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Young Secondary Set To Make Its Mark This fall
Oklahoma defensive backs coach Bobby Jack Wright has been blessed with a silver tongue. On just about any subject, he can inform and entertain with the best of them.
He can also be brutal in his honesty.
If a member of the secondary isn’t performing up to par, Wright will not mince words. He’ll pretty much let anyone and everyone know about it.
But when asked recently about how he felt his group performed during spring practice, he thought actions spoke louder than words.
“You saw the spring game didn’t ya,” he asked.
The question didn’t require a response. OU’s secondary pretty much answered all questions that afternoon.
Oklahoma’s annual Red-White Game serves as the final scrimmage of the spring. In a lot of years it has also been the coming-out party for players who are ready to step into major roles to the following fall.
Remember DeMarco Murray’s performance in the 2007 version?
Cornerbacks Dominique Franks, Brian Jackson and Jonathan Nelson and safety Sam Proctor used the latest spring game in similar fashion.
Franks intercepted three passes that afternoon at Memorial Stadium, while Jackson and Proctor got their hands on several more.
“When a ball goes up we have to become receivers. When we catch it, we have to try and score,” Franks said. “We’re not trying to bat down balls, we’re trying to catch them and go score.”
People, or Oklahoma’s rabid fans, had been wondering just what was going to happen in OU’s secondary. There’s no doubt 2008 is going to a season of transition in the defensive’s back end. But the question was would that also mean a regression?
On paper, it looked like a possibility.
The Sooners went through the spring with only one returning starter, safety Lendy Holmes, going through drills. Safety Nic Harris has been a stalwart in the Sooner secondary since 2005, but an injured shoulder kept him on the sidelines.
The holes created by the departure of D.J. Wolfe, Darien Williams and Marcus Walker, as well as Reggie Smith opting to leave early for the NFL, were vast.
In fact, finding suitable replacements was one of Sooners’ biggest quests before fall practice begins in August.
Franks, Jackson, Nelson and Proctor were all run through the wringer in that regard. None had seen a great deal of playing time. Proctor will be a redshirt freshman this coming season. Franks and Nelson will be a sophomores. Jackson: a junior.
In the past, OU might have spent the spring trying to find some versatility. Finding out if anyone can play both safety and corner, or if one corners could play both the field and boundary sides.
Didn’t happen this spring.
“We had all these young guys and we had to get them ready,” Wright said. “Let’s get them taught in one spot and not try to confuse them by making them learn more than one position. It may not sound like a big deal, it is if you’re just learning.”
The process paid off in several ways. Both Franks and Jackson showed they’re ready to be starters at the cornerback spots. They were dogged on receivers and proved they get their hands on the ball. Nelson also showed he’s capable of playing every down.
The Sooners needed cornerbacks to emerge.
Holmes might be OU’s best athlete in the secondary, but he had to flip-flop between cornerback and free safety the previous two seasons.
Holmes played every snap at free safety in the spring and what Wright saw from Franks, Jackson and Nelson makes him believe Holmes has finally found a home.
“I think those three guys pretty well established themselves as our three corners,” Wright said. “When you look at Lendy, he’s established himself as the free safety. Sam Proctor has really established himself as a strong safety and when Nic gets back, he’ll be in the mix at strong safety.
“To me, as a I look at it, if you can get ready to play the season with three corners that can play you’re in pretty good shape,” Wright added. “I think we have three right now that we really feel good about.”
That was evident by the success OU’s defense enjoyed in the spring. The unit only gave up four touchdown passes in three scrimmages and only three were against the first- or second-team offense.
“Hopefully this will carry over to next season,” Jackson said.
OU needs it to. It finished third in the Big 12 Conference in passing defense at 228.1 yards per game last season. Staying near that number will be hard to do with the Big 12 becoming known as one of the best passing conferences in college football.
The Sooners’ emerging defensive backs understand the point. They haven’t been resting in a cocoon since they’ve arrived on campus.
“These guys aren’t Johnny Come Latelys,” OU defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “They’ve been in the program and seen guys and how they’ve prepared. They’ve been around good leaders in Marcus and Reggie and guys before that that really worked at it and showed guys the process of how you come out and play well on Saturdays.
They also got a full understanding of how important it is the pounce on opportunities. The shot to earn playing time can be rare. Blow it, and someone will step up. It doesn’t take a whole lot to go tumbling down the depth chart.
Walker emerged as a starter late in the 2004 season and remained there off and on through the Fiesta Bowl. Smith and Harris both broke into the starting lineup as freshmen in 2005. Wolfe did the same.
Injuries occur and from time to players make enough mistakes to lose their job. But the only way players can earn trust is to perform at high level at a consistent basis.
Venables has seen a lot of that from the secondary.
“There’s a lot guys playing with a sense of desperation because they’re fighting to get on the field and prove their worth,” he said. “They really feel like they have a chance to compete for positions, as opposed to getting chewed out as a No. 2 or No. 3. It gets to be old hat after a while.”
Whether all the spring enthusiasm translates to the fall is a question that will have to wait until OU’s season opener against Tennessee-Chattanooga Aug. 30. More than likely a few doubts will remain well into conference play.
That’s nothing new. Consistency is something that can only be displayed over the course of a season.
But, at the very least, the emergence of Franks, Jackson, Nelson and Proctor has quieted the doubts of coaches. Wright’s thoughts made that very clear.
“Our guys have probably had as good a spring around here since the days of Derrick Strait,” Wright said looking back to 2002 and 2003 when Strait was one of the best of the best defensive backs in college football. “These guys have made play after play after play every day and they’ve gone up against Big 12 receivers every day.”
If all of it comes to fruition the way Wright expects, the questions about OU’s secondary won’t be around much longer. OU showed in the spring it’s cupboard was far from empty. And if the level of play remains at that high, Franks, Jackson, Nelson and Proctor won’t have much need for introductions.
That’s what the spring was for.
“We’re trying to make a name for ourselves,” Jackson said. “With all of us being new and none of us having seen that much game time, I felt like we came out and showed people what we can do.”
The only problem is having to wait until the season begins to show it on the field. Solid play breeds more anticipation. There’s a lot of energy coming from OU’s defensive backs to light up that new scoreboard.
“I wish we could keep on going, but it has to end,” Franks said after the Red-White Game. “Now we had into the summer and we have to get ready.”