As the Oklahoma defensive backs arrived for their first confab with their new position coach in February, they were immediately introduced to an unfamiliar coverage: a piece of paper on a projector, obscuring something that had been written down for display in their meeting room. The players took their seats, and Kerry Cooks, a former Notre Dame assistant now coaching the secondary in Norman, asked them what they thought about their collective performance from the previous season.
He solicited their opinions on what worked well. He inquired about what went wrong. After everyone registered their thoughts, Cooks removed the paper from the projector. Some of Oklahoma’s defensive statistics from 2014 were then, fittingly, lit up for all to see. Included among the numbers was the 294 passing yards per game that the Sooners gave up last fall, good for eighth in the 10-team Big 12. The coach’s implication was clear: Whatever the players thought about themselves, there was no concealing the need to be much better.
“He showed us what we were last year,” sophomore safety Steven Parker says, “and it kind of opened our eyes.”
The ensuing nine months have been similarly revealing. Oklahoma’s defense is more efficient in just about every way this fall, from coaching structure to technique to results. The Sooners have vaulted from a middling unit that ranked no higher than 39th nationally in any of the major defensive categories in 2014 to a crew that is top 20 in all but one of them. Given the improvement, and given the teams that populate the remainder of the schedule, it could be a group that shapes the College Football Playoff picture in a very significant fashion, one way or another.
Beginning Saturday at Baylor, and with TCU and Oklahoma State lined up next, Oklahoma faces three of the nation’s top seven scoring offenses in the final three weeks. The Bears are unbeaten. The Cowboys might still be on Nov. 28. The Sooners can change that, and the entire landscape of the fall, if their upgrades stand up to some heavy artillery. “Of course, we’re focused on Baylor,” senior linebacker Eric Striker says. “But no doubt, these last three games, we’re going to have to be on our game, as far as discipline, as far as executing, as far as knowing where we’re supposed to be. It’s on us and what we’re going to do.”
What the Sooners can do may still be a question to some degree. The statistical leaps between 2014 and ’15 national rankings are unmistakably eye-catching: a 28-spot bump in total defense (51st to 23rd), a 39-spot jump in scoring defense (55th to 16th), a 47-spot rise in pass efficiency defense (55th to eighth), a 37-spot advance in sacks per game (39th to second). One team has scored 30 points or more against Oklahoma this year, with Tulsa piling up 38 back on Sept. 19. Through nine games a year ago, four opponents had hit the 30-point mark, with three more such outbursts to follow before the season was over. But have the Sooners’ tests this year been as robust as the overall improvement? Only one of their 2015 opponents, Texas Tech, fields a scoring offense currently ranked in the top 20 nationally.
So what is Oklahoma’s reason for optimism entering the next three weeks? Its belief that its defensive enhancements are rooted in consistency that comes with experience and tuned-up fundamentals, most notably in tackling—not some schematic overhaul that might amount to gimmickry easily exposed by a top-shelf attack.
“It’s a lot of the same concepts,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops says of the difference between last year and this one. “I think we’re just doing it more efficiently.”
Part of that began with a meeting room, very literally, last winter. With the hire of Cooks, Oklahoma consolidated its secondary under one assistant. Previously, the cornerbacks and safeties each had their own coach, and the rapport of the back end of the defense suffered. “There was mass confusion at times,” Stoops says. Communication became paramount after the switch. Cooks would show his players an offensive formation on film and blurt out a call. The Sooners would have to identify the strength of that formation and what their responsibilities were. If a man went in motion or the alignment shifted, Cooks required the players to verbalize any adjustments to the call.
This was not a revolutionary method for coaching a position group. But Oklahoma’s secondary needed to be better talkers, and they needed to speak the same language. So in the room, Cooks got them conversing like they would outside of it. “Once we got to the field,” Parker says, “it was like we couldn’t do anything without communicating with each other.”
It helps, naturally, that players like Parker and cornerback Will Johnson are no longer true freshmen heaved into the mix prematurely, like they were at the end of 2014. The Sooners have a fine-tuned back four to complement a similarly harmonized, veteran linebacker group that features one senior and two juniors. “The older you get, the more confident you get in your game,” Striker says. “That allows you to play freely.” The confidence and cohesion also enables a defense to limit big-play strikes that can undermine everything. In its last four games, Oklahoma has played 297 defensive snaps; only nine of those snaps have resulted in gains of 20 or more yards for the opposition.
Of course, it’s hard to break a big play if defenders latch on early. Oklahoma transformed its tackling a bit in the off-season, as Stoops became another defensive coach influenced by the Seattle Seahawks’ “Hawk tackle” instructional video, released in the summer of 2014. The video posits that a rugby-style tackle is a safer and more effective way to corral ballcarriers because it protects the defenders’ heads and attacks the offensive players low. In the mind of the Sooners’ defensive coordinator, taking speed out of runners’ legs made plenty of sense, especially with the way Big 12 attacks spread defenses across the entire field.
So each Oklahoma position group watched the video at least once in the off-season, followed by the group digesting it as a whole. Stoops says the Sooners’ preseason camp included four stations of tackling each day to implementing varied techniques. “It wasn’t just an angle tackle or a form tackle,” Stoops says. “We really worked movement tackles, tracking tackles, compression tackling—when two guys compress the ball at once. All those types of tackles that happen in a game. Just from the naked eye, I can tell we’re a better tackling team in space, and we play more in space than any conference in America.”
The change was significant even if it wasn’t all that drastic. And the Sooners continue to drill down on those fundamentals well into November.
“Tackling is the game, right?” Striker says. “When you think about it, you tackle the ballcarrier, right? It’s as simple as it gets. You really have to practice on those mechanics and be very detailed.”
The demands to be mechanically and technically sound begin to spike this weekend in Waco. The Sooners are well aware they won’t record another shutout anytime soon—“That’s almost ridiculous,” Stoops says with a rueful laugh—but they also know the more realistic imperatives of limiting points per possession and getting off the field on third downs are matters of efficiency. And that’s exactly where they’ve improved the most since a year ago.
The areas in which Baylor and the other offenses stress a defense—playing in space, one-on-one matchups, assignment discipline—correspond to the areas Oklahoma directly and indirectly addressed all off-season. So far the results have been precisely what Stoops and the rest of the coaching staff imagined they’d be. A unit less vulnerable to lapses is exactly what Oklahoma needs for this moment.
“The room for error is so little in big games like this,” Striker says. “I mean, inches. Those inches are important. You have to be in the right spot.”
The Sooners haven’t seen anything like what’s coming, of course.
But, it should be noted, neither have the other guys.
Each week, The Walkthrough talks to two assistant coaches about a key upcoming matchup. In Week 11, it’s a Minnesota’s top 20 pass defense featuring two All-Big Ten cornerbacks (Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun) going on the road to face Iowa and gun-slinging quarterback C.J. Beathard.
Greg Davis, Iowa offensive coordinator: “(Beathard) is a tough guy. He’s played for about a month now because of limited practice for an adductor strain in his groin. Kids respect that. Mechanically, he’s in really good shape—his throwing mechanics, his feet in the pocket. The thing we’re working on now and will continue to work on is, ‘How much faster can I process information?’ You saw this, you anticipated this, the ball could’ve left your hard quicker. Or, maybe this first choice is not going to be there. So why spend much time on that first choice? Let’s get to the second choice. You can tell (Minnesota has) confidence in (Murray and Boddy-Calhoun) because they’re not afraid to play man. They played Ohio State in man almost every third down. Well, you don’t do that unless as a staff you have confidence that those guys can hold up. The thing I like about Murray is that he is strong with his hands. They press him quite a bit, and he's not easy to get away from. He and Boddy-Calhoun both run well and they have good hips. Their staff has done a nice job of mixing things up, and their players have done a good job of responding. Our guys know we’re going to have to beat some man coverage with routes, with separation and with ball placement.”
Jay Sawvel, Minnesota secondary coach: “Week 1, I think we were about as good a secondary as there was in the country. But four of our top seven from Week 1 are out right now. In the secondary, we’ve lost guys to an ACL, a torn hamstring, a collapsed lung and a broken leg. These are, really, some freak things. What we try to do, we have a lot of different matchup concepts, and it’s always predicated toward finding the opponents’ best players, and trying to work to find a way to take those away. (Murray and Boddy-Calhoun) gave us a chance at Ohio State last week in the different roles they played. We really did a good job in the run game against Michigan, and in large part it had to do with those two guys and not having to devote other people to the perimeter receivers. We played Iowa last year—a big key to that was we played really well at corner in that game. This year, we’ll have to play extremely well at that position to have a chance. We have to be able to win the one-on-ones in two-back situations, when you have to have enough people to stop the run against a team like Iowa. You have to be able to win the one-on-ones down the field when they do take their play-action shots. The second phase of it, you have to be able to get them off the field on third down. That’s where the aspect of having guys who can cover and play man comes into it. You have to be able to do those two things really well.”
• USC at Colorado: Clay Helton may not get the permanent job with the Trojans after this season. But as USC piles up wins under his watch, it’s a pretty good audition for a head gig somewhere else.
• Georgia at Auburn: Guz Malzahn’s team is sneakily no longer a disaster. Another win and you start to wonder what it’s capable of in the Iron Bowl two weeks later.
• Florida at South Carolina: It’s two straight road losses by a touchdown or less for the Gamecocks, while the Gators are coming off a stirring 9–7 win over Vanderbilt. You wonder if this is the spot where Week 11 gets weird.
• Ohio State at Illinois: I wouldn’t expect the athletic department tumult in Champaign to trickle down to the players too much. After all, what else is new? A locked-in J.T. Barrett is a must, though, for the Buckeyes to avoid a look-ahead scare.
• Wake Forest at Notre Dame: Health is the primary objective for the Fighting Irish for the next two weeks. Getting C.J. Prosise (concussion) back and keeping everyone else upright for a Nov. 28 showdown at Stanford is paramount.
• Clemson at Syracuse: The Tigers are coming off of their momentous victory over Florida State, but they already beat Georgia Tech on the road after securing a massive home win against Notre Dame. The only question should be how many style points Clemson can pile up.
• Alabama at Mississippi State: The Bulldogs’ energizing 2014 run ended with a fourth-quarter fade in Tuscaloosa. Can Dak Prescott (18 passing TDs, one interception this season) return the favor and put a massive dent in the Tide’s title hopes?
• Oklahoma State at Iowa State: This is where the Cowboys’ national title hopes were effectively stifled in 2011. It’s hard to imagine a repeat of the on-field result.
• Michigan at Indiana: Suddenly, the path to a Big Ten title game appearance for Jim Harbaugh’s team is not as clouded, though the Wolverines still need some help. First things first, avoid stumbling against the Hoosiers, who gave Iowa all it could handle a week ago.
• Memphis at Houston: The Tigers’ loss to Navy last weekend mutes the resonance of this one, but the identity of the Group of Five’s rep in the New Year’s Six bowls will come into sharper focus.
• Oregon at Stanford: Vernon Adams has thrown 10 touchdowns against three interceptions in three straight Ducks wins. But the Cardinal have won their four home games by an average of 25 points.
• BYU at Missouri: This is a game that means nothing and everything. The spectacle of empowered Tigers players, fresh off helping oust a school president with the clout of their voice, should be something to see.
• Oklahoma at Baylor: I’m not sure how Jarrett Stidham’s 419-yard, three-touchdown performance in his first start would be considered so-so, as it was by some. But the level of defensive resistance should spike this week for the Bears’ true freshman.
• Minnesota at Iowa: We’ll see if naming Tracy Claeys permanent head coach gives the Golden Gophers an emotional lift. Anything can happen in a battle for a bronze pig. But memories of a 51–14 loss in 2014 may be enough to spur the Hawkeyes to their first 10–0 start in program history.
The hair-raising end
The college football season moves into Week 11, and the earth is moving every weekend, swallowing some while others survive. Feel the shake.