Now or never for 2010 class

NORMAN, Okla. -- When it comes to incoming recruiting classes, Bob Stoops has usually avoided hyperbole.

But after the first day of practice in 2010, Stoops succumbed to that temptation.

"What I saw today, the way they ran, the way they showed up," Stoops proclaimed to a thousand fans during the Sooner Caravan stop in Oklahoma City, "I really believe it's going to be either our best or one of our best recruiting classes we've ever had here."

As true freshmen, that class lived up to Stoops' "special" billing. Freshmen across the board sparked Oklahoma's late-season surge that included a Big 12 championship and a Fiesta Bowl victory.

But after back-to-back three-loss seasons, some of the luster has worn off what was once such a promising group.

And now the class Stoops once deemed his best ever basically has one final season to live up to that distinction. And it will have to do it without two of its key members, receiver Kenny Stills and safety Tony Jefferson, who bolted early for the upcoming NFL draft.

After that first season, it seemed as if the Class of '10 had the makeup to bring the crystal ball back to Norman. Others agreed. In 2011, the Sooners were preseason No. 1 in both the coaches' and Associated Press polls, in large part because of their rising sophomores.

As freshmen, Jefferson and Stills solidified starting roles from day one. Fullback Trey Millard proved to be a devastating blocker out of the backfield and an underrated playmaker with the ball in his hands. Scatback Roy Finch jolted the offense when he returned midseason from a preseason foot injury. And during spring ball, Stoops declared that outside linebacker Corey Nelson was OU's best defender and that "it wasn't close."

Others such as tight end Austin Haywood, running back Brennan Clay, slot receiver Trey Franks, defensive tackle Daniel Noble and cornerback Aaron Colvin also contributed as true freshmen while showing varied degrees of promise.

But after a blistering start to the '11 season that included an impressive victory at Florida State and a dominating rout of Texas, the team collapsed. The wheels have been rattling ever since.

The Class of '10 doesn't warrant the majority of the blame. In fact three of OU's four All-Big 12 performers last season -- Millard, Jefferson and Colvin -- came from that group.

Then again, the class has failed to elevate the Sooners to elite status. And going into its fourth season, OU likely will start with its lowest preseason ranking since Stoops' second season in 1999.

Defections, injuries and suspensions have damaged the class' overall potential.

Haywood quit the team last year, leaving a gaping hole at tight end the Sooners have yet to spackle.

Noble, the most promising defensive tackle from the class, had to give up football before the 2011 season because of lingering concussion symptoms. None of the other three defensive tackles from the class has panned out. Eric Humphrey left the team last year. Torrea Peterson has dealt with off-the-field issues. And younger players have passed Damon Williams on the depth chart.

Receivers Sheldon McClain and Justin McCay have transferred, defensive backs Joe Powell and James Haynes have been dismissed, and Franks and safety Quentin Hayes are coming off season-long suspensions.

Three of the most promising prospects from the class have seen their playing time dwindle, too. Concerns about practice efforts and pass-protecting have relegated the electrifying Finch to return specialist duties. Nelson was a casualty of defensive coordinator Mike Stoops' new scheme, which seldom employed linebackers. Finally, Geneo Grissom squandered most of his 2012 season, unsuccessfully trying out at tight end before moving back to defensive end in November.

The class took another blow too when Jefferson and Stills declared, even though neither projects to be selected in the first round.

Yet if OU is going to contend beyond the Big 12 next season, it will be because of its '10 class.

Blake Bell, formerly ESPN's No. 3 quarterback in the recruiting class, is the favorite to succeed Landry Jones. Bell has already proven to be lethal on the ground with 24 career touchdowns out of the "Belldozer" package. The Sooners, however, recruited Bell for his arm, and if his accuracy comes along, OU is capable of winning every game on its schedule.

Unlike Jefferson and Stills, Millard and Colvin elected to return to school and will anchor the Sooners on each side of the ball as All-America hopefuls.

Millard has averaged less than five touches per game in the last two seasons, but he could effectively play tailback for many teams. Colvin is one of the best returning cover men in the country despite playing safety two years ago.

Others from the class figure to hold major roles, too. Tyrus Thompson and Daryl Williams will be the bookends at offensive tackle. Underrated right guard Bronson Irwin is a returning starter and proven performer, as is left guard Adam Shead, who is the team's best interior run blocker when healthy.

Clay, who rushed for a career-high 157 yards last season at Iowa State, will be the No. 2 tailback again behind Damien Williams.

Defensively, Grissom, Chuka Ndulue and Rashod Favors will all be in the rotation at end. Nelson and Aaron Franklin will comprise two of the top three linebackers. And in the secondary, Julian Wilson will have a major role somewhere flanking Colvin.

All told, as many as 17 players -- and maybe a couple more -- will play significant roles next season. In other words, the Class of 2010 will be on the spot.

And next season will determine whether this class was indeed special. Or whether, like so many others, it fell short of recruiting hyperbole.