By John Shinn, CNHI News Service
NORMAN, Okla. —
Oklahoma had a simple goal back in the spring. After giving up an average of 5.2 yards per carry in 2012, it knew that average was way below acceptable.
Last season’s defensive-back heavy personnel groups counteracted the deep balls it was afraid of, but was susceptible against the run.
By November, all of its opponents knew it and exploited it at will. Baylor, West Virginia, Oklahoma State and then Texas A&M simply spread OU out and rammed the ball down its throat.
One of the reasons OU’s scheme failed: there were no linebackers to get in the way.
That’s the biggest change Sooner defensive coordinator Mike Stoops has made heading into this season. The alteration will get a huge test when No. 16 OU opens the season against Louisiana-Monroe at 6 p.m. Saturday at Owen Field.
The Warhawks have the type of scheme and quarterback that gave the Sooners fits last season. Kolton Browning threw for 3,049 yards and 29 touchdowns. He also rushed for seven more touchdowns.
The Sooners used to see quarterbacks like him once, maybe twice, a year. Now, it seems that way every week.
“That is the tricky part about it, is you have to cover so much ground and there’s a lot of run-pass conflicts,” Stoops said. “These teams run it as well as they throw it, and they certainly know how to create run-pass conflicts for everybody.”
OU has seen them throughout the preseason. Its offense is designed to do the same things.
But what have the Sooners’ linebackers done to make Stoops believe they’re a better option than a year ago? Well, the coaching staff has told them so.
“They want us to be the leaders of the defense,” weakside linebacker Corey Nelson said. “(Linebackers coach Tim) Kish always talks about us being the core of the defense or the quarterbacks of the defense and having to lead those guys, and the defense will be what we make it.”
It’s sentiment echoed by middle linebacker Frank Shannon.
“If the linebackers don’t perform, then the whole defense doesn’t perform,” he said. “The linebackers are supposed to be the leaders, and that’s one of our biggest challenges, is to step up and be better leaders on the field.”
Leadership is great. Being able to bring running backs at the line of scrimmage and cover slot receivers is more important.
The inability to do the latter kept Nelson on the sidelines more than he was accustomed to last season.
Creating scenarios where they can succeed is the hard part. The Sooners played man defense the majority of the time last season.
Stoops said incorporating the linebackers will cause that to change some. Everyone on the field has to do multiple things.
“You can’t play man if you’re gonna match those guys (linebackers) up on speed (slot receivers),” Stoops said, “so you’ve gotta be more zone-oriented if ’backers are gonna be in the game, because they certainly can’t match up with a great skill guy out there in the slot. We’ll try to implement some of those concepts.”
OU used spring practice and the last three and a half weeks as a test phase. Thus far, the results haven’t sent anyone back to the drawing board.
“There hasn’t been any of that,” Nelson said. “No one has been talking about that — especially the linebackers. We just go out there and play. We understand what the coaches want, so there really aren’t any surprises or talks behind closed door about whether we’ll be able to play of won’t be.”