With Peterson and Bomar, Sooners look to contend
Adrian Peterson hasn't been all that happy the last few days -- at least on the football field.

The Oklahoma running back has been a little disappointed he hasn't been able to participate fully in the Sooners' spring drills.

The blue shirt he's worn for OU scrimmages has turned that work into a glorified two-hand touch game. "Oh, man, I've joined the blue club," Peterson told reporters after a recent scrimmage. "I've always made fun of the quarterbacks. Now, I've kind of joined the gang." Peterson and Allen Patrick are the only two healthy tailbacks for the Sooners during their spring work. It's understandable that Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops has been hesitant about subjecting either player to undue stress -- particularly Peterson. "We're going to be smart in how we use him, I can guarantee that," Stoops said. "He doesn't need to prove what he can do. We all know about Adrian."

Peterson's excitement about participating in spring drills is just another sign that last season's uncharacteristic 8-4 season -- the worst for the Sooners since Stoops' first year in 1999 -- left no psychological scars for a young team. That young group has grown significantly throughout the spring, which will be highlighted on Saturday by the annual Red/White Game (shown on ESPN at 2 p.m. ET). In 2005, the Sooners lost three of their first five games, capped by a 45-12 waxing by Texas that effectively snuffed out their Big 12 title hopes after only two conference games.

Even with Peterson's struggling with injuries, Oklahoma rebounded as the season progressed. Young players such as redshirt freshman quarterback Rhett Bomar, receivers Malcolm Kelly and Juaquin Iglesias, and defensive back Reggie Smith emerged as key producers down the stretch. Eleven true freshmen started for the Sooners during the season. Their development helped Oklahoma claim six of its last seven games, capped by an impressive 17-14 Holiday Bowl victory over Oregon. "We have a lot of confidence coming off that Holiday Bowl win and we have a lot of young guys," Bomar said.

"We just want to keep improving in the spring and carry that over to the fall."Former offensive line coach Kevin Wilson takes over as the Sooners' offensive coordinator, replacing Chuck Long, who is San Diego State's new head coach. Wilson will coach OU's tight ends, while former Northwestern line coach James Patton joins the Sooners in a similar position and former OU quarterback Josh Heupel will be the new quarterbacks coach.

Wilson is taking a more active role than his predecessor, working with all phases of the offense. Long concentrated mainly on quarterbacks during his stint with the Sooners. "What I like is that he is inside, running the show," Stoops said. "Chuck wasn't as active with the whole offense. I loved Kevin's play calling when he was at Northwestern -- it's not like it's new to him."

The change apparently hasn't affected the confidence of Bomar, who has shown flashes of the promise that made him one of the most highly sought recruits in the country in 2004. But he also showed a tendency to try and do too much by himself, a character trait Wilson has hoped to alleviate after extensive film study during the offseason.

Wilson and Bomar watched every one of his sacks from 2005, as well as some of the hits that were exacerbated by his tendency to shun the sidelines. "I think I progressed as the year went on last season," Bomar said. "Every game, I felt better and more comfortable. I want to use that development in the spring because I'm not anywhere close to the level where I want to be."

Bomar was cited last month for being a minor in possession of alcohol when he was served a beer at an NBA game in Oklahoma City. It marked the second time that Bomar has been cited for that offense since the start of last season. It gave him another hard lesson about the perils of celebrity -- especially in Oklahoma. "I found that out and I made a mistake," Bomar said. "Other than that, I don't want to talk about it. Going to a high-profile university and being the quarterback, people will know you. But that's why you come to these places."

Last year with the three-way battle for the job, every pass and every scrimmage you're pressing. They looked at every pass last spring. But now, I'm the guy. I still do my job, but it's a little more relaxing. ”
— Oklahoma QB Rhett Bomar

Unlike last season, Bomar is not fighting for the starting job. It's enabled him to be more cognizant of developing his role in the offense, rather than worrying about each snap. "It's a lot different," Bomar said. "Last year with the three-way battle for the job, every pass and every scrimmage you're pressing.

They looked at every pass last spring. But now, I'm the guy. I still do my job, but it's a little more relaxing." Meanwhile, Peterson has participated in more spring drills this year than any previous season. He missed last spring rehabilitating from shoulder surgery after rushing for 1,925 yards and finishing second in the Heisman balloting as a freshman in 2004. "Adrian needs work and can polish a lot up to be a better player and he's aware of that," Stoops said. "This work in the spring can really help him. You think about the time he has lost, the spring last year and the two-a-days and realize he's been playing on a lot of raw ability. This practice time can really benefit him."

After battling a sprained ankle early last season, Peterson rebounded to finish as the top running back in the Big 12. He rushed for 710 yards in his final five games en route to 1,108 yards during the injury-marred season. The Sooners' biggest question mark is an offensive line that lost four starters. Chris Messner is the only returning starter. "To me, this is no different than any other spring," Wilson said. "The challenge isn't what the line can and can't do. Every spring is about seeing what your quarterback can juggle and what your line can handle. Yeah, we're replacing guys, but so is every other team. That's just the state of offensive football."


Stoops, who criticized the conditioning of his team last season, said the offensive line's work was indicative of the development of the entire team."We're shuffling around and it's a little too early to tell," Stoops said. "But through winter conditioning, this group has been singled out as the best we've had. I'm encouraged they have a good, strong attitude and have worked hard."

On defense, the Sooners lose three starters from last season -- all-conference performers Dusty Dvoracek at defensive tackle and Clint Ingram at linebacker along with cornerback Eric Bassey. The return of Larry Birdine at defensive end has helped make that position one of the team's biggest strengths. Birdine notched seven sacks and led the team with 11 tackles for losses in 2004 before tearing his bicep prior to last season. John Williams was gone for the season in the Sooners' opening-game loss to TCU with a torn ACL. Those injuries helped spur the development of C.J. Ah You and Calvin Thibodeaux. Now, Williams and Birdine have returned to provide a devastating four-man rotation at the position.

"It will be interesting for us when everybody is healthy," Birdine said. "No one should ever be tired. I can guarantee that we will all be hungry." Birdine was one of the team's inspirational leaders in 2004 and is expected to provide the same kind of leadership with his return. "We're looking for some guys to get vocal and display energy," Birdine said. "I always run my mouth, but I finally feel that I'm at full strength physically. The main thing is football and I can do all that now."

The Sooners' defense looked to be in midseason form in the most recent scrimmage last week. OU's defense notched five interceptions and recorded five sacks during the 65-play scrimmage. "As the head coach, I'm always a little divided," Stoops said. "I can't cheer for the offense or the defense, but it is pretty clear that the defense is much farther along from where it was at this time last year."

Of course, having Peterson in a blue vest didn't help the offense's production. But the development of the rest of the team could be the best indicator that the Sooners are primed to challenge Texas for the Big 12 South title after last season's aberration. "I don't think there's any question we're further along at this point than last year with a lot fewer mistakes and better play from them all," Stoops said. "It's been good so far."