Big 12 Football Media Day Notes: Oklahoma

The Big 12 Football Media Days kicked off today in Dallas, with the defending national champion Oklahoma Sooners fittingly taking to the podium first. This is the first in <i>IT's</i> reports from Dallas covering every league team:

On offense, the Sooners lost just three starters from last season's national championship team -- QB Josh Heupel and two OLs -- and Bob Stoops said both of the QBs who are competing for the starting job, Nate Hybl and Jason White, will benefit from being around an experienced offensive unit. The Sooner head coach also said Hybl and White will have an advantage over former QB Heupel because they've each had two years to learn and develop within the Sooners' offensive system. Heupel had just 15 practice days before he took his first snap as a starter. Stoops said Hybl has a "slight edge" over White after spring ball, but the coaches will "reserve final judgment till we snap the ball" starting next week with the beginning of OU's August practice schedule. Stoops said the competing QBs are very similar in ability. "They're both athletic and strong-armed and they like different routes than Josh liked," the OU coach said. "Naturally you play to what the quarterback likes, so we'll throw more seams, verticals and edges and we'll stretch the defenses a little more (with the deep ball)." Stoops said the Sooner wide receivers "need to make more big plays" by breaking long runs after the catch and getting behind the opposing defense.

Stoops, displaying a confidence similar to that of last July at the league's media days in Kansas City, didn't once mention last season's national championship in his comments. In fact, the Oklahoma coach said, "I'm excited to put last season behind us and to get on with this season." And in typical Stoops fashion, his assessment of the upcoming season included absolutely no downplaying of the inevitable sky-high expectation level. "We feel as a staff that we're . . . a stronger team overall and a faster team overall. There's no question we are more experienced after playing two championships games (the Big 12 Title Game and the National Championship Game) last year. Twenty-three of our top 44 were freshman and sophomores last year and they'll be sophomores and juniors this fall. They now have experience in big games and they know how to win 'em. That gives us more confidence and we'll be a better team for those reasons." Stoops also addressed his team's preseason top 10 ranking. "We're ranked higher (than last year) but the players realize they have to go out and earn it," he said.

Stoops' influence on the attitude of his players is obvious, at least based on the comments of the three Sooner players in attendance in Dallas. Rocky Calmus, Josh Norman and Frank Romero each used the word confident or confidence in their remarks. The players said that last season's success, particularly given the team's murderer's row schedule, taught them how to win the big games and handle the pressure of having a huge bull's eye on their back. "It's not like we haven't been there," Calmus said. "We're used to it."

In truly a scary scenario for OU opponents, Calmus said the Sooner defense can play better than it did last fall. The Butkus Award candidate called last season's performance "average or a little above" despite the fact that, at year's end, the Oklahoma defense was more responsible for the Sooners' success than the Oklahoma offense. Both Calmus and Stoops pointed to an upgrade in experience, speed and strength on defense. "Can we be better (this season than last) on defense? I think we can," Stoops said. Yikes!

OU running back Quentin Griffin, who torched Texas last October for six TDs, has added 20 pounds and has improved his speed and strength, according to Stoops. The Oklahoma coach said he expects to see continued improvement in the Sooners' running game. "The running game helped us win (the national championship) every bit as much as the passing game," Stoops said Thursday.

"I look at last year's season and I don't see anything fluky," Stoops said. "We stayed relatively healthy the year before ('99) and we only won seven games."

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