Oklahoma Preview: Defense and Special Teams

In my excitement for football season, I have been watching several youtube clips of past Longhorn highlights.  More specifically, I watched some clips and highlights of the classic 2008 RRS, one of the best games I have ever personally attended.  The rivalry became even more heated as the whole tiebreaker situation started to play out, but after that game, I think both sides knew they witnessed one of the more memorable games in the rivalry's recent history.  45-35.  Neither side will forget that score for various reasons.

I took in the highlights, smiled at the score, and then stored it away... because that is not a likely final tally this year.  The offenses are not as good and the defenses have caught up, and thus we got that lovely 16-13 game last year.  Don't get me wrong, I was very happy we won, but that was not exactly a very pretty game.

I'm hoping the Horns come out better offensively this year, but Oklahoma's defense will once again be a stubborn challenge.  Yesterday, I looked at their offense and place kicking, and I'll round up with everything else today.

Defensive Line

Bad news:  Jeremy Beal is really good.  But you already knew that.  He can play the run and pass well and he can be that annoying guy that just messes up all of your nice offensive gameplanning.  The rest of their defensive ends aren't slouches either.  Frank Alexander looks every bit the part of a good DE, and while his stats took a slight dip despite playing more last year than 2008, I expect him to be good.  Those that like to follow recruiting will know R.J. Washington, the former #1 rated DE out of high school, and perhaps David King, a four-star recruit.   Neither played much last year but they are very talented.  If you aren't feeling nervous about Britt Mitchell, please share your optimism with everyone.

As other writers have noted, their DT situation mirrors ours.  They have a known commodity in Adrian Taylor, although he is coming off of an injury.  After him, there are young players trying to fill in and provide depth.  Taylor right now is listed as a backup because of his injury, and in his place is Casey Walker.  Walker is a big guy and has drawn good reviews from camp, and he can serve as a run plug for OU's middle.   Beside them will be Stacy McGee and Jamarkus MacFarland.  McGee is pretty undersized, but he's quick and he can shoot up field.  MacFarland is, of course, one of the most popular Sooner players among Texas fans, and maybe if his mother lets him, he can actually do some damage.  

By all accounts, Taylor's progression from his awful ankle injury has been going well, so I'm assuming that by the time we face Taylor in October he'll be at full strength.  If not, that would obviously create a serious issue in an area where OU is lacking depth and experience.

I think our interior O-line has a chance to hold up, but their ends against our tackles does not make me feel happy.

Linebacker

Another name Longhorn fans should know well by now is Travis Lewis.  He's a tackling machine and he's pretty good in coverage.  Not a whole lot more to say about him; he's a Butkus award candidate.  Backing him up is highly touted recruit Cory Nelson.  He obviously has no experience, but from what little I've seen and know about him, he pursues the ball very well, he can blow up plays in the backfield, and he has good field awareness. 

On the strongside is Ronnell Lewis, who seems like the most hyped up defensive player for OU fans at the moment.  That is not without reason:  R. Lewis was a highly rated recruit, made his mark on special teams and in spot duty last year, and displays a great deal of natural athleticism.  He's big (240) and he carries that weight well.  I am always skeptical of most reported 40 times, so I don't quite buy that he runs a 4.5, but it's obvious he has impressive speed for his size.  He spent some time during spring training as a DE, and he might be used situationally in such a hybrid role to unleash him on some poor quarterbacks. 

In the middle is Tom Wort, a redshirt freshman.  Wort, from most reports, is quick and smart, but he's not very big (220) to be manning the middle, and obviously as a first year player, he may be vulnerable in the pass game (cue memories of Shipley in the flex TE spot in 2008).  Backing him up is sophomore Jaydan Bird, who has limited experience.  I wouldn't call MLB a weakness, but it is a relative question mark in an overall strong linebacker crew.

If Cody Johnson can get there, I think he'll plow right over Wort.  As far as attacking the middle with the pass, this is where Kirk and Chiles will really need to show their improvement.  And a productive tight end would be nice (crossing my fingers that Matthews won't get hit by a truck).  The Lewis duo is a real cause for concern, though.

Secondary

Quinton Carter returns from last year as free safety.  He's a physical presence and can hit, but I haven't been impressed by his coverage skills.  Sam Proctor is listed as his backup, demoted because Proctor frankly wasn't all that good.  Proctor is more of a hitter than coverage guy as well, but he was bad to the point of being a liability.

Jonathon Nelson is a converted corner and brings speed and coverage ability.  He's undersized and won't scare any receiver with his ability to lay the wood, but I agree with most that he's an upgrade over Proctor.  Four-star recruit Tony Jefferson has been given high ratings in camp and will push for playing time.

At corner, the starters are Jamell Fleming and Demontre Hurst.  Hurst is reportedly a solid corner but he stands all of 5'9 and weighs 178 according to the depth chart.  Fleming is coming from special teams and has better size (5'11) and good speed, but I have my doubts that he'll be a great cover guy.  I actually did not think all that highly about OU's corners last year, but this year seems like a definite downgrade.  They don't sport a lot of depth and experience either, although the young backups, Gabe Lynn and Aaron Colvin, are talented recruits.

This game is where Malcolm Williams can earn his money, figuratively and perhaps even literally for his future NFL prospects.  Hurst is flat-out too small to cover Malcolm, and I don't think Fleming can handle him physically either.  The safeties are solid but not unbeatable.

Special Teams

Demarco Murray was supposed to be relieved of his returning duties to spare him from more hits, but he may be on his way back.  Madu will also return kickoffs to give them stable production.  Broyles is a very good punt returner and I expect some highlight-reel worthy returns by him this season.

Tress Way has a heck of a leg and ranked #2 last year in punting average.  Punters can change games; remember Ohio State's punter in 2006?  I hated that guy.

Conclusion

They're much like us; besides a few potential problems here and there, the Land Thieves are pretty strong all around.  We'll have to see how well our under-center approach will go early in the season.  If we're able to run-block well and let Cody Johnson get a head start, I can actually see us having rushing success against OU.  We can potentially wear out their thin DT rotation and then let Cody run right at their inexperienced middle linebackers, and that can set up deep plays where we might find Malcolm Williams matched up against much smaller defenders.  Williams can really put the season on course for some nice prizes at the end if he comes out with a strong game, which unfortunately is pretty hard to predict from him.  However, I can't see too much success coming from our previous zone schemes, not with guys like Beal and Lewis awaiting.

While I do give us the edge in the matchup between our receivers and their secondary, though, their pass rush could make such an advantage a moot point.  Jeremy Beal and Alexander will be tough matchups, and both Ronnel and Travis Lewis running into the backfield will be a challenge as well.  We will have to ask our RBs and TEs to help out, obviously.

From the lens of the preseason, it's fairly clear that the defenses will have the edge and special teams may therefore tip the scales.  OU has a strong punting game and return game, but their place kicking is in the dumps.  Texas will also have a strong return game, with a slightly inferior punting game but with much better place kicking.  It may not be pretty to watch, but if the game comes down to a FG booting contest I'll take it.

Because I think both Texas' defense and special teams are slightly better, I'll go with Texas, but this game is looking like a toss-up.

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