Secondary could become a force in '06

James Hale gives an in-depth breakdown on the status of Oklahoma's secondary heading into the summer.

Based on what we watched in the spring, it is safe to say that one of the strengths of the Sooner Football team next season will be the secondary. I don't think anybody thought that would be the case going into the spring, but what we discovered is that there is a wealth of talent in the secondary, and more will arrive in August.

At the beginning of spring, the move of sophomore Reggie Smith from safety to corner was considered an experiment to most members of the media and general public. However, in the coaches' locker room, they have known since last season that Smith was the best cover player in the secondary, and every single week the defensive coaches debated whether to move him to corner and insert junior Jason Carter into the starting line-up at strong safety.

The coaches gambled and probably earned a draw that Chijioke Onyenegecha or Eric Bassey would be able to play the field corner, and at least hold their own. Early in the season, secondary coach Bobby Jack Wright was struggling finding safeties that knew the assignments in the back end, and with Smith also being one of the most intelligent players in the secondary, he decided to stick with him at safety and the two seniors at corner.

That decision was tested each week as either Chijioke or Bassey struggled on the field, but by the end of the year the secondary was playing better and thus no position changes were needed.

Coming out of the year, one player coach Wright knew he could count on was junior D.J. Wolfe. Considering the fact that Wolfe played corner basically for the first time ever and had to learn on the run, Wolfe showed off his great athletic ability and his great determination. He wasn't perfect, but by the end of the year he was a darn good corner and this spring he was even better. By the end of spring, the Sooner coaches were talking conference honors for Wolfe.

However, even the fine play of Wolfe was overshadowed by Smith, who was the talk of the spring. In Smith, the Sooner coaches feel like they have uncovered a superstar at corner. A super cover corner at that.

In skelly drills, Smith has always been the Sooners' best cover guy in the secondary, and while he proved to be a pretty good safety he never presented the physical presence that the coaches like at there. Smith played in the secondary last year with a corner's temperament, not a safety's aggression. Coach Stoops loves big corners and thus the thought was with Smith's size, plus his speed and athletic ability that he would make a great field corner. And that was certainly the case in the spring.

A big surprise in the spring was the great play of Lendy Holmes at corner. When Holmes was asked to move to corner the coaches never dreamed they had a player capable of starting. In fact, Holmes was searching drastically for a place to player after blowing opportunities at wide receiver.

Holmes was recruited by many as a corner coming out of high school, but the Sooners thought with his great speed he would be a great slot receiver. Holmes never showed the type of hands needed to play receiver at OU, and thus the move to corner was out of desperation to find him a position to play and for the Sooner secondary to find some depth at corner.

From Day 1, Holmes looked like a natural at corner. All of a sudden, he went from being a disappointment at receiver to major player at corner for the Sooners. By the end of spring, Holmes was the nickel back and he will be given a chance to compete with Wolfe for the starting boundary corner in preseason camp. That is nothing against Wolfe, but an indication of how well Holmes played in the spring.

Actually, at the end of spring when the Sooners went to extra DBs, Holmes played the field corner and Smith would play the ‘Roy' or ‘Reggie' position as Coach Stoops says we should call it until Reggie or anybody else plays like Roy.

The emergence of Smith and Holmes at corner all of a sudden makes the Sooners deep at corner, and they will be even deeper when redshirt freshman Brian Jackson and junior Marcus Walker return from injury. All of last season, coach Wright struggled with the decision of bringing Jackson out of redshirt. But just when he was ready to do it, Jackson would have a bad practice or two and he would leave decide not to play them. Jackson then suffered the knee injury going into spring and he missed more practice time.

The Sooner coaches aren't totally sure what they have in Jackson as a football player, but they know they have a very gifted athlete who has great size, speed and strength.

Of course, Walker is the most frustrated player on the Sooner team. Everybody knows his story and now he has missed two straight springs because of shoulder surgery, as both shoulders have been repaired. If his medical problems haven't robbed him of any of his ability, Walker can be a good corner. He has been a starter before at OU and he played hurt last year when coach Wright wanted four corners on the field.

Another player that will be in the competition is redshirt freshman Brett Bowers, who finished the spring as the number two boundary corner. Bowers earned the respect of OU DB Coach Wright by playing through a knee injury to finish the spring and he gave a good account of himself through the spring. It will be interesting to see if Brett can hold off the challenge of the newcomers and those returning from injury, but he will get a shot and have a shot to earn playing time on special teams. On top of those five, you throw in the talented freshmen trio of Dominque Franks, Jonathan Nelson and Malcolm Williams, and the Sooners have some super athletes at corner.

At safety, the Sooners have some great athletes as well, but most of the talent is inexperienced and it is not a position where a team can afford mistakes. That is why coach Wright will play an experienced player that is not quite as talented over a super athletic player who is a threat to bust on a play on every other possession.

Thus Carter ended the spring as the starting strong safety, and there is a good chance he will be the starting in the season opener against UAB. I know Carter is not the most athletic player in the secondary, but he is very productive and as one coach told me production is what matters on the football field, not talent alone. Yes, you usually need talent to be productive, but production does not always come from the most talented players.

Carter will have to hold off redshirt freshman Keenan Clayton, and that won't be easy. Clayton is considered a future star at safety, and perhaps the next great safety at OU. But will that be in 2006 or 2007?

Clayton is the most physical safety on the Sooner roster, but he may be the most athletic as well. Clayton excels in the weight room in the offseason, and on the field he hits like a ton of bricks. However, his coverage skills were a surprise to the coaching staff, as it turns out he is one of the very best cover guys in the secondary.

Actually Clayton, Nic Harris, Darien Williams and Jason Carter are all pretty good cover guys. Coach Wright is not afraid to match-up Clayton, Harris or Williams in man coverage, while Carter may be the best zone coverage safety on the roster.

For Clayton to beat Carter out, he will have to play just as smart. And when he busts he still has to make a big play. The OU defensive coaches will put up with a few busts as long as they don't result in touchdowns, and as long as the player making the bust plays at full speed. Being at full speed is a big key on the Sooner defense. If you are playing at full speed then you can overcome mistakes.

For those of us who remember the glory days back in the glory days of the mid-70's, I like to call it the Jimbo Elrod theory. Jimbo busted as much as any Sooner All-American in history, but because he was always playing at full speed he made a ton of plays. It didn't hurt either that he was a very good athlete and a wrestler and all that, but the point is that Jimbo's motor went 100 miles per hour all the time and that made up for a few mistakes.

At free safety, Williams will have to hold off Harris and true freshman Quentin Carter. I throw Carter in here because the Sooner defensive coaches love him and feel he is going to be a great one. They don't know if it will be next year, or if it has to be next year, but they feel at some point, probably in 2007, he will be a major factor in the secondary.

Harris is still not totally sure of assignments, and thus he can't always go at full speed. He has to think too much at times, and until he feels totally confident in what he is doing Williams will be the starting free safety. Williams is a pretty good athlete in his own right and he doesn't bust as much. Both are playmakers, but Harris has the best play making ability. The summer is incredibly important to Harris, and the more 7-on-7 drills he participates in the better chance he has at starting next season.

There is going to be good competition in preseason camp in the secondary and the wealth of talent will give coach Venables and Ccoach Wright options in their nickel and dime packages.

Smith will become a star and we will start to see how special Clayton is going to be, but the bottom line is the Sooner secondary is going to become a force in college football in 2006.

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