Oklahoma football players to watch this spring

By JAKE TROTTER, STAFF WRITER, JTROTTER@OPUBCO.COM Modified: March 7, 2010 at 10:23 am •  Published: March 7, 2010

Position battles
→Tight end: The Sooners return their top two tight ends from last season, Trent Ratterree and James Hanna, who were both tossed into the lineup after Jermaine Gresham’s season-ending knee injury and Brody Eldridge’s move to the offensive line. But 6-foot-7 sophomore Lane Johnson will press them for playing time. So will talented incoming freshmen Trey Millard and Austin Haywood. Don’t forget about Eric Mensik or Gabe Ikard, either. Both tight ends will start out on the line during the spring (Mensik at tackle, Ikard at center) but could eventually make their way back to their original positions if the Sooners can develop other players up front.

→Offensive line: How the development of the offensive line goes will be the No. 1 factor in determining whether the Sooners can reach 10-plus wins next season. The bad news is OU will have to replace its three best linemen from last season — Trent Williams, Brian Simmons and Eldridge. On top of that, injured returning starters Ben Habern and Jarvis Jones won’t be 100 percent until after the spring. The good news is line coach James Patton will ultimately have more bodies to work with than he did at the end of last season — underscored by the spring competition at the two guard spots featuring Stephen Good, Tyler Evans, Tavaris Jeffries, Brian Lepak and freshman Bronson Irwin.

→Strong safety: Hard-hitting veteran Quinton Carter will hold the starting spot at free safety. But with Jonathan Nelson moving to cornerback, competition will be fierce to replace him at strong safety. Sam Proctor, who was the starter before losing his job to Nelson midway through last season, will be the favorite. But he’ll have to fend off several talented young players, including Marcus Trice, Kevin Brent, Joe Ibiloye and touted incoming freshman Tony Jefferson.

Keep an eye on
→Donald Stephenson, T: Coach Bob Stoops has been raving about the talent and potential of the rising junior, who will start at left tackle to begin the spring. That’s a lot to be placing on a player who’s never played a meaningful snap and was suspended all of last season for off-the-field reasons.

→Patrick O’Hara, K: OU’s kicking woes seemed solved when O’Hara nailed a 47-yard field goal at Texas Tech. But the walk-on missed two field goals against Oklahoma State, then a 32-yarder in the Sun Bowl. With a strong spring, O’Hara can nail down the job. But if he struggles, the Sooners will be back playing musical kickers.