Huskers will test Sooners' inconsistent O-line

BY foxsports • November 6, 2009

For a group that had lost four starters from a season ago, it was a bold statement of support for mostly unproven players charged with protecting Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford and opening holes in the running game.

It was also in stark contrast to coach Bob Stoops' comments in the spring that the offensive line was the "weak link" of the team.

Two-thirds of the way through the season, the line is still a work in progress for the No. 20 Sooners (5-3, 3-1) as they prepare to face Big 12 preseason defensive player of the year Ndamukong Suh and Nebraska (5-3, 2-2) on Saturday night.

Wilson this week defended his earlier comments.

"Have you guys never played cards?" he asked. "Don't you watch that Texas hold 'em deal? Sometimes you're bluffing a little bit. Sometimes you don't.

"The only problem I have is that those guys are more talented than they have played, and they're gaining on it. The talent level does not match their performance because I see their talents and potential, but potential's a dirty word because that means you haven't done it yet."

The group has been constantly shuffled this season, with six different starting combinations through eight games. The combination of Trent Williams, converted tight end Brody Eldridge, Ben Habern, Stephen Good and Cory Brandon has started the last two games while left guard Brian Simmons continues to recover from a right knee injury.

That continuity is not necessarily a sign that the problems are solved.

"If those guys for one second think they've got it figured out, then they're a long way off and we are definitely doomed," Wilson said. "I hope they'll have enough confidence in themselves and play like they've been playing and don't make the opponents, as tremendous as their defensive players might be, don't make it bigger than it is."

While Suh has gained a reputation as a top NFL prospect, his teammates have been productive, too. Fellow defensive tackle Jared Crick set a school record with five sacks in last week's 20-10 win at Baylor.

"They have two of the top guys in the nation - big, strong, physical guys - and we're looking forward to the challenge," said Good, who has started the last two games at right guard.

The problems for the line have been brewing for some time. Tackle Britt Mitchell left the program prior to last season and Jason Hannan, the team's backup center last year, and guard Kody Cooke followed suit this offseason. Stoops then kicked tackle Alex Williams off the team.

That drained the depth for a line set to lose five players with starting experience, including three who are currently on NFL rosters.

"There's a little bit of everything," Stoops said. "We got caught thin with a big graduating class. It's not often you have five guys that leave all at once. I think it's fair to say, sure, we've had guys leave. We've had to remove guys because they don't go to class, they don't do what the team requires them to do. And then development, a lot of it's on these guys. Certain guys have a better work ethic than others."

The departures mirror a trend from before the 2005 season, when Oklahoma also suffered three early losses. That year, linemen Akim Millingon and Brandon Keith left the team just before the season.

Wilson blamed the exodus on an offseason conditioning program that can be difficult for players to endure if it doesn't result in playing time. He says the Sooners are trying to combat that by getting younger players into the game sooner, when possible.

"We're trying to show them if you play, it's fun and all this lifting and all this stuff is great because the guys that play don't mind the lifting and running," said Wilson, who also opened the door for walk-ons committed to work hard. "It's the guys that aren't getting rewarded because they're not getting on the field."

He suggested that the failures of the Sooners' coaching staff have come in evaluating players' work ethic, not their talent.

"I'm still intrigued by our group because their talent level is still better than they've played, and they still have a great opportunity this week against an extremely talented and a proven defensive line, because this group is proven. They play like a great team," Wilson said. "We have a chance to make a statement and see if we're gaining on that and getting closer to being a decent offensive line."