Five to watch: Sooners defense

SoonersIllustrated.com publisher Joey Helmer offers Fighting Irish fans five key Sooner players and matchups to watch for Saturday's contest in Norman. 

1 -- Free safety #1 Tony Jefferson: Jefferson called it a contract year to some of us before the season and he's making it look that way. He leads the team with 48 tackles, including a pair for loss, an interception as well, and he seems to be everywhere on the field. A lot of that has to do with new and returning defensive coordinator Mike Stoops putting him in more of a playmaking position in the offseason. Last year under long-time coordinator Brent Venables, Jefferson operated in the nickel position, but moving him back to the safety spot has given him more freedom to go make plays, something that Stoops' defenses have been renowned for.

The 5-foot-11, 212-pound junior from Chula Vista, Calif., has been solid in all phases of the game, especially in his tackling. His ability to hit hard and wrap up is a major reason the Sooners lead the Big 12 with just 29 missed tackles this season. He's been excellent in pass defense and has just been an all-around force for Oklahoma.


2 -- Cornerback #14 Aaron Colvin: You can make a very solid case for Colvin being the best player on the team this year. Any time the Sooners have needed him, he's been there. He's been a true shutdown corner and is a major reason Oklahoma has the sixth-ranked passing efficiency defense in the country and has allowed only three touchdown passes. None of those three have come on him.

The rare time Colvin has gotten beat, he's responded immediately. Take the Texas game, for example. Longhorns quarterback David Ash found wide receiver Mike Davis for 31 yards to set up the first play in Oklahoma territory at the time late in the first half. One play later, Ash came back to Davis but under-threw him and Colvin was right there to pick it off. That was one of his two interceptions. He's also recorded a team-leading six pass breakups and eight passes deflected to go along with 24 tackles, tied for fourth on the squad.

The Irish won't likely be looking to stretch the field on Colvin this weekend because that hasn't worked too well for opponents. Instead, they'll have to go elsewhere.


3 -- Linebacker #21 Tom Wort: Irish faithful and the rest of the country can look at one play this season that really defines how things have kind of gone for the British junior. Facing a third-and-11 with just less than three minutes to play against Kansas State, quarterback Collin Klein dropped back and found wide receiver Tramaine Thompson wide over the middle right in front of Wort. He didn't bump him off or anything and Thompson got 12 to pick up a crucial third down that eventually aided them in pulling the upset at the time.

It's been like that this year for Wort, which has led to more playing time for Frank Shannon at the Mike position against pass happy spread offenses in the Big 12. Still, Wort seems to have turned a corner recently. He put together his best game of the season the other night when he picked up seven tackles, including a sack and two for loss, plus a forced fumble against Kansas. The 6-foot, 237-pounder played the most assignment sound football he's played in a long time.

Wort is the better option at the middle linebacker spot against downhill running teams, and perhaps that's been some of the problem for him is going against all these passing offenses in the Big 12. He appears to play more confidently against teams that come right at you with smash mouth football and that figures to be a lot of what he'll see Saturday night, making him a critical component of the Sooner defense.


4 -- Defensive tackle #92 Stacy McGee: If you're looking through the 2012 stat sheet and can't find him, there's a reason for that. McGee has been suspended for the first six games for a violation of team rules and this is his first game back from the suspension. It'll be interesting to see how the Oklahoma defensive line functions with him back in the lineup after really molding together in recent weeks. Senior defensive tackles Jamarkus McFarland and Casey Walker have really elevated their games, defensive ends David King--he moved inside before Walker returned from a personal issue early in the season--Chuka Ndulue and R.J. Washington have been playing inspired football, and this unit has flat out been better than expected.

In comes McGee to the mold, which should lend them immediate depth. But will there be any chemistry issues since this unit has worked together so well as of late? There's no question about his production. McGee finished with 22 tackles, including 3.5 for loss and 1.5 sacks a year ago, but he'll have to fit into this rotation. It's definitely an intriguing storyline with the Sooners looking to plug the gaps and slow down leading rusher Theo Riddick and the rest of the Notre Dame rushing attack.


5 -- Defensive tackle #97 Jamarkus McFarland: His named just got mentioned briefly, but McFarland has put together the best half-season of his career so far. A former five-star Scout.com recruit and the No. 3 defensive tackle prospect in the country, McFarland has grossly underachieved throughout his career, but not in recent days.

McFarland is responsible for the most tackles for loss on the team (four) and has a pair of sacks with an interception. Teammates still give him a hard time for the interception, which he immediately fumbled back against Texas Tech. But that doesn't take anything away from what he has done this year. He's been disruptive in the backfield and in the process taken backs like Texas' Joe Bergeron completely out of games. McFarland, who has 17 total tackles, will have to continue his level of play in order to shut down a potent rushing game this week.


Joey Helmer is the publisher of SoonersIllustrated.com.


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