NORMAN, Okla.--The buzz began shortly after he arrived for summer workouts at the University of Oklahoma.
Hatari Byrd was one of the last true freshmen to arrive in Norman, showing up in mid-June after finishing up his high school classes. Yet his unique physique and ready-to-work attitude was immediately noticed during OU’s summer strength and conditioning program.
“He looks like a beast,” defensive tackle Chuka Ndulue said. “ He reminds me of [former OU All-American safety] Quinton Carter but a fully developed Q. Carter, it’s like ‘Is he a freshman?’ He’s huge, that just stands out.”
A member of the first hand-picked recruiting class of defensive backs for defensive coordinator Mike Stoops since his return as OU’s defensive coordinator last season, Byrd stepped on campus as college ready as any true freshman defensive back in recent memory. The coaches don’t have much contact with players during summer workouts but his teammates could see Byrd’s potential from day one and even noticed the freshman making a point to strive for a leadership role, an unusual move for a player who was walking the halls of Fresno (Calif.) Central East High School just a few weeks earlier.
“He’s huge,” receiver Sterling Shepard said of his initial impressions upon meeting Byrd during the summer. “He can push some weights around and he likes to be out front, likes to be a leader. He’s trying to take a leadership role early.”
The Sooners’ players got to see Byrd in action during summer passing drills and got a glimpse at Byrd’s athleticism and versatility before preseason camp began last week. Listed at 6-foot-1 and 198 pounds, Byrd was the No. 293 player on the ESPN300 in the Class of 2013.
“He’s a big safety,” cornerback Cortez Johnson said. “He can move, has great footwork, a great attitude and is physical. He can be a big-time player.”
Summer workouts only get you so far however, allowing freshman to make a terrific first impression or making questions arise about their ability to make an immediately impact. Fortunately for Byrd, the praise he received during summer workouts has followed him into preseason camp.
Less than one week into OU’s preseason camp, head coach Bob Stoops and defensive coordinator Mike Stoops have already had glowing words for the freshman safety.
“He’s a guy that has the size, quickness and speed to run, hit and cover,” Bob Stoops said.
Byrd has been so impressive early on that the Sooners have played him at both safety positions and nickelback. He played three positions during the first three days of camp, a clear sign the Sooners are looking to find the right spot for the freshman with an eye on having Byrd make an impact with the squad during his first collegiate season.
“He’s played three different positions in three days,” Mike Stoops said. “As a true freshman, that’s a lot of work and it shows the versatility of his game. His ability to impact a game and learn the whole system is going to help him. He’s a guy who can play a lot of different positions and a guy we’ll lean on heavily.”
His emergence couldn’t be coming along at a better time with OU looking to replace three of five starters in its secondary. All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin returns and senior Gabe Lynn is shifting from nickelback to safety to give the Sooners a couple of veterans in the defensive backfield. Byrd joins fellow true freshman Ahmad Thomas as young safeties with the potential to help OU this season as both first-year players are already working in OU’s two-deep.
As the Sooners move into week two of their preseason preparations, Byrd has made it clear he will be a name to watch in OU’s secondary, this year and beyond.
“The guy looks like he’s been here for a while, played here for a while,” linebacker Corey Nelson said. “He has the physique, he seems smart on the field. Overall he’s a great player you have to look out for in the future. He’s going to dominate.”