Given the lockdown Bob Stoops has instituted with the OU program, both prior to and during the season, it's pretty much impossible to gleam much tangible knowledge from a collection of preseason practices. Then when you take into account the coach speak and lack of anything resembling real insight when the coaches actually do speak with the media, it just makes things all the more difficult. So I won't sit here and try and convince you from having watched the handful 90 second clips SoonerSports posted from their daily practices (though I did watch them all) that I've gained some inside knowledge on this Sooner squad. You're too smart for that. What we can do though is recap the positions that even after spring and summer practices still remain somewhat unsettled. For a preseason #1 ranked team, you'd think there would be few if any but coming out of preseason camp OU has at least a couple that could cause some concern.
We can start with one most fans are aware of and in a perfect world, wouldn't have much of an effect on this upcoming season. That's the back-up QB spot. No disrespect to early enrollee true freshman Kendal Thompson, but the two legit candidates here are Drew Allen and Blake Bell. Both have received their fair share of compliments and criticism this preseason. Bell is, for the most part, the fan favorite due mainly to the hype surrounding his arrival in Norman and the potential so many believe he possesses. Allen has the experience edge, both in the system and on the field (however minimal that may be) and appears to have held off Bell for the second consecutive year. We all know the only scenario that would need to occur for either to get significant playing time and for fear of the jinx, I'll do us all a favor and not mention it specifically. However, if the worst were to happen, at least at this point, it would appear that Allen would be the first guy off the bench.
Staying on the offensive side of the ball, some might feel the need to include RB on this list of unsettled positions. I'm choosing not to do so for a couple reasons. The first being, OU isn't going to just play one guy so the fact that a "starter" hasn't been named is totally inconsequential IMO. Second, I see it as being a pretty fluid situation throughout the year though, gun to my head, if I had to put them in order as it stands today I'd have it: (1) Brennan Clay, (2) Roy Finch, (3) Jonathan Miller, (4) Brandon Williams, (5) Jermie Calhoun, (6) Dominique Whaley.
So here we reach our first are of potential serious concern, offensive tackle. At left tackle, returning starter Donald Stephenson was believed to be the incumbent but if the coaches public comments are to believed (questionable to be sure) one time QB recruit Lane Johnson has made a push for serious playing time. As I mentioned Johnson was originally a JUCO QB recruit who moved to TE, then DE, and now offensive tackle. Clearly the guy is athletic, but if a guy who is playing the position for the first time ever and responsible for protecting our QB's blind side is able to beat out a returning starter, it would be hard not to be at least a little worried about this no?
Heading into 2011, right tackle was also thought to be solid with another returning starter in Jarvis Jones. However after Jones suffered a knee injury this spring, there was suddenly a question mark on the right side of the line. At one point Josh Aladenoye was believed to be the leading candidate, but he has now switched sides and is playing at defensive tackle. So it would appear now that redshirt frosh Daryl Williams is the guy at right tackle, though Johnson has been discussed there as well. Either way, until Jones returns it looks to be a position that has very little experience.
On the defensive side of the ball, DE is a position that is somewhat unsettled and not for the typical reasons. Unfortunately for OU fans, expected starter Ronnell Lewis is going through some personal issues and there is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding his availability. The Sooners do have some capable players in David King and Geneo Grissom to replace Lewis if need be, but anytime you (potentially) lose a player who is as talented as The Hammer it's going to have an impact.
Also on the defensive line, DT is a position I see somewhat similar to how I described the RBs. In that there are a bunch of bodies, but not necessarily any 'set in stone' starters. Additionally, two of the talented incoming freshman from this year's class have yet to be cleared by the NCAA Clearinghouse. Obviously teams will try to exploit this perceived weakness, much like they did last year, and challenge the Sooners up the middle. Last year in OU's two losses, failing to stop the run game and a lack of push up the middle on the pass rush played a significant role in the negative end result.
Finally, the corner back spot opposite Demontre Hurst is arguably unsettled depending on which side of the Jamell Fleming vs. Gabe Lynn fence you fall on. Fleming's off the field issues have been well documented and clearly lead to Lynn's opportunity to grab the starting spot. By all accounts he has performed very well with the first team defense. That said, Fleming was one of the best CBs in the Big XII last year and arguably one of the top returning CBs in the entire country this year. Because of that, many believe it's just a matter of time until he reclaims that starting role. Obviously only time will tell and this OU fan is of the opinion that Lynn is given every opportunity to hold onto the top spot, but at some point it will come down to quality of play and if Fleming is outperforming Lynn then I do firmly believe the coaches will move Fleming back into that starting spot.
Every team in college football will have some kind of issues, some more serious than others. OU appears to be settled at the "key" spots, so the question will be whether or not the potential problem areas hold them back and prevent them from getting #8 or whether they'll be able to overcome and/or players step up and turn a problem area into a strength. Here is to hoping the latter occurs much more regularly than the former for OU fans this year!