All hands on deck for OU secondary

NORMAN, Okla. -- Before the season began, it was easy for Sooners fans to look at Oklahoma's game against West Virginia with trepidation.

The Mountaineers' offense is triggered by quarterback Geno Smith and features a bevy of talented pass-catchers. WVU was a potential nightmare for a Sooners defense with several question marks in the secondary.

Nine games later, the Sooners' secondary is the foundation of the nation's No. 8 pass defense.

"Our guys have played well and competed," said defensive coordinator Mike Stoops, who also coaches OU's secondary.

Cornerbacks Aaron Colvin and Demontre Hurst could be the Big 12's top cornerback duo, while safeties Tony Jefferson and Javon Harris rank 1-2 in tackles. Colvin moved from safety to cornerback after a stellar sophomore season and has become a superb cover corner. Hurst might be the most overlooked standout on the defense. Jefferson is playing like an All-American, and Harris has redeemed himself after a roller-coaster junior season.

"I've been impressed with their ability to compete, week in and week out," Stoops said. "Their confidence has grown throughout the season and that's good, because we're going to be challenged in the next three weeks."

Yet those four defenders weren't the biggest question mark. OU's secondary depth was the biggest concern with the struggles of Gabe Lynn as a sophomore and a bunch of inexperienced players behind him.

Those questions have been answered this season as Julian Wilson has joined Lynn to give the Sooners six quality defensive backs to handle the explosive passing offenses of the Big 12.

"They've played well," Stoops said of the Sooners' nickelbacks. "Gabe is probably one of our most improved players. And Julian has been the same. I think they're in good position to make plays and cover up all the speed teams present in four- and five-wide [formations]."

Lynn has rebounded after some struggles in 2011 to become a quality, versatile backup for OU as a junior. He has lined up at cornerback, safety and nickelback with success this season.

Wilson, the most inexperienced of the six defenders heading into the season, has performed well during his first significant time in the secondary. At 6-foot-2, 191 pounds, Wilson brings good size and track speed -- he was timed at 10.52 in the 100-meter dash in high school -- to the secondary.

"Julian Wilson has been playing really well," Harris said. "He's playing with a lot more aggressiveness. He's playing smart and doing his part."

A six-tackle performance against Texas Tech has helped Wilson's confidence, as he performed well in the first extensive action of his career in OU's 41-20 win Oct. 6 in Lubbock, Texas.

"Midway through the season, at practice, his mindset was changing," said Colvin, who is Wilson's roommate. "You could see his confidence and how he approached the game was relaxed. He wasn't always in a frenzy. He's still growing as a player but I can definitely see a change."

That's good, because the Sooners will need all hands on deck in the final stretch of the season.

The next two weeks feature a game against the Mountaineers, the Big 12's No. 4 pass offense, and one against Oklahoma State, the Big 12's No. 3 pass offense. Both teams have the ability to spread out an opposing defense with multiple receiving targets who have various strengths. Quick, shifty targets such as WVU's Tavon Austin and OSU's Josh Stewart will combine with big, talented pass-catchers like WVU's Stedman Bailey and OSU's Blake Jackson to test OU's secondary in every imaginable way.

Fortunately, OU has already proved it can rise to the challenge, holding Texas Tech, the Big 12's No. 1 passing offense, to 271 yards through the air and Baylor, the Big 12's No. 2 passing offense, to 172 passing yards, both of which resulted in Sooners victories. As WVU and OSU are apt to do, both tried to spread out the Sooners, looking for one-on-one matchups. But that tactic failed to create the big plays those teams had enjoyed for much of the season.

In a matter of weeks, OU's secondary has gone from question mark to unquestioned strength in one of the nation's top defenses.

"They're experienced now, this deep in the season," Stoops said. "They're confident and comfortable. Now, it gets down to technique and being competitive with the football. We rely on those guys to match up [well] and that will be a big part of this game on Saturday."