Oklahoma doesn’t have a great secondary, not by any stretch. When the unit looks elite, it’s because the defense as a whole looks great – getting an elite pass rush and stopping the run.
But the Sooners are much better in the secondary than they were last year, when the defense allowed more passing yards than just about anybody else in the country – giving new defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks fuel to spark a change.
Instead of meeting in separate rooms, Cooks combined the secondary into one group. The average per game as dropped by almost 70 yards from last year, and Oklahoma (4-0, 1-0 Big 12) is ranked 51st in the nation.
The message was recycled: Oklahoma’s pass defense is better because of the improved communication of being in one room.
That’s not necessarily the honest truth.
“Everyone wants to say now it’s because they’re in the same room,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. “You know what makes a difference? Experience. Whether it’s one coach or two coaches, the more the guy is playing, if he’s getting the detail – to me it doesn’t matter.”
Starting strong safety Ahmad Thomas went to work in the offseason to make sure he didn’t lose his starting job to the three incoming freshmen, regarded as the best safety class in Stoops’ tenure with the Sooners. Free safety Hatari Byrd did the same.
Based on down and distance, cornerback Jordan Thomas said he can almost always predict what the coverage will be on any given play. Parker said there are a few coverages that Oklahoma wasn’t quite comfortable in last year.
Now, they’re comfortable in any coverage.
“Just being able to cover everybody makes our job easier because we’re able to combine coverage now,” Parker said. “I wouldn’t say it’s just me and the other corners. We’ve all gotten better with our coverage.”
As a result, Oklahoma’s top cornerback Zack Sanchez has been targeted far more than last season. As Oklahoma’s only full-time cornerback all season last year, Sanchez had only eight pass break-ups – just three fewer than Jordan Thomas, who started only three games.
This season, he is first on the team in pass break-ups.
Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said it’s probably the opponent’s scheme, although he hadn’t really looked at it. Sanchez sees the individual development around him.
“They knew what it was going to be coming into the season, especially with the target we had on our back,” Sanchez said. “So now, offenses kind of got to pick their poison with us the way the other guys are playing.
“. . . There’s things teams feel that they can expose me with, and to this point, they’ve done a pretty good job with it. So it’s just tightening up those things week-in and week-out, but the DBs as a whole have definitely played a lot better than where we were a year ago.”
Just a year ago, things were so very different. Ahmad Thomas, Byrd and Parker were consistently caught out of position – jumping routes and allowing big plays over the top. Jordan Thomas was jittery and beaten at the line of scrimmage what seemed like every other play.
Sanchez’s message of maturity is resonating with Jordan Thomas, who finished with his first two career interceptions against West Virginia. Byrd is playing center field and using his athleticism to range sideline to sideline.
Parker is becoming an elite nickel back, capable of playing safety or covering slot receivers like a top-tier defensive back.
“It lets us execute better and lets us cover people better,” Mike Stoops said. “Our coverage has been tighter. . . . We really challenge people most of the game, and that’s what you want. It gives us a chance to be more consistent as a defense.”
Consistency can breed confidence, and Oklahoma will need plenty of it once November rolls around. That’s the time that matters. No matter what else happens in Big 12 play, the question is whether or not Oklahoma can slow down TCU and Baylor. That’s the real test.
Oklahoma is more ready for that test now than ever before, because the secondary is just a year older and a year better. Meeting together helps, but it’s really about a developing maturity and calmness in the secondary.
“We’re way more mature and way more comfortable back there,” Ahmad Thomas said. “We can play together.”