Spring Review: Could OU's D be better in '02?

James Hale continue's his spring position reports with a look at the Sooners' defensive line with quotes from Bob Stoops, Brent Venables, Bobby Jack Wright and Jackie Shipp

If spring practice proved anything for the Sooner defense, it was the fact that they will put a good unit on the field despite the loss of All-American's Roy Williams and Rocky Calmus.

In fact, they may put a great unit on the field despite the loss of a first and third round draft choices. At least that is the thought of the Sooner coaching staff following their best effort of the spring, when they shutout the first team offense.

"We are going to be good defensively next year. I think I can guarantee you that," said OU Head Coach Bob Stoops following the spring game. We have always been pretty good on defense around here and that is not going to change next year. We have a chance to be real good.î

ìWe didn't even play with Tommie Harris, Dusty Dvoracek, Derrick Strait, Brandon Everage or Dan Cody for most of the spring and yet we were a very good unit, especially in that final game. I feel that we are going to put one of the best defensive teams in the country on the field next year."

One reason for the optimism is because of the Sooners are dominant in the trenches. At defensive tackle, no team in America has a Harris and no team in the America can rotate five outstanding players at the position like the Sooners can.

At defensive end the Sooners sport a player already ranked as one of the top fifty players in the country in Jimmy Wilkerson and on the other side the Sooners bring the same kind of potential in Jonathan Jackson and Cody.

The Sooners are loaded up front, which is always a good place for a defense to start.

"If you are going to be a good defense you have to be good up front," said co-defensive coordinator Brent Venables.

"If you can't put pressure on teams up front and if you can stop the run with your front people, then the linebackers and defensive backs are stretched to thin. If you control the line of scrimmage and can constantly put pressure on a teams running and passing game, then you can really get creative with your back end. We have a shot to be dominant up front and if that group plays as well as it can you will see us really get aggressive with our linebackers and defensive backs."

Harris missed a part of the spring with a pinched nerve in his neck and toward the tail-end of spring had minor shoulder surgery. To be honest, this was a blessing for the Sooner offense, because when Harris isnít in the lineup the offense can run some of their offense. At least when he is out they have a chance.

Harris is going to move from the nose tackle position to the outside tackle spot at times to give Kory Klein a rest. You will still see Harris and Klein on the field together at times, but the Sooner coaching staff is looking to take advantage of Harrisí great speed and quickness outside.

They also realize they can make this move because Dvoracek is also an All-American talent and Juan Prishker is finally healthy and shows big-time ability as well.

"Prishker is finally healthy and played like we also thought that he could," said OU defensive tackle coach Jackie Shipp. "Juan is a good athlete, who is an excellent pass-rusher inside. He is very quick, has good hands and his motor runs pretty good once the ball is snapped.î

ìDusty missed all of spring practice because of shoulder surgery. He had the shoulder totally redone, but is expected back at full strength in the fall. Dusty is an outstanding player and by the end of last season was playing in Tommieís ballpark.î

ìLynn (McGruder) needs work, because he missed a year, but he got better with every practice. He is a big body, knows how to play the position, understands leverage and loves to compete," commented Shipp on the transfer from Tennessee.

"Two-a-days will really help Lynn and in those additional practices he will improve more than any other player that we have. With Lynn, Juan and Dusty over the nose we can afford to play Tommie some at the 3-technique where he can get outside a little bit. Of course Lynn can play out there as well and we will still play Tommie on the nose, but it is nice to have some flexibility with good football players who can all make plays."

There is still speculation that the Sooners might redshirt Dvoracek this upcoming season, because of the Sooners tremendous depth at defensive tackle. The fact that Prishker is a senior and has played himself into great shape, plus the addition of McGruder gives the Sooners tremendous depth, even before you add Dvoracek.

However, at press time I don't get the impression the Sooner coaches are leaning toward playing Dvoracek this season. The Sooners feel will they play for a national title next season and they want their best players on the field. Dvoracek is one of those players and considering the fact the Sooners are planning on moving Harris to defensive tackle, and away from the nose, makes Dvoracek more important at the nose.

The real decision won't be made until two-a-days when Dvoracek will test his surgically repaired shoulder for the first time. If it continues to bother him, then the injury may answer the question itself. Or if Prishker and McGruder dominate during early workouts with Jacob Hager coming on, then OU may feel they can give Dvoracek a year to do nothing but work on his body.

The decision is not set in stone, but if the Sooners played today Dvoracek would be suited up and be on the field, however there is a lot of time between now and the Soonersí August workouts, and this will be a big topic of conversation in the coaches meetings.

At defensive end Wilkerson proved that he can still be a super player at 270 pounds. Some worried that Wilkerson might lose some speed and quickness, but he didn't lose much and with the additional strength and muscle, only enhanced his game.

However, it was the re-emergence of Cody and the development of Jackson that really has the coaches excited.

Despite missing the final week-and-a-half of practice with a groin pull, Cody was back to his old self, once again establishing himself as a player good enough to start at OU.

Cody would be a certainty to start if Jackson hadn't been so spectacular all spring. It seemed in every scrimmage that Jackson had two sacks or more and he certainly showed the ability to make the big play.

"Our defensive ends are finally looking like defensive ends," chuckled defensive end coach Bobby Jack Wright. "Jimmy (Wilkerson) has really grown into the position and is a true force at 270 pounds. He had to learn how to play with that weight most of the spring, but by the end of the spring, was back to his dominating self."

"Jonathan (Jackson) proved all spring that he can be an outstanding pass-rusher. He still needs to improve against the run, but that will come as Jonathan gets bigger and stronger. One thing that you will notice about Jonathan is that he is always around the football and he always seems to make plays.î

ìDan came back and it was like he didn't miss a beat,î said Wright. ìDan is a very good football player that is solid in all areas. I wish he didn't get hurt toward the end of practice, but the fact he is back in good spirits, playing hard and giving great effort really gives this defense a spark. Now, if we can just get a Zac Latimer or one of the freshman to come through then we will have a complete defensive end corp for the first time since we have been at Oklahoma."

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