- Brandon Chatmon, ESPN Staff Writer
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Oklahoma had one of the nation’s best running games in 2013. The Sooners rode their ground game to an Allstate Sugar Bowl win and 11-2 record.
OU’s offensive line was the foundation of the team's success a season ago but it will be retooled in 2014.
Gabe Ikard won’t be around to anchor Oklahoma’s offensive line for the first time in four years, but the overall depth and quality of the group could take the unit to new heights.
Injuries at the end of the season have sidelined guard Adam Shead and tackle Tyrus Thompson, both of whom have extensive playing experience, giving several younger linemen the opportunity to get additional practice snaps this spring.
“We’re missing a guy or two but we have some guys that have played a lot of football,” offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. “We have some backups that haven’t played a ton but have seen some action and they’re going to get a bulk of the work in spring ball. It’s an opportunity for them to grow and mature and prove they belong on the football field.”
Tackle Daryl Williams is the experienced veteran of the group and guards Nila Kasitati and Dionte Savage along with tackle Derek Farniok return after starting games in 2013. This spring is the chance for guys like tackles Sam Grant, after a recent move from tight end, and Josiah St. John to make an impression before six offensive line signees arrive this summer.
“I think we’re definitely light-years ahead of where we were last year,” junior center Ty Darlington said. “We’re getting to get a lot of guys reps, which is awesome -- a lot of guys that probably normally wouldn’t get reps are getting reps, and that’s good. I think we’re definitely making some progress.”
As the guy slated to replace Ikard, Darlington is clearly the man in the spotlight. He saw spot duty behind the All-American and three-time All-Big 12 interior lineman during his first two seasons on campus and is excited for the next step in his career.
“I’m excited for the opportunity,” he said. “This is why I came here, to be able to step into a role. Gabe was great to me for two years. He really took me under his wing and taught me everything he knew. He was a great friend on and off the field. Now he’s gone, and I’ve got to step up and fill that void as the center and in a leadership position. I’m excited for it.”
It went largely overlooked but Ikard was the main reason the Sooners could play musical chairs at quarterback n in 2013. The senior handled all the calls and brought a calm and consistent voice to the offense while Trevor Knight, Blake Bell and Kendal Thompson took turns behind center. It’s those areas where Ikard could be missed most.
But Darlington feels his mentorship under Ikard and offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh will pay off as he steps into the starting lineup.
“I’m more confident than I’ve ever been as far as just understanding the whole scheme of football,” Darlington said. “I learned so much in the past year with Coach [Bill] Bedenbaugh. I’m continuing to learn a lot more. From fronts to coverages and blitzes, we’re learning so much as a group. I feel like I’m definitely better than I’ve ever been as far as the mental part of the game.”
If Darlington can step in for Ikard without a letdown, the Sooners offensive line could cement its spot among the Big 12’s best for the second straight season and be the foundation of what might be a special season.
5dJake Trotter and Brandon Chatmon