One of the most improved positions for the Oklahoma football team in 2002 was the offensive line. New Offensive Line Coach/Run Game Coordinator Kevin Wilson took what expected to be a weakness heading into last season and turned it into a strength, paving the way for Quentin Griffin to rush for 1,884 yards.
Last year's line was considered young (starting three sophomores), and once again Wilson will find himself molding another young offensive line with limited depth after losing Jerod Fields and Jeff Lebby to medical redshirts.
"We've lost two guys and our numbers aren't real deep, but that's everybody in college football with the scholarship reductions we've went through 10-12 years ago," said Wilson. "We're going to be two-deep with good players, but we're not deep enough where we can afford injuries. We need to keep our guys healthy and keep this group getting better."
"When the scholarship limit went to 85 most people dropped their line numbers from 25 to 15. What you need in that 15 is eight guys you can win with. You need three tackles, three guards and two centers. We're going to get dinged up like last year. Brad (Davis) went down with an ankle injury. Wes (Sims) missed a game. Vince (Carter) missed two games. You need quality players backing them up."
Oklahoma is set at tackle with juniors Wes Sims and Jammal Brown, who both had breakout seasons a year ago. But that doesn't mean Wilson is not concerned about their development.
"If I'm worried about anything as a coach it is that two of our better players in Jammal and Wes need to sense the competition," said Wilson."You've either got to compete against yourself or compete against another one challenging you, and they're not getting challenged as much as I'd personally like."
"That's what concerns me with Wes and Jammal, because competition keeps you rolling. I'm having to do things to show them how to be great players, just not good players."
The only real question mark at tackle is depth. Fields was expected to be that third quality tackle who could come in and give Sims and Brown a rest, but he will not go through spring drills, and may be done for his career after undergoing back surgery this winter.
"We're not counting on him right now in the mix," said Wilson.
One player that will vie for the third tackle spot is sophomore Brett Rayl. Wilson thinks Rayl could be the guy who steps up.
"Brett Rayl is a young player that we need to come through and start being productive for us in the offensive line," said Wilson. "He's got all the talent in the world, but he's not a real confident or sure lineman right now. Just watching him compete in the drills. He's starting to look like he's figuring out how to compete and gaining some confidence in himself. He's got some physical tools. If we can just teach him and get him some confidence, he can help us there."
Two other tackles who will compete with Rayl are redshirt freshmen Chris Messner and Steve Taylor, both of which have been hampered by injuries and sickness.
"Chris Messner is gaining some weight, but he's still a ways away," said Wilson. "He's had a slight case of ‘mono' this past week. I don't think it's a severe deal, but we've kind of slowed him here the last week to get him back and hopefully have him back for spring practices."
"Messner is a little undersized and a little weak, but he is a tremendous athlete. He's got a lot of toughness for a guy that's not strong. He'll fight and he'll battle, but he's just about 15-20 pounds away at about 265. We've got to get him up there with his weight and strength level, but he's got a chance."
"Steve Taylor is coming off two shoulder surgeries," Wilson continued. "They call it ‘tightening of the shoulders', where they go in and pull the ligaments a little bit. He missed the last half of the season getting one shoulder done. Then, around Christmas, he had the other shoulder operated on. He is in our conditioning group now, but he will not be able to practice in spring ball."
"It's been so long since he's played it won't be until preseason until we see him. He'll kind of be the like the freshmen. I'm going to wait to see him in August before we see if he can be in that two-deep. I'm not down on him, but he's missed out on some young things you need to learn as a young player and that's going to set him back."
Inside, the Sooners return their starting center in Vince Carter, but lose two starters in senior guards Brad Davis and Mike Skinner. But the Sooners have four quality guards (Kelvin Chaisson, Abner Estrada, Chris Bush and Davin Joseph) coming back who gained valuable experience last year after Davis was injured in the Texas A&M game.
"On paper it will probably start out with Chaisson at left guard , Vince at center and Davin Joseph at right guard. Davin Joseph was playing really well at the end of the year."
"Last year Kelvin Chaisson, Chris Bush and Davin Joseph, those three guys played a lot of football. Even though we played well and got beat at Oklahoma State, that was a great environment to learn from and it will help us this next year. We might have struggled with that group some last year, but it will help us come spring ball and next season. There's always some silver linings."
One player Wilson really likes is sophomore Chris Bush. Wilson says that he could see Bush starting at center or guard.
"I really like Chris Bush and his attitude and his work ethic," said Wilson. "I thought he did a tremendous job when he was in for us last year. I'm kind of intrigued on where he's going to end up. He's really going to help us in there."
"I really thought Chris played excellent for Vince when he got hurt last year. I think he's going to push Vince to compete for his job or possibly be the starting left guard."
So is it really possible that Carter, a two-year starter, could be unseated by either Bush or Estrada?
"Vince has played a lot, but it's been by default," said Wilson. "All those guys got hurt his freshmen year and he got in there. The same happened this past year with Chris and Abner. I'm gaining a great deal of confidence in both those guys and both those guys are gaining a great deal of confidence. It's going to be a really good inside battle."
Even though the Sooners are young, and lack depth, Wilson admits they are talented. But another concern heading into next season is who will step up and take a leadership role on the line.
"We're a young group with no seniors," said Wilson. "Last year some of our least talented guys might have been Mike Skinner and Brad Davis, but they bought in to working hard and were tough guys. They were as every bit a part of our success as the young talent. We've got to do a great job here of getting some of these juniors like Jammal, Vince and Wes to be a great leaders for us."
"Brad Davis was a great leader for us last year. Mike Skinner had a great attitude and played his best game in the Rose Bowl. I need these young guys to fill our leadership void. We'll be okay if that happens."
"I think the line is going to be better" Wilson continued. "I'm very confident and very sure that we're going to be better. I think Quentin, to me, did a lot on his own last year. We're going to run and mix it with the play-action and deep pass. We're going to be a balanced team and have some quarterbacks who can run a little bit more then we did. I don't anticipate our running game falling off."
Spring Position Preview: Offensive Line
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