Mike Stoops is taking a heaping helping of scorn in Sooner country for Oklahoma’s shortcomings in a season that started with so much promise. As Jake Trotter of ESPN’s Big 12 Blog pointed out this week, Mike’s second stint as defensive coordinator hasn’t come close to living up to the expectations that were built up when Bob Stoops brought his brother back to Norman. In a recent Q&A with Tulsa World columnist John E. Hoover, Mike simultaneously came off as beaten down by his D’s struggles and pretty damn irritated with the intimation that he doesn't know what he's doing.
Mike may offer a convenient neck to grab, but I don’t think it’s the right one.
Frankly, the last three seasons have seen Mike and the current defensive staff trying to plug holes left in the dam by their predecessors. In 2012, he was working with an inconsistent defensive line – which cost defensive line coach Jackie Shipp his job – and linebackers who didn’t appear to take kindly to the departure of Brent Venables. Last year, a lack of bodies up front all but forced the Sooners to move to a new 3-4 scheme that they hadn’t recruited for.
Now, he’s working with a secondary that was neglected for too long. I’ve written previously about the skew in OU’s recruiting toward the offense: In the previous five seasons, the Sooners have signed 69 offensive players and 53 on defense. The secondary was one area that got the short end of the stick as a result.
Under defensive backs coach Willie Martinez, OU signed one DB in the 2011 class and three in 2012. For comparison’s sake, excluding ‘11 and ‘12, OU signed a minimum of four DBs in eight of the 12 classes since 2002. The ‘11 and ‘12 groups also netted zero safeties.
Fast forward to this season, when the players recruited in ‘11 and ‘12 would be in their third and fourth years. The Sooners have relied heavily in the secondary on true freshmen Jordan Thomas and Steven Parker. Sophomore Ahmad Thomas, who played sparingly as a freshman, has started all 12 games at safety. Thomas’ classmate Hatari Byrd, who also saw very little action in his first season, is seeing time at nickelback. Factor in that fifth-year senior Julian Wilson, a converted nickelback, started at corner, and you’ve got an inexperienced defensive backfield.
So when you see the Sooner DBs giving hefty cushions to wideouts, there’s probably a pretty good reason for it. Mike is tweaking his defense to its strengths. Playing in the Big 12, OU has schemed to protect its green DBs against some of the most lethal offenses in the country. Leaving them exposed too often turns into this:
If you want to argue that Mike isn’t doing enough to develop players, I’ll hear you out. It’s his job to have guys like Thomas and Byrd ready to go. Promising recruits L.J. Moore and Gary Simon have left the program under his watch. Meanwhile, touted sophomore corner Stanvon Taylor is nowhere to be found this season.
But even if Mike’s not entirely blameless in the Sooners’ defensive collapse this year, you can’t ignore that he’s working with patchwork personnel. Any defensive coordinator in the Big 12 would likely be facing the same issues this year.