Much the offseason attention surrounding the Oklahoma Sooners is (rightly) focused on whether or not Trevor Knight can duplicate his Sugar Bowl performance against Alabama across an entire season.
That’s just fine with the Oklahoma defense, which is quietly building itself into one of the strongest units in the Big 12, if not the entire country.
“This group of guys, we’re never satisfied; we’re always striving toward getting better and perfecting our crafts no matter if it’s Chuka (Ndulue) at D-line or Julian (Wilson) at safety,” outside linebacker Geneo Grissom said at Big 12 Media Days on Tuesday. “We have a hard working bunch of kids and we’re ready to prove everybody that Oklahoma football is back.”
The return of Mike Stoops to lead the Sooners’ defense has paid great dividends, but despite the improvements in the overall talent as well as performance on the field, there is still plenty of room for improvement.
The Sooenrs closed the 2013 season with wins over Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Alabama, but those wins came in spite of showings from the defense that were less than perfect.
Kansas State lit the OU secondary up for 348 yards, OSU ran for 200 yards and Alabama put up 516 yards in a 14-point loss. The wins were nice, but the Sooners know they didn’t play up to their potential in those games.
“That’s the good thing, the humbling thing,” defensive back Julian Wilson said. “We’re still getting better and once we cancel out the little things, there’s no telling what we can do as a defense. Not every game is going to be perfect; you’re going to have mistakes. It’s football; it’s part of the game. If we can eliminate more of those little mistakes and keep getting better, the sky is the limit.”
Defensively, the Sooners are a perfect mix of seasoned veterans and highly talented newcomers. Seniors like Grissom, Wilson and Ndulue have been through plenty of struggles while talented younger players like Hatari Byrd, Steven Parker and Stanvon Taylor are the fruit of the improvements made in the last two seasons.
Now, those younger players are beginning to take on a bigger role in the defense and this offseason, the biggest position battle to watch is in the secondary, where several younger guys are competing for one of the starting safety positions.
“I like the safety battle that is going on right now,” Wilson said. “Steven Parker, Hatari Byrd and Ahmad Thomas, all of them are great players and I’m just ready to see who is going to come out of camp with the spot.”
Wilson is in the mix for the open cornerback position opposite Zach Sanchez and knows to earn a starting spot, you have to put in the work.
“You’re going to have to compete in two-a-days because it’s a long grind in training camp,” Wilson said. “You’re going to be tired at times but you just have to have your mind right. If you come out of there with that spot, you know you worked for it because you know nothing is going to be handed out to anyone.”
Oklahoma has several things going for it that point toward a likely improvement in 2014. First is the confidence gained by the unit in the Sooners’ win over Alabama. Oklahoma recorded seven sacks and Grissom said the experience for the younger players will prove invaluable going forward.
“It was a huge confidence boost, especially for a lot of the young guys that were first-time guys being out there like Dominique Alexander and Zach Sanchez,” Grissom said. “Those guys stepped into their roles, but we’re looking to move on from it, build off it. We’re looking to win a national championship this year.”
Also, the return of defensive tackle Jordan Phillips will help the Sooners be more effective in stopping the run. Phillips was a dominant force in the middle of the defensive line through the first four games of the season, but a back injury forced him out of action the remainder of the year. The rest of the defensive line is excited to have him back.
“It’s a great addition,” Ndulue said. “Everyone knows what he is capable of doing and losing him, there’s (now) someone over there who can step in and do what he is able to do.”
Grissom shed some more light on just how “back” Phillips really is.
“He’s had a great summer and is building all his strength back,” Grissom said. “I saw him do a double backflip off the diving board, so I’d say he’s back.”
Oklahoma under Bob Stoops, and more specifically Mike Stoops, has a history of really good defenses. This year’s unit has the potential to be as good as some of those, but the players know there’s still plenty of work to be done.
“I think we’re making progress to be there,” Wilson said. “I don’t think we’re there yet but we’re making progress. That defense was a dream team on defense when you watch what they had on film. I think we’re making progress.”