Defensive Question Marks

Image via ESPN

There are a lot of reasons to feel confident in the Sooners for this coming season, but there have been a few questions marks I’d like to attempt to address based on some of what we’ve been told.

Cornerback Position

Any athlete that has pushed himself to his physical limits understands that while natural talent is necessary, it alone isn’t sufficient. At a certain point, it’s hard work that really distinguishes a player. I remember Broyles once telling me he actually felt there were often more explosive players in the NFL, but the players in the NFL know exactly what they are doing and they are well prepared. Zack Sanchez wasn’t the favorite to win the starting CB spot last year, but he won it and never let it go. I will tell you why he won it. Hard work.

Sanchez was putting in an extraordinary amount of work, and he continues to do that. Footwork, technique, speed, etc., all these things are developed through effort and repetition. It’s not natural for a person to move backwards, but through repetition you can learn to do it in a way that appears natural.

Right now, based on what we’ve heard, the hardest working person that plans on competing for a starting CB spot is Julian Wilson. While he’s currently injured and couldn’t take contact, he is still doing everything he can to refine his technique. He’s been working tirelessly and it’s my guess that it will pay off.

Unless Austin and Taylor begin to put in the same amount of work, that spot may end up going to Wilson. And if it does, Austin and Taylor may find themselves competing with some very hard working and talented freshman CBs next year in Mbanasor and/or Lane. And I’ll tell you right now, those two will pack a lunch and a dinner, cause they’ll put in work all day.

Inside Linebacker Position

In the spring game, it didn’t take special eyes to note the kind of upside Jordan Evans has. He was making plays all over the field. But it also doesn’t take special eyes to note the absence of veteran LB Frank Shannon. Shannon’s situation is something we have declined to really address. We’ve obviously heard things…probably some of the same things y’all have heard. What we can say (and this isn’t really news per se, but in the event anyone reading hasn’t already heard) is this appears to be a university issue, not an issue (for now) for the coaches to resolve.

While I feel pretty good about our starting line up regardless of how things eventually play out, without Frank we certainly have some depth issues. This year, however, plugging in younger LBs should be a less of an issue because a) the young guys we are bringing in are just better developed football players at this point in their careers than someone like Dom Alexander was in the early part of his freshman year and b) the defensive line will make it more difficult for linemen to get to the second level this year.

I dont know anyone that is certain about whether Shannon will play for OU again, but the people I’ve talked to that are close to the program seem to think he will. They feel that the university is simply trying to go through whatever process they need to go through, but in the end they feel he’ll be back with the team. I don’t know either way of course, but I tend to remain hopeful.

Jack Backer Position

For the longest time we all kind of wondered why Geneo Grissom didn’t look faster on the field. He’s got NFL athleticism, but he always looked slow and unsure of himself. By the end of last year though, he was playing at a speed commensurate with his natural gifts. The difference? Technique and doing what the coaches asked him to do. Trusting that if he did, he’ll be able to play faster and end up in the right place.

But now they’ve decided to move him, at times, to the Jack LB and there are clearly new things he is learning. Based on what we know and have seen, he’s still a work in progress at the new position. And part of me wishes he didn’t have to go through another transition. But I know that if he gets the right coaching and takes to it, playing Jack LB will ultimately be better for the team and his future as an NFL prospect. But this remains a question mark because he’s not quite there yet at the position.

Eric Striker

Striker was obviously an extraordinary pass rusher last year and based on what we’ve seen in the spring game, he’s only gotten better. However, on early downs/run downs he’ll be playing the nickel position (OLB…whatever you want to call it). And the big question mark for everyone there is whether he can man up the slot.

In talking to people close to the program, they believe he can and have seen him do it. I also believe he can do it. However, I think going forward Oklahoma is going to really need to start recruiting guys like Adrienne Talan out of Miami, who are elite in-the-box players that are physically built and developed as cover guys. Striker may be undersized, but if you see him in person he’s definitely built like a LB. Talan on the other hand is built very similar to a big, wide-shouldered CB. He weighs 192 lbs right now, but will comfortably weigh 210 lbs when he’s in a college program. He has elite in-the-box skills, but again he’s a true cover player.

I like the move to nickel for Striker, but I also love to have that consistent ability to play man whenever you want, against whoever you want. And while I think Striker can do it, it’s not something he’s going to be built to do on every down. And I suspect Oklahoma is going to see a lot more first down passing plays a result.

Bottom Line

If I had written this post last year I wouldn’t have known where to begin. There were question marks all over the field. There were schematic question marks as well. But it’s a really good feeling for me to have to really almost nit pick in order to find “question marks” about the defense. It’s also a really good feeling to sense what Oklahoma football was built on (DEFENSE) may be back once again.

  • Steve Johns

    I’m anxious to see how Curtis Bolton does this summer. That kid is a sledgehammer.

    • boomer-d

      I really hope Bolton shows up at 220lbs or more… we are going to need him this year.

      • Steve Johns

        Pretty sure he’s already at 220+

        • hOUligan

          He could be a real factor in terms of depth and see some minutes. CMike has mentioned a few times getting the freshmen in and I think Bolton is one of those guys, with Parker, that’s going to be playing.

      • Super Keith

        Too bad he’s not an ILB, THAT would be huge. We still need a player like Bolton, but I suspect he’ll play outside (that seems to be his strength), which means he’ll be behind some really talented and experienced guys.

  • Doobie74OU

    Couldn’t agree more! Great post K! Last year this post would have been a novel and now we KNOW were the question marks are and are working to fix them already! Going to be a fun year!!!

  • paganpink

    You bring up some great points Super K. Like most folks on here I expect the defense to overachieve this year though, and am more concerned about consistency in our offense. In other words I think that our D coaches will fix the problems you mention or make the adjustments that will fix them. I confess to being in awe last year that talent notwithstanding Mike Stoops and his guys took many of the same players from the previous year and stunned everyone with what amounted to a complete transformation of our defense. It culminated in a decisive beatdown of Alabama against a very talented team loaded with some of the best recruits and NFL talent in the country. Oklahoma wasn’t just their MATCH we were their superiors. And almost no one saw that one coming! The ESPN guys and others were left speechless because they had not even considered that OU would win! Poor reporting that borders on conflict of interest in light of the fact that they are SEC partners. Great write up once again. Sorry for rambling on but it all came spilling out of me on a beautiful OKLAHOMA morning! BOOMER

  • EasTex

    There seems to be a (mostly) quiet confidence about the Sooners defense.
    Knowing how Grissom and Striker worked in their positions last year it almost seems odd to tinker with giving them new assignments, but I trust the coaches and commend them for experimenting to make the defense even better. That’s what spring training is for. It wouldn’t bother me one bit if they gave Tapper a look at ILB/MLB, since they are experimenting.
    In August, when the new class arrives and the players who were injured from last season are back, we will have a much better idea of where we stand with the talent on hand.
    Knowing we have so many talented CBs competing and working to get on the field gives me confidence they will perform well, even when the inevitable injuries happen.
    Sure hope Phillips is 100% after his back surgery. You never know when you develop a back problem, but he looked healthy at the end of the Sugar Bowl, bent over helping Ikard tote the Gatorade bucket.
    Same with Shead, I noticed since he became a starter that the way he walked was odd and reminded me of when I had an L3 problem. Sure hope he is good to go.
    As for Shannon, sure hope he is back on the field. Seems there was bad judgment used by him and the young lady, based on the police report. If he is allowed back, even with a choke chain and a Hackamore bridle, the outlook for 2014 improves.
    I’m really excited by the quality RS players ready to contribute and the quality and depth of the incoming class. It will be fun to follow the daily updates in August.

    • Shifty

      I think the tinkering had more to do with cleaning up the run defense

      • Boomer4life

        I agree!

      • Shelby is a Patriot

        Yeah, Derrick Henry almost single-handedly got Alabama back up in the Sugar Bowl.

        • EasTex

          There was some sloppy tackling in that game, lots of reaching and grabbing.

        • Shifty

          yeah the rrr and baylor games come to mind as well

        • Super Keith

          Henry is a talent, no doubt. But, I think too much has been made of his performance in the Sugar Bowl. He benefited from fresh legs in a very physical game. That’s big.

          With that said, I won’t take anything away from Henry. The kid is just that good. However, if it were Henry as the primary ball carrier in that game, I’m not sure how much it would have mattered. We just played lights out.

    • Shelby is a Patriot

      Exactly, I trust Stoops and Co. that they will have Striker and Grissom ready no matter the position. I think it will be a great year for our defense!

  • John Garner

    Defense wins championships! I truly hope it does this year. Even better would be if TK can stay healthy and play consistently at his Sugar Bowl MVP level. Thanks! Great read,

  • Sooner Ray

    Great optimism for the defense and also justified. So excited to see where everyone ends up and hoping to see some new wrinkles that will cripple offensive strategy. I think we will be solid at LB but really hope Shannon finds his way for depth if for no other reason.

  • Ed Cotter

    No matter who is out there on the Sooner defense, I just hope they come with the swagger and just lay the wood on the opposing offense. Guys will step up, they always do. Should be a fun defense to watch and with a ball control offense that is capable of hitting the big strike, this should be a fun season. Oh, and the special teams shouldn’t be too shabby either. Moneycutt has to be one of the faves for the Groza.

  • Shifty

    It’ll be interesting to see how the safety position plays out…I have Hayes and Byrd but will be watching Thomas, LaGrone, and curious about Parker as well perhaps latter in the doubt he will be on special teams and not rs

    • hOUligan

      Watching LaGrone, too. Kid has some talent. Expect Parker to see serious minutes as the season progresses.

  • hOUligan

    I’ll take it that no mention of DT means that you are confident Phillips returns and/or comfortable with the Wade, Peterson and Romar if he doesn’t. The D will be OK without him but maybe great with a healthy Phillips. Then there is that ‘Shannon’ question just behind him. Once again, am afraid, like last year w/o Phillips and Nelson in the middle, the OU D will be vulnerable, but not as bad as last year with Dom on a steep learning curve. Depth is so critical at ILB like OT.

  • Cary Newman

    I’m curious to see how big a jump Dom Alexander will make this season.

  • Zack

    Thanks for the write up. I’ve got a request. I’ve seen a lot if updates of new offers going out I was hoping you guys could do a write up showing all the recent offers and maybe a brief overview.

  • Super Keith

    Super K, love the write-up! I’ve been thinking about these exact same things.

    First, the things you have mentioned (and I’ve been thinking about) are “issues” that are light years ahead of anything we were dealing with last year. In fact, it’s like fine tuning a sports car. You know you have the horsepower, but in order to maximize the performance, you have to make the right tweaks and small adjustments. THIS is where Mike Stoops wants to be, fine tuning his defense. Dialing it in.

    I am pretty confident that Striker will be fine with whatever they ask him to do, he’s one of those “once in a decade” kind of players that just “gets it”. He has defense in his DNA.

    Grissom is the guy I’m really anxious about. As Super K pointed out, he’s changed positions so many times, and finally got comfortable enough to just play last year. I don’t want him to take a step back. I love the kid’s attitude (he’s like a less publicized Blake Bell), and I have no doubt that he’ll throw everything he’s got into learning the position. I’m just anxious to see how quickly he can play without thinking.

    I’m still not sold on Wilson at corner. I have no reason to really feel that way other than I’ve never seen him play corner. I’m sure he’ll be fine, and the coaches know what they want (if there is a position on our team that the coaches really know, it’s CB).

    All in all, we know what we have on defense going into the season. And it’s really good. What I am probably most interested to find out is which young guys will step up and make a mark with this defense.

    What a difference a year makes. A year ago we were just hoping someone would step up (in the front 7). Now, we’re looking further down the depth chart to see who else can contribute.

    It’s a great time to be a Sooner!

    • Eric Hoffpauir

      Funny you should tie Grissom in with Bell. He was the other top-rated recruit from Kansas the year we signed Bell!

  • Thomas Lenard

    You keep mentioning Lane at CB, is he being recruited solely as CB or a DB? When I watched his film I thought Free safety all the way with this kid, but that’s just watching one film one time.

  • John McCroskey

    “He weighs 192 lbs right now, but will comfortably weigh 210 lbs when
    he’s in a college program. He has elite in-the-box skills, but again
    he’s a true cover player.”

    So you’d like to see OU go back to the Venables-era of recruiting safeties to play LB?