When the Oklahoma Sooners 2012 schedule was unveiled, pretty much everyone frowned upon the first two games against mid-level Conference USA opponent UTEP and FCS member Florida A&M.
Today, the Sooners find themselves 2-0, thanks in large part to those two underwhelming opponents. Based on the Sooners' performance in each of those games, the Sooners could easily be 0-2 had they faced tougher opposition.
Youth and suspensions depleted units on both sides of the ball, but none more so than the defensive tackle position.
With senior Casey Walker out due to a personal issue, Torrea Peterson out due to an academic issues, and Stacy McGee suspended for violating university policy, the Sooners had two defensive tackles ready to play against UTEP that weren't freshmen.
Jamarkus McFarland had to play practically the entire game against UTEP because of the lack of depth in the interior, and was a bit worried at first.
"At first I was kind of shaky about it, but it's just an opportunity to make you better," McFarland said. "It's kind of like being in high school again. You get the groove and just play with it all game."
Now, it appears the worst is past, as Walker has returned to practice, and will play against Kansas State next Saturday.
McFarland was quick to praise the young defensive linemen, particularly redshirt freshmen Jordan Phillips and Marquis Anderson, who have been working hard to become part of the regular rotation.
"They have amazing ability," McFarland said. "They have the attributes, and it's just about being experienced, learning from things. You can do it in practice all day, but when those lights come on in front of 84,000, it's a totally different picture."
Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops, who spoke at Monday's press conference in his brother's stead, also praised the young linemen's play Saturday against Florida A&M.
"I thought they all played good," Stoops said. "They're all going to be great players if they stick to what they're doing. They all have the physical skills to be tremendous at their positions, so it's just developing and staying with it."
Stoops also echoed McFarland's thought of game action being a much better measuring stick than practice as to how far the young linemen have progressed since fall camp began in August.
"I think for all of them, it's a new experience being in college and playing in an environment like this for the first time," Stoops said. "It can tie you up a little bit and once they get over that, I think you'll see those skills continue to flourish."
If it sounds like a simple development process, it's anything but. Defensive tackle requires a lot of intuition and feel in order to play without always having to see the ball. McFarland said it's one of the more difficult transitions to make.
"It's harder to learn at this position," McFarland admitted. "It's quicker and you're not really used to people being stronger than you from high school. It's all they need: plays, reps to get better. They took that on and had a few crinkles here and there, but they worked well together."
Not only have the young defensive tackles worked well together, but also they've been constantly seeking improvement, asking questions of McFarland and other veteran leaders on the defensive line.
"They're open enough to come to me with questions," McFarland said. "Jordan (Phillips) asks me all the time about things. No question is stupid because you want to know. The best way to do it is to ask because I don't know what you're thinking."
McFarland said he doesn't always wait for an inquiry to offer helpful insight to the young lineman, sometimes offering the advice free of charge.
"If I see them mess up, I don't want to get them in trouble, but I tell them because coach knows I'm trying to help them," McFarland said. "Sometimes they catch me with a bad step or something because they've learned it. They can correct me as well, so it's all a learning circle."
The learning curve has been sharp for all the linemen, including defensive end Chuka Ndulue, who will be counted on as the leader of that unit next season due to the graduation of David King and RJ Washington.
"It's starting to settle in that it's time to grow up," Ndulue said. Very soon they (King and Washington) are going to be gone and people are going to start looking on me, because out of the young guys on the D-line, I've played more than them. I take it more of a business and don't joke around as much. I'm just focused more."
The Sooners made it through their first two games without a loss, and in the process, gave their young defensive linemen a chance to prepare for the rigors of the Big 12 conference schedule.
The Sooners will have two weeks to give the linemen even more reps before facing the Wildcats of Kansas State, led by all everything quarterback, Collin Klein. OU is hoping they'll be ready.