(Editor's note: A potential run at another Big 12 conference title and bid in the newfangled College Football Playoff starts later this week for Oklahoma. The Sooners' spring football camp kicks off later this week and should find the squad with some pep in its step following a promising end to the 2013 season. This week, BH will survey some of the major stories surrounding the team leading up to the 2014 Red-White Game on April 12. First up, how will the rotation shake out in the secondary following the departure of two key starters?)
The Oklahoma coaching staff raved about Aaron Colvin from the moment the Owasso, Okla. native set foot on campus in 2010. A three-star recruit according to Rivals.com, the unheralded defensive back made his way on the field right away and became a versatile staple in the OU secondary for four years. Despite suffering a major knee injury earlier this year, Colvin will hear his name called at the NFL draft in a couple months.
Gabe Lynn wasn't quite the rock in the secondary that Colvin was, but he turned into a solid safety in his final two years at OU. He received an honorable mention nod on the 2013 All-Big 12 team, finishing fourth in tackles for the Sooners last season while picking off four passes.
For an OU team with relatively few question marks coming into the upcoming season, replacing those two veterans in the defensive backfield sticks out as a clear area of concern.
So much of OU's defensive identity last season was predicated on the ability of Colvin and fellow CB Zack Sanchez to play press-man coverage on outside receivers. Defensive coordinator and secondary coach Mike Stoops will likely spend a fair chunk of time in the next few months figuring out whom he wants to put on the opposite side of the field as the redshirt sophomore Sanchez.
Dakota Austin saw a handful of snaps at corner when Colvin went down in Oklahoma's win against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, prompting some speculation in Sooner Land that he has moved into the lead for the first-team spot this spring. He'll be competing for the position with fellow sophomore Stanvon Taylor, whose size and polish in coverage make him the more logical pick.
Then there's redshirt junior Cortez Johnson. Johnson, who followed Mike Stoops to OU from Arizona, absolutely looks the part at 6-1, 201 pounds. However, when he did get his shots in '13, Johnson's inconsistency explained why he had been supplanted by Sanchez. If he can put it all together this spring, adding that kind of physicality at corner would be a major plus.
With a gaggle of true freshmen being the only other viable candidates to replace Colvin, look for one of those three to take control of the competition in the next 15 practices. (My money would be on Taylor.)
First things first: Are the coaches looking for one new starter at safety or two?
Bob Stoops has shown a fondness in the past for experience at safety. Even so, Quentin Hayes' up-and-down play last season has to at least raise the possibility that he might not be on the top line of the depth chart at strong safety come fall. And unfortunately for him, he'll have some talented youngsters pushing him this spring.
Ahmad Thomas (6-1, 215) has NFL-caliber measurements for a safety and can lay the wood in run support. Can he cover better than Hayes? Therein lies the question. Note that we didn't see much of him on the field last fall, which could be saying something – or absolutely nothing.
Furthermore, with that kind of build, would anyone be shocked if Thomas spins down to linebacker to give the Sooners some depth at JACK behind Eric Striker?
Thomas' classmate Hatari Byrd has a solid shot at landing a starting position at safety, too. While he may lack Thomas' size and physicality, Byrd probably has the best overall complement of skills in the bunch. Byrd also didn't get as much run as expected a year ago, but if he's still the same sure open-field tackler seen in his high school film, it will go along way to securing his place as a starter.