If White stays healthy, Sooners poised for title run

Wednesday, August 13th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) _ Jason White has almost everything Oklahoma is looking for in a quarterback: accuracy, the respect of his teammates and a history of winning big games.

But the 6-foot-2 senior also has two wobbly knees, something that could prevent the Sooners from challenging for their eighth national championship.

If White can stay healthy _ something he hasn't been able to do after going down with knee injuries in each of the last two years _ then the Sooners likely will be odds-on favorites to play in the Sugar Bowl, this year's national championship game.

``I feel that, physically, he's in tremendous shape,'' coach Bob Stoops said. ``But I felt that way a year ago.''

At last year's end, Oklahoma (12-2, 6-2 Big 12) had the look of a team eager to make amends for a couple of regular-season mishaps by easily beating Colorado in the Big 12 title game and Washington State in the Rose Bowl.

The Sooners hope to build off of those wins with an efficient, balanced offense and a downright dominating defense. Nine starters return to a unit that ranked 10th in the nation in total defense, fifth in points allowed.

``We can be the best defense that OU has ever had,'' defensive tackle Dusty Dvoracek said. ``Maybe the best that college football has ever seen.''

The anchor is defensive tackle Tommie Harris, who made All-American last season depute battling a groin injury. He's one of four Sooners on the preseason watch list for the Nagurski Award, given to the best defender in the nation. The other OU nominees are senior linebacker Teddy Lehman, senior cornerback Derrick Strait and senior safety Brandon Everage.

If that wasn't enough, the two newcomers to the starting lineup _ junior defensive end Jonathan Jackson and junior safety Donte Nicholson _ have been the objects of praise all summer.

The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Nicholson, a junior-college transfer from California, is being touted as the next Roy Williams. Jackson came on strong at the end of last season, finishing with two sacks in the Rose Bowl.

``We've got tons of athletes all over the place,'' Lehman said. ``We're so deep, it's going to be awesome to watch.''

That should relieve some of the pressure on an offense that must depend on White's creaky knees, while replacing an 1,800-yard rusher and its top four receivers.

Sophomore Kejuan Jones figures to get first crack at taking over for Quentin Griffin, who last year had the second-best single-season rushing performance in school history and left as OU's all-time leader in receptions.

At 5-foot-9, 187 pounds, Jones resembles Griffin in size, but not style. Jones, who is more of a grinder, set a school freshman-record with 14 touchdowns last season.

He'll run behind an offensive line that Stoops says is the best he's had at Oklahoma. Three starters return and the other two played a lot last year.

The line will need to be good to keep White healthy through a thorny schedule that features seven teams that played in bowls last year, including longtime nemesis Texas on Oct. 11 in Dallas.

White has started only four games in his career and injuries to both knees have sapped much of the athleticism that made him a threat when he came off the bench to lead OU past Texas in 2001.

White is confident the Sooners could be headed to New Orleans in January if he avoids the rehab room.

``I feel like I'm just as capable as I used to be,'' he said. ``I guess I don't have any more knees to blow out.''