Sooners looking to build five-loss team into national champion
A series of freak accidents derailed a 2009 season that began with title hopes
Those struggles forced players like QB Landry Jones to play ahead of schedule
Instead of starting year with untested offense, Sooners are again dreaming big
NORMAN, Okla. -- At a mid-August practice, Landry Jones wore a wristband bearing a verse from the book of Proverbs that explains how men can sharpen one another as iron sharpens iron. It might have been more appropriate if Oklahoma's quarterback -- and the rest of the Sooners' offense -- had chosen a verse from the book of Job.
Oklahoma's offense certainly had its faith tested in 2009. No one was stricken with sores from head to toe, but the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and future No. 1 overall draft pick at quarterback (Sam Bradford) played in just three games because of a shoulder injury. The future first-rounder at tight end (Jermaine Gresham) didn't play a snap because of a knee injury. In the Sun Bowl, the future top five pick at offensive tackle (Trent Williams) became the fourth different Sooner to start at center. In 13 games, Oklahoma used 10 different starting offensive line combinations. The only thing missing was a Chaldean raiding party.
How bad was Oklahoma's luck? After receiver Ryan Broyles caught a 37-yard pass on Oklahoma's second play from scrimmage at Miami, he broke his collarbone. Later, a trainer would tell Broyles the bone almost never breaks in that particular spot. "It was a freak accident," Broyles said. Without their best receiver, the Sooners lost by one that night.
A series of freak accidents derailed a season that began with seemingly realistic national championship hopes. Oklahoma lost five games for the first time since Coach Bob Stoops' first season in 1999. Now, the Sooners hope to do exactly what the 2000 team did: build a five-loss team into a national champion.
That's not an outlandish proposition, especially if the Sooners can stay healthy on offense. Between Jones, Broyles, tailback DeMarco Murray and a line that includes eight players who started at least one game last season, Oklahoma has the raw material to put up numbers similar to the ones it amassed in 2008, when Bradford won the Heisman and the Big 12 champion Sooners played for the BCS title.
While Jones has taken command of the offense, Stoops hopes the star is Murray, a fifth-year senior from Las Vegas who will start the season 72 points away from Steve Owens' Oklahoma career scoring record and 1,647 yards away from Billy Sims' Oklahoma career rushing record. Stoops has said he'd like Murray to be a workhorse, and he can envision Murray's name alongside the names of Owens, Sims, Joe Washington and Adrian Peterson. "You can talk about Running Back U all over the place," Stoops said, "but we take a backseat to no one when it comes to running backs."
Murray, who redshirted Peterson's junior year and spent much of his career sharing carries with Chris Brown, isn't worried about the records. "Anything's possible, but I'm not looking forward to breaking anybody's record," Murray said. "That's not my goal. I'm just trying to stay healthy. ... Whenever I'm out there, I'll play as hard as I can. I'll play like it's my last down."
Murray has enjoyed playing behind the same offensive line throughout camp. Center Ben Habern, who started 10 games in 2009, will anchor a group that includes left tackle Donald Stephenson, left guard Stephen Good, right guard Tyler Evans and right tackle Eric Mensik. Mensik came to Oklahoma as a tight end. Then 260 pounds, Mensik made his first career start at the position last season against Texas A&M, but switched jerseys mid-game and played tackle. Mensik played so well at tackle that he stayed on the line, packing on the pounds this offseason to come to camp at 290.
That group will protect a more mature Jones, who at this point last year was trying to nail down the Sooners' backup job. Less than two weeks later, a hit by BYU linebacker Coleby Clawson crushed Bradford's AC joint and thrust Jones, a laid-back dude from Artesia, N.M., who sounds like he should be recommending Death Cab for Cutie imports at an indie record store, into one of the premier jobs in college sports.
As expected, Jones struggled at times. The game occasionally moved too fast. Jones said his five-interception performance in a 10-3 loss at Nebraska remains a sore spot. Reminded that few quarterbacks succeeded against Ndamukong Suh and company last season, Jones refused to make excuses. "There were things that were open," Jones said. "I just needed to move around a little more in the pocket and give our o-line a little bit of a break."
As a redshirt freshman last year, Jones also hadn't learned to take charge of the huddle. "I don't think I heard him say anything but the play last year," said Murray, who has watched Jones grow into a more vocal leader in the offseason. Jones said he now has had a chance to tell his teammates what he expects of them. He also has told him what he expects of himself. "I expect to be perfect," said Jones, who threw for 3,198 yards with 26 touchdowns and 14 interceptions in 2009. "I'm not going to be, but I'm striving for perfection on every play, every read and every throw. Obviously, I know that's not going to happen, but I'm striving for it."
He'll get closer this year. As last season progressed, the game slowed for Jones. By this spring, he could see both safeties instead of having time to read only one. He now sees the field, he said, in two distinct halves, and he can keep track of all the receivers in the pattern. "He's a different guy. He's like night and day," Stoops said. "There's truly no comparison with this time last year -- or this year had the circumstances been different."
Had everything gone as planned in 2009, the 2010 Sooners would lack experience at quarterback and on the offensive line. Instead, Oklahoma's struggles forged an offense that will enter this season savvy, if not downright grizzled. The odds suggest the men in crimson and cream won't have to struggle through another Job-like series of misfortunes. If they don't, the Sooners can dust off the national title dreams they shelved when the losses began mounting last season.
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