoma football and who understand the heat in the summer and what it is like to workout in it.

Of course, the local athlete must have talent, but it makes sense for OU to still go after the elite offensive linemen nationwide, but to always hold a scholarship or two for the top offensive line talents in-state.

It hasn't helped the Sooners that for the last several years the state of Oklahoma has not produced an elite offensive lineman. There have been a number of good offensive linemen to come out of Oklahoma the last several years, but not a national type. Remember, Lawton native Jammal Brown was a highly rated defensive lineman.

The Sooner coaching staff is concerned about their lack of numbers in the offensive line. They know in most cases they couldn't do anything about the guys who decided to leave, but they can do something about the alternatives when those players do decide to leave, and that those subtle changes are what we will see in OU's recruiting in the future.

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