The Sooners return all starters from last year. That includes 2007 consensus All-American guard Duke Robinson, All-Big XII center Jon Cooper and mountainous left tackle Phil Loadholt. In total, the linemen have nearly 150 starts between them.
I hate to piss on the parade, but I’m not quite sold.
Saying the Sooners’ o-line has been whipped in big games in recent years would be an understatement. Take the stunning 2008 Fiesta Bowl rout. All-American Robinson and company looked flummoxed all night, as West Virginia’s undersized 3-3-5 defensive unit dominated the line of scrimmage. The scrappy Mountaineers sacked Bradford three times and kept the OU running game pinned down all night. It was eerily similar to the way Boise State’s outmanned front four tormented OU quarterback Paul Thompson the year before in Glendale.
When the line struggled, it seemed to coincide with a barrage of unnecessary roughness and false starts, especially among the headliners. According to the pundits, the decorated Robinson and the mammoth Loadholt are headed for the first round of the NFL draft in April. While both bruisers certainly have the size and so called “nasty streak” that pro football scouts love, all that nastiness produced enough penalties in 2007 to put the Columbus Yellow Jackets to shame. (OK, I admit that I know nothing about hockey.) Throw in junior right tackle Trent Williams’ penchant for personal fouls and you have a perfect recipe for about two to three drive-killing mistakes per game.
To hear the OU coaches tell it, the line's anchor is actually right guard Brandon Walker, a former junior college transfer who allegedly “graded out” better than any other lineman on the entire team last year. Likewise, long-time starter Cooper has been a dependable cog in the Sooner machine who will be sorely missed after the season.
Senior Branndon Braxton and Williams alternated starting at right tackle last year and appear to be nearly interchangeable at this point. Both also can shift among different spots on the line, making them useful utility men who can provide depth and insurance should any of the other regulars go down.
The backups consist of a mix between solid veterans, such as junior guard Brian Simmons, and talented youngsters, including touted freshman recruit Stephen Good and redshirt tackle Donald Stephenson, who has OU coaches raving.
Despite the o-line's occasional lapses in 2007, they often tended toward greatness. Performances like the one put on during a throttling of Miami, for example, gave reason to believe OU's big uglies can dominate even the most talented of defenses. Whatever his past fondness for yellow flags, it's not unreasonable to hope Robinson has learned to keep his emotions in check going into his senior year. Similarly, with 18 months of D-I coaching under his belt, Loadholt should show considerable improvement and legitimize the draftniks' high opinion of him.
In the end, the Sooners' o-line should be the biggest strength of arguably the nation's most talented team. Unless the unit can maintain the focus and discipline it has lacked in the past, however, it will remain tantalizingly good, but not quite great.
(This Weekend: Secondary)