Spring Position Preview: Secondary

Defensive backs coach Bobby Jack Wright talks about the need for Chijioke Onyenegecha (pictured above) to step up at corner and breaks down the rest of the secondary heading into spring practice. (AP Photo/Jerry Laizure)

Nothing will overshadow the scrutiny that the quarterback position will undergo this spring. In every single practice every fan will watch the quarterback as much if not moreso than any other position on the field. And that is understandable considering the Sooners will name a new starting quarterback for the first time in two years, and the position is so important to any football team.

However, I am going to suggest that there is another position that also deserves your attention and one that is it certainly is getting the attention of the coaching staff. It is not as glamorous as quarterback, but a player can become famous in a hurry if he can play well. He can also become a quick failure if he makes a mistake and gives up the big play.

Going into the spring, the Sooner secondary is undergoing a major transition. The only time when Oklahoma had so much uncertainty was in Bob Stoops' first year as head coach in 1999. They didn't know what they had in Roy Williams, Andre Woolfolk was still a wide receiver, J.T. Thatcher had not established himself, and Brandon Everage and Derrick Strait were redshirting. At that point, it was just one of many positions that were question marks in Bob Stoops' first year.

Since that year the Sooners have showcased one of the best secondary groups in the country, and already Woolfolk, Williams and Strait are making their marks in the NFL. Everage would have followed them, but shoulder injuries have put him on the shelf. Brodney Pool, Antonio Perkins and Donte Nicholson are sure to land in the upcoming NFL draft and make NFL rosters.

The fact we are talking about Pool, Perkins and Nicholson going pro is part of the problem heading into the spring. They made up three-fourths of the starting secondary last year. Some of you may feel that it is a good thing that the secondary is undergoing a facelift considering its inconsistent play of a year ago. Oklahoma gave up 193.8 yards passing per game a year ago. And against Kansas, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and USC, the secondary gave up so many big plays that OU was lucky to lose only against the Trojans. I realize that OU beat KU 41-10, but it was a 78-yard pass play that netted the Jayhawks their only touchdown.

To compound problems heading into the spring, Marcus Walker, a starting corner at the end of the year, will miss the spring practice with shoulder surgery. That means no secondary starter against USC will be available for the spring. Again, considering how the secondary played against USC some of you may feel that is a good thing, but I think new secondary coach Bobby Jack Wright would feel better about things if Perkins, Pool and Nicholson were returning.

Wright himself is also something new in the secondary. Back in 1991 Coach Wright coached the top secondary in the country at the University of Texas, and from 1991 to 1993 he coached one of the best secondary groups in the country. He also developed the great Darrell Green (Washington Redskins) back in 1979 when he was an assistant at Texas A&I. v
However, 1993 was the last time he coached in the secondary. At OU, Wright has been one of the best defensive end coaches in the country for the past five years. However, he doesn't expect the move to be any big deal when spring practice starts on Monday.

"It is not a big transition for me because I have coached the secondary for many years prior to coming to Oklahoma," said Wright. "The transition will be just like any other in that those players at that position have to get to know me from a coaching standpoint other than just another coach on the staff. They have to get to know what my expectations are and those types of things and what my goals are for that position. They have to learn what I expect of them more than anything else, so that is the transition as much as anything. Nothing is going to change from the standpoint of our defense or how we have been running things because everything will continue to be the same. I don't see this as being any big adjustment at all, either on my part or on the players."

A year ago, Bo Pelini coached the secondary and he brought a different temperment than Mike Stoops used before him. Pelini wasn't a demonstrative coach like Coach Mike, and many experts felt that was missing from the Sooner defense a year ago. Coaching defensive ends, Wright has been a very demonstrative coach and he plans to bring that style back to the secondary.

"I think all of our positions on defense are positions where you want great intensity all the time," said Coach Wright. "That is certainly something that we are always striving to improve on at every position. Most of our guys get coached pretty much the same way on that side of the ball and we have been pretty demanding here every since we came here. That is not going to change."

A lot has been made of OU switching to balanced corners a year ago instead of the wide-side and short-side corner that was used so successfully during the first five years of the Stoops era. A year ago, things didn't seem to jell for the Sooner corners until Walker became a starter, but Oklahoma is going to go with what has worked for them in the past.

"If anything was made of the switch last year it was probably too much, as that move did not have a lot to do with our success or what our problems were," said Wright. "I don't attribute what happened last year to that one thing. We just feel like we will probably go back to having a field corner and a boundary corner, just because our defense has been set up that way, and it has been pretty good from that standpoint. Bo was a little more comfortable working with right and left, and there is nothing wrong with that at all"

"There are different ways to skin a cat. I have coached it both ways, field corners and boundary corners, and I have coached right and left through my career," Wright continued. "It is just what you are more comfortable with and what your defensive scheme is, and what the schematics are. Also, it comes down to a little bit on how much your guys can handle. The big positive to having the field corner and boundary corner is that it is a little simpler because they are always learning the same thing and they are always seeing the same routes.

"The boundary corner is usually getting the same routes coming into the boundary and the field corner is usually getting the same routes that are run to the field. Their repetitions build up and they see offensive schemes from the way they attack you more from that aspect that they do playing right and left. That would be the only thing I would say."

What does it take to play either the boundary or field corner? And does it take two different types of athletes to play the positions?

"No, I think you need, from an athletic standpoint, good guys at both places," said Wright. "There is no place out there for a guy who is not a good athlete. In this day and age in the secondary, you are not going to have anybody who can't run. You don't go into it and say this guys' ability fits the boundary corner or this guy the field corner, because you don't hide anybody. You better have good players at every position. The beauty of doing it this way is that the corners build up not just physical, but a number of mental reps from one position as opposed to the other. You see those reps over and over and you pretty much see the same type of things.

"It doesn't have anything to do with whether you are a capable cover guy or you are not a capable cover guy. There probably wasn't anybody better in our secondary for four years than Derrick Strait, and he was a boundary corner. So, can a lesser guy play the boundary? No, you have to have a good guy there and he happened to be a Jim Thorpe player. He has made the transition pretty well to the NFL."

Coach Wright has never been afraid of a challenge, but he may have picked a bad time to move to the secondary with so much uncertainty in the Sooners' defensive backfield.

"Maybe I don't have a lot of sense because it is true that we lose a lot of guys in our secondary. Actually, we lose everybody as Marcus Walker will not go through spring, and we will go with four new guys," said Wright. "The one guy that has more experience than anybody is Eric Bassey, and he is back for his senior year. I think it is safe to say that he has to get better, but I know that he is totally committed to winning a job back. I think Eric will do well in the spring. Chijioke Onyenegecha is there as well and we are looking at some other guys. We have moved D.J. Wolfe over there and he has looked good in conditioning drills. So, we will take a look at some different guys there, but in a game with Marcus coming back we are going to be fine."

"The safety position is going to have totally new faces back there," Wight continued. "We are going look at some different guys with Lewis Baker being one of them. Of course, Jason Carter and Tony Cade are guys who have been in our program but haven't really gotten any significant playing time. It is going to be new guys and new faces, and that is kind of how it is in college football as guys come and guys go. Every year we need young guys who have not made a contribution to our program yet to step up and play. They are anxious and they are waiting their turn, ready to get spring going to show what they can do. We are going to put a heck of a challenge before them this spring, but these guys are competitors and they are anxious to meet the challenge and show the coaching staff and the rest of the team what they are capable of doing. That is what spring is always all about. Brett Bowers is still a safety and we will take a long look at him in the spring and see how it all shakes out."

The move of Wolfe to the secondary is the biggest position change of the spring. Wolfe was regarded as the future running back of OU after Adrian Peterson. However, he is such a good special team's player that the Sooners could not afford to redshirt him, thus the move to corner to try to get him on the field more. It is safe to say that he would not get much playing time behind AD or senior Kejuan Jones, but it is not out of the question that he could still get some running back reps in the spring.

"He could, but this spring we will spend as much time as we can teaching him the defense and how to play corner," said Wright. "That is probably going to take most of his time, but he has been at the running back position, so I don't think it will be asking too much if he went over there and ran a few snaps with them. He is certainly capable of doing that as well."

Just how wide open is the secondary? Every spring Coach Stoops always says every position is up for grabs, but with some studs you know they are going to be the starter. It is safe to say that J.D. Runnels will be the starting fullback and that Davin Joseph is going to start somewhere in the offensive line. However, there are no such established studs in the secondary at this time and the starters could very well be those that win the jobs in the spring.

"None of our guys have any significant playing time other than Eric Bassey, who has been in our program for a good while now," said Wright. "He probably has more snaps under his belt than anybody. Every job is going to be thrown wide open and every job is up for grabs. People are going to have to fight and compete, and even at that I would say once the spring is over with that the starting spots will not be etched in stone.

"We have some guys coming in the fall as true freshmen that are going to get a chance to line up and compete as well. The guys that we have right now don't have any significant playing time over anybody, including a pretty good group of incoming freshmen that we signed. I don't think we will be 100 percent sure or definite about our starting lineup at the end of spring. That will be more towards the end of two-a-days when everybody has had a chance to compete."

The main problem for the OU defense a year ago was big plays given up in the passing game. The total blame doesn't rest with the secondary on all those passes, but it is the secondary that is the last line of defense and certainly there were times when opponents had receivers running wide open through the Sooner defensive backs.

"Our guys in the secondary have to be total players. They have to be able to cover and support in defending the running game," said Wright. "They have to be fast, physical and smart. You look across the country at the best teams and your best defenses have guys in the secondary that played well, but they also played smart. That is the thing that we have always stressed here and that we have always taken great pride in. That is not just with our defense but our whole team. If you play hard and play smart you have a great chance to win football games.

"Some of the times last year, when we had breakdowns in the secondary, maybe we didn't play quite as smart. We had some busted assignments, missed calls and missed communication. That falls into that category of not playing very smart and we need to play smarter. We need guys that are going to play hard and are going to play smart."

Just how good of a cover team does the OU's secondary have to be? OU doesn't play much man coverage, but even in the zone coverage the secondary must be able to cover a receiver in his area. Without question, the best pure cover guy in the secondary is Onyenegecha, but can he master the art of playing in the zone blitz coverage."

"When I was asked by NFL scouts who was the best man cover defender that I went up against during my career in college I told them Chijioke," said former Sooner All-American wide receiver Mark Clayton. "Chijioke is very tough to get open against in man coverage. He is big and strong and he can check you hard at the line of scrimmage. If you are lucky to get off and into your route, he is as fast as I am and can cut like I can. He has good instincts and knows how to play the ball. I didn't face any defensive back on any other team we played last year that is better in man coverage than Chijioke. Of course, he has to learn how to transfer those man skills into what we do in the zone. If he ever does that he is going to be an All-American."

Onyenegecha is another corner that started three games a year ago and finished with seven total tackles and one forced fumble against Texas A&M. He figures to be a major factor in the spring.

"He is going to be alright if he comes in and works hard at becoming a better player," said Wright. "There is no question that Chijioke has great talent, but does he have the desire to take advantage of all that talent? Chijioke is a good man cover guy that hasn't adapted to playing in zone coverage as much as we would like. We are not a big man-to-man team as we are a zone team or zone blitz team. We do play some man-to-man and you have to be able to run, cover and flip your hips and do what it takes to play man-to-man. Last year we didn't play 10 percent man all year. We might play a little more this year, but I don't know at this point. The first year we were here we played 90 percent man in the secondary. We have transitioned into a zone blitz team after that and since that time we haven't played a great deal of man. We might mix in a little more man this year."

Some things are readily apparent about the secondary going into the spring. With Walker out, Bassey, Onyenegecha, Wolfe and Jowahn Poteat will vie for a position heading into the fall when Walker returns. Basically, those four players are playing for one starting spot opposite Walker.

Once again, Bassey is having a great offseason, and like always he is one of OU's hardest workers. He is a tremendous athlete and one of the fastest players on the team, but he has not been able to translate that talent in the weight room and onto the football field. He has started at both safety and corner and he has yet to establish himself as a player that can hang onto a starting job. However, his work ethic will earn him another shot in the spring.

While Bassey has bought into the program and what it takes to try to be a Sooner, Chijioke is still trying to figure it out. Chijioke works hard in the offseason, but not with the intensity and dedication that the coaches like. Wonderfully talented, Chijioke has to buckle down and realize that you have to buy into the system to get an opportunity to play at Oklahoma.

Poteat is now a senior and he has also been a good spring practice player. But when it got close to game time he never seems to make the move that will earn him some playing time.

At safety Cade is the most talented player on the field, but he has to learn to control his emotions before he will become a great player. This is a key spring for him after his emotions got the best of him and cost him a trip to the Orange Bowl. Carter has been a solid player already for the Sooners in a back-up role, but is he ready to pick up the pace and become a starter?

Bowers battled hard on the scout team and impressed the coaches during bowl preparations. This spring the Sooner coaches will get their first look at him in a varsity setting and he needs to do anything he can to impress. Darrien Williams has played both safety and corner and this spring will start out at safety. The Sooner coaches like his ability, but he needs to find a home.

Every practice this spring could produce a new star for the day or a new hope for stardom in the secondary. However, remember what Coach Wright said. This spring will only be the first half of the competition for starting spots as a very talented group of freshmen and one very talented junior college safety will get a chance in two-a-days to earn a starting spot in the fall. At Oklahoma, you can never rest on your laurels because there is always a player behind you or one the way with all-star credentials.

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