Oklahoma Defensive Preview

After losing players like Rufus Alexander, C.J. Ah You, Larry Birdine and Calvin Thibodeaux last season on the defensive side of the ball, among others, Bob Stoops and the rest of the Sooner coaching staff will have to take some young talent and work their magic this season in Norman. If one thing is always true about Oklahoma, it is that the defense is solid.

The Oklahoma defense had an odd season in 2006. Their sack total was down from the year before, 45 to 26. Tackles for loss were down from 119 to 89. Quarterback hurries were down by eight. And that was playing in two fewer games. That would lead you to believe that the defense wasn't getting as much pressure on the quarterback and was overall less effective.

While the defense didn't get as much pressure, they were better in coverage. Interceptions rose from 13 to 18. Pass break-ups increased from 47 to 61. More importantly, the defense allowed fewer points. In 2005 the Sooners gave up 23 points a game. That number fell to 17 points a game last year. The defense had six games in which they allowed ten points or fewer. The two big hiccups were the losses to Boise State and Oregon. OU gave up a combined 77 points in those two games.

The goal this year has to be to combine the best elements of the last two seasons. Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables wants to attack the opposing offense. He wants the pressure of 2005, but also wants the improved coverage of 2006. Combine those two elements and the defense will be difficult to score on, but also make plays and force turnovers. That's the kind of defense that Head Coach Bob Stoops wants.

The defense has some holes to fill, but there is also a lot of talent returning. The secondary is arguably the best in the country. If a couple of young guys step up, the front seven could be outstanding as well.

Oklahoma lost four key defensive linemen from last year's squad. Both defensive ends will be new starters, as well as one of the defensive tackles. The real key here is redshirt freshman Gerald McCoy. He was a star defensive tackle coming out of high school, but redshirted last year. He has the potential to be a Tommie Harris level of player. The one thing OU has lacked the last couple of seasons is a special presence in the middle of the defensive line. McCoy could be that guy. The other three guys in the middle will be DeMarcus Granger, Steve Coleman, and Cory Bennett. All three have played and work well in a rotation. Bennett really hustles in pursuit. He's not the most gifted player, but gives excellent effort. That's half the battle at defensive tackle. Granger has a lot of upside. He showed flashes of real potential last year. Ideally, Granger and McCoy would start. They have the most talent. That would allow Bennett and Coleman to come off the bench and be high effort backups.

A redshirt player will also be key at defensive end. The coaches have raved about 6'3, 260-pound redshirt sophomore Auston English. He's the best athlete up front, even though he is raw. Auston played as a true freshman, but sat out last year because of the depth at defensive end. Seniors Alonzo Dotson and John Williams are back, but don't have a lot of playing experience. Each player as a final chance to salvage his career, but will have to earn starting spot. Coach Venables made it clear that they won't just inherit a starting spot. English is the real key. The Sooners need at least one end who is a difference maker. He's got that kind of ability.

Linebacker is another unsettled position for OU. There is some talent, just not a lot of experience. Redshirt sophomore Ryan Reynolds is the most talented player. He'll be taking over the weak side spot from Rufus Alexander, now in the NFL. Ryan missed last year due to injury, but he seems healthy at this point. The coaching staff raves about his work ethic, attitude, and leadership. Ryan is 6-1, 237 pounds. He's got some athletic ability, but will rely more on instincts and technique than pure speed.

Junior Curtis Lofton is the frontrunner at middle linebacker right now. He is the leading returning tackler of any of the linebackers. He played mostly on the outside last year, but his natural position is inside. Lofton is smart and disciplined. He reads plays well and is a good tackler. He should be solid. There is some competition for him. Junior college transfer Mike Reed was the Sooners top recruit this year. He's 6-1, 250 pounds and has pretty good athletic ability. Reed is behind Lofton at this point, but is still learning the defensive scheme and could steal the job away. He has a higher upside and could turn out to be a special player. This is definitely a battle to watch.

Strong side linebacker is still being decided. The top candidates both played last year, seniors Lewis Baker and Demarrio Pleasant. Baker has shuttled back and forth between safety and linebacker. He's only 6-2, 216 pounds, which is small for a linebacker. He has good athletic ability and good coverage skills. Pleasant is 6-2, 231 pounds. That is better size for strong side linebacker. He is more adept at playing up on the line and handling blockers. Demarrio lacks the kind of athletic ability and speed that you would ideally like in an outside linebacker. Neither player is substantially better than the other. Both guys played last year, but neither of them had a great year. Ideally, the coaches will play both guys depending on the game situation or opponent. Against a running team, expect Pleasant to play more. Against a passing team, Baker will get more playing time. Baker should also get used in some nickel defense sets.

All the key defensive backs return, but there will be some shuffling of players and positions. The 2006 season showed the coaches what the young defensive backs could do and where they should play. There is excellent talent and depth in the secondary.

Junior Reggie Smith moves from safety to cornerback. He'll be paired with returning starter Marcus Walker. They form one of the elite cornerback duos in the nation. Both guys have outstanding man-to-man cover skills. Both guys play the ball well. Opposing receivers are going to have a hard time getting open against these two guys. Last year they combined for six interceptions and 17 pass breakups. Expect more of the same in 2007.

Nic Harris is the free safety and the biggest playmaker in the secondary. He's huge at 6'3, 226 pounds. That is linebacker size. Don't be fooled by that. He's athletic and a good defensive back with a lot of potential. Nic played mostly special teams as a freshman in 2005. Last year he started eight games and was extremely productive. He had 68 tackles, seven tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, four interceptions, and eight pass break ups. This kid makes plays all over the field. He's a good blitzer off the edge. He can be the eighth man in the box and help to shut down the run. He's also got good coverage ability. Nic has enough speed and range to break up passes, but also shows a good feel for coverage. That is unusual in a guy his size. He made a quantum leap from his freshman year to his sophomore season. He can't raise his game quite that much at this point, but there is still room for improvement. If he takes the next step, Nic could be the best safety in the nation.

Former cornerback D.J. Wolfe is projected to start at strong safety. He was a starting cornerback in 2005, but mostly a backup last year. D.J. is a solid hitter and tackler. He has good cover skills, but is best suited to playing safety where he can watch the quarterback's eyes and fly to the ball. Darrien Williams and Lendy Holmes are the backup safeties. Williams started last year, but is coming off an injury and not fully healed. Holmes played cornerback last year. He is an outstanding hitter and tackler. He might end up challenging Wolfe for playing time if he handles the move well. At this point, Lendy is the third safety and will play a lot in nickel and dime sets.

The defense has enough weapons to be an outstanding unit, but they need some young players to step up, primarily Gerald McCoy, Auston English, and Ryan Reynolds. If those young guys come through, the Sooners will be really hard to move the ball on, let alone score against.

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