NORMAN — No group took more knocks than Oklahoma’s offensive line last season. Those knocks caused a flood of injuries at nearly every position. They also put the group in the crosshairs of pundits throughout college football.
To most, OU’s uncharacteristic 8-5 season was pinned on the inconsistent play of the offensive line.
The Sooners heard all of them last season and have taken them to heart in the seven months since.
“We set big goals every year, and this year I feel like we’re really on top of everything,” left guard Stephen Good said.
The goal for the Sooner offensive line is to become a cohesive unit in 2010. It sounds easy, the offensive lines from 2007-08 made it look that way. They were able to basically well out the same five on a game-by-game basis for two straight seasons. Last year, OU wasn’t able to start the same combination more than two games in a row.
But health hasn’t been an issue in the preseason and it has allowed for that bond to take hold.
“It’s important to get those five guys up there so we can start working together and getting comfortable with how each of us blocks,” center Ben Habern said. “And that’s where we’re at right now, we have a set five and so now we’re starting to work together as one unit.”
Habern and Good are two of six starters in the two deep with starting experience. Even if it came in the chaos of last season, it should be greatly beneficial this year.
The Sooners set a starting five heading into the preseason with Habern and Good being joined by sophomore guard Tyler Evans, junior left tackle Donald Stephenson and senior right tackle Eric Mensik.
Evans fought injuries but played in 12 games as freshman. The center and two guard spots are holdovers from last season. It’s the two tackle spots where intrigue comes into play.
Mensik started the final two games of the 2009 season after being moved over from tight end late in the year. The talent he showed then convinced the coaching staff he could make the move full-time. Mensik put on 40 pounds in the offseason and has been able to stay in the 285-pound range, even with the rigors of preseason camp.
“I’ve prepared well for this. I trimmed down and got muscle where I needed it and handled it in two-a-days,” Mensik said. “I think it’s going well.”
The left tackle spot is where OU has the biggest hole and the biggest hope. Trent Williams occupied the spot for nearly every game over the previous four years. It was one of the reasons he was a first-round draft pick.
The Sooners have nothing close to Williams in terms of experience. But they’re hoping they can get similar production from Stephenson.
Stephenson has the classic build for left tackle (6-foot-6, 309 pounds with long arms). But Stephenson didn’t play last season due to academic reasons and has never played in anything but a reserve role.
His teammates have faith that big things are coming from him.
“I think he’s starting to come into his own. I think he’s starting to accept his role and I think he knows that he can be a big part of this team this year at the left tackle,” Habern said. “It was good to see him show up at workouts all summer and working hard. I think he’s put on a little bit of weight, he’s gotten stronger and he’s kept his quickness up. It’s exciting because honestly he’s one of the most athletic lineman I’ve ever seen. He’s right up there with Trent Williams, athletic wise.”
Offensive line coach James Patton believes the true gauge of an offensive line is measured consistency. In order for this group to be at its best each Saturday, there has to be depth.
“It doesn’t matter about injuries and every season is a different season, and we want to get a little rotation going,” he said. “As a front, you have to be consistent and you have to execute, and that is what we are preaching.”
The Sooners have some experience in the two-deep with junior Jarvis Jones, who started six games last season, working at both guard and tackle and senior Cory Brandon, who started eight at tackle. Senior Tavaris Jeffries started three at guard.
They’re being pushed by a group of freshmen that are currently ahead of them on the depth chart. Redshirt Josh Aladenoye is currently the No. 2 right tackle and the coaching staff sees a big future for him. Gabe Ikard converted from tight end and has moved up the depth chart at right guard.
Senior Brian Lepak, who started last year’s Bedlam game as a walk-on, is Habern’s backup at center.
“There comes a time where a guy gets wore down or a guy doesn’t do something right and you have to put the next guy in,” Patton said. “So finding out the top eight to ten, and maybe 12, is a high number, but we need to find the guys who work well together the best, and that is the main thing.”
Injuries and inconsistency prevented the Sooners from every doing it last season. But this group believes it has learned from last season’s mistakes.
“I feel like everything is cleaner with the whole line across the board,” Habern said. “Everybody has had playing time and we are starting to mesh together and blocking as a unit.”
John Shinn 366-3536 firstname.lastname@example.org