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.
Summary: This was another group with outstanding potential but needed a vast improvement from the previous year’s performance. Steven Parker was supposed to be the next great safety, but starting as a freshman had only made more and more people doubt his ability. Ahmad Thomas needed to improve from last year at the free safety spot, and Hatari Byrd was finally stepping into the foreground. Byrd quickly stepped out, and Parker became a reliable cover man and an All-Big 12 second-teamer. The key to all of it though was the development of Ahmad Thomas, who became a prototypical center fielder after just being considered a heavy-hitter the year before. The safeties were a big reason for Oklahoma's ability to cover on the edge and over the middle with success and pressure.
Best player: Parker definitely had the most potential heading into this season as a player with enough talent to force his way onto the field as a true freshman. He started to realize some of that this year. He capped it with one of the most memorable plays in Oklahoma history, more on that later, but it was a consistent performance all season by Parker. He was more consistent in the areas that made him look like a freshman the year before – tackling and coverage. He said that being a year older changed the game for him, and it showed. Parker finished with almost twice as many tackles, tackles for loss and sacks – granted he did start and play in far more games. But he wasn’t picked on in coverage like last year. He became a reliable enough pass defender to play nickel back and then gave Oklahoma four talented cover “corners” when he moved to strong safety.
Biggest surprise: Most saw Parker’s jump coming, but Thomas was a player who hadn’t yet realized his potential, causing some to think that one of the true freshmen would take over his spot at the top of Oklahoma’s defense. Thomas knew this and said he relished the challenge. He made the most of it, too. Thomas earned All-Big 12 First Team honors from one publication and second-team honors from the coaches and the AP. That’s a far cry from last year, when the former four-star recruit wasn’t even honorable mention despite playing in the same number of games and making the same number of tackles.
Best moment: Maybe the best moment of the entire season came from Parker against TCU. It’s not hard to relive for anyone that watched it if you just close your eyes. TCU quarterback Bram Kohlhausen starts alone in the backfield in the shotgun. He’s flushed to his right after a vicious rush from Eric Striker and makes a dead sprint to the sideline. Jordan Evans pursues and Zack Sanchez closes in, but Parker leaves his man, Shaun Nixon, in the end zone and heads for Kohlhausen. He times his jump perfectly, knocks away the ball and makes a playoff-saving play.
Biggest weakness: Of all the units, the safety group has the fewest weaknesses. The starters can cover and tackle. The back-ups - Will Sunderland Jr., Kahlil Haughton and Prentice McKinney - are what Bob Stoops called the best class of safeties he has brought in to Oklahoma. Nobody is leaving early: Parker and Thomas will return for their second year together. There aren’t any major weaknesses. There just aren’t. The depth isn’t proven, but it’s believed to be ultra-talented.
Final grade: A