Oklahoma Preview: Defense

Sooner defensive coordinator Mike Stoops uses a new look to try and corral the league's best spread-to-run teams.

Ask many football coaches to their thoughts on Mike Stoops, and they'll say that he's old school. The gruff Oklahoma defensive coordinator looks at times like he'd like to come off the sideline and make the tackle himself, which is why it was so much of a mystery why he struggled so much to slow down running games a year ago.

Oklahoma was torched down the stretch against opposing games, including a memorable 344-yard rushing day by Tavon Austin … on just 21 carries. All told, five of Oklahoma's last seven opponents topped the 200-yard rushing mark, with Texas A&M rubbing it in by averaging 10.5 yards per carry in the bowl game. And Stoops, hard-nosed as he is, responded to the challenge in a puzzling way, often playing dime personnel with one, or no, linebackers on the field and asking Oklahoma's defensive tackles — neither of whom was a big-time Tommie Harris type — to play two-gap football. The result, predictably, was disastrous.

But while stopping the spread running game has proven to be career-damaging for many — just ask Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz — Stoops's defense arose from the ashes. Despite not being blessed with a ton of typical Sooner talent on the defensive line, Stoops removed the guesswork, throwing out a 3-3-5 stack that not only allowed him to keep three linebackers on the field (or four, depending on what you think of 200-pound nickel back Julian Wilson, who often plays in the box), but allowed him to pack the field with speed at nearly every position. This Sooner defense runs better than many previous iterations, harkening back to Stoops's early time at Oklahoma when the Sooners famously turned safeties into linebackers, linebackers into defensive ends and defensive ends into defensive tackles to overwhelm opponents with quickness.

The Sooner defense isn't hard to figure out. They are primarily a Palms (pattern-matching) and Cover Three scheme. They'll put eight in the box (three defensive linemen, three linebackers, Wilson and one of the team's two safeties) and dare teams to try and beat their cornerbacks deep.

But this week does have a bit of a mysterious feeling to it. Not just because it's Texas-OU, and teams typically hold something special back. But because of a season-ending injury to linebacker Corey Nelson and an unspecified injury to massive nose tackle Jordan Phillips (6-6 324) that kept Phillips out of last week's game, the Sooners could be without their two best run defenders. Phillips is expected to play, but nobody knows what level he's expected to play at, or for how long.

Phillips is the team's lone dominant nose tackle, and with Nelson's loss as well, the Sooners released a 4-2-5 depth chart this week. Is it simple gamesmanship, especially after playing most of the year in a three-man front? Possibly. But at the same time, if your best nose tackle can't go, you don't have another elite-level player at the position, and you're missing your best linebacker, moving to a formation that 1) removes the pressure on one single player in the middle and 2) calls for fewer linebackers on the field, makes sense.

If Phillips can't go in any meaningful way, it's a huge blow. Two teams have run the ball effectively on Oklahoma this year — West Virginia and Notre Dame — and it becomes markably easier without the man in the middle (TCU's lack of a passing attack freed up the Sooners to attack the run, with Oklahoma allowing 44 yards on 27 carries despite Phillips sitting out). He's uncommonly quick for a guy of his size, a nose tackle who can implode an offensive line from the middle and the one All-Big 12 talent on the Sooner defensive front.

That's not to say that Oklahoma doesn't have other players who can make an impact. Defensive end Charles Tapper (6-4 261) has come along nicely as a pass-rusher, and his best days are ahead of him. He has 23 tackles, three stops for loss and 2.5 sacks so far this year. Fellow end Geneo Grissom (6-4 263) has had his career slowed by nagging injuries, but he's health and is starting to develop as well. Chuka Ndulue (6-3 274) is important for his versatility. He can play both inside and out, starting at the end spot opposite Tapper in a three-man front and taking the other defensive tackle spot in a four-man front. If Phillips can't go, former Round Rock Stony Point star Jordan Wade (6-4 296) is a smaller option, albeit one with very good athleticism.

It's impossible to replace Nelson, one of the Big 12's top linebackers, as the Longhorns have found the hard way with their own 'backer Jordan Hicks. Nelson brought an uncommon level of speed and instincts to the position, and his versatility allowed the Sooners to deploy him in a number of ways. He was the Sooners No. 2 tackle, tied for first in tackles for loss, had a sack, had an interception, broke up four passes and defensed five and hurried the quarterback three times. That speaks to his versatility.

Frank Shannon (6-1 229) still provides a very good option at middle linebacker, and he's the Sooners' leading tackler with 34 stops on the year. When the Sooners go with a three-linebacker set, he'll have Eric Striker (6-0 219) to one side and Dominique Alexander (6-2 216) on the other. In the two-linebacker set listed on the depth chart, Alexander is the starter opposite Shannon. Alexander has 10 tackles on the year, had he's expected to rotate his duties with Aaron Franklin (6-1 222), who has one tackle so far. Striker is an intriguing guy for the future, and despite not having any sacks, he's shown serious giddy-up as a pass-rusher, creating a team-high five quarterback hurries. Striker has 14 tackles and two for loss, and his speed at the second level can really cause problems for blockers. Wilson (6-2 199) is the nickel back, though he's basically a safety/linebacker hybrid. His stats belie his versatile role, as he has 1.5 tackles for loss from his spot and two interceptions.

The secondary can be pretty simple in what they do. One safety will come up into the box, often at the last minute, to give a Cover Three look. The other, single-high safety, will typically shade over to help cornerback Zack Sanchez (5-11 176), who often plays press coverage on one outside receiver. And Aaron Colvin (6-0 192), one of the Big 12's best cover corners, handles his end by providing for a little more cushion. But don't think you're going to get short stuff to his area … Colvin is exceptionally quick and physical, and he thrives on breaking on passes in front of him.

Up until this year, Gabe Lynn (6-0 204) hadn't had the kind of season his recruiting perhaps would have indicated. But the player who entered the Sooner program as a corner appears to have found a role at free safety, with Lynn making 13 tackles, picking off two passes and recovering a fumble, taking it 27 yards. While there isn't a Tony Jefferson among this group, strong safety Quentin Hayes (6-0 193) has put together a nice year. He's third on the team in tackles with 24 and has a forced fumble. Overall, the Sooner pass defense has been outstanding, ranking fifth nationally in Passing Defense S&P. But it's also worth noting that Oklahoma hasn't faced a team that can throw the ball all over the yard, not that Texas, with backup quarterback Case McCoy, will be able to test the back-end much more.

Jed Barnett (6-2 227) has been OK as a punter, averaging 41.6 yards per boot and putting nine of his 25 punts inside the 20. His best trait has been that he hasn't over-kicked those directional punts, with Barnett only having two touchbacks on the year.

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