Saturday, September 5, 2009

This year, Sooners counting on defense


In 2008, Oklahoma had a record-setting offense in a conference known for its high-flying attacks. This season, it has last year’s Heisman Trophy winner, Sam Bradford, returning at quarterback. It also has a coach, Bob Stoops, whose 0-5 record in Bowl Championship Series games since the 2002 season has turned the nickname “Big-Game Bob” into something of a misnomer.

Despite all of those story lines, the Sooners hope their defense will start to draw some attention. Although no Big 12 team could boast about its defense last season — the conference’s spread offenses ruled, roasting any given secondary — there are some in Norman, Okla., who noticed a development in Oklahoma’s defensive presence.

“Experience is everything,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables told reporters at Oklahoma’s media day.

This season, Oklahoma is thin on the offensive line but has a host of returning skill-position players. The Sooners’ primary rival, Texas, also returns many key offensive starters. The difference is that Oklahoma returns nine defensive starters while Texas has some questions on that side of the ball.

“That is where we have come along this year, because we don’t accept ... that giving up seven or 14 points is OK,” linebacker Travis Lewis said of Oklahoma’s defense. “That is not our mentality at all. We want to go shut people out, regardless of the great players that are in this league.”

The Big 12’s wealth of offensive playmakers burnished the league’s high-flying reputation last season. And Oklahoma, which lost to Florida in the BCS title game, often succumbed to the conference’s star power.

Against Oklahoma last season, Texas quarterback Colt McCoy completed 28 of 35 passes for 277 yards and a touchdown, leading two scoring drives in the fourth quarter to rally the Longhorns from a five-point deficit. The Longhorns won, 45-35.

Kansas finished with 491 yards of total offense against the Sooners, Kansas State had a season-high 550 yards, and Oklahoma State quarterback Zac Robinson and wide receiver Dez Bryant helped the Cowboys roll up 452 yards.

The Sooners did, however, hold Texas Tech’s high-octane offense to 406 yards, its second-lowest total of the season.

Oklahoma ranked third in the Big 12 in total defense (367.7 yards per game) and second in scoring defense (24.5 points per game). But on a national scale, the Sooners ranked 68th and 58th in those categories.

For Oklahoma’s defense this season, it all starts up front. Gerald McCoy and Adrian Taylor form what may be the nation’s best combination of tackles. With their ability to clot the middle of the line, Oklahoma ranked 20th nationally last season against the run (116.2 yards per game).

“They’re accurate, they can run, they’re explosive, they’re disruptive,” Venables said. “I think that gives us a chance to be really good.”

McCoy had 61⁄2 sacks last season and was named second-team all-American by the Associated Press. With a blend of strength and quickness, McCoy, a junior, is effective in jamming running lanes and rushing the passer. McCoy was considered a top professional prospect but chose not to enter the NFL draft this past spring. He has been vocal in the offseason about taking care of unfinished business.

“He is one of the biggest leaders we have on this team,” Lewis said of McCoy. “He leads by example. He goes out there a high-energy guy and dominates every play. I would hate to line up against him.”

Lewis was named Big 12 defensive freshman of the year last season and recorded 144 tackles, an Oklahoma freshman record. Lewis shone as the heart of the linebackers with the Sooners facing injuries and uncertainty at the position last season.

Linebacker Ryan Reynolds is coming off his second torn anterior cruciate ligament, and there is also talent at the position with Austin Box and Keenan Clayton. The Sooners also have depth concerns at secondary, which showed gaping holes last year.

Oklahoma’s defense was an afterthought last year because Bradford led the Sooners’ mile-a-minute offense. He threw for 4,720 yards and 50 touchdowns and set an NCAA record for pass efficiency in a season (180.8). Oklahoma scored the most points in a season (716) by a major college football program and had an NCAA-record 99 touchdowns.


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