They are a little bit bigger, a little bit faster – mentally and physically, and a little more accustomed to playing football at the collegiate level for Oklahoma. They should be better and will be key cogs in helping the Sooners improve one of the worst pass defenses in the nation last season.
There lies another big change for the talented duo that earned a spot on the field with a major program just weeks into their college careers. Last year, not much was expected of them.
They were expected to struggle. They were expected to fail on occasion If Parker and Thomas were a step behind, it wasn’t a surprise.
They can’t be that any more. Now, there’s the pressure of playing well at Oklahoma – something that can lead to what many know as a sophomore slump.
Both are set out to avoid that this season.
“It’s just a big confidence thing,” Thomas said. “Being on the field last year gave me that experience, that learning curve. You learn the speed of the game, the strength of the players and just the overall scheme of what to expect out there. Knowledge of the game and experience give me that edge.”
That’s where both have said they’ve improved. Parker watches film differently this season. He does it with a purpose instead of just doing it – like he did last year. He looks to see what each player is doing, not just his man, and keys on what different motions mean.
Thomas understands the need for patience, something senior receiver Sterling Shepard shared with him. Shepard, who made the jump from wide-eyed freshman to sophomore contributor, helped Thomas shake the freshman jitters, something that made him a step slower in press coverage last year.
The development of each hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“They've changed drastically," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. "They're stronger, they're bigger, but mentally, they're much further along and understanding mentally what offenses are trying to do to them."
Last year the pair combined for 63 tackles: A solid total for two true freshmen, but they might be more remembered for tackles they missed. They had 11 combined pass break-ups and no interceptions, and no one cared.
A repeat of those numbers would cause hysteria even though they’ll both play in the same number of games, albeit starting more.
They have to be better or most will think they’re worse.
“For me, I just come out and just do the best I can do every single day,” Parker said of avoiding a sophomore slump. “My biggest thing is just coming out and doing whatever I’m supposed to do. As a player, I need to come out with the focus and energy – don’t let anything get the best of me.”
Parker and Thomas aren’t the only ones. Running back Samaje Perine has the same problem – maybe even a bigger one because it’ll be almost impossible for him to replicate his numbers. Success changes perception.
Following his record-setting performance against Kansas, Perine ran for just 151 yards and two touchdowns in less than three quarters against Oklahoma State. Most remember it as a mediocre game for him.
Perine is taking a similar road to Parker and Thomas: Don’t believe the hype, keep working and stay focused.
“It’s natural because I’ve been doing it my whole life,” said Perine, who rushed for 1,713 yards and 21 touchdowns last year. “I’m a very quiet guy, and I don’t listen to what the media has to say. When people tell me stuff like that and I see it on Twitter, I tune it out. I know some people in my family they’re going to be excited about it, but I tell them I don’t look at that stuff. You can be happy about it, but don’t show me because I don’t care.”
The secret formula to avoiding a sophomore slump: Don’t believe your press clippings.
That, and never be satisfied.
Parker and Thomas are doing it together.
“It’s just that much easier,” Thomas said. “He had the same learning curve last year. He played a lot. He knows the game just as well as anyone else. I feel like we’re going to make a big jump.”