No. 4 Sooners shuffle struggling secondary
As Oklahoma coaches presented a scouting report for Saturday night’s season opener, it stood out to Aaron Colvin that UTEP is a team that likes to take chances down the field.
After a season of defensive disappointment, it’s exactly what the fourth-ranked Sooners want to see.
Oklahoma could find out right away whether its maligned secondary is better after the lineup was shuffled under new defensive coordinator Mike Stoops. Many of the same players are back, but playing different positions than when the Sooners got burned deep all too many times a season ago.
”This is a great test. Any team that takes chances, a lot of times they’re going to complete maybe one or two (deep) passes, maybe even a couple,” said Colvin, who moved from safety to cornerback this season. ”I want to see us not give up anything.”
That’s an ambitious goal for the Sooners, who were dreadful at times against the pass last year. Baylor’s Robert Griffin III essentially launched his Heisman Trophy campaign by throwing for 479 yards against Oklahoma, tossing touchdown passes of 69 and 87 yards before the 34-yard game-winner with 8 seconds left.
A month earlier, Texas Tech’s Seth Doege carved up the Sooners for 441 yards passing in an upset.
All that has to stop if Oklahoma is going to return to the championship chase.
”We’re really anxious to see what’s going on and how we’re going to react to it, coming off of last year,” defensive back Tony Jefferson said. ”We’ve got a lot of goals set and we’re going to try and meet them, starting with Game 1.”
Stoops set the tone for training camp by saying his unit should be out for vengeance after the poor performances of a season ago. Just how much he plans to change on the field won’t be known until Saturday night in El Paso.
Players have dropped hints that there’s been some tinkering with the defense during the team’s closed practices. What’s known for sure is that the same cast of characters will be playing different roles.
Jefferson moved from nickelback to free safety, with Colvin moving back to his original cornerback position after switching to strong safety last season. Javon Harris, who was victimized a couple times in the Baylor game, is shifting from free safety to strong safety. Gabe Lynn, who struggled while filling in for injured starting cornerback Jamell Fleming in the Texas Tech loss, is the new nickelback.
The only one who’s staying put is cornerback Demontre Hurst.
”It’s a good thing,” Hurst said. ”I think the coaches see where they think guys will feel comfortable at, where they get a better feel for how they want to run their defense. I’m totally comfortable with it. I feel that the coaches are going to put guys in the best position to make plays.
”They’re coming in with different schemes and things of that nature, so we just have to ride with it, really embrace it and just really have that trust in coach to put guys in the right position.”
Stoops, who was fired as Arizona’s head coach midway through last season, took a fresh look at his personnel after returning to his old job as the coordinator for his brother Bob. He didn’t’ like some of what he saw.
Take Lynn as an example.
”He doesn’t have the catch-up speed that you need, the makeup speed at corner. That’s a place where you need catch-up speed and a burst, and those are areas that hurt him at that particular position,” Stoops said. ”But inside, he’s a big, long guy that can cover people up. Again, he’s not slow by any stretch of the imagination, but he understands where he’s supposed to be inside, he likes contact and he likes to hit.”
It only made sense to take him off of the edge and not put him on an island against speedy receivers.
But Stoops’ alterations are more than just position changes. He’s also switching from the field and boundary system used under previous coordinator Brent Venables, in which one cornerback covers the wide side of the field and the other takes the short side, to a left-and-right system where the corners always stay on the same side.
The change is aimed at today’s up-tempo offenses that don’t allow defenders time to run from one sideline to the other before snapping the ball.
Part of it, too, is changing attitudes and practice habits.
”I think they’re very smart guys and I think they understand what we’re trying to do and how we need to play as a group for us to be successful. That’s what we’re concentrating on every day,” Stoops said. ”That’s the toughness that we need to have from a secondary perspective, and at times we weren’t as tough as we needed to be.
”We need to be very precise in what we’re trying to accomplish with each particular defense.”
How it all turns out will be on display for the first time Saturday against a UTEP offense that completed 40 passes of at least 20 yards last season with preseason Conference USA first-team quarterback Nick Lamaison.
”It’s not just one side of the field that they’re throwing to. They’re throwing it everywhere,” Colvin said. ”As a defensive back, that’s what you want to see. You want to get those chances to make plays, and that’s what they do.”