NORMAN — Gabe Ikard gets recognized by Sooner fans all the time.
Recognized as quarterback Blake Bell.
“Pretty much 75 percent of the people mistake me for Blake,” he said.
Here's guessing the Oklahoma center might be exaggerating a bit. He is a face of this football team, after all.
Say what you will about what it means that an offensive lineman is a marquee Sooner — an endorsement of Ikard or an indictment of the state of the program — but the Sooner Nation couldn't have asked for a better representative.
To think, if not for an unexpected change of position, Ikard might have finished his career as a little-used tight end.
As he and the rest of this senior class prepares for its last home game, it is a group that will hold a dubious distinction. With the exception of Bob Stoops' first season, this will be the first class in the Stoops Era to have no players who traveled to or played in a national championship game.
This class has had departures (Kenny Stills, Tony Jefferson and Tom Wort) and arrivals (Jalen Saunders, Damien Williams and four other transfers). It has had injuries (Corey Nelson and Trey Millard) and suspensions (Jaz Reynolds) and even cancer (Austin Woods).
No one has been more solid than Ikard.
Since becoming a starter as a redshirt freshman, he has started all but one game at center or left guard. Pair that with his perfect grade-point average, and Ikard has won or been named a finalist for every imaginable academic award in college football.
Representing his school well was always important for a guy who grew up in Oklahoma City rooting for the Sooners.
“I've put a lot into this place,” he said. “I've always loved this place.”
Ikard loved it enough to sacrifice for it — though it's a sacrifice that has worked out pretty well for him.
As a true freshman, he was playing tight end on the scout team. He was one of the top-ranked tight end recruits in the nation, but one day, then-defensive line coach Jackie Shipp hollered at him.
“Gabe Ikard, you're the only one that blocks out here,” Shipp said. “Come here and play scout team center.”
Suddenly, Ikard found himself face to face with Gerald McCoy. And when the future first-round draft pick was getting a breather, Adrian Taylor stepped in.
McCoy and Taylor had their way with Ikard most of the time — “I was getting just destroyed every day,” Ikard admitted — but every now and then, he would have a good play. He would get McCoy or Taylor blocked. He would do what he was supposed to do, even though he was vastly undersized.
He realized that if he could slow those guys down, even if it was only occasionally, he might have a future at center.
After that season, coaches formally proposed the switch.
Even though Ikard had considered it, he didn't agree to the change immediately. He talked it over with his parents. He sought advice from Ben Habern, then the Sooners' center. Then, he thought it over.
“A lot,” he said. “There's a lot of things that go into it.”
Ikard would need to gain lots of weight, then learn a position that he'd never played in his life.
But he decided to give it a go.
“I was going to be blocking at tight end or I was going to be blocking at center,” he said, “so I decided to take the path where I'd get on the field the most and the quickest.
“It came down to if I wanted to be on the field 15 plays a game or 90 plays a game.”
That was four years and 50 pounds ago.
Ikard jumped into the position switch, spending the spring of 2010 learning technique, studying plays and eating more than he ever had before. But he was determined to make it work.
“I didn't want to get fat and then not play,” he said.
“That would've just been depressing.”
Nothing to be depressed about here. USA Today, Sports Illustrated and others named Ikard a midseason All-American, and Mel Kiper lists him as the seventh-best center in the 2014 NFL Draft.
“It's worked out pretty well,” Ikard said.
For Ikard and for the Sooners. He's been a stalwart on the field. He's been a superstar in the classroom. And he's been a willing spokesman, even when the questions have been tough and the answers have been few.
Saturday morning, during the Senior Day ceremony before kickoff against Iowa State, OU will announce the winner of the Don Key Award. It is given every year to the Sooner senior who exemplifies excellence on the field and in the classroom.
No one has done that better than Ikard.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.