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Oklahoma's Safety Position is Loaded Down With Talent, Experience and Potential

The Sooners have two starters back, a proven transfer, the top high school safety in the nation and plenty of intriguing talent that displayed great promise.

NORMAN — So Brent Venables expressly said Oklahoma’s secondary is the place where the team has shown the most improvement during the early stages of the 2023 offseason.

Now it’s up to OU safeties coach Brandon Hall to parse through the mounting collection of veterans, newcomers and talented youngsters to find the Sooners’ two or three best players.

“We're deeper, and we've got more experience in this system,” Hall said. “And we'll have more experience next year and the year after.”

Hall’s job won’t be easy because of all the talent and experience — but it beats the alternative.

There are two starters back in junior Billy Bowman and senior Key Lawrence. The 5-foot-10, 194-pound Bowman might have been the Sooners’ most consistent defender last year when healthy, with 59 tackles, three interceptions, five passes defensed and two total fumbles. The 6-1, 210-pound Lawrence might have the highest overall upside after posting 58 tackles, five passes defensed, one interception and two fumbles forced last year.

“I think for Key, for me, I've seen a huge jump,” Hall said. “He was somebody last year who you could tell at times was thinking too much. You're seeing him start to make a lot more plays. He had an interception today (in practice). I think that just comes from confidence and not having to think and playing fast. He's starting to smile a lot more. That's something I can see, that he's enjoying playing the game.

“Billy wants to be a leader. Billy cares. Billy wants to win every rep. The thing about Billy is that Billy's worst enemy is always going to be him. He holds himself to such a high standard, and the good thing for him is that as he gets more and more experience in this defense, I think you're going to see him start to become more vocal. That's something that we need at our position the most.”

There are plenty of new faces who could easily break into the starting lineup as well. Transfer Reggie Pearson was a starter at Wisconsin and Texas Tech. Freshman Peyton Bowen was widely rated among the top high school players in the nation last year.

“(Pearson) is a great athletes and he’s a film-study rat,” said sophomore Robert Spears-Jennings. “He’s going to stay in the film room and watch film and understand everybody’s job. He picked up the defense fast — faster than most of us. He practices like a vet, too.

“Peyton is young, but he’s very talented. He’s quick. He’s fast. Just a great athlete who has to bulk up a little bit. But he’s a great athlete with a great IQ.”

And then there are the young players who’ve been here but haven’t played a ton — yet. Like the 6-1, 215-pound Spears-Jennings, who played in the final nine games as a backup last year and finished with 15 tackles.

“He should've been in high school last year at this time,” Hall said. “Sometimes we forget that. He's a guy who hasn't played defense for very long. He hasn't played safety. He's very talented. He's very smart. He's going to have an unbelievable career here. But you're starting to see that athletic ability come through, and it'll only get better and better with the more confidence that he gets.”

Another is junior Damond Harmon, who played in seven games as a freshman and 10 games last year and actually broke into the starting lineup before a scary neck injury at TCU. The 6-0, 180-pound Harmon returned at full speed late last season, finished with 18 tackles in 10 games, and is competing this spring as well.

“He’s like anybody else,” Hall said. “I think he's starting to settle in a little bit. He's obviously very talented and very athletic, explosive. He's got great ball skills, as everyone knows, and the more snaps that he plays, the more time that he so to speak, you know, he's not thinking, you know, obviously, we'll start to see that talent show.”

The competition at this level is always intense. But at Oklahoma, there’s probably no position more intense than safety.

“It’s great,” Spears-Jennings said. “One off day and your spot could be gone. It keeps everybody on their toes and everybody keeps going. It’s going to bring the best out of everybody.”

The improvement that Venables noticed should be expected in everyone’s second year. Even Venables’ coaching staff is more comfortable teaching the system now in Year Two than they were last year, Hall said.

“It’s always great to be in a system multiple years in a row,” Bowman said. “When I first got here, I was in a new system. Then as a sophomore, another different system. Now going into the same system for the second year in a row. It brings experience. We know what we’re working on as a group so we can get those things fixed.”

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