NORMAN, Okla. — Bob Stoops and his staff have built one of the most dominant defenses in college football based on the super play of the Sooner safety corp. During the Sooners' National Championship run of 2000, the spectacular play of Roy Williams, J.T. Thatcher, then freshman Brandon Everage and nickel back Ontei Jones keyed a defense that was considered the best in the country.
In the Sooners 13-2 shut out of Florida State in the 2000 Orange Bowl, the Sooner safeties so confused and whipped Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Chris Weinke that he had his worst game as a Seminole.
In 2001 Williams established himself as the best defensive player in the country and went on to win the Jim Thorpe award as the nations top defensive back. Everage also established himself as a star at free safety and Antonio Perkins emerged as the Sooners next great defensive back.
While the Sooners sport great players at all positions, to say that OU must be good at safety to be good defensively is not too farfetched.
"I think the safety position is more important in our scheme than in maybe some others," said Co-Defensive Coordinator and Secondary Coach Mike Stoops. "We ask a lot out of our safeties because we do so much in the secondary. There is probably a lot more to learn at those positions than any other, except for linebacker. Our safeties have to be able to read what the offense is doing and they disguise what we are doing in the secondary. It is certainly not an easy position to play."
With that in mind, this spring the Sooners must shore up their safety position if they want to continue to be one of the top defensive units in college football.
"Our safety play needs to improve. If there is one area where where we must play better I think it would be our nickel back and our safety play," said Mike Stoops. "I think those are two areas where we have some great young players, but they are unproven. You look at Donte Nicholson and Brodney Pool and they are two guys that we really expect to emerge this spring and be solid players for us."
The Sooners are moving Eric Bassey from strong safety to cornerback, opening up the nickel and strong safety spot for Nicholson.
"Nicholson was the best strong safety that we saw last year in recruiting, no matter if it was in high school or college," said Stoops. "He has great size and speed for the position and plays with great instincts. We think he can slide into Roy's safety spot and bring more of a physical presence to the position. We feel he will have a big impact for us this season."
Senior Brandon Everage has been the starter at free safety the past two seasons, but his off-the-field problems and shoulder surgery knocks him out of spring drills. His status is still up in the air for the fall, so shoring up the free safety position has become critical in the spring.
"Matt McCoy is a guy who has played there a lot and he has been a steadying influence behind everything that we have done," said Mike Stoops. "Matt has shown great versatility. Two years ago he backed-up Roy, moved into that dime position and played the half-field safety, and then he played last year for Brandon Everage when Brandon was out. He gives us a lot of flexibility at free safety and he is a guy who is a very, very steady player for us. Probably under-recognized and probably under-appreciated as well, because he has been very reliable for us."
"Then we are going to look at Brodney Pool at the free safety position," Mike Stoops continued. "If Donte plays strong then we can look at Brodney at free safety as well. Jason Carter is another guy that we are going to work at free safety."
Carter and Aaron Miller both were redshirted a year ago after sparkling prep careers where they were regarded as two of the top defensive backs in the country. Miller had ankle surgery, which has slowed his progress, but Carter has been able to showcase his skills on the scout team. Now, both must step up and prove that they can contribute to the secondary in the spring.
"Those two are guys that we are looking forward to watching in the spring," said Stoops. "Aaron had surgery on his ankle last fall and is just now getting around to full speed. Jason Carter has been a pleasant surprise for us since he has been at OU. Jason presents flexibility within our defense, as he can be our wildcard guy who we feel can play behind Brandon Shelby or either of the safety positions. At corner he struggles a little bit and just watching him I think he is more of a natural safety. His awareness reminds you of Brandon Everage, because he just seems to find the ball. Those are qualities that we like in our safeties and I think he is a more of a natural safety."
Miller and Carter both have experimented at cornerback during their brief career at OU and could be used at corner in a pinch. However, at this point the Sooners feel both are needed more at safety.
"Both are probably going to be safeties, because we use so many different safeties in different positions," said Mike Stoops. "It will give them an opportunity. We always say that the more you can do the better opportunities that you give yourself to play. So, they will move around some in the spring and both of these guys will have to know at least two different positions. I know both are young, but we still need some flexibility because we do have some experienced guys at the other positions."
Pool came out of Westbury High School in Houston regarded as one of the top free safeties in the country. So, moving Pool to his more natural position shouldn't be difficult. However, what is evident going into the spring is that the Sooners don't have a great deal of experienced depth at safety or cornerback.
"All of these kids can play and help us somewhere in the secondary. Just finding them a home where they can be productive will be a big priority for us this spring," said Mike Stoops. "Brandon will be out all spring, so that will give Brodney, Jason and Aaron an opportunity to show what they can do behind Matt. Aaron, by spring ball, should be close to 100 percent and he will do pretty much everything for us. We need him to perform this spring. We have some questions going into the spring, but we have some great young players that should be ready to answer those questions. I look forward to seeing who steps up."
Last year the Sooners poor play at safety may have cost them their two losses in 2002. When Everage was on he was one of the best free safeties in the country. When he was injured and off of his game, the Sooner defense struggled. The signing of Nicholson, with Pool also in the mix, will solidify the strong safety and ‘Roy Williams' position, but the unknown status of Everage has put the free safety spot in the state of flux. The new talent must emerge and show this spring that it can play so that the Sooners defensive excellence can continue.
Spring Position Preview: Safety
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