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This fall the Sooners welcome back 12 starters, five of them from south of the border. In addition, as many as a dozen of the 30 Texans that Coach Chuck Fairbanks and his staff have recently talked into going to Oklahoma could crack the starting lineup. Of these the best is sophomore Quarterback Jack Mildren.
Mildren, you may remember (SI Sept. 9, 1968), is the blue-chip boy from Abilene, who a year ago told reporters he thought he might have a chance to both start as a sophomore and win a national championship at OU before he was done. Last year, while amusing himself on a sparkling freshman team that took Tulsa 77-7 and outscored four opponents 194-66, Mildren looked like he was worth all the coaxing by making good on 49 of 79 passes for 876 yards. He also averaged 5.5 yards running the option and could scarcely have been better.
"As to whether I'll be an All-America," Mildren likes to say when he's asked, which is about every hour, "I haven't even won the starting job yet." That is technically true. Mickey Ripley, who as a junior tossed a pair of scoring passes in the Bluebonnet Bowl in relief of an injured Bobby Warmack, is back again and anxious to lay claim to the quarterback job.
Regardless of who the Sooner quarterback is, he'll be giving the ball to a Heisman Trophy candidate much of the time. Tailback Steve Owens may well be the most effective rusher in the country now that O. J. Simpson and Leroy Keyes are gone. He didn't make any All-America teams and was somehow quiet about gaining 1,536 yards and scoring 21 touchdowns. But Owens is within reach of Eugene (Mercury) Morris' one-year-old NCAA career rushing mark and he could become the highest scorer in college history. Fullback Mike Harper, used chiefly as a blocker in the I formation, nevertheless averaged five yards a crack. Wingback Roy Bell, one of the many sophomores Fairbanks is counting on to help improve the Sooners' 7-3 finish of last year, is a dangerous deep receiver, but his lofty frosh rushing average suggests he'll share the split backfield alignment with Owens in Oklahoma's new pro set.
Center Ken Mendenhall, the team's most capable one-on-one blocker, and Owens have established a mutual admiration society. "Owens is so great at cutting back and sliding along the line to find openings," Mendenhall says. "He runs so low that most tacklers glance off him. I don't know how he keeps going like he does. You see how tired he is after every play, but he gets so excited after he's made a gain he comes back to the huddle and congratulates everybody." Owens returns the compliment to Mendenhall. "He's always got the way cleared for you. He's fantastic coming off the ball with a man in front of him. I'm not blessed with great open speed, but our linemen use sort of scramble-style blocking to drive their men off the line. Then it's my job to cut to wherever there's room." The remainder of the offensive line looks solid with sometime Defensive End Steve Zabel returning to his natural spot at tight end.
Zabel's absence isn't expected to cripple the defense, although he is given a large measure of credit for Oklahoma winning its last five games. The defensive line is a mixture of new and old, but it's all big. If two young Texans, Albert Quails and John Gorman, have difficulty at the ends, Oklahoma's new containment 4-4-3 defense should lend a helping hand. Fairbanks has a covey of able linebackers to fill the four slots, and his secondary looks so good that Joe Pearce, who intercepted two passes and blocked a kick in the Bluebonnet Bowl, may not get his job back. Pearce and another defensive halfback, Bruce Stensrud, are being pressed hard by sophomore Glenn King, who as an offensive back scored 64 touchdowns in high school. At safety is Monte Johnson, a predecessor of Mildren who went to Texas for a year before transferring to Oklahoma.
As an indication of the relative strength of the Big Eight, Oklahoma ranks near the bottom of the conference in returning lettermen, with 27. The Sooners will have a chance to adjust themselves in their first two games against ailing Wisconsin and Pittsburgh, before meeting rugged Texas. The game is played annually in Dallas, and this year a national television audience will be treated to what promises to be a brutal battle.
Jack Mildren, who said he's had "quite a few word battles over the summer with high school teammates who attend Texas," returned to school in midsummer in order to take part in a football clinic for Oklahoma's Little League football players. The clinic is sponsored by former Sooner Ron Shotts and it drew more than 400 boys in its first year. "There are a lot of guys from the team now coaching the younger fellows," Mildren said, "and some of those who have graduated are working with the 12- to 15-year-olds. The boys are really fun to work with and they get a lot of enjoyment out of learning football and having us sign autographs after sessions. We all wear T shirts with our name and varsity number on them, but I don't think many of the boys even know who I am."
They shouldn't have too much longer to find out.