In 2006, Oklahoma's young offensive line came of age during the second half of the season. By the end of year it was considered one of the team's greatest strengths. With only one senior starter — Chris Messner — four sophomores and one freshman joined in to block well enough for Oklahoma to average 368.7 yards of offense and average 30 points per game.
There were growing pains that come with a young offensive line, but they blocked well enough to win a Big 12 Championship and qualify for a BCS bowl. The offensive line, unfortunately, didn't finish the season on a great note with their average play in the Fiesta Bowl, but with six players returning who have started at least one game, and a JUCO All-American joining the squad in time for spring practice, the Sooners appear to be building an offensive line with the potential to dominate opponents.
"I am excited about the players that we have coming back," said offensive line coach James Patton. "Branndon Braxton (6-6, 312) was having a great season until he broke his leg in the Colorado game. Trent Williams (6-5, 321) stepped in for him as a true freshman and started and played well. Branndon won't be able to go in the spring, but when he returns he and Trent will be at right tackle. Then Brandon Walker (6-3, 306) started at right guard and Brian Simmons (6-4, 293) played a lot after he got healthy.
"At center, Jon Cooper (6-2, 285) started most of the games, but Chase Beeler (6-3, 276) started against Middle Tennessee State as a true freshman and obviously played more during the season. At left guard, Duke Robinson (6-5, 330) played well for us and Sherrone Moore (6-3, 297) played a little bit. At left tackle, you have Cory Brandon (6-7, 290), who played until he got hurt and big Phil Loadholt (6-9, 360) is coming in.
"Our starting front there has a number of different players. You have Branndon Braxton, Trent Williams, Brandon Walker, Jon Cooper, Chase Beeler and Duke Robinson, who are all quality guys coming back with starting experience. Branndon Braxton and Trent can play both tackle positions and Chase can play both center and guard. Duke can swing to tackle, and he played some at tackle last year. So we have some versatility in our offensive line and most of our guys can play two positions."
While most of the returning players do have experience, a priority in the spring will be to make sure they don't rest on their laurels.
"There are no guarantees in college football, and that is why we are going to have a great spring practice," said Patton. "We have evaluated what happened this season, about who played, and who played the best and who didn't. We have an idea where guys need to go and that will be the focus this offseason that we hope we can carry into spring ball. We want to see who will compete every day, who has the best practices and, ultimately, when we go to scrimmages to see who plays the best."
Overall, the numbers in the offensive won't be up to par in the spring and won't be corrected until two more recruiting classes get on campus, but developing quality depth remains a priority.
"When I got here last February our depth situation wasn't as good," said Patton. "Now we had a bunch of guys play this year from true freshmen and sophomore guys getting their first starts. So going into spring, we are going to have a lot of competition. I think the biggest thing is that even though there are some guys who have started this year there are other guys who played a lot like Brian Simmons, who got hurt early in the season. All those guys from Chase Beeler, Brian, and all those guys who played this year should make for great competition in the spring."
The injury to Braxton opened the door for Williams this past season and with Braxton out for the spring and Messner graduating, there is another opportunity at offensive tackle.
"Big Phil Loadholt is one of the biggest kids I have ever coached," said Patton. "He has tons of talent. He is a junior college kid, so he has a couple of years here to make his mark. This spring is huge for him. He is a tackle that can play both on the left and right side. Most of our tackles can play both sides and are pretty flexible at that. We will come in here at left tackle, but he could play either side.
"Cory (Brandon) did a great job for us this past season. Cory had surgery on his knee early in the season so he is definitely going to be back for spring ball. I am definitely looking forward to working with him again. He is a guy who played this year early and when he got hurt he redshirted. Shoot, he has a lot of talent and I am looking forward to him getting involved in the competition at left tackle."
Braxton will be able to return in the summer and go through a part of the summer conditioning program. In the meantime, he is doing everything possible to speed up his recovery.
"Branndon is doing great," said Patton. "Again, he has gotten in the weight room with coach (Jerry) Schmidt and he has really developed his upper body while mending that broken leg. He is doing great and his rehab is going great. He is beginning to run a little bit and he can't wait to get back on the field."
Still, the offensive lineman with the most potential is Duke Robinson. The giant offensive guard became a tremendous run blocker as the season progressed and he improved on his pass blocking as well. Robinson knows that a great spring could catapult him to an All-American level.
"I think I have the ability to be the best offensive lineman in the country," said Robinson. "I would be cheating myself if I didn't think that way. I know I have the ability to get better and I have learned what I need to do to get better. I need to get busy during this offseason and then have a great spring. In the spring, I have to get better at fundamentals and continue to play aggressive. I think we have a great offensive line, but we all know we need to step it up and get better."
Walker has had minor knee surgery which will limit his action in the spring. That will give Simmons and Beeler a chance to show what they can at right guard. Beeler will also work at center and left guard.
"I think competition is your best motivator," said Patton. "When guys are competitive and they have guys sitting behind them who want to play and who want to start, you can't ask for a better situation than that. That is the main thing — you want guys who want to compete and who want to get better."
Last spring, Patton was working with players who had very little starting experience. That isn't the case this spring, but in many ways how the offensive line works this spring won't be any different.
"The approach in every spring going into every season is that you want to compete and you want to be the best," said Patton. "You just don't go out there to play and put the pads on and play backyard football. You are going out there to compete. Whether it is against our defense and our defensive players in the spring, or whether you are going out there and competing in the fall and playing games, the approach for our players is to go out there every day and get better. If you waste reps and you waste opportunities in the spring you are not going to be better in the fall.
"That is where my challenge will come in those guys in the spring, because there are a lot of things they have to get better on and those will be the things that we pointed out during the season that they didn't do well. That will be the main focus in the spring is every guy improving on what they didn't do well in the fall."
Enid, Okla., freshman Kody Cooke (6-5, 285) will also join the offensive line this spring. Cooke will work at both guard and tackle. Also look for Noah Hughey (6-3, 270) to also provide depth in the spring.
Redshirt freshman Curtis Bailey has back problems and will medical hardship, meaning he will have to give up on his dreams of playing college football at OU. However, he will continue to work with the program as a student assistant coach and continue on get his education.
Spring Position Preview: Offensive Line
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