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Defensive back Jamell Fleming a consistent playmaker for Sooners
When Oklahoma’s preseason camp began this fall, Jamell Fleming was viewed almost as a wild card.
Sure, he was a returning starter.
Sure, he was an All-Big 12 Conference selection in 2010.
Sure, he was the defensive MVP in the Sooners’ 48-20 rout of Connecticut in the Fiesta Bowl.
But no one was exactly sure what OU was getting when practice rolled around for the 2011 season.
Fleming had been away from the program for six months due to an academic suspension from school. Away from coaches and teammates, a lot of bad things can happen in an extended period like that. Even the sharpest of razors dulls without stone around to keep it honed.
That was early August. Fast-forward to November, and the only uncertainty anyone talks about with Fleming is where to rank him among the best cornerbacks to put on a Sooner uniform.
Derrick Strait won basically every award a cornerback could in 2003. Andre Woolfolk was a first-round draft pick a season earlier.
“We’ve had some pretty good ones, and Jamell’s right in that category with those guys,” said OU coach Bob Stoops.
What does he have that puts him in that group?
He brings a different element to the position that’s so hard to find.
Speed and coverage skills are the essentials for cornerbacks. Two-hundredths of a second in the 40-yard dash can be worth millions in the NFL at the position, where a man has to read and react to what some of the best athletes in the world — NFL receivers — are doing on every snap.
Few can do it. Fleming has that potential. The Big 12 Conference has sent receivers to the NFL like its part of a production line over the last decade.
Being able to run makes Fleming a great athlete. What makes the Arlington, Texas, native a great football player is his ability to do most things that are considered too physical for most cover cornerbacks.
Sooner defensive coordinator Brent Venables likens Fleming to a wild card in that regard. He provides a lot of options at that boundary corner spot.
“We like to match him one-on-one at times and do some other things, but Jamell gives us that luxury,” said Venables. “But, yeah, you’re looking for that kind of mentality. He needs to be instinctive, a good tackler, be able to blitz and have closing speed. There’s a lot that goes into it.”
“All of those things” is good way to describe what Fleming means to the Sooner defense. Through 10 games, he led the team in passes defended. No shock there, but he also led the squad in fumbles recovered and forced was tied for the lead in forced fumbles.
One of each became a very memorable part of the Sooners’ 55-17 romp over Texas at the Cotton Bowl this season.
Fleming ripped the ball out of the hands of Texas receiver Mike Davis and returned it 44 yards for a touchdown.
“Guys don’t expect cornerbacks to be stronger than them and be able to do that,” said Fleming. “I like it when I get a chance to do that.”
The entire country took notice after the Texas game. Fleming had 13 tackles that afternoon in Dallas. The forced fumble and touchdown return was just icing on the cake.
His nose for the football is uncanny. When Fleming forces something, it isn’t by fluke. You don’t come up with eight turnovers (six interceptions and two fumbles) and bat 20 passes in 20 games as a starter by accident.
It’s the kind of havoc the Sooners always aspire to create when they hit the recruiting trail in search of potential playmakers.
The position is one that sees a lot of action. There’s the typical pass coverage duties, but due to the wide hash marks in college football, a boundary corner is also closer to the box and has to be involved in the run game.
“We have a physical style of play at corner. We travel, we go boundary or field and stuff,” said Fleming. “At the boundary, you have to be physical. It’s kind of like playing outside linebacker. That’s how we scheme up our stuff. That’s what is expected of me, and that’s what I try to do.”
When you find one who can run and punish receivers as well, his draft stock skyrockets.
Fleming, a senior, is a stock that keeps rising as his final collegiate season winds down.
“It’s very attractive when you have a kid that size who can run and cover,” said OU defensive backs coach Willie Martinez.
The Sooners found that out for sure when they lined up to face Texas Tech Oct. 29. Fleming wasn’t in pads that rainy night at Owen Field due to a knee injury that sidelined him for two weeks.
The Red Raiders noticed his absence and successfully attacked with precision, running receiver screen after receiver screen.
It was something the Sooners hadn’t seen much this season, mainly because of Fleming.
“He’s got the size, he’s got the speed, he’s got the experience and he’s a special player out there who changes the defense,” said Stoops.
All that should make him one of the Sooners’ most sought-after players when the NFL draft rolls around next spring.
But Fleming wouldn’t be in that spot if he hadn’t shown he was willing to put in the work. He spent last January through June back in Texas due to that suspension.
Whatever improvement Fleming was going to make prior to his senior season was going to come without spring practice and the benefit of working against live receivers.
When he was cleared to return in July, the coaching staff let it be known that nothing was guaranteed. Tossing Fleming back into a starting position wasn’t something that would bode well for team chemistry.
Fleming was OK with that.
“Nothing is ever given to you at OU,” he said.
Then Fleming returned to the practice field, and jaws dropped.
“It was unbelievable,” said Martinez when asked about Fleming’s performance after being away from the team for so long.
“He was in good shape, and he’s picked up right where he left off. He did nothing but do what we've asked him to do since he’s been here. He was bigger, stronger, quicker, faster and he made plays.”
Fleming’s return as an impact player was critical to the Sooners, especially with the loss of defensive teammate Austin Box, who tragically died from an accidental overdose of painkillers in May. With emotions running raw and a sense of great loss running through the program, the team needed some good news — and Fleming helped provide it.
“Getting a guy like that back is always going to be big,” said Venables. “He was a big part of our defense last season, and we needed him to step up and do the same types of things that earned him a starting job to begin with. He’s definitely done all the right things.”
Overall, it’s been a humbling experience for Fleming. Even though nearly a year has passed since he was forced to temporarily leave the program, he still doesn’t want to talk about it.
Fleming lets his play on the field and work in the classroom do his talking.
“The man is a playmaker,” said OU safety Aaron Colvin.
How Fleming has handled the entire situation certainly hasn’t hurt his reputation off the field, either.
One thing is for certain, the Sooner defense wouldn’t be the same without him.
(Editor's Note: This feature story appears in the Nov./Dec. 2011 issue of Sooner Spectator. To read more or to subscribe, call toll free 1-877-841-8877)