Spring Position Preview: Defensive Tackle

Junior defenisive end Tommie Harris is on a mission this spring. Plus, quotes from Jackie Shipp on the status of OU's defensive tackles heading into spring practice

NORMAN, Okla. — There is not player who is looking forward to spring practice more than Sooner All-American defensive tackle Tommie Harris. Harris played better than most defensive tackles last year, but because of an injured groin muscle he didn't play up to ‘Tommie Harris standards' for most of the season.

Since the Rose Bowl victory over Washington State, Harris has been working hard to get the groin back in shape. Sooner Strength and Conditioning Coach Jerry Schmidt says Harris isn't quite 100 percent, but he is close.

"Tommie has worked really hard, but at the same time we have worked hard to not injure the groin again," said Schmidt. "We have stretched the area very hard, strengthened the area around the injury as much as we could, avoided heavy squats and worked on running with long strides. Tommie is so naturally strong that he doesn't miss the squats, and if we can get him through the spring in good health then we will get him back on the weight program that he likes to do. Now don't get me wrong, Tommie is in good shape. He weights 293 and is having a good off-season, but part of that is getting totally healthy."

Harris is never satisfied with his shape or his strength, but he is glad that, at least at the moment, his injured groin muscle doesn't hurt.

"I feel very good right now and I am ready go back to work," said Harris between a recent weight session. "I am not making any excuses, but I was in pain all season and I just couldn't push off like I did my freshman season. I didn't have my usual quickness and that brought me back to the pack a little bit. I think I have my explosion back and I feel good firing out of my stance. I think Coach Schmidt has been great with me and I trust him completely. He has put a good plan together for me to get healthy and it appears to be working."

Sooner defensive tackle coach Jackie Shipp has quietly rose to elite status among assistant coaches in the country. Shipp has proven that he is not just a recruiter, and every year two to three teams take a run at hiring the legendary former Sooner linebacker. Shipp is glad the break is over and he is ready to get back to the playing field.

"I am looking forward to getting back out to practice and I think the players are looking forward to testing their new shape out on the practice field," said Shipp. "I think the guys are ready to start improving different aspects of their games, both physically and mentally. They are ready to get started at spring practice, to keep developing for their goals, for themselves and for the team this upcoming season."

The Sooners return Harris and another All-American candidate in Dusty Dvoracek. Dvoracek also played injured last season with a terrible turf toe. ‘DD' now appears 100 percent and ready to go at 284 pounds. Senior Kory Klein has been ‘Mr. Consistency' for the Sooners the past three years. Klein is considered a third starter for the Sooners. Lynn McGruder is the fourth defensive tackle and the spring is more important for him than any other player. Among the four players, McGruder figures to improve the most from last season to spring.

"The main thing that I will be looking for out of Lynn or any player is improved technique," said Shipp. "Lynn needs to work hard in this area, but he has great physical strength and plays the game with the right temperament and passion. I need all my guys to get a better understanding mentally of the game. They need to have a better understanding of things to look for from an offense to put them into a position to make plays. Finally, the big thing that we talk about every year is to play more aggressive and I can't stress that enough. I think that is the key thing right there."

Shipp says he will rotate four to five defensive tackles again this year and that he is not afraid to borrow some technique or a drill from the NFL.

"Every year I go and look at different tapes of pro teams and other colleges as well to find certain techniques or drills that they use to make them better players," said Shipp. "I might find something to add to what we are doing or I might take something from them and change what we are doing. Basically, what I look for is what can I do to make this young man a better player. Will it be better for him to play this style of technique or will it be better to do something else. I just got through watching Tampa Bay and watching what Warren Sapp was doing. Now, I am debating whether a little smaller difference in technique on something that I saw him doing."

Shipp knows he has an experienced group of defensive tackles back and he expects them to play like they have played in the Big 12 battles before.

"They should be more experienced, especially some of the guys with our technique," said Shipp. "They will be a lot more comfortable and a lot more confident. I am just looking forward to those guys just getting better, because I want them to reach their individual goals and I want them to reach their team goals as well."

The success of the Sooners defensive tackles is based off of their tremendous speed and quickness, but Shipp says by the time spring practice rolls around he wants them to have some additional poundage to push around.

"I have told some guys that I want them to gain weight. I want a couple of those guys bigger compared to what we have been the past couple of years," said Shipp. "We have three juniors that are all going to be 290 or bigger. Kory Klein will always be around 285 to 287. You are looking at three impact guys that are going to be 290 and Lynn McGruder might be pushing close to 300. Tommie Harris will play 295 and Dusty Dvoracek up over 290. So, my big thing is for us to get bigger so that it helps us on double teams and that type of thing. We want to pull a little more weight so that we can have a little more anchor in that middle."

While Sooner fans are watching the groin of Harris, Shipp isn't going to worry about it. If Harris is cleared to practice then Shipp is going to work him at practice.

"Tommie will be 100 percent and he has been improving well," said Shipp. "He is not favoring the groin and he has strengthened the abductor muscles and that type of thing. He will be healthy by the time that spring practice starts and I believe that he is healthy now."

The Sooners will go through 15 practices this spring, which Shipp says is a piece of cake compared to what he went through back in Switzer's day.

"I think you can get things done with the 15 practices, but things are still a lot different from when we played," said Shipp. "I was sitting next to Dan Cody at lunch the other day and he was saying that 15 practices were going to be tough. I started laughing and told him that I could remember when we went 20 practices, in full pads and there were always full scrimmages on Saturday. I told him not to tell me what was going to be tough when you only have half the practices in full pads and only three scrimmages to worry about. You can get a lot of things done today, especially mental work. I think you can get a lot of technique work done. I don't think you need 30 to 40 practices. Being a coach, I would love to have 20, but being a player I wouldn't be crazy about 20 spring practices. I think we will get a lot done, because we have done it every year and they way our staff and players work we will get a lot done on those 15 days."

Shipp didn't talk much about the status of Jacob Hager, because he is currently competing with the OU wrestling team. Hager has been cleared to rejoin the Sooner football team and will be competing to get into that defensive tackle rotation this spring.

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