Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
NORMAN, Okla. -- The chance to make millions of dollars was clear and tangible to Sam Bradford.
Almost every NFL draft guru had Bradford pegged as the top quarterback available if he had declared. It especially would have been understandable considering his achievements last season, capped by winning the Heisman Trophy and directing his team to the national championship game.
But instead of starting his career with some struggling NFL franchise, Bradford shocked many outside the Oklahoma program with a decision that was almost expected by those who know him best. He decided to return with three other teammates who were wavering about declaring for the draft, but decided to come back en masse.
Bradford, tackle Trent Williams, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and tight end Jermaine Gresham all vowed to come back together as they bid for Oklahoma's fourth straight Big 12 championship.
"You know, we never left the program," Bradford said. "We were always here. We obviously had the opportunity [to turn pro], but all of us coming back here has provided a boost knowing the leadership we have coming back."
Another reason for his return is noticeable by watching Bradford interact with his teammates after a recent practice.
"I think they all came back because they are kids, they like college and they're having a lot of fun," Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said. "I'm sure they want to have a good team and eventually help their draft position. But sometimes, they just like being kids. Because you can't come back and do it again."
And even if any second thoughts might have manifested themselves about a return to college football, Bradford isn't saying so. Instead, he professes to be excited about the challenge of returning to Oklahoma and defending the Sooner program's unprecedented three-peat of Big 12 championships.
"I'm starting to get very comfortable with these guys out there," Bradford said.
That's saying something. The returning Heisman Trophy winner is surrounded by a new supporting cast that has almost made name tags a necessity during spring practice.
Gone are four starting offensive linemen -- each of whom could be picked in the NFL draft. Three key receivers have departed. Top rusher Chris Brown has barely played this spring. And running back DeMarco Murray will miss spring practice after having surgery to repair a partially torn hamstring in his left leg.
"I think the people outside the program are making more of a deal out of it than it really is," Bradford said about the transformation this spring. "And I like that people are doing that. It's great. The more people that sleep on us, the better."
Despite a disappointing loss to Florida in the BCS title game, Bradford said the team has come back with a different attitude than in previous seasons.
Before, Oklahoma coaches reminded them of their bowl losses on a regular basis in their workouts and other team activities.
But there was no need for such psychology last year. And it was a decision that has positively impacted the Sooners this spring, Bradford said.
"I think things definitely have changed, especially since my first year here," Bradford said. "Obviously we're frustrated with the bowl losses, but I think this offseason everyone had a great attitude coming back into it.
"Obviously we could have been disappointed and gotten down on ourselves and not really worked that hard. But I felt everyone took it to heart and we want to get back to that game. I know how hard we worked to get to that game last year. We want to do it again."
For his part, teammates say that Bradford has come back as a more determined and forceful leader after his dalliance with pro ball.
"Sam is Sam. I really think he's like Superman," sophomore wide receiver Ryan Broyles said. "I don't see many flaws in him. He's just a warrior who is ready to go every day on every play. He hasn't changed a bit after he came back."
His return will bring immense scrutiny after compiling the biggest statistical season in history for an Oklahoma quarterback. Bradford ripped his way through Oklahoma record books by throwing for 4,720 yards and 50 touchdown passes while leading the Sooners to the national championship game. He's already thrown for a school-record 86 touchdowns passes after only two seasons as Oklahoma's starter.
Those numbers might be judged by some as an albatross -- especially considering he won't have many of the offensive weapons he's had before.
"I worry about him a little where he's evaluated, where he's now try
ing to play at such a level of perfection you can't really play at," Wilson said. "Tiger Woods will miss shots, not make a tournament and have a three-putt along the way.
"Sam is at such a high level, but he can still have some shortcomings. And my concern is that he doesn't allow unrealistic expectations allow him not to manage our team at a high level."
Bradford is prepared for that scrutiny. He's already getting a crash course on celebrity in Oklahoma, where his offseason has been marked with many off-the-field activities. Even his hairstyle has been the topic of newspaper articles since the end of the season.
Earlier this week, he was named a Sullivan Award finalist after being honored with Sam Bradford Day in the Oklahoma Legislature before spring practice began.
Despite those accolades, Bradford knows there is much he needs to improve before the Sooners' first game Sept. 5 against BYU.
"There's still this I can do better, even if my numbers aren't as good," Bradford told reporters earlier this spring. "I can be a much better quarterback in all phases of the game. Just defensive recognition, you can always become quicker at knowing what they're doing, seeing the smaller details that might tip what they're going to do. There's always things looking at a defense that you can get better at."
That realization has made him excited about devoting all of his interests to football during the spring, joking how glad he finally is to put his tuxedo away for good.
"Yeah, that would be great," Bradford said. "The sooner we start playing games, the better."