The Oklahoma Sooners have an offensive line problem. And it's about much more than the depth they lack on this year's squad, though that is certainly alarming. It is a problem that, in my humble opinion, has actually existed for several years. And it is a problem I feel is not being talked about nearly enough.
To be fair, it has been discussed some, but unlike the local paper I'm not limited to a word count or page space. We also have the benefit, though some would probably call it the burden, of approaching things from a much different perspective. To that very point, this post was essentially born out of what I believe to be two glaring issues.
(1) In the 2013 class, Oklahoma has all of one verbal commitment from an offensive lineman. ONE. And it's a commitment from a kid, who while a very talented player, has never played on the offensive line prior to this year. Even more alarming is the fact that Oklahoma has offered 17 offensive lineman and 13 of those have already committed elsewhere. In other words, the Sooners have presumably missed out (for now) on almost every single one of their top targets at a major position of need given the obvious depth issues.
(2) Why is a program the caliber of Oklahoma continually forced to convert tight ends and defensive players to offensive linemen?
Now before we get too far into this thing, for the sake of full disclosure, I feel obligated to put this out there. I am not a fan of James Patton. For those that don't already know, Patton took over the offensive line coaching duties in 2006 following Kevin Wilson's promotion to offensive coordinator. Patton now shares those duties with Bruce Kittle, but has been the man primarily responsible for OU's offensive line up until last season. I've never been a huge fan of his and I don't expect that to ever change. Some may feel, after reading that, I've just disqualified everything I am about to write because of my obvious bias. If you're one of those people, I'd tell you that you have a valid point. That said, I'm going to do my absolute best to keep this to facts as opposed to opinions.
Back to those issues I mentioned. That recruiting issue is one that really hits home for me, particularly because I tend to follow recruiting pretty closely. However, even those that may not do so are well aware that recruiting is the life blood of every program. So when a program of the caliber of Oklahoma swings and misses on virtually every single one of their top targets at a position one can't help but be a little concerned.
Patton and Kittle came into this recruiting class well aware that tackle was a priority and yet here they sit with a single commitment. And said commitment is that of a player, who through no fault of his own, has to be considered a "project" given that he's never played the position OU will ask him to play. Making matters worse is the fact that, at least as of today, OU's chances are not believed to be that great with those remaining uncommitted recruits holding offers from Oklahoma.
To be fair, it's a long time between now and National Signing Day in February and things can change very quickly when it comes to recruiting. So I'm far from writing off this offensive line class as a massive failure, but as things stand today, OU has a lot of work to do to prevent it from becoming one.
However, as I said in the open, this is about much more than just this year. To help paint that picture, if you'll indulge me, I want to go over with you several of the Sooners' recent offensive line recruiting classes. I've chosen to start with the 2008 class, mainly because 2008 was the last OU offensive line I believe anyone could call great. Just know that at this point I'd take really good, it doesn't even have to be great. Anyway, I promise I'll do my best to avoid making it a painfully boring process. What I would like to do though is give you the players, remind you what they did while at OU, and put them into three categories: (A) Success, (2) Meh, & (D) Bust. Then we'll tally them up and see how things shake out. Okay, here we go.
Ben Habern - Three year starter before being forced to cut his career short prior to the start of this season. Success
Stephen Good - A heralded, five star recruit who while a contributor never came close to living up to the hype. Bust
Britt Mitchell - Enrolled early, but left the team before the season started. Bust
Tyler Evans - Played as a true freshman and started the last two seasons before suffering a torn ACL earlier this year. While I've never been a huge fan, you cannot argue with his contributions. Success
Gabe Ikard - Actually signed as a tight end (don't worry, we'll get into this) before being converted to the o-line. Two year starter and very versatile playing both guard and center. Success
Lane Johnson - Originally came to OU after having played quarterback at a JUCO, which is just crazy to think about, and now a starting tackle. Success
Josh Aladenoye - Never more than a reserve, transferred out of the program. Bust
Tavaris Jeffries - Played briefly before shifting to defensive tackle. Bust
Jeff Vinson - Got hurt, never played, left the program. Bust
Austin Woods - I know I don't need to tell you his story and regardless of the fact he's been mainly a reserve this one is going in the success column. Sue me. Success
Daryl Williams - Currently the starting right tackle. Success
Tyrus Thompson - Probably fair to call him the co-starter at left tackle. Success
Bronson Irwin - Currently the starting right guard after the injury to Tyler Evans. Success
Adam Shead - Had a fantastic true freshman season, currently starting at left guard. Success
Nila Kasitati - Could be considered the primary backup for both guard spots and center. The one guy behind the current starters anyone has a great deal of confidence in, but still developing as an offensive lineman. High ceiling, but hasn't really played. Meh (remember, I said high ceiling so don't rip my head off for that 'Meh')
Dylan Dismuke - Redshirted last season, then a knee injury ended his career. Bust
Derek Farniok - He's gigantic, but has yet to see any snaps other than in the most recent blowout victory. Meh
Ty Darlington - Has every bit the look of the next great OU center. Call it premature on my part, but this is happening regardless. Success
Kyle Marrs - Will redshirt this season. Meh
Will Latu - Was much needed, but failed to qualify academically. Bust
John Michael McGee - Was expected to redshirt, but left the team prior to the start of the season. Bust
Final Tally: Success - 10, Meh - 3, Bust - 8
I'll be honest with you, it shook out better than I initially thought it would. That said, the fact that the success-to-bust ratio is that slim of a margin only helps the point I'm trying to make. Now, to be fair, not all of those busts are on the coaches. Obviously, injuries cannot be helped but part of recruiting is the assumption that they will occur and planning accordingly. I wouldn't go so far as to say recruiting offensive linemen is the most difficult position on the field, but it's also not the easiest either. However, when you're looking at essentially a 50/50 success-to-failure rate, maybe I'm just crazy, but that should set off some alarms.
As you've no doubt deduced, the failures of the last two recruiting classes are a direct result of the lack of depth this season. When you sign seven players and three of them are already no longer a part of the team, that's a problem.
Okay, we've waited long enough. I want to repeat this point just for the added emphasis. Why does a program the caliber of Oklahoma constantly have to convert tight ends and defensive lineman to offensive linemen? And perhaps more importantly, why does this appear to be a designed strategy? It's one thing to be forced into doing so, which has certainly happened, but to specifically recruit a player with the sole intention of converting him seems odd to me. I mean, why not just recruit, oh I don't know, an actual freaking offensive lineman?!?
On this 2012 squad alone you have the following players who were not originally signed as offensive lineman: Gabe Ikard, Lane Johnson, Nila Kasitati, John Phillip-Hughes, and Nathan Hughes. And there are already several around the program speculating that Sam Grant's move to the o-line is inevitable.
I've got a number of issues with this kind of strategy, but in order to spare you all I'll narrow it down to just two. (1) It seems to be at least partially responsible for Oklahoma's struggles in the run game and becoming more of a finesse offense. (2) When you sign guys who have never played the position before, it obviously takes longer for them to develop and thus contribute on the field. Look, any recruit no matter how many stars are next to there name, on some level, is a risk. It's a risk as to whether or not they ever develop into the player the coaches thought they would be and I'm not sure how anyone could possibly believe that risk isn't increased when make a kid a project from Day One. Maybe it's a high risk/high reward thing, I honestly don't know. It sure seems like you could make your life much easier by simply identifying your top targets, devote a considerable amount of resources, and bust your you know what to sign them.
I totally understand that guys switch positions at schools all over the country. There are all kinds of reasons for it, usually playing time being the most prevalent, so I certainly don't have a problem with that. In fact, off the top of my head, I think you might even be able to argue OU has had more success with position switches than most. What I do have a problem with however is when you're relying on that, WHEN YOU'RE ONE OF THE ELITE PROGRAMS IN THE COUNTRY, as opposed to simply signing top offensive line recruits. Just to be clear, my expectation isn't for Oklahoma to "select" which recruits they are going to sign. As much as I'd like them to be, they're not that good. They are going to miss on some guys, that happens. That said, the number of recruits they've missed on thus far in the 2013 class is more than a little disturbing.
It would be one thing if were just the depth problems or just the somewhat bleak outlook on the recruiting front, but when you're experiencing both simultaneously, it tends to magnify the problem.