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March 8, 2011

Spring can't start soon enough for Sooners

Oklahoma has an all-conference quarterback, an All-America receiver, an experienced offensive line, one of the nation's top running back prospects and an all-conference linebacker leading its defense.

It looks as if the Sooners have everything required to make a run at a national championship.

OU has dominated the Big 12, with six conference championships in the past eight seasons, and there is some feeling that this season's team could be one of coach Bob Stoops' best.

Still, there is some work to do. The Sooners must bolster the run defense, holes in the secondary need to be filled and the kicking, at times, has been shaky. Those are issues the Sooners will address when spring practice opens today.

If progress is made in those areas, Oklahoma may indeed have everything needed to make a run at the national title.

Here's a look at the Sooners as they open spring drills.

OKLAHOMA AT-A-GLANCE
QB Landry Jones is among many standouts who are back for Oklahoma in 2011.
THE BASICS
Coach: Bob Stoops
Last season: 12-2 overall, 6-2 in the Big 12 South. Beat Nebraska 23-20 in the Big 12 title game. Beat UConn 48-20 in the Fiesta Bowl.
Spring dates: March 8-April 16.
RETURNING STARTERS
(minimum seven starts last season)
Offense (8): WR Ryan Broyles, G Tyler Evans, C Ben Habern, TE James Hanna, G Gabe Ikard, QB Landry Jones, T Donald Stephenson, WR Kenny Stills.
Defense (7): E Frank Alexander, CB Jamell Fleming (not currently enrolled in school), CB Demontre Hurst, LB/SS Tony Jefferson, LB Travis Lewis, T Stacy McGee, LB Tom Wort.
Special teams (2): K Jimmy Stevens, P Tress Way.
Positions of strength

OU's passing game is excellent. Junior QB Landry Jones has two years' experience as a full-time starter and last season threw for 4,718 yards and 38 touchdowns; he completed 65.6 percent of his passes. Senior WR Ryan Broyles is one of the country's premier big-play threats. A year ago, he led the nation with 131 receptions, which he parlayed into 1,622 yards (his second 1,000-yard season) and 14 touchdowns. Sophomore WR Kenny Stills had 61 catches in his debut season. Defensively, the Sooners' are set at linebacker with three-time All-Big 12 selection Travis Lewis leading the way. Austin Box has struggled with injuries throughout his career, but he is healthy now. Sophomore Tony Jefferson, who plays kind of a hybrid strongside linebacker/strong safety role, has tremendous potential and could emerge as the Sooners' best at that position since All-American Roy Williams. Punters often are unappreciated, but Tress Way is among the best in the country.

Help is needed

There are some issues in the secondary. Both safety positions need new starters and CB Jamell Fleming, who led OU with five interceptions and had 14 pass breakups last season, isn't enrolled this spring. His return in the fall is possible, but not assured. Defensive tackle also could be an area of concern. The Sooners were vulnerable to the run last season, and the only returning starter in the interior line, Stacy McGee, has had some off-field problems. But those problems don't figure to keep him off the field this fall.

3 guys to watch

FS Javon Harris: The Sooners have holes to fill at safety, and Harris could provide the needed spackle. He's a good athlete and a fierce hitter. He posted eight tackles against Oklahoma State when he had to fill in for an injured starter, but he has to show he can play at that level consistently in a starting role.

DE Ronnell Lewis: He moved from linebacker and started at end in the final four games last season. The hope is that Lewis will develop into a dominant pass rusher and pick up the slack left by the departed Jeremy Beal, last season's sack leader. This spring, Lewis also has to show there are no lingering effects from a neck injury he sustained in the Fiesta Bowl.

RB Brandon Williams: A five-star true freshman, Williams already has enrolled and is ready for spring drills. With DeMarco Murray gone, the Sooners need a back who can run effectively between the tackles. Williams rushed for nearly 2,500 yards as a high school senior at Brookshire (Texas) Royal.

The pressure is on

DE R.J. Washington: He was a five-star prospect in 2008, but he hasn't yet lived up to that lofty appraisal. In two seasons, Washington has posted just seven tackles and 0.5 sacks. If he doesn't show progress this spring, he could fall behind redshirt freshman prospects Geneo Grissom and Chuka Ndulue.

The buzz

Basketball season has been a downer in Norman, but the outlook for the football team is more than enough to satisfy the locals this spring. Most projections indicate Oklahoma will be ranked No. 1 in the preseason polls, so Sooners fans just can't wait to get the building process started. Apparently, some players and coaches can't either. OU coaches were guilty of some minor NCAA violations for checking on participation in "voluntary workouts." As a result, Oklahoma players were given a week break from training. But that won't dampen the enthusiasm this spring as the Sooners start working toward an eighth Big 12 championship and second national title under coach Bob Stoops. Revamping the secondary is the priority.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.


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