Wednesday, January 16, 2013 Updated: January 17, 11:12 AM ET
Starting from scratch
By Jake Trotter SoonerNation
NORMAN, Okla. -- When contemplating his defense last week, Bob Stoops thought of something Florida basketball coach Billy Donovan once said to him.
After back-to-back national championships the Gators were struggling.
Chuka Ndulue is the Sooners' only returning starter on the defensive line.
"It was at the end of the year, and they were saying to him, 'Well, at least you've got all your guys back,' " Stoops recalled him saying. "And Billy goes, 'I wish I didn't.'"
After a tumultuous 2012 campaign in which the Sooners had a hard time stopping anyone, Oklahoma now faces the uphill task of shoring its defense despite losing the bulk of the 2012 season's key contributors.
But Stoops doesn't necessarily see that as a negative.
"Sometimes that's OK," he said. "We've got young guys coming up. We've got to coach them up and train. And they've got to do a good job of wanting to get coached and developed."
OU does have young players coming up -- promising prospects such as defensive ends Charles Tapper and Michael Onuoha, outside linebacker Eric Striker and cornerback Gary Simon.
But the Sooners also have an awful lot of guys to replace.
Starting safeties and leading tacklers Tony Jefferson and Javon Harris are gone. Three-year starting cornerback Demontre Hurst is gone, too. Same with linebacker Tom Wort, even though his playing time had dwindled. Virtually the entire starting defensive line won't be back next season, either.
Yet even with this veteran group, the defense faltered late in the season. After a strong start, the Sooners surrendered an average of 535 yards per game in their final five games. Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel iced the cake with 516 yards of offense against the Sooners -- an AT&T Cotton Bowl record.
"There's a lot of issues that need to be addressed and improved," Stoops said. "It needs to improve, and we've got to do something scheme wise to make it improve. But the players need to [improve] as well."
Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops, however, tinkered with the scheme for the backstretch, to no avail. By employing six- and seven-defensive back schemes, Stoops made the Sooners vulnerable against the run, and Baylor, West Virginia and Oklahoma State capitalized on that with monster rushing performances.
But Bob Stoops hinted that another scheme change could be on the way for next season.
"It's just, where do you put your pieces?" he said. "Are you gonna be stronger defending the pass or stronger defending the run? That's the game everybody's playing. We've got to find a better balance of it."
Whatever scheme the Sooners settle on -- whether that's a 3-4 or dime all the time -- they've got to get more production from their players. Especially up front.
Underscoring its lack of disruption, OU ranked 69th nationally in sacks, 108th in tackles for loss and 94th in run defense. Bob Stoops defended those numbers by pointing out that OU blitzed less this season to avoid allowing as many big plays as it had the previous two seasons.
"Can we find a better balance? Hopefully," he said. "Hopefully, we can blitz more and do some things stunt wise to get more tackles for loss and still not give up big plays."
To seriously contend in the Big 12 next year, the Sooners will have to find that balance. But they'll need to get more out of their defensive line, and do it as they replace four of their top five defensive linemen.
Rising sophomore Jordan Phillips has shown flashes at tackle, though he has yet to play significant snaps. End Chuka Ndulue was a part-time starter this past season and led the Sooners with five sacks. But the rest of the returning unit has little experience.
OU is hoping that tackle Jordan Wade can build off a string of impressive bowl practices and become Phillips' wingman. They're also counting on Tapper, Onuoha and perhaps even ESPN 150 early enrollee D.J. Ward to help Ndulue and Geneo Grissom supply the kind of pass rush off the edge the Sooners enjoyed in 2011 with Frank Alexander and Ronnell Lewis.
"We feel we have good guys coming up," Bob Stoops said of the ends. "Hopefully, we'll get more than [what we got last season]. We lost two guys that are playing in the NFL. Whether these guys do or not, we'll see. In the end, it wasn't as productive -- that was obvious."
The linebacker position was nowhere near productive enough, either. Even though the Sooners returned Wort and Corey Nelson, linebacker proved to be a disaster. Because of his troubles in pass coverage, Wort lost snaps to freshman Frank Shannon. Nelson, whom Bob Stoops billed as the best player on the defense two springs ago, rarely stepped on the field because Mike Stoops so frequently leaned on the man-to-man dime package.
"If people are deploying four wide receivers ... it's hard to go man if you have a linebacker out there, because he has to guard a wide receiver," Bob Stoops said. "It doesn't correlate. They do in your zone coverages but they don't in man, and you tell [the offense] what you're doing by whoever is deployed out there. It's not easy."
One area in which the Sooners did make strides defensively in 2012 was in the secondary. Even though the unit tailed along with the rest of the defense the second half of the season, the defensive backfield was mostly solid. Mike Stoops, however, will have to revamp the secondary without Jefferson, Harris and Hurst.
All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin returns to anchor the secondary. But Colvin is the only player on the roster with experience at safety, and he won't be switching positions again. The Sooners might have to move either nickelback Gabe Lynn or dimeback Julian Wilson to back safety, though both seem better suited where they are.
"Julian can play a lot of spots. He's got size, speed, those kinds of things," Stoops said. "We'll see. A lot of that has to be retooled."
Same goes for the entire defense. And, unlike Donovan, the Stoops brothers will have to do it without many of their guys coming back.