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Tuesday, August 9, 2011
Eerie shades of '09 nightmare emerge at OU

By David Ubben

The comparisons to the upcoming 2011 season and what Oklahoma experienced in 2009 have been unmistakable.

Travis Lewis
The Sooners will open the season without defensive leader Travis Lewis.
Now, after the latest news emerging from fall camp in Norman, the similarities have become a bit eerie.

The Sooners opened 2009 as a top-five team with a Heisman-winning quarterback leading a loaded offense with a defense good enough to win a national title a year after coming up short against Florida.

This year, the Sooners opened the coaches' preseason poll as the nation's No. 1 team with a Heisman favorite leading a loaded offense and a defense likely better than the 2009 team. Additionally, the Sooners are coming off a 12-win season that culminated in a BCS bowl win against Connecticut.

But before the 2009 season, just days before the opener against BYU, news leaked that senior tight end Jermaine Gresham, named an All-American after his junior season, had suffered a knee injury. The severity was unknown, but it seemed likely he could return at some point.

Gresham never played again for OU after tests revealed torn cartilage in the knee, and the Sooners suffered a season-opening loss to BYU in Cowboys Stadium. In that loss, Sooners quarterback Sam Bradford played with a shoulder injury that he never fully recovered from. He had midseason surgery and ceded control of the team to Landry Jones.

Which brings us to today. Jones is still healthy. So is the rest of the team.

But linebacker Travis Lewis' toe injury can't help but conjure up scary images of a chase for a title gone awry before it even had a chance to begin.

Unlike the loss of Gresham, the Sooners have a fit replacement for Lewis with tons of promise.

Tight end essentially became irrelevant in Oklahoma's offense, which scored more points than any team in college football history during the run to the national title game in 2008.

Lewis, the preseason Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, leaves a void at weakside linebacker, but he's backed up by touted blue-chip recruit Corey Nelson. The only thing keeping Nelson off the field was Lewis, who chose to turn down NFL money and chase a title, just like Gresham, Bradford, Gerald McCoy and Trent Williams did in 2009.

Now is Nelson's opportunity. Fans will get a chance to see him work at his natural position instead of the nickel back spot he'd been working at during fall camp.

This isn't 2009 yet, though it certainly smells similar.

Oklahoma finished 8-5 that season, hurt further by a rash of injuries on the offensive line that at one point forced defensive tackle Stacy McGee (a backup on this year's team) to move to offensive line.

The Sooners can still rise above Lewis' injury. They're good enough everywhere else to beat ranked teams Florida State and Missouri, who have September dates with the Sooners. Lewis could return in October, and until then, weakside linebacker could still remain a strength.

There's no replacing Lewis' experience, or his on-field energy, where he's one of the most talkative players in the league and the defense's unquestioned leader. Nelson can hold things together with his talent, though.

Barring further injury, Nelson and the Sooners have a chance to rewrite the forgettable history of 2009. In September, we'll find out if they can do it.