Defensive rebuilding key to Sooners' spring

NORMAN, Okla. -- As if the Oklahoma players really needed any reminders of their bowl collapse, a prominent one was there for them every day during their winter workouts.

There, written in huge block letters, was a comment by West Virginia quarterback Pat White that cut to the very core of the Sooners' program.

"I think we were just a little bit hungrier than they were," White said in the aftermath of the Mountaineers' shocking 48-28 upset victory over the Sooners in the Fiesta Bowl.

If Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops hoped embarrassment and shame would put extra emphasis on the preseason workouts, he got his wish by posting that quote so prominently.

"We look at it every day, and it's played into our heads," Oklahoma running back Mossis Madu said. "You could say it stoked us a little bit."

The Sooners suffered their second straight shocking Fiesta Bowl loss on Jan. 2, continuing a run of struggling bowl performances that recently have marked Stoops' program. The Sooners have dropped four of their past five bowl appearances, including games in which the OU defense was blistered for 55, 43 and 48 points.

"Obviously, to lose the way we did is definitely motivation," Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford said. "We know what it was like to end the season in a way we didn't want. We want to come back, start stronger and finish stronger after going through something like that."

Stoops doesn't expect any residue from that game to affect his team, which began spring practice Wednesday. But there's no doubt another bowl loss diminished much of the national luster from the Sooners' earlier accomplishment of claiming back-to-back Big 12 championships, a first in conference history.

"This is a different team with different players," Stoops said. "Coaches change … and in the end, you have to go earn it again.

"I'll say this -- we've been pretty consistent in going after Big 12 championships around here. And that's what we intend to do this year. Hopefully, we can finish the year a little better."

The Sooners have a deep returning cast for their quest to make history again and claim their sixth Big 12 title in the past nine years. Bradford heads an offense that lost only three senior starters and returns its entire starting interior line.

Bradford doesn't have to worry about earning the starting job after having had the most productive freshman season for a quarterback in school history. Bradford passed for 3,121 yards and 36 touchdowns and, after winning the job in training camp, grew more comfortable as the season progressed.

"There's a lot of different things that a quarterback can do other than numbers," said Bradford, who has bulked up by seven pounds from last season and now weighs 220. "I could go out and put up not nearly as good of numbers as last year and be a better quarterback. That's how I have to look at it … just try to get better."

Spring work will focus on building depth, particularly among the running backs. Top returning rushers DeMarco Murray and Chris Brown both are recovering from postseason knee injuries, providing backs like Madu, Derek Gove and Justin Johnson and fullback Matt Clapp an extensive chance at playing time during workouts.

The Sooners also are looking for a replacement for wide receiver Malcolm Kelly, who was a top playmaking threat. Fiesta Bowl standout Quentin Chaney is the leader among a group that includes Brandon Caleb, Tyler Stradford and Corey Wilson. Bradford also is eagerly anticipating the arrival of several promising recruits for fall practice.

Oklahoma's losses are more pronounced on defense, where Stoops will spend much of the spring looking for replacements for playmakers like Big 12 defensive player of the year Curtis Lofton and All-Big 12 cornerback Reggie Smith.

Stoops' other big defensive concern is rebuilding a secondary that lost Marcus Walker and D.J. Wolfe in addition to Smith. The trio combined for 91 career starts.

The strength of the defense should be the line, which ranks as one of the best in the nation. Auston English is sitting out spring practice after shoulder surgery, but John Williams was granted a sixth season of eligibility after missing most of 2007 with an Achilles' injury.

The defense's personnel improved when starting defensive tackle DeMarcus Granger and nickel back Lendy Holmes returned to Stoops' good graces after missing the bowl game for disciplinary reasons.

Granger was arrested in Tempe, Ariz., several days before the bowl game after he was accused of shoplifting at a factory-outlet clothing store. He was sent home the next day.

The return of Holmes, the most versatile player in OU's secondary, is particularly important. Holmes didn't accompany the Sooners to the Fiesta Bowl after failing to remain academically eligible. He has since regained eligibility.

With the loss of two starting cornerbacks, Holmes might be directed to that position rather than safety, where the Sooners return more experience. Safety Nic Harris is missing spring practice after shoulder surgery but is expected to be recovered by the time fall practice begins.

Lofton's loss to the NFL draft was unexpected. Potentially, it could prove to be the biggest for the team because of the lack of experienced depth at the position. And the ramifications of Lofton's departure were increased when heralded junior college transfer Mike Reed was kicked off the team for not fulfilling team- and academic-related obligations.

That means oft-injured outside linebacker Ryan Reynolds will move inside for the first shot at the starting position, which in turn means the Sooners will be looking for two new starting outside linebackers.

Despite the defensive rebuilding job, Stoops is confident replacements will emerge to fill those holes.

"We see these guys every day that we think have potential," Stoops said. "So as coaches, we're never really fearful of graduating or losing guys. That's just a natural progression.

"You've got guys that have played for you. Now, we've got other guys who've been preparing who you expect will figure it out and really play the way you want them to play."

Tim Griffin is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Tim at espntimgriff@yahoo.com.