AT NO POINT did
the phrase Statue of Liberty cross the lips of Bob Stoops. But it seemed the
Oklahoma coach was still not out of the shadow of last January's Fiesta Bowl
when he responded to a question at the team's recent media day. Asked to name
the areas in which his team most needed to improve, Stoops replied that he was
looking for "more discipline" on defense. He was talking about the
stay-at-home instincts that keep players from being gulled by a
hook-and-lateral or a halfback pass or the Statue of Liberty--trick plays that
catapulted underdog Boise State to a stunning 43-42 overtime upset of the
miserable loss, Oklahoma counted last season as a triumph. The Sooners overcame
adversity--the dismissal of quarterback Rhett Bomar on the eve of the season
and the loss of star running back Adrian Peterson in mid-October with a broken
collarbone--to take the Big�12 championship.
One of the heroes
of 2006 was Paul Thompson, the quarterback turned receiver who returned to his
old position on short notice and threw for 2,667�yards. The battle among
three players to succeed him was unresolved as SI went to press. Neither
redshirt freshman Sam Bradford nor freshman Keith Nichol nor juco transfer Joey
Halzle had seized the job early in practice. Stoops professed to be unconcerned
that his starting QB would have little or no game experience. "We've had
four different quarterbacks win four different Big�12 championships,"
he said of the past seven seasons. Nor was he dismayed by the early departure
of Peterson. After all, he points out, the Sooners were 8-0 in games that
Peterson missed because of injury.
wide receiver and running back (senior Allen Patrick topped 100 yards in four
of the five games he started in relief of Peterson last year, though he was
slowed 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 offense
will put up serious numbers. But will opposing offenses do the same?
concern is at linebacker, where the Sooners must replace their top two
tacklers: Zach Latimer and Big�12 defensive player of the year Rufus
Alexander. Getting a shot to replace Alexander on the outside is redshirt
sophomore Ryan Reynolds, a dazzling prospect who leads the team in time spent
on crutches. (After tearing his left ACL in the spring of '06, he ruptured the
lateral collateral ligament in his right knee last spring.) But there was
Reynolds, back on the field in August; if he can stay there, it will enable
Curtis Lofton to play his natural position, in the middle. "He and Ryan
give us a lot of strength in the interior," says defensive coordinator
Venables was also
buoyed by a secondary that is "a lot further ahead than we were a year
ago." That's good, because Oklahoma struggled to stop the pass early last
season. Cornerback D.J. Wolfe, a sophomore in '06, was benched after three
games, but he reemerged at strong safety in the spring when some of the younger
Sooners struggled at the position. "It's got a chance to be a great move
for us," says Stoops.
has a strong chance to get back to a BCS bowl, or better. But the Sooners will
have to prove that their last game, that loss to Boise State, was a fluke.