If the Oklahoma Sooners have any hopes of playing for a national championship this season, the crimson and cream will need several players to step up and play at a different level than they’ve displayed during their college careers.
The career arch of Aaron Colvin is a good example of a guy stepping up when he was needed to fill a role. Colvin, who started one game as a true freshman, went from key reserve to one of the best players on the team as a sophomore.
Here are five veterans the Sooners are counting on to step up and play a key role in 2012:
Nickelback Gabe Lynn
Lynn appears poised to step into a starting role at nickelback. His struggles in 2011 are well chronicled but his physical talent and upside remains, particularly with his move to a new position. Playing inside will allow him to use his physicality and takes him off the island at cornerback.
A highly-regarded recruit out of Jenks, Okla., Lynn is more equipped to play safety in the eyes of new defensive coordinator Mike Stoops. Lynn's position change could end up being the best thing that could have happened for him. If he begins to approach the expectations placed upon him out of high school, he could make the Sooners pass defense much better than last season.
Defensive end R.J. Washington
Another player who entered the program with lofty expectations, Washington began to emerge as a playmaker last season. This year he will be counted on to become a major pass rushing threat while lessening the loss of NFL draft picks Frank Alexander and Ronnell Lewis, the Sooners' defensive end duo in 2011.
Washington began focusing on fundamentals and technique as a junior and it paid off as he finally earned himself a role in OU’s defense. If he’s continued the same mental approach, there’s no reason to believe he can’t have a strong senior season and emerge as one of the anchors of the Sooners defense in 2012.
Linebacker Corey Nelson
When you look at his production during his first two seasons in Norman, it’s crazy to think Nelson needs to step up. But he does.
He will be counted on to make plays from his linebacker spot. And most importantly, he will be counted on to overcome his lack of size and make plays in the running game, particularly with OU moving toward having five defensive backs on the field.
Nelson has been productive during his first two seasons but he’ll be asked to take his game to an even higher level in 2012.
Guard Bronson Irwin
Ben Habern's decision to quit football puts Irwin in the spotlight. Fortunately for the Sooners, Irwin appears ready to accept the challenge. The junior has been ready to make an impact but had talented upperclassmen ahead of him on the depth chart.
With Habern out, Gabe Ikard likely moves to center opening up competition for playing time at guard with Irwin, Tyler Evans and Adam Shead. Evans and Shead were likely to play regardless so Irwin could be the player who is impacted the most by Habern’s decision.
Running back Roy Finch
Simply put, Finch needs to make the coaches find a spot for him on the field.
He flashed his special ability as a freshman, then struggled to find the field early in his sophomore season despite being named preseason All-Big 12. It’s been a rough road for Finch as he tries to secure consistent playing time by proving he’s an all-around running back in practice.
But there’s no denying Finch can do special things with the ball in his hands. If he forces the coaches to play him, the Sooners offense would add a dynamic weapon to its arsenal.