Top 50 Countdown: No. 9 Oklahoma

Coach: Bob Stoops | Staff
In 2006: 11-3; lost 43-42 in overtime to Boise State in Fiesta Bowl.
Returning starters: Offense: 8. Defense: 6.
Key losses: RB Adrian Peterson, LB Rufus Alexander, QB Paul Thompson, OT Chris Messner, DE C.J. Ah You, DT Larry Birdine.
2007 breakdown: Top 10 players | Outlook | Offense | Defense | Special teams | Coaching | Schedule

Breaking down the offense

Overview: Oklahoma must replace the production of All-American and first-round draft pick Adrian Peterson, but the bigger concern around Norman involves the quarterback situation. Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops still hasn't decided whether to hand the job to junior Joey Halzle, redshirt freshman Sam Bradford or true freshman Keith Nichol. Oklahoma had an uncertain quarterback situation last year and still won the Big 12. Can the Sooners do it two consecutive years?

OKLAHOMA TOP 10
Malcolm Kelly will be dangerous if his quarterbacks can get him the ball.

1.WR Malcolm Kelly
2.DB Reggie Smith
3.TE Jermaine Gresham
4.RB Allen Patrick
5.DT Gerald McCoy
6.RB DeMarco Murray
7.OG George "Duke" Robinson
8.CB Marcus Walker
9.TE/FB Brody Eldridge
10.FS Darien Williams
Best player: WR Malcolm Kelly: Even while playing on a run-oriented team, Kelly has found a way to establish himself as one of the nation's top receivers. Kelly caught 10 of Oklahoma's 22 touchdown passes last year and finished the season with 62 receptions for 993 yards. Only a knee injury early in the Fiesta Bowl kept him from reaching the 1,000-yard mark. Kelly scored two touchdowns in the Big 12 championship victory over Nebraska and tied a school record with 11 receptions in a win over Texas Tech.

Most overrated: FB Matt Clapp: Rated as the No. 6 fullback in the 2005 recruiting class by Rivals.com, Clapp has struggled to earn playing time while battling injuries. The junior still has time to make an impression, but he needs to stay healthy for a full season.

Most underrated: OG George "Duke" Robinson: Well, he isn't underrated by us. Rivals.com listed Robinson as a third-team All-American last year. Now everyone else needs to take note of this exceptional blocker. Robinson wasn't a first-team or second-team All-Big 12 selection last year despite having an outstanding season with 108 knockdown blocks. If he keeps improving in his junior year, Robinson should get some overdue praise.

Must step up: WR Juaquin Iglesias: Oklahoma would love to have a second receiving threat to take some of the pressure off Kelly. Iglesias showed flashes of his potential last year by collecting six receptions for 120 yards in the Fiesta Bowl after Kelly got hurt, but he also had four games in which he caught only one pass. If Iglesias develops some consistency this fall, it could boost the Sooners' passing attack.

Shoes to fill: RB Allen Patrick, RB Chris Brown and RB DeMarco Murray: Patrick already proved he's capable of doing this job by rushing for 440 yards in the first three games after Adrian Peterson broke his collarbone. Now that Peterson is gone for good to the NFL's Minnesota Vikings, Patrick must prove he's ready to carry the load for a full season. He should get plenty of competition from Brown and Murray, who both played extremely well in spring practice.

Position battle: Quarterback: Former junior college player Joey Halzle is competing with redshirt freshman Sam Bradford and true freshman Keith Nichol for the right to replace Paul Thompson. Halzle and Bradford have a year of experience in the system, but Nichol is a former four-star prospect with the greatest upside of the trio.

Impact newcomer: RB DeMarco Murray: This redshirt freshman had the look of a future star in spring practice and rushed for 103 yards on only four carries in the Red & White Game. That type of performance should have Oklahoma coaches searching for different ways to get the ball in his hands.

New in 2007: The departure of Peterson could cause Oklahoma to rely more on multiple backs instead of having one guy carry the ball 25-30 times a game. The Sooners could use more two-back formations and also might have versatile backs such as Murray going in motion or lining up in the slot.

Grade the units:
QB: C. The lack of experience here is the main stumbling block in Oklahoma's national-title hopes.
RB: A-minus. Even without Peterson, the Sooners have a wealth of talented runners.
WR/TE: B-plus. Kelly is one of the nation's top wideouts, though the Sooners need more contributions from the rest of the receiving corps. Joe Jon Finley and Jermaine Gresham give Oklahoma a nice one-two punch at tight end.
OL: A. Oklahoma is counting on junior college transfer Phil Loadholt to step in for Chris Messner at left tackle, but the Sooners have plenty of experience and depth elsewhere on the line.

Breaking down the defense

Overview: CB Reggie Smith leads a talented secondary that will have to compensate for Oklahoma's inexperience elsewhere on defense. The Sooners must replace first-team All-Big 12 performers C.J. Ah You, Larry Birdine and Rufus Alexander from their front seven.

Best player: CB Reggie Smith: Smith's ability to fill multiple roles has helped him develop into one of Oklahoma's most valuable players. Smith started three games at cornerback last year and spent the rest of the season at strong safety. He collected three interceptions and returned one for a touchdown on his way to earning All-Big 12 honors. The Sooners are planning to capitalize on Smith's versatility by moving him back to cornerback this year. He also is the Sooners' main punt returner.

Oklahoma Schedule
Date Opponent
Sept. 1 North Texas
Sept. 8 Miami
Sept. 15 Utah State
Sept. 22 at Tulsa
Sept. 29 at Colorado
Oct. 6 vs. Texas
Oct. 13 Missouri
Oct. 20 at Iowa State
Nov. 3 Texas A&M
Nov. 10 Baylor
Nov. 17 at Texas Tech
Nov. 24 Oklahoma State
Most overrated: S Keenan Clayton: He opened the 2006 season as the Sooners' starting safety and lost his job before the third game of the season. This sophomore still has plenty of time to work his way back into a featured role, but he first must improve his tackling.

Most underrated: CB Marcus Walker: Smith justifiably garners the majority of the praise surrounding Oklahoma's secondary, but Walker quietly has also emerged as a solid performer. Even though he didn't move into the starting lineup until the fourth game of the season last year, Walker still picked off three passes and earned second-team All-Big 12 honors. The guy who almost ended up as the Fiesta Bowl hero (he returned a 33-yard interception for a go-ahead touchdown shortly before Boise State's stunning comeback) could emerge as a first-team all-conference player if he continues his rapid rate of improvement.

Must step up: SS D.J. Wolfe: This former running back now must make another position switch. After playing cornerback the last two years, Wolfe is shifting to strong safety. The Sooners need Wolfe to succeed at strong safety because it would allow Smith to play cornerback, his more natural position. Smith probably would move back to strong safety if the Wolfe experiment doesn't work.

Shoes to fill: LB Curtis Lofton: The Sooners are counting on this junior to provide some of the production that was lost when Alexander completed his senior year. Lofton's position this fall depends on the development of junior-college transfer Mike Reed. If Reed wins the starting job at middle linebacker, Lofton will replace Alexander at the weak-side spot. If Reed isn't ready to crack the starting lineup, Lofton will man the middle.

Impact newcomer: LB Mike Reed: Rated as No. 2 junior college prospect in the country by Rivals.com, the hard-hitting Reed could immediately take over as the Sooners' starting middle linebacker.

Position battle to watch: Defensive end: The Sooners must find someone to rush the passer now that Ah You and Birdine have departed. Senior Alonzo Dotson is the probable starter at one spot, but the other job remains unsettled. Senior John Williams is trying to hold off a challenge from sophomore Auston English.

New in 2007: The Sooners are trying to get more athleticism at strong-side linebacker so they can use that position more often in passing situations. The probable starter at that spot is senior Lewis Baker or sophomore Ryan Reynolds.

Grade the units:
DL: B. Oklahoma lost a pair of all-conference defensive ends, but the Sooners still have plenty of talent here. This may be the year former five-star prospects DeMarcus Granger and Gerald McCoy develop into standout tackles.
LB: B-minus. Oklahoma could miss Alexander and Zach Latimer quite a bit if Reed and other untested players don't step forward.
DB: A. Smith, Walker and Lendy Holmes could give the Sooners one of the nation's top cornerback trios.

Breaking down the special teams

Overview: Oklahoma welcomes back Rivals.com second-team All-America kicker Garrett Hartley as well as punters Michael Cohen and Mike Knall. Smith also returns as the Sooners' main punt returner.

Season outlook with bowl forecast
Oklahoma has so much talent on offense and in the secondary that the Sooners would rank among the favorites to win the national title if they had a standout quarterback. The uncertainty at the quarterback situation prevents us from being quite that optimistic about Oklahoma's chances. Oklahoma overcame instability at the quarterback position to win the Big 12 title last year, but we're forecasting a second-place finish in the Big 12 South this year. Even if they don't win the division, the Sooners have enough firepower to go 11-2 with a BCS at-large invitation or a spot in the Gator Bowl or Cotton Bowl.
Best player: K Garrett Hartley: Hartley was virtually automatic for the Sooners last season. The 2006 Lou Groza Award finalist went 19-for-20 on field-goal attempts. His only miss a 44-yard attempt that would have won the Oregon game was blocked.

Grade the units:
K: A. Hartley enters his final year as one of the favorites to win the Groza Award.
P: B-plus. Oklahoma used a two-punter system last year with Cohen handling the long punts and Knall taking care of the pooch attempts. Both players are back this year.
KR: B. Iglesias averaged 25.9 yards per attempt and scored on one return last year. Murray and Patrick also could return kicks this fall.
PR: B. Smith averaged 7.8 yards per return with one touchdown last year.

Breaking down the coaching

Overview: Even after the NCAA's decision that Oklahoma must vacate eight wins from its 2005 season, Bob Stoops still owns a 78-19 record during his eight-year tenure. His willingness to call any play at any time along with his reputation for producing NFL talent has helped make him one of the nation's most respected coaches.

Grade the coaches:
Head coach: A: Stoops may have done his best coaching job last year by winning a Big 12 title after losing quarterback Rhett Bomar in the offseason and Peterson for much of the regular season.
Offensive coaches: A-minus: Offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson deserves plenty of credit for helping Oklahoma survive the uncertainty at quarterback last year. He faces a similar situation this year.
Defensive coaches: B: Oklahoma led the Big 12 in total defense last year, but the Sooners weren't quite as dominant as expected on this side of the ball. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables still was one of five finalists for the Broyles Award that goes to the nation's top assistant coach.
Special teams coaches: A: Co-offensive coordinator Kevin Sumlin also coordinates the special teams and has built a unit that has excelled in kick coverage.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

Rivals.com is counting down our Preseason Top 50. Coming tomorrow: No. 8.

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