COLUMN: Habern's injury won't set Sooners back
Kingsley Burns, The Oklahoma Daily
Before the offensive skill position players can dazzle fans and make highlight reels, someone has to snap the ball.
For the Sooners, that man has been senior center and offensive captain Ben Habern since the second game of the 2009 season.
In that time, Habern has functioned as the player his teammates could rely upon to know the snap count and blocking assignments that help the offensive line operate as the foundation of an efficient offense.
The center helps control the tempo of the offense, dictates coverages to his fellow linemen and has the critical role of getting the ball safely to the quarterback.
In his time at center, Habern became the anchor of the Sooner offensive line.
Up until the Sooners’ upcoming game against Ball State, that is.
In the Sooners’ game against Missouri, Habern suffered a broken radius bone in his right arm and will miss six to eight weeks in his position as the line’s leading man.
Habern’s fellow linemen know his absence means more than simply finding a blocker to fill in for him.
“It’s a huge loss,” sophomore lineman Gabe Ikard said. “He’s making all the calls, great guy, smart guy. And he plays really hard and plays really well, so it’s a big deal for us to lose him.”
Habern will be missed, but Oklahoma has been through this before. In an injury-stricken 2009 season, the Sooners lost four offensive linemen — Habern included — for at least a game.
For this reason, offensive line coach James Patton likes his players to possess skill sets that allow them to play one position on the line.
Even the linemen who have yet to see significant playing time this year have been getting plenty of reps in practice, and many of the linemen play multiple positions.
Junior tackle Lane Johnson said the linemen have been trying to establish a rotation to keep fresh legs. That means plenty of practice for everybody, which in turn means backups are ready when starters go down.
“Coach Patton likes to have versatility so when somebody goes down, you can fill that void,” Johnson said. “And it’s good that we know each position as linemen so that you can go in if somebody goes down.”
Because Sooner coaches have been rotating multiple players on the line, the faces may not change significantly, even if their positions do.
Because of Habern’s injury, Ikard will slide from left guard to fulfill the center’s duties.
This will not be the sophomore’s first stint at the position, however, because he gained significant experience at the position this summer while Habern was nursing a knee injury from last season. Ikard took every snap with the first team for the last three weeks of summer camp, and Patton said he expects Ikard will not miss a beat.
“That’s kind of a natural position for him,” Patton said. “Not that guard isn’t, but he’s got leverage, he’s got amazing feet and he’s smart. We expect him to play pretty well for us. We won’t change what we do.”
Ikard said he is up to the mental challenge of directing the line, and Oklahoma has a wealth of talent on the line. The new starting center does not think the team will have any problems finding able replacements.
“We have guys that have been rotating in that are experienced guys and can step in at the guard position,” Ikard said.
“We’re shuffling around like we always do; [Habern] just won’t be out there. So it’s a big loss, but with the level of talent that we have, we should be just fine.”
With Ikard now at center, senior Stephen Good will get the bulk of snaps at left guard. Junior Tyler Evans will start at the other guard position, while freshman Daryl Williams, junior Lane Johnson and senior Donald Stephenson will rotate at the tackle positions.
All of the linemen have seen significant playing time for OU and have shown they are capable of protecting Jones and opening up holes in the running game.
That being said, OU’s coaching staff has made sure through excellent recruiting and player development that the team can lose a player or two without having a significant drop-off in talent.
One thing that will be missed, though, is Habern’s leadership. He was unquestionably the leader of the offensive line.
That is why rather than try to replace Habern, the players recognize they all need to collectively step up as a group to make up for his absence.
“Ben was the leader of the offensive line. He’s a captain,” Good said. “We miss him out there, but it’s not so much one guy needs to step up and replace that leadership. Everyone, as a whole offensive line, needs to step up, and I feel like we’re doing that.
“There’s not one guy out there trying to be a leader. It’s just five guys stepping up, knowing what they need to do.”
Greg Fewell is a journalism senior and the assistant sports editor for The Daily. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregfewell.