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No excuses for Sooners secondary under Kerry Cooks

10h

You've seen the highlight reel.

Oklahoma State's Brandon Sheperd bouncing off Oklahoma defensive backs then prancing into the end zone. Baylor's Corey Coleman catching a hitch route then cruising past Sooners secondary men for a long gain. West Virginia's Kevin White running past the entire OU defensive backfield for a easy long touchdown catch.

Kerry Cooks has seen it too.

"When I first got here we put on a big play reel and I can't even count how many there was," OU's new defensive backs coach said.

Cooks' task is to change those images. The former Notre Dame defensive backs coach left South Bend this offseason to take on the challenge of repairing a unit that finished No. 117 among FBS after allowing 276.23 passing yards per game.

And he plans to start with a mission statement.

"If the secondary plays well, it doesn't matter what happens up front," Cooks said. "If we tackle, if we don't let guys behind us, if we're making plays, we win every game."

In other words, no excuses.

It shouldn't matter that the Sooners leaned heavily on a pair of sophomores (Zack Sanchez, Ahmad Thomas) and a pair of true freshman (Jordan Thomas, Steven Parker) a year ago. It shouldn't matter how Big 12 offenses try to isolate and attack defensive backs in the open field. It shouldn't matter what the six (or seven) players composing the defensive line and linebackers are doing.

"How good we are up front is irrelevant and I want those guys to think that way," said Cooks, who took the job partially to get closer to family in his childhood hometown of Irving, Texas. "Whether its true or not, who cares? As a secondary player, that's your mentality."

It's a youthful defensive back group Cooks inherits after Mike Stoops moved from safeties coach to the linebackers coach and cornerbacks coach Bobby Jack Wright elected to retire. The roster features All-Big 12 cornerback in Sanchez and super sophomore in Parker but does not feature a senior defensive back. Yet, youth can't be an excuse for a repeat performance in 2015.

"[I'm] just wanting those guys to be more accountable and not giving them excuses about their youth," Cooks said. "They're talented enough to be able to play here."

Miscommunication or mental mistakes were often the culprit in 2014, as all too often opposing receivers were seen running unchallenged through a young and inexperienced secondary. This spring, Cooks' focus was changing that trend.

"My whole purpose this spring was communication," he said. "Verbal and nonverbal, making sure we're opening our mouths, not keeping it a secret and every practice I should be seeing hand signals. That's the one thing we emphasized and one thing I was pleased with this spring. I do think we got better but we have a long way to go."

Added depth will be critical. The Sooners are lacking depth behind their first team defensive backs, particularly at safety. Incoming freshmen safeties Kahlil Haughton, Prentice McKinney and Will Sunderland will need to be ready to contribute right away and the talent behind Sanchez and Thomas at cornerback will need to show they can handle the challenge if called upon.

"The competition level is the No. 1 thing that I'm looking for and trying to elevate here," Cooks said. "I think there's enough talent in the room to win and be successful but we still need to upgrade and add competition so guys continue to raise their games to another level."