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Returning experience key to Soonersâ€™ 2006 success
How will the offensive line perform this fall?
Will Rhett Bomar develop into a star quarterback?
Will there be quality depth this year at running back and receiver?
All good questions, but none more important than those pertaining to Oklahomaâ€™s defense. While the defense appears to be more stable in comparison, there are still some answers to be found.
There were a few losses, notably defensive tackle Dusty Dvoracek and linebacker Clint Ingram, but the abundant talent and experience coming back gives the Sooners a solid foundation on which to build.
OU head coach Bob Stoops kept his mind on defense â€” along with everything else â€” this spring. He was pleased with the unitâ€™s early progress through practice and scrimmages, and experience played a part.
â€śI thought it was good,â€ť Stoops said. â€śWeâ€™re much farther along than at this point a year ago with these guys having more experience. There are just a lot fewer mistakes than this time last year. Our secondary, backers and our line all have a chance to be really good.â€ť
Starting up front, the OU defensive line will be loaded with veterans and budding stars. Injuries kept defensive ends Larry Birdine and John Williams from making significant contributions in 2005, but they are healthy and ready to give it another go this fall.
â€śIt felt good to get back out here, being healthy and getting reps,â€ť said Birdine, who tore a biceps muscle last August.
Birdine and Williams will be joined by two men who stepped in and played well in their absence last season â€” C.J. Ah You, the reigning Big 12 Newcomer of the Year and Holiday Bowl most valuable player, and Calvin Thibodeaux, coming off a breakthrough season that included 10 sacks.
The interior line will mix returning players striving to make a bigger impact, like Cory Bennett and Steve Coleman, with recent high-profile signees.
Gerald McCoy, out of Oklahoma City Southeast, was the nationâ€™s top-rated defensive tackle last fall, and heavily recruited 2005 signee DeMarcus Granger will be ready after a redshirt year.
Stoops specified Granger after the first scrimmage as one who made â€śnice plays.â€ť
Defensive line coach Jackie Shipp said this spring is about repetition until sound technique becomes second nature.
â€śTheyâ€™re putting in good effort and they are understanding technique,â€ť he said. â€śItâ€™s about understanding why they do something â€¦ and they gain confidence through repetition.â€ť
In the linebacking corps, Rufus Alexander is developing into a potential All-American and one of the Soonersâ€™ all-time greats. His 102 tackles last season easily led the team, and 17 of those stops were for losses. The Baton Rouge, La., senior was a terror in the passing lanes, too, intercepting one pass, breaking up nine others and tallying five quarterback sacks.
Zach Latimer, the teamâ€™s second-leading tackler with 84, also returns as middle linebacker.
Stoops and defensive coordinator Brent Venables, though, must find a replacement for Ingram, an invaluable cog in last yearâ€™s defense.
Steady reserve Demarrio Pleasant could step up and be that guy, or the responsibility could fall on youngsters like Curtis Lofton and Lamont Robinson, who redshirted last season. Ryan Reynolds was projected to help prior to suffering a knee injury during the spring.
The physical talent is there at linebacker and new stars could emerge, or at least the Sooners hope so, because proven experience drops off the table after standouts Alexander and Latimer.
The secondary could be the most interesting part of OUâ€™s defense, almost like the offense. The unit has some of the teamâ€™s most exciting playmakers, but it must shake the 2005 tendency, that started at the Orange Bowl, of getting torched at times on big pass plays.
If the Holiday Bowl last December is any indication, the returning 2006 defensive backs are on their way toward becoming a stronger unit. The secondary was instrumental in slowing down Oregonâ€™s potent offense, and several key players are back to build on that success.
Reggie Smith started at safety as a true freshman, but this season he may move to cornerback opposite returning starter D.J. Wolfe.
It wouldnâ€™t be because Smith is a fantastic athlete who failed at safety, itâ€™s because heâ€™s a fantastic athlete who can play wherever heâ€™s needed.
â€śReggieâ€™s a good football player,â€ť defensive backs coach Bobby Jack Wright said, with emphasis on the last two words. â€śYou can move him inside to sam linebacker and heâ€™d still be a great player.â€ť
Wolfe started his career at tailback before coaches moved him to defense before the 2005 season. It was a learning process for the Lawton product, but he improved as the season progressed. By seasonâ€™s end, he was the teamâ€™s third-leading tackler (65), along with picking off two passes and breaking up 10 others.
Going into this year, Wolfe has completed the transition from offensive backup to defensive leader.
â€śEverything feels better now,â€ť Wolfe said of playing defense, â€śand that comes from having experience.â€ť
Wolfe is using the spring to not only work on personal growth, but also for getting used to teammates.
â€śItâ€™s just playing together and being able to work as a cohesive unit,â€ť he said. â€śThey moved Reggie to corner, and we havenâ€™t worked together much like that.â€ť
Darien Williams is back at free safety after starting there last season. His presence, talent and experience will be a security blanket for a secondary unit trying to find the right combination.
Jason Carter could wind up starting at strong safety, or the job could go to Nic Harris or one in a solid group of true and redshirt freshmen.
â€śD.J. and Darien are back at the same spots and J.C. (Jason Carter) understands our defense,â€ť Wright said. â€śReggie is a talented guy who can play either spot.â€ť
The coach thought the unit looked good early in its first scrimmage, the one disappointment being it didnâ€™t come up with a turnover. (Reynolds, the young linebacker, had an interception that day). Wright also wasnâ€™t thrilled with how the reserves played, though he thinks Keenan Clayton and Courtney Carter have promising futures.
â€śOnce they get comfortable, theyâ€™ll play with confidence and speed,â€ť Wright said of the youngsters.
The secondary can become a deep unit later in the year once Marcus Walker returns from shoulder surgery, if former receiver Lendy Holmes can make a Wolfe-like transition from offense, and if a freshman like Texas standout Malcolm Williams can contribute this season.
When sizing up the defense, perhaps Shipp put it best: â€śAinâ€™t nobody surprised me because I expect so much out of them already.â€ť
OU fans expect quite a bit from the Sooners, too, and that interest can raise a few questions for the upcoming season.
Will Smith stay at cornerback or go back to safety?
Alexander and Latimer will be great at linebacker, but who else will start there?
Just how dominating can this deep defensive line become?
On second thought, the 2006 OU defense is every bit as compelling as its spotlight-grabbing offense.
(Editor's Note: This story appears in the Spring Issue of Sooner Spectator magazine, on newsstands now.)