OU's young secondary growing up

It hasn't been smooth sailing for OU in the secondary, but the future looks bright.

There’s no question the Oklahoma secondary has had its fair share of ups and downs throughout the 2014 season. A good play here would be negated by a blown coverage later.

An interception in one game could be erased by bad communication down the road. Nothing has been smooth sailing for the group, but there could be hope going forward.

The conditions were dreadful for a passing attack, still OU completely wiped out KU’s aerial attack two weeks ago. It wasn’t senior leadership anchoring things. It was a quintet of five with none of them being older than sophomores.

“All of those young guys played well,” OU coach Bob Stoops said. “You could tell they were more comfortable in the way they played. Confidence comes with experience. Success and experience. Little-by-little – they’re all gaining more of it.”

As loaded as OU’s defensive line and linebackers are, it hasn’t been a surprise to anybody the secondary has been the issue. Trying to replace Aaron Colvin and Gabe Lynn wasn’t going to be an easy task.

OU entered with two seniors in the secondary in cornerback Julian Wilson and safety Quentin Hayes. But after Hayes injured his ankle in the first quarter two weeks ago, that left nobody.

Wilson was already out with a thumb injury, leaving the young dogs to go through a baptism by fire. At cornerback was sophomore Zack Sanchez and freshman Jordan Thomas. The safeties/nickelback were sophomores Hatari Byrd and Ahmad Thomas and freshman Steven Parker.

The present hasn’t always been so great for OU’s secondary, but the future sure feels like it could be another story.

“Whenever Q went down, we all just kind of gathered ourselves, looked at each and said, ‘This is what we’ve got to do,’” Parker said. “This is going to be our future secondary so it was pretty cool to get a glimpse of it. We all just went and played, just had fun.”

Parker was considered the prized recruit in the secondary for the 2014 class, but it was actually Jordan Thomas who made the biggest imprint. Committed to Northwestern for more than a year, Thomas flipped to OU just weeks before signing day.

By the time fall camp rolled around, it had become clear Thomas had leapfrogged some of the older defensive backs and was positioning himself for a chance at something big.

That chance came when Wilson broke his thumb against Baylor. Thomas has now made back-to-back starts and fared well. His tackling is solid, and there haven’t been a lot of plays where he has been out of position.

“He is somebody who has always been confident but had to get his feet wet,” Sanchez said. “You can see it in his play. If he was second-guessing himself, he would be getting beat. And he’s not.”

OU hopes to continue that improvement this week against whoever is taking the snaps for Oklahoma State, either Daxx Garman or Mason Rudolph.

Opposing quarterbacks have fared well against the Sooners, completing 55 percent of their passes and averaging 272.6 yards per game with 18 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

It has been a process for Parker, who became a more integral part of the rotation when conference play started. And it hasn’t always been pretty. But rough times in games like TCU and Kansas State are helping him now.

“It was very difficult,” said Parker about not playing right off the bat. “Coming from a football team where I actually got to play every single down, starting from sophomore year to senior year, it was just different.

“But I knew I was at a different level, and I knew I had to step my game up. I’m still having to step my game up. Every week is a different challenge.”

Especially in the Big 12, which is something all the young defensive backs are learning. Never a break in the confidence as it’s one spread offense after another or one unique look after another.

Try to relax for a second, and it’s going to show up. All you can do is roll with the punches.

“You can’t,” said Sanchez about lamenting about a previous play. “You think about the last play, and you’re going to get beat again. You get beat again, and then you’re off the field. It doesn’t matter who you are in this league. Every week you have to be on your Ps and Qs.”

Parker said the biggest adjustment for him and Jordan Thomas was the speed of the game. They’ve been adapting to it now, and it’s obvious they’re feeling more comfortable than in the past.

Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops didn’t want to celebrate too much because of the weather conditions, but he said he was pleased with the execution and guys knowing their assignments.

The defense has seen it all too often where 10 guys know what they’re doing, but one guy doesn’t make the right read or doesn’t communicate, and it’s a disaster. And unfortunately, it’s often in the secondary where it happens.

“It’s good for the young guys,” Sanchez said. “The past two weeks have been a lot better. They’ve been thrown into full games and playing a lot more snaps than they’re used to. They’re understanding the concepts and communicating a lot better. That has been the difference.”

They’ve taken their lumps at times this season, but if the quintet can put together another strong outing in Bedlam combine it with a solid performance in the bowl game, it will definitely be a silver lining for this season.

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