OU defense could take another step forward

NORMAN, Okla. -- What a difference a year makes.

Last spring Oklahoma was searching for answers after Johnny Manziel embarrassed its defense while accounting for a Cotton Bowl-record 516 total yards in a 41-13 Texas A&M win. This spring, the Sooners defense can hold its head high after being the foundation of an 11-2 record, including a Sugar Bowl win over Alabama in 2013.

After a switch to a 3-4 approach, OU’s 2013 defense was more aggressive, more athletic and faster than the 2012 version. OU led the Big 12 in yards allowed (350.2), passing yards allowed (212.54) and first downs (17.9) while finishing second in points allowed (22.1), sacks (33) and third down conversion percentage (33.7).

But life isn’t perfect for OU defensive coordinator Mike Stoops.

If the Sooners have designs on returning to the national title landscape, the defense will have to take another step forward this fall.

A closer look at the numbers reveals plenty of room for improvement. While the Sooners finished in the top half of the Big 12 in nearly every category, OU was sixth in the conference in yards per play allowed at 5.38, which ranked No. 52 among FBS teams. Thanks in part to OU’s stellar running game, the Sooners defended 846 total plays, the fewest in the Big 12.

With that knowledge in hand, Stoops wants to make his defense even more versatile and athletic this fall.

“We’re just tweaking our defense, and it has to fit the people that are playing it,” Stoops said. “We learned a lot going through the self-scout of a year ago; what was different about it and what issues we have.”

As OU transitioned to the 3-man front, Stoops learned a lot about how offenses would attack his defense. He singled out Oklahoma State as one of the Big 12 squads that featured an offensive approach that he can use to learn from and make the OU defense better in 2014.

"There were some issues that arose, and just having a year to see how people are going to block it," Stoops said. "Now that we see things we’ll be able to react to see how people want to block us. I think really gives you some information to fall back on.”

Being able to adjust and adapt to blocking schemes during the game is one piece of the puzzle. Being able to do the same with personnel is another key piece.

And spring is the perfect time to try different things, from training starters at different positions to finding ways to get certain players on the field. OU plans to use the next few weeks to challenge its defenders while making sure Stoops and the rest of the defensive staff have plenty of options when trying to find ways to stop Big 12 offenses.

“We’re trying to get our best eleven on the field always, no matter what the situation is,” Stoops said. “Obviously, long yardage creates a package, but we’re always trying to find our best eleven or 12 players, constantly.”

For example, junior linebacker Eric Striker, one of the Big 12’s best pass rushers, has spent time working on his pass-coverage skills while lining up at nickelback this spring.

“It’s just something I have to get used to,” Striker said. “I’m getting better at it as practice goes on. It’s something new to learn. It’s fun and I’m getting more comfortable.”

As he becomes more comfortable, OU’s defense becomes more lethal. In 2013, more often than not, teams could count on Striker rushing the passer if he was on the field. This fall, OU hopes Striker can hold his own in coverage and continue to terrorize quarterbacks, thus keeping offenses off balance at all times. Stoops willingness to tinker with one of the strengths of his defense shows he is aiming to make the Sooners’ defense one of the nation’s best units this fall. It's a defense that returns nine of the 11 Sugar Bowl starters and a roster full of talented young defenders into the anchor of OU’s title run, but players and coaches alike know it starts this spring.

“I think they understand how good they can be,” Stoops said. “Now, are they willing to work every day to become that unit? That is where we’re at. We’re starting to gain quality players right now in our backup positions that can play a lot of different places. They’re trying to earn their way onto the field; that’s what I notice, a lot of players trying to play their way on the field. When they’re doing that, it creates good competition.”