Breaking down the offensive line

See inside for an early look at how the offensive line might shape up next fall, including quotes from offensive line coach James Patton, senior tackle Chris Messner and sophomore guard Duke Robinson (pictured above).

The Oklahoma Sooners are earning early praise among all the preseason football publications. Athlon's is always the first publication out and they have the Sooners ranked No. 1, and OU won't be too far off that mark in every other poll that comes out. And even in our own Sooners Illustrated poll, I bet the Sooners are in the top five.

Oklahoma is receiving high rankings early because of the return of Heisman Trophy candidate running back Adrian Peterson, and the expected improvement of super talented quarterback Rhett Bomar. Plus, the Sooners young wide receiver corps will be a year older. And with talented newcomers Adron Tennell and Brandon Caleb coming in the cupboard is well-stocked. The Sooners do have a bit of a question at fullback and tight end, but at the same time Joe Jon Finley has a chance to be a star.

On defense, the Sooners are loaded at defensive end, have budding superstars at defensive tackle, posses another Butkus Award candidate at linebacker and a secondary that looked super in the spring.

The only unit on the whole team that I didn't mention was the offensive, line and that is because by most accounts it is up front where most people feel the Sooners weak link lies and where they could stumble this season.

While I can understand why people think that, I am also not one who believes that. I don't feel the offensive line is going to struggle this year, and I don't feel it will be a weak link. In fact, new offensive line coach James Patton has had great success with his offensive lines at Northwestern. And new OU offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson proved to be such a darn good offensive line coach that I will just take my chances in saying that the O-line is going to turn out pretty good this year.

I realize that first round draft choice Davin Joseph and second round choice Chris Chester, along with two other seniors who signed free agent NFL contracts are gone, but I also know that the next wave of great talented offensive linemen are ready to step up.

Throughout the spring, coach Patton and coach Wilson said repeatedly that while the O-line was thin, it was not void of talent. Senior Chris Messner has made himself into a solid offensive lineman, and while he is not as talented as Joseph or Chester he is more fundamentally sound than both.

"I have worked hard throughout my career to become a good offensive tackle," said Messner in the spring. "I think I am more athletic than people give me credit for, but most of all I have just worked to make sure that I know what I am doing out there. And if I do what I am coached, then things are going to work out for me."

Messner gave up just one sack in 12 games, eight of which were as a starter. And the fact that he knows he will be the starter going into his senior season will make him a better player.

"Even though I am moving over to left tackle, I got every rep it seemed in the spring and that made me a better player," said Messner. "Coach Patton told us to take advantage of the fact we were getting every rep, and that is what I tried to do. The more reps a player gets the better off he is going to be, which is why I feel our offensive line is going to be a good offensive line next season. We worked hard in the spring and that is going to pay off for us in the fall."

What has coach Patton and coach Wilson so excited is the enormous talent of sophomores Duke Robinson, Branndon Braxton, Jon Cooper and J.D. Quinn. Coach Wilson said recently on WWLS radio that this group shows the same type of talent that Joseph and Jammal Brown showed when they were sophomores.

Patton was at Northwestern when Joseph and Brown were sophomore's, but considering he has sent an offensive lineman to the pros every year that he coached at Northwestern, he knows a good player when he sees one.

"I think we have some real talented athletes in the offensive line, and they will only get better the more reps they get," said Patton during spring practice. "I know we are not very deep. And in fact, I have never worked with an offensive line this thin. I have told the group that they need to take advantage of the fact that they are getting so many reps, and work on each rep to become a better football player. We have some talented players coming in the fall, but for these six players this has been a great situation for them. I think they have improved because of it."

If OU had to start a game based on spring football only, the Sooners' would line-up with LT Chris Messner, LG Duke Robinson, OC Sherrone Moore, RG Brian Simmons and RT Branndon Braxton. I put Moore at center, despite the fact that Cameron Schacht played there once Chad Roark left the team. Schacht has shown great improvement, but he is still only 275 pounds and I just think if they had to play today they would get Moore up to speed at center and he would get the call.

But come fall the O-line will not look like this at all. And without question, it will be better than the offensive line that played in the spring.

Sophomore center Jon Cooper is getting healthy and by the time preseason practice rolls around, he will be ready to practice. The coaches will be careful with him, meaning they will hold him out of a practice or two just to make sure the ankle stays sound. But they know if he can stay healthy he has a chance to be one of the best centers in the country. A healthy Cooper will be the starting center.

Redshirt freshman Ben Baressi was having a good camp until he suffered an inner-ear infection that cost him three weeks of the spring. The Sooner coaches did not get a good look at him and thus he is still listed in the potential category. However, with Jesse White's career apparently over before it ever started due to lower back and hip problems, Baressi has a great chance to be the back-up center next season if he can stay healthy and get after it in preseason camp. Baressi will also be a candidate to earn a back-up guard spot.

Also returning in preseason camp is sophomore J.D. Quinn, who missed all of spring thanks to shoulder surgery. Quinn is a winning football player who is a good old fashioned tough as nails offensive lineman. He played in 11 games last year and started in four, and was named to the Sporting News All Big-12 Freshman Team.

Simmons and Moore split time at right guard in the spring with Moore also getting a little work at left guard. The coaches not only trust Quinn, but like him as a player. He will return in August and immediately step in and compete with Simmons, Moore and Brandon Walker for a starting spot at right guard. The best man will win the job and whoever losses out on the starting job will probably be good enough to earn some reps every game.

There are two other factors that will make guard worth watching in preseason camp. One will be the arrival of Junior College All-American Brandon Walker, who was rated the No. 2 offensive lineman in the country out of Coffeyville Community College. Walker will be in Norman in June. He will enroll in summer school and get to work in Coach Schmidt's summer workout program.

If Walker is as good as advertised, he is going to be hard to keep out of the line-up. However, he will have a battle on his hands as Simmons was so impressive that he drew rave reviews coming out of the spring. The OU coaches have the same high hopes for Simmons at guard that they had for Joseph when he moved over from defense. In Quinn, they have a player they really trust. And in Moore they have a very good player who needs to get bigger and stronger, but who is very productive in his play.

Of course, there are only two guard positions and one or two of these players could move over to left guard where Duke Robinson is the starter. Robinson just might be the most talented player on the O-line now that he has got himself into shape, and that will only improve this summer.

Robinson has the potential to be a force, and he had a great spring. Right now is in entrenched in the starting line-up at left guard and it will take a great effort by somebody else to beat him out. Robinson will be pushed by either Walker, Quinn, Moore or Simmons, but he believes he is the best of the bunch.

"I am going to be the starting left guard. You can book it," said Robinson in the spring. "Nobody is going to move me out of my position. Now that I have my weight down and now that I have seen what I can do, I am going to push myself even harder this summer. I want to be a great player and I am going to work hard to become a great player."

The second factor that could affect Robinson's status is the fact that he showed enough talent in the spring to be a darn good tackle. Right now the O-line does not have a lot of young tackles in the program. Sophomore Branndon Braxton is as athletic as Robinson and is the solid starter at right tackle, unless Robinson could prove to be better. Robinson worked a little at left tackle in the spring and a decision will be made early in preseason camp whether to give him more reps at tackle.

Right now the thought is that Robinson is best served at guard, but again coach Patton will play his five best players. But at the same time he also has to think ahead to the future, so Robinson may be a guard next season with the thought that he could be a great tackle down the line. It is not totally out of the question that Robinson could be the third tackle and be used in a solid rotation at tackle.

Another factor in that decision will be the development of Walker, and the talent of true freshmen Trent Williams, Cory Brandon and Curtis Bailey. All three into the OU program as projected tackles and just how good they are may determine Robinson's future. OU needs some good young offensive tackles in the program and hopefully among these three Patton can find some.

My projected starters in the offensive line in the fall are LT Chris Messner, LG Duke Robinson, OC Jon Cooper, RG Brandon Walker/Brian Simmons and RT Branndon Braxton. Wilson used to always say that he likes to go into the season with eight guys good enough to start, and since Coach Patton is very much like his former mentor it would appear that Simmons and Quinn will get the early nods as super subs. And the Sooners will search for the eighth player in preseason camp.

If the offensive line is the weak link to the Sooner football team in the fall, then OU just might be the best college football team in the country.

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