College football countdown: No. 17 Oklahoma

Friday, July 21st 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

These Sooners boast potent passing game

The reincarnated Oklahoma Sooners aren't the same team you might remember from past national headlines.

Forget Barry, those prison jumpsuits and the backfield of strong and speedy ball carriers.

Oklahoma is back, but it has returned to the nation's elite not with a powerful option offense, but on the arm of 6-1, 210-pound Josh Heupel. In coach Bob Stoops' debut season last year, Heupel passed for more than 300 yards in seven games. The feat had previously been accomplished by Oklahoma quarterbacks only six times.

In fact, it was the Sooners who led the Big 12 in passing offense last season, averaging 321.7 yards. But a rushing offense that netted only 105.5 yards per game was the undoing of a team that won six of its first nine games before finishing 7-5.

Not surprisingly, Stoops and new offensive coordinator Mike Mangino, formerly Kansas State's offensive line coach, plan to do more on the ground to stabilize Oklahoma's offense.

If Oklahoma's offense is to find a ground base, senior Seth Littrell and sophomore Quentin Griffin will be the reason. The two running backs combined for 10 touchdowns last year, but the inability to maintain leads against Notre Dame and Texas was largely attributable to the lack of a running game.

The defense will be improved by the return of eight starters, including stellar linebackers Rocky Calmus (6-3, 233) and Torrance Marshall (6-2, 242). Calmus led the team last year with 114 tackles.

Questions lie in the secondary, where experience is thin but depth is better than in recent seasons.

"We still have a long way to go, but we've got some options now," said co-defensive coordinator Brent Venables. "Last year we didn't."

Sophomore safety Roy Williams is the lone returning secondary starter. But two redshirt freshmen - safety Brandon Everage and corner Derrick Strait - enter the depth chart to support a defense that surrendered 17 touchdown passes.

Add to the mix a soft early schedule, and the Sooners could the best challenger to Texas in the Big 12 South.

Oklahoma Sooners Schedule- Sept 2 UTEP; Sept 9 Arkansas State; Sept 23 Rice; Sept 30 Kansas; Oct 7 Texas (at Dallas); Oct 14 at Kansas State; Oct 28 Nebraska; Nov 4 at Baylor; Nov 11 at Texas A&M; Nov 18 Texas Tech; Nov 25 at Oklahoma State

Oklahoma Sooners Capsule

COACH: Bob Stoops (7-5 in one season at Oklahoma).

LAST YEAR: 7-5 (lost to Mississippi in Independence Bowl).

OUT: Offensive coordinator Mike Leach, who left to be head coach at Texas Tech, and his pass-first offense. New coordinator Mark Mangino will try to put more balance in the gas tank.

IN: New scheduling philosophy. UTEP, Arkansas State and Rice constitute the Sooners' worst list of non-Big 12 opponents since the league's inception.

BIG PLUS: Eight starters back on defense. Though Oklahoma was eighth in the Big 12 defensively last year, Stoops was a highly regarded defensive coordinator at Kansas State and Florida. This is an area that will improve.

BIG MINUS: Young in the secondary. Three of the four starters are freshmen or sophomores, and only sophomore strong safety Roy Williams is the returning starter.

NATIONAL TITLE IF: There is a Sooner-red October, when the Sooners face Texas, Kansas State and Nebraska. Such a run would provide the confidence to make a serious race of it in November.

BOTTOM LINE: Sooners are still probably in the emerging process, despite a veteran club and a frenzy at the box office. This team will be good, but it's the freshman class and those that follow that will determine Stoops' legend at OU.

Top 25 So Far

25. Clemson
24. Mississippi
23. So. Miss.
22. Utah
21. Texas A&M
20. Penn State
19. Tennessee
18. Colorado
17. Oklahoma