NORMAN — Oklahoma has a depth problem on its offensive line.
“Are we thin? Yeah,” said James Patton, the Sooner assistant who coaches guards and centers. “Guys have got to stay healthy; there's no doubt about it.”
One more serious injury to an offensive lineman could be catastrophic for a group that lost 59 career starts during the preseason, when seniors Ben Habern and Tyler Evans were lost to career-ending neck and back problems and a torn ACL, respectively.
After shifting Gabe Ikard back from guard to center, Habern and Evans were replaced in the lineup with Adam Shead — and his then-five career starts — and Bronson Irwin, who didn't start a game until the 2012 opener at UTEP.
The current starting five hasn't been bad so far through two games against inferior opponents, and as the talented group adjusts to playing together and gains experience, it should only get better.
But it isn't the current group that Sooner fans should be worried about; the depth of talent behind it and the outlook for OU offensive lines over the next few seasons are far bigger problems, and are the consequences of injuries and players quitting or failing to meet expectations.
OU's last five recruiting classes have included a total of 19 players who were offensive linemen when they signed letters of intent. Seven of them never played a down on OU's offensive line and four quit the team altogether.
All five offensive linemen OU signed in 2010 are either current starters or important reserves. But the Sooners' last two classes included a combined seven offensive line signees, and three of them aren't on the roster anymore.
* Dylan Dismuke, a 2011 signee and tackle from Duncan, redshirted as a true freshman but suffered a career-ending injury during practice last December.
* Will Latu, a junior-college tackle prospect, signed with OU but couldn't become academically qualified in time to join the Sooners for fall camp. He's now at Arkansas State.
* John Michael McGee, a highly anticipated freshman guard who signed last February, practiced just a couple times last month before deciding he didn't want to play football anymore.
Patton said that the current slate of backups will have to be ready to play, naming Nila Kasitati, a promising redshirt freshman guard; Ty Darlington, a true freshman center who has earned praise from teammates and coaches since the summer; and Austin Woods, the junior in his third year as OU's field-goal deep snapper but who also is still recovering from his battle with Hodgkin lymphoma.
“A guy like (John-Philip) Hughes — a walk-on — played and is practicing hard,” Patton added. “We can move a tackle inside if we needed to. But we need to stay healthy for sure.”
Evans never used a redshirt season, so he's expected back next year.
But even so, at this point, the future depth on OU's offensive front doesn't look very promising. The Sooners have but one offensive lineman — Tulsa Union three-star tackle Dalton Rodriguez — committed for 2013. Another tackle, San Antonio's Matt Beyer, was committed before announcing last week that he was giving up football because of a serious neck injury.
Senior left tackle Lane Johnson — a high school quarterback who came to OU a tight end, and then became a defensive end before settling on the offensive line last season — said he doesn't see the depth as a problem because he's become accustomed to it.
“We didn't have that much depth last year at tackle, just the four kinda like we have now,” he said of himself, sophomores Daryl Williams and Tyrus Thompson and redshirt freshman Derek Farniok.
“So basically, we're used to it.”