NORMAN, Okla. (AP) -The lasting images from Oklahoma's final performance of the 2007 season don't exactly jibe with the defensive standards coach Bob Stoops has set for the Sooners.
A fullback zooming unchallenged down the sideline for a touchdown. A humbling 349 yards rushing allowed. Three big-play scores in a span of four snaps.
When last we saw the Sooners, West Virginia was dismantling a defense that ranked among the best in the Big 12 last season in a seemingly effortless 48-28 rout in the Fiesta Bowl. And since then, two key members of that defense have gone on to the NFL and a few more have wrapped up their college careers.
For the second straight January, the Sooners left Arizona with a Fiesta Bowl to forget.
``First and foremost, that's in the past. We can't dwell upon it,'' said safety Nic Harris, the senior member of a secondary that lost standout Reggie Smith a year early to the NFL draft. ``For the first couple of days, we thought about it, things we could have done better. But hindsight's 20/20.''
There are plenty of reasons the Sooners are ranked fourth to start this season, though. For every problem that popped up in the defense, Oklahoma has a reason to be feeling good about its offense. And few coaches have made a habit of constructing defenses better than Stoops.
Sam Bradford edged out Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow to lead the nation in quarterback rating last year as a redshirt freshman, and he's got a bevy of talent around him back to
DeMarco Murray, who's shown the potential to match Adrian Peterson's gamebreaking ability, figures to take on a bigger load in the backfield and tight end Jermaine Gresham could add to his 11 touchdown grabs from last year if he becomes a more frequent target after deep threat Malcolm Kelly skipped his senior season to go to the NFL.
Juaquin Iglesias, Bradford's favorite receiver with 68 receptions for 907 yards, is back too, along with the entire offensive line that allowed the second-least sacks in the Big 12.
But all eyes - at least the concerned ones - will be on the Sooners' maligned defense. Along with Smith, Oklahoma lost middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, who racked up 157 tackles - 66 more than any of his teammates last season, and more than twice as many as anyone on this year's team.
Two new starters will move in at linebacker, and the Sooners are hoping that redshirt freshman Austin Box will be able to recover quickly from knee surgery that will cause him to miss at least the Aug. 30 season opener against Chattanooga. Junior college transfer Mike Balogun has taken over Box's starting spot, and converted safety Keenan Clayton is expected to start on the opposite side of middle linebacker Ryan Reynolds, who's had both of his knees surgically repaired.
``It's just an experience issue across the board outside of Ryan at linebacker,'' defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. ``I've been really pleased, and the curve is a big curve, but we'll be there. I really believe that. Whether or not there's initial growing pains, I'm certainly not counting on it but I have a perspective on it too.
The secondary has also had a makeover since last season. Cornerbacks Dominique Franks and Brian Jackson were thrown into the fire in the Fiesta Bowl, and Lendy Holmes, who missed the bowl game because of academic issues, has been shuffled around from safety to cornerback and again to safety.
``It's coming along good. I'm just glad that it's not one of them game days or game weeks. We're still not prepared,'' Holmes said this week.
The strength of the defense should be the line, with reigning Big 12 sacks leader Auston English leading the way in a deep group of defensive ends. John Williams is back for a sixth year after an Achilles injury last year, and there wasn't much drop-off when Jeremy Beal and Alan Davis filled in for him. Freshman Frank Alexander could also be one of the bookends around run-stuffers Gerald McCoy and Demarcus Granger.
``I feel right now that our defense is real hungry and that guys realize that we have a lot of room to make,'' said English, who was out three weeks after an emergency appendectomy. ``I don't feel like anybody's complacent right now. I feel like everybody's pushing.''
Anyone who needs a little extra boost can think back to that last Fiesta Bowl, when Stoops ripped his team for a complete lack of discipline.
``Have I noticed any different motivation? Not really,'' Stoops said. ``I think I've seen our guys come in virtually every year excited to play and realizing that they've got something to prove every year. Even when you've won a Big 12 championship the year before or back-to-back, it means nothing now.
``Everybody's after the same thing once again and it's your job to go try and earn it.''
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