NORMAN, Okla. — Oklahoma’s defensive improvement wouldn’t have been possible without Alabama.
Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops was looking to alter the defensive scheme during the offseason, with an eye on making OU’s defense more versatile, more athletic and more aggressive. A three-man front seemed to fit in line with those goals, so the obvious place to turn was to the defending national champion Crimson Tide, particularly because Bob and Mike Stoops have a good working relationship with Alabama coach Nick Saban.
“You go to the best to get the information if the willingness to share with us is good,” Mike Stoops said. “That’s where you like to exchange ideas.”
OU transformed from the four-man front it used in 2012 to the three-man look. The result was a defense that finished among the top 25 nationally in opponent adjusted QBR (35.4), points per game (21.3), total yards (336.3), passing yards per game (198), passing yards per attempt (6.27), first downs (17.8) and third-down conversion rate (32.5 percent), improving over last year's squad in each of those categories.
Mike Stoops' unit was the foundation of OU’s 10-2 record, earning them an Allstate Sugar Bowl berth against the team that helped make it all happen.
“When we made this move to a 3-4, they helped us with a lot of install,” Mike Stoops said of the Alabama influence on the 2013 Sooners. “Chad Walker, who is our quality control guy who works with me in structuring our defense, spent four or five years with Nick. He’s helped me tremendously to put this thing together. They understand it better than anybody. Coach Saban has been running this and variations of all kinds of defenses.”
The Stoops brothers and Saban have sharing ideas for years, with OU coaches visiting Alabama and vice versa during the past few offseasons.
“We have always exchanged ideas,” Mike Stoops said.
But it’s not like OU will take the field running Alabama’s defense on Jan. 2. The Sooners have their own spin on things, adjusting schemes to fit their personnel and the wide-open spread attacks they typically face in the Big 12.
“Some things fit what you are doing, and maybe the same for them,” Bob Stoops said of the idea-sharing. “It’s not like you are doing everything they are doing. It’s just certain ideas fit and you can add to what you are already doing.”
Creating a defense that puts more linebackers on the field was a driving force behind OU’s move to the 3-4. Linebackers were nonexistent in OU’s defense at the end of 2012, but that’s changed this season with Frank Shannon and Dominique Alexander ranking 1-2 in tackles for the Sooners. Shannon averaged 7.08 tackles per game and Alexander averaged 6.8. They each earned a spot among the Big 12’s top-20 tacklers.
“They’ve been huge for us,” cornerback Aaron Colvin said. “They’ve made a lot of plays. They’re some of the most productive players on our team this year. Those guys have definitely stepped up this year.”
Mike Stoops found the versatility and athleticism he was searching for at linebacker by using a 3-3-5 system with an occasional shift to the 3-4 approach against run-heavy teams.
“Structurally, it’s totally different,” Mike Stoops said. “Just putting them in position to make plays.”
No player fits those words better than sophomore linebacker Eric Striker. An afterthought as a freshman, Striker played mainly on special teams despite displaying pass-rushing prowess in practices. This season, he stepped into the Sooners’ starting 11 and earned second-team All-Big 12 honors with 43 tackles, including 7.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks.
“I didn’t know if we were going to change anything at first,” Striker said of the defensive scheme change. “We really didn’t know where we were going; we just went with it. Spring was cool and then we came up with a new one [scheme] in the fall and we ran with it. It fit us well and I fit into it well. It was a defense for the linebackers to go attack and have fun. It was a great opportunity for us.”
An opportunity with a little Crimson Tide influence.