By John Shinn
CNHI News Service
NORMAN – Oklahoma has boundless optimism each August. It’s a team, a program and fan base reared on the belief that winning every game is an achievable goal.
However, the 16th-ranked Sooners open the season tonight against Louisiana-Monroe needing to validate those beliefs. The questions lingering now require a burden of proof past teams haven’t faced.
“It comes with the territory with a new team every year,” center Gabe Ikard said. “This year especially with some guys that have been around here for so long that are gone.”
It starts at quarterback. Landry Jones is gone to the NFL. For the first time since the middle of the 2009 season, someone else will take the opening snap at quarterback.
Redshirt freshman Trevor Knight beat out junior Blake Bell for the starting job in the preseason. Coaches and teammates have raved about Knight’s athletic ability, arm strength, poise and leadership for the last month.
All those observations are due to what Knight has done on the practice field or in scrimmages with the comfort of wearing a blue “no contact” jersey. He’ll be a live target tonight.
“You think you know what you have all the time,” OU offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. “But when the lights come on and they get hit in the mouth and they have to distribute the ball in front of 85,000 … When it doesn’t go well, how do they respond? Certainly, you’re gonna find those things out about all your players, but your quarterback as well.”
At least the Sooners can surround Knight with 10 players who have previous starting experience. Outside of the quarterback spot, there isn’t a more veteran offense in college football.
Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops doesn’t have that luxury. The butterflies churning through his stomach are due to an eight-month rebuilding project.
Everything from personnel to scheme has been overhauled since last season. The goal is to build a unit capable of stopping – not just slowing – uptempo nd spread offenses. The Sooners will try doing it with first-time starters all over the field.
“We’re excited to be on the field competing against someone other than ourselves and to see what improvements we’ve made since the end of the year last year and see how some of the changes have helped become more multiple in everything we do and give the quarterback more looks,” Stoops said. “We just have to see how it all works. Our players have been good. Like I say: we’ll see Saturday.”
He’ll see whether the linebackers he’s tried to build the defense around are up to the challenge. He’ll see if OU’s defensive line, which will be without defensive tackle Chuka Ndulue (one-game suspension), can collapse pockets and create pressure in a way last year’s group couldn’t.
Can the emphasis on disguising coverages and creating confusion keep Louisiana-Monroe quarterback Kolton Browning out of rhythm? Browning was the Sun Belt Conference’s offensive player of the year last season. He won’t be easily fooled.
Can OU create turnovers at a higher rate than 1.23 a game, which it averaged last season?
For years, the assumption was OU could. The Sooners lived in the national chamionship race because they answered those questions affirmatively.
“I just want to see us get back to that championship swagger,” cornerback Aaron Colvin said. “I talked to a lot of older guys that graduated from here and were successful here.”
– John Shinn is a sports writer for the Norman Transcript.