After a disastrous finish to the 2012 season, Oklahoma coaches knew they needed to rebuild and revamp their defense. Nowhere is that more apparent than on the defensive line.
When No. 16 Oklahoma hosts Louisiana-Monroe in the season opener Saturday, it's likely each of the four starters on the line will be making his first major-college start. Of the top eight players listed on the depth chart, only one, tackle Chuka Ndulue, has ever started a game for the Sooners and he will be serving a one-game suspension after an off-season arrest.
There seem to be plenty of promising pieces, but coach Bob Stoops acknowledges that he won't fully know what he has until games begin.
"When you say lack of starters, that's going to happen when you graduate five seniors,'' Stoops said. "I mean, these guys now, it's their opportunity, their turn. Hopefully, here, seven or eight weeks down the road, you're talking about, `Wow, we didn't know this guy could do that.' And that happens. It happens every year, hopefully as guys mature and gain experience and keep improving.''
To say the Sooners struggled defensively down the stretch in 2012 would be gracious. West Virginia rolled up 778 yards against the Sooners and Oklahoma State followed with a 618-yard outing. Then Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel keyed a 663-yard performance by Texas A&M as the Aggies routed the Sooners 41-13 in the Cotton Bowl.
The defensive line wasn't totally to blame, of course, but the Sooners lacked a consistent pass rush, which is key to disrupting the high-tempo offenses they will often see in Big 12 Conference play.
Ndulue led the Sooners with five sacks and six tackles for loss last season from his defensive tackle spot and should provide an immediate boost when he returns for Oklahoma's conference opener against West Virginia on Sept. 7.
Quincy Russell, a 6-foot-4, 315-pound junior-college transfer who reported late to preseason practice, is listed as his backup. Coaches and teammates have raved about Russell, although Stoops wouldn't say if he would start against Louisiana-Monroe.
"Quincy is getting better,'' defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. "It's a lot to grasp in a week. I'm sure his head is spinning a little bit. Hopefully we can get him to the point by Saturday that he feels like he can go out and play and not think. . Hopefully, we can get him as many reps as we can without trying to overload him.''
Mike Stoops described Russell as "a big, strong guy who can run'' and who "has a great motor.'' He guessed Russell would play 20 to 30 plays against Louisiana-Monroe.
End Charles Tapper, who had two tackles in five games last season, also figures to step into a more prominent role. Tapper said during the preseason that his goal for 2013 is to record 15 sacks. The Oklahoma single-season school record in that category is 14, held by Martin Chase (1997) and Cedric Jones (1994).
"My arms have gotten bigger,'' Tapper said. "I'm a little bit stronger. I understand the game a lot better. I'm staying in my playbook and staying in the film room. I'm trying to get better every day.
"It's a great feeling, knowing I'm going to be a piece of the puzzle. I'm probably not the `prime-time' puzzle. I'm just going to be a great piece. Hopefully I can contribute a lot to the team this Saturday.''
Except for Ndulue, junior Geneo Grissom - who switched to defensive end late last season - has the most experience, having played in 12 games and recorded four tackles. Sophomore nose tackle Jordan Phillips, who's listed atop the depth chart, played in 11 games in 2012, recording 12 tackles. Redshirt freshman Jordan Wade also should figure into the mix at tackle.
Bob and Mike Stoops have mentioned a handful of freshman linemen during the preseason - ends Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and Matt Dimon and tackle Charles Walker - as standing out during practices, although none of them were listed on the depth chart issued earlier this week.
Another highly-recruited freshman end, D.J. Ward, underwent a splenectomy earlier this month, although Stoops said Ward, who hasn't played since his junior season of high school, potentially could return mid-season.
Tapper said the competition for playing time has been fierce, saying he has to prove "every day that I want to have a spot on the field, because we have a lot of great guys on the defensive line. At any point, any guy can come and take a spot.''
The Sooners will use multiple defensive fronts this season, sometimes going with three down linemen instead of four, in an effort to confuse offenses. Mike Stoops, who took considerable heat for the way the Sooners finished last season, said it's important that the defensive line be vastly improved.
"We're trying to become more productive up front, give them more opportunities to be productive,'' he said. "Hopefully that will pay off come Saturday. We're trying to get them in position to make plays, not just take up blocks.''