Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
In the moments after Oklahoma's disappointing BCS title game loss to Florida, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy wasn't sure if any of his draft-eligible teammates would be returning.
With key players like quarterback Sam Bradford, tight end Jermaine Gresham and tackle Trent Williams all projected to be picked early in the first day of the NFL draft, McCoy expected the worst. He wasn't even sure if he would be coming back to college, much less the rest of his teammates.
But something happened before the draft eligibility paperwork had to be turned in. All of the Sooners' key underclassmen who were considering turning pro decided to come back en masse.
"I don't think I would have believed we all would be coming back together, but it happened," McCoy said. "We know that we are the leaders of the team and everything happens for a reason. We have to come out and lead this team."
McCoy wavered in his own decision whether to come back for his junior season or declare for the draft. The NFL draft evaluation indicated he would have been a likely first-round draft pick. But the second-team All-American felt like he still had some unfinished business in college that made him want to return for another season.
"I went back and forth. One day I wanted to go and the next I didn't," McCoy said. "It almost was like what I felt when I was being recruited. Once I prayed and felt comfortable about my decision, I felt relaxed about what I was doing."
The quartet who repudiated the expected NFL riches has become the foundation for the Sooners as spring practice began earlier this week.
Such a leadership isn't unusual for McCoy, who has taken an active role since his arrival at Oklahoma, which he said was reinforced during his youth by his parents.
"It was just something they taught me, about being the head rather than the tail, so it's just natural for me," McCoy said. "It's something I've always done from my first days as an athlete."
The direction from the returning players will be critical if the Sooners are able to snap the four-game losing streak in BCS bowl games that have dogged the program in recent seasons.
"We made a great run last season, but we still have a lot to prove," McCoy said. "We're always emphasizing finishing strong and we haven't done that the last few years. We're looking to improve that if we can."
In the past, the Sooners were bombarded by reminders of those BCS losses during their offseason work.
That's all changed this season, McCoy said.
"We're past that now," McCoy said. "We lost a game -- a tough one -- and know we lost it. There's nothing we need to say about it now. We don't have any inspirational banners to remind us. With this group, that's unnecessary."
McCoy is excited about the challenge as he returns for his junior season after earning consensus All-Big 12 honors last season. His athleticism enabled him to develop a knack for big plays with 10 of his 26 tackles resulting in lost yardage, including 6.5 sacks.
The Sooners return nine defensive starters from last season's team, losing only safeties Nic Harris and Lendy Holmes. And injuries that dogged the team last season actually could help the team as a variety of players were forced into starting positions.
The defense struggled at times last season with all of the new personnel working for injured teammates. But the unit jelled as the season progressed, producing its best efforts in the final two games of the season when it limited Missouri and Florida each to their season-low totals in scoring.
"We weren't worried what the media was saying about us earlier in the season," McCoy said. "We knew we had a good defense and we proved that as the year continued. And we have the same players back. We'll still have a good defense -- that won't change."
McCoy's versatility was shown in the title game when he moved to defensive end for much of the game.
The 6-foot-4, 295-pounder looked like the reincarnation of Deacon Jones in his play against the Gators, producing four tackles, including a pivotal stop of Jeff Demps that resulted in a 4-yard loss. He even dropped into a zone blitz on a couple of snaps and produced his first career interception.
"That was kind of fun," McCoy said. "I had never played defensive end. It gave us a different look and allowed me to show some things I can do."
That performance could lead to more play at the position during the upcoming season. He also aims to improve his upper-body strength and refine his pass-rushing technique.
He's also leading his team through a difficult first week of practice after redshirt freshman wide receiver Corey Wilson was injured in an automobile accident last week.
Oklahoma players were told in an e-mail by their coaches earlier this week that Wilson remains paralyzed below his waist after the accident.
"We're using that [as] inspiration," McCoy said. "We've got a brother who is down. I'm sure he would want us to go on and not let it get to us.
"I thank God for giving me my career and what success I've had. What happened to Corey opens your eyes that something can always happen. You should always be thankful."