Oklahoma Sooners: Cortez Johnson
Pre-spring: A trio of Sooners entered the spring set to battle to replace Aaron Colvin. Sophomores Stanvon Taylor and Dakota Austin joined junior Cortez Johnson in the competition. None of the three entered the spring as the clear favorite to secure the spot.
Post-spring: Austin had the best spring of the bunch, taking the field with the Sooners’ first-team defense in the spring game and holding his own. The sophomore is undersized (5-foot-11, 162 pounds) but good in coverage and has a chip on his shoulder. Injuries hampered Johnson’s spring, and Taylor didn’t make the move you would expect from a guy who stepped on campus with lofty expectations.
Summer outlook: Someone needs to seize the opportunity by taking their game to another level. Austin sent a message with a strong spring, but a few incoming recruits, including Tito Windham and Jordan Thomas, arrive in the summer with an eye on stepping up if nobody else makes it their spot to lose.
Pre-spring: Sophomores Ahmad Thomas and Hatari Byrd each saw action as freshmen in 2013. With Quentin Hayes comfortably manning the other safety spot, letting the Class of 2013 signees compete for a starting spot was the plan.
Post-spring: Both guys look like they could be solid, trustworthy options at the position. Thomas has emerged as a player who should see the field regardless thanks to his versatility and athleticism, while Byrd has progressed as a playmaker.
Summer outlook: Depth, not the starters, is the main concern at safety. Thomas or Byrd could do the job, and Steven Parker arrives in the summer with a unique skill set that could make him tough to keep on the sidelines. Though the name of the starter at free safety remains unclear, the position doesn’t look like a potential weak link in the defense this fall.
Pre-spring: OU returned its two leading tacklers at the linebacker spot with Dominique Alexander and Frank Shannon, along with pass-rushing dynamo Eric Striker. It was a unit full of playmakers but questionable depth.
Post-spring: The depth questions remain and could get worse if Shannon, whose status is unclear after missing the spring game for personal reasons, does not return. Fortunately for OU, Jordan Evans looks ready to step in and fill the void if needed. Additionally, Devante Bond should provide another option for Mike Stoops’ defense, and defensive end Geneo Grissom even spent time at linebacker this spring. Alexander is a terrific foundation and Evans is unusually athletic at linebacker, so developing more depth is the lingering question.
Summer outlook: Shannon’s status is the main storyline of the summer. If he returns it's a big boost for the Sooners. If not, OU will likely turns to Evans, which is another hit to its depth. Incoming recruits Curtis Bolton and Tay Evans might be called upon sooner than anticipated.
Oklahoma held its spring game on Saturday with excitement around the program continuing to build this offseason. Here are some postgame thoughts, defense only, on OU’s spring finale. To be clear, this is an informal collection of my thoughts and observations after the spring game. For a more formal and general spring game review, check out this post from earlier today.
- Linebacker Frank Shannon’s absence is disappointing, but Jordan Evans filled in at linebacker without looking like a weak link, much as he did against Texas Tech during his true freshman season a year ago. Evans is very athletic and comfortable in coverage. If Shannon, who is dealing with personal issues, is unable to return, OU can feel good about Evans’ spring-game production.
- Ahmad Thomas looks like a potential difference-maker. He can play multiple positions in the secondary and he was consistently around the ball. A breakout sophomore campaign could be on the horizon.
- The defensive line should be deep, athletic and productive. This unit could spark a special season if everyone continues to develop. From Charles Tapper to Jordan Wade to Charles Walker, it’s a very solid group of defensive linemen from top to bottom. Games are won in the trenches, so the Sooners should feel good about their chances this fall.
- Cornerback Zack Sanchez is another Sooner who looks as if he’s taken a step forward. If he continues to progress, Sanchez could become a player who opponents think twice about testing. He was competitive and active on Saturday and played like OU's best cornerback.[+] EnlargeMark D. Smith/USA TODAY SportsQuentin Hayes is a returning starter at safety, but depth is a concern there.
- Sophomore Dakota Austin looked solid opposite Sanchez, but the search for the other half of OU’s cornerback duo should carry deep into preseason camp. Stanvon Taylor and Cortez Johnson are also in the mix, but nobody has taken the job and run away with it. The Sooners need to shore up this spot, as this concern could be considered the top priority on the defensive side of the ball heading into the summer.
- Linebacker Eric Striker is on the road to making several appearances on "SportsCenter" this fall. The pass-rushing dynamo was terrific as a sophomore and it looks like he could be even better as a junior. He's exceptionally quick off the edge and has a knack for getting to the quarterback.
- The safety position looks like it is in good hands with Quentin Hayes and Hatari Byrd, but the depth behind them is a major summer storyline. Thomas and Julian Wilson, who sat out the spring, could help at the position and incoming freshman Steven Parker has the talent to step in immediately. It’s not a problem if OU remains injury-free, but it’s football, so heading into the season without a Plan B is fool’s gold.
- Kicker Michael Hunnicutt has earned his nickname “Munnicutt” and his leg strength has improved. He made two 40-plus-yard field goals, one with the wind at his back and one into the wind. He’s one of the nation’s most consistent kickers, so increased long-range production is a major bonus.
- Final thought: The excitement surrounding the Sooners program heading into 2014 is well-earned. This team could find itself in the College Football Playoff if Trevor Knight is consistent and efficient under center and the defense takes another step forward this fall. But don't lock them into the national title conversation quite yet, as several young players need to continue to develop and take their games to another level and show they are ready to perform at a championship level, week in and week out.
The Sooners defensive line could be the foundation of the defense and several playmaking linebackers return along with three of five starters in the secondary. There don’t appear to be many holes in a defensive unit that ranked among the Big 12’s best a year ago.
Cornerback is clearly the biggest question mark on the defense as the Sooners try to replace All-Big 12 performer Aaron Colvin. Stanvon Taylor, Dakota Austin and Cortez Johnson are battling to replace Colvin but nobody has clearly pulled away from the competition.
They’re competing hard but it’s been a friendly competition built upon learning and improving as an overall group at cornerback.
“Everyone’s working really hard and pushing each other,” Taylor said. “We’re all a team and we push each other to work every day.”
All three players saw limited action in 2013 with Taylor and Johnson earning starts when Colvin was injured and Austin seeing snaps in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Yet none of them played well enough to emerge as the favorite to replace Colvin heading into the spring and that hasn’t changed with the end of spring on the horizon.
“We are very competitive,” Johnson said. “Coach [Stoops] will make the call on who’s going to start, so I’m just going to keep being competitive.”
While Colvin is the man the Sooners are looking to replace, he will be gone but not forgotten this fall. He made a point to tutor Taylor and Austin during their true freshman seasons. He taught Taylor, who essentially arrived on campus as his protege, to forget his failings if he hoped to survive the ups and downs of the position.
“Just play and stay positive,” Taylor said of the best advice Colvin gave him. “I used to get frustrated a lot and he would tell me to keep my head up and keep getting better.”
Austin noticed completely different traits from the former Sooners standout.
“I learned instincts and just staying poised,” Austin said. “[I also learned] the speed of the game, certain antics that the offense does, just picking up on film work. That’s really the main thing, picking up on things the other team likes to do. He was really heavy on film and that’s something that I would like to adopt in my game.”
Saturday’s spring game could go a long way in helping to crown a winner of the battle if one of the trio pulls away from the competition with a breakout performance. The battle to replace Colvin has been one of the top storylines of the spring and it will continue to be the biggest concern on the Sooners’ defense until it’s resolved. And even then every team will test the victor until he proves he’s not the weak link on OU's defense.
“I know we’re going to get challenged and I feel like we have a group that’s up for it,” Austin said. “We really have a lot of aggressive guys, guys that are going to get after it. I wouldn’t want to do it with another group. I feel like we’re really going to get the job done. We’re really underrated and that’s what’s going to make it so much sweeter in the end.”
When: Saturday at 2 p.m.
What to watch for:
- Has Trevor Knight continued to develop? Don’t expect the Sooners quarterback to get a lot of work during the spring game as his health is a top priority. Yet, Knight is still a young and relatively inexperienced quarterback who needs quality reps. The spring game will show if he carries himself like a veteran and if his teammates are responding to him as the man in command of OU’s offense. A strong one or two series would show Knight is continuing to develop as a player despite not being pushed by daily competition for the starting job.
- What about behind him? Quarterbacks Cody Thomas, a redshirt freshman, and Justice Hansen, a true freshman, are raw and untested. The spring game gives the duo the chance to show they can handle the No. 2 quarterback job if called upon in the fall. Thomas has been splitting his time with the Sooners’ baseball team with no ill effects on his football duties, while Hansen enrolled early and is adjusting to life as a college football player.
- Who will get the bulk of the carries? OU will welcome ESPN 300 signees Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine to its running backs group this summer. So this spring is the opportunity for sophomore running backs Keith Ford and Alex Ross to cement their spots at the front of the line alongside Knight. Ford was a pleasant surprise as a true freshman. He earned carries before fumble troubles placed him on the sideline. Ross has been one of the stars of the spring with coaches and teammates alike lauding his explosiveness in scrimmages. Saturday is their chance to show they’re ready to fill the void left by the departures of Brennan Clay, Damien Williams and Roy Finch.
- DB Ahmad Thomas: It would be a surprise if Thomas doesn’t see the field a lot this fall. The sophomore is proving to be versatile and talented while lining up at multiple positions in OU’s defense. After enrolling early in January 2012, Thomas played in 12 games as a true freshman and finished with nine tackles in limited action. Now, he appears poised to be a key piece of the Sooners defense as a sophomore. The Sooners are tinkering to find the best spot for Thomas, but a strong spring game could reaffirm his place as one of the breakout stars this spring.
- New names: Several young players are creating a buzz, including receiver Jordan Smallwood, cornerback Dakota Austin and defensive tackle Charles Walker. Smallwood’s name has repeatedly come up this spring, as he’s made a solid impression after missing the 2013 season with a broken foot. Austin has been competing with Stanvon Taylor and Cortez Johnson to replace All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin, and, while undersized, his coverage ability and competitive nature have shone through. Walker has earned a reputation as a future star with his exceptional size and speed combination, so Saturday will be the first glimpse at the redshirt freshman. The spring game will give that trio and many other young Sooners the opportunity to show they can be contributors on offense or defense in 2014.
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.
Running back Alex Ross: The opportunity to play is there for the taking if Ross wants to grab it. He joins Keith Ford as the main competitors for carries this spring. Coach Bob Stoops has singled out Ross as a playmaker in scrimmages thus far but it’s critical for Ross to make a strong impression before February signees Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine arrive in the summer.
“I paid my dues and waited my time,” Ross said. “I felt like I needed time to get acclimated to everything around here. I feel like I’ve matured a little bit just in getting bigger and knowing what to do in my part.”
Defensive tackle Torrea Peterson: The senior played a solid role and contributed to OU’s success in 2013, even starting a game against Iowa State. Oklahoma is looking at one of its deepest defensive line units in years. If Jordan Phillips returns to good health and Jordan Wade continues to develop, OU has one of the best two-deep depth chart in the nation. Add Charles Walker, the star of the scout team last fall, and the defensive tackle spot is getting crowded. If Peterson continues to mature and improve, he could be able to secure himself a role but his margin of error is minimal.
Receiver Dannon Cavil: This spring is the 6-foot-4 Cavil’s chance to shine as the lone tall target in the receivers’ room. That changes this summer when three February receiver signees (Jeffery Mead, Mark Andrews and Dallis Todd) who stand 6-5 or taller will arrive.
Cavil is smooth and athletic and this spring will bring more opportunities than the summer or preseason camp. Now is the time for the redshirt freshman to lock down a spot in before other options begin arriving on campus and limiting his reps.
Cornerback Cortez Johnson: The junior headed into the summer of 2013 as an projected starter opposite Aaron Colvin. His sophomore season didn’t go as expected after Zack Sanchez started in his place due to Johnson’s suspension for the season opener and Sanchez never relinquished the starting spot. Johnson shouldered the blame for his subpar showing, saying he is focused on “taking more coaching and less talking” this spring. It’s important for Johnson to show he’s serious about changing his commitment to getting better because he brings excellent size (6-2, 205 pounds) to the cornerback spot.
“I’m just trying to bounce back from last year,” Johnson said. “I didn’t do so well and I’m just trying to be more consistent.”
Offensive lineman Josiah St. John: The senior is one player who was singled out by Stoops for his improvement during the offseason. A junior college transfer, St. John needs to show he can be solid competition for returning starters Daryl Williams and Tyrus Thompson at the tackle positions with an eye on being a solid third tackle. If he falters, Christian Daimler and Sam Grant are young tackles lurking with three additional tackle signees (Orlando Brown, Joseph Paul and Kenyon Frison) poised to arrive in the summer.
The Sooners cornerback was thrown into the fire, starting his first collegiate game after Cortez Johnson was suspended for the first game of 2013. Sanchez seized the opportunity and never let go, starting 13 games and earning FWAA Freshman All-American honors while leading the team with 13 pass breakups.
With the mantle passed to him, Sanchez began to try to step up his leadership during winter workouts.
“I had to take essentially the same role as [Colvin],” Sanchez said. “Being the oldest guy or most experienced guy at corner, I had to take the leadership role through winter workouts and spring. I have to be more vocal to the younger guys and lead by example so they see that I’m doing it right and not just talking about it.”
Sophomores Stanvon Taylor and Dakota Austin fill the bill as young guys who could learn from Sanchez’s experience in 2013 even though they’re in the same boat eligibility-wise. Sanchez had ups and downs but, thanks in part to Colvin, was able to prevent the valleys of his freshman season from becoming canyons.
“He went through a learning process a year ago and has become a better player,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “I think you learn from your experiences and that’s what playing does for you, it gives you a lot of experience to fall back on, and I think that’s what he’ll do this year. He’ll be a much more complete player than he was a year ago. Hopefully he’ll be much bigger and stronger player, he needs to become that.”
OU is turning to him to become a leader, but he needs to become a better cornerback as well. Teams picked on Sanchez in 2013, but he competed well enough to win his share of battles. But this season he’ll be asked to do even more for OU’s defense, including trying to slow the likes of Baylor’s Antwan Goodley and Kansas State’s Tyler Lockett as the Sooners’ top cornerback.
Sanchez is hopeful the experience and mentality he gained as a redshirt freshman will pay off in 2014, not only for himself but for his teammates as well.
“I grew up really fast,” he said “I think I had to. Being young can’t be an excuse for that long or you’ll get pulled off the field. I learned from a lot of things and I feel really strong going into spring and I’m excited for what the future holds.”
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
No. 2: Cornerback
Why it’s important: The Sooners need someone to step into Aaron Colvin’s starting spot. Colvin was one of the Big 12’s top cover men in the past two seasons and helped a young defense exceed expectations in 2013. Replacing the three-year starter is easier said than done and the Sooners’ defensive system counts on its defensive backs to be able to hold their own in coverage.
Sophomore Stanvon Taylor: He started one game as a true freshman but will need to take his game to another level if he hopes to step into Colvin’s spot. He was groomed to be the guy but it won’t be given to him.
Sophomore Dakota Austin: He plays with a chip on his shoulder and has strong coverage skills but his lack of size (5-foot-11, 151 pounds) will always be a burden.
Freshman Tito Windham: The Sooners might have found a hidden gem in SEC country with the Mississippi native. He has the physical tools to insert himself into the competition.
Freshman Jordan Thomas: OU swooped in late to land Thomas but the key will be how quickly he transitions to college football. He’s a versatile defensive back who can play multiple positions.
Freshman Marcus Green: He could end up at cornerback, nickelback or safety in the Sooners’ system so it could take a while for him to settle in at one spot.
Best-case scenario: The Sooners use the spring to find a capable replacement, even if that means shuffling around the current secondary. Or Taylor rises to the occasion and locks down the position during the spring. He was Colvin’s protégé, has exceptional talent and probably the highest upside of any cornerback on campus.
Worst-case scenario: Johnson, Taylor and Austin have a competition that drags into the summer with none of them giving the Sooners confidence they can handle the starting spot. That would force the Sooners to search for ways to solidify the cornerback spot, which will be critical if they hope to have any success this fall.
Here's a look at the battle to replace Colvin:
Spring contenders: Sophomore Stanvon Taylor; sophomore Dakota Austin; junior Cortez Johnson.
Summer contenders: Freshman Tito Windham; freshman Jordan Thomas.
The skinny: The Sooners won’t be able to replace Colvin, who was the best player in the secondary for the past three seasons.
Nonetheless OU needs someone to step up at the cornerback position opposite Zack Sanchez, a FWAA Freshman All-American who started all 13 games in 2013. Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops depends heavily on his defensive backs to be able to hold up in man coverage so he can come up with creative ways to terrorize opposing quarterbacks. That game plan falls apart if there’s a weak link in the secondary that is consistently being exposed.
Taylor, who started one game as a true freshman, spent the 2013 season as Colvin’s protégé, watching in the background while preparing to slide into his spot in 2014. That won’t happen if Taylor doesn’t take his game to another level, beginning this spring. The starting spot is there for the taking, but he’ll have to earn it with several other talented cornerbacks on campus.
Johnson, who started against Kansas State and Iowa State in Colvin’s absence, would bring an upgrade in size at the cornerback spot. At 6-foot-2, 201 pounds, he brings a physical presence that is unmatched by any of the other competitors.
Austin could be the most competitive of the contenders, but his lack of size (5-11, 151) is a major concern. The sophomore will be able to hold up in man-to-man coverage, but he’ll have to prove he can overcome his size limitations and play like he’s twice his size if he hopes to earn the starting spot.
Windham and Thomas arrive in the summer and could throw themselves into the competition as true freshman. Taylor and Austin escaped redshirt seasons in 2013 so there’s no reason to think Windham and Thomas can’t battle for immediate playing time.
Prediction: Don’t be surprised if there is some shuffling among some of the returning players in the secondary to help fill this void. If not, Johnson emerges as the front runner after spring. He passed Taylor on the depth chart during the 2013 season, so unless Taylor takes his game to another level, Johnson will emerge atop the depth chart. But, with two talented freshmen on the way, the lone certainty is that this battle will wage on deep into August.
Oklahoma is coming off a banner 2013 campaign, featuring an 11-win season and a Sugar Bowl victory over SEC power Alabama, but the Sooners have several position groups they need to address if they hope to make a national title run in 2014. This week, we’ll take a closer look at the top five position groups that need to improve during OU’s spring practices. On Wednesday, we continue the series with the Sooners cornerbacks at No. 3.
On campus: Zack Sanchez, So.; Stanvon Taylor, So.; Cortez Johnson, Jr.; Dakota Austin, So.; L.J. Moore, So.; Daniel Brooks, So.
Summary: Similar to the running back position, the Sooners are loaded with talent at cornerback. But outside of Sanchez, Oklahoma is largely inexperienced. Aaron Colvin, a two-time All-Big 12 cornerback and three-year starter, and Kass Everett have moved on, leaving a void that will be difficult to fill. That void also means plenty of opportunity and competition this spring.
Sanchez showed his competitiveness and playmaking ability during a redshirt freshman campaign. He was picked on week after week with teams unwilling to challenge Colvin. Sanchez responded with 46 tackles and a team-high 13 pass breakups, as he started in all 13 games. Now, he needs to take on a mentor role as the most experienced cornerback on the roster.
Taylor was groomed to step in for Colvin during his first season with the Sooners. He started one game and played a key special teams role as a freshman. He has a strong hunger to succeed, which could push him into starting lineup as a sophomore. The spring will be his opportunity to show the coaches he’s ready to step up and try to fill Colvin’s shoes.
Austin arguably was the most surprising freshman to play his way out of a redshirt season in 2013. He’s undersized at 5-foot-11 and 151 pounds, but has exceptional feet and quickness. Don’t be surprised if he uses the spring to earn some type of role in the Sooners defense with his coverage skills.
Johnson started against Kansas State and played a backup role during his first season in crimson and cream after transferring from Arizona. He brings a terrific size/athleticism combination to the cornerback group, which could help distinguish him in the cornerback competition.
Moore is another talented sophomore who has the talent to earn a starting spot during the spring. He played the least of OU’s true freshman trio at the position, but he brings good height (6-1) and versatility.
Brooks didn’t play much on defense or special teams during his redshirt freshman season. He’ll have to use the spring to make an impression if he hopes to earn playing time in 2014.
Windham went from unknown to Semper Fidelis All-American after the Sooners unearthed what they hope will be a hidden gem. A Mississippi native, he has terrific speed, playmaking ability and ball skills, making an immediate impact well within the realm of possibility.
The Sooners hope Thomas develops into a versatile cover cornerback. He has good size (6-1, 175). Thomas joined the recruiting class late in the process, but he could insert himself into the cornerback competition immediately with his quickness and athleticism.
Sanchez had ups and downs during his redshirt season but started all 13 games as his competitiveness never wavered. He gave up big plays against Kansas State and Alabama, then bounced back to make key interceptions against both squads. He was picked on throughout the season but matured into a key player on at the end of his first college season. Sanchez led the squad with 13 pass breakups, twice as many as any other Sooner.
Taylor started the third game of his college career against Tulsa and held up well. The Sooners will be looking for him to help fill the void left by two-time All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin. Taylor mentored under Colvin in 2013 and should be ready for a bigger role in the defense.
Johnson started against Kansas State and played a backup role in 2013, finishing with 16 tackles. He should compete to replace Colvin and earn more playing time as a junior.
On the cusp: Dakota Austin (So.)
Austin saw limited duty as a freshman, playing in four games and recording four tackles. He’s undersized but competitive with good coverage skills, so he could factor into the plans in 2014.
Daniel Brooks, a sophomore, is a small, quick prospect who has played multiple positions and bounced around from offense to defense during his first two years on campus, but he has the talent to work himself into a role.
On the recruiting trail: Tito Windham (Gulfport, Miss./Harrison Central)
The Sooners are confident they’ve found a hidden gem in Windham. They ventured into SEC country to find the Mississippi native. He can play a lot of different positions but appears destined to play cornerback. He’ll need some time to get used to playing corner, but he has the physical gifts to excel as early as 2014.
Overall Grade: A-
It will be impossible to replace Colvin, but the Sooners do return three cornerbacks who started games in 2013. Taylor, who has arguably the best upside of the group, was placed under Colvin’s wing as a freshman and gives OU a potential star at the spot. Johnson, Austin and Windham are talented and can provide quality depth.
Oklahoma's defense was the foundation of the team's drive to the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Mike Stoops' unit finished atop the Big 12 in passing yards allowed and total yards allowed while making sure the Sooners had the chance to win every game they played, even with constant uncertainty at quarterback. The defensive line was surprisingly good, the linebackers were much more productive than in 2012 and the secondary replaced several starters with relative ease.
Here are the position-by-position grades for the Sooners' defense.
Linebackers: A-. OU’s linebackers showed terrific improvement in 2013. Junior Frank Shannon and freshman Dominique Alexander, the Big 12 defensive newcomer of the year, finished 1-2 in tackles. Shannon played through nicks and bruises to finish with 85 tackles while Alexander finished with 75 stops after being thrust into the starting role against Texas. Add linebacker/defensive end hybrid Eric Striker to the mix and the linebackers were among the most productive groups on the squad. The versatility of Shannon and Alexander and Striker’s pass rushing skills are one reason the Sooners finished second in the Big 12 and No. 13 among FBS teams in third-down conversion percentage at 32.5 percent.
Cornerbacks: A-. Two-time All-Big 12 performer Aaron Colvin is an “A+++” performer. He showed toughness, leadership and exceptional coverage skills as a senior. With Colvin on the other side, redshirt freshman Zack Sanchez was constantly picked on by opponents but held up well and, most importantly, displayed the competitive nature every cornerback needs to succeed. Behind Colvin and Sanchez, freshman Stanvon Taylor and sophomore Cortez Johnson both made starts and earned valuable experience while providing quality depth. And nickelback Julian Wilson was stellar in his first season as a starter while tying for the team lead with three interceptions. OU led the Big 12 with 198 passing yards allowed per game, largely because of quality play from its cornerbacks and Wilson.
Safeties: A-. As good as the cornerbacks were, the safeties held their own in the defensive backfield. OU’s safeties were better in coverage this season than in 2012 while limiting big plays in the running and passing game. Gabe Lynn and Quentin Hayes weren’t dominant forces in the secondary but they were very good and played key roles while helping the Sooners to their 10-2 record.
ISU’s 2.5 yards per play on third down: Mike Stoops defense was dominant on third down, allowing just 35 yards on 14 third-down plays while holding ISU to 5 of 14 third down conversions. Frank Shannon, Gabe Lynn and Eric Striker each recorded sacks and safety Quentin Hayes grabbed his interception on third-down plays. OU’s defense stepped up in those clutch moments on Saturday.
OU’s 212-yard margin in the third quarter: The Sooners gained 231 yards in the third quarter compared to the Cyclones' 19 yards as OU pulled away after halftime. Brennan Clay had a 63-yard touchdown run and Williams added a 69-yard touchdown run as OU put the game away by averaging 14.93 yards per carry during the third quarter. OU came out of the locker room with a different focus and execution, allowing it to impose its will on ISU in the final half.
OU’s pass defense expected points added: The Sooners pass defense finished with 7.38 expected points added, an ESPN metric which essentially means that OU's pass defense contributed 7.38 points to the win. They rallied after ending the first quarter at minus-3.14 expected points added. They added 2.39 points in the second quarter, 3.35 points in the third and capped it off by adding 4.79 points in the fourth. Playing without All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin, the Sooners' secondary was solid with Cortez Johnson and Stanvon Taylor each playing well in Colvin’s absence.
OU’s 3.73 points per drive: The Sooners averaged 3.73 points per drive against the Cyclones, including a game-high six points per drive in the third quarter. OU is averaging 2.21 points per drive this season and the Big 12 average is 2.06. Florida State leads the nation with a 3.84 points per drive average. It was the second-most points per drive for the OU offense this season behind its 4.64 average against Tulsa. Seeing OU’s offense be so prolific with Knight, a redshirt freshman, behind center could be an encouraging sign for the future.
Spring Game Wrap-Up
BIG 12 SCOREBOARD
TBD North Dakota State Iowa State TBD Louisiana Tech Oklahoma TBD North Texas Texas TBD Stephen F. Austin Kansas State TBD Samford TCU TBD Central Arkansas Texas Tech 3:30 PM ET West Virginia Alabama 8:00 PM ET Florida State Oklahoma State