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OU football: R.J. Proctor's rise proves crucial in Sooner offensive line's resurgence

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The OU offensive line waits before the snap during the Bedlam game against Oklahoma State Nov. 30.

Since No. 6 Oklahoma's dominant second half in a 34-31 comeback win over then-No. 13 Baylor back in November, the Sooners have made an adjustment in their offense to focus on running the ball.

The stats reflect this, as the Sooners' three games on the season with the most rushing attempts have come in the last three weeks: 52 against Baylor, 64 against TCU and 44 against Oklahoma State.

One of the key elements of that is graduate transfer R.J. Proctor, who has seen inconsistent playing time all season. He started the second half against Baylor at left tackle when Oklahoma faced a 31-10 deficit, and he has remained the starter at the position in the last two games.

"You have to be able to run the ball, and that just so happens to be my favorite thing to (block for)," Proctor said. "The coaches just put a task on my shoulder and basically told me, 'We have to be able to move the ball, and we have to be able to do these type of things in Championship November.' So I was able to step up to the challenge and do that for us." 

Proctor hasn't always been offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh's go-to guy at left tackle this season. After starting in the Sooners' first two games of the year, Proctor started only one of the next nine games.

Despite the inconsistencies, Proctor remained steady and worked for the opportunity that eventually made its way to him after starting left tackle Erik Swenson struggled against the Baylor front seven in the first half of the Nov. 16 game.

"You just have to trust the process and love the process, and eventually the process will love you back," Proctor said. "I've always been a firm believer in that, and I've heard that all my life. Basically, you just have to put your head down and keep working."

The Sooners' offensive line was one of the team's most consistently dominant groups in Lincoln Riley's first two seasons at head coach in 2017 and 2018, but this year it hasn't been as rock solid, as it wasn't just Proctor who went in and out of the starting lineup.

Bedenbaugh sent out a different combination of five starters in each of Oklahoma's first five games. Some of that had to do with injuries to Swenson and right tackle Adrian Ealy, and some of it had to do with inconsistent performance.

"We've been a little inconsistent, but I think for the most part we've gotten better throughout the year," Bedenbaugh said. "Which you expect to happen. They're young guys, and they're seeing things over and over and practicing things over and over." 

Perhaps the most valuable component Proctor brings to the table is his experience, which is something the Sooners lacked entering the year.

In 2018, Oklahoma's offensive line won the Joe Moore Award for being the best in the nation, and four of those starters left for the NFL. With just redshirt sophomore center Creed Humphrey returning, whoever was going to take the other four spots was going to lack on-field experience.

Unlike some of the other new starters for the Sooners, Proctor brought valuable in-game experience from his three seasons at Virginia, where he appeared in 32 games, making 12 starts.

"It's been valuable, no doubt," said redshirt sophomore guard Tyrese Robinson, who hadn't started a game at Oklahoma until 2019. "He played at the collegiate level and some of us haven't ... When he came in, he knows how it is, he knows the environment, he knows the communication level. It helps a lot with a young group like this."

Bedenbaugh is widely regarded as one of — if not the best — offensive line coaches and recruiters in college football. And one aspect of offensive line play he regularly emphasized to the media throughout the year is the importance of fielding five players who are not only talented, but also five players who can effectively perform as a unit.

Finding the right five players has been something of a trial and error this year for Bedenbaugh. But as the season winds down and the Sooners gear up for a potential third-straight College Football Playoff berth, it appears they might be peaking at the perfect time.

"It's not just that we're running the ball, I think we're doing other things good, too," Bedenbaugh said. "Just the improvement that they've made, they've been playing together quite a bit now and practicing together. They're talented dudes, so obviously you would hope to see that natural progression, and we have."

Now the only team standing in the Sooners' way to a fifth-consecutive Big 12 title is No. 7 Baylor (11-1, 8-1 Big 12), as the two will rematch in the conference title game at 11 a.m. CT Saturday in Dallas.

The Bears boast one of the nation's best defensive lines, led by defensive linemen Bravvion Roy, James Lynch and James Lockhart. The three have contributed to Baylor's No. 7 ranking in sacks per game with 3.4, including a four-sack performance against the Sooners earlier in the year. 

For Oklahoma to emerge with a conference title and a real shot at the playoff, Proctor and the offensive line may need to have their best performance of the year Saturday. 

"You have two seniors who are really good and a junior who's really good, and those guys have played together a bunch. It's kind of like our offensive line from last year," Bedenbaugh said. "They're coached really well, they've got a good system, they play hard, they're big dudes, they're physical. There's a lot that stands out."

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