Our pre-season preview of the 2012 Oklahoma Sooners football team continues with a two-part discussion with Jordan Esco of the excellent Sooners blog Crimson and Cream Machine. Part 2 of our chat will run on Monday.
PB: So, let's start with the four Sooners who were suspended in May for violating team rules: I imagine that was tough for OU fans, not knowing whether there was a 99% chance that Bob Stoops would reinstate them, or if the violations might be so severe that there could be as little as a 95% chance.
Crimson & Cream Machine: First shot out of the gate with both barrels, huh? Alright then. I can respect that.
I'm not surprised by the recent decision to "reinstate" (I'll get into why that's in quotes in a minute) three of the four suspended players, but that does not mean there is a lack of disappointment on my part in the decision to do so. From what we know (and the whispers we've heard from those close to the program) both Jaz Reynolds and Trey Franks have had multiple chances and it would appear now, both are getting yet another. So in that respect, as someone who has a considerable amount of respect for Bob Stoops (which I fully appreciate is an incomprehensible concept for 99% of the people who will read this), it's definitely disappointing to see him seemingly cave in to the pressure many his critics would say is due to a position group facing a serious lack of experience.
Now, back to those air quotes. I say that because the "reinstated" players have only been cleared to return to practice. Stoops was quoted as saying all three would miss "multiple, multiple games" (whatever that means). So while I can certainly understand Stoops' critics having a field day with the announcement of said reinstatement, it's not really a fair characterization of his decision to simply say "the chinless, er, gutless wonder strikes again!" Admittedly, I never played D-I college football but I have to imagine that busting my ass all week in practice with no chance of playing in the game Saturday would be fairly unrewarding.
Is that a technicality? I'd heard that argument. Barring some kind of screw up, do I expect any/all of the three to be allowed to play in a game? I do, but with one caveat. I'll be very surprised if any of the three play in the first month of the season. To be honest, only one of the three (Reynolds) returning means anything to this team though that's certainly not an excuse to allow them back on the team, no matter when it may occur. Frankly, it's somewhat difficult to defend a decision you don't 100% agree with.
That's an answer I can respect, although I'll venture a guess that because "multiple games" means "until the game before Texas," when Stoops says "multiple, multiple games" he means "no tune up for you, Jaz." Call it a hunch.
But let's move on. I want to ask you about the return of Mike Stoops, which from a Texas perspective sucks for a lot of reasons. For starters, one Stoops is intolerable enough. Now two again? (I imagine those two spent their childhood standing in front of mirrors having smirking contests, bickering about who looked the most smug. "Mom said I looked like the biggest asshole in the whole universe." "Did not!" "Did too!") But even more than that, of course, it was Mike who was on the sidelines coaching the defense during that dreadful five-year stretch for Texas in the Red River Shootout.
Give us your take on Mike Stoops' return. Besides cranking the Smug Factor back up to an 11, what impact are you expecting his return to have on the Sooner defense? Were you a fan of Brent Venables? (How perfect is it that he went to Clemson, by the way?) We'll get to the personnel here shortly, but tell us whether you think his return is meaningful, and where he can make a difference.
Crimson & Cream Machine: I suppose that's fair. I mean after all, there really is no person better equipped to judge a smugness contest than a Texas fan. I guess it's really a give and take - a smug asshole or a relentlessly clapping buffoon. But I digress.
With respect to Mike's return, I expect it to have a significant impact (beside the Smug Factor of course). Somewhat to your point, I think Mike being back on the sidelines helps to bring back that attitude the defense has been missing, frankly ever since he left. That could be interpreted as a knock against Brent Venables (who I was/am a big fan of, but we'll get to that), but it is not intended as one. Each coach has their own style and while I'm sure you and the BON readers are more than familiar with both Mike Stoops' and Venables' histrionics on the sideline, Mike just kind of brings a 'dick-ness' if you will that Venables simply does not possess. And I believe that to be a good thing for this defense and perhaps more importantly for this football program, because Mike will call Bob on stuff whereas I do not think there was a coach on the staff who was comfortable doing that prior to his recent return.
In addition to everything above, the biggest impact I expect Mike to make on this defense is by simplyfing the schemes he implements. If there was one prevailing theory from last year and the multiple, game-changing, breakdowns the OU defense suffered it was that the players might have been asked to do too much. Venables was big on asking his players to play off what the offense was doing, make reads, and then react. Well as you know, and as we saw, many times that split second of hesitation where you're "making your read" can literally be the difference in you making the play or giving up huge chunks of yards. What Mike has always done best is (1) recruit defensive talent (and specifically athletes, not just defensive players) and (2) put your athletes in the best possible position to do what they do, i.e. make plays. If there is one thing programs like Texas and Oklahoma rarely ever run across, it's a lack of talent on campus.
I think Mike, for lack of a better phrase, taking the handcuffs off some of these guys could make a world of difference with this defense.
In regards to your question about Brent Venables. Yes, I was and remain a big fan of Brent Venables. However, as you all are painfully aware (cough, Greg Davis, cough) sometimes you just reach that point where it's better for everyone involved if both sides move on. Even with the constant turnover of your roster in D-I athletics, the message can get stale and I think that's where OU and Venables found themselves several months ago and both appear to be better served for it. Oklahoma gets a "reboot" of sorts with their defensive approach and Venables gets a fresh start in a new place (and one he appears to be handling quite well if you follow Clemson recruiting even casually). He was always a dynamic recruiter and that trait is already on display in the short time he's been at Clemson. I definitely think he can be very successful in the ACC and I'll be rooting for him to do so.
You have a somewhat higher opinion of Venables than I do, but I think your overall assessment of both him and Mike Stoops is a very good one. Let's move in to some specifics now, and since we've been talking about the defense, let's start there, and get your take on potential areas for concern.
The Sooners are in great shape on the interior of the defensive line with McFarland, Walker, Phillips, and McGee anchoring an outstanding two-deep, but there are questions on the outside with Frank Alexander finally moving on. David King can play, but RJ Washington has largely been a disappointment; do you have any concerns about the Sooners ability to be effective on the edges of the line?
Moving back a level, can you confirm that Travis Lewis is actually gone? I was under the impression we would be seeing him every year forever. And assuming he really is gone, tell us where you stand on Tom Wort? Time for him to step up and give OU more, or for someone else to step up and take his snaps? Corey Nelson and Jaydan Bird both look to me like they're ready for breakout seasons -- tell us how you see all the pieces fitting together.
And last, any concerns in the secondary? Assuming Javon Harris can stop getting beat deep every third play, the rest of the crew -- Jefferson at safety, Hurst and Colvin on the corners, and Ibiloye the nickelback -- look like they'll form a strong playmaking unit.
Crimson & Cream Machine: Well, based on your comment it would appear you might have a higher opinion of the Sooners interior defensive line than I do. I agree that they are in "great shape" with respect to depth, but of all the options they have none have ever really been a consistent, let alone dominant, presence in the middle of that OU d-line. Maybe in their final seasons, the three seniors can step up and be the kind of player this defense desperately needs but I'm certainly not taking that as a given. By a long stretch. But back to your original point.
Do I have any concerns about OU's defensive ends? Hell yes, I have concerns. To be fair to both King and Washington, the guys they were playing behind last year will both be playing on Sundays this year but that does not change the fact neither have been asked to handle the lion's share of the snaps in their careers. I think King is a very underrated player who plays the run very well and can put pressure on the quarterback as well, but for all that he is or can be he is not an elite, off-the-edge rush guy. On the other hand, ever since Washington signed with OU he's been expected to be exactly that. We started to see flashes of it at times last year, but obviously doing that on a consistent basis (as he'll be expected to do this season) is a much, much different story. They have two guys behind them, in Chuka Ndulue and Chaz Nelson, that I know the coaches really like but both are just as unproven from a consistency standpoint as the two guys ahead of them. Then even in spite of depth concerns, they have moved two once very promising players (Geneo Grissom & Nathan Hughes) from defensive end to offense, tight end and offensive line respectively. So yeah, there are concerns.
I can in fact confirm that Travis Lewis is gone. You can rest easy on that one. He certainly did seem to play some of his best football in that magical Dallas setting, but he's played his last and I'm guessing he's content with how he closed things out. As for Wort, I've always been a big fan. I've always loved the physicality and recklessness with which he plays the game. That said, it's not as if his game is without flaws. In my opinion, he's undersized to be playing in the middle of the defense and as a result he's really struggled at times when the guys in front of him can't keep blockers off of him. He can have a tendency to get sucked up into plays at times as well as struggle to get off blocks. But regardless of all that, he's a fixture in this OU defense and there is no chance, barring injury of course, of anyone taking snaps away from him.
I tend to agree with you on Corey Nelson, though he did seem to find himself in the coaches' doghouse earlier this spring. By all accounts, that seems to be resolved at the moment and if there is one thing I know for a fact about this defense it's that it is designed to make a star of of that weakside backer. They funnel plays to that spot and as a result need to have a very active player there, which I think easily describes Nelson. As for Bird, I would have been right there with you in your prediction for him if not for what I've heard as of late. Or, more to the point, what I haven't heard. The talk at MLB, behind Wort of course, has been more about Frank Shannon and Aaron Franklin. I still think there will be snaps for Bird on defense, but the talk lately has been how much the coaches liked him at fullback when he filled in for Aaron Ripkowski last year in the Bell-dozer package.
I'm sure I'll catch crap for being a 'homer' in my defense of him, but I really think Javon Harris is getting a bad rap. Admittedly, I earned a ridiculous amount of respect for the kid when he came out and faced the media following that Baylor game but I think Mike Stoops arrival is as huge for him as any player (outside of possibly Jefferson) in this defense. Given how low the expectations appear to be for the guy heading into this season, I think he will have an outstanding season. Prior to a week ago, I would have told you my biggest concern with this defense (even bigger than DE) would have been that second corner spot opposite Demontre Hurst. However, Mike Stoops recently confirmed that Aaron Colvin has been moved there after playing safety last year and Colvin might be my favorite player on this entire team. He was terrific as a corner two years ago as a true freshman, tied for the team lead in tackles last year at safety, moves back to corner now and I do not have a shred of skepticism about his ability to do so. He is a star simply waiting to be discovered outside of Norman, I have no doubt in my mind.
I feel like I've been as bullish on Tony Jefferson and what he could accomplish in this newly revamped Mike Stoops defense as anyone who puts that kind of stuff out there publicly. To be fair, it's not exactly a bold prediction on my part given what he's done in his first two seasons but the way I see it the guy could be really special. As for that nickelback spot, you're right in that Ibiloye should see time there but right now it sounds like Gabe Lynn could be the primary guy. He's a kid who really struggled at times last year when asked to play corner, so this Roy-back spot as Oklahoma calls it could really suit itself to the best part of his game, his physical play up close to the line of scrimmage.
Again, not a bold prediction on my part as this could apply to virtually every defense in the country. But the success of this defense rests squarely on the broad shoulders of this front four.
That's great stuff there, Jordan. Many thanks for such a thorough reply.
In Part 2 of my conversation with Jordan Esco of Crimson and Cream Machine, our focus shifts towards the offense and the Sooners' quickly-crumbling offensive line. Part 2 will run on Monday morning.