NORMAN — When Oklahoma lost starting linebacker Corey Nelson for the season to injury, the Sooners figured opposing teams would try to take advantage. But they had little idea just how successful that strategy might be before they faced Texas.
Without one of its captains, Oklahoma surrendered 255 rushing yards to the Longhorns en route to a shocking 36-20 loss. Now, as No. 18 Oklahoma (5-1, 2-1 Big 12 Conference) prepares to face Kansas (2-3, 0-2) on Saturday, the Sooners must deal with another key loss in the middle of their defense, as nose tackle Jordan Phillips is out for the season after undergoing surgery this week for a chronic back condition.
The Sooners know they’ll likely see opposing offenses try to duplicate Texas’ successful strategy until they come up with an effective counter. And with relatively inexperienced players stepping in for Nelson and Phillips, that might take a bit of time.
“We’ll get better,” Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “We’ve got a lot of players that haven’t played a lot but they’ll get better. They have the talent to do that and that’s what we have to do is continue to improve our technique and being more physical at the point of attack.”
Against Texas, Nelson’s replacement, freshman Dominique Alexander, recorded a team-high 19 tackles while making his first career start in the electric Cotton Bowl setting. It was the most tackles recorded by an Oklahoma player since Travis Lewis had 19 tackles against Texas in 2008.
Alexander has played in all six of Oklahoma’s games, but he’s sometimes been caught out of position. Against Notre Dame, Alexander was in the wrong place on a third-quarter play, allowing Fighting Irish running back George Atkinson to run for an 80-yard touchdown. Not long after Nelson left during the third quarter of the TCU game on Oct. 5 with a torn pectoral muscle, the Sooners had to call a timeout because Alexander was lined up incorrectly.
“I did some things well (against Texas), but there’s a lot of things that I could have did better,” Alexander said. “I have to correct those things for Kansas.”
He said he learned that “you have to execute and be right in everything that you do.”
Jordan Wade, a redshirt freshman who started in Phillips’ place against TCU and Texas, hadn’t played for the Sooners until this season. He also had some positive moments against Texas, most notably when blocking an extra-point attempt by the Longhorns, but it was obvious that the Sooners missed Phillips’ run-stuffing abilities.
Stoops didn’t blame the newcomers for Oklahoma’s struggles in stopping Texas’ run game but said it was a collective effort.
“Instinctively they did a lot of good things,” Stoops said. “At times, structurally, there are guys in the wrong places but overall I thought they played well and got themselves in a pretty positive position to make plays. But just too many missed assignments with our overall execution as an entirety of our defense.”
Without Nelson on the field, the bulk of defensive play-calling has fallen to another linebacker, Frank Shannon, who had been splitting those duties with Nelson. Alexander realizes that as the season progresses, he’ll be expected to take on some of that responsibility, too.
“Being a backer, you have to be a leader vocally and show leadership and do the right thing,” Alexander said. “I’m not really a freshman anymore. I have to step up and do my job.”
Cornerback Zack Sanchez said Wade and Alexander “are up for the challenge” and “will get better and better,” a sentiment echoed by Stoops.
Alexander will “catch his stride and I think he’ll make a load of improvement,” Stoops said. “As good as he was (against Texas), there’s so much he has to see and it’s kind of hard that you have to get burned or see something before you learn it. That’s just the nature of this profession or what we do. Now he’ll see the mistakes he made and I don’t think he’ll make the same mistakes over and over. Sometimes you have to see it and it has to happen.”
Stoops also is confident Wade soon will adjust to his new role.
“I think just playing and seeing blocks and understanding position and angles of departure of centers and what they’re trying to do,” Stoops said. “Those are all things you learn. And again, you try to learn in practice but it’s not the same as going and the speed and violence that happens in a real game compared to practice.”