There’s no instruction manual for how a new coach should address his players at a program. Some lay down the law early. Some try to be friends. Bottom line is whatever works is a great strategy.
It wasn’t a nice way, but Cooks didn’t have to be. And when you’re a group that struggled as mightily and as noticeably as the OU secondary did in 2014, you don’t really have a say in the matter.
Cooks came in and let everything stem off of No. 114.
“My first meeting with the guys, I put a piece of paper on the big screen,” Cooks said. “It said 114. They asked what that was. I said that’s what you guys finished in pass defense this past year. We attacked that right off the get-go.
“You can’t be a great team, can’t be a great secondary, can’t be a great defense if you’re 114th in the nation in pass defense. I wasn’t here, but it’s unacceptable for OU.”
That last sentence is key. Cooks wasn’t in Norman, and he’s coming in with a fresh set of eyes about how to fix the issues from last year’s secondary.
The first one almost seems too simple, almost like an obvious one. The meeting rooms were separate with the cornerbacks and safeties. The other didn’t know what the other was being told in the room, and it clearly manifested itself on the field.
Just like what Bill Bedenbaugh did with the offensive line before the 2013 season, now the secondary meets in just one room.
“That helps a lot because last year the corners were in another room,” safety Ahmad Thomas said. “Corners coach would tell them to do something different than what our coach would tell us what to do. Now we’re all together and on the same page.”
Cooks was not a name that was among the favorites to take over the secondary. After having spent the last several seasons at Notre Dame, there was no reason to think Cooks was itching for a new spot.
And he really wasn’t. Cooks wasn’t actively searching for a way out of South Bend, but a job in Norman meant being a lot closer to home. Cooks is originally from Irving, Texas, so when you combine the proximity to his family with the prestige of OU, things fell into place.
“I’ve had other opportunities in the past, and I’ve turned them down,” Cooks said. “The reason why I took the Oklahoma job is it has very similar tradition as the place I just came from. They’ve proven to be winners here. They’ve won championships here. They’ve been able to recruit at a high level.”
Cooks arrived just after signing day. Cornerbacks coach Bobby Jack Wright retired, while safeties coach Mike Stoops was moved to outside linebackers but is primarily the defensive coordinator. It was a lot to ask of Stoops to run the safeties and the defense.
It’s a new day with Cooks. New philosophy, new system. That also means a chance for a fresh start for guys like Hatari Byrd, who had seemingly fallen off in the eyes of the previous regime.
“He cares about the little things, too,” Byrd said. “I feel like he’s going into more detail with the defensive backs. That’s changing our game and the way we play our technique and everything on the field. That helps a whole lot.”
It’s hard to take too much from the spring game because what OU showcased that afternoon won’t be what it has in the fall, but Cooks’ secondary played well. His guys registered four interceptions in the first half.
The group is far from being a complete unit or an elite unit, but there were subtle signs that have OU fans a bit more optimistic than before.
“Coach Cooks is a quiet guy,” cornerback Jordan Thomas said. “He yells, but it’s when something big happens. All the little stuff, he’ll talk you through it. It’s a lot of constructive criticism. He’s a great guy. I like him a lot.”
It’s clear Cooks’ approach has been a hit during the first couple of months. It has certainly made the transition easier with guys not fighting what he’s teaching.
But it would be hard to defend any of the principles from last season. Cooks watched the tapes with the players. He was looking for the response. He saw what he needed and now he’s ready to get the OU secondary back where it should be.
“We sat down and watched the clips and talked about why those big plays happened,” Cooks said. “And then we started coaching those things throughout the spring. What I want them to believe, and I believe this, is if the secondary plays well, it doesn’t matter what happens up front.
“If we play well, if we tackle, if we don’t let guys behind us, if we’re making plays, we’ll win every game. How good we are up front is irrelevant in my mind, and I want those guys to think that way. Whether that’s true or not – who cares? As a secondary player, that’s your mentality.”