Published November 20, 2014
When Ty Darlington arrived on Oklahoma's campus this fall, he got to work learning the center position behind the team's most experienced lineman and an all-conference performer who'd filled in there last season.
That Darlington started for the Sooners (7-2, 5-1 Big 12) in a 42-34 win against Baylor on Saturday was a sign of how many injuries the offensive line has absorbed this season.
Darlington learned that he'd be starting through a text Thursday from starter Gabe Ikard, who had shifted from guard to fill in when 30-game starter Ben Habern gave up football at the start of training camp because of lingering problems from back and neck injuries. Ikard won all-Big 12 honors last season when he started out at guard and then shifted over to replace Habern during the season.
The Sooners also lost guard Tyler Evans, right behind Habern with 29 career starts, to a season-ending knee injury in the first week of training camp and have had guard Adam Shead and tackle Lane Johnson play through balky ankles.
"It's been tough on us, just having to respond and just coming back to practice every week and getting better when we're a little banged up," Darlington said. "But I think we're doing well with it."
With its makeshift offensive line, Oklahoma compiled 460 total yards with 183 rushing against Baylor's worst-in-the-nation defense. Quarterback Landry Jones was sacked once, the 13th sack allowed this season. The Sooners had allowed a Bowl Subdivision-best four sacks after nine games last season, but Jones isn't complaining with all his protectors have gone through.
"You can't say enough about the job that Ty did and the offensive line. He did a great job of calling everything out, directing traffic up there and those guys did a great job of keeping me clean (Saturday) night," Jones said. "That one sack, I held onto the ball a little bit longer than I should have.
"All in all, the offensive line did a great job."
Johnson, the starting left tackle, played on just five of 12 drives — two in each half, plus the kneel-downs at the end of the game. Shead limped off the field in the fourth quarter after hurting his right ankle, but he didn't miss a snap.
"A lot of people went down. There's a lot of shuffling going on," Darlington said.
It's apparently been even more amplified behind closed doors at practice. Darlington said right tackle Daryl Williams worked a lot at guard to allow Bronson Irwin time off to deal with his own injuries, and field-goal snapper Austin Woods also ate up some repetitions to keep others fresh.
Though Ikard was unable to practice, he was involved in getting Darlington up to speed for his first career start. Ex-center Jon Cooper, now a student assistant after a stint in the NFL, stayed after practice to work with Darlington and helped him out in the film room.
"Gabe was like my personal coach for the week because he wasn't even dressed out a couple of days. He was coaching me up on every little thing, giving me tips on how to block this or that and asking me some questions about IDs and everything," Darlington said.
Oklahoma's coaches had said during training camp that Darlington stood a chance to play this season but no one could have anticipated him playing every snap in a game. Still, he did all he could to be ready.
"Doing some of the stuff off the field I think is very important: doing the preparation, watching film and studying your play sheets and everything. I think that's the first step, and then just working hard in practice and just pushing it," said Darlington, who's from Apopka, Fla.
"I've got a good background from high school, my dad being a coach and everything. I came in ready to play mentally and physically, I worked very hard before I got here to get big enough and strong enough to be able to play."
Toward the end of the week, he played a bigger role in meetings and had to go through a quiz from coaches to make sure he knew his stuff.
"This is what I've dreamed of doing. I've wanted to come in here and be an Oklahoma Sooner for a long time," Darlington said. "I've gotten to play in other games but not meaningful playing time and definitely not starting. So, I was a little bit nervous but I think it was more just being excited, just being excited to play."
About the only snags were a pair of illegal snap penalties against Darlington, who said he had trouble hearing Jones and quarterback Blake Bell and "hitched" the ball too soon. Neither one proved costly, with the Sooners scoring touchdowns on both drives.
Offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said some adjustments were made to the Sooners' run protection schemes to make sure Darlington wasn't isolated.
"I thought Ty Darlington in at center did an awesome job, from what I could tell. He was clean in there. The overall line play was really good, so he must have had a good game," coach Bob Stoops said. "I'm proud of him to handle the situation like he did as a true freshman. Really pretty special."