You won't find many better defensive backs coaches in college football than Bob Stoops. One of the few who might be better happens to be part of his staff: his brother Mike.
The play of OU's secondary contributed in part to Mike Stoops' return to coaching with his brother. Whereas his predecessor Brent Venables built OU's schemes around his linebackers, Mike set out to remake the D around a strong back end to contend with the Big 12's high-flying offenses.
In 2012, his first year back, Mike was trotting out personnel groupings with as many as seven DBs to match opponents' spread personnel groupings. He completely overhauled the scheme before last season, and the pass defense took a small step back. Once again, Mike's tweaking the scheme in hopes that aspect of the D starts trending back the other way.
In the spring game, Mike unveiled the big change on D, moving former JACK linebacker Eric Striker to a nickelback/SAM role in the Sooners' 3-4 D. Geneo Grissom took over as JACK in Striker’s stead. Take a gander:
Quite clearly, Striker’s responsibilities in pass coverage will increase this year. In the Big 12, that conjures up visions of OU’s best GATA trying to go mano a mano against shifty receivers in space. It also hints at scurrilous bastards such as Dana Holgorsen and Kliff Kingsbury devising tactics to abuse Striker repeatedly.
However, in practice, the instances when Striker isn’t matched up on a tight end/H-back will likely be rare. Note that the Sooners used that personnel against two tight ends. When the offense went to three wide receivers on third down, Grissom shifted down into his customary position with a hand in the dirt, sending Chuka Ndulue to the sideline and adding another defensive back in the secondary. Like so:
On this play, the Sooner D is in Cover-2 Man. Dom Alexander (White No. 1) mans up on H-back Dmitri Flowers (Red No. 36). Defensive backs Dakota Austin (White No. 27), Quentin Hayes (White No. 10) and Zack Sanchez (White No. 15) have the wideouts. Linebacker Jordan Evans (White No. 26) has responsibility for the running back. Striker blitzes off the edge:
Given that these examples came for the spring game, we’re looking at the most vanilla of vanilla schemes. However, based on what the defensive staff showed, Striker’s coverage responsibilities probably won’t exceed his ability.
The secondary is one of the few parts of this squad that remain unsettled. Departed cornerback Aaron Colvin, long a favorite of Bob Stoops, was one of the better cover men in the country last season. Equally important, he provided strong run support. Meanwhile, safety Gabe Lynn had his struggles, but he gave OU a physical presence in the middle of the field and usually handled his role in zone coverage with aplomb.
The noise from camp has Sanchez, who played opposite Colvin a year ago, taking his game up considerably this offseason. The redshirt sophomore will likely draw opponents’ best receivers on a week-to-week basis. It goes without saying, but keeping Sanchez healthy this season is paramount.
The competition at the other corner position appears to be trending in favor of veteran Julian Wilson. The fifth-year senior has a significant number of scalps under his belt from his contributions the last two years as OU’s fifth/sixth DB against spread formations. Shifting to CB seems like a good call for his long-term future. Wilson lacks the size to play safety on the next level, but could make for an outstanding run-stopping corner. How will he handle the growing pains of the move, though?
Look for some combination of returning starter Quentin Hayes and young bucks Hatari Byrd and Ahmad Thomas to nail down the two remaining spots at safety. The third will likely see plenty of action when OU uses its true nickel package. True freshman Steven Parker could challenge for snaps right away, too.
Who’s rushing the passer?
OU’s front four struggled to generate any heat on opposing passers in 2012. That made the apparent revitalization of the pass rush with the switch to a three-man front a welcome development in ‘13. The lasting image from last season of the Sooners’ defensive line was Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron taking a beating in the Sugar Bowl, and the talented rushers who terrorized the Crimson Tide return, including ultra-talented defensive end Charles Tapper.
Things should only get better this year. While OU’s DL was brutally thin last season, depth up front has turned into a strength. Talented underclassmen such as D.J. Ward, Charles Walker, Matt Dimon and Matt Romar will hold down the fort behind proven vets. If stellar nose tackle Jordan Phillips can stay on the field this year, it will only make the push from the interior that much stronger.
Additionally, for Mike Stoops, moving Striker and Grissom to new positions opens up a host of new blitz packages and disguised coverage schemes. For example:
On this second-and-long situation from the spring game, Striker lines up in space to the wide side of the field, appearing to have responsibility for taking away the inside slant. Daryl Williams (Red No. 59), who’s playing left tackle, identifies him as a potential blitzer. That doesn’t stop Striker from zipping past him en route to the QB. Jordan Evans shifts into the hole vacated in coverage vacated by Striker, whose blitz forces a harried throw from Trevor Knight. Evans levels the intended receiver, leading to a pick.
If Mike can continue to add these wrinkles to OU's scheme this fall, it should be hell on opposing offenses.