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Sooners Illustrated looks back and grades out Oklahoma, position-by-position

Thomas emerges as a star, Sanchez plays well enough to leave early while Austin and Johnson come alive

During the next two weeks, Sooners Illustrated will look back on the 2015 Oklahoma football season: Evaluating each possession group, recapping key moments, reliving the biggest surprises and assigning an overall grade for the year.

We’ll start with quarterback play and end with the kicking game.

CORNERBACKS

Summary: The Oklahoma secondary had been a big issue in 2014 because of a lack of balance at the cornerback position. To put it simply, Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said the Sooners could do so much more on defense this season because it had a second All-Big 12 cornerback. Jordan Thomas wasn’t that kind of defensive back the year before. He was someone that opposing offenses picked on. This year, teams wouldn’t throw at him. As a result, they tested two-time All-Big 12 corner Zack Sanchez. Neither result was very good. Sanchez (45 tackles, 7 interceptions) and Thomas (46 tackles, 5 interceptions) became arguably the best cornerback pair in the Big 12 Conference. When Will Johnson proved he could be a stout nickel back, Oklahoma’s secondary went to another level. In the process, Johnson proved to be a pretty capable screen defender – his tackles on bubbles screens were pretty memorable. Dakota Austin even proved that he could step up when called upon.

Best player: At the start of the season, Sanchez held this title. And through the non-conference season, it looked like he would hold it all season as Thomas missed five quarters – the first against Akron and the whole game against Tulsa – because of a suspension. Thomas ended the season as the best cornerback on the field for Oklahoma. That wasn’t be default. His coverage skill exponentially improved from the end of last season. The game quickly slowed down for him.

Biggest surprise: Coming in from junior college, Johnson was going to have a bit of a transition period. But the small JuCo product from the East Coast proved around midseason that he was capable of starting for Oklahoma. He finished the year with 14 tackles three tackles for loss and became a nickel back that Oklahoma could rely on enough to move Steven Parker to the strong safety position. The Sooners showed improvement across the whole secondary, but it was Johnson’s emergence that provided the final piece to the best pass defense in the Big 12.

Best moment: With the pass-heavy Texas Tech Red Raiders coming to Norman, the Sooners were in need of a cornerback as Sanchez was out with a foot injury. In stepped Austin, a diminutive cornerback who had basically been relegated to special teams. The Red Raiders went right after him, and Austin was equal to the task, finishing with 11 tackles and an interception. He didn’t let off the gas and is a contender for the starting job opposite Thomas next year.

Biggest weakness: The ball skills of Sanchez and Thomas can’t be questioned. Sanchez’s ability in coverage made him comfortable enough to make the jump to the NFL. Teams just didn’t throw at Thomas. But tackling was another issue, and it usually is for cornerbacks. Sound tackling and missed tackles were a constant problem, although they were improved from the year before. But if tackling is Oklahoma’s biggest gripe with its cornerbacks, it’s not much of a problem.

Final grade: A


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