Staff changes all about line play

NORMAN, Okla. -- Shortly after the bowl game in a small meeting with reporters, Bob Stoops was asked if he anticipated any coaching changes.

Stoops hedged, then offered a foreshadowing remark: "Every now and then a little bit of change never hurts."

Stoops knew then the major shakeup that would come this week: the removal of line assistants Bruce Kittle, James Patton and Jackie Shipp. Shipp has been with Stoops since the beginning of his tenure at OU.

Even after the Sooners got whipped up front by Kansas State, Notre Dame and Texas A&M, Stoops publicly refused to acknowledge Oklahoma had problems on its line. But with these moves, Stoops is finally copping.

The Sooners have not been good enough in the trenches. And, unless changes were made, they wouldn't be good enough in the future, either.

The numbers speak for themselves. OU hasn't ranked in the top five of the Big 12 in rushing offense or rushing defense in each of the last three years.

When facing the likes of Iowa State and Texas Tech, sure, the Sooners have controlled the lines of scrimmage. But OU hasn't boasted championship-caliber lines since 2008.

If Stoops fired Kittle, Patton and Shipp for their on-field coaching jobs this season alone, the moves would have been unjust. Despite depth, injury and talent issues, the Sooners truly maximized their capability up front.

Patton lost two of his three starters before the first day of pads, and yet the interior of the line was solid all season. Under Kittle's tutelage, Lane Johnson developed into one of the top left tackles in college football. Even Shipp's tackles had their moments.

Instead, Stoops pulled the trigger on these moves because maximizing potential is not the same as dominating up front.

Outgoing defensive end R.J. Washington, one of the more insightful players to come through Norman over the last five years despite his struggles for playing time. He was a redshirting freshman on the 2008 BCS championship game team.

"I'd say the biggest difference is the offensive and defensive lines," answered Washington, when comparing that team and this year's 10-3 team.

"Most D-I programs have good skill players and athletes. But that o-line had backups that went to the NFL. And then you throw in three really big, physical tight ends (Jermaine Gresham, Brody Eldridge and Eric Mensik). That team could really run over people."

That 2008 line featured All-Americans Duke Robinson and Trent Williams, who actually came off the bench the year before. Like Williams, tackle Phil Loadholt became an NFL starter. Robinson, Williams and Loadholt were first-team All-Big 12 that year, but center Jon Cooper beat out all three to earn Big 12 offensive lineman of the year honors. The offensive line was a major reason why the Sooners had two 1,000-yard rushers that season while becoming the highest-scoring offense in the modern era of college football.

The defensive line was almost as dominating, headlined by tackle Gerald McCoy, who would go on to become a top-five pick along with Williams in the 2010 NFL draft. DeMarcus Granger and Adrian Taylor were both imposing defensive tackles, until injuries derailed their careers.

The 2008 defensive line also featured ends Auston English, Jeremy Beal and Frank Alexander, who earned Big 12 defensive player of the year honors in 2007, 2010 and 2011, respectively. In contrast, 2012 was the first time since Stoops' first season that OU failed to land a defensive lineman on the All-Big 12 team.

The talent level on the lines has slipped. And numerous recruiting whiffs this year likely impressed this disconcerting fact on Stoops even more.

After making 40 different offensive tackle and tight end offers, Kittle came away with just three-star tackle Christian Daimler and junior-college transfer Josiah St. John. Even though signing a juco tight end was a focus in this class, Kittle couldn't lure one.

Shipp also struck out on OU's top defensive tackle targets, notably ESPN 150 prospect Justin Manning, Granger's young brother, who stunningly committed to Texas A&M instead. The Sooners ultimately had to settle on upside three-star prospects like Charles Walker and Matthew Romar.

Stoops got tired of settling, and that prompted him to discharge one of his oldest friends and two of his oldest assistants. Such dramatic change could come to help define Stoops' legacy. The upcoming hires will be critical to relaunching the OU brand, which had grown stale after four good -- but not great -- seasons.

By past standards, the Sooners haven't been good enough lately. Up front, especially.