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Two new starters for Sooners

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Sooners practice for the Fiesta Bowl in Arizona. Sooners practice for the Fiesta Bowl in Arizona.

Associated Press

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- One member of Oklahoma's starting secondary walked around the practice field in sweats. Another didn't even travel with the team because of academic issues.

When it comes time for the No. 3 Sooners (11-2) to face 11th-ranked West Virginia (10-2) in the Fiesta Bowl on Wednesday, it will be with a defensive backfield that's had to have one half rebuilt.

After starting cornerback Reggie Smith broke his right big toe in the Big 12 championship game, fellow junior Lendy Holmes was supposed to move from his starting safety spot to fill in. That was until Holmes failed to meet eligibility requirements and was left at home for the Sooners' second straight bowl trip to Arizona.

"No matter if we're new or we're old in the secondary, we all know the position, we all know how to play it," said sophomore Brian Jackson, who's competing with redshirt freshman Dominique Franks for the start at cornerback. "Nobody's better than anybody."

While Jackson and Franks would each be making their first career start, the Sooners have an experienced backup to turn to at safety. Darien Williams, who started 11 games last season, will fill that role.

Williams was a staple in the Sooners' lineup in last year's run to the Fiesta Bowl before his season was derailed by a knee injury 11 games in. He then had surgery in the offseason to fix a stress fracture in his left foot, and that put him behind when the season rolled around. Holmes, a converted receiver, developed quickly and claimed Williams' job.

With only one game left in Williams' career, the senior now gets a final chance to go out on a positive note.

"I'm happy to be back out there. It's never a good thing for one of my teammates to go down or for one to get in trouble, but I certainly want to make the most of it," Williams said Saturday. "I certainly don't want any drop-off at all. I want other people to know that they can depend on me."

Williams and whichever young cornerback starts will be filling the shoes of a tandem that combined to make 151 tackles and six interceptions. Franks, who backed up Smith in the regular season, is also the top candidate to take over his punt returning duties.

"It's a real great chance, a great opportunity for me to prove myself to the country and also to my teammates, to prove that I can play on this team," Franks said.

With plenty of time to get the backups ready, Sooners coach Bob Stoops hardly seemed concerned about switching up a secondary that had been intact throughout the regular season.

"Those guys have been coming on and getting better and better," Stoops said. "It's just like when a guy graduates. There's another guy ready to play. Here we are at the end of this year, and they've had a lot of work.

"I'm confident those guys will play well. They're good players and they're having good practice this week."

Franks said it has been helpful to have Smith along for the trip to provide pointers to supplement the information the youngsters have been getting from starters D.J. Wolfe at safety and Marcus Walker at cornerback.

"They've taken us in real well, being there for us and playing a big brother role," Franks said.

Because West Virginia brings with it a potent rushing attack that ranks fourth in the nation (292.9 yards per game), the new starters must prepare to provide run support in addition to defending a pass game that frequently uses screens to maximize efficiency. Mountaineers quarterback Pat White completed 68 percent of his passes for 1,548 yards and has the highest career completion percentage (64.7 percent), even as West Virginia had the seventh-lowest passing total in major college football this season.

Statistics aside, Franks said his expectations for the Fiesta Bowl are simple.

"I just don't want to give up no big plays," Franks said. "Just play my game and help my team win."

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