Stoops considers Oklahoma defense a work in progress as opener approaches

Posted Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
More information Oklahoma Last season: 10-3, lost to Texas A&M 41-13 in the Cotton Bowl. Season opener: Aug. 31, 6 p.m. vs. Louisiana-Monroe (FSN pay-per-view) What’s new: Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said the Sooners will not abandon their no-huddle offense, a weapon under former QB Landry Jones, but may cut back on its use because the team will feature a first-year quarterback surrounded by veteran linemen, running backs and receivers. In regard to extending drives by huddling more frequently, Stoops said: “It’s something to consider. Hopefully, we can stay on the field, eat some clock.” … Redshirt freshman Trevor Knight was named the starting QB Thursday, beating out junior Blake Bell. … Stoops said he still hopes to use defensive end D.J. Ward, a freshman who had an enlarged spleen removed during fall camp, in games this season. Ward, expected to miss six weeks, is eligible to redshirt. Big 12 countdown The Star-Telegram is featuring a Big 12 team daily leading up to opening weekend. Aug. 20: TCU Aug. 21: Texas Aug. 22: Oklahoma State Today: Oklahoma Saturday: Texas Tech Sunday: Baylor Monday: West Virginia Tuesday: Kansas Wednesday: Iowa State Aug. 29: Kansas State

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Pick a player in the defensive trenches at Oklahoma. Any player other than defensive tackle Chuka Ndulue, the lone returning starter from a unit depleted by the graduation of five seniors from last year’s line rotation.

Rest assured, that player still has questions left to answer in the mind of Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, whose team will open the season ranked below two other Big 12 schools in The Associated Press’ preseason poll (No. 16).

To a lesser degree, the same principle applies to Ndulue, who will line up in a new position after adding 30 pounds in the off-season to make the transition from defensive end to defensive tackle.

“It’s still a work in progress,” Stoops said about a Sooners defense that returns only four starters from last year’s unit that struggled to stop the run despite posting a 10-3 record and earning a Big 12 co-championship.

“There’s inexperience up front. We do feel we have quality players in those positions. I believe we have a chance to make improvement there. But it’s hard to come out and brag on them when they’ve got to get out there and play and earn that.”

Stoops’ troops also are thin at linebacker, where senior Corey Nelson (22 career starts) is the vocal leader of that group. He is joined in the team leadership role by senior cornerback Aaron Colvin, forming a duo that defensive coordinator Mike Stoops deems essential in efforts to improve a unit that ranked next-to-last among Big 12 schools in rushing defense last season (192.2 yards per game) and 64th nationally in total defense (398.3 average).

“I look for those two guys to really step forward and be the catalysts for our defense,” said Mike Stoops, who is heading into his second season in his second stint as OU’s defensive coordinator. “The leadership we must have to be successful is going to come from them.”

Because Mike Stoops tweaked the defensive scheme last season, moving the Sooners to a five-deep secondary alignment as their base defense, growing pains surfaced in the first year of implementation. Bob Stoops, Mike’s boss and older brother, is counting on more familiarity with the system to alleviate those issues in 2013.

“In some of our schemes a year ago, we were more coverage conscious and it hurt us in the run game,” Bob Stoops said. “In the end, we’ll have to make some adjustments there. There’s always a little bit of that with a new scheme. But if guys are in position to make plays, they’ve got to make them.”

Among members of the Sooners’ front seven, it is unclear who will be the primary playmakers other than Nelson and Ndulue. And it remains unclear whether Ndulue, who was arrested June 29 on suspicion of driving under the influence near the OU campus, will take part in the Aug. 31 opener against Louisiana-Monroe.

Reports this week said he and cornerback Cortez Johnson would be suspended for one game.

Johnson was arrested with wide receiver Jalen Saunders in December after the two were pulled over and found to be in possession of marijuana. Charges against Saunders were dropped.

In the defensive trenches, players capable of having breakthrough seasons include a pair junior-college transfers, DE Chaz Nelson and DT Quincy Russell, as well as sophomore DEs Charles Tapper and Mike Onuoha. A pair of sophomore linebackers, Eric Striker and Frank Shannon, could join that mix.

But the burden of proof, in terms of intangibles and production, falls on Nelson and Colvin, a pair of seniors expected to set the tone for their younger teammates. Both embrace the challenge of helping the Oklahoma defense return to its lofty standards of yesteryear, when the Sooners regularly ranked among the nation’s top 10 defenses during the early years of the Stoops regime.

“I’ve been a leader before. So I feel like I’m in my comfort zone,” said Colvin, who led the team in tackles (61) and interceptions (four) last season. “Now, I just have to be more vocal. I have to take my leadership aspect to a whole other level.”

Already a vocal presence in practices and huddles, Nelson said: “This is a very big year for me. I’m an older guy and I’m a leader. I feel like I have a lot to prove since last year was a down year [defensively]. It’s not just me. It’s the defense as a whole. We all have something to prove.”

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch

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