Spring Locker Room Report: Defensive Review

See inside for a position-by-position recap of who did what this spring, including quotes from Brent Venables, Bobby Jack Wright, Jackie Shipp and several Sooner players. Senior defensive tackle Dusty Dvoracek (pictured above) led the defense with seven sacks in the three scrimmages this spring. (Getty Images/Ronald Martinez)

While quarterback had the biggest question marks this spring, the Sooner secondary wasn't far behind.

The last time we saw the secondary they were getting torched by the USC Trojans in the Orange Bowl. And from that team, the Sooners safety Donte Nicholson and cornerback Antonio Perkins to graduation and junior safety Brodney Pool, who elected to try his luck in the NFL draft a year early.

Freshman Marcus Walker played a big role for the Sooners in game nine against Texas A&M and then started the last four games of the season at cornerback, including that Orange Bowl lost to USC. However, OU could not even build off the tremendous prospects of Walker in the secondary this spring because of a surgically repaired shoulder.

Walker spent all spring training off the field with Heisman runner-up Adrian Peterson and missed valuable practice time this spring.

"We feel that Marcus is a very good prospect, but he hasn't played all that much for us. He has to be considered still a young prospect," said OU defensive back coach Bobby Jack Wright. "We know that he has a lot of talent and is a good player, but he needs to get out here and learn how to play the wide-side corner and get back on the field where he can better.

"When Marcus comes back he will be in the hunt. He has a good chance to be the starter, but Eric Bassey had a great spring for us, probably the most consistent of any defensive back that we had this spring, and he will contend for a starting spot in the fall."

The secondary played pretty well this spring and did a much better job of not giving up big plays. All spring the goal of the secondary was not to give up the deep ball, and for the most part they were able to do just that. However, all that did for the guys playing in the secondary this is put them in contention for starting jobs in the fall, when the competition will resume with reinforcements jumping into the competition.

"We had some guys play well in the spring, but they need to continue to improve this summer and be ready to strap it on in the fall," said Coach Wright. "We are going to pick it up right where we left off. We have some very talented freshman and junior college transfers coming in that are going to get their shots. Bassey was very consistent for us, and when you evaluate every spring practice, he might have been our most consistent player in the secondary.

"Chijioke (Onyenegecha) had a good spring game and improved throughout the spring. 'Choke' has great talent and it looks like he is beginning to feel comfortable in our zone schemes in the secondary. D.J. Wolfe proved that he can be a good corner and he worked some with the first unit this spring. D.J. is still in the running to be a starter.

"Darrien Williams was a great surprise for us and ended the spring as the starting free safety," Wright continued. "However, he will have to work hard over the summer to hold onto that job because of the talent we recruited this past year. At strong safety, Lewis Baker moved over from linebacker and still has a ways to go, but he showed enough potential for us to think that he can be a real good player there. Jason Carter started the spring game for us and Tony Cade made some strides and showed that he has some potential to be a good player. Bret Bowers is another solid player that we are looking at strong safety.

"In the fall, we bring in five very talented players in Nic Harris, Reggie Smith, Keenan Clayton, Allen Patrick and Brian Jackson. All five of those players bring a lot of athletic ability to our program and all five are capable of playing early for us. How they mix and match in the secondary remains to be seen, but I can tell you for sure the competition is far from over for all four secondary positions."

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The best player on defense all spring was senior defensive tackle Dusty Dvoracek, who returned to the team with gusto after getting another year granted to him by the NCAA. Dvoracek's suspension from the team has been well-documented, but his return needs just as much coverage.

The fact that Dvoracek stayed in shape during his suspension tells you what kind of guy he is. The fact he maintained his 3.5 plus GPA shows you his commitment to being a student/athlete. And the fact that he fought so hard to gain another year of eligibility tells you how much he loves OU.

Dvoracek was off limits to the media all spring, but this reporter has always had a good relationship with him. No, I didn't violate any rules by trying to interview him now, but I did mention that I wanted to interview him in the future.

"Great Mr. Hale, but I only want to talk about the future," said Dvoracek as he walked off the practice field. "Let's look ahead at how we are going to win the National Championship. Let me know when Coach Stoops gives the OK."

And after practice, I mentioned to Dusty that he looked good at practice.

"James, I always look good in practice," said a smiling and confident Dvoracek as he was leaving the practice field. "Man, you have to tell everybody that Dusty is doing well and I look GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOD at practice."

Dvoracek dominated every practice. And in fact, the offense couldn't block him all spring. Dvoracek was also dominating in the spring game before he tore his left bicep toward the end of scrimmage, an injury that may delay his return to the Sooners next year.

"Dusty is going to miss the first two games of the season," said OU defensive tackle coach Jackie Shipp at the OUInsider March of Dimes Luncheon. "Dusty is in great shape and is real strong. He might be back sooner, but in his case we will always try to be cautious with his recovery. I get asked all the time what it means for our defensive line to have Dusty back, and I always turn that my answer around and talk about how much I think it means to Dusty to be back on the team.

"Dusty loves this football team and loves being a part of the Oklahoma Sooners. When he was suspended last year what hurt him the most was the fact that he felt he let his teammates down. He never talked to me about what the suspension was doing to him, but only how or if it was hurting our football team."

"Dusty is a great player and he is going to be one of the best players in the country," Shipp continued. "He is going to provide for us a dominating player in the middle of our defense, and that is going to force our opponents to always account for where he is. He is also going to be a great leader for us. Dusty has always been a good leader. We have a number of young defensive tackles that will look up to him and watch how he practices and how he prepares for a game. That is going to be invaluable for the other defensive tackles and defensive players on our team."

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Dvoracek will anchor a defensive tackle group that will be one of the best in the Big 12. In fact, the Sooners' front seven is expected to be very good.

"I don't think there is any doubt that we are very strong defensively, especially in our front seven,' said OU Head Coach Bob Stoops. "We are very strong in our front four and our linebackers are very athletic and active. The front seven worked as a unit all spring and I am very encouraged how they played, not only in the spring game, but all spring. We can run and we are going to be very good in this area."

It was also a good spring for sophomores Steven Coleman and Carl Pendleton. Dvoracek's suspension benefited Pendleton the most as he moved into the starting line-up and finished last season 17 total tackles (three for losses).

"What I tried to do this spring was improve my technique and just try to build on what I did last year," said Pendleton. "Coach Shipp is a great technician coach and he is always stressing to us that we need use proper technique and use it to our best advantage. I think I have grown a little more as a player this spring, but in the offseason I need to try to get a little bigger and stronger to make me a more effective athlete."

For Coleman, the spring proved to be the first time he proved that he is going to be a player at OU.

"I have worked hard since I have been here on getting in shape and getting stronger," said Coleman. "When I first got here I couldn't even finish the running in our offseason workouts. When you are an athlete and you can't even practice as hard as you want, then you have to make a decision to do something about it. So, I lost a lot of weight and now I am in the process of putting it back on. It has to make me a stronger player. I am going to work hard this offseason and build on what I accomplished this spring."

Remi Ayodele also performed well this spring and freshman Cory Bennett showed what Coach Shipp had been talking about all along in that he is a super quick athlete that has loads of potential. Bennett will earn some reps next season.

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The linebackers make up the back row of the front seven and they had an excellent spring. Senior SAM backer Clint Ingram was the biggest star on defense, outside of Dvoracek, with at least five interceptions and at least 10 other passes that he got his hands on.

"I am so happy for Clint because he plays so hard," said Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables. "Clint has worked hard to become a good player. He has always been one of our best athletes, but struggled with assignments early in his career. However, once he settled in at the SAM spot he has improved daily. Now, he is in his senior year and he has a total understanding of what it takes to be a great player and he is doing everything that it takes to be a great player. Nobody out-works Clint, and he is also one of our best special team players. Clint is going to be a very important player for us this upcoming season."

Rufus Alexander had a super spring at the WILL and continues to exhibit star material. Rufus just continued to make plays this spring, and the more he plays the better he appears to be.

The big question at linebacker centered on MLB Zach Latimer. Up to this point in his career, Latimer was always the player without a position. When he first arrived at OU he was one of the most athletic players on the roster, but he wasn't big enough to play defensive end, then he didn't look very fluid at the SAM. Last season, OU needed a back-up to Mitchell and really didn't have anybody, so they threw Latimer in there and immediately he took to it and hasn't been moved since.

"Zach has done everything that we have asked him to do this spring," said Venables. "He proved he could run the defense, stop the run and he is very good tackling in space. Zach also did a good job in pass coverage for us. He proved to us at least that he could play middle linebacker. Now he just needs to get into the weight room and to get as big as he possibly can without losing any speed."

Size always seems to be an issue with Latimer, but he warns that size does not always make the football player.

"Don't worry about my size. I am 6-3, but everyone is always worried about my weight," said Latimer. "I weigh 235 and that is big enough to play middle linebacker, especially when you play with my speed and quickness. I know people are worried if I can stop the run, but let me tell you something. Just tell those teams to try to run up the middle on us. Tell them to first run through Big Dusty and Carl Pendleton. Tell them to run through Big Remi and Seven Coleman or Cory Bennett. Then after they get beat up there, I am going to be there to make them pay some more. So go ahead and tell all of those teams to try running the ball up the middle against us. We look forward to it."

Sound like a guy who loves a challenge.

Demarrio Pleasant was solid this spring, but didn't break into the starting line-up. However, going into the fall he would be the first linebacker off the bench and has the ability to play all three linebacker positions.

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What we learned about Oklahoma's special teams in the spring is that Garrett Hartley is the definite place kicker, and the Sooners have a lot of confidence in his abilities. As for the punter, Cody Freeby's confidence is not as strong. For the first two weeks Freeby looked like an All-American and then his back flared up and he averaged less than 40 yards a punt. By the time the Red/White scrimmage rolled around, Freeby couldn't totally extend his leg and he struggled throughout the game.

You can bet in the fall their will be a walk-on place kicker and punter or two to push Hartley and Freeby.

In the return game, Travis Wilson is a lock in kick returns and Jejuan Rankins will probably be his partner. However, Lendy Holmes served notice in the Red/White scrimmage with his 100-yard touchdown run that he is a dangerous returner with speed. Jacob Gutierrez is also a dangerous returner with his ability to make people miss. Freshman Reggie Smith, Nic Harris and Juco transfer Allen Patrick figure to get a chance as well.

Rankins ended spring as the punt returner, but Smith, Harris and Lendy Holmes could also be possibilities.

Freeby was the holder at the end of spring, but Rankins could be the answer here or a guy like Smith or Harris, who are so athletic that they could pose a great threat in Coach Stoops great special team fakes.


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