Oklahoma football: Sooner secondary defensive unit’s No. 1 weapon

NORMAN, OK - OCTOBER 15: Cornerback Jordan Thomas
NORMAN, OK - OCTOBER 15: Cornerback Jordan Thomas /

Much has been written, both good and bad, about the defensive struggles that have plagued Oklahoma football in recent seasons.

In fairness, the Sooners’ defensive woes are not so much unique to Oklahoma as much as they are a universal issue endemic to the Big 12 style of wide-open offensive play. Six Big 12 teams were ranked in the nation’s top 20 in total offense last season, including three in the top six (Oklahoma was No. 2). Yet there was not one team from the Big 12 ranked in the NCAA Division I top 50 in total defense or in scoring defense.

This had to have driven a defensive-minded head coach like Bob Stoops absolutely bonkers. He would never acknowledge as much, but I would not be a bit surprised if that were a reason — even if just a minor one — in his decision retire after 18 mostly celebrated seasons at Oklahoma.

The strength of the Sooner defense coming into the 2017 defense is located in the back end, in the secondary — as it was also projected to be a year ago.

"If you will allow me to call a brief time out, I’d like to make a quick comment about the term “secondary.” That is a term frequently used to refer to the four players who form the last line of defense in a football defensive unit. When you breakdown the fundamental parts of a typical football defense, however, the players who compose the cornerback and safety positions, otherwise known as the defensive secondary, are the third line of defense. That would make them tertiary in the defensive alignment, wouldn’t it?"

The problem a year ago, I hasten to point out, was Oklahoma’s glaring deficiency in defending the forward pass, and especially fleet-of-foot receivers on balls thrown deep. The Sooners ranked 119th in the country in 2016 in passing yards allowed per game.

The Sooners’ pass defense skills actually improved over the latter half of the season and contributed to 10 consecutive OU wins to finish out the 2016 campaign. Over their final four games — a stretch that included Baylor, West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Auburn in the Sugar Bowl — Oklahoma allowed their opponents a combined pass-completion percentage of 46 percent and just over one touchdown pass per game.

Oklahoma Sooners Football
Oklahoma Sooners Football /

Oklahoma Sooners Football

With three of the four starting Sooner defensive backs returning from last season and competition battles going on at one of the safety positions and at the cornerback opposite All-Big 12 First Team honoree Jordan Thomas, has evolved over the past two season into an asset coming into the 2017 campaign from somewhat of a liability at times last season, especially during OU’s disappointing 1-2 start.

“We kind of started off slow, but we ended really great as the season went on,” starting free safety and three-year veteran Steven Parker told reporters after practice this week. “I feel like we are starting off on that great streak. We are starting off early instead of slow like we have in the past years.”

College football expert Phil Steele, who publishes his widely followed College Football Preview publication every year, likes the strength of the Oklahoma secondary coming into 2017. He rates the Sooner defensive backs as the 11th-best unit in college football entering this season.

To be fair, Steele also believes the other parts of the OU defensive unit are going to be pretty good also. He ranks the Sooner defensive linemen at No. 35 and the starting linebacker corps 18th nationally.

Thomas, who ranked fifth in the country a year ago with 1.5 pass breakups per game, and Parker, who has started 26 consecutive games for the Sooners are locks at one of the cornerback spots and at strong safety.

Sophomore Jordan Parker, who started the final eight games last season, is currently running No. 1 at the other corner position opposite Thomas, but he is getting a very strong push from fellow sophomore Parnell Motley, who played primarily on special teams a year ago but did see action at cornerback. Motley had a strong spring practice and made an interception in the spring game, and he has been impressive so far in training camp, according to defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks.

There is some depth forming at the free safety position, where senior Will Johnson is making a strong bid to be the starter. Johnson saw action there last season. He could also see some action at nickelback when the Sooners go with a package that includes five defensive backs. Sophomore Chanse Sylvie and true freshman Robert Barnes are also vying for playing time at free safety and positioning on the depth chart.

Another Sooner defensive back we are likely to much more from this season is junior Kahlil Haughton. He has played primarily at safety in the past.

Oklahoma’s top-10-rated 2017 recruiting class included several highly touted defensive backs. Barnes is one of them, and three others — Tre Brown, Justin Broiles and Tre Norwood — have caught the attention of OU coaches, which bodes well for the future.

You can see both the confidence and the competence building in the Sooner defensive backs after two weeks of training camp. You also here them talking it up a lot, which isn’t unusual among secondary players. It helps give them an edge and stay aggressive.

Next: Five standout Sooner season openers

Defensive backs coach Cooks says he doesn’t mind the chatter. He just wants to make sure his DBs can back up their words with action and positive results.