There is a great deal of anticipation at defensive tackle heading into the spring. After getting off to a slow start in 2006, the young and inexperienced group of defensive tackles grew up in front of our eyes and played much better the second half of last season.
Oklahoma only lost one player to graduation in senior Carl Pendleton, who decided to skip his final year of eligibility and take his 22 starts to graduate school. Going into the spring, the Sooners return three defensive tackles in senior Steven Coleman (6-4, 299), junior Cory Bennett (6-2, 278) and sophomore DeMarcus Granger (6-3, 300) who earned some valuable experience in 2006.
"They played well and they got better week in and week out," said OU defensive tackle coach Jackie Shipp. "I thought early in the season they got a lot of unfair criticism, but they handled it well and got better every game. I think they were an important part of our defense improving throughout the year."
Sophomores Billy Blackard (6-3, 281) and Cordero Moore (6-2, 297), and redshirt freshmen Gerald McCoy (6-4, 289) and Adrian Taylor (6-4, 293), make up the rest of the competition in the spring. All are looking to improve their game and earn a spot in the four-man defensive tackle rotation.
"In the spring, I think just getting better and playing the run from a technique standpoint is very important," said Shipp. "We want to get better rushing the passer from a technique standpoint and become better football players. We are always working to get better at those two things and we can do that by gaining more knowledge of the game and just improving overall."
If you have ever paid attention to the defensive tackles in practice you would have noticed they work on technique a great deal, and how well a player knows the tricks of the trade may determine whether he is in the rotation or not.
"You always want them to grasp for knowledge, because that is the only way they are going to be better," Shipp said. "Coming all the way from their freshman to their senior year, you want them hungry for knowledge because you want them to improve every year and be the best players they can. I always want them grasping for knowledge."
Leading the way at defensive tackle in the spring will be Coleman and Bennett, who started six and 11 games, respectively, last season.
"They have experience and they both have good ability," said Shipp. "They both run pretty well and they both have pretty good size. Both had pretty good years last season and they got better, it seemed, in each and every game. They need to come into the spring and work on improving their game technically and mentally, and pick up where they left off from this past year."
Bennett has been a solid contributor at defensive tackle for the past couple of years with 42 tackles, two sacks and four tackles for losses, and he will go into the spring looking to improve on the finer points of the position.
"I want to get bigger and stronger going into the spring, but I guess I have said that every year," said Bennett. "That is always a goal of mine in the offseason, and that is never going to change for me. I want to work on my technique because my game is speed and quickness. Coach Shipp is always telling me that the better technique I have the better success I am going to have. Of course, he is right so I really want to refine in my game in the spring."
Granger never started this past season, but he played in all 14 games and finished 2006 with 20 tackles and four tackles for losses. He comes out of the season as the defensive tackle with the most potential to earn All-America honors in the future.
"He made great improvement from the beginning of the year to the end," said Shipp. "If you looked at his first game against UAB, he made a couple of plays. He probably had his worst game of the year against the University of Texas, and then he did some real good things against Oklahoma State. Following that game against Texas, you look at some of the good things that he did against Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and even in the bowl game. I have even gone back and watched some good plays he made against Oregon. He got better and better every week. He has the ability to go make plays, get off blocks and being strong at the point of attack. He is getting better and better and I am expecting better things out of him next year."
Granger was never satisfied with his play last season, but he did admit that he felt he was improving. He fully expects the experience of playing in every game last season to be a boost for him in the spring.
"This past season was a big learning experience for me," said Granger. "I think I improved through the year and I really started to feel comfortable on the field the second half of the season. I started to feel good about my assignments and what I was supposed to do in the defense, and that allowed me to just play. I know I have the ability to have a major impact in the game for our defense, and that is going to be a goal through the spring and summer to get to that point where I am a major factor on the field."
Blackard and Moore spent the entire year on the scout team trying to work their way up a crowded depth chart. This spring will give them an opportunity to work with the varsity and a shot at getting into the rotation.
"Billy Blackard really improved throughout the season," said Shipp. "From the time our season was over until our bowl game, he really made a great improvement and did a heck of a job. Billy was a guy who basically was a freshman through two-a-days because he did not go through the fall because he had ankle surgery. But it looked like a light came on during the second half of the year, and especially his bowl practices were really exceptional. They were great, as a matter of fact. He did a heck of a job.
"Cordero Moore made great improvement during the season and then he gets injured during bowl practice, so this spring is very important to him and Billy. They will improve a lot during spring practice."
Joining the competition for the first time will be prized redshirt freshmen Gerald McCoy and Adrian Taylor, who quite possibly could be the two most talented players at the position.
"They have a lot of ability," said Shipp. "They bring a lot to the table. They are both big, strong and can run. They are eager to learn and are hard workers. They are going to make this spring practice very competitive.
"I am excited about getting them out there and watching them compete to get on that playing field for next season."
In fact, the entire defensive staff is curious what McCoy and Taylor can bring to the defense.
"It has been well documented what we think of Gerald McCoy," said defensive coordinator Brent Venables. "I think it really helped Gerald that he was able to redshirt, learn, grow and improve, especially on his fundamentals and technique. With Adrian Taylor, you can say the same thing. We feel they have a chance to be awfully good and they have a chance to get into the rotation this spring. We are expecting that to happen. They both bring a physical presence inside, as both of them are close to 300 pounds. They both can run and they are both physical players. So we are excited to turn those guys loose this spring."
Taylor has been bothered by a sore back, but he should be 100 percent for the spring. This position will be one certainly worth watching to see if the vets can hold off the rookies through the end of spring practice.
Spring Position Preview: Defensive Tackle
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