Oklahoma Sooners: Mike Stoops

NORMAN, Okla. -- Oklahoma is dreaming of a national title run that would make its Allstate Sugar Bowl destruction of Alabama an afterthought.

If that dream turns into reality, the Sooners will likely have their defensive line to thank. As the defensive line went, so went the Sooners in 2013, as the group sparked the Sugar Bowl win yet faltered in OU’s losses to Baylor and Texas.

[+] EnlargeGeneo Grissom
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesOklahoma's Geneo Grissom is hoping to build off a two-sack performance in the Sugar Bowl win over Alabama.
It’s hard to imagine the defensive line taking a step backward in 2014. In fact, the group could end up becoming one of the best defensive lines of Bob Stoops' tenure after entering the spring of 2013 as one of the biggest question marks on the roster.

“It has a chance to be one of our deeper and better ones,” Stoops said. “Imagine that, in a year's period of time.”

Every significant contributor returns along the defensive line, including All-Big 12 end Charles Tapper, and the group should be boosted even more if tackle Jordan Phillips, who was playing at an all-conference level early last season, returns to full health after a back injury ended his sophomore season early. From top to bottom, it’s one of the deepest units in years.

“Yeah, no question,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said when asked if this would be one of the deepest defensive lines he has coached.

“You get Jordan Phillips back and we can go two deep and not really slide much. Tapper and Geneo [Grissom] are difference-makers, and the other guys will be difference makers as they continue to grow too. Chuka [Ndulue] is the old, reliable horse in there that holds down the fort, he pushes things to the other guys. They all work together extremely well. We have a unique group and they play hard.”

The bowl win over Alabama was a glimpse at just how good OU's defensive line could be. Crimson Tide quarterback AJ McCarron, who was sacked seven times, probably still has nightmares of defenders setting up camp in the backfield. Make no mistake, OU won the game in the trenches and hopes to continue that trend in 2014.

The returnees have proven to be quality Big 12 defensive linemen, yet their playing time is far from secure. The development and growth of several young defensive linemen has spurred Mike Stoops' belief they can go two deep without a drop off. Matt Dimon, Mike Onuoha, Charles Walker and Matt Romar are just a few of the young defensive linemen on the roster who have increased the competition.

“There’s a huge competition,” Ndulue said. “There’s a bunch of great guys out there, and any one of them could be the starting man. There’s just more drive because you want to play, so we just know that your job is on the line each snap so it just makes you play to the best of your ability. As the defensive line, we know that there’s competition every day. It makes our [meeting] room a lot better.”

At the center of it all is defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery, who joined the Sooners in February 2013 to jump start a disappointing defensive front. He has done that and more, proving to be stellar position coach after arriving from Michigan with a reputation as an elite recruiter.

“The defensive line is where the game is played,” Mike Stoops said. “They are very disruptive and that is what you need to have. [Montgomery] is very good with technique and he has a great relationship with the players, and that has all been very positive. They play hard and they play with technique, and that is where it all starts up front. They have been a catalyst for us.”

Few envisioned the Sooners’ defensive line becoming one of the Big 12’s best in 2013. Yet it was.

“It wasn’t supposed to be a very strong group for us a year ago, but they really flipped it and now it is one of the best groups in the country,” Mike Stoops said. “Again, hopefully we can get [Phillips] back and make this group even stronger. It can be a dominating group if we can get him back healthy and playing at the level he was playing at a year ago.”

Now the defensive line is looking to be called the nation’s best, with the goal of being the driving force behind a College Football Playoff berth.

“It all starts with the big guys,” Ndulue said. “If we’re not being dominant, getting driven back into the linebackers, it’s going to be a long day for us. If we’re playing on their side of the line of scrimmage, we can do something great.”
Oklahoma has a roster full of talented and experienced defensive tackles.

Jordan Phillips appears in line for a healthy return after his redshirt sophomore season was cut short. Jordan Wade was pleasantly productive in the middle in Phillips’ absence, and Chuka Ndulue can slide inside at a moment’s notice.

Yet Charles Walker might be the most physically gifted of the bunch.

The redshirt freshman had Sooners fans buzzing when he posted his 4.7 time in the 40-yard dash on social media during winter workouts. It was an early sign of the sheer physical talent of the 6-foot-2, 289-pound Walker. This spring, he has continued to impress.

[+] EnlargeCharles Walker, Quincy Russell
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiRedshirt freshman Charles Walker (left) has turned heads during spring practice and could figure into the DT rotation.
“He runs great,” coach Bob Stoops said. “He’s really picking things up. It’s too early to say he’s ready to go, but he physically is close. Now it’s just getting technique right and consistent on every snap.”

The definition of a hidden gem, Walker was a late addition to the Sooners’ Class of 2013. The Sooners battled New Mexico, Houston, New Mexico State and North Texas for his signature. His underwhelming offer list didn’t stop him from making an immediate impression when he arrived last summer, with the coaching staff recognizing his long-term upside right away.

But as talented as Walker is, it is far from a certainty for him to see the field in 2014.

“It is a learning progression for Charles,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “We are not seeing his full ability yet, and I don’t anticipate we will until next fall or he gets some more repetitions in this system. It is hard for your skill set to really show up when you are thinking all the time.”

Having veterans at the position helps the Sooners and Walker. Watching and learning from players who have proven to be productive Big 12 defensive tackles is a luxury for Walker, and one the Sooners did not have last spring. For OU, Walker’s presence ensures the veterans won’t get complacent with a talented youngster nipping at their heels for playing time.

“I think he is a guy that continues to improve, and hopefully by next fall, he will be part of the rotation,” Mike Stoops said. “But we have got all of those other guys back, so he is going to have to work his way, but he has shown great promise up until this point.”

The inexperience and lack of technique hasn’t stopped him from drawing raves from teammates, who consistently speak his name when asked about talented unknowns on the roster.

“Charles Walker is a beast,” said guard Dionte Savage, who battles Walker in practice. “He’s going to have a great career. He’s a great player, definitely a good player to go up against -- his moving ability and the way he moves his hips.”

We might not see it this season, but all signs are pointing toward Walker being a name to know in Norman, Okla., and, quite possibly, across the Big 12 region.

“Anyone that big and strong and fast, I think he will be a dynamic player,” Mike Stoops said. “Again, you are talking about a guy that has not even been here a year, so, you are asking a lot. Eric Striker was not Eric Striker until this year, if you remember right. Maybe that was our fault not playing him more the year before, but it takes a while, and hopefully with Charles that light will turn on and you will see him start to make more plays.”
Spring football at Oklahoma provides opportunities for players to make a move and become names to know for the future. It's also a opportunity for us to decode what the coaches and players have to say. So let's take a shot at it. Here’s a look at some things that have been said, and what it could mean for the future:

[+] EnlargeTrevor Knight
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesHow good can Trevor Knight be for the Sooners in 2014?
Offensive coordinator Josh Heupel on the quarterback’s progress: “They’re all young. I mean Trevor [Knight] is heading into his second year. The rest of those guys have been out of high school less than 12 months. They’re all young so they make some mistakes, some simple things that you’d like them to make sometimes.”

What it could mean: Let’s settle down on the Trevor Knight hype. The Sooners, understandably, would want to slow down the hype machine on Knight, who has been called, in some circles, one of the best young quarterbacks in the nation. And it’s mostly based off one exceptional game.

Every time Heupel is asked about the quarterbacks behind Knight, he reminds everyone that Knight is approaching his redshirt sophomore season and is still a young player. It’s smart of Heupel to put a damper on expectations because it would be nearly impossible to match his Sugar Bowl performance on a weekly basis this fall, particularly since Knight is in line to make just the sixth start of his career against Louisiana Tech on Aug. 30.

Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops on the depth at safety: “We are playing a walk-on as our backup No. 2 safety, so there is going to be opportunities, and hopefully those guys will come in and produce for us. They are going to have to.”

What it could mean: Steven Parker, you better be ready to play. Parker, an ESPN 300 safety and one of the headliners of OU’s recruiting class, has the talent to make an immediate impact. Stoops' words show OU will need him to help right away. It’s not crazy to think he could work his way into the starting lineup but he should, at the very least, make an appearance on the two-deep this fall. Stoops didn't call Parker out by name, but Parker needs to be prepared.

Charles Tapper on the Sooners’ overall approach: “This is a new year, a new season and a new beginning. We have to keep that same chip we had on our shoulder all last year and just keep getting better.”

What it could mean: This could be the most important thing that was said so far this spring. The Sooners had a major chip on their shoulder heading into the Allstate Sugar Bowl, and Alabama paid the price in a 45-31 Sooners win. If OU players and coaches keep the same chip on their shoulder and same hunger they carried into the final stretch of 2013, they could make a national title run in 2014.

Mike Stoops on replacing Aaron Colvin at cornerback: “All three of them [Stanvon Taylor, Dakota Austin and Cortez Johnson] have improvement to make, but they are getting better. They are working at it and just need to be more consistent. There is too much up and down, one good play and one bad play.”

What it could mean: Freshmen Jordan Thomas and Tito Windham could have an opportunity to make an immediate impact, just like Parker. While the cornerback situation is not as dire at the safety spot, Thomas and Windham could play their way onto the field with strong summer and August performances. The three competitors this spring are inexperienced but talented, yet they clearly aren’t as consistent as Stoops would like to see.

Bob Stoops on leadership:Daryl [Williams] has been awesome with the whole team and offense and has really taken hold of that in the weight room and in our workouts and here at practice.”

What it could mean: Any time Stoops is asked about leadership, Williams comes to his mind immediately. The OU coach is hoping Williams takes a role similar to Gabe Ikard, whose leadership was critical during the Sooners’ Sugar Bowl run. The similarities are striking, with Williams entering his senior season with a ton of experience and being considered the cornerstone of the offensive line. Whether it’s Williams or someone else, it will be critical for the Sooners to have good leadership and veterans policing the locker room if they hope to be in title contention this fall.
Mike Stoops wasn’t happy with the style of Oklahoma’s defense last season.

The Sooners created problems for Big 12 offenses with their speed and aggressiveness in 2013, but they didn’t bring the physical style that Stoops wanted at various times during the 11-2 season.

[+] EnlargeMike Stoops
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsOklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops wants the Sooners' 3-4 defense to be more physical.
“I think at times we weren’t as physical as we needed to be,” Stoops said. “And to learn how to become more physical is really what we needed to do in games we didn’t play well against the run.”

Run defense was a big factor in losses to Baylor and Texas last season. The Sooners allowed 510 combined rushing yards in those games, allowing 255 rushing yards in each loss and 4.47 yards per carry in those two outings. In the Sooners' 11 victories, the run defense allowed 116.27 rushing yards per game and 3.96 yards per rush.

Those struggles weren’t entirely unexpected. With the Sooners' move to a 3-4 defense, the natural move for the offense was to test the physicality of a defense that had one fewer defensive lineman on the field than it did in 2012.

A focus this spring has been on OU’s defense becoming more physical to handle the offenses that turn to their running game to help handle the speedy and aggressive Sooners defenders.

“There is some schematics, but I think a lot of it is just being more physical at the point of attack and learning how to play tight end sets,” Stoops said. “We never saw them two years ago, as you remember. It was all four and three wides; we never saw a tight end. Last year we probably saw a tight end 80 percent of the time, and the year before, 80 percent we did not see a tight end. So, it was a new evolution, learning how to play some of the power-run game in this defense.”

It’s all a part of the chess match. Tight ends make it easier to try to take advantage of OU’s 3-4 system and Stoops believes the position is starting to see a renaissance as defenses have adjusted to trying to defend the spread and get after the quarterback. A tight end adds another body along the offensive line, bringing more blocking power while at the same time pushing speedy pass rushers such as Eric Striker further from the quarterback.

“I think it is protecting the edges or along the edges and trying to know where you are coming from,” Stoops said about seeing more personnel packages that feature a tight end. “This defense gives you versatility and angles different in the ways that you can bring pressure. So, they were trying to widen the edges. Eric is such a good rusher and if you give him a small edge, as you saw in the bowl game, even against great players, he can create havoc. Now they try to push him out and make a little longer edges.”

Stoops expects to see more of the same this fall as offenses try to help offensive linemen who are at a disadvantage against OU’s pass rushers.

“That would be a thing that I would anticipate more of,” Stoops said. “I think a lot of football is evolving back to the tight ends. I may be wrong and I haven’t studied it, but we just try to defend what we get. It seems like the tight end is coming back.”

The chess match never ends.
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops has some scary words for the rest of the Big 12.

When asked about his defense this spring, the Sooners’ veteran coach left no doubt he was pleased about the progress of that unit.

[+] EnlargeEric Striker
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesEric Striker is working at outside linebacker and nickelback this fall for the Sooners.
“We’re light years ahead of a year ago,” he said.

A year ago the OU defense was in flux. It was obvious that changes were needed, but the search for an identity continued throughout the spring of 2013. OU eventually settled into a switch from a 4-3 base defense to a 3-4 look, and finished atop the conference in fewest yards allowed (350.2) and fewest passing yards allowed (212.6).

This season, defensive coordinator Mike Stoops and the rest of OU’s defensive staff are using the spring to expand and improve their defensive system, tinkering to find the best way to deploy an athletic and young group of defenders.

“A year ago we weren’t in systems yet,” Bob Stoops said. “Now we’re not only in it, we’re expanding it and polishing it out. We’re giving these guys some roles of dropping and rushing. I’m starting to feel, with Mike and the defensive coaches, we’re getting our guys in the best spots, and I think it will really help us.”

Linebacker Eric Striker, a coaches' second-team All-Big 12 selection, has spent time working on his pass coverage skills at the nickelback position after finishing his sophomore season with 10.5 tackles for loss, including 6.5 sacks. The ultimate goal is to put Striker in the best position to make plays as a junior while also developing his versatility as a defender.

“On normal yardage [downs] we probably rushed Julian (Wilson) twice as much as we did Eric,” Bob Stoops said. “We get in third down and Eric always rushed. First and second downs, it can be a little bit reversed. That’s all we’re saying, giving him more opportunities to do what he does best.”

Even with the success the OU defense had in 2013 as the foundation of a 11-2 season, Mike Stoops looks back on last season as a learning experience. Last spring was about finding a system and an identity. This spring is about expanding and improving the current system.

“I think you learn a lot and you can add,” Mike Stoops said. “We are so good at some things now that we can continue to tinker with different calls in how we want to do it. We continue to expand in little ways. We are not going to change a whole bunch. I think we will add more to our package as we go along.”
Oklahoma’s linebacker group have been the least talked about unit on the defense this spring.

Yet they were easily the Sooners’ most productive position group in 2013.

OU returns all three starters with Frank Shannon, Dominique Alexander and Eric Striker set to remain key contributors in the Sooners defense this fall. This spring, all three players are a year wiser, a year stronger, a year better and poised to become even more important to the Sooners defense this season.

“They are just playing faster and better,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “The experience is so valuable. As good as those guys are, just playing the whole year in the system they understand it so much better. We have seen a lot of different schemes and hopefully we can react to plays better. I thought in games we were a little slow in adjusting and reacting to things just because we hadn’t experienced them before. Now we have a year under our belt to really dissect the good and the bad of it all and adjusting our personnel to match.”

While the ability to adjust will be key, the overall depth at the position could be better as well. Sophomore Jordan Evans is improving and could be the most athletic of the bunch and was exceptional when thrown into the fire with an eight-tackle performance against Texas Tech as a true freshman. Junior college transfer Devante Bond joins the roster, providing another pass rush threat in the mold of Striker and redshirt freshman Ogbonnia Okoronkwo is another young player who could earn himself some playing time if he proves to be a pass rushing threat.

“It is good,” Mike Stoops said. “I like our depth outside, I think we have to continue to gain some depth inside. The new additions, Devante Bond has been good and Obo [Okoronkwo], it has been good to have him back out there. He has a lot to learn, but they are very athletic and very fast. The important part of this whole deal is gaining quality depth and I think we are starting to do that.”
Spring practice is in its infant stages but Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops has some encouraging words for anyone concerned about replacing All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin.

“They’re competing at a higher level and that’s what we need,” said Stoops, of those battling to fill the void in OU’s secondary.

[+] EnlargeStanvon Taylor
John Rivera/Icon SMIStanvon Taylor is in prime position to earn a starting cornerback job this spring.
Sophomore Stanvon Taylor, junior Cortez Johnson and sophomore Dakota Austin are the cornerbacks battling to replace Colvin. All three players saw time behind Colvin in 2013 but none of them separated themselves with their performances.

With Colvin battling a head injury, Taylor started in his third collegiate game against Tulsa, but his production tapered off as his freshman season progressed.

“It’s a lot faster game,” Taylor said of getting his feet wet as a true freshman. “You’ve got to be able to read a lot of stuff and know the offense and know formations -- all the things that come with football. You’ve just got to be ready to go.”

Johnson started against Iowa State and Kansas State but didn’t lock down "favorite to start" status heading into the spring. Austin saw limited duty on defense but has strong coverage skills. OU is hopeful their 2013 playing time, although limited, will pay off this fall.

“They’re green in a lot of ways,” Stoops said. “Just getting them out there and getting them in that environment, I think they understand how much they need to improve to get out there and play confidently. That’s the lesson they learned, that they need to get a lot better. Those experiences, hopefully, will process to them that they need to be in a better position than they were a year ago.”

OU returns Zack Sanchez on the opposite side of the defense, giving the Sooners' secondary at least one proven cornerback to build around this fall. He knows the importance of having a solid pair of bookend cornerbacks.

“It’s huge,” Sanchez said. “Stanvon, Dakota and Cortez are all doing a great job. They’re all making plays and it’s kind of up in the air right now. It’s going to be a tough decision for coach. All those guys are competing and all look really good.”

Colvin’s inner drive and competitiveness make replacing him an unenviable task. Taylor was mentored to slide into the spot but the job is open for the taking with all three players in hot pursuit this spring. If nobody steps up it creates a potential problem in a unit that could be one of the Big 12’s best. Stoops would have to turn to a true freshman (Tito Windham or Jordan Thomas) or prepare to provide help for one of the most important spots in his defensive system.

“We’re getting better,” Stoops said. “I think there’s improvement. We’re all kind of finding our way and we need one or two of them to, hopefully, separate themselves and take control of that position. I don’t think anyone’s done that at this point but, overall, we’re better at that position with those three guys. But I’m not saying that they’re at the same level as Aaron. They’re heading in the right direction.”
NORMAN, Okla. -- What a difference a year makes.

Last spring Oklahoma was searching for answers after Johnny Manziel embarrassed its defense while accounting for a Cotton Bowl-record 516 total yards in a 41-13 Texas A&M win. This spring, the Sooners defense can hold its head high after being the foundation of an 11-2 record, including a Sugar Bowl win over Alabama in 2013.

[+] EnlargeEric Striker
Robin Alam/Icon SMIOklahoma is experimenting with using pass-rushing linebacker Eric Striker in coverage to give opposing offenses new looks.
After a switch to a 3-4 approach, OU’s 2013 defense was more aggressive, more athletic and faster than the 2012 version. OU led the Big 12 in yards allowed (350.2), passing yards allowed (212.54) and first downs (17.9) while finishing second in points allowed (22.1), sacks (33) and third down conversion percentage (33.7).

But life isn’t perfect for OU defensive coordinator Mike Stoops.

If the Sooners have designs on returning to the national title landscape, the defense will have to take another step forward this fall.

A closer look at the numbers reveals plenty of room for improvement. While the Sooners finished in the top half of the Big 12 in nearly every category, OU was sixth in the conference in yards per play allowed at 5.38, which ranked No. 52 among FBS teams. Thanks in part to OU’s stellar running game, the Sooners defended 846 total plays, the fewest in the Big 12.

With that knowledge in hand, Stoops wants to make his defense even more versatile and athletic this fall.

“We’re just tweaking our defense, and it has to fit the people that are playing it,” Stoops said. “We learned a lot going through the self-scout of a year ago; what was different about it and what issues we have.”

As OU transitioned to the 3-man front, Stoops learned a lot about how offenses would attack his defense. He singled out Oklahoma State as one of the Big 12 squads that featured an offensive approach that he can use to learn from and make the OU defense better in 2014.

"There were some issues that arose, and just having a year to see how people are going to block it," Stoops said. "Now that we see things we’ll be able to react to see how people want to block us. I think really gives you some information to fall back on.”

Being able to adjust and adapt to blocking schemes during the game is one piece of the puzzle. Being able to do the same with personnel is another key piece.

And spring is the perfect time to try different things, from training starters at different positions to finding ways to get certain players on the field. OU plans to use the next few weeks to challenge its defenders while making sure Stoops and the rest of the defensive staff have plenty of options when trying to find ways to stop Big 12 offenses.

“We’re trying to get our best eleven on the field always, no matter what the situation is,” Stoops said. “Obviously, long yardage creates a package, but we’re always trying to find our best eleven or 12 players, constantly.”

For example, junior linebacker Eric Striker, one of the Big 12’s best pass rushers, has spent time working on his pass-coverage skills while lining up at nickelback this spring.

“It’s just something I have to get used to,” Striker said. “I’m getting better at it as practice goes on. It’s something new to learn. It’s fun and I’m getting more comfortable.”

As he becomes more comfortable, OU’s defense becomes more lethal. In 2013, more often than not, teams could count on Striker rushing the passer if he was on the field. This fall, OU hopes Striker can hold his own in coverage and continue to terrorize quarterbacks, thus keeping offenses off balance at all times. Stoops willingness to tinker with one of the strengths of his defense shows he is aiming to make the Sooners’ defense one of the nation’s best units this fall. It's a defense that returns nine of the 11 Sugar Bowl starters and a roster full of talented young defenders into the anchor of OU’s title run, but players and coaches alike know it starts this spring.

“I think they understand how good they can be,” Stoops said. “Now, are they willing to work every day to become that unit? That is where we’re at. We’re starting to gain quality players right now in our backup positions that can play a lot of different places. They’re trying to earn their way onto the field; that’s what I notice, a lot of players trying to play their way on the field. When they’re doing that, it creates good competition.”
NORMAN, Okla. -- It was a single play in a single game that signaled the imminent return of the Oklahoma defense to levels of its former glorious past.

With one minute to go in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, Sooner linebacker Eric Striker came barreling around the line. After beating left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, who might be a first-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft, Striker leveled Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron and stripped the ball loose. Flying in from the other side, Sooner end Geneo Grissom scooped up the fumble and rumbled in for the game-clinching touchdown.

After several seasons of relative mediocrity, the Oklahoma defense finally rediscovered its swagger in that 45-31 Sugar Bowl win over the two-time defending national champs.

[+] EnlargeEric Striker
Sean Gardner/Getty ImagesEric Striker celebrated after sacking AJ McCarron in the Sugar Bowl.
And buoyed by nine returning starters, several rising stars and one giant feather in a houndstooth cap, the Sooners have carried that swagger into the spring.

“The Sugar Bowl gave us a good boost,” said defensive end Charles Tapper, who was the only defensive underclassman to earn first-team All-Big 12 honors last year. “Knowing we kinda dominated Alabama’s offensive line, that the whole defense just dominated Alabama a little bit -- just a great way to come into the 2014 season.”

It wasn’t long ago the swagger of the Selmon Brothers and “Superman” Roy Williams and “The Boz” seemed lost forever.

The Sooners ended the 2012 season capitulating to Heisman winner Johnny Manziel, who humiliated them in the Cotton Bowl while becoming just the second player ever to rush and pass for more than 200 yards in a bowl game (Vince Young in the 2006 Rose Bowl was the other). The final month that season, Oklahoma couldn’t pressure the passer. Couldn’t stop the run. And couldn’t win without getting a half-a-hundred from its offense.

But thanks a scheme change from four to three down linemen last offseason that commanded a more blitz-oriented style, as well as a successful bid to bring Michigan defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery to Norman, the Sooners rapidly improved defensively last season despite playing several new starters.

Spurred by the emergence of underclassmen like Striker, Tapper and the Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year, linebacker Dominique Alexander, that improvement finally culminated in New Orleans.

The Sooners didn’t play perfectly against Alabama. But they sacked the Heisman runner-up seven times, and forced three turnovers that all led to Oklahoma touchdowns, capped with Grissom’s fumble return.

“As a team, things started to come together,” said coordinator Mike Stoops, who resuscitated the Sooner defense at the turn of the millennium 14 years ago and has done it again in the present in his second stint in Norman. “I think our team came together in that last game. That let us play with more confidence and swagger in the second half. Even when things got tough, I felt like our players were in control.”

With the return of almost all those players, the Sooners figure to storm into 2014 with one of the best defenses in the country.

Who knows, maybe the best.

Virtually the entire defensive line comes back, including Grissom and Tapper, who team up to give the Sooners a destructive duo off the edge.

Inside, Oklahoma will also welcome back Jordan Phillips, who was playing at an All-Big 12 level before suffering a season-ending back injury, and redshirt freshman Charles Walker, who has been turning heads for months during closed practices. During the winter, Walker ran the 40-yard dash in 4.67 seconds, shattering the Bob Stoops-era defensive tackle record at Oklahoma set by All-American Tommie Harris (4.80) in 2003.

“We’re starting to gain quality players in our backup positions that can play a lot of different places trying to earn their way onto the field,” Mike Stoops said.

That hasn’t just manifested along the defensive line, either.

Oklahoma’s entire linebacking corps returns, including Striker, who has become the Big 12 version of Lawrence Taylor. The secondary is brimming with young talent, too, led by cornerback Zack Sanchez, who intercepted McCarron in the Sugar Bowl to set up a late Oklahoma touchdown at the end of the first half and give the Sooners a 31-17 lead.

“We’re so far ahead from where we were last year,” Striker said. “We got chemistry with each other. We know how to play off each other.”

That’s a scary thought for the rest of the Big 12, and maybe all of college football.

Especially if Oklahoma can keep getting to the quarterback the way it did late last season. In their final four games, the Sooners sacked opposing quarterbacks 16 times. According to ESPN Stats & Info, South Alabama’s was the only FBS defense with more during the same stretch.

“We like to get to that quarterback,” Tapper said. “On third down, we let the dogs loose. Like the cops let the dogs loose to get them bad guys, we let the dogs loose on third down.”

Though it wasn’t a third down, that’s exactly what Oklahoma did to McCarron at the end of the Sugar Bowl.

The play won the game for the Sooners. While sending a message that defensive swagger is finally back at Oklahoma.

“I feel like this is going to be a big year for us,” Tapper said. “Dominating every team in the Big 12 and just all over the country.”
Oklahoma began its spring practices last weekend with back-to-back practices Saturday and Sunday. The Sooners get back to work today with an eye on capturing another Big 12 title under Bob Stoops. Here are some things to watch this spring:

Offensive returner ready to take next step: Sophomore running back Keith Ford could be ready to take the next step in the Sooners' offense. OU needs someone to fill the void left by departed running backs Brennan Clay, Damien Williams and Roy Finch, who combined for 4,824 career rushing yards in crimson and cream. Ford earned himself some carries as a freshman, but fumble troubles put him in the doghouse for a portion of his first season. This spring, Ford could lock down a major role in the offense with his power, decisiveness and quickness.

[+] EnlargeAhmad Thomas
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsAhmad Thomas' blend of size and athleticism makes him a candidate to step in at safety as a sophomore.
Defensive returner ready to take the next step: Safety Ahmad Thomas didn’t get major time on the Sooners' defense as a freshman. But the versatile defensive back appears poised to become a key piece of OU’s defensive plan as a sophomore. At 6-foot and 218 pounds, Thomas brings terrific size, athleticism and aggressiveness to the Sooners secondary. If he continues to improve and develop, he could be too good to leave on the sidelines, forcing defensive coordinator Mike Stoops to find ways to get him involved.

Redshirt freshman to watch: Defensive tackle Charles Walker was an unknown with an underwhelming offer list when he signed with OU in February 2013. But Walker was one of the guys who repeatedly earned praise during discussions of scout-team stars last fall. At 6-2 and 289 pounds, Walker moves like a much smaller man and could force his way onto the field with his play this spring and provide young, quality depth along the defensive line.

Most significant position battle: The battle to replace two-time All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin should be entertaining. There is no clear favorite among a group of talented cornerbacks that includes Stanvon Taylor, Cortez Johnson and Dakota Austin. This spring provides the opportunity for someone to step up in Colvin’s absence and become a trustworthy cover man on the perimeter of OU’s defense. If that doesn’t happen, the Sooners could be forced to account for a weak link in the secondary, particularly if none of the freshman arrivals in the summer (Tito Windham, Jordan Thomas, Marcus Green) proves they can slide into Colvin’s spot.

Key midterm enrollee: Linebacker Devante Bond already is making an impression during his short time at OU. An outside linebacker with pass rush skills, Bond isn’t going to replace Eric Striker in the Sooners lineup. Yet if he proves to be one of the best pass rushers on the squad this spring, Stoops could pair him with Striker to give Big 12 quarterbacks headaches this fall.

Question that could be answered: Will Trevor Knight build on his Sugar Bowl MVP performance? The sophomore ended his first season with a bang, leading OU to a upset win over Alabama. This spring will show if Knight is hungry for more and striving to play at a championship level every Saturday this fall, or if he could return to the inconsistency that hampered his play in 2013.

Question that won’t be answered until fall: Who will get the majority of the carries in OU’s backfield this fall? Even if Ford has an exceptional spring, there’s no guarantee he can hold off the talents of incoming freshmen Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine in the summer. The lone certainty is that there will be a bunch of talented options for running backs coach Cale Gundy.

Big 12's impact freshmen

February, 13, 2014
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The Big 12 added several talented recruits on signing day with at least one member of the ESPN 300 inking with every Big 12 school except Kansas State. Several of those talented freshmen will get the opportunity to make an immediate impact this fall. Here are the top five impact freshman in the Big 12 in 2014:

[+] EnlargeK.D. Cannon
Max Olson/ESPNK.D. Cannon has the skills to force his way into Baylor's receiver rotation as a freshman.
1. Allen Lazard, Iowa State receiver: The Cyclones are looking for playmakers on offense, and the No. 148 player in the ESPN 300 appears ready to fill that need. Lazard brings terrific size (6-foot-5, 208 pounds), strength and good hands to ISU’s offense. Quenton Bundrage needs help in the passing game and Lazard has the skills to join E.J. Bibbs in providing help in 2014.

“Allen is a guy who could come and make an impact,” Cyclones coach Paul Rhoads said. “We’re going to give him every opportunity to come in and play his way onto the field as a true freshman. This is a guy who is going to continue to challenge himself, day in and day out, for the rest of his career.”

2. Nigel Bethel, Texas Tech cornerback: The Red Raiders are losing several senior defensive backs including cornerbacks Bruce Jones, Derrick Mays and Olaoluwa Falemi. Yet Bethel could combine with 2013 signee Justis Nelson to give the Red Raiders one of the best cornerback duos in the Big 12 over the next few seasons. As one of the best cover cornerbacks in the Class of 2014, Bethel should see the field early. Bethel, the No. 226 player in the ESPN 300, has the speed, ball skills and natural instincts to make a smooth transition to college football.

3. K.D. Cannon, Baylor receiver: The Bears don’t have a major need at receiver but Cannon is an exceptional talent. Cannon, ranked No. 30 overall in the ESPN 300, needs to put on additional weight but he should be able to overcome his slight build thanks to his excellent feet and quickness.

“K.D.'s the smoothest and purest receiver at the high school level I've ever seen,” Baylor coach Art Briles said. “When the ball's in his hands, he is as instinctive as anybody I've ever been around.”

4. Steven Parker II, Oklahoma safety: The Sooners were the first team to offer the Jenks (Okla.) standout and remained in hot pursuit until he signed. Their pursuit could pay off as early as this fall. The No. 139 player in the ESPN300, Parker will bring athleticism and versatility to the Sooners secondary.

“He’s a guy we desperately needed at safety,” OU defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “Because he’s a guy that brings a different element to the safety position that a lot of players just can’t just by his mobility, his skill level, his cover ability. We ask our safeties to do a lot of that and he fits perfectly in to our system.”

5. Dalvin Warmack, Kansas State running back: Warmack should get plenty of opportunities to make an impact for the Wildcats. KSU is looking to replace John Hubert, who carried the load in the backfield for the past three seasons, rushing for 2,965 yards and 28 touchdowns.

With Jake Waters under center and Tyler Lockett making plays on the outside, KSU will need someone to help ensure offensive balance. Warmack can help keep defenses honest with his vision, versatility and open-field running. He might not be ready to step in and replace Hubert on an every-down basis but Warmack has the talent to make an immediate impact.

First five out: Jacob Bragg, Kansas center; Dravon Henry, West Virginia defensive back; Joe Mixon, Oklahoma running back; Kyron Watson, Kansas linebacker; Derick Roberson, Texas defensive end
The Big 12 is full of talented assistant coaches. In a conference loaded with quality assistants, we've tried to narrow it down to the top 10 based on the on-field production of their offense, defense or position group and their ability to evaluate, recruit and develop players at their position.

[+] EnlargeMike Stoops
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesMike Stoops' defenses at Oklahoma have been among the best in the Big 12 the last two seasons.
Here's a closer look at the top 10 assistant coaches in the Big 12:

  1. Mike Stoops, Oklahoma defensive coordinator/safeties coach: The Sooners defense has been solid since Stoops returned after his stint as head coach at Arizona. Oklahoma has been among the Big 12’s top defenses during the past two seasons, particularly against the pass. Stoops secured the top spot on the list with his willingness to completely change the defense in 2013, going to a three-man front and making the defense faster and more versatile. And he’s one of the best evaluators and developers of defensive backs in the country.
  2. Phillip Montgomery, Baylor offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach: Montgomery coordinated the nation’s top offense in 2013. The Bears led all BCS teams, averaging 52.4 points and 618.8 yards per game, as the offense spearheaded Baylor's run to its first Big 12 title. Montgomery also has mentored some of the Big 12’s top quarterbacks in recent years, including Robert Griffin III and Nick Florence, capped by Big 12 offensive player of the year Bryce Petty in 2013.
  3. Glenn Spencer, Oklahoma State defensive coordinator/linebackers coach: Spencer took over Oklahoma State’s defense in 2013 and the Cowboys transformed into a more aggressive and adaptive unit. Oklahoma State's defense led the Big 12 in fewest points allowed (21.6) and lowest third-down conversion rate (31.4 percent) to finish among the top 20 teams in the BCS in each category. Spencer also is a superb recruiter and developer of linebackers for the Cowboys, who featured two of the Big 12’s best in Caleb Lavey and Shaun Lewis last season.
  4. Dick Bumpas, TCU defensive coordinator/defensive line coach: Bumpas has coached with TCU head coach Gary Patterson since 2004, and the Horned Frogs have fielded some of the best defenses in the nation during Patterson’s tenure. TCU’s defense finished among the Big 12’s best in several categories in 2013, including its 4.83 yards allowed per play, which was No. 13 among BCS teams. Bumpas’ defensive line group also has been among the Big 12’s best, as he consistently turns players other teams overlooked into solid performers.
  5. Dana Dimel, Kansas State offensive coordinator/running backs and tight ends coach: The Wildcats' creativity on offense often goes unnoticed, but K-State finished among the top 30 BCS teams in yards per play. Dimel, who coaches the running backs and tight ends, has been a key member of Bill Snyder’s staff and has coached 34 players who have played in the NFL. That includes Daniel Thomas, who arrived on campus as a junior college quarterback before developing into an All-Big 12 running back.
  6. Joe Wickline, Texas offensive coordinator/offensive line coach: Wickline has been one of the Big 12’s top position coaches for the past few years as Oklahoma State’s offensive line coach. He coached several players to all-conference honors, including NFL first-round pick Russell Okung. Wickline moves to Austin, Texas, in 2014 after being named Texas’ offensive coordinator by head coach Charlie Strong. He has a proven ability to evaluate talent and develop relative unknowns into productive offensive linemen.
  7. Wally Burnham, Iowa State defensive coordinator/linebackers coach: Burnham consistently has developed All-Big 12 linebackers during his time on the Cyclones' coaching staff. During his five seasons coaching linebackers, Jesse Smith, Jake Knott, A.J. Klein and Jeremiah George each earned All-Big 12 honors. The Cyclones defense took a step backward in 2013, but much of their success under Paul Rhoads is built upon an underrated defense led by quality linebackers.
  8. Sonny Cumbie, TCU co-offensive coordinator: The Red Raiders receivers have been among the Big 12’s best under Cumbie for the past few seasons. His work with the receivers was one reason Texas Tech led the Big 12 and finished second nationally with 392.85 yards per game in 2013 despite playing multiple quarterbacks. Cumbie will play a key role in kick-starting TCU’s offense in 2014.
  9. Kendal Briles, Baylor passing game coordinator/receivers coach: Briles secured his spot on this list thanks to his ability to evaluate, recruit and develop receivers. He’s one reason Baylor has become “Wide Receiver U” in the Big 12 while putting several players into the NFL, including Kendall Wright, Terrance Williams and Josh Gordon. Not only does he evaluate well -- such as with overlooked speedster Tevin Reese -- Briles has shown he can develop those signees into all-Big 12 performers.
  10. Jay Norvell, Oklahoma co-offensive coordinator/receivers coach: Much like Briles, Norvell consistently recruits and develops players for the Sooners. He coached NFL draftees Ryan Broyles, Kenny Stills and Justin Brown during the past three seasons, when six receivers have caught at least 50 passes. His ability to continue to bring in elite prospects amps up the competition at the position.

Nick Saban and Bob StoopsGetty ImagesAlabama's Nick Saban and Oklahoma's Bob Stoops often have shared ideas in the offseason.

NORMAN, Okla. — Oklahoma’s defensive improvement wouldn’t have been possible without Alabama.

Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops was looking to alter the defensive scheme during the offseason, with an eye on making OU’s defense more versatile, more athletic and more aggressive. A three-man front seemed to fit in line with those goals, so the obvious place to turn was to the defending national champion Crimson Tide, particularly because Bob and Mike Stoops have a good working relationship with Alabama coach Nick Saban.

“You go to the best to get the information if the willingness to share with us is good,” Mike Stoops said. “That’s where you like to exchange ideas.”

OU transformed from the four-man front it used in 2012 to the three-man look. The result was a defense that finished among the top 25 nationally in opponent adjusted QBR (35.4), points per game (21.3), total yards (336.3), passing yards per game (198), passing yards per attempt (6.27), first downs (17.8) and third-down conversion rate (32.5 percent), improving over last year's squad in each of those categories.

Mike Stoops' unit was the foundation of OU’s 10-2 record, earning them an Allstate Sugar Bowl berth against the team that helped make it all happen.

“When we made this move to a 3-4, they helped us with a lot of install,” Mike Stoops said of the Alabama influence on the 2013 Sooners. “Chad Walker, who is our quality control guy who works with me in structuring our defense, spent four or five years with Nick. He’s helped me tremendously to put this thing together. They understand it better than anybody. Coach Saban has been running this and variations of all kinds of defenses.”

The Stoops brothers and Saban have sharing ideas for years, with OU coaches visiting Alabama and vice versa during the past few offseasons.

“We have always exchanged ideas,” Mike Stoops said.

But it’s not like OU will take the field running Alabama’s defense on Jan. 2. The Sooners have their own spin on things, adjusting schemes to fit their personnel and the wide-open spread attacks they typically face in the Big 12.

“Some things fit what you are doing, and maybe the same for them,” Bob Stoops said of the idea-sharing. “It’s not like you are doing everything they are doing. It’s just certain ideas fit and you can add to what you are already doing.”

[+] EnlargeEric Striker
Robin Alam/Icon SMIOutside linebacker Eric Striker benefited from the change in the defensive scheme for the Sooners.
Creating a defense that puts more linebackers on the field was a driving force behind OU’s move to the 3-4. Linebackers were nonexistent in OU’s defense at the end of 2012, but that’s changed this season with Frank Shannon and Dominique Alexander ranking 1-2 in tackles for the Sooners. Shannon averaged 7.08 tackles per game and Alexander averaged 6.8. They each earned a spot among the Big 12’s top-20 tacklers.

“They’ve been huge for us,” cornerback Aaron Colvin said. “They’ve made a lot of plays. They’re some of the most productive players on our team this year. Those guys have definitely stepped up this year.”

Mike Stoops found the versatility and athleticism he was searching for at linebacker by using a 3-3-5 system with an occasional shift to the 3-4 approach against run-heavy teams.

“Structurally, it’s totally different,” Mike Stoops said. “Just putting them in position to make plays.”

No player fits those words better than sophomore linebacker Eric Striker. An afterthought as a freshman, Striker played mainly on special teams despite displaying pass-rushing prowess in practices. This season, he stepped into the Sooners’ starting 11 and earned second-team All-Big 12 honors with 43 tackles, including 7.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks.

“I didn’t know if we were going to change anything at first,” Striker said of the defensive scheme change. “We really didn’t know where we were going; we just went with it. Spring was cool and then we came up with a new one [scheme] in the fall and we ran with it. It fit us well and I fit into it well. It was a defense for the linebackers to go attack and have fun. It was a great opportunity for us.”

An opportunity with a little Crimson Tide influence.

Run game, defense define OU's season

December, 13, 2013
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Oklahoma excelled in several aspects on its way to a 10-win season. The Sooners’ running game was on point, their third down defense was stellar and they showed the ability to limit big plays. Yet, there are still areas of improvement looking forward to 2014.

Here are five stats that defined OU's season, what they mean and how OU can improve or maintain those trends in 2014.

[+] EnlargeBrennan Clay
Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY SportsThanks to an offensive line that opened hole after hole, Brennan Clay and the OU running backs averaged 5.35 yards per carry.
Yards per carry

OU averaged 5.35 yards per carry this season, ranking second in the Big 12 and No. 16 among FBS teams.

What it means: The first year of Bill Bedenbaugh was a success. OU’s offensive line did a terrific job of creating running lanes for whoever was in the backfield. True enough the Sooners had three quality veterans at running back but Brennan Clay (5.78), Damien Williams (4.78) and Roy Finch (5.88) each averaged at least 4.5 yards on at least 59 carries this season thanks to the big uglies up front.

How OU can maintain in 2014: It’s going to be tough as the Sooners lose Clay, Finch, Williams and center Gabe Ikard. But the Sooners have some solid young backs, including Keith Ford, who had 20 carries for 119 yards and one touchdown but dealt with fumble troubles as a true freshman. With the young talent in place and poised to replace the departed seniors, there’s no reason to believe the Sooners can’t match this year’s production in 2014.

Third down conversion defense

OU allowed opponents to convert just. 32.5 percent of their third down attempts, ranking second in the Big 12 and No. 13 among FBS teams.

What it means: The Sooners defense was among the best in the nation on third down. OU’s coaching staff focuses on third down plays and it’s clear they had the defense ready to step up in those key moments. In fact, eight of OU’s 14 interceptions came on third down, including all three interceptions by Julian Wilson.

How OU can maintain in 2014: Well, Mike Stoops returns, so that’s half the battle. OU should be even better on third down in 2014. Most of its key contributors return but replacing All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin won’t be easy. The Sooners defense was littered with youngsters this season and still ranked among the nation’s best. So expect even better in 2014.

Percentage of opponent drives without a first down or touchdown

The Sooners held opponents without a first down or touchdown on 40.8 percent of their drives, ranking second in the Big 12 and No. 13 among FBS teams.

What it means: OU did a terrific job of getting off the field and stopping offenses before they could gain momentum. While the Sooners offense was leaning on the running game and controlling the ball, OU’s defense came onto the field fresh and with a purpose to get off the field quickly. That combination made it hard for opposing offenses to find their rhythm against OU.

How OU can maintain in 2014: It won’t be easy because the Sooners offense should have better balance, resulting in more plays and opportunities for opponents as OU turns to the pass more often. Yet, OU’s defense should be talented enough to come close to matching that percentage.

Opponent rushes of 10 yards or more

OU allowed 46 runs of 10 yards or more to opponents, leading the Big 12 and tying Stanford and Utah for 16th among FBS teams.

What it means: One key reason the Sooners won five games by single digits was the defense’s ability to keep OU in games while the offense was struggling, particularly in the first quarter. If opponents were making big plays in the running game that wouldn’t have been possible. It also points to the increased quickness, speed and athleticism of OU’s 3-4 approach this season.

How OU can maintain in 2014: It will take a combination of good coaching and on-field leadership. And since the Sooners return several key players, including linebackers Frank Shannon and Dominique Alexander, they should be able to match that number.

Passing yards in the first quarter

OU averaged 32.75 passing yards in the first quarter, ranking last in the Big 12 and No. 112 among FBS teams.

What it means: The Sooners’ inability to pass (186.67 passing yards per game) made things difficult for OU’s offense. And their struggles to pass in the first quarter often impacted games by forcing the Sooners to lean on the running game simply because they didn’t have a lot of confidence in their passing game. Fortunately for OU, its running game was one of the conference’s best.

How OU can improve in 2014: Find stability at the quarterback position. Blake Bell played well at times, struggled at other times. Trevor Knight flashed big-time ability and displayed his inexperience as well. No matter who emerges as the No. 1 guy for 2014, he’ll have to consistently play well to help OU’s offense regain the balance that helped make it one of the nation’s best in previous years.
Oklahoma earned itself a Sugar Bowl berth with its 33-24 win over Oklahoma State in Bedlam on Saturday -- an improbable win for an injury-riddled team. Here are five stats that defined the Sooners' stellar performance in Bedlam:

[+] EnlargeJaz Reynolds
AP Photo/Brody SchmidtA combination of factors allowed the Sooners to celebrate another Bedlam victory.
Blake Bell's 91 raw QBR in the fourth quarter: The junior achieved hero status with his game-winning touchdown drive in the final minutes of the Bedlam win. He was 9 of 14 for 134 yards (9.6 yards per attempt) and one touchdown. He played with a confidence and calm that was missing in OU’s losses to Texas and Baylor. It marked the fourth time Bell has recorded a raw QBR over 90 in the fourth quarter of a game this season (Tulsa, Notre Dame, Texas Tech). Bell’s performance also made the Sooners quarterback of the future decision as murky as it has ever been.

OSU’s yards per play on third down: OU defensive coordinator Mike Stoops had his defense ready to go on third down as the Cowboys finished with negative yardage on third down. OSU ran 13 plays for minus-12 yards on third down, an average of minus-0.92 yards per play. The Pokes converted just 2 of 13 third down-conversion attempts. The Sooners secondary was so solid it held Clint Chelf to an raw QBR of 9 on third down after he entered the game leading the Big 12 with a 91.8 QBR on third down plays, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

OU won the turnover battle: The Sooners finished plus-1 in turnover margin after head coach Bob Stoops had repeatedly mentioned the turnover battle heading into Bedlam. True enough the Sooners got their final turnover on OSU’s final desperation play but to play OSU even in the turnover battle through 60 minutes of action changed the game. The Cowboys success this season was largely built upon forcing turnovers, and they fell way short of their four-turnover-per-game goal as the Sooners had one giveaway, a Kendal Thompson interception.

OSU’s 3 yard per carry average in the second half: OU’s run defense buckled down after halftime. OSU had 14 carries for 42 yards and one touchdown in the second half and really couldn’t regain the rhythm it had to open the game. Desmond Roland had nine carries for 34 yards (3.78 ypc) and one touchdown after amassing 12 carries for 110 yards (9.17 ypc) and one touchdown in the first 30 minutes.

OSU’s percentage of drives without a first down or touchdown: The Cowboys entered Bedlam with just 30.5 percent of their drives ending without a first down or touchdown. Against the Sooners, 46.7 percent of their drives ended without a first down or touchdown. Texas Tech, Texas and Baylor, three top 25 teams who suffered November losses to the Pokes, were unable to force more than 30 percent of the Pokes drives to end in that fashion. The Sooners did, and they headed home with another Bedlam victory.

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