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Blogging about college football by an Oklahoma Sooners fan.

Mike Stoops and nickel defense

A student of the game would have ample material for a doctoral thesis on the failings of the Oklahoma Sooners’ defense in 2017.

Shoddy tackling. Busted assignments. Clueless coverage. Lackluster effort. All and more played a part in OU trotting out its worst D in recent memory.

I’ve given a lot of thought since the season ended to one of the biggest criticisms of defensive coordinator Mike Stoops’ performance in 2017, his devotion to the 3-4. I actually ended up in a protracted Twitter exchange about it recently, which our friend Ian Boyd summed up fairly well. Allow me to elaborate a little, though, on where I disagree with Ian's interpretation of events.

The Ohio State conundrum

The argument for why to roll early with a base 3-4 defense to start the season is actually pretty straightforward. Stoops believed: a.) a 3-4 got his best 11 players on the field; and b.) the Sooners had little shot at beating Ohio State playing nickel.

The reality is that OU played nickel personnel the year before against Ohio State and got smoked. Another reality is that OU played 3-4 in the 2017 game and rolled.

There’s plenty of causation/correlation to sort through there. Playing nickel in 2016 might have had nothing to do with the outcome of that particular contest. The same goes for switching things up in the 2017 game. We’ll never know.

We do know that Ohio State was the only game on the docket in which OU appeared to be a clear underdog before the season started. The Sooners won in no small part because of how they handled the Buckeyes’ ground attack. I can’t knock Stoops for that.

Secondary shuffling

That was week two. What about the rest of the season?

Consider what happened to OU’s personnel in the secondary:

  • A first-string safety/nickelback was thrown off the team in the summer;
  • Cornerback Jordan Parker blew out his knee in the first game of the year, which eliminated the possibility of using Parnell Motley at nickel.

That means their two preferred options for nickel personnel were already blown out of the water by the time the season started.

After that:

  • Safeties Will Johnson and Robert Barnes missed three weeks after the game against the Buckeyes;
  • Safety Kahlil Haughton missed four weeks in the middle of the season.

(We haven’t even gotten to the part yet where OU’s all-conference CB completely melted down.)

All in all, the chaos in the defensive backfield meant the Sooners essentially had to use their fourth option at nickelback, Chanse Sylvie, for the majority of the season. For Stoops, does that really sound like something to hang your hat on?

As bad as OU’s defense was, just doing something else doesn't mean it couldn't have gotten even worse.

So what?

It feels weird to have this conversation about a team that went 12-1 in the regular season, won its third consecutive conference title and got knocked out of the College Football Playoff in a double overtime thriller. Of course, the Sooners really accomplished all of that in spite of a defense that got roasted repeatedly and finished near the bottom of the country in at least one leading efficiency metric.

Personally, I think Stoops had a good enough plan in the spring. It gradually went FUBAR in the fall as he lost flexibility when bodies started dropping.

That doesn’t absolve Stoops and the rest of the defensive coaching staff from responsibility for a whole litany of shortcomings on their side of the ball. Dodgy tackling feels like it has been a problem at OU for the last 15 years. The defense rarely seemed to play with any kind of spark, which is even more troubling. Some players have regressed or plateaued with age.

I have more than enough concerns about OU’s defense heading into the 2018 season. Stoops’ ability to scheme isn’t really one of them.

-Allen Kenney