Previewing the Oklahoma Sooner Defense

Brett Deering

The stats, personnel, and schemes that make up the Oklahoma defense. Ranked high in most defensive categories, it will take an outstanding game from the Alabama offense to find sustained success.

Last week, as a precursor to the defensive preview, we took a look at the leader and most decorated of the Sooner defenders, corner Aaron Colvin. The thought was that he would have deserved a lengthy section in this preview article, so rather than going over that again, I will just refer you to that article for more info on Colvin. This week we will cover the remainder of the defense, along with analyzing a few plays and hopefully picking up some tendencies to look out for during the Sugar Bowl.

In the Colvin article, I mentioned the recent history of the Oklahoma defense, but decided against getting too involved in general information until this article. I wrote that the recent iterations of Sooner defensive squads were not impressive, like their Big 12 brethren, but that coach Bob Stoops had taken steps to solidify the unit over the past few years. The first step taken was the re-hiring of Bob’s brother, Mike Stoops, as defensive coordinator before the 2012 season. After being ranked 55th in total defense in 2011, the hope was that Mike could come in, after 8 years as head coach at Arizona, and return Oklahoma to the days of powerhouse defenses that the Sooners enjoyed around the turn of the century. During Mike Stoops’s first stint as Sooner DC under brother Bob from 1999-2003, Oklahoma had defenses that were ranked no. 8 (’00), no. 4 (’01), no. 10 (’02), and no. 3 (’03) nationally in total defense.

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via cdn2.sbnation.com

Like Coach Nick Saban, Mike Stoops’s background is with the defensive backfield, and that experience paid immediate dividends in 2012. The Oklahoma defense, which had given up 242 passing yards per game in ’11, only gave up 207 in ’12, ranking 2nd in the Big 12 and 29th nationally (the 242 in ’11 was ranked 79th ). The problem was that the Sooners’ rushing defense devolved from 44th ranked in the FBS (135 ypg) in 2011 to 94th in ’12, giving up 193 ypg. So despite the vast improvement defending the pass and having two defenders on the All Big 12 first team, Colvin and fellow DB Tony Jefferson, the defense went from allowing 376 yards per game in ’11 to allowing 400 yards per game in ’12. Needless to say, the fan base was not impressed.

Coming into the ’13 season, Stoops knew that giving up 400 yards and 26 points a game was not where he wanted the defense to be. Against West Virginia, Oklahoma State, and Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl, the ’12 Sooners gave up 778, 618, and 663 yards respectively. Mike Stoops wanted a change that would allow for his linebackers, basically non-existent in 2012, to get involved but would still be able to keep up with the spread offenses of the Big 12. His answer, after an assist from coach and friend Nick Saban, was to switch from a 4-man to a 3-man front. Instead of a more traditional 3-4, similar to what Alabama runs in the physical SEC, Stoops adopted a 3-3-5 defense to get more speed and athleticism on the field.

The change has made a great impact, as this year’s Sooner defense is the best that the team has fielded in years. Ranked 21st in scoring D (21.3 ppg), 26th against the rush (138.33 ypg), 16th against the pass (198 ypg), and 14th in total D (336 ypg), the stats show that this defense has turned the corner. With plenty of young talent, it’s easy to believe they will be stout for the foreseeable future.

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via cdn0.sbnation.com

Colvin you already know, he wears the number 14 and will most likely be following Amari Cooper around the field. There are a few other numbers you will need to be aware of heading into this game.

Up front at DE, is number 91 Charles Tapper. Tapper, a sophomore, has 5.5 sacks and 9 tackles for loss on the season. The first year starter has made a name for himself as a force on the line, gaining all Big 12 first team (coaches, 2nd team AP) accolades in the process. 6 foot 4, 261 from Baltimore, MD, Tapper has a good motor, plays fast and aggressive, and will be Oklahoma’s main pass rushing threat.

Stepping back to LB, coming into the season, the Sooners had a young phenom coming in that everyone expected to be a force at linebacker. Frank Shannon (20), redshirt sophomore, has certainly played well enough. But his play has been overshadowed by an unexpected, even younger phenom. After Corey Nelson went down mid-season with a pectoral tear that shelved his season, freshman Dominique Alexander (42) stepped in and has really been a revelation. The 6’2 216 lbs OLB was named Big 12 defensive freshman of the year by the coaches and Big 12 defensive newcomer of the year by the AP. Accumulating 75 tackles while only starting the last 7 games, Alexander is ranked 2nd on the team to Shannon who has 85. He played big in the Sooners biggest games, making 11 tackles, including a safety, and a forced fumble against Baylor, 10 tackles against Oklahoma State, and 19 tackles including 1 for loss in his first start against Texas.

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via cdn3.sbnation.com

During the lead up to the game, you will inevitably hear a lot about Aaron Colvin, and deservedly so. The guy is an elite cover corner and an instinctive defender. But during gameplay, you very well may hear the name of the other corner much more often. Zack Sanchez (15), a 5-11 176 redshirt freshman, has the unenviable task of playing opposite Colvin. This means he gets targeted like crazy. Despite this, he has held up pretty well. He has 12 pass break ups on the season as well as an interception returned for TD against Kansas State.

Here are a few examples of the strengths and weaknesses of the OU defense exhibited during the Oklahoma State game.

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This first play is from the middle of the third quarter, with the Sooners down 17-10 and Okie State with a first and 10 on their own 25. The play call is a jet sweep to the play side (right), where the QB just pitches the ball to the receiver in motion, in this example no. 5 Josh Stewart.

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Pay attention to how the freshman Dominique Alexander (42, circled) diagnoses the play and rather than trying to engage the blocking too early, just stretches the play toward the sideline.

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Here Stewart has his blocks set up and thinks he has a crease.

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But Alexander makes the tackle. His sideline to sideline speed is reminiscent of CJ Mosley, and his awareness is very advanced for a freshman, also like Mosley when he was that age. Keep an eye on 42 during the game.

This next play is later in the game, with 9:30 to go in the 4th, and Oklahoma leading 20-17. The Cowboys are driving and have a first and ten here. It is imperative that the Sooners get a stop to remain in the lead.

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This is yet another jet sweep to Stewart (5), this time to the back side (left). I’ve circled Charles Tapper so you can see the potential he has to disrupt plays.

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Oklahoma State wisely decides to double team Tapper (91) with the LT (58, Daniel Koenig) and the LG (51, Brandon Webb). Also notice Eric Striker (19) for the Sooners, he is a linebacker playing up on the line to the right of Tapper. Ok St FB/TE Jeremy Seaton (44) is blocking Striker in this image.

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By Striker pushing upfield to the outside of Seaton, that disrupts Stewart (5), and Tapper does the rest.

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You can see Tapper’s strength to stand up the double team here. He actually pushes Ok St’s left tackle, 310 lb Koenig, back into Stewart to trip him up and make the play.

Both of those examples show the good play of Oklahoma’s young stars of the front 6. Here we look at a weakness that many teams exploited when the Sooners got too aggressive.

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This play is 2 plays after the last one, on a 3rd and 5 from the Sooner 37 and Okie State needing a score. I’ve circled freshman corner Zack Sanchez. Here is lines up across from Cowboy Senior receiver Charlie Moore (17).

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The Sooners call an all out blitz on this play, sending 7 to get to QB Clint Chelf before he can make his reads.

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The Cowboys only have 6 blockers including the RB, so it won’t take long to get pressure. Because of the blitz, everyone in the building should know that the Cowboys have man to man single coverage on all of their receivers.

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If this was a blitz coming at AJ, what do you think he’d do? I love McCarron but I also know him well. Most likely he would drop to the fetal position here and concede the sack. Chelf, on the other hand, knows he has single coverage on his senior receiver deep left from the Sooners freshman corner. He pulls the trigger here before the blitz gets home.

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Sanchez (15), as Chelf predicted, was out of position and has his back to the ball. A deeper throw is probably a TD. As it is, it was still a very good throw.

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Right where the receiver can make a play and the corner cannot. Spoiler Alert: Moore (17) drops this ball, forcing the Cowboys to punt, when they could’ve had a 1st and 10 on the Sooners 18. Then perhaps this preview is covering Oklahoma State’s defense?

As you can determine from the stats, personnel, and plays, this defense is formidable. Like all defenses, it has its weaknesses too. The 3-3-5 has shown that it is susceptible to a strong rush attack. And despite the experience and talent in the defensive backfield, getting freshmen corners on islands against good receivers will give the offense opportunities. That said, don’t be surprised if Mike Stoops comes out in a more traditional 3-4 defense, expecting a heavy dose of run from Alabama. If true, then I really think that Alabama has an advantage, as the defense will need some time to adapt to roles that some are not familiar with outside of practice. Either way, the key will be McCarron doing what he does best: reading what the defense shows and making the proper adjustments to give his playmakers the advantage.

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