The defensive coaching staff at Oklahoma became the primary scapegoat as the Sooners finished the 2011 season with three losses after beginning the year ranked No. 1 in multiple preseason polls.
While the Sooners' defensive coaches deserve plenty of blame, OU’s defense had several dominant performances in 2011 that seem to have been forgotten.
To make things easier, let’s examine the good, the bad and the ugly from Oklahoma’s defensive staff this season:
- Against Florida State, Texas, Kansas State, Kansas, Iowa State and Ball State, the Sooners allowed less than 4.25 yards per play. In big games against FSU, UT and KSU, OU’s defense was dominant and was the main reason for victories.
- With plenty of hype and pressure, the OU defense knocked out FSU quarterback E.J. Manuel and controlled the game by completely shutting down the Seminoles running game allowing just 27 yards on 26 carries in their September win.
- In the Red River Rivalry, OU’s run defense again controlled the game, holding UT to 36 rushing yards on 45 rushing attempts. The Sooners had eight sacks and forced five turnovers in the blowout win over the Longhorns. One of the most impressive performances of the season.
- Against Kansas State, the Sooners allowed just 240 total yards. Oklahoma sacked Wildcats quarterback Collin Klein seven times as KSU’s offense never found a rhythm or got on track against the Sooners.
- Defensive coordinator Brent Venables and OU’s defensive staff came up with a four defensive end package to get the Sooners best defenders on the field. The package, which featured Ronnell Lewis, R.J. Washington, Frank Alexander and David King, allowed OU to put pressure on the passer without needing to blitz on passing downs.
- Defensive ends coach Bobby Jack Wright had his group performing at a high level throughout the year. Senior Frank Alexander earned Big 12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year honors with 8.5 sacks while junior Ronnell Lewis had 5.5 sacks while becoming a legit NFL prospect at the position. And King and Washington combined for five sacks to make 19 total sacks by Wright’s top four defensive ends.
- At linebacker, sophomores Tom Wort and Corey Nelson both made terrific progress from their true freshman seasons, becoming key contributors on the defense. That speaks to Venables' tutelage with both players.
- In the secondary, Willie Martinez should receive some credit for the smooth transition of Aaron Colvin to safety and the strong play of Tony Jefferson despite the sophomore being moved around the defense all season long.
- There were early-season signs of trouble for OU’s defense when mental mistakes led to big plays against Tulsa in the season opener and physical limitations led to big plays from Missouri in OU’s first Big 12 conference game. The Sooners won both games but the cracks in their armor were pretty clear.
- The Missouri win was particularly troubling as the Sooners could not stop the run (241 rushing yards) or the pass (291 passing yards). Tiger running back Henry Josey showed teams how to take advantage of OU on the ground while using the spread offense. And Mizzou showed that the Sooners' secondary had limited depth.
This should have been the first sign to the coaching staff to prepare to find a way to mask their personnel limitations through altering schemes and personnel packages. It also should have sparked the coaching staff to get some of their backups more in-game reps show those players would gain confidence and be comfortable on the field when called upon.
Neither of those things happened.
- All three losses were ugly performances for the defense. While that group won its share of games in 2011, it lost its fair share, too, particularly against Texas Tech and Baylor.
- Against Texas Tech, the defense (or the offense for that matter) didn’t come out with any fire or intensity. That falls on the coaching staff. If the defense had come out with passion, the Sooners win. Simple as that.
- Against Baylor, the overriding theme seemed to be defenders trying to do too much. Secondary players jumping on short routes and pass rushers out of their lane, thus allowing the Heisman Trophy winner, Robert Griffin III, to create big plays with his feet. There are probably still Bears receivers running untethered through the Sooners secondary.
The most disappointing aspect for the coaching staff was seeing a long Baylor touchdown called back on the Bears first possession, yet no changes were made until late in the game.
- The loss to Oklahoma State wasn’t nearly as ugly as the other two. The defense played well early until a couple of game-changing fumbles by Landry Jones. The worst thing to say about the Sooners defense against OSU is they didn’t respond to major adversity well as Cowboys running backs Joseph Randle and Jeremy Smith began breaking off seven and eight yards per carry in the second half.
Frankly, there’s probably not too much the defensive coaching staff could have done against OSU once the Sooners offense’s struggles came to the forefront in Bedlam.
Two terrible performances shouldn’t overshadow multiple dominant performances by the Sooners defense.
Nonetheless, the defensive coaching staff should have recognized and addressed its personnel limitations earlier and, frankly, since they recruit every player on the roster, they deserve the blame for the lack of depth on defense.
Venables and company also should have altered the defensive system and schemes around their current personnel to try to mask the holes in the defense. While they can’t do anything about players' mental mistakes, they could have made things easier so there was less thinking and more reacting. And if a player continues to make mental mistakes, they should have someone ready to step in and, at the very least, play assignment sound defense.