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Todd Orlando: OU WRs twist DBs ‘like pretzels’

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The passing game for the Sooners will test a group of defensive backs with rapidly-growing confidence.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Kansas Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

AUSTIN, Texas — The wide receivers for the Oklahoma Sooners have a tendency to run into space without much accompaniment. Not just a little bit of open space — a lot of open space.

So how does that happen so consistently?

Head coach Lincoln Riley deserves a lot of credit for a scheme that consistently puts defenders in conflict and takes advantage of the available speed with vertical shots down the field.

And co-offensive coordinator/inside receivers coach Cale Gundy and associate head coach/outside receivers coach Dennis Simmons do a good job of teaching route-running skills to their talented pupils.

The result is a lot of opposing defensive backs twisted and turned around, according to Texas Longhorns offensive coordinator Todd Orlando.

“They run up the field on people, and they’ll cut in and out, and just open DBs up, and just twist them like pretzels,” Orlando said on Wednesday.

The first part of the formula is to make sure that graduate transfer quarterback Jalen Hurts has enough time to go through his progressions and deliver deep passes, which often necessitates max protection calls. That in turn often ensures a clean pocket, but it does leave fewer receivers out in the route.

Speed helps, too — CeeDee Lamb is faster than his testing times in high school, while Charleston Rambo ran the 200m and 4x200m relay. The two are both among the top six nationally in yards per catch (Rambo at 27.4 ypc and Lamb at 24.4 ypc) and have combined to catch 11 touchdown passes already this season.

“They’re really good route runners,” Orlando said. “They can set guys up. If you’re playing a guy inside leverage, they can really take your hard outside, get you to open up your hips, and then beat you right back inside. That’s why you’re seeing a lot of those things that are wide open is what they’re doing on the top of their routes.”

Oklahoma currently ranks No. 2 nationally in passes of 40 yards or more with 11, with Hurts leading the nation at 14 yards per attempt, a full two yards better than Louisville’s Malik Cunningham in second place.

Given how the back end of the Texas defense has played this season, there are some chilling numbers in the head-to-head matchup from ESPN’s Bill Connelly:

Predictably, then, Texas is battling a big-play problem. On blitz downs (second-and-super-long, third- or fourth-and-5 or more), the Longhorns rank 101st in success rate allowed and 128th in big-play rate. On passes thrown more than 20 yards downfield, they are giving up 18.7 yards per attempt with a 98.7 QBR. (Here’s a reminder that 100 is the top possible QBR rating. Yikes.) That is horrifying to think about when facing Oklahoma. Hurts is averaging 20.1 yards per attempt, with a 99.4 QBR, on such passes this season.

The defensive backs gained confidence last week against West Virginia, combining for three of the four interceptions.

Sophomore cornerback D’Shawn Jamison was the primary recipient of that confidence boost with the first two interceptions of his career, including the leaping takeaway from Sam James that will live on highlight reels forever.

Sophomore safety Montrell Estell is also increasing his comfort level on the field after his first career interception against Oklahoma State before the bye week and sophomore cornerback Anthony Cook acquitted himself well in Morgantown.

Sophomore BJ Foster is back in the lineup to help senior Brandon Jones at nickel back, too. Jones, Foster, and Jamison all have strong recovery speed, but in coverage, every Longhorns defensive back will have be disciplined enough not to fall for a stemming and weaving Sooners wide receiver.

As the stats prove, however, that’s much easier said than done.