Hunkered down in an ice bath in the Oklahoma training room,
sophomore defensive tackle Tommie Harris was stewing. Earlier on
this June afternoon, instead of running sprints with his fellow
linemen, Harris had joined the running backs in their heats,
pushing himself into a full-body cramp as a result. It's hard to
believe that so massive a person could keep up with a Sooners
tailback, but the 6'3", 289-pound Harris had been the one
forcing the pace--until he seized up at the end of the workout.
"At Oklahoma the fastest guys on the team run together, no
matter what their position," said Harris, his scowl deepening.
"A few of us big guys can keep up, so we challenge ourselves."
Deceptively nimble for his size, Harris can overpower or run down
practically anyone on the other side of the ball. Indeed, the
Sooners, the 2000 national champions and No. 6 in last year's
final rankings, have assembled a frightening array of such
athletes on defense. When a scheme calls for extra speed off the
edge, Harris, who runs the 40 in 4.67, will slide from defensive
tackle to end. So explosive and strong is 6'4", 265-pound junior
Jimmy Wilkerson that he was moved from linebacker to defensive
end before last season. Then there's 6'1", 195-pound senior Andre
Woolfolk, a human heat-seeking missile who worked double shifts
at wide receiver and cornerback for two seasons before being
assigned to the defense full time. At least four other Oklahoma
defensive players have All-America ability at more than one
position--"and some of them," says co-defensive coordinator Mike
Stoops, "are fighting for starting jobs."
When it comes to exploiting sheer athleticism, Sooners coach Bob
Stoops, Mike's older brother, has been putting on a clinic. When
he arrived in Norman in 2000, after seven years as defensive
coordinator at Kansas State and Florida, Oklahoma hadn't had a
shutout in eight seasons. In Stoops's first year his defense held
Florida State's mighty attack scoreless in the national
championship game, and Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden called it the
best D he'd ever seen. Last year, en route to an 11-2 record, the
Sooners finished fourth in the country in total defense, holding
four teams to three points or fewer and allowing just 262.8 yards
Much of the credit for that success goes to the swarming,
zone-blitzing schemes Bob Stoops installed to counter the rise of
the spread offense, which replaces tight ends and the fullback
with as many as five wideouts in both short- and long-yardage
situations. Those defensive sets require athletes who can match
up with the overflow of skill-position players on offense. "To
succeed against the one- and no-back sets you need to have a
defense that's equally flexible," says Brent Venables, who shares
defensive coordinator responsibilities with the younger Stoops.
"Because we'll almost always use five different fronts in one
game and zone-blitz a ton, the idea is to have players on the
field who can adapt to any situation. Defensive backs need to be
able to come up and stop the run, and linemen have to be able to
drop back and defend the pass. Surprise is our counter-weapon."
For the past two seasons counter-weapon No. 1 was safety Roy
Williams, the 6'1", 215-pound bundle of fast-twitch muscles whom
Stoops called upon to blitz like a linebacker or cover like a
corner, depending on the play. Williams's all-encompassing
ability earned him the 2001 Nagurski Award as the nation's best
defensive player and a job with the Dallas Cowboys, who made him
the eighth pick in April's draft. For any other team the
departure of Williams, who declared early for the draft, and
Rocky Calmus, who was voted the nation's top linebacker before
being drafted by the Tennessee Titans, would be cause for alarm.
Instead, Oklahoma's defense, which includes seven returning
full-time starters and only one senior, in Woolfolk, appears
more loaded than ever. Says Bob Stoops, "When you're running
your program correctly, you've got young players in the wings
who are dying to take over for the great ones."
Texas Tech receivers coach Sonny Dykes says strategy sessions
before Sooners games can run well into the night. "We go into
every game looking for matchups where the other team is weak, but
it's hard to find them with Oklahoma," he says. "For instance,
they'll let you throw underneath all you want, because they know
they can get to the ball and make the tackle. They have so many
versatile players who can do so many things."
One attribute common to all Oklahoma defensive players is the
ability to move at the breakneck clip required by the team's
ambush approach. In defiance of the prevailing notion that speed
comes out of Florida, all but one of the Sooners' projected
defensive starters hail from Oklahoma or Texas. (The exception is
Woolfolk, from Denver, who was recruited by the previous coaching
staff.) Believing a player can easily bulk up after he arrives on
campus, the Sooners will embrace a rangy schoolboy who has
exceptional quickness and agility, as long as he has the frame
that can hold the added muscle supplied with the help of the
team's weight program.
When scoping talent, Oklahoma coaches have little use for the
complex statistical analyses devised by recruiting services.
They'd rather know whether a prospect excels at multiple
positions or in multiple sports, evidence of wider athletic
ability. "We recruit athletes, not position players," says Mike
Stoops. "The first thing we look for is speed, and I'm not
talking about high school 40 times, which are bulls---. We're
looking for catch-up speed and the ability to change direction
on a dime. You can usually judge by a tape whether a kid can
keep up with our defense."
It took watching all of three plays on grainy video for the
Sooners' staff to conclude that Harris was worthy. "He had the
quickest feet for a big kid we'd ever seen," says Mike Stoops.
While nearly every major college in the country wanted Harris,
who was drawing comparisons to Warren Sapp while picking apart
high school offenses in Killeen, Texas, the Stoops brothers
scored with the same promise they've been delivering in other
Dust Bowl living rooms: We're not running a country club, but
the guy who makes the best plays consistently will get the
snaps. Harris took heart that seven true freshmen saw playing
time during Oklahoma's national championship run. "I got the
feeling that there were no games with the guy," says Harris of
Bob Stoops. "The best athletes play."
Harris's strength and speed were shockingly apparent on the day
the freshmen joined 2001 preseason workouts. "Tommie was so much
more physically mature than the other guys his age," says
Woolfolk. "Just standing around, he looked imposing." Later that
afternoon Harris bench-pressed 315 pounds in a set of 15 reps, a
number that he bumped to 21 within weeks. He then became the
first true freshman since Marcus Lowe in 1987 to start on the
Sooners' interior line.
Harris, who has been used primarily at tackle to stop the
first-down run or thwart the quick pass, liked the flexibility
afforded him by Oklahoma's swarming style. "It's so fun to play
in our defense," he says. "Every man has his own gap, and on
every down it's first-come, first-served. It's like we're all
after a piece of meat out there." By the end of his first season
Harris had a team-best 17 tackles for loss, as well as 14
quarterback hurries. Conference coaches named him the Big 12's
best freshman defensive player.
Wilkerson was an option quarterback and dominating linebacker
from Omaha, Texas, who in high school had 1,209 passing yards and
1,430 rushing yards, plus 111 tackles as a senior. He signed with
the Sooners to play linebacker and wound up as one of three true
freshmen to see time on defense for the national champions. In
preparing for the title game against Florida State, the staff
realized it needed extra speed on the pass rush and threw
Wilkerson into the practice rotation at defensive end. Despite
just a few drills' worth of experience, he played as if he were
born to the position, producing three tackles, a pass deflection
and two quarterback pressures against the Seminoles.
In addition to having the strength to bench well over 400 pounds
and the catch-up speed of a defensive back, Wilkerson intimidates
quarterbacks with his sharp reflexes and long limbs. Just ask
Texas's Chris Simms, whom he sacked three times in Oklahoma's
14-3 win last year. Operating mostly on innate ability in his
first full year on the line, Wilkerson produced 18 tackles for
loss and five sacks in 2001. "Jimmy had no idea what he was doing
out there last year," says Harris, "and he couldn't help but be
One of the biggest benefits of stockpiling multidimensional
athletes is instant depth. When a car accident sidelined
cornerback Michael Thompson before the 2001 season, Sooners
coaches had to address a shortage of defensive backs, five of
whom are required in 70% of Oklahoma's sets. They looked at the
opposite side of the ball, where Woolfolk had been making circus
catches since he was a redshirt freshman. A few weeks before the
start of the season Woolfolk was asked to spend half of practice
with the receivers and the other half with the secondary, where
he quickly added aggressive tackling to his resume. Now that his
field sense has caught up with his speed, he'll play almost
exclusively at corner this season. "Sometimes during a game I'll
look over my shoulder just to catch Andre breezing toward the
ball," says junior defensive tackle Kory Klein. "He makes the
most ridiculous plays look easy."
That's a talent shared by Williams's replacement, strong safety
Eric Bassey, who may be the next great defensive player to emerge
at Oklahoma. The 6'1", 195-pound redshirt freshman from Garland,
Texas--a defensive back, receiver, kick returner and district
champion in the 400 meters in high school--has the same
versatility that made Williams such a terror. At 4.32 in the 40,
Bassey is the fastest player on the team. "It's a bit of a gamble
[putting him in Williams's spot] since Eric's an unknown," says
Mike Stoops, "but I believe in his toughness and athletic
The Sooners began working Bassey into the starting rotation even
before last season ended. "That was in December, when Roy didn't
need any more reps," says Mike Stoops. "Our rebuilding always
starts the day after the last regular-season game--we see bowl
preparation as 20 extra spring practices." The defense, in
particular, has profited from the approach. After beating
Arkansas 10-3 in the Cotton Bowl, Harris and company shut out the
first-team Oklahoma offense in the spring game in April,
suggesting that this fall defense could carry the team back to
the national title.
But while natural ability is a prerequisite for Sooners defensive
players, the staff will rip into any player who doesn't put his
all into conditioning and practice. Players get the message the
moment they begin the team's jelly-leg-inducing off-season
workout program, in which noseguards are expected to keep up with
cornerbacks in early-morning mat drills and wind sprints up a
hill adjacent to Memorial Stadium. On a Monday morning in June,
players were rotating in precisely timed shifts from the weight
room to the practice turf to the dreaded hill. "We emphasize
footwork and eye-hand stuff more than other teams," says strength
and conditioning coach Jerry Schmidt, watching Harris lay into a
teammate in a one-on-one, quick-hands punching drill. "We don't
have guys dragging telephone poles up the middle of the field."
With seven of its top 11 defenders returning, Oklahoma had the
luxury this summer of concentrating on building strength. Schmidt
has been asked to push the weights and protein shakes in the
months leading up to the Aug. 30 season opener at Tulsa. "It's
been mad chaos in the weight room, everyone asking each other how
many times they put up 225," says Woolfolk, who has dropped his
body fat from 10% to 7% since last season, while increasing his
vertical jump to 38. Wilkerson has put on 25 pounds since last
summer and lowered his 40 time from 4.67 to 4.61.
"Total strangers have been poking at my arms in the mall or at
restaurants lately," says Harris, who has lowered his body fat
from 17.5% to 14.9% and added eight pounds of muscle. "But kids
have been calling me a monster since the 10th grade. I guess it's
a good thing, looking scary."
Good for Oklahoma. For the rest of the country, this
house-of-horrors defense will be a nightmare for years to come.
For a photo gallery of the Oklahoma defense and more preseason
college football features, go to cnnsi.com/football/college.
As co-defensive coordinator at Kansas State (with Jim Leavitt,
now coach at South Florida), defensive coordinator at Florida
and coach at Oklahoma, Bob Stoops has built three of college
football's best defenses. Here's how those units improved under
YARDS PER GAME POINTS PER GAME
SCHOOL SEASON (NATIONAL RANK) (NATIONAL RANK)
Kansas 1991 351.4 (54) 20.5 (44)
State 1992 341.5 (42) 21.2 (46)
1993 343.6 (35) 18.1 (28)
1994 312.6 (23) 14.2 (5)
1995 250.8 (1) 13.2 (2)
Florida 1996 281.1 (14) 16.8 (15)
1997 290.5 (12) 18.1 (19)
1998 286.6 (9) 14.1 (8)
Oklahoma 1999 344.4 (39) 18.4 (16)
2000 278.9 (8) 16.0 (7)
2001 262.8 (4) 13.8 (4)
The Sooners aren't the only team with defensive players boasting
otherworldly combinations of speed, strength and athleticism. A
slew of players have arisen who can single-handedly kill off
drives and wreak havoc on game plans. Who'll be this year's
LaVar Arrington or Roy Williams? Here are five dominant
defenders who don't wear Oklahoma crimson.
BOSS BAILEY, LINEBACKER
THE NUMBERS: 6'4", 218; 152 career tackles, including 65 last
year; possesses freakish 46-inch vertical leap.
THE QUOTE: "He's a physical linebacker who has the ability to
play like a defensive back," says Ole Miss coach David Cutcliffe.
"Anything that anybody says about him is true--he's that good."
DEWAYNE WHITE, END
THE NUMBERS: 6'3", 277; 15 sacks, second in nation, 27 tackles
for loss (seventh); Conference USA defensive player of the year.
THE QUOTE: "He's an instinctive player," says Southern Miss
coach Jeff Bower. "Coupled with his athleticism, speed and
toughness, that's what makes him dominant. He uses a little of
everything--quickness, speed and strength--to get to the
E.J. HENDERSON, LINEBACKER
THE NUMBERS: 6'2", 250; ACC defensive player of the year; 103
solo tackles last year, including a team-record 28 for loss.
THE QUOTE: "He makes quick reads and pursues from sideline to
sideline," says Georgia Tech offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien.
"The worst news we got was that he was coming back for his
TROY POLAMALU, SAFETY
SOUTHERN CAL, SENIOR
THE NUMBERS: 5'10", 215; First All-America DB at USC since '89;
98 tackles, three picks, three blocked punts in '01.
THE QUOTE: "A lot of safeties are strong against the run but not
always effective in pass defense," says Arizona coach John
Mackovic. "He's physical, arrives quickly and reads the play
CORY REDDING, END
THE NUMBERS: 6'5", 270; 57 tackles, including five sacks and nine
other tackles for loss last year; returned one interception for a
TD, somersaulting into the end zone.
THE QUOTE: "He has great mobility and excellent pass-rushing
skills," says Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum. "His size and
quickness make him special."