- Brandon Chatmon, ESPN Staff Writer
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This week we've highlighted the key position battles for every program in the Big 12. We conclude the series with Oklahoma’s safety battle.
Here's where the battle stands:
What happened last season: Returning starter Quentin Hayes and departed starter Gabe Lynn were a solid safety duo for the Sooners in 2013. They combined for 133 tackles and six interceptions. Hayes' versatility was an asset during his first season as a starter, and Lynn provided a veteran presence during his first and only season at safety.
Byrd saw limited duty as a true freshman but was solid in his lone extended action against Tulsa after an injury forced Lynn out of that early-season contest.
Thomas got better and better as the season went along. He was a core member of OU’s special teams and worked himself into the defensive rotation late in the season.
Parker arrived on campus this summer as the No. 139 player in the ESPN 300 for the Class of 2014.
Replacing Lynn has been a focus for the Sooners this offseason. Lynn and cornerback Aaron Colvin are the lone starters OU’s defense must replace heading into this season.
What they offer: It’s quite possible the Sooners’ safeties will be even better this fall, as all three contenders for playing time at the position appear to be securing themselves roles in the defense.
Thomas and Byrd have been so good that Hayes has migrated into the nickelback slot vacated by Julian Wilson, who has moved to cornerback to replace Colvin. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Thomas and Byrd alongside each other at safety this season, with Parker battling to earn time with the first team while providing a quality backup option.
Byrd is a fierce hitter with leadership traits that should allow him to develop into an important voice in the secondary. He’s made a clear jump from his freshman to sophomore season.
Thomas appears to be on the road to stardom. He can do it all in the secondary with good range, instincts and playmaking ability from his safety spot.
OU coaches have praised Parker as one of the most prepared freshmen they’ve seen, and he could force his way onto the field with his versatility and coverage skills.
Prediction: The Sooners will not only replace Lynn, they will use three safeties on the field at the same time quite a bit this fall. The emergence of the young safeties have made it easier to replace Colvin with Wilson’s move from nickelback to cornerback and Hayes' move from safety to nickelback. It’s all been done with an effort to get the Sooners' best 11 players on the field. OU’s safeties could be both younger and better in 2014 than they were in 2013.