It was midway through spring practice when the Sooners' offensive linemen started to get ornery. They picked fights with defensive tackles during scrimmages and brawled with one another between drills. These flare-ups, says senior tight end Trent Smith, were the most encouraging signs of the spring. "After every practice, all the defense could talk about was how nasty the O-linemen were getting," says Smith. "They'd found their attitude."
It's about time. Behind passive young linemen last year the Oklahoma attack produced a mere 119.4 rushing yards per game (89th in the nation) and only two touchdowns combined in losses to Nebraska and Oklahoma State. What's more, quarterbacks Nate Hybl and Jason White were sacked 31 times. That the Sooners finished 11-2, including a win over Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl, is a credit to their uncompromising defense, which allowed 262.8 yards per game to rank fourth in the nation.
"It felt like we spent the entire season in third-and-long," says Smith, who led the nation's tight ends with 564 receiving yards. "Unlike the defensive players, we had never adjusted our attitudes after [winning the national championship in 2000]. We just finessed everything, while our defense was constantly going for broke."
The offense overall should be dynamic compared with last season's, and for that reason Oklahoma has an excellent chance to win its second national title in three years. The transformation is due mostly to the hiring of assistant Kevin Wilson, the former Northwestern offensive coordinator who was brought in to resuscitate the running game, and to the promotion of assistant Chuck Long to offensive coordinator. (Long succeeds Mark Mangino, who took the Kansas coaching job.) As part of their effort to diversify a short-pass heavy spread offense that better defenses read like a pop-up book, the coaches have instructed the offensive linemen to eliminate the oceans of space that existed between them last year and block more as a unit. They hope the change improves the team's rushing game and creates more opportunities to throw deep.
"My goals were to make the quarterback a more viable run option and devise a simple blocking scheme that works with one-back and two-back sets," says Wilson, whose Northwestern offense averaged 475.6 yards in 2000 (third best in the nation) and 442.9 last season (15th best). "The idea is to let the players use their natural abilities, which is important when you're working with such high-caliber athletes."
Wilson has plenty of topflight athletes to work with, including sophomore tackles Jammal Brown, Jerod Fields and Wes Sims, and sophomore center Vince Carter, all of whom started at least five games last year. The line's cohesiveness will be essential to senior tailback Quentin Griffin, who is better than his 67.0 yards per game in 2001, and to White, who connected on 64.6% of his passes for 681 yards in seven games before tearing the ACL in his left knee against Nebraska.
Because he is more mobile and has a better field sense, White, a junior, has the inside track on the starting quarterback job over Hybl, a senior who last year threw for 2,234 yards and 14 touchdowns but had 13 interceptions. A deep and versatile receiving corps that includes precocious sophomore Mark Clayton and sure-handed senior Antwone Savage will allow Smith, who bulked up to 244 pounds in the off-season, to provide the linemen with extra blocking help.
The combination of a new offensive coaching philosophy and battle-tested personnel, not to mention a favorable schedule (home games against Colorado and Texas A&M), makes Oklahoma the team to beat. "The addition of Kevin has only added to that team's strengths," says Ohio State defensive coordinator Mark Dantonio, whose staff traveled to Norman in March to observe the Sooners. "There's a championship air about that team."