Secondary gets major overhaul

With a new coach and just one returning starter, Oklahoma's secondary will have a new look next fall. See inside for new Oklahoma defensive back coach Bobby Jack Wright's outlook at the secondary position heading into spring practice. Senior Chijioke Onyenegecha (pictured above) figures to be in the mix for one starting spot opposite Marcus Walker. (AP Photo/Jerry Laizure)

While most eyes have been on the battle for the quarterback during spring practice, hardcore fans couldn't help but let their attention drift over to the other side of the ball, where the Sooner secondary was filled with new faces, both in uniform and on the coaching staff.

Veteran coach Bobby Jack Wright took over the defensive backfield this spring following the departure of co-defensive coordinator Bo Pelini. But this is not Wright's first rodeo. He has been on the Sooner staff since 1999 and was secondary coach at Texas in 1991 when the Longhorns led the nation in pass defense efficiency.

In taking over his new duties, Wright has no plans to invent the wheel.

"It's not so much a change in philosophy — that's really never going to change. We've been working together as a staff the past six years and we know the defensive philosophy," explained Wright. "Our philosophy is first of all to stop the run. Then not give up deep balls in critical situations that hurt us last season. All the blame doesn't go to the secondary on those, though.

Technique wise, we may be doing some different things. We need to have better recognition and not let people run by us."

But a major overhaul of the secondary is in order, due to the departure of all experienced players from last year's team. Antonio Perkins, Donté Nicholson and Brandon Shelby finished their eligibility, while Brodney Pool elected to declare early for the NFL draft. Add to that the off season shoulder surgery for late-season freshman starter Marcus Walker that forced him to bypass spring drills, and OU went through the off-season workouts with a group of largely untested players.

The position was so thin heading into spring workouts that coaches decided to shift a couple of talented players from other positions to help with depth and also to find a way to get the best athletes on the field.

D.J. Wolfe was one of the highest rated running backs in the nation coming out of Lawton Eisenhower last year and he was good enough in fall drills that coaches decided not to redshirt him. But after seeing action early in the year, Wolfe watched as another freshman, Adrian Peterson, took the nation by storm. Peterson finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting while Wolfe was relegated mainly to special teams. With Peterson entrenched at tailback for at least the next two years, Wolfe agreed to move to the secondary so that he could get a better chance to play and also to bolster the defensive backfield.

"It helps depth at corner from an athletic ability standpoint. But also, he's probably not going to get on the field at running back too much with Peterson there," Wright noted. "This is a good opportunity — good for him and good for the team."

Lewis Baker was pressed into action as a true freshman in 2003 after injuries at linebacker. He played well in his limited time, but at 210, he was undersized for the position and coaches redshirted him last season in hopes he would put on some weight. It hasn't happened, so coached decided to move him to strong safety in hopes that they could utilize Baker's hard-hitting and 4.5 speed to advantage there.

Among the backup players who are competing for more playing time in the fall, cornerbacks Chijoke Onyenegecha and Eric Bassey have been starters at times, but both were reserves by the time the season ended last year. Onyenegecha, highly touted out of junior college, showed signs of rust after having to sit out a season before arriving in Norman, and coaches are hopeful that he will show his true talent this fall.

Bassey, one of the fastest players on the team, was replaced by Walker late last season and was relegated to the nickel back position, but he does have four years of experience in the system. Other than that, little-used backups Jowahn Poteat, a senior, and Darrien Williams, a sophomore, are the other bodies at cornerback. Wright says it time for Poteat to get a shot and that it is time for Williams to step up and prove that he can contribute.

As far as safety is concerned, Tony Cade and Jason Carter got limited experience last season and contributed on special teams. Both are considered candidates at free safety. Baker is being tried at strong safety, and Brett Bowers, who was a redshirt last year, is also lining up there. Consider this, none of the players involved in spring workouts recorded an interception or fumble recovery last season, and in fact, Bassey holds the only career interception among the defensive secondary.

Wright says it is hard to evaluate the talent on hand by watching their play in last fall's practices, because in many cases, they had resigned themselves to the mode that many backup players fall into.

"They were playing behind good players and a lot of times, when you know you're not going to be playing much, you don't compete as hard in practice. It's human nature," says Wright. "Now is the time for these guys to step it up and show that they deserve to be out there on the field."

So will Wright rely on the results of spring practice to determine the starters in the secondary? Probably not, considering the fact that the Sooners signed a half-dozen prospects in this year's recruiting class and some of them may be ready to come in this fall and contribute immediately.

Allen Patrick, a 6-2, 200 pound, transfer from Independence (Kan.) Community College, will be given an opportunity to compete for the starting job at free safety in the fall, despite the fact that he sat out most of his sophomore season with a broken fibula. If he's not ready immediately, Cade may get the nod.

Also, high school recruits Nic Harris and Reggie Smith are considered to be players in the mold of Walker — incoming freshman who can play from day one. Harris, from Alexandria, La., is 6-3 and 210 and has the size and speed to play either safety position. Smith, one of the most highly sought defensive back prospects in the nation, also has good size at 6-1, 190 and will get a chance to lineup at cornerback. In addition, Brian Jackson, 6-3, 207 from De Soto, Texas, and Keenan Clayton, 6-2, 210 from Sulphur Springs, Texas, are two other players who were safeties in high school that will get an early look in fall workouts.

"When the freshmen and juco players arrive this fall, they'll get ample opportunity," Wright said. "We'll be able to tell after two a days in the fall who can contribute.

The best guy will play. Certainly, all of the jobs will be wide open."

A far cry from the way the Sooners lined up last fall.

"Those guys last season had played two or three years together. In Perkins' case, he was in there four years," said Wright. "Last year, we had the secondary set going into the fall drills. This year, it will be a totally different situation in two-a-days. Allen Patrick, Nic Harris, Reggie Smith, if they show in two a days they can pick up the system, they will certainly be in the mix."

And as Bob Stoops and his coaching staff have shown, they will not hesitate to play true freshmen if they show their ability to contribute at this level. Walker was a prime example last season.

Coaches thought they would have the luxury of redshirting him, even though he proved in fall drills that he was ready to play. But when Perkins had trouble recovering from injury and Bassey got burned on some deep coverages, the redshirt came off after nine games, and Walker moved into the starting lineup.

"Nothing has changed here," emphasized Wright. "You've got to earn your way every day."

That lesson was not be lost on Onyenegecha and Bassey, who both lost their starting jobs through the course of the season. So even though Wright plans to have what he called a "starting group" at the end of spring, nothing is set in stone.

Having Walker return in the fall will help solidify the secondary, but remember that he has only played five games in his collegiate career. If you were to have to make a guess at the starting secondary on September 3 against TCU, he would be there along with Onyenegecha at corner, and Cade and Patrick at the safeties, with Bassey, or possibly Smith at the nickel back.

Depending on the early success, that lineup that could be vastly different by the time November rolls around. And just like the signal calling situation on offense, the development of this inexperienced but talented group will go a long way to determining how well the Sooners do in 2005.

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