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Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Being in the middle of Oklahoma's biggest question mark isn't something that Ben Habern shies away from.
In fact, the Sooners' freshman center is excited about the opportunity to prove something to the doubters who are wondering about Oklahoma's young offensive line heading into the upcoming season with four new starters.
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|Oklahoma's Ben Habern has some big shoes to fill as he replaces Jon Cooper at center.|
It's made Habern wish his team's Sept. 5 opener against BYU was only a couple of weeks away.
"There are a lot of people who don't think we have enough talent to make it through the Big 12 or to a big bowl game," Habern said. "But a lot of people aren't here during our practices. We've seen how athletic we are."
Some of the doubt started earlier when Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops called out the unit before spring practice even began. Stoops was disappointed in the group's lack of dedication during preseason conditioning drills and didn't hesitate to make his comments known.
The words stung, particularly for a group that was looking to build some confidence before heading into practice. But Stoops' point got across and helped the group coalesce.
"We lost a lot of senior leadership and have a lot of guys to replace," Habern said. "It was a big step and a challenge to get everything settled. But I feel like we handled it pretty well."
One of the biggest reasons for the group's fast growth has been the development of Habern, who has claimed the starting job after strong work during the spring to replace Jon Cooper.
Jason Hannan, who was once considered the nation's No. 1 center prospect and Cooper's eventual replacement, couldn't beat out Habern for the job, leading Hannan to transfer earlier this spring.
"Habern has been doing a wonderful job," Oklahoma offensive line coach James Patton told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "He's got a chance to be a really good one. Jon was a great leader and Ben" is from "that same kind of mold."
Habern, a 6-foot-3, 288-pounder, showed flashes of being a dominant lineman last season. He played in four games before he was sidelined with a hairline fracture in his right foot that ended his season prematurely. In the game where he was injured, Habern produced nine knockdown blocks on nine plays against Baylor.
After the injury, Habern benefitted from the opportunity to watch Cooper, the Big 12's offensive lineman of the year last season.
And Habern's best news came after the season when he regained his freshman season on an injury redshirt.
"It turned out to be a pretty good experience for me," Habern said. "I got some experience, travel and see what it's all about. And going along with Cooper really helped me out. It was a blessing for me."
Now, the young offense group is in an enviable position, considering their surrounding teammates. The Sooners return the Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback in Sam Bradford, 1,000-yard backs in DeMarco Murray and Chris Brown and the freakish athletic talents of Jermaine Gresham at tight end.
"Just to be snapping to Sam and playing for a team with so much tradition and the legacy here is exciting," Habern said. "Playing here means a lot to me."
Habern played high school at Liberty Christian High School in Argyle, Texas. While there, he played guard and hoped to have a chance to play at Oklahoma one day.
His first exposure to center came at the Army All-American Game in San Antonio last year. But his transition was smooth and he's been able to carry that progression once he started his college career at the unfamiliar position.
"I was doing my snaps and felt fine," Habern said. "I wasn't worried about it. There was a little transition snapping the ball, but the biggest one was just the speed of the game. How quick the defensive linemen are coming off the ball."
Some of his confidence has been buoyed by playing against the Sooners' deep defensive front during spring practice. With players like Gerald McCoy, Auston English, Jeremy Beal, Frank Alexander, DeMarcus Granger and Adrian Taylor, the Sooners might have the nation's best and deepest defensive front.
"It helped us during the spring going against them every day, going against one of the best defensive lines in the country," Habern said. "That group has a bunch of All-Big 12 players and some All-Americans. Our front seven is incredible, and working with them will help us as we get ready for the season."
Stoops backed off on some of his criticism when he met with reporters last week, although the Sooners' offensive line still has a long way to go.
"They had a great spring, but that's the spring," Stoops told the reporters. "It's another five months [after the spring] before they start the season, so we'll see what they're able to do until then.
"In the end, it gets back to their accountability and what kind of effort and discipline they're going to have throughout the year and how they work and what kind of shape they come back in. There's a lot of potential there. They could be a really good unit, but it still needs to be developed and it still needs to show over and over in a more consistent way."
Habern doesn't shy away from those high expectations -- or from confounding the skeptics.
"Here at Oklahoma, we have mental toughness," Habern said. "With the preseason magazines, they always talk about the offensive line and how people are doubting us.
"We've taken it upon ourselves because it's something we can prove. People act like it's bad, but we can prove a lot of things to people if we can work our butts off and show people that we are the real deal. We can contend for the national championship."