Defensive ends coach Chris Wilson might be a guy who you want to pick your lottery numbers.
There is not a deeper position on the team than at defensive end, as Wilson has the luxury of three players returning who have started games during their career at OU and two other players that have been on the verge of starting.
Last year's starters, seniors C.J. Ah You (6-4, 265) and Calvin Thibodeaux (6-1, 251), both return as Thibodeaux was granted an extra year of eligibility before the Sooners played in the Holiday Bowl.
This is one example of Wilson's good fortune, as Thibodeaux led Oklahoma with nine sacks and he was second on the team with 17 tackles for loss last season. Ah You was named the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year by the coaches and The Associated Press, and he finished sixth on the team in total tackles with 45.
Larry Birdine (6-4, 258] figured that he would be working out for NFL coaches right now, but a torn bicep muscle in two-a-days last season set his plans back for a year. Birdine would have been a starter a year ago, or at least be a part of a rotation that would have been the best defensive end group in the nation. To his credit, Birdine worked feverously and actually saw playing time in the Holiday Bowl, playing over 20 snaps, mainly on passing downs.
Birdine is looking forward to a legitimate senior year in a Sooner uniform.
"Sometimes things don't go your way and you have to deal with the circumstances that come your way," said Birdine. "I was hoping to have a big junior year and then see where I stood with NFL coaches, but after the injury I was so relieved to know that I still had another year here at Oklahoma to get healthy and to improve my status. I am very lucky really because OU has such a great medical staff and coach (Jerry) Schmidt is the best at what he does, and coach Wilson is a great defensive coach. Playing for such a great program like OU can do nothing but help my future if I do what I am supposed to do."
Junior John Williams' (6-5, 252) season flashed before our eyes so fast that you probably thought you missed it. However, he was so dominate before tearing his ACL in the season-opener against TCU with four tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery that he has everyone within the OU football program waiting with great anticipation for his return.
Junior Alonzo Dotson's (6-3, 239) season never got off the ground because of academic problems, but now that he is back in good stead in the classroom he is another talented defensive end that Wilson has to work in the spring.
"We are excited because we have some numbers back," said Wilson. "We felt this way a spring ago with the guys that we really had. The competition is going to be really, really steep because we have guys like Larry Birdine, Alonzo Dotson, who is about due to show up. And then we have both C.J. Ah You and Calvin Thibodeaux, who had pretty good seasons a year ago. Birdine and Dotson are playing catch up a little bit, but those other two dudes have to maintain their position."
Sophomores Alan Davis (6-2, 242) and Auston English (6-3, 248] are two other talented players fighting for playing time, but if everybody can stay healthy a redshirt year looks like a real possibility for English. However, he will be in the mix in the spring, but the question is whether Williams and the rest of the prospects will be able to go.
"John hasn't been quite released yet, but he is making great progress," said Wilson. "We are very excited about him. We anticipate maybe having him towards the end of the spring, but not at the beginning. If John is not available at the end of the spring then he certainly should be towards the beginning of the year in the fall."
In football, coaches are always looking towards the future and while the Sooners will have tremendous experience at defensive end next year, the following year they will become somewhat of a young group again. That creates an opportunity for the younger players.
"We just want the best players to play and the best thing for us is to have great competition at both positions," said Wilson. "Obviously, the better the competition level is, the better everyone has to step up. When you add a guy like Alan Davis, who got chance to play some major college football, as well as Auston English, they give you a great mix between your classes, which is where a healthy program in my mind should be."
Even though the defensive end position is not a question mark, the competition at the position will make it one of the most interesting to watch.
"We have a lot to improve on, especially our fundamentals," said Wilson. "Our footwork needs to improve, and the thing that I think is the biggest key in all of football is our effort, sustaining it at a high level on every play. Obviously, one of the big parts of that is going to be depth. If we can keep our depth that will allow guys to stay fresh. We have the talent to have a good group in there every time on every series."
Who actually starts will be fun to watch for this spring. As many as four and possibly five players will come out of the spring good enough to play on Saturday, and that will be even better news going into next year.
Keys to Spring: The Sooners are loaded with several veteran seniors who must all complete the healing process and get re-acclimated to assignments and contact. Thibodeaux has become a great leader among the defensive ends, and he had a great offseason. Birdine is always good, but improved as the offseason went along. Davis is player that at times gets overlooked by the public, but not by the OU coaches. He showed last year that he can play, and he has had a great effort this offseason. Williams is ahead of schedule in his rehab, but wont' go through spring. Dotson is competing like he is on a mission after missing all of last year due to grade issues. English, a player that the Sooner coaches feel will be a star in the future, and other younger players, must improve to the point where they are ready to step in and play next year (2007). Depth may allow English to redshirt this year, as he was rushed prematurely into service last year after Birdine and Williams both went down early. But that decision won't be made until August, and English will have a big say in the process.
Prelude to Spring: Defensive Ends
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