Hatari Byrd, Ahmad Thomas find groove

Hatari Byrd and Ahmad Thomas knew most were expecting them to be replaced and have stepped up their game because of it.

If Oklahoma safeties Ahmad Thomas and Hatari Byrd didn’t get the message on signing day, it simply was never ever going to register with them.

The most talked about aspect of the Sooners 2015 class was the secondary, one that head coach Bob Stoops wasn’t afraid to say has the potential to become the best one he’s ever signed.

Fans were excited, too, about the possibility of some of these young guys coming right in and playing for the Sooners.

No, it’s not that Byrd and Thomas were going to graduate. Now juniors, the sentiment was more of it’s time to replace the old guard.

Every player has his time, has his opportunity, has that moment when it all comes together. Some might take longer than others. Through the first three games of OU’s 2015 season, it’s hard to argue with what Byrd and Thomas have achieved.

“The biggest difference from last year was I was doing too much thinking last year,” Thomas said. “Now I can go out and play. I feel like more of a veteran now. I got that first year of starting out of the way.”

He’s playing like it, too, as Thomas is second on the team with 23 tackles. First-year defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks said this week outside of one play where Thomas was, Thomas has played pretty well for the Sooners.

Cooks had even more glowing words for Byrd, who is in a bit of a role reversal. When he arrived in Norman, the thought was he would step right in and replace a veteran like Gabe Lynn.

Of course that didn’t happen. But now the whole thought process of somebody stepping up and taking his spot is also sounding more and more like it won’t happen.

“I’m very pleased with where they are,” Cooks said. “Hatari has probably played maybe the best over the first three games of any defensive back. He’s on his assignments. He’s where he needs to be. He’s communicating well. I’m very pleased with where those guys are.”

Byrd has always been known as a hard hitter and that aspect of his game has not gone away. But he has become a more complete player, a sounder player. Perhaps it doesn’t feel like it because he’s not making the jaw-dropping plays, but Byrd already has 20 tackles this season and was effective in his role against Tulsa.

There’s still a reminder a time or two about what Byrd can do when he gets a look at someone like he did against Akron in the first game. He delivers the boom, but he makes sure it’s legal.

“I’m very aware of the targeting rule and how I have to do things,” Byrd said. “You can make the big hit, but if you get ejected, that doesn’t help anybody. You have to be smart.”

Part of that intelligence has come from working with Cooks. Both Thomas and Byrd have used the words teacher and calm when describing the first-year coach. It’s a far cry from what was on the sidelines last year with Mike Stoops, whose in your face attitude isn’t for everybody.

Following last season, it did feel like changes were needed in the secondary. Thomas and Byrd heard the whispers, too, but they couldn’t let that mess with their heads in a negative way.

“It motivated me a lot,” Thomas said. “Especially when you get back to campus and everybody is telling you you’re about to be replaced. It keeps you humble and keeps you motivated.”

That spirit has carried over to leadership as well. The secondary has had its low times in games against Tennessee and Tulsa, but Thomas’ message has been clear to everybody: keep your head up.

The time for OU’s 2015 secondary class will come, it just might not be now. Byrd and Thomas still aren’t the headliners for OU’s defense, but their consistency is being noticed and they might turn out to be the exact right guys for the job.

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