Make no mistake, the guys in the secondary get after it as hard as anyone in the offseason preparing for the opening day of Spring ball. Jerry Schmidt says as a group, he's been impressed with the progress of the defensive backs since December.
"We were just talking this morning about that whole group and how competitive they were, and how they were always pushing each other. Guys like Reggie Smith, Darien Williams and D.J. Wolfe have all had really good offseasons."
"D.J. has really matured and he has really become a leader on this football team. You look at a guy like Nic Harris, who needs to continue to develop. Keenan Clayton is a player that they (coaches) want to see some good things out of him at safety. He is a real physical guy, a Roy Williams type guy, who weighs about 215, but who benches close to 400 pounds. He is just a physical guy that has to carry it over to the field."
"D.J. has become quite a leader. He's at 205 now and he played the season at about 200, and he's still a 4.4 guy. He does a great job. He is a guy that has really matured, but all these guys have to continue to get better. They can't be happy with where they are at, but we feel pretty good about what we have done so far."
All of that is good news for Sooner co-cefensive coordinator and secondary coach Bobby Jack Wright, who goes into this spring knowing a heck of a lot more about what he has to work with than he did at the beginning of last year. Last season, Wright had to take a little wait and see attitude at the beginning of the year, with a converted running back at cornerback and true freshman fighting for jobs at both safety spots.
Now heading into his junior year, Wolfe has a year of experience under his belt after making the transition from offense in grand fashion. He started in 11 games and finished with 65 tackles and two interceptions.
Sophomore Reggie Smith started 10 games a year ago, but played in all 12 games at strong safety and put together a good year finishing fifth in the team in tackles with 47 and two interceptions.
Sophomore Darien Williams split time with Lewis Baker for the most part at free safety, with freshman Nic Harris also getting a couple of starts. Baker eventually settled in at the nickel back leaving Williams at free safety as the starter at the end of the year.
Compared to a year ago at this time, Wright goes into this year with some experienced players, but still enough talented youth to keep him on this toes.
"I don't know if we have any pressing issues, but we certainly want to get better and improve at each position with each individual player," said Wright. "The issues that we had been facing going into the fall were guys who had never played, and being young and inexperienced pretty well took care of itself through the course of the season. Not that they are a veteran group, but all those freshman have some good playing time behind them.
"D.J. has a full year under his belt at corner and he played very well. Reggie has a full year of playing for us, and Darien has a complete year at free safety. The exciting thing in the secondary is that we are excited about having virtually everybody back, and those young guys were able to get a tremendous amount of experience, and great experience as well."
"That experience culminated in the win out in San Diego in the Holiday Bowl," Wright continued. "Now, maybe we have a little more experience and a little more of a veteran group. What we want to do in the spring is improve in every area, but bring every individual along to where they are competing in a little bit higher level. Certainly, they should have a little more confidence going into the spring having had the experience that they had all fall. I think all those things together lend itself to having a really good, qualified, experienced and confident group back there in the secondary."
With Wolfe back as the starter at the boundary corner, that position is in good shape. But the field corner is wide open with the graduation of Eric Bassey and Chijioke Onyenegecha. The position is even more complicated due to shoulder surgery for the second time of former starter Marcus Walker that will keep him out of the spring for the second straight year.
Going into the spring, depth is a real concern at corner. And it became even more of a concern halfway through offseason workouts when Brian Jackson had surgery to repair a torn meniscus. Jackson will miss all of spring and be out five months, but the hope is that he will be ready for two-a-days. Before the injury, Jackson had been a rising star among the young DB's and some thought that he would push for a starting spot this fall as a redshirt freshman.
At safety, the Sooners are loaded with young talent. Despite the fact that Williams and Smith return as starters, Nic Harris, redshirt freshman Keenan Clayton (215) and senior Jason Carter look forward to the competition. True freshman Quentin Carter also hopes to prove that he is a factor as well.
"We are looking forward to the spring to bring them along as well," said Wright. "Keenan is a player that we look forward to seeing if he is ready to contribute. Watching through the fall and now hearing how he is doing in the offseason program, he is a guy who can step in and push some people for playing time. It looks like they are going to be really good players in their own right, and our guys who are in there right now are going to have to compete against and contend with them to hold down a job."
"All that does when you have good competition amongst good players is it just makes that group that much better," Wright continued. "It keeps them on edge. They all know and understand that everybody in that group, although very young, are very, very talented and very eager to learn and very eager to play. So it makes for a good situation there for us."
Harris got a brief look at free safety and then played the rest of the year on special teams, finishing with a total of 16 tackles. Harris always brings a good attitude to the field and he is another player that will get a good look at safety in the spring.
"Nic has all the ability in the world," said Wright. "He just has to become more consistent and learn to be more confident and comfortable in the calls. He needs to know exactly what we are in and know exactly what is expected of him to get the job done. Nic played well as a freshman and started a couple of games, and he played a great number of snaps in our special teams. That little bit of experience that he received at safety, and the great experience that he got on special teams, will prove to be a big plus for Nic going into spring ball. He should come into spring ball with a little more confidence in himself."
One of the big stories of the spring will center on Reggie Smith doing double duty as a corner. The Sooners lack depth at corner in the spring, and Smith played a great deal at corner during two-a-days before settling in at strong safety. Smith has great athletic ability and proved during two-a-days that he could be an excellent corner if asked to play there. If Harris and Clayton prove that they could play along side Williams and Carter, Smith just might be the answer at field corner.
"We have D.J. coming back in the spring, but with injuries to Marcus Walker and now Brian Jackson we are very thin this spring," said Coach Wright. "I hate it that Marcus is going to miss again because of shoulder surgery, but there is nothing anybody can do about that. It is also unfortunate that Brian got hurt as well, but again we can't sit around and sulk about it. We could be a little bit thin there in the spring, but Reggie could go over there and play. He is a guy that comes to mind who played there. He practiced there quite a bit during two-a-days camp before settling in at the safety position. Reggie is more than capable of going over there and playing at the corner position. We may even find out that he is our best corner. We will also move Brett Bowers there from safety to see what he can do."
"I am not as concerned about the depth at corner like I was a year ago," Wright continued. "D.J. has proven to be a really good player, Brian is a guy we feel will be a good player when he is healthy and Reggie has shown that he can play either way safety or corner. Reggie will get a look at corner this spring and if he proves to be our best corner, then we will play him there. But we know he can play safety and that is just something we will have to see in the spring. Brett has had a good offseason and we will find out what he can do. We will be OK through the spring at corner and we will get those young guys (signees) in there in the fall, and then we will really have something to work with."
It is never a bad thing to have flexibility and great athletes in the secondary, and now going into the spring Coach Wright has experience to work with as well. The secondary showed great improvement under Wright last season and the position should take another positive jump after the spring.
Keys to Spring (1): Reggie Smith showed last year as a true freshman that he will be a star. But the question is where?This spring just might the be the time when he becomes a full-time corner. Smith played well enough at corner during his freshman two-a-days to starter there, but with seniors Chijioke Onyenegecha and Eric Bassey playing the position, secondary coach Bobby Jack Wright felt the secondary would be better served with him starting at safety. Smith had a solid year and could start there again this year, but the defensive coaches admit that they feel that corner may be Smith's best position. The fact the Smith can play both positions well gives Coach Wright great flexibility in making decision.
Keys to Spring (2): The development of young safeties Nic Harris and Keenan Clayton. Clayton had a banner offseason and played well on the scout team last fall, and the coaches can't wait to see how he plays this spring. They are also excited about Quentin Carter and what he can bring to the secondary. So despite some experience coming back, there are still enough question marks in the secondary to make this spring a very interesting one.
Prelude to Spring: Defensive Backs
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