NORMAN — During two-a-days a year ago, the offensive line was viewed as Oklahoma's biggest concern. When a rash of injuries mounted throughout the season, the line was singled out as the primary reason the Sooners lost five games.
One benefit to starting nine different offensive line combinations was several young players were forced into action and gained experience. Eight returning offensive linemen started at least one game. And that doesn't include Donald Stephenson, a projected starter who was suspended all last season.
Still, the offensive line once again is viewed as one of OU's biggest question marks entering the 2010 season.
With the top three blockers — Trent Williams, Brian Simmons and Brody Eldridge — gone, a couple of late-season fill-ins are starters.
"It gave guys more reps," said offensive line coach James Patton. "A guy like Eric Mensik was moved from tight end to tackle. Those were valuable reps. Obviously going through the spring helped him. Factor in the five young guys, two that were here in the spring, I feel good about it.
"If guys can be consistent and not make stupid penalties, and not have missed assignments, if we improve our consistent play we should be better than we were a year ago."
Quarterback Sam Bradford's shoulder injury in the season opener is what most fans remember about a season in which the offense failed to match expectations.
But quarterback play was pretty solid. Though Landry Jones had a few bad games, it was the inability to consistently establish a running game that hampered the Sooners offensively.
OU averaged 3.5 yards per carry. It was the Sooners' third lowest average in 62 years; their lowest since 2001.
Talk of DeMarco Murray possibly leading the conference in rushing will be influenced by how the offensive line plays.
"Truthfully, I'm really excited about our offensive line," said coach Bob Stoops. "It has a chance to be much, much better than people think. They gained a lot of experience with a lot of those young guys. They really had a great year in the weight room and in spring ball with how they competed."
When two-a-days opened, Stephenson started at left tackle, Stephen Good at left guard, Ben Habern at center, Tyler Evans at right guard and Mensik at right guard.
That group combined for 24 starts. Underscoring improved depth, OU's current second team O-line started 18 games last season.
"When you say you've got competition, does that mean your 2s are pretty good? Or does that mean your 1s are not as good as you want?" said offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson. "I don't know. I guess we'll figure that out. I think our 1s are pretty solid. But what I like is our 2s."
Other tackles in the mix include: Cory Brandon, who started eight games last season but slipped on the depth chart this summer; Jarvis Jones, who started six games; and redshirt freshman Josh Aladenoye.
On the interior, Brian Lepak, who started one game, is the backup center. Redshirt freshman Gabe Ikard, a converted tight end, is challenging Lepak. Ikard also is battling Tavaris Jeffries and Bronson Irwin for the backup guard slot.
"Seeing Sam get hurt that first game motivated us to learn from our mistakes, that we have to step up and do things the right way," Mensik said. "Our potential is amazing. We have depth on the O-line now. We have an opportunity to do something really special this season."
Good said the offensive linemen reported at 5:45 a.m. this summer, then returned for afternoon drills.
"Our work ethic was tremendous," Good said. "It was huge to see all the guys come back and work so hard. ... We hated to see guys go down last year but it helped us a lot coming into this season.
"The first day of practice sometimes guys are rusty. We all looked pretty sharp. You could tell we have a lot of experience."
Wilson said that work ethic should produce better offensive line play.
"The real deal with the line, as I said several times, was I didn't think we had a great sense of urgency or great leadership," Wilson said. "We had no urgency, expect for a couple of guys."
Asked why the offensive line will be improved, Good singled out players' gained experience last season and their offseason commitment.
"We're healthy," Good said. "As a group guys are very positive. It's totally different from last year."