NORMAN, Okla. — On defense the Sooners appear loaded. OU only loses two starters from a year ago and more than able replacements will step in. Injured starters were healthy this spring and the defense is faster, bigger and stronger. The Sooners developed some depth at every position on defense with more talent and depth on the way. Ever since Bob Stoops has been the head coach at Oklahoma, the Sooners have played some of the best defense in college football. However, the Sooners may put their best defense on the field next fall.
"Yeah, it could be," said Bob Stoops on if this could be the best defense yet during his tenure in Norman. With the experience that we have back and the number of players and the experience they have, and the way they have played to this point that could happen. Again, there is a lot of work to be done for that to happen, but coming out of spring and going into the summer we have a chance for that definitely to be the case."
For a defensive team to be great they need to be great up front. The Sooners sport the best defensive tackle in college football in Tommie Harris, and Dusty Dvoracek, who starts along side Harris, isn't far off. The good news is that both are healthy after struggling to stay out of the medical room last year. Dvoracek has fully recovered from a painful turf-toe and Harris is almost all the way back from a groin injury that limited his ability to 75 percent at times last season.
"I am right there and it is a good thing because I feel I am doing well and I am not 100 percent yet," said Harris. "You might as well say that I am there, because it is just a little thing like my side-to-side movement. I am moving straight ahead as fast as I used to, so I just have to get side-to-side movement back and I will be all the way back. I am looking forward to next season and I am progressing so fast that I just thank God for that."
The Sooners are so talented at defensive tackle that backups Lynn McGruder and Kory Klein are good enough to start for most teams in the Big12 Conference. Harris is one who believes the Sooners sport the top defensive tackle group in college football.
"I believe that we have developed a brotherhood and chemistry between us that makes us pretty close right now," said Harris. "We didn't have that as much last year as much because Lynn was just coming in. I will go ahead and say it — that we have the best defensive line in the country and I really believe that."
Jackie Shipp has developed into one of the best assistant coaches in the country and he feels his troops will get better as they get bigger and stronger.
"All of them played very hard this spring and all of them got better in my opinion," said Shipp. "Tommie and Dusty played very hard and worked on their game every day. ‘KK' stays consistent and Lynn McGruder has gotten better and made great improvement from last year. They competed hard this spring to be the best among one another and that has pushed them to be a better unit."
"Dusty is up to 286 pounds and we hope to have him up to 290 sometime by the time the season starts," Shipp continued. "When you are playing noseguard and playing all the big people we are playing we have to get bigger up front. We are going up against guards 290 to 300 pounds and then you have a center 270. Well, then you have 570 pounds coming off on a double team. You will be amazed at the difference a few pounds can make and how it can help you against a double team when you are trying to hold that point of attack. You don't have to hold that point of attack very long because the linebackers are going to get there to help you out, but a second makes a big difference. We would like Tommie up to 290, Lynn up to 300 and KK is always going to weight 285 or so. If we can get to those weights I think we will be a more effective defensive front next season."
At defensive end it seems like position coach Bobby Jack Wright is always looking for depth. He lost junior Jimmy Wilkerson a year early to the NFL, leaving his troops once again not short on talent, but short on bodies.
"Every year it seems like I am telling you the same thing," said OU defensive end Coach Wright. "We need to find more players that can make winning plays for us during big football games. It seems like we have been playing with just three guys the last couple of years and I don't know if that will change next year or not. We know our starters are going to be very good and we think we have found a third defensive end in Larry Birdine, but whether we can go any deeper than that remains to be seen."
Jonathan Jackson and Dan Cody will be the starters with Birdine backing them. Those three make up a very solid defensive end corp, and if the Sooners can add another player or two then look out — they could be as good as any team in the country.
"In Jonathan we have a player that is really developing and really coming on," said Wright. "Jonathan isn't fancy or the fastest, biggest or strongest player, but he is one heck of a football player. You saw how tough Jonathan was a year ago when he played almost the entire year with an injured knee. Then he was able to take almost two and a half weeks off before the Rose Bowl and he got healthy, and you saw what he could do when healthy. Jonathan was as good as any other player in the Rose Bowl.
"If we can keep Cody healthy he has a chance to be really good as well," Wright continued. Dan has a great knack for rushing the passer and is a tremendous athlete for us on the edge. We are very excited about Larry and he is a young player for us with a big body who can run. He has a chance to be very good. Calvin Thibodeaux played a little for us last year and was injured some of the spring, but he has a chance to be that fourth defensive end that we really need. Then we have Zach Latimer, who may be the best pass rusher we have at defensive end. He is undersized for the position, but he has a great knack for rushing off the edge. Zach had three sacks in the Red/White game and may be or third down defensive end on obvious passing downs."
At linebacker the Sooners were hit with the injury bug. The worst news of the spring came in the Red/White game when redshirt freshman Rufus Alexander tore an ACL that will sideline him for at least six months. Senior Pasha Jackson missed the spring with reconstructive surgery on his right shoulder and sophomore Wayne Chambers broke a finger and missed two weeks of practice. Sophomore Clint Ingram missed the entire spring with a torn MSL in his knee.
Despite all the injuries, the Sooners have two great things going for them at linebacker next season. Number one is the fact that they have Brent Venables as their position coach. At the still young age of 33, Venables has established himself as the best linebacker coach in the country. At Kansas State Venables coached Percell Gaskins, Mark Simoneau and Jeff Kelly, and all are playing or have played in the pros. Kelly and Simoneau were both first team all-conference selections and a third linebacker, Travis Ochs, was named to the second team.
At Oklahoma, Venables has already produced a Butkus Award winner in Rocky Calmus and Torrance Marshall, both who are currently playing professional football. Teddy Lehman was a finalist for the Butkus a year ago and is the favorite to win the award this year — that is if he can beat out teammate Lance Mitchell, who just might steal the award from him. Lehman, Mitchell and Jackson all figure to play pro ball after they graduate this spring.
"It is amazing what you can do with great football players," said Venables. "You kind of stand back and hope not to screw them up. Our system puts those guys into a position to make a bunch of plays. I do appreciate the praise, but I am not naive enough to realize that it couldn't happen without great players and a great supporting cast, as well in a system that takes advantage of their abilities."
Number two — the Sooners will return a senior linebacker corp that if it stays healthy will rival any other linebacker core in the country.
"We have three experienced players who are coming back and you would expect that we can take advantage of that experience next year," said Venables. "I think, in Teddy, you have the prototype for the weakside linebacker position in that he has good size, is one our fastest players on the team and he plays with great intelligence. Lance, in the middle, is a perfect fit there and if he continues to work hard and learn he can be as good as any body in the country. Pasha missed all of the spring and that is disappointing for him, but he played injured all of last season. Pasha made tremendous progress during last season and even though he couldn't play this spring, he continued to study the game and will be a better player at our strongside linebacker position. In those three we have outstanding players who are great leaders, and if our younger players will pay attention they can learn from those players all season and be ready to go the following year."
Developing depth was a key to the spring and the injury to Alexander hurt that depth. Alexander would have been the backup to Lehman next year and now that job will fall to junior Gayron Allen, an undersized solid player who can hold his own. Freshmen linebackers Lewis Baker and Demarrio Pleasant will also get an opportunity in the fall to see if they can win the backup job behind Lehman.
Chambers will is good enough to start for most teams and he returns to back up Mitchell in the middle. The chore for Chambers will be to stay motivated, despite the fact he knows he is good enough to start for most teams, but can't unseat the talented Mitchell for the starting job at Oklahoma. Speedy sophomore Russell Dennison remains a work in progress and still needs to get more aggressive at the strongside spot.
The Sooner secondary had a new look at safety and had to replace a probable first round draft choice at cornerback, but there doesn't seem to be too much concern in the secondary.
"We could have our best secondary next year since we have been here at Oklahoma," said Co-Defensive Coordinator and secondary coach Mike Stoops. "Derrick Strait has been a great corner for three years and he may be the best in the country next year. Derrick has a super spring and showed great senior leadership for us. Antonio (Perkins) starts at the wide-side corner and he may be the best pure athlete on our team. He proved in the spring that he could cover and he still has a great knack for finding the football. We moved Mark Bradley to corner this spring and he may be the fastest player on our football team. He seems to be a natural at the position and has competed hard for us this spring. Mark still has a long way to go to learn the fundamentals of the position, but he has the talent to be really good. Jowahn Poteat also had a good spring and we think he can help us next year."
"At safety Donte Nicholson may be the most natural strong safety that Bob and I have ever seen," Mike Stoops continued. "He is just what you are looking for at strong safety. Donte has great size (6'2, 210) and he can cover a lot of ground. He may be our best tackler in the secondary as well, which is just what we need at strong safety. Brodney Pool played free safety for us this spring and he also has tremendous talent. Brodney will also play our Roy Williams position when we go to five defensive backs with veteran Matt McCoy playing free safety. Matt is a very valuable player for us who can play both free and strong safety. Michael Thompson came up with a big interception and returned it for a touchdown in the spring game and that was great to see. Michael can help us at both safety spots. So, we are pretty deep at safety and we feel we have come up with some corners that can play for us as well."
The Sooner keep rolling out young secondary talent as well as redshirt freshman Jason Carter was so impressive that Coach Mike Stoops vows that he will find some playing time for him somehow. Carter worked at corner and safety and he will also back up junior Brandon Shelby in the Sooners dime package. Shelby had a very nice spring, working both in the dime set and at free safety. Aaron Miller battled ankle problems all spring, but by the end of the spring was giving a good account of his ability. Miller may be a year away from really helping the Sooners.
Help could be on the way at both secondary positions in the fall. The status of senior Brandon Everage is still up in the air. Everage faces off the field legal problems that have been well-documented. Coach Bob Stoops has not made any comments regarding Everage publicly, but the thinking is that he is waiting to see what the legal decision is before he makes his decision regarding Everage's future with the team. If charges are dropped or lowed to a misdemeanor, then the odds are that Everage will be back with the team next season. If his charges stick then Everage could be done wearing a Sooner uniform.
The Sooners also hope that junior college All-American corner Chijioke Onyenegecha shows up in time to go through two-a-days. Onyenegecha originally signed with Arizona State on signing day, but now says the Sun Devils letter is invalid and he wants to play at Oklahoma. Apparently, Onyenegecha's father is still living in Nigeria and he has to sign the letter to make it a valid letter. His father did not sign the one with Arizona State, making that letter invalid and now Onyenegecha plans to be in Norman in early August. He is technically a free agent and could actually show up anywhere in August to begin his division-1 career, but Onyenegecha says not to worry, he will be wearing a Sooner uniform next fall.
The Sooners' special teams remain intact, but you can bet that the punting job will be up for grabs in during two a-days. Junior Blake Ferguson continued his inconsistent ways in the spring and true freshman Cody Freeby brings his 44.5 per punt average and 4.2 seconds hang time to Norman to compete for the job.
Trey DiCarlo comes back as the place kicker with Jacob Rice as the deep snapper. Both have been put on scholarship for the coming year, while McCoy remains the holder.
The Sooners went into the spring thinking they had a chance to be one of the best teams in the country and they came out of the spring more confident than ever that they will indeed be one of the top competitors the national championship in 2004.
Spring Locker Room Report: Defense
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