It all starts up front in football, and what started up front for the Oklahoma Sooners in 2009 was their unraveling.
Forget Sam Bradford's lost season. The o-line's struggles far and away defined the disappointing 8-5 campaign.
The '09 offensive line entered last season facing plenty of questions, and Sooner fans learned about 15 minutes into the year that none of the answers would be good.
Even though injuries decimated the line from day one of fall camp, it was clear as the year progressed that the Sooners didn't have the horses to come anywhere close to matching the decorated unit of 2008.
I could go and on, but nine months after the fact, I feel all talked out about how badly this bunch performed last year.
Conventional wisdom holds that all the pain of a year ago should start to pay dividends now. Unfortunately for the optimistically inclined, I still see plenty of uncertainty up and down the front five.
*Were the Sooner offensive linemen simply inexperienced last year, or are they just not that good?
I typically don't buy into the importance of "experience" in college football, but the body of evidence in favor of its importance for an offensive line has slowly won me over.
Even still, there's a big difference between inexperienced and flat-out bad. OU's offensive linemen displayed a number of signs of the former: missed assignments, struggling with complex defensive looks (see: BYU), false starts, mindless personal fouls.
The hints of the former are more troubling.
OU actually did a decent job protecting the quarterback last season, yielding 1.2 sacks per game, 16th best in the country. Considering the Sooners averaged 40 passes per game, 10th most in the country, that's actually quite good.
The run blocking, on the other hand, left plenty to be desired. OU finished 90th in the country in yards per carry. On first down, OU averaged 3.9 yards per attempt, 94th in the country. When you struggle that badly in clear running situations, I interpret that as a sign of either being physically overmatched or lacking aggressiveness.
I'm not sure that's something that can be cleared up with more time on the field.
*Is Donald Stephenson as good as advertised?
With first-round draft pick Trent Williams off to the NFL, he ostensibly leaves a gaping hole at left tackle. (I'd argue that Williams had a pretty poor year in '09, but he still has to be replaced either way.)
The word out of Norman during the offseason has been that Stephenson is more than ready to fill that gap after serving a yearlong suspension in '09.
Coach Bob Stoops hasn't hid his enthusiasm for Stephenson's talent. OU fans can take that as a positive, given that Stoops has never been one to shy away from calling out underachievers on the o-line.
Still, seeing as his game experience has been limited to mop-up duty in seven games two years ago, you'll have to excuse me if I'm not ready sign off on the "Stephenson-bound-for-stardom" meme yet.
*Has the depth improved?
"This group is thin. Think '180-degrees-opposite-of-Mark-Mangino' thin... The o-line simply lacks bodies, let alone proven talent."
If there's one thing that I actually did get right in my preseason assessment of OU's line last summer, that was it.
The big uglies started dropping like flies before the season even started, meaning that offensive line coach James Patton had to get creative. Aside from turning everyone into de facto utility men to cover for their missing compadres, circumstances forced Patton to insert a tight end into the starting five not once, but twice. As our buddy Bill Connelly at Rock M Nation points out, the Sooners started four centers last season; Missouri started four in the last 14 years.
While such horrific luck with injuries seems unlikely to rear its ugly head again this year, the Chinese fire drill that played out in '09 raises an important point. Even if the five starters do improve, does OU have capable back-ups in place?
*Can Ben Habern stay healthy?
When OU's sophomore center was actually on the field last season, he acquitted himself quite well. However, a broken ankle that ended his year 11 games in has got to have the coaching staff concerned.
Add in the fact that Habern suffered from back problems prior to '09, and you have to wonder if he can make it through an entire season without missing at least a couple games. If those are the "wrong" games – Texas, for instance – watch out.
OK, now that we've laid out all the different reasons why the o-line could still stink. There has to be a silver lining somewhere, right?
Yep, and it's one that Sooner Nation should take comfort in.
In contrast to last year, and Stoops seems downright giddy about this group. In fact, he's even puffing the unit up in the media.
Time proved Stoops right in January 2009 when he called the o-line out. Here's hoping he's right again this year.
Projected Starting Lineup
RT - Jarvis Jones
RG - Tyler Evans
C - Ben Habern
LG - Stephen Good
LT - Donald Stephenson