Offensive line weak link for Sooners

NORMAN, Okla. - The sight of Sam Bradford writhing on the ground in pain, like a plot twist in a classic novel, came with some foreshadowing.

Questions about whether Oklahoma's offensive line would be able to protect the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback started months before the season, when coach Bob Stoops himself called the unit the team's "weak link."

Ask Bradford and he'll say that he held onto the ball too long against BYU's second-quarter blitz that sent him crashing to the turf, his shoulder crushed and sprained in the process. But the series of mistakes that surrounded that play have the Sooners' coaches still searching for answers as they try to salvage a season that started with national championship dreams.

In the wake of a 14-13 loss to BYU last week, Stoops called on his front line to become a more responsible and accountable group. The linemen accumulated nine penalties, regularly shifting what had been the highest-scoring offense in NCAA history into reverse.

"We just didn't play smart. That's all it comes down to," center Brody Eldridge said. "We didn't play disciplined at all, and we have to get that fixed."

After calling out his line in the spring, Stoops took an encouraging tack during training camp. He backed away from the "weak link" comment that caught the attention of the linemen trying to replace four starters, including an All-American and two others who will start this season on NFL rosters.

But now it's clear something has to change.

"When you have 12 offensive penalties, you really put yourself behind the 8-ball," Stoops said. "I felt just the lack of execution and poise and discipline to play with fewer penalties and to take care of football were a major factor in us not being able to give ourselves a better opportunity to win. In the end, those mistakes cost us in a big way and we weren't able to overcome them."

Oklahoma's coaches say wholesale changes aren't necessary, but there's still plenty of shuffling going on to find the right starting five. Jarvis Jones, a transfer from LSU, could get more playing time at right tackle in place of Cory Brandon, the most frequent offender in the penalty department.

Eldridge, who was celebrated as the line's top performer after he moved to center from tight end, could move back to the edge after tight end Jermaine Gresham had season-ending surgery on his knee. And youngsters Ben Habern, Stephen Good and Tyler Evans could all get bigger roles if the veteran linemen struggle.

They'll be blocking for redshirt freshman quarterback Landry Jones, while Bradford spends the next two to four weeks healing from the hit by a BYU linebacker who was hardly touched.

"I've got a couple guys that I think can and should perform well that didn't and I am wondering and questioning why, and I'm tired of waiting and asking," offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said. "There needs to be a great sense of urgency from some men that need to play at a better level, or some young guys have an opportunity."

Reasons for the undisciplined play range from crowd noise in the Dallas Cowboys' new stadium to the jitters that come with stepping into a pressure-packed role for the first time. Guard Brian Simmons said the Sooners did some back-to-basics work to eliminate the mental mistakes.

"I know we're known for the no-huddle offense, but we kind of slowed things down and just really paid attention to detail," Simmons said. "Just observing why do we do this, kind of like Football 101. I think the coaches just feel like a lot of guys are just antsy or nervous.

"This discipline, man. That killed us. We shot ourselves in the foot."

Wilson said the coaches take some of the blame, too. Despite having the better part of eight months to prepare, the Sooners were caught off-guard when BYU used a more aggressive blitzing scheme and had to turn to plays they hadn't practiced as much.

Still, he called on his linemen to play up to the potential they have shown.

"I have confidence in their talent. I don't have confidence in how they performed," Wilson said. "That's where I have to look at our preparation, what I'm calling, our direction as a staff and what we're doing and are we trying to do too much with this crowd? Are they not ready for that?"

After the humbling debut, the retooled line will find itself under the microscope again Saturday when the Sooners play their home opener against Idaho State of the Football Championship Subdivision. The Bengals (0-1) are 1-16 in their past 17 games.

"We've got to get better and we are going to get better," Jones said. "I can guarantee you that."


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