NORMAN, Okla. -- The first time he stepped on the field as a Sooner, defensive end Charles Tapper felt uncertainty.
“It was nerve-racking,” he said.
In the Sooners’ 2012 season opener, the UTEP offensive tackle on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage did his best to intimidate Tapper, then just a freshman.
“I was kind of scared to go out there at first,” Tapper said. “The offensive tackle was just staring at me and I was just shaking.”
So instinct took over.
“So I tried to do a basketball move and he just threw me out of the way,” said Tapper, who was a standout basketball player who didn’t play football until his junior year at Baltimore (Md.) City College High School.
Later in the game, Tapper got the best of his one-on-one battle, pressuring UTEP quarterback Nick Lamaison in the final minutes of OU’s 24-7 win.
“After my first snap I was OK, I was ready to play,” Tapper said.
Those moments in El Paso, Texas, define Tapper's first season at OU. During times of uncertainty, the raw defeensive end turned to his basketball roots yet when he focused on his football fundamentals, he saw success.
As Tapper enters his sophomore season, the Sooners hope football becomes more natural for Tapper. If it does, his untapped potential could transform him into a productive player.
But it’s going to take time.
If you ask most Sooners how they’d like to improve this summer, improving techniques, fundamentals and adding strength are likely responses. It’s not that way with Tapper. When he stepped on campus last summer, he immediately began to understand how much he did not know.
“Learning the game of football was my biggest challenge,” he said. “I’m kind of a raw talent, back home we didn’t really work out. I just played basketball in the street, in the gym, went to practice and that was it.”
Basketball is king in Baltimore, so football remained in the background for Tapper until then-defensive ends coach Bobby Jack Wright uncovered him and offered shortly after his junior year, earning his commitment before his senior season in high school. Wright held off late charges from West Virginia and others to land Tapper, bringing him to Norman where he played his way out of a redshirt season. Coaches and teammates raved about his ability during preseason practices but he only saw limited action, finishing with two tackles in five games.
“I wanted to play in every game but the coaches didn’t really trust me,” he said. “And I understand, I was kind of young to the game, didn’t really have any experience in football at all.”
But last fall didn’t go to waste. Tapper used the time to continue his development, turning to his fellow defensive linemen including departed starters R.J. Washington and David King who helped mentor the freshman by teaching some of the ins and outs of football.
It’s paying off as Tapper began the Red-White spring game alongside Geneo Grissom as the Sooners' starting defensive ends.
“Charles Tapper has really come along and played well,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said this spring.
But he still has a long way to go. Even though he’s emerging as a solid player, Tapper continues to focus on improving his football IQ and new defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery is playing a key role.
“He’s taking his time, working with me, making sure I understand,” Tapper said. “Last year, sometimes, I used to sit back and think I knew. But he makes sure I do, he makes me answer questions and all of that.”
Tapper is a quick learner and overcoming his lack of football IQ to play in his first college game is a clear sign that the former basketball star can adapt quickly.
“If you tell Charles what to do, and explain it well enough, he has it,” defensive tackle Torrea Peterson said. “Charles is special in that aspect, I think he’s going to be a good player.”
Heading into the summer, Tapper still has learning the game at the forefront of his mind. Asked what he will need to do to be a impact player in 2013, the 6-foot-4, 253-pound sophomore pointed to learning off the field.
“Understanding the playbook better,” he said. “Understanding the coverages the secondary is playing [is key] so even if I make a mistake I can just fix it myself.”
His continued development could be critical. The Sooners are in dire need of pass rushers after finishing with 24 sacks in 2012, ranking fifth in the Big 12. If Tapper can become a consistent pass rushing threat, OU’s chances of stopping some of the Big 12’s top offenses will improve immensely.
“Ability speaks for itself,” Peterson said. “Having football IQ is a totally different aspect of the game that can elevate a guy from good to great. Once he gets that, it’s going to be a fire show, I think he’s going to be all right.”