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July 28, 2008
THE SCHEME: The Sooners frequently employ their "Jumbo" set, which features two tight ends. But their base offense is a pro-style set with three receivers, one back and a tight end.
STAR POWER: For a few weeks, quarterback Sam Bradford was in the Heisman Trophy discussions in his debut season. He went on to earn freshman All-America honors after leading the nation in passing efficiency and throwing for 3,121 yards and 36 touchdowns with only eight interceptions. If he posts similar stats this season, he'll contend for All-America honors and get back in the Heisman picture.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Redshirt freshman wide receiver Ryan Broyles was a four-star prospect in '07. He sat out last season as punishment for an off-field incident, then broke his collarbone early in the spring. But OU coaches rave about his ability. He could emerge as the deep threat the Sooners need.
IT'S HIS TIME: Junior receiver Adron Tennell arrived at Oklahoma as a highly regarded prospect, but has only seven catches in two seasons. With Malcolm Kelly gone, opportunity is knocking. If he doesn't answer this season, it's extremely unlikely he'll ever play a big role for the Sooners.
STRONGEST AREA: Some observers think OU's line is the best in the country. The Sooners ranked among the nation's top 20 in rushing offense and sacks allowed, and there actually are six returning starters (right tackles Branndon Braxton and Trent Williams each started seven games). Guard Duke Robinson and massive left tackle Phil Loadholt are the most-heralded members of the OU front, but right guard Brandon Walker consistently graded highest of the linemen.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Is there a deep threat? Last season, it was Kelly, who averaged 16.8 yards a catch and had nine touchdowns. His ability to stretch the field also opened up avenues for others. The Sooners need to identify another deep threat at wide receiver, although tight end Jermaine Gresham can stretch the defense.
OVERVIEW: Even with nine starters returning from a unit that averaged more than 30 points per game last season, there are a few concerns. Can Bradford avoid a sophomore slump and be as effective as he was last season? Will a deep threat emerge? Will sophomore tailback DeMarco Murray be as electrifying as he comes back from a dislocated kneecap? The answer to each probably is "Yes." Bradford has the luxury of operating behind one of the premier lines in college football. The Sooners usually don't lack speed at receiver. Murray, who averaged 6.0 yards per carry and scored 13 touchdowns in '07, is expected to be back at full speed. And watch out for five-star tailback Jermie Calhoun, one of the jewels of OU's recruiting class. The rich get richer.
THE SCHEME: The Sooners' 4-3 scheme easily could pass for a 4-2-5 because it features a fast, smallish linebacker who plays like a big safety. This season, that figures to be junior Keenan Clayton, who arrived at OU as a highly regarded safety. Whatever the scheme, OU's defense annually is among the nation's best.
STAR POWER: Sophomore tackle Gerald McCoy already is drawing comparisons to former OU All-American Tommie Harris. McCoy is a dominating run-stuffer who also is an inside pass-rushing presence. He earned freshman All-America honors and Big 12 freshman of the year recognition. More accolades will follow.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: The player might be in question, but the position isn't – the guy likely will play weakside linebacker. Redshirt freshmen Travis Lewis and Austin Box are vying for the starting job and are neck-and-neck going into fall camp. Box suffered a dislocated elbow in the spring, but is expected to be back full force. If both shine, Box could be moved to the middle.
IT'S HIS TIME: Major injuries to both knees have prevented junior linebacker Ryan Reynolds from distinguishing himself. He had 60 tackles last season while making six starts in the middle and one on the weakside. If he stays healthy, he could stay in the middle or possibly move to the strongside, where the Sooners need a suitable replacement for departed standout Curtis Lofton.
STRONGEST AREA: The line could be excellent. McCoy and DeMarcus Granger form one of the best tackle tandems in the nation. Meanwhile, end Auston English led the Big 12 with 9.5 sacks despite missing three games with an ankle injury. The other end spot will have a new starter, but there is some talent vying for the job. One of the potential starters is true freshman R.J. Washington, rated the nation's No. 1 weakside end prospect.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Oklahoma hasn't ranked among the nation's top 40 in pass defense since 2003. Last season, the Sooners ranked 59th, and that was with All-Big 12 strong safety D.J. Wolfe and cornerback Reggie Smith. Seniors Lendy Holmes and Nic Harris will be the safeties this season. Harris is moving from free safety to replace Wolfe, while Holmes is moving from cornerback to free safety. But the Sooners will be unproven at cornerback: Projected starters Dominique Franks and junior Brian Jackson have one career start between them. Depth at corner is unproven, as well.
OVERVIEW: The last time the Sooners' line was this good, it was infested with Selmons. OK, maybe that's bit of an exaggeration – but not much. In each of the past seven seasons Oklahoma has ranked among the nation's top 20 in run defense, and this season shouldn't be any different. Running inside will be difficult, especially if an effective middle 'backer emerges behind McCoy and Granger. A good line usually equates to a good defense, and that should be the case for the Sooners even with the concerns at linebacker and in the secondary.
Murray returned two kickoffs for touchdowns last season. He and starting receiver Juaquin Iglesias each averaged more than 28 yards per return. Franks is a good punt returner, too. Mike Knall takes over at punter after averaging 43.7 yards in a part-time role last season. The kick-coverage unit was solid. That's the good news. The bad news is that kicker Garrett Hartley is gone and there is no proven replacement. Redshirt freshman Jimmy Stevens, who is 5-6 and was inconsistent in the spring, will battle true freshman Tress Way for the job. And the punt-coverage unit needs an upgrade.
A few voices of discontent have been raised about Stoops' four-game losing streak in BCS bowls. Those folks would seem to discount that Stoops has led the Sooners to five Big 12 titles and that he has 97 victories in nine seasons as coach (you can do the math). Defensive coordinator Brent Venables routinely supervises a strong unit, though the secondary has been vulnerable in recent seasons. Offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson has been in that role for two seasons and put together championship-caliber offenses despite having a converted receiver (Paul Thompson) and a redshirt freshman (Bradford) at quarterback. Quarterback coach Josh Heupel deserves some credit for the success, too.
The Sooners are homebodies, or more accurately home bullies. In nine seasons under Stoops, OU has lost just twice in Norman. The Sooners face the majority of their biggest challenges – Cincinnati, Kansas, Texas Tech – at home this season. The Sooners must travel to Texas A&M and Oklahoma State, where they typically face upset possibilities. But overall the road schedule isn't that daunting, though that's not including the midseason grudge match with Texas in Dallas.
Other than outrage over a misguided prankster slandering Bradford and Landry Jones on the Internet, there hasn't been much to get excited about. Not yet, anyway. Yes, the Sooners are in the national championship picture, which would have locals going loco at most places. But that's status quo in Norman, where they've celebrated three Big 12 championships in the past four seasons and have played for the national title three times under Stoops. There are a few concerns – Murray's health, Bradford avoiding a sophomore slump, finding a deep threat, two new starting corners, the linebacker situation – but nothing that stressful because there is great talent overall. The locals expect OU to challenge for championships, and the Sooners have a legitimate shot to win another Big 12 crown – and another national championship, too.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.