Oklahoma puts hopes on the line

Thursday, August 31st 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NORMAN, Okla. – Oklahoma's offensive line performed well above expectations a year ago, allowing only 13 sacks while successfully protecting for 512 passes.

But it exuded softness: The Sooners ranked last in the Big 12 and 97th nationally in rushing.

"We want to be more physical this year," tackle Scott Kempenich said Tuesday.

That means the Sooners want to run more, though no one is predicting a 50-50 balance.

Offensive coordinator Mark Mangino, who also doubles as the architect of the offensive line, started fall camp wanting to find his five best blockers. Entering Saturday's opener against UT-El Paso, Mangino is down to six candidates.

He has three guards fighting for two positions – senior Al Baysinger, sophomore Mike Skinner and junior-college transfer Howard Duncan. Duncan also can swing out and play tackle in the event of injury.

"Those three will play," Mangino said. "All three have made progress and are getting better. But I can't say any two of the three should be starting and the other a backup. In this first game, we'll kind of do that by committee."

The Sooners are replacing three starters – center Matt O'Neal, tackle Stockar McDougle and guard Jay Smith – who were the anchors of last year's line. Solidly entrenched in this year's lineup are tackles Kempenich and Frank Romero and center Bubba Burcham.

Kempenich started 10 games in 1997 and has battled injuries, most significantly foot stress fractures, the past two years. Romero moved from defensive end a year ago and replaced Baysinger after the first eight games. Burcham started every game at guard a year ago before moving to center last spring.

Behind the top six, redshirt freshman backup center Josh Tucker is the most likely to force a lineup change. If Tucker develops as Mangino hopes, that could allow Burcham to swing back to guard.

Also in the mix are backup tackles Will Mathis and Jarrod Barclay, plus true freshmen Wes Sims and Cliff Takawana. Barring injuries, it appears Sims and Takawana will be redshirted.

"We'd like to be set with a starting five and have some guys who can play more than one position," Mangino said. "I'm not overly concerned, but we have to continue to improve."

Head coach Bob Stoops expressed confidence in the revamped offensive line.

"I felt confident last year that once it was time to kick it off that our offensive line would be solid and be good, and I believe that'll be the case again this year," Stoops said.

Last year's offensive line entered the season with only 31 starts among the top five. The line, however, stayed healthy and, except for Romero replacing Baysinger near the end of the season, intact. It turned out to be one of the big reasons for OU's turnaround 7-5 season after five consecutive years without a winning season.

Quarterback Josh Heupel was one of the biggest benefactors of the play of last year's line. He passed for 3,460 yards and 30 touchdowns.

After going through fall camp, Heupel said of his new protectors, "I think they're going to play very well. But you never know before you step between the lines. Once the lights go on, people react differently. We're going to find out how those guys react underneath the lights."

Charlie Smith is a free-lance writer based in Tulsa, Okla.

cw 1 48.1363m;cw 2 49.8931m;cw 3 49.8931m;cw 4 49.8931m;cw 5 49.8931m;hr 0;fr 0;fc 0;lc 0;EXPERIENCE IN THE TRENCHESOklahoma enjoyed success on its offensive line in 1999, and has a group that enters this season with more combined career starts than last year's front five:Pos. 1999 starters Starts 2000 starters StartsLT Frank Romero 0 Frank Romero 4LG Jay Smith 12 Al Baysinger* 8C Matt O'Neal 11 Bubba Burcham** 17RG Bubba Burcham 5 Mike Skinner 0RT Stockar McDougle 3 Scott Kempenich11Totals

31 40* Started eight games at tackle in 1999

** Started all 17 games at guard, including all 12 in '99