by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

Oklahoma, though usually loaded with raw talent, has become known as a team with too-frequent breakdowns under Bob Stoops. Most infamously was the 43-42 Fiesta Bowl overtime loss to Boise State after the 2006 season. But the next season came the 48-28 swamping by West Virginia at the same site. Then the 24-14 loss to Florida in the BCS title game for the 2008 season. Four years before that was the overwhelming 55-19 Orange Bowl loss vs. Southern Cal. There are many in the Sooner Nation who have only faint memories of OU’s 13-2 national championship game upset of Florida State for the 2000 BCS crown.

Last season, the undefeated Sooners—with a 55-17 victory over rival Texas already in the barn and ranked No. 1—suffered a stunning 41-38 home upset loss vs. Texas Tech. And things went downhill from there, with injuries to top RB Dominique Whaley (broken ankle in the 8th game) and all-time NCAA reception king Ryan Broyles (ACL the next game). One week later came repeated defensive breakdowns in the 45-38 Heisman-making loss to Robert Griffin III and the Baylor Bears. To be followed a couple of weeks later by the 44-10 Bedlam Game humiliation at Stillwater.

We’re not about to make any excuses for Stoops about last year’s 41-38 defeat by at the hands of Texas Tech, which led OU 31-7 in the third quarter in Norman despite the fact that the Sooners owned substantially superior defensive personnel. However, there aren’t too many teams that would not have declined after losing both their top RB and star WR. There were other injuries also complicating things. But Stoops saw prolific QB Landry Jones (right; 4463 yards, 29 TDs, but 15 ints.) struggle without full support, with no TDP vs. 5 ints. in the last 3+ regular-season games. However, the feeling here is that sr. QB Jones and the Sooners can be expected to ascend in a big way after last season’s disappointments, even though offseason news out of Norman has been dominated by departures, suspensions, and talk of a lack of discipline in the Oklahoma program.

There are beaucoups reasons for Sooner fans to be optimistic in 2012. Among those reasons are the return of, in effect, 17 starters, plus OU’s kicker and punter. Included in that group is senior Heisman-candidate QB Jones, who could have opted for the NFL last spring, but who instead chose to return for another season and who spent part of his summer under the tutelage of QB private trainer George Whitfield, with Jones working to improve his mechanics, footwork, delivery, reads, and pocket awareness. Jones, with 37 career starts under his belt, will be operating OU’s sophisticated, no-huddle, hurry-up attack behind a veteran OL returning four starters, including honorees C Ben Habern & G Gabe Ikard.

This year’s ground attack should be vastly improved, as the surprising Whaley (left; 627 YR in 2011 after walking on to the team the previous year after moving to Norman to be near his girlfriend) returns. Super-quick Roy Finch (605 YR) now has lots of experience, but at 5-7, 166 understandably must have his exposure limited. That is likely to mean more carries for 249-pound jr. FB/H-back Trey Millard. Last year’s five-star RB recruit, Brandon Williams, has left for A&M (to go to a school closer to his young daughter), but 6-1, 215 JC All-American RB Damien Williams is on the way in August. Plus, last year’s RB issues led to the development out of necessity of the highly-effective “Bell-Dozer” jumbo package, featuring 6-6, 250 backup QB Blake Bell in goal-line and short-yardage situations, with Bell powering for 13 rush TDs, many of them in ridiculously easy fashion. Now battling for the backup QB spot, Bell demonstrated his powerful arm and developing command of the offense in spring. Stoops says he must now be more conscious of keeping his backup QB healthy, but the temptation for gaining key smashmouth yards in the fall is likely to get the better of him, especially since now-soph Bell can be armed with a Tebow-like array of play-action counters.

Although OU has lost Broyles to graduation and talented wideouts such as Jaz Reynolds, Trey Franks & Kameer Jackson to suspension and academics, it’s too early to cry for the Sooners about their receiver corps. 6-2 blue-chipper Trey Metoyer was a standout in spring after spending last season at a prep school to boost his grades to finally qualify at OU. Also incoming are 6-3 juco A-A WR Courtney Gardner (was headed to Arkansas until Bobby Petrino’s shenanigans) and 6-5 blue-chip frosh TE Taylor McNamara, an early enrollee, as was Metoyer. Jr. Kenny Stills (61 recs., 8 TDC) began to blossom late last season following the loss of Broyles and will be the early go-to guy.

The best news on defense is that brother Mike Stoops, for the last eight years the head coach at Arizona, is now the defensive coordinator in Norman. Mike ran the defense for five years for Bob, including the 2000 title season. When asked whether he re-hired Mike to restore discipline to the program and provide a “conscience,” head coach Bob was quickly dismissive of such a notion, saying “I’m my own conscience. But is there anyone I trust more than Mike? No. So it’s still very good, very positive, that I feel that we’re back coaching together...for me.”

D.c. Mike needs to replace excellent LB Trey Lewis and pressuring DE pair Frank Alexander & Ronnell Lewis, who combined for 14 of OU’s lofty 41 sacks last season. But Mike inherits a sr. DT trio to control the middle, plus holdover DE R.J. Washington (5 sacks LY in part-time duty). LB Corey Nelson (right, vs. Kansas State last autumn) had 5½ sacks, while MLB Tom Wort had 4, plus 71 tackles and 2 interceptions.

However, last season’s losses to Texas Tech, Baylor & Oklahoma State—during which the speedy Sooner defense allowed a disturbing 43 ppg—were due mostly to breakdowns in the back seven. Brother Mike has reportedly been working overtime to shore things up. During the 2000 title season, OU gave up only 14.9 ppg; only 2 in the 13-2 title-game win over Florida State. Last year, the allowance was 21.1 ppg, with OU finishing a lowly 79th vs. the pass at 241 ypg.

One change under way is the move of hybrid N-B/LB Tony Jefferson (74 Ts, 4½ sacks, 4 ints. LY) to safety in the altered scheme. Sr. CB Demontre Hurst is a reliable three-year starter. But Mike is likely to move hard-hitting jr. S Aaron Colvin up to CB, while sr. S Javon Harris (3 ints. LY) pairs with Jefferson in the final line of defense. Rest assured that with Mike calling the defensive shots, the Sooner defenders will be more aggressive and retain their intensity better.

Michael Hunnicutt (21 of 24 FGs LY) solved the Sooner kicking ills last year, while P Tress Way landed 34 of 63 inside the opponents’ 20.

Summary...Going into the season, Oklahoma has more strengths and fewer weaknesses than any team in the Big 12. Surveying the other contenders, there is the questionable defense at West Virginia, the true frosh QB at Oklahoma State, the depth issues at TCU, the poorly-balanced offense at Kansas State, the unproven QBs at Texas, and the lack of defenders at Baylor. Even with the WR personnel losses in Norman, OU’s prolific sr. QB Jones, improved ground game, excellent special units, and proven new leadership on defense figure to place the Sooners in the national title picture if they get past the defensively-loaded Longhorns October 13.


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