Expectations were high for Oklahoma’s 2015 safety class. Head coach Bob Stoops and defensive coordinator Mike Stoops couldn’t stop raving about the talent they had acquired.
Now as the trio of Will Sunderland, Kahlil Haughton and Prentice McKinney enter their junior years, perhaps the time has finally come.
Nobody had higher expectations for Sunderland than Sunderland himself. He was the homegrown talent, a star at Midwest City and the No. 1-ranked prospect by Scout in the state for 2015.
Sunderland spent most of his freshman season on special teams and trying to stay positive. He told Sooners Illustrated last year his freshman year was a grind but one he had come to accept.
Sunderland, as of now, is known for one play. In the second half of last season’s 45-40 win against Red River Rival Texas, Sunderland intercepted a pass as the Longhorns were driving toward the end zone.
It was a big moment, but it was singular. Once Ahmad Thomas returned from his concussion, Sunderland was back to playing the waiting game. No longer discouraged, Sunderland pressed forward to where he was now in the starting conversation for the Sooners final two games.
Spring 2017 has been the chance for Sunderland. Thomas now graduated, the door is open for Sunderland. From most reports, it sounds like he has kicked that door down.
“You know what? I'm glad you asked about Will Sunderland,” defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks said earlier in the spring. “You know, the most talented player - one of the most talented players that I've ever been around. I was a little concerned just through the last couple of years on how will he process it when he is that guy? And Will Sunderland, I think… he's definitely making a jump.
“Now, we're going to continue to add and install and throw more at him, but very pleased with where he's at from a mental standpoint. It was never about his athletic ability.”
Those last statements are telling. Sunderland has always been an athletic freak. Was at Midwest City. Is at OU, but that’s not enough to see the field.
Talent gets you so far, but discipline and understanding your assignments goes just as far, especially at this level. It’s something Sunderland realized. The trust wasn’t there from the staff just yet. His goal following his sophomore campaign? Time to change that.
It started with the playbook.
“I have to put the playbook in my head like I have to put it in my words for me to get it,” Sunderland said. “Other people, when a coach says something, they get it. But for me, I have to go back home and find ways for me to get the playbook.”
Sunderland learns it, just in a different way. He said he would go into study hall and write on the board until he figured out. He would spend hours getting it down.
Practice makes perfect. And although Sunderland hasn’t reached perfection, it’s clear the Sunderland of spring 2017 is ready and eager for his junior season.
“I wasn’t as nervous this time around (during spring),” he said. “I’m real comfortable out there with the plays and the assignments. I’m feeling really good about it.
“It’s real easy. I’m feeling like I’m in high school again. Coach put up the board, and I already know what I’m doing. No thinking twice about it. I just know everything.”
He took the words of Mike Stoops to heart and has become better for it.
“He needs to continue to understand at all times where he needs to be and where his eyes and where he needs to be on the field,” Stoops said. “If he can do that, there's – he's as athletic a safety as we've had.
“He can do some things on the football field that – discipline and being able to play at that level at every snap is something that I think Will has worked hard on. And now that he's starting, he's done that. I've been impressed.”
Sunderland knows the work isn’t done. That’s OK because he’s still willing put in that time and effort to make the necessary improvements.
Cooks has been able to breed a culture of competition this spring by using the NASDAQ system. As you can infer, it’s essentially a day-by-day stock report of how things are going for the defensive backs.
It’s great when you’re doing well, but it can be rough if you’re not. The least productive of the secondary, the one not making plays but making mental errors, has to wear a No. 00 jersey.
Sunderland’s goal is to never don that jersey. So far? So good.
“Nah, not having that,” Sunderland said. “I’m not planning to have that at all. It helps us to stay focused and see where everybody is as a group.”
A group that was ridiculed throughout most of the 2016 season as the weak link of OU’s team. A group that didn’t make plays and where fans started to accept not getting beat as a sign of victory.
That’s not what playing defensive back at OU is all about. And it’s something Sunderland and the rest of the guys are ready to change in 2017.
“I’m tired of people really down-talking our secondary almost every year,” Sunderland said. “We’re not a good secondary. We can’t get to the ball. We can’t go for the ball in the air. This year has to be different. We have to be more physical. We have to cause turnovers. We have to fight for the ball. We need to do everything to get the ball back to Baker (Mayfield).
“When we do that, Baker can do anything.”