Oklahoma Overview and Offensive Preview

After losing Adrian Peterson and senior quarterback Paul Thompson last season, the Oklahoma coaching staff will have some work to do to make sure the offensive continuity stays in place in Norman this year, however the cupboard is far from bare at Oklahoma as Lawlor talks about in this season preview.

Overview

The Sooners are one of the most talented teams in the country. If some young players step-up and a quarterback emerges, Oklahoma should compete for the Big 12 title and even a national championship.

Oklahoma went 11-3 last year, including heartbreaking losses to Oregon and Boise State. That was a young team breaking in a new quarterback. The 2007 team should be even better.

Most of the starters from last year are back. There are holes at quarterback, left tackle, linebacker and defensive end, but the Sooners feel they have capable replacements at each spot. While you don't replace running back Adrian Peterson or linebacker Rufus Alexander with ease, you also have to factor in all the young guys who got experience last year and should be even better this season.

The offense has an elite wide receiver, a running back just a notch below that, and a good offensive line. They should be able to move the ball and score points. Head Coach Bob Stoops will be breaking in a new starting quarterback, but he's done that before and had some good success in those situations.

One of the keys is that Oklahoma doesn't require its offense to win many games. Coach Stoops believes in limiting mistakes on offense, playing great defense, and winning the kicking game. That allows the offense to play with less pressure on them and that in turn helps young players to feel more comfortable.

The goal will be to get anything close to a repeat of the season Paul Thompson had in 2006. He threw 22 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions. In 2005, Rhett Bomar had 10 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. The offense averaged more yards per play, per reception, and per game with Thompson. Scoring went up more than three points per game. Paul limited his mistakes, but also made his share of plays.

The offense also gets scoring help from the defense and special teams. Last year Oklahoma scored five non-offensive touchdowns. They also added a safety as the result of a blocked punt. That isn't a fluke. The Sooners have scored on defense and special teams throughout Stoops' tenure in Norman.

The defense should again be solid. The front seven will rely on some young and unproven guys to step-up. They may lack experience, but they are athletic and talented. The secondary is arguably the best in the nation. Having such a strong set of defensive backs allows Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables to be creative with his blitz scheme. He can attack the opposing offense without constantly worrying about giving up big plays.

All the key special teams' performers are back. This unit should be very strong in 2007, in kicking, covering, and returning.

The schedule isn't too tough. It does include games against Miami and Texas in the first six weeks, but OU only has four true road games. The potential is there for a championship season if a few things break right. There may be some early season struggles as the team comes together, but the Sooners should be really tough down the stretch.

No one in Sooner nation was happy about losing to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl. No one is happy about two straight losses to Texas, especially Coach Stoops. He will be highly motivated to beat the Longhorns and to win a big bowl game. Getting there isn't good enough this year. With a motivated Stoops as a driving force, expect Oklahoma to have an outstanding season in 2007.

Offense

This was a surprisingly balanced unit last year. The Sooners ran for 2,480 yards and passed for 2,682 yards. Starting quarterback Paul Thompson and All-American running back Adrian Peterson are gone, but there is plenty of talent returning.

Quarterback is a position of concern, at least to fans and the media. Bob Stoops and the rest of the Oklahoma coaching staff seem confident that one of three players will emerge. The candidates are junior Joey Halzle, redshirt freshman Sam Bradford, and true freshman Keith Nichol. Bradford would seem to be the best bet to win the job. He has been around the program, even if he hasn't played. He's the biggest of the three players and Sam is physically gifted. Halzle has a bit of experience, but not enough to necessarily make him the default choice. Nichol has the most talent, but is only 18 years old. Making him the starter would be putting a lot of pressure on a young guy.

Bradford is 6-5, 213 pounds. He has a good arm. He pushes the ball a little bit, but the coaching staff can work on that. Sam throws tight spirals and looks like an accurate passer. He's got some athletic ability, but isn't likely to be a big running threat. The concerns with him are his decision-making and how he'll handle pressure. Young quarterbacks will force some throws and make decisions that can drive coaches crazy. Oklahoma has enough overall talent that they really need a quarterback who can make some plays, but won't make critical mistakes. As for handling pressure, only time will tell how that plays out. Some guys thrive, while others struggle. Sam has a possible advantage. His father Kent was an offensive lineman at Oklahoma in the 1970's. You can bet that Kent has told Sam plenty of stories about how tough it is to be a starting player in major college football and just what will be expected of him.

Running back should be a loaded position this year. Senior Allen Patrick stepped in for Peterson after his collarbone injury last year and ran for 761 yards and 4 touchdowns. Allen isn't an elite player like Peterson, but he was productive and Oklahoma did go 5-0 in the games he started. Chris Brown ran for 343 yards and 6 touchdowns as Patrick's backup last season, and he did that as a true freshman. Two redshirt freshmen will also fight for playing time, Mossis Madu and 5-star recruit DeMarco Murray. Coach Stoops has said that Murray is the Sooners best big play threat. That is quite an endorsement.

Patrick is a downhill runner. He's got good speed. He isn't as big or strong as Peterson. One question about him is how Allen will handle being the starter for the whole season. He may not be cut out for twenty carries a game for the whole year. Allen missed two games after his first three starts last year. Luckily for the Sooners, they have the kind of depth that can allow them to not have to overwork him. One interesting note about Patrick is that he didn't catch a pass last season. Oklahoma doesn't throw many passes to their backs, but Patrick will have to contribute something as a receiver in 2007.

The Sooners only use a fullback some of the time. They have a couple of returning players at this spot, Dane Zaslaw and Matt Clapp. Zaslaw is a solid blocker and also caught six passes last year. Clapp battled injuries and was limited to two games.

Wide receiver is another position where OU is very strong. Junior Malcolm Kelly is as good as any receiver in the nation. Juaquin Iglesias will start across from him. Manuel Johnson is the number three receiver and will see a lot of time. Fred Strong started two games and caught nine passes last year. There are several other young guys who will be vying for playing time.

Kelly has excellent size at 6-4, 217 pounds. He's strong and has terrific body control. He adjusts to the ball very well. Those skills allow him to make some very tough catches. Last season he caught 62 passes, including ten touchdowns. Iglesias isn't a polished receiver, but he has good size and athleticism. He's elusive when he has the ball and is Oklahoma's best run-after-catch threat. Johnson is a good third receiver. He caught 36 passes last year.

There are no stars at tight end, but OU has three players who are all good and complement each other very well. Senior Joe John Finley is the starter. Sophomores Jermaine Gresham and Brody Eldridge are the backups.

Finley has ideal size at 6-6, 260 pounds. He is a good receiver and an effective blocker. While not a great athlete, he's got okay speed. Joe has good hands and knows how to get open. He caught 19 passes last year. Eldridge is the blocker of the group and is outstanding in that area. They even use him at fullback in some sets. He is tenacious whether taking on a 280-pound defensive lineman or a 180-pound defensive back. Brody only caught three passes in 2006. Gresham is the athlete of the group. He averaged 20.1 yards per catch and has big play ability.

All of these skill players are able to thrive in part because of the outstanding offensive line. Three starters are back. Two others starters from last year also return, but are projected as backups at this point.

Center Jon Cooper started 13 of 14 games last year. He was an all-conference selection by some media outlets. He's the classic center, a bit undersized and not a great athlete. He is smart and a leader. He uses his hands well. Jon can get out in space and block, but isn't going to win any style points.

The best lineman is left guard George Robinson. He lists at 6-5, 330 pounds. He is a big guy, but is a surprising athlete. He can pull and blocks well on the move. A lot of big guys are lazy, but not George. He really sticks with his blocks. He has All-American potential. The other guard spot is manned by Brandon Walker. He is a solid blocker. He can pull and is nimble for a big guy, but isn't all that athletic. Brandon is powerful and is really effective when he gets his hands on linebackers. He can really mash those guys. The top backup guard will be Brian Simmons, who didn't play much last year.

Right tackle Brandon Braxton returns. He started half the year, but missed the final seven games with a broken leg. Braxton is a better run blocker than pass blocker. He doesn't have good feet and will lunge when trying to block quick edge rushers on pass plays. He's effective when he gets to go forward and attack them on running plays. Sophomore Trent Williams filled in last year when Braxton was hurt. He should develop into a good blocker, but struggled at times in 2006.

The only spot where an entirely new player will take over is left tackle. That is a critical position, but the Sooners may have a really good replacement. Junior College transfer Phil Loadholt enrolled at OU back in January. He is massive at 6-8, 350 pounds. The amazing thing is that he might be the best athlete of the whole bunch. Coach Stoops said that he did very well while running a 300 yard shuttle drill recently. Phil has been bothered by a toe injury, but says he is now ready to go. If he plays up to the level that the coaching staff expects, the offensive line will be very good. The other lineman battling for the left tackle spot is redshirt freshman Cory Brandon.

One thing to keep in mind along the offensive line is that there will be competition. Nobody is guaranteed a job. Cooper is probably the safest player, but Coach Stoops will let the backups know that they can win jobs if they outplay the starters. You earn your spot each practice and each game. Nothing should be taken for granted. The coaching staff wasn't happy with the blocking in the last few games of the year. They will use competition to push the players the whole season.

The Sooners have gifted blockers, runners, and receivers. The only question mark right now is the guys who will throw the passes. The coaching staff is confident that the situation will work itself out. If one of the inexperienced quarterbacks steps forward and plays well, Oklahoma could have one of the best offenses in the country.

Tommy Lawlor has been following the Draft for over 20 years. He's been studying tape and taking notes on players for over a decade now. Tommy has been trained by an NFL scout in the art of scouting and player evaluation. He's learned the game from watching football for thirty years, reading numerous books, and picking the brains of various college and high school coaching staffs. He's broadcast basketball and football games, as well as smaller sports, for WASU-FM, WCHL-AM, and WDAI-FM. He also co-hosted a daily sports talk show for WDAI in Myrtle Beach, SC. While in college, he was an Intern for WBTV in Charlotte, NC and helped cover professional and college sports. He currently does work for many sites, but is the head scout for www.scoutsnotebook.com which is a free website dedicated to scouting players entering the NFL Draft.

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