- Brandon Chatmon, ESPN Staff Writer
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NORMAN, Okla. -- On the day Zack Sanchez officially became a member of the Oklahoma football program, defensive coordinator Mike Stoops was asked what traits the young cornerback prospect possessed that intrigued him the most.
Ball skills. Toughness. Very ornery. Likes to compete.
Stoops turned to those phrases to describe Sanchez in February 2012. A year and a half later, those traits have played out on the field as the redshirt freshman has emerged as the surprise player on OU’s defense in 2013.
“He knew what he needed to do,” cornerback Aaron Colvin said. “He knew the expectations placed on him and he’s just been balling. I always knew he was a baller and now he’s just showing it.”
After ending the spring as an afterthought, Sanchez has started all six games for the Sooners and cemented the cornerback position opposite Colvin, a returning All-Big 12 performer. Teams have picked on him throughout the season but he has responded with a team-high nine passes defended, ranking fourth in the Big 12, and 21 tackles.
“It gets to the point now where some teams stop attacking him after he gets a couple of pass breakups,” nickelback Julian Wilson said. “He’s really coming out there and stepping up well as a redshirt freshman.”
Being tested is something Sanchez expected as the starter opposite Colvin and he expects it to continue.
“I’m still a freshman,” he said. “So regardless of how many times I prove myself, especially when No. 14 [Colvin] is on the other side, they are still going to come at me. I’m ready for it. As a defensive back, that’s what you want because then you’re in a position to make plays. So when they come at me I just try the best I can to make a play.”
Yet none of this was expected. With limited numbers at cornerback in the spring, the opportunity to step up and secure a spot was staring Sanchez in the face. Yet spring football ended with him as a relative afterthought and many assuming true freshman Stanvon Taylor or L.J. Moore would come in and surpass him on the depth chart.
That all changed this summer.
“You could just tell he had a whole different mindset,” Wilson said of the change in saw in Sanchez during summer workouts. “He was way more focused and he really just proved he wanted to be on the field.”
Then as preseason camp began and position battles opened, Sanchez’s name kept coming up when Bob Stoops and Mike Stoops were asked who was making waves during August practices. Sanchez started the season opener after Cortez Johnson was suspended for the game and he never looked back.
“Zack’s confidence has grown a lot,” Colvin said. “When you have confidence as a corner it allows you to make a lot of plays. He has good feet, he has good quickness and he is really smart; really aware of things. When he goes out there he makes plays and he always finds a way of getting a hand on at least two or three balls.”
Sanchez, who played mostly offense in high school before moving to cornerback at OU, is far from a finished product but his competitiveness, willingness to learn and self-confidence has helped him become the Sooners' biggest surprise impact player midway through the season.
“He’s learning and he’s gaining confidence as he goes along,” Mike Stoops said. “There’s a process to elevating your game and he seems to be embracing that process and it seems to be working. He was a great receiver in high school so I think it compliments him doing the secondary stuff that he can do. You see him going up for the ball and he knows how to time and go up for it.”
Now, after six games, Sanchez is a proven playmaker in OU’s secondary, a guy the coaches are confident they can count on and consider a veteran despite his youth.
“Zack knows that with Aaron Colvin on the other side he is going to get a lot of work,” Mike Stoops said. “His technique needs to continue to improve but everyone has tried him and he has held up. He’s halfway through the season now so he’s a veteran. That’s how I look at it.”
2dBrandon Chatmon and Jake Trotter