Spring Locker Room Report: Defense Recap

Safety turned corner Reggie Smith (pictured above) made the biggest splash this spring on defense. See inside for quotes from Bob Stoops and each defensive position coach on who stands where after spring practice. (Photo by Phillip Laizure)

By all accounts, spring practice was a tremendous success for Bob Stoops and Oklahoma. The Sooner defense played well enough to remind the coaches of some of the most dominating defenses in the Stoops era, and the offense showed toughness and grit despite a lack of depth. There were also no injuries, which I think is the most important development this spring for Coach Stoops.

"We have had some bad injuries occur toward the end of spring a couple of different times. And the fact we didn't have any this year is real fortunate for us," said Stoops following the spring game. "I chickened out and decided not to have a full-scale scrimmage because I just didn't want to run the risk of getting anybody hurt. We still had a very physical workout and we still got a lot out of our team work and our individual drills, but I was happy with the fact that we got out of here with no injuries."

If the lack of injuries were at the top of Stoops' evaluation from spring, the play of his defense wasn't far behind. The Head Ball Coach is optimistic that the 2006 defense will be among his best.

"It really has a chance to be one of our best if we keep pushing like we have," said Stoops following the final practice of spring. "From what I have seen, the consistency in our technique, our consistency in our understanding of our responsibilities and recognizing the offense, this has been as good a spring as we have ever had.

"I think this group has a chance to be one of the better defenses that we have had if we keep pushing and we keep improving. That is how they have played throughout the spring, and I believe it has a chance to be good, especially with getting all those D-ends back. Also, with all the experience that we have gained in the secondary and at backer, I think we have a chance to be really good."

Two position moves seemed to be what sparked the defense. The move of starting safety Reggie Smith and back-up wide receiver Lendy Holmes to corner have given the secondary more athletic ability and more playmakers.

"They have done really well and they have looked really strong," said Coach Stoops. "Lendy is gaining more and more experience and he has great ball skills. He just has a knack for it. Reggie has just been sensational. He is as pure a defensive back, or an athlete, as I have been around in all my coaching years. He just has a great feel for it, a great knack. And then you look at his physical ability where he is a 40-inch vertical jump guy combined with his great ball skills. He can catch the ball and is a guy, as he keeps going, that we have to look at working in probably even offensively. Maybe getting him in an opportunity in that slot position or somewhere to get him some snaps as well."

Wow! Talk of Reggie going both ways? Is Reggie going to be a monster or what?

"That is something that I think about sometimes, but to be honest I have enough trouble just playing cornerback and returning punts," Smith said with a chuckle following spring practice. "When I signed I set a goal for myself to at some point in my career to play both ways, but right now nobody has talked to me about that. I am just going to concentrate on being the best cornerback I can be."

That statement in itself sounds as of Smith has totally bought into the fact that he is now a corner. When Smith first moved to corner this spring, he didn't give the impression he really wanted to make the move. But it didn't take him long to adjust to the challenge.

"It is really fun actually to play corner. In many cases, it is just me against the receiver so I find the competition very challenging," said Smith. "I have played safety in high school, but every once in a while I would cover a receiver in man coverage. But for the most part I played safety, and that is what I knew. I enjoyed playing corner this spring and I think that is where I am going to play next fall. So, I better get used to it. The move is OK with me."

Holmes decided to make the move before the start of spring. He was down the depth chart at wide receiver with younger players ahead of him and the Sooners didn't have any depth at corner in the spring. It was the opportunity to get some reps at a position he knew he could play that led him to ask for the change.

"I knew coming out of high school I could play corner," said Holmes following a spring practice. "Actually, I played more corner in high school than wide receiver, and I played in the Army All-American game at corner. When I signed with OU the coaches felt I would be better off at wide receiver, so I started out at receiver. Things were going OK for me there, but when (Marcus) Walker and Brian (Jackson) both got hurt I just saw an opportunity to play over there. I am not surprised that I have done pretty well. I have always had confidence in my ability at corner. I still have a lot to improve on, but I think I can compete at corner."

In the fall, the Sooners, baring injury, will be deeper at corner than they ever have been in the Stoops era. Junior D.J. Wolfe will be the starter at the boundary corner, and he is playing at an all-conference level. Walker and Jackson will both return from injuries giving the cornerback position great talent and a deeper talent pool.

Despite two shoulder surgeries, Walker has been a starter or solid contributor at corner. And the OU coaches feel Jackson has a chance to be a great one before he is through. Then throw in freshmen Jonathan Nelson, Dominique Franks and Malcolm Williams, and the Sooners will be deep with talented athletes at the corner position next fall, which could come in handy in nickel and dime situations.

There will also be tremendous competition in the fall at safety, where as many as five players will be competing for playing time.

"I like our situation at spring. We have good athletes with a good mixture of experience and youth, with the young guys getting better and better as they gain experience," said secondary coach Bobby Jack Wright.

"Darien Williams started most of the season for us at free safety a year ago and played pretty well. Jason Carter has been in our program for a while, and playing strong safety for us in the spring it was obvious that he knew what to do. We are solid with those two, but they can't rest on their laurels at all because those young guys are really talented, and they can see that too."

"Keenan Clayton had a great spring and really came on the last two weeks. He is a big, strong safety who plays very physical, and he proved he can be a pretty good cover guy as well. Nic Harris also finished spring very well and actually picked off a few passes this spring. He has improved on his assignments and if he keeps coming in that area then he has a chance to be a great player for us."

"Then I was very impressed with our freshman, Quentin Carter. I mean, he has only been with us for about eight weeks and he stepped right in and competed very well and did a great job of picking up his assignments. He is very talented and you can't rule him out in the fall."

"I don't have any problem with great competition. In fact, I look forward it," Wright continued. "We aren't quite there, but we will have a pretty good two-deep next fall and we are going to have great competition across the board. That will only make us better next season."

At linebacker, the news that Ryan Reynolds is out for the year with an ACL injury is a big blow. Not only was Reynolds the odds-on starter at strongside linebacker, but he was playing on several special teams as well.

This alleviates the competition at SLB, as junior Demarrio Pleasant will become the solid No. 1. He is a good athlete and a solid player, but the injury to Reynolds really hurts the Sooners' depth at linebacker.

"We are thin, but I really like our group of guys at linebacker," said defensive coordinator and linebacker coach Brent Venables following spring. "We have a chance to be very strong and we have a chance to have a lot of flexibility there. We have some guys who can play multiple positions. You will see Rufus Alexander play some MIKE linebacker, as well as his primary position at the WILL.

"We have Lewis Baker and Ian Pleasant, who can also play the WILL and Lewis can play the SAM as well. Curtis Lofton gained a ton of experience playing the MIKE all spring with Zach (Latimer) out with a shoulder surgery. That will only makes us better when Zach returns in the fall. Now we have two real good middle linebackers.

The strongest position on the team is at defensive end, where as many as six players are good enough to play and several will wind up playing on Sunday's someday.

This spring showed off the depth at defensive ends and John Williams, one of the better defensive ends on the squad, didn't even practice while continuing to rehab his ACL. But when he returns he will jump right into the rotation.

"C.J. Ah You really played well for us this spring, and he played consistently well," said defensive end coach Chris Wilson following the final spring practice. "I think people are always surprised by his size and speed."

"I think Calvin Thibodeaux would be the next guy who played well this spring, and then 'Bird' (Larry Birdine) is getting closer to that point. We just have to keep 'Bird' polished. Being a year away from the game really hurt him. We need to get to a consistent high level of play with him and being more effective in everything that he does."

Birdine does not disagree with that, and he even admits he needs to play at a higher level on every play.

"I need to say to myself that I am going to be great on this play on each and every play, and then use the proper technique and let my natural ability take over," said Birdine. "I know I can be a better player and I am going to work hard this summer to the next two-a-days to become the best player I can be."

While those four will take up most of the snaps next season, the future at defensive end will watch closely and learn.

"I think those young guys are going to be good to," said Wilson. "Auston English, Alan Davis and even Alonzo Doston has to be in that group because he has not played much throughout his career. What we tried to do this spring was make sure that they got enough reps that when we roll into the fall, they have had enough muscle memory to play well in their first game. One of our goals this spring was to make sure that we developed our down the line guys and I think we were able to accomplish that. So there is nothing better than a group of good players, and we have a group of good players."

At defensive tackle, junior starter Carl Pendleton missed the entire spring rehabbing a knee, and that opened the door for redshirt freshmen DeMarcus Granger, Billy Blackard and Cordero Moore to get more reps. They mixed in with sophomore Cory Bennett and Steven Coleman to make up a good nucleus of defensive tackles this spring.

They weren't always dominant, but they showed enough athletic talent that with another off-season of work with Jerry Schmidt and company ahead, this group could be really good.

Throughout most of the spring Bennett and Coleman went with the starting unit, but defensive tackle coach Jackie Shipp likes to rotate at least four players. And with the addition of prep All-American Gerald McCoy in August, the competition coming into the fall to get into that four-man rotation will be intense.

"I was pleased with our play this spring, but we still have a long way to go. We can get so much better," said Shipp during spring practice. "DeMarcus got into good shape and that has helped him a great deal. He can go hard an entire practice and he has more quickness and agility."

"Steven Coleman has always worked hard to get into better conditioning and he had a good spring. I am happy for Steven because he has been in our program for a while and has worked hard to improve his conditioning and performance."

"Cory continues to improve and get better. He is working hard to get bigger and stronger, but he plays with great quickness and passion. Billy is still a very young player," Shipp continued. "Remember he was hurt very early in tw- a-days and then missed all of last year with an ankle injury. He is really just starting his career and that shows sometimes. However, he plays hard and he has a good future in front of him."

"Cordero started playing better toward the second half of spring, and I happy am for him because he started to make a few plays. He needs to keep working hard and needs to continue to improve. Carl didn't practice this spring, but he worked hard on his strength and conditioning and he will be a better player in the fall.

"All of them are still in the mix in the fall, and like I have said many times Gerald is going to be thrown right into the fire. He will be given every chance to compete for playing time."

The defense appeared to really grow and several players emerged as real playmakers for the Sooners in the fall. As coach Stoops always says, they will miss graduated players like Dusty Dvoracek and Clint Ingram, but they recruit well and other players will emerge. And that appeared to happen making the spring a success for the defense.

"I thought we got a lot of positives out of the spring," said Coach Venables. "We had no injuries and we were able to evaluate a lot of good quality competition really across the board, but especially at defensive end, the strongside linebacker position, and the safety positions. Coming out of the spring, what we were able to see and come to the conclusion is that we have good quality depth at those positions with not only capable players, but players who can make a difference for us.

This spring was a success mainly because we were able to determine that we have good quality depth. Our attitude was very good the whole spring, as we were very focused to play at a high level. I really feel we improved in a lot of areas, especially in fundamentals and technique."

Throughout the spring, coach Stoops pointed out the playmaking ability of the defense. And that was never more evident that in the secondary and the pass rush up front.

"Lendy moved over to corner and proved to us that he can be a player there, and Reggie probably made more big plays than anybody else this spring. DeMarcus Ganger has made a great deal of improvement. He has lost weight and things of that nature, but his improved technique and understanding of our defense really showed. Then at defensive end, we have a number of great players. What you want there is for those guys to continue to work just to become better athletes and players, because the skill level is there for us to be very good at that position."

Coach Venables loves to have options on defense. He likes to work with a defense that has the flexibility to show a number of variations.

"I like our flexibility and the fact we can get into some five and six DB packages. I like our flexibility with a number of players who can play at a high level. We did some experimenting in that way and I really thought in Keenan Clayton and Nic Harris, we already knew about Jason Carter and Darien Williams, but I thought toward the end of spring those two young guys have made a tremendous amount of progress. It is as much as anything just their confidence out there on the field. It is their positioning, their assuredness, and it is showing in their accountability. They are not quite there, but they are really close because they are seeing their progress and they are getting more and more comfortable every day."

"We are excited about the group of guys that we have," Venables continued. "We are developing the depth that we need and the playmakers that we need. With the addition of Zach Latimer and John Williams, Gerald McCoy, Carl Pendleton and Brian Jackson, who was somebody that we felt before the beginning of last season had a chance to be an awfully good player and help us, we will get a big boost of outstanding talent in the fall just from players on our own roster. In Brian, we get him back and get Marcus Walker back. There are a number of guys who we really feel are going to have a chance to have an impact to a very good group of guys already."

The spring left the Sooner defensive coaches very optimistic about the fall. Bob Stoops said a number of times that this defense has a chance to play as well as the best defenses that he has had at OU, and with that being the case you can count on the Sooners being one of the top defensive teams in the country next fall.

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