By the end of last season, Oklahoma Sooners fans were practically screaming for a change. The Sooners' defense, once a source of pride for fans and fear for opponents, had just given up 40 points in three games in 2011, a once unheard of feat.
Mike Stoops returned for a second run with his brother, while Brent Venables headed off to Clemson for a major reconstruction project of his own. Even though Stoops had proved himself capable of building a dominating defense the first time around, no one really knew what was going to happen the second time around.
Safe to say, Stoops' return to Norman has produced great results. The Sooners are ranked 14th in total defense and 20th in scoring defense, a remarkable turnaround for a unit that finished last season ranked 55th and 31st in those categories respectively.
"A lot of these guys are coming back from last year," defensive tackle Jamarkus McFarland said. "I feel like we learned the hard way. We have the right mentality right now, that we know we have to go in each week and get better, not make the same mistakes and be willing to play every play like it's our last, no matter who the opponent is."
The biggest area of improvement has undoubtedly been the secondary. A year ago, the Sooners gave up a large number of big pass plays, with most of those leading to the three losses OU suffered in 2011. Now, the Sooners are ranked 11th in the country in pass defense, giving up just 171.4 yards per game through the air.
The solid coverage has helped the defensive line put pressure on the quarterback more consistently.
"Coach Stoops came in and really worked with those guys," McFarland said. "I applaud them for giving us time to get back there, because there are times when we have problems getting back there. With them giving us that extra second, we can deflect the pass or hurry him (the quarterback), rush him out of the pocket."
One of the big reasons for the secondary's improvement is that players are at their more natural positions. Before the season, Aaron Colvin was moved to cornerback and Tony Jefferson was moved to safety. Both have excelled at their new positions, making cases for All-American honors. However, safety Javon Harris said it doesn't matter what position a player is asked to play.
"I just feel like we're doing what we're supposed to be doing," Harris said. "If you put anybody at any position, we're going to play hard and play like we're supposed to. Moving guys around, just putting guys in a more comfortable position has a (good) feel, but it's about playing.
"Anywhere you put anybody on the field, they're going to have to play well."
Through the first three games of the season, the Sooners were struggling forcing turnovers, with just one interception against Florida A&M serving as the lone turnover OU had caused. The Sooners were tied for last in the country with that total.
However, against Texas Tech, the Sooners picked off three passes, and picked off two more passes and forced a fumble against Texas. Harris said the defense continued to focus on forcing turnovers, and eventually, those efforts paid off.
"We know we didn't have as many as we wanted in the first couple of games," Harris said. "Just going in here knowing we need to go get this ball, we're just focusing on all those things. Guys are covering really well and the D-line is putting pressure on the quarterback."
Even though the Sooners have made adjustments in personnel and schemes, the biggest adjustment has been a growth in trust amongst the members of the defense.
"We're all brothers out there so for us go into a game and trust each other, I think that's where the confidence comes from," Harris said. "Preparation is a key. Opportunities are out there and we're just taking advantage of each one. The more focused you are the more prepared you are."
The Sooners still have work to do before they become the attacking, tenacious defense Mike Stoops made famous during his first stint in Norman. However, the Sooners are moving in the right direction, and that's exactly what fans were screaming for a year ago.