Sooners facing center shortage

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NORMAN, Okla. (AP) -- With projected starter Ben Habern and backup Brian Lepak both limited by injuries, Oklahoma has started preseason camp preparing for the worst at center.

Tight end Brody Eldridge has been handling the snaps with the first team, getting ready in case he's called upon in the Sept. 5 season opener against BYU.

"Just to develop depth," Sooners coach Bob Stoops said. "Just to make sure that if you're ever in an emergency situation, you've got someone that can handle it. It's natural for Brody. Blocking's blocking."

The Sooners are trying to replace all-Big 12 center Jon Cooper, who signed as a free agent with the Minnesota Vikings after his senior year. Cooper had started Oklahoma's last 37 games in a row and 43 total games during his four-year career.

Habern, a sophomore, came into the preseason at the top of the depth chart but has been slowed by a back injury. Lepak, a junior, sat out last year after transferring from Colorado State, then suffered a high ankle sprain in preseason camp.

Offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson routinely makes his veteran linemen learn as many positions as possible, just in case. Along with Eldridge, he's been having others such as guard Stephen Good and tackle Trent Williams try their hand at center, too.

"If we're playing today and (Habern's) limited and Lepak's limited, who's your center? Right now, it'd probably be Brody," Wilson said. "But if the tackles come along, maybe then it's Trent."

Eldridge is considered one of Oklahoma's best blockers, but that had been while lining up at tight end or fullback until now.

"Believe it or not, Brody's the best blocker on our team. Technique-wise and finishing-wise, don't nobody equal up to Brody -- not even myself," said Williams, the 318-pound tackle who gave up the chance to enter the NFL draft early to come back for his senior season.

"Moving Brody down there, he's been just like an O-lineman the whole time he's been here."

Oklahoma had expected to be short-handed on the line after losing five seniors -- including four starters -- from last year's team. Then Jason Hannan, last year's backup center, and guard Kody Cooke decided to transfer during the offseason, and Stoops dismissed tackle Alex Williams.

A slew of injuries to the remaining players, including Good and LSU transfer Jarvis Jones in the springtime, only complicated matters.

"I think we're going to be pretty solid at tackle. I think the key deal is to make sure we keep coming along at center and guard," Wilson said.

The strength at tackle -- with Williams, Jones and Cory Brandon -- could allow the Sooners to move one of the three inside. Or Eldridge could remain in the mix, since the Sooners are also stocked at tight end with second-team All-America pick Jermaine Gresham, James Hanna and Trent Ratterree. Fullback Matt Clapp can also fill that role.

"In reality, (Eldridge) is one of our best blockers. ... Whether he's center or guard, he might be there. That's creating a competitive environment that those centers and guards need," Wilson said.

"I'm looking for the best five. Not that he can't be a great tight end because he's a heck of a blocker, but he's a heck of a blocker so I need to be OK inside, too."

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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JEFF LATZKE AP Sports Writer


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