By JOHN SHINN
NORMAN — Oklahoma has boundless optimism each August. It’s a team, a program and fan base reared on the belief that winning every game is an achievable goal.
However, the 16th-ranked Sooners open the season tonight against Louisiana-Monroe needing to validate those beliefs. The questions lingering now require a burden of proof past teams haven’t faced.
“It comes with the territory with a new team every year,” center Gabe Ikard said. “This year especially with some guys that have been around here for so long that are gone.”
It starts at quarterback. Landry Jones is gone to the NFL. For the first time since the middle of the 2009 season, someone else will take the opening snap at quarterback.
Redshirt freshman Trevor Knight beat out junior Blake Bell for the starting job in the preseason. Coaches and teammates have raved about Knight’s athletic ability, arm strength, poise and leadership for the last month.
All those observations are due to what Knight has done on the practice field or in scrimmages with the comfort of wearing a blue “no contact” jersey. He’ll be a live target tonight.
“You think you know what you have all the time,” OU offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. “But when the lights come on and they get hit in the mouth and they have to distribute the ball in front of 85,000 … When it doesn’t go well, how do they respond? Certainly, you’re gonna find those things out about all your players, but your quarterback as well.”
At least the Sooners can surround Knight with 10 players who have previous starting experience. Outside of the quarterback spot, there isn’t a more veteran offense in college football.
Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops doesn’t have that luxury. The butterflies churning through his stomach are due to an eight-month rebuilding project.
Everything from personnel to scheme has been overhauled since last season. The goal is to build a unit capable of stopping — not just slowing — uptempo nd spread offenses. The Sooners will try doing it with first-time starters all over the field.
“We’re excited to be on the field competing against someone other than ourselves and to see what improvements we’ve made since the end of the year last year and see how some of the changes have helped become more multiple in everything we do and give the quarterback more looks,” Stoops said. “We just have to see how it all works. Our players have been good. Like I say: we’ll see Saturday.”
He’ll see whether the linebackers he’s tried to build the defense around are up to the challenge. He’ll see if OU’s defensive line, which will be without defensive tackle Chuka Ndulue (one-game suspension), can collapse pockets and create pressure in a way last year’s group couldn’t.
Can the emphasis on disguising coverages and creating confusion keep Louisiana-Monroe quarterback Kolton Browning out of rhythm? Browning was the Sun Belt Conference’s offensive player of the year last season. He won’t be easily fooled.
Can OU create turnovers at a higher rate than 1.23 a game, which it averaged last season?
For years, the assumption was OU could. The Sooners lived in the national chamionship race because they answered those questions affirmatively.
“I just want to see us get back to that championship swagger,” cornerback Aaron Colvin said. “I talked to a lot of older guys that graduated from here and were successful here. They all told me to stay focused and there’s no excuses. You’ve got to go out and make plays. You’ve got to perform well. That’s what those guys did. That’s what we’ve got to do here.”
Here are five things to watch when Oklahoma takes on Louisiana-Monroe:
EXPERIENCE AT QUARTERBACK: Louisiana-Monroe senior quarterback Kolton Browning was named the Sun Belt preseason offensive player of the year after passing for 3,049 yards and 29 touchdowns and leading his team in rushing with 488 yards and seven touchdowns as a junior. He’s thrown 60 touchdown passes during his career and scored 16 himself. Stoops said he agrees with the assessment of Browning as the Sun Belt’s top player. The Warhawks have been known to use two quarterbacks in the backfield simultaneously, which could mean freshman Brian Williams could see playing time.
INEXPERIENCE AT QUARTERBACK: Redshirt freshman Trevor Knight will make his debut as Oklahoma’s starting quarterback under a considerable microscope, after beating out the presumed favorite for the job, junior Blake Bell. As a senior at Reagan High School in San Antonio in 2011, Knight passed for 2,092 yards and 27 touchdowns with three interceptions, while rushing for 943 yards and 15 touchdowns. Knight’s coaches and teammates have praised his versatility and mobility, the latter an asset the Sooners haven’t had in abundance with Sam Bradford or Landry Jones at quarterback the past six seasons.
UP FRONT: Louisiana-Monroe’s probable starters on the offensive line have a combined 87 career starts, including 30 by center Josh Allen and 25 by left tackle Joseph Treadwell. With projected starting defensive tackle Chuka Ndulue serving a one-game suspension after an offseason arrest, the Sooners’ probable starting defensive linemen will have a combined zero starts. Depth could also be an issue for the Sooners on a day when game-time temperatures likely will be in the high 90s.
ON THE REBOUND: A major question for the Sooners is whether their defense can right the ship after three atrocious performances (against West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M) in the final four games of the 2012 season. Oklahoma will be without a probable starter at cornerback, Cortez Johnson, who, like Ndulue, will be held out against Louisiana-Monroe after an offseason arrest. Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said he’s curious to see how the Sooners react to Louisiana-Monroe’s multiple formations and movements.
WHO’S IN THE BACKFIELD?: Oklahoma has plenty of depth at running back, with four seniors who have good track records of production. Tailbacks Brennan Clay, Roy Finch and Damien Williams and fullback Trey Millard all figure to play. Co-offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said he thinks all four seniors need touches because they play effectively and they’re experienced. For what it’s worth, the depth chart issued this week had “Clay or Williams” on top, followed by Finch at tailback. Millard, who also can be used at tight end, is the No. 1 fullback.
Louisiana-Monroe at No. 16 Oklahoma, 6 p.m. (Pay Per View)
Line: Oklahoma by 23 1/2.
Series record: First meeting.
Oklahoma will begin the Trevor Knight era at quarterback, giving the offense to a redshirt freshman over the more-experienced Blake Bell and hoping experience elsewhere - most notably at running back - will ease Knight’s burden. Louisiana-Monroe won at Arkansas last season and threw scares into Auburn and Baylor. Seventeen starters return for the Warhawks, who don’t figure to be intimidated walking into the stadium of another prominent foe.
Oklahoma’s revamped defense, which struggled at the end of last season against high-tempo offenses run by West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M, against Louisiana-Monroe quarterback Kolton Browning, the Sun Belt Conference’s preseason offensive player of the year. Browning passed for 3,049 yards and 29 touchdowns as a junior while leading the Warhawks in rushing with 488 yards and seven touchdowns.
Players to watch
Louisiana-Monroe: C Josh Allen, who’s on the preseason Lombardi Award watch list and leads a veteran offensive line that has a combined 87 career starts, 30 of those by Allen. The Warhawks’ line will face an Oklahoma defensive line that will have zero combined starts.
Oklahoma: LB Corey Nelson, who said during the preseason that the Sooners’ defense will only be as good as its linebacker play. After a promising freshman season, Nelson hasn’t quite developed into the dominating presence many expected and he admittedly struggled as a junior last season.
Facts and figures
Oklahoma is 2-0 all-time against Sun Belt foes, beating Arkansas State in 1992 and 2000 . Louisiana-Monroe will open its season against a ranked opponent for the sixth straight year, having previously faced No. 10 Auburn (2008), No. 2 Texas (2009), No. 14 Arkansas (2010), No. 5 Florida State (2011) and No. 8 Arkansas (2012) . Louisiana-Monroe played in four overtime games last season, most among FBS programs, and won three of them . Oklahoma is 47-9-5 all-time in home openers, including 13-1 under Bob Stoops.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.