NORMAN — Returning 16 starters from a defending Big 12 champion football team, Oklahoma will be ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in most preseason magazine polls.
But the key to playing in the national title game isn't how a handful of new starters fare.
"At the end of the day all the other stats (don't matter)," said defensive coordinator Brent Venables. "If you win the battle up front on both sides of the ball, you're going to have a good chance to win virtually every game. I really believe that will be the backbone of what we do.
"We have some talented parts around them, but they really have to be the backbone of what we do. Our best teams here are (have been good on the line) on both sides of the ball. They can definitely get there. It's just improving across the board."
There are question marks in other areas on defense. The Sooners will have two new safeties, possibly a new cornerback. Middle linebacker Tom Wort must be more consistent after on-the-job training as a redshirt freshman.
But to feature a national title caliber defense, the line must play well.
Last season, opponents didn't have to double team defensive tackles like previous years when the defense was built around future NFL draft picks such as Tommie Harris and Gerald McCoy.
OU once again won't feature a preseason All-American in the trenches on either side of the ball. But Venables is encouraged that experience gained last season, plus another offseason or work, should produce more consistency up front.
There is some experience.
Defensive end Frank Alexander has made 18 career starts. Defensive tackle Stacy McGee is a returning starter. Defensive tackles Casey Walker and Jamarkus McFarland have started a handful of games.
"Stacey had a really strong spring," Venables said. "He played confidently. Jamarkus really made marked improvement, probably overall the most improvement. Casey Walker was consistent. Torrea Peterson really had a good spring, too."
Peterson is a redshirt freshman who should be part of the D-line rotation. Defensive end David King flashed potential last season. Junior defensive end R.J. Washington played a few snaps.
McFarland, a junior, was one of the top recruits in the country out of Lufkin, Texas, but has compiled only four sacks his first two seasons. This past offseason, he watched a lot of tape to improve his technique.
"I wanted to see what was best for me and what's best for our line so we could go into the summer and fall with the mentality that we know our strengths, what we're good at and perfect those things," McFarland said. "Everyone had their sparks. It's just a matter of putting together all the pieces to the puzzle."
One intriguing wild card is Ronnell Lewis, who was moved from linebacker to defensive end last season. A fan favorite, Lewis delivers vicious hits on kickoff returns. He could be a difference maker if he can consistently make an impact on the D-line.
"I thought he had a great spring learning how to play defensive end with technique, fundamentals, footwork, just understanding how be disciplined in gap control, where he needs to be and where he can be, those types of things," Venables said.
“This was his first extended amount of time he got work rep after rep in the fundamental work. All positions in a lot of sports is muscle memory. The more you do it the more easy it becomes. That's what you really saw all spring with Ronnell."