Food tastes better this year to Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops. He’s sleeping better too – now getting five hours instead of just a daily four. When he walks into press conferences, he has a smile on his face and a joyous hitch in his stride, taking the place of the slow gait of last year that followed each disappointing performance.
He has a new girlfriend this year too, but Stoops laughed when he said that the emergence of Jordan Thomas as an All-Conference cornerback might have made a bigger impact on the Sooners’ success on the field.
That’s not the only thing changing around him.
The defense as a unit, which Stoops said was just one cornerback away from being a great group last year, has aged up – and in some cases aged out. Defensive line coach Diron Reynolds and defensive backs Kerry Cooks brought experience to the team, most notably by moving the entire secondary into one meeting group. Stoops himself moved up to the box, spotting substitutions patterns earlier and identifying plays before they are called to run the defense more efficiently.
Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops, the older brother that brought Mike Stoops back as the Sooners’ defensive coordinator in 2012 after an eight-year run as a head coach at Arizona, said that moving to the box has helped Mike Stoops see the bigger picture in game-planning during the week.
Mike Stoops doesn’t really coach a position group either, saying earlier this season with a laugh that linebackers Eric Striker and Devante Bond – two of Oklahoma’s three seniors on defense – don’t need much coaching.
Things are just coming easier to Mike Stoops this year, and as the rest of nation looks forward on offense, he is trying to replicate the success of his previous four-year stint at Oklahoma. After the failures of last season, like allowing at least 30 points seven times last season, this season got personal for Mike Stoops.
He never lost faith, but he was on a redemption tour with the rest of the Sooners.
“He takes a lot personally,” Oklahoma linebacker Dominique Alexander said. “I feel like every game is a personal game for him. He’s always out to prove something each and every week. . . . We come up with an edge, intensity and passion. That’s another reason we’re playing the way we are.”
No. 3 Oklahoma (11-1) allowed 30 points only twice this season – both in victories – and never allowed more than 34 points, something that happened four times last season. The Sooners were one of the worst pass defenses in the country last year, but with a pair of All-Big 12 Conference cornerbacks, Oklahoma ranks atop the league in total defense, rushing defense, pass defense and scoring defense.
The Sooners are allowing 70 fewer yards in the air than they did last season. Against a conference that has gone full spread quicker than any other conference, slowing down passing attacks isn’t as much a science as it is an art – success comes with feel.
“That’s what he’s been doing since he’s been here,” said Striker, who still knows that he’ll get a tongue-lashing when he makes bad plays, only now it’s through the headset. “He understands the talents and skills of his players. He lets us be who we are and be free. . . . He gets a lot of credit. He calls the defense. He sees it and kind of knows what’s coming.”
The scheme hasn’t changed much, but Mike Stoops seems to trust his players more – an idea born from his players’ belief. That comes with another year of experience for Oklahoma, which returned eight starters from the end of last season.
Oklahoma isn’t blitzing any more often.
Stoops said its about 20 or 25 percent of the time, which would be less than one snap per three downs. Helped by Reynolds, the defensive line has drastically improved and one of the reasons for Stoops’ success in his first stint with Oklahoma has re-emerged.
Cooks leading on the back end has put the secondary on the same page. The growth of Steven Parker and Thomas from much-maligned freshmen to potential NFL prospects as helped, too.
Stoops has been the maestro, pushing the right buttons and putting his players in a position to succeed.
“He’s stuck to the plan,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. “He’s had faith in what we know and how we play defense. . . . I felt all along we were doing the right things, and now, our players are more consistent at doing it, making plays and some younger guys are older now and making plays we knew they would as they got older and matured and got better.”
Bob Stoops never lost confidence in his younger brother, re-emphasizing earlier this month that what they were asking the players to do last year wasn’t overly difficult. Bob Stoops re-iterated that it’s the players who have to make plays.
Mike Stoops said he is happy with where he is and wouldn’t be overly interested in another head coaching job.
“If it’s the right situation, sure,” Bob Stoops said. “It’s gotta be the right situation. And there’s a lot to always consider about that: Your family. There’s a lot to it. I’d like him and all my guys to have that chance.”
Mike Stoops has earned another head-coaching shot with his performance this season, one that has been overshadowed by the Sooners’ offensive revolution but has been almost more important.
“He's won at a lot of places,” Oklahoma cornerback Zack Sanchez said. “He's won a tremendous amount of big games, and you have one bad season and people think all hell has broke loose, and it's just dumb. . . . He works just as hard as he did last year, but at the end of the day it's just us playing better as a defense. Coaches take a lot of heat for the bad play that we put on the field. Ultimately we take accountability for a lot of that stuff, and especially myself personally.”
Mike Stoops opened up the playbook this year because of the experience of his players. He trusted the defensive line to get pressure on its own, blitzing less often. And Thomas emerged, along with the rest of the secondary, to give the Sooners’ a capable back end.
Stoops has been at the helm – commanding the revived Sooners’ defense.
He doesn’t look into many stats, saying that good coaches know when good defense is being played. This year, the stats and the play match. Both have been stellar.
There are still a few screaming fits between plays, but up in the box, Mike Stoops is more alone – with just Cale Gundy up there with him. He’s coaching with more calm than ever before in this go-round with Oklahoma.
And it has made Oklahoma that much better.
“I was disappointed we didn’t play this way a year ago,” Mike Stoops said. “We weren’t far off. We had to adjust. I learned constantly. You adapt and learn and tweak the system to make it better. . . . It was disappointing that once we lost a few games, we splintered. We weren’t strong enough to stay whole as a group. That was disappointing and worried me more than anything. Now, we’re together. Players get along. There’s good communication. There’s a lot of positives. Those are things you need to have success.”