In part one of the Red-White Game preview, I went over the key points of attention for the Sooners on offense. In this part, we'll look at the defense.
The biggest concern this season for Oklahoma's defense, if not the entire team, is the departures of linebackers Dom Alexander, Devante Bond and Eric Striker. With returning ILB Jordan Evans likely sitting out on Saturday, four newbies will be manning the LB spots.
The other Evans, Tay, probably has a firm grip on one inside position, but redshirt freshman Arthur McGinnis will get an extended audition in place of Jordan. McGinnis looks the part of an old-school middle linebacker at 6-1, 248 pounds. Those tanks don't always fare so well in the Big 12, though. Either way, we should get a better idea of how close Hulk is to being ready to contribute at ILB.
On the outside, I want to see how Mike Stoops deploys his personnel. The most logical candidates to fill those two positions right now would seem to be Ricky DeBerry and Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, but I honestly have no idea if either can hack it at the SAM position to the strong side of the formation.
Keep in mind that the Sooners currently have a grand total of six scholarship linebackers on the roster.
How Much Nickel?
Mike leveraged his scheme last year around a solid group of 'backers. The aforementioned questions about the linebacking corps could have Mike returning to nickel personnel as a base defense, much like what the Sooners ran in 2013.
From the standpoint of the players’ capabilities, this would solve some of the concerns about the SAM position by minimizing its importance. In effect, the base D would be trading an outside linebacker for nickelback Will Johnson, who played well when called upon last season.
Watch how often OU lines up in nickel versus a more traditional 3-4, especially on early downs.
Where Will P.J. Play?
Oklahoma’s secondary is the unquestioned strength of its defense heading into the 2016 season, but it’s not without concerns of its own. Primarily, who fills the void left by Zack Sanchez?
Sophomore P.J. Mbanasor possesses the type of natural talent that would raise hopes he can step in. However, there’s a reason why he didn’t get the call a year ago when Sanchez was on the shelf with an injury.
Sanchez played the field cornerback position, which requires quickness and an ability to cover in space when playing off coverage. That really doesn’t suit Mbanasor, whose strength is his physicality, much like OU’s standout boundary corner Jordan Thomas.
As we saw a year ago, defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks went with the smaller, quicker Dakota Austin instead when Sanchez went down. Thomas will sit out on Saturday, so the most likely pairing for the first-team defense will by Mbanasor playing the boundary and Austin to the wide side of the field. It will be worth monitoring where Mbanasor lines up, though, to see if he’s getting any work at field CB, and if so, how does he perform?