OU's 'sharks' have new outlook
Based on strong spring, defensive backs could be strength of Sooners' defense
NORMAN, Okla. -- It wasn't the season the "sharks" envisioned for themselves.
After feasting on Florida State and Texas, the Oklahoma defensive backs were fished out by Texas Tech, Baylor and even Oklahoma State. As a result, the Sooners were flushed all the way to the Insight Bowl.
But with a new regime and new outlook, hope springs eternal going into Saturday's Red-White game. And so, could we see the sharks back on the hunt?
"We're a little silent right now," cornerback Demontre Hurst said. "But we're still around."
After Saturday, we still won't know whether the secondary will ultimately be better than last season. Then again, based on buzz coming out of spring camp, it's not unfathomable to believe the position group will rebound to emerge as the strength of the defense.
Why? Here are five reasons:
STAR SPRING GAME PERFORMANCES
Memorable performances from the last seven Red-White spring games:
• 2011: RB Dominique Whaley
Whaley, a walk-on transfer from Langston College, rushed for scrimmage-best 65 yards on 10 carries.
• What happened after: Whaley stunned those outside the program by winning the starting job, then rushed for four touchdowns in his debut. Whaley's season, however, was cut short by a fractured ankle, which has forced him to sit out this spring.
• 2010: WR Kenny Stills
The true freshman led all receivers with six catches for 84 yards, which featured a pair of electric catches downfield that turned out to be the two best plays of the scrimmage.
• What happened after: Stills earned a starting role in the fall and broke Ryan Broyles' OU freshman receiving records. He is the only surefire starter in the receiving corps going into next season.
• 2009: WR Adron Tennell
Tennell looked like he had finally arrived, snaring a 23-yard touchdown pass from Sam Bradford.
• What happened after: Tennell won a starting job but soon lost it after dropping several passes. Tennell, however, ended his senior year contributing late with solid performances against Kansas, Kansas State and Texas A&M.
• 2008: CB Dominique Franks
The OU offense would ultimately break the modern NCAA scoring record, but on this windy afternoon, the OU defense completely dominated, headlined by Franks' three interceptions, the first of which he returned 57 yards for a touchdown in the scrimmage's first minute.
• What happened after: Franks started the next two seasons, and scored three defensive touchdowns. He is now with the Atlanta Falcons.
• 2007: RB DeMarco Murray
The redshirt freshman gained 103 yards on just four carries, and scored an 18-yard touchdown while cutting against the grain.
• What happened after: Murray had a stellar freshman season, which included a hurdling touchdown run in the win over Texas. Murray went on to break Steve Owens' school record with 65 career touchdowns. He now starts for the Dallas Cowboys.
• 2006: WR Paul Thompson
Thompson, who had been converted from quarterback in the offseason, caught a scrimmage-high four catches for 82 yards.
• What happened after: That would be Thompson's last public display at receiver. After Rhett Bomar's dismissal in the preseason, Thompson was moved back to original position and after a rocky start quarterbacked the Sooners to the Big 12 championship.
• 2005: LB Rufus Alexander
A harbinger of what was to come, OU's quarterbacks struggled against the defense, which was led by Alexander's eight tackles, forced fumble and fumble recovery.
• What happened after: Alexander went on to end his banner career by earning Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors the following season.
In 2011, the Sooners had their starters in the secondary -- and that was it. When cornerback Jamell Fleming suffered a knee injury, Texas Tech picked on his backup Gabe Lynn with ease. When safety Javon Harris struggled to keep anything in front of him in Waco, the Sooners didn't have confidence in anyone else to make a substitution until late in the fourth quarter.
It doesn't sound like that will be the case next season. New defensive coordinator Mike Stoops says he's preparing to use at least a half-dozen different DBs next season, and maybe more. So far this spring, backups like cornerbacks Lamar Harris and Joe Powell and safety Quentin Hayes have been given the chance to prove they belong in the rotation, and are in the plans for next season.
"We're gonna need all of them. Believe me," he said. "I have no idea how it will all shake out come September. A lot can happen between now and then. But we're going to need them all. That's what I tell them. We may play six defensive backs if we have to. You can't have linebackers out there lined up on the skill players we see week-in and week-out. We have to have some flexibility to get into some other stuff. We don't want the advantage to be slanted to the offense. There will be times when we play six defensive backs. We have to match their speed with great speed of our own."
2. The holes appear to have been patched.
The Sooners had some nice pieces in the secondary last season in Fleming, Hurst, Aaron Colvin and Tony Jefferson. But in the losses, OU allowed opponents to find the weak link and exploit it. Over and over again.
Stoops, however, has made a couple of moves this spring that could plug the dam. First, he has placed Jefferson at free safety, which adds a calming and confident presence to the back end, something that was missing at times last season.
Second, Stoops is reserving the right to slide Colvin to cornerback, assuming Harris continues to perform at the level he has all spring at strong safety. Colvin was phenomenal at corner as a true freshman before being moved to safety last spring. By keeping Colvin (who has missed the spring with an injured shoulder) as an option at cornerback, Stoops has accounted for the biggest question in the secondary going into the offseason -- replacing Fleming.
"We're just trying to get our players in the right positions to be more efficient and more effective players," Stoops said. "I think that's the consensus of what we saw a year ago. We're going to do what we have to do to be successful.
"We weren't as efficient as we needed to be a year ago."
3. Harris and Lynn have new life.
Confidence is a fragile thing in college football. Without it, it's impossible to perform at a winning level. But with a new position coach -- and new positions -- Harris and Lynn, who both struggled at times last season, have been given a new lease. So far, both have responded.
Stoops has moved Lynn from corner to nickelback and safety.
"Gabe has a good feel for the game," Stoops said. "At times he struggled out there at corner, but I really like what he's doing at safety. I think he's probably more a prototypical safety than he is a corner. He's a big guy, he runs well, but I think he's more apt to play inside than outside."
Harris, meanwhile, has swung from free to strong safety, and is having a strong spring.
"That seems to suit him a little bit better. I think we have him in better position," Stoops said. "Javon has played well."
4. Jefferson, Colvin and Hurst are potential stars.
The three best players on the defense might all be in the secondary. Linebackers Tom Wort and Corey Nelson are solid. Same with ends R.J. Washington and David King. But if this defense becomes one of the elite units in college football, it will be because of Jefferson, Colvin and Hurst.
If those three can relax and play their game -- instead of trying to overcompensate for holes elsewhere in the secondary like last season -- the Sooners could be special in pass coverage.
5. Simplification of the scheme
In part due to complex schemes, the Sooners looked lost at times in the secondary last season. One of the tenets of a Stoops secondary has been, simple is better. In other words, less thinking, more reacting.
"It's getting everybody to knowing exactly what they're doing, not being confused out there," Harris said. "Knowing what everybody else is doing, that way you don't have to think as much. You can play. Everybody can ball."
Talent has never been the issue. If they can eliminate the mental breakdowns that plagued them last season, the sharks could get back to circling the waters.
"Once that all comes around," Hurst said, "we can starting being sharks again."