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June 29, 2009You just can't find a position on the OU football team that has a bigger target on their back heading into the 2009 season than the offensive line. For most Sooner fans, they know this to be the case.
And on the OU football team, as much as coaches and players try and downplay the importance of one position, they know this as well.
A returning Heisman Trophy winner, two 1,000-yard rushers, sure-fire first-round pick Jermaine Gresham, All Big 12 blockers in Brody Eldridge and Matt Clapp - this is a team built to score touchdowns.
But it's also a team without a proven foundation on the offensive line after losing four starters from a year ago.
Bob Stoops called out his offensive line for poor work habits before the start of spring practices, Alex Williams was kicked off the team for what is believed to be a part of Stoops' demands.
"I know Coach Schmidt and his staff will do a great job through the summer workouts," said Patton. "I know that. We can't be around them but I know the way Coach Schmidt works and our guys need to bow up and have a great summer."
Right now is when that foundation is being forged during summer workouts. Patton has trust in OU's offseason conditioning program. He believes his players who will be there this fall understand how important their progress is to this team's hopes for a national championship.
"Every day when they wake up they ought to know, and they do know," said Patton. "Coach Stoops has expressed the concern and I do to, every day I see those guys I express it.
"They understand how much talent they have around them and where the focus needs to be. They've got to work hard. Those guys around them have to be able to trust them. We've got to give them the trust as a group so we can make the plays, we can run the ball, we can protect when we drop back to pass. That's the mindset."
For Patton, there is no hint of worry, no panic. Trent Williams and Brian Simmons are the two key figures in the rebuilding of this offensive line through the summer months. And Patton feels they have finally gotten the message from Stoops.
They are the leaders who will determine the direction of the summer workouts.
"Trent and Brian are going into their last year and they know that and they know the focus and the energy level that it's going to take. It's for them to be leaders coupled with their performance, that's what you want," said Patton. "Trent's started for four years, Brian's started for two years and they've had game reps and they're experienced, so that should bring some leadership."
Cory Brandon came out of the spring secure in his right tackle job. That gives the Sooners three players who have had big-game experience to anchor their line in 2009.
But another positive sign for Patton is in his two youngest offensive lineman - Ben Habern and Stephen Good. The positive is that Habern and Good have quickly developed reputations for being some of the hardest workers in the OU program.
"They have a mindset and a focus to them - even though they're young players, Stephen played as a true freshmen last year and Ben played but got his redshirt back when he got hurt - but those two guys are locked in, they do the right things, they're talented and their strong," explained Patton. "It's just a matter of playing in games and getting experience and learning what they did wrong in the spring and fixing it through the summer. Their attitudes are really good."
Injuries could derail Oklahoma's hopes for putting together the perfect rebuilt line next season.
Habern and Good have both had injury problems early in their careers. Simmons and Williams remain the only two players who had meaningful reps in last year's BCS Championship game.
Depth is still an issue heading into next season.
But depth is being developed through rigorous workouts this summer. All four of OU's offensive line signees are already in Jerry Schmidt's summer workout program, and Patton believes all four could contribute this season, especially JUCO transfers Jeff Vinson and Tavaris Jeffries.
"Those guys are going to be involved in our depth early and with our numbers the way they are, those guys will come in and be in the two-deep and be ready to go," Patton said. "The question is how much can they learn? How much can they process?"
There are also two players who have been on campus for more than a year, who have as much athletic ability as anyone else on the roster.
Football players at major programs like Oklahoma need two things to see the field - potential and opportunity. When those two factors are present, players either step into the spotlight or take up space in the background.
Donald Stephenson and Jarvis Jones are two players in that position heading into the fall.
Both players have massive amounts of potential.
Both players can make Oklahoma much better if they can take advantage of their situations.
"Both of those guys need to have great summers," said Patton. "They're both talented players. Jarvis has obviously played and competed as a young guy at LSU. It's not as much about the physical standpoint for those guys. It's more about being disciplined and doing the right things. They have to be guys everybody can count on and everybody can trust.
"That's what the focus was with those guys and through the spring they did a decent job.
"Jarvis missed a couple of practices with a knee tweak, but he's fine. That's the challenge for those guys is to be great players through the summer and obviously at two-a-days."
For coaches like Patton, the summer can be a frustrating experience. Patton knows how crucial their development can be to the success of the offense. But he doesn't have the ability to work with his guys until Aug. 7th rolls around.
All he can do is rely on Williams and Simmons, and hope everyone else follows along.
"That's the part of coaching an offensive line. It's not an individual, it's a group," said Patton. "That's the emphasis of our guys playing together, working together, doing the right things on the field and doing the right things off the field. That's the challenge we've got.
"Obviously when we start in August, that's going to be the challenge, how much better have we got since the spring."