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March 9, 2010
Work to do, but history in Oklahoma's favor
Oklahoma has posted eight or fewer wins three times in 11 seasons under coach Bob Stoops. Twice, the Sooners rebounded the next season to win the Big 12 championship. OU bounced back from a 7-5 finish in 1999 to win the national championship in 2000.
Last season, the injury-wracked Sooners finished 8-5. Therefore, anticipate Oklahoma making a strong run at another conference crown this season -- at least that's what history would indicate. But in order to continue that trend, the Sooners need rebuild the offensive line, bolster the receiving corps, overcome some big losses on defense and make more strides in developing quarterback Landry Jones.
Here is a look at OU as it readies for spring practice.
POSITIONS OF STRENGTH
When hasn't OU been loaded at running back? DeMarco Murray's decision to return for his senior season gives the Sooners a proven big-play threat. Murray was a 1,000-yard rusher in '08 and has scored 35 rushing touchdowns in his career. Jermie Calhoun, a highly touted recruit in '08, appears poised to make a significant contribution this season. The same goes for sophomore Jonathan Miller. The Sooners also boast DE Jeremy Beal, one of the nation's premier pass rushers. He and junior Frank Alexander, another former highly touted recruit, figure to be a formidable duo. A better-than-you think linebacker group is led by third-year starter Travis Lewis. He'll be joined by Ronnell Lewis, who's coming off a strong performance in the Sun Bowl, and either Austin Box or redshirt freshman Tom Wort -- both of whom have had injury issues but are healthy now.
HELP IS NEEDED
The departure of Gerald McCoy to the NFL cost OU an All-America defensive tackle, and the effects could be felt elsewhere. Opposing offenses' preoccupation with McCoy opened opportunities for teammates at other positions. We'll see if the ends can be as effective without McCoy inside. As if McCoy's loss wasn't bad enough, returning starting NT Adrian Taylor is recovering from a broken ankle. The Sooners need sophomores Jamarkus McFarland and Stacy McGee to step up at tackle. Cornerback also is an area of concern with two new starters. A productive receiver or two needs to emerge to complement explosive Ryan Broyles. OU has six players returning who made at least six starts on the offensive line, but the line was a disappointment last season.
THREE GUYS TO WATCH
QB Landry Jones: He struggled with inconsistency after he took over for an injured Sam Bradford, but that was expected. He was playing for the first time and was behind an injury-riddled offensive line. Now with experience and presumably better blocking, Jones figures to be much improved. Any lingering concerns can be put to rest if he has an exceptional performance this spring.
DT Jamarkus McFarland: Last year, the Sooners won a heated recruiting battle over Texas to land McFarland. Now, they're looking for McFarland to stabilize a position of need. McCoy's departure and Taylor's injury obviously weakens the Sooners' interior defensive line. The Sooners need McFarland, who posted eight tackles as a freshman, to emerge as the force he was projected to be.
LB Tom Wort: A four-star prospect in '09, Wort made an immediate impression on coaches when he arrived in Norman. He was challenging for playing time before a preseason knee injury forced him to miss the season. Healthy now, he should make a strong challenge to start in the middle.
THE PRESSURE IS ON
OT Donald Stephenson: Stephenson could have helped ease a lot of the problems Oklahoma had on its offensive line last season, but he was academically ineligible. He is back in good academic graces and may be the Sooners' most talented lineman, but he has had off-field problems and questionable work habits. Although he has been unreliable, Stephenson -- a sophomore -- could fill a big hole in replacing Trent Williams at left tackle.
Year in and year out, Stoops has a strong football team. Whether the Sooners are championship caliber largely depends on how adequately they can patch holes in the starting lineup. They must replace potential first-round draft choices at defensive tackle (McCoy) and offensive tackle (Williams), and they also have rebuilding jobs at linebacker and at cornerback -- where Brian Jackson graduated and Dominique Franks opted for early entry to the NFL draft. If potential replacements such as McFarland, Stephenson, Wort and Demontre Hurst, Jonathan Nelson and Jamell Fleming at cornerback have strong performances this spring, OU will enter the fall as a leading contender for the Big 12 championship.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.