Bradford-less Sooners seek new superstars after first-round exodus in NFL draft

It's time for Oklahoma to move on.

Enough of what might have been had quarterback Sam Bradford stayed healthy. If Jermaine Gresham had been around to catch his passes. If Trent Williams and Brody Eldridge hadn't joined them on a lengthy list of banged-up Sooners during a disappointing 8-5 season.

None of those players are coming back. They've all moved on to the NFL, along with standout defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, leaving a noticeable void at the team's annual media day Friday. That means many of the same players who struggled as fill-ins last season will now be expected to excel as regulars in the starting lineup.

"Maybe we don't have the Heisman Trophy guys coming back or maybe the biggest names in the world, but I really believe there's the makings of a lot of special players on this team that could be those guys," coach Bob Stoops said.

Over his first 11 seasons in Norman, Stoops lost Heisman Trophy winner Jason White and a slew of NFL talent. But he's never had an exodus quite like this one: Bradford, McCoy and Williams became the first trio of players from the same school to be taken within the first four picks of the NFL draft.

Bradford, the 2008 Heisman Trophy winner and the overall top pick by St. Louis, did miss almost all of last season with a shoulder injury that required two surgical procedures and Gresham missed the entire season before being the 21st pick in the draft. McCoy was the only one there for the duration.

All the missing parts gave Stoops a head start in finding his next wave of superstars, but the search still isn't done.

"We've got to find the guys that are going to step up and be one of those leaders. I feel like we're going in the right direction," said Ryan Broyles, a second-team all-Big 12 pick at receiver last season. "We just have to have that strong core like the core that we lost last year in Sam, G.K. (McCoy), Jermaine, those guys like that, Trent Williams. We've just got to find those guys that can take their mold, their position."

Landry Jones said he didn't settle into the starting quarterback's job until after Bradford was knocked out of the Texas game and was officially done for the season. By then, the Sooners already had three losses and were searching for answers at receiver and along a battered and unproven offensive line.

The injuries continued to mount, and offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said his squad lost its identity as a bruising rushing team that could also attack with play-action passes.

Wilson said he's been asked what the Sooners are going to do this year on offense that they couldn't do last year. His response: "Execute. It'd be nice if we could execute."

"We could talk about all the talent that we lost," Wilson said. "What we're going to try to do is be a more disciplined team that can rush it, have that balance we talked about because we can rush it, be a team that takes care of the ball and be a team that gets it in the end zone."

Unlike a year ago, when most of the key players were back from a team that played for the national title and set an NCAA single-season scoring record, Stoops isn't sure where to set his expectations for this team.

The standard at Oklahoma is to compete for a Big 12 championship, after winning three of the last four trophies and six overall. But Stoops isn't ready to call this team a contender just yet.

"It's a little early for me to say that without, say, four first-round draft picks coming back a year ago. It was easier to say. And having just come off a national championship, it's easy to project that," he said.

"Now, obviously, that's not the case. We'll see. It has a chance to be a special group to compete for a Big 12 championship. And we'll see how things go and how we work, how we prepare for it. We've got a lot of work to do. If we do it well, we'll have a chance to be a contender for it."

NOTES: DT Adrian Taylor, who suffered a gruesome ankle fracture in the Sun Bowl, participated in about 40 percent of Oklahoma's first practice and is hopeful he'll be ready to go for the opener Sept. 4 against Utah State. ... Stoops says LB Ronnell Lewis, nicknamed the "Hammer" for his punishing hits, could also be used as a defensive end. ... Wilson says Gabe Ikard and Eric Mensik have moved full-time to the offensive line but he hasn't closed the door on using them as tight ends.