9 Oklahoma

Untested players in key roles will define Sooners' season
August 19, 2007

AT NO POINT didthe phrase Statue of Liberty cross the lips of Bob Stoops. But it seemed theOklahoma coach was still not out of the shadow of last January's Fiesta Bowlwhen he responded to a question at the team's recent media day. Asked to namethe areas in which his team most needed to improve, Stoops replied that he waslooking for "more discipline" on defense. He was talking about thestay-at-home instincts that keep players from being gulled by ahook-and-lateral or a halfback pass or the Statue of Liberty--trick plays thatcatapulted underdog Boise State to a stunning 43-42 overtime upset of theSooners.

Despite thatmiserable loss, Oklahoma counted last season as a triumph. The Sooners overcameadversity--the dismissal of quarterback Rhett Bomar on the eve of the seasonand the loss of star running back Adrian Peterson in mid-October with a brokencollarbone--to take the Big 12 championship.

One of the heroesof 2006 was Paul Thompson, the quarterback turned receiver who returned to hisold position on short notice and threw for 2,667 yards. The battle amongthree players to succeed him was unresolved as SI went to press. Neitherredshirt freshman Sam Bradford nor freshman Keith Nichol nor juco transfer JoeyHalzle had seized the job early in practice. Stoops professed to be unconcernedthat his starting QB would have little or no game experience. "We've hadfour different quarterbacks win four different Big 12 championships,"he said of the past seven seasons. Nor was he dismayed by the early departureof Peterson. After all, he points out, the Sooners were 8-0 in games thatPeterson missed because of injury.

Well-stocked atwide receiver and running back (senior Allen Patrick topped 100 yards in fourof the five games he started in relief of Peterson last year, though he wasslowed by a sprained right ankle early in practice), three-deep at tight end,blessed with what may be the best offensive line of the Stoops era, the offensewill put up serious numbers. But will opposing offenses do the same?

The biggestconcern is at linebacker, where the Sooners must replace their top twotacklers: Zach Latimer and Big 12 defensive player of the year RufusAlexander. Getting a shot to replace Alexander on the outside is redshirtsophomore Ryan Reynolds, a dazzling prospect who leads the team in time spenton crutches. (After tearing his left ACL in the spring of '06, he ruptured thelateral collateral ligament in his right knee last spring.) But there wasReynolds, back on the field in August; if he can stay there, it will enableCurtis Lofton to play his natural position, in the middle. "He and Ryangive us a lot of strength in the interior," says defensive coordinatorBrent Venables.

Venables was alsobuoyed by a secondary that is "a lot further ahead than we were a yearago." That's good, because Oklahoma struggled to stop the pass early lastseason. Cornerback D.J. Wolfe, a sophomore in '06, was benched after threegames, but he reemerged at strong safety in the spring when some of the youngerSooners struggled at the position. "It's got a chance to be a great movefor us," says Stoops.

Likewise, Oklahomahas a strong chance to get back to a BCS bowl, or better. But the Sooners willhave to prove that their last game, that loss to Boise State, was a fluke.

CONFERENCE: Big 12

COACH: Bob Stoops

2006 RECORD: 11-3

(7-1 in Big 12)

FINAL AP RANK: 11

RETURNING STARTERS:

Offense 9, Defense 6

KEY RETURNEES

CB Reggie Smith (Jr.)

Team's top DB can play anywhere in secondary

WR Malcolm Kelly (Jr.)

Go-to receiver had 62 catches and 10 TDs in '06

TE Brody Eldridge (Soph.)

A devastating blocker at tight end or fullback

SCHEDULE

Sept. 1 NORTH TEXAS

8 MIAMI

15 UTAH STATE

21 at Tulsa

29 at Colorado

Oct. 6 Texas*

13 MISSOURI

20 at Iowa State

Nov. 3 TEXAS A&M

10 BAYLOR

17 at Texas Tech

24 OKLAHOMA STATE

*In Dallas

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The offense will put up serious numbers. But willopposing offenses do the same?

PHOTOG. Newman Lowrance/WireImage.com LATEHIT

Wolfe (25) may have found a home at safety.
PHOTOBILL FRAKES (MASCOT) PHOTO PHOTOROBERT BECKHEADS UP

Senior end Alonzo Dotson (91) will be a big contributor on a defense thatStoops says must be more disciplined than last year's unit.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)