Nothing makes a coaching staff more nervous on the defensive side of the ball than inexperience in the secondary. Experience in the secondary can be worth its weight in gold, and going into the spring the Sooners are a pretty wealthy secondary.
Oklahoma returns all four starters in the secondary, plus their nickel and dime back. They also return all but one reserve from a year ago, giving them some experience to build on in the spring. There is quality depth in the secondary going into the spring, but the Sooner coaches do have some goals in mind that they hope are reached.
"I think ironing things out at safety and finding out if any of those young guys are ready to play at a high level will be an intriguing development throughout the course of the spring," said OU defensive coordinator Brent Venables. "Overall, just getting our guys to play hard and play physical will be important in the spring. Then playing with more consistency and technique across the board will be a huge emphasis for us as well."
Once junior Reggie Smith (6-1, 197) moved to strong safety from corner last season, the secondary came to life as senior Marcus Walker (5-11, 192) took over at the field corner and junior Lendy Holmes (6-1, 196) replaced senior D.J. Wolfe at the boundary corner. With senior Darien Williams at free safety, the quartet of Williams, Smith, Walker and Holmes becomes more than solid.
And when Williams injured a knee, junior Nic Harris showed that he could swing from free safety and the nickel. Now with all those players back, the Sooners will push each other to improve in every aspect of the game.
"The fact that we have the entire corps of our secondary returning is big plus for us," said secondary coach Bobby Jack Wright. "When you look at our entire defense, we have seven starters returning off a team that was No. 1 in the Big-12 in total defense, scoring defense and pass efficiency defense. Considering all those things, we would certainly have great expectations and certainly we have those.
"The fact that we have some really good, talented players coming back in some key positions is a big plus for us. But in no way, shape or form do we feel like we have arrived. We still have a great amount of improvement to make. As we have always said, as well as we have played in the course of the season, and as much improvement as we made, we are still not near the defensive football team that we are capable of being.
"So there is still a lot of growth and maturity that needs to be developed there. Going into the spring, the thing that we are going to push hard for is fundamentals, and I don't think we are as near as physical as we need to be. There were times last year where I just didn't think we played as physical as our opponents did. That is something that we take great pride in, and that is being the more physical and tougher team. I don't feel in every game that we were that way. That is something that we have to continue to improve on.
"Then just our basic fundamentals in pass coverage, basic fundamentals in stopping the run — no matter if it is a corner, strong safety or even a linebacker. Just being more physical. You have to come and attack the run and be the run stopper. We need to be more physical in our tackling and need to be better open-field tacklers. We gave up some plays during the course of the year where we felt if we were just fundamentally better tacklers, we would have been a better defensive football team.
"I say that knowing that we were a pretty good defensive team last year, but there is still so much room for growth and improvement, and the maturity level still needs to continue to be raised. Even though we made a lot of strides over last year, there is still a tremendous amount of improvement that is capable of being made."
One way a unit or team improves is through great competition, and in the secondary there is quality talent in the two-deep, which adds up to a number of players who are good enough to start.
"There is no question that there is going to continue to be great competition," said Wright. "We always say there is no spot that is locked down and nobody owns any of those positions. Those positions belong to the University of Oklahoma. Always have and always will.
"I know people want to know and yes I am going to move Reggie Smith back to cornerback and let him work at corner this spring. We are going to try to establish that strong safety position in the spring. What that does for us is that when you look at our cornerback position we moved our best corner to safety last year, but that was through necessity and not because I had gone mad like some of you might have thought. I know some of your thought my God he is losing his mind! Reggie is plain and simple our best defensive back period! We have other guys at corner that could shore up our corner situation, but we really needed him more at the safety position last year. Of course you saw the difference by the time he moved to safety until the end of the season, and how much improvement that we had in our secondary play.
"However, I am going to move him back. Marcus Walker will basically be the returning starter at the field corner and Reggie will work at the boundary. You have Lendy Holmes who is a returning starter also working at the boundary and D.J. Wolfe who has been a starter working at that field corner. So, there are four really veteran type guys who have been tested by fire, they have been in it and been successful, and I think there are four guys right there that can really play. They are going to give each other great competition for those positions, and the depth there is what we have been looking for the last couple of years where you have four really good guys that you could put in there at any time.
"The key then goes back to your strong safety position. Keenan Clayton (6-1, 210), Nic Harris 6-2, 226) and Brett Bowers (6-0, 203) will be the three guys that will be competing for that job. At free safety we have made a little bit of a change this spring, because Darien Williams will be out this spring with knee surgery. He will be rehabbing throughout the spring. I am going to work Quentin Carter (6-1, 190) at free safety and I am very excited about him. I think Quentin is a guy in the spring that is going to push for a starting position. He may be the best hitter we have in the secondary and he really excites us in the secondary. I am moving Dominique Franks (5'11, 183) and Brian Jackson (6-1, 190) in there, who have been corners, but they are good enough and big enough, physical enough that they can play at the free safety position. I am really excited about that aspect of it going into the spring."
Redshirt freshman Jonathan Nelson (5-11, 176) has recovered from a pulled hamstring and he will compete to work up the depth chart at field corner. Nelson is one of the fastest players on the Sooner roster.
Harris will still work at the nickel for the Sooners where he started all of last year, and senior Lewis Baker will start out at the dime. Baker is also competing at the SAM linebacker positions and thus the Sooners will also work Wolfe and Jackson at the dime position as well.
"The main thing about it for me is that we have some quality guys here that are going to be battling for starting jobs all the time," said Coach Wright. "What I really like is the fact that we have some good, quality depth. Nobody owns and nobody has locked down a position that is just given to them. They have to earn their way every day here at OU."
Going into the spring the fact that the team played well the year before and might have experience means very little. Each player better bring their "A game" or they may find themselves on the short end of the depth chart.
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