, Muskogee, OK

March 28, 2014

Spring focus: Fine-tuning improved OU defense

By John Shinn

— NORMAN — The defensive improvements Oklahoma displayed in 2013 did not sprout from schematic decisions made the previous spring. If anything, it was the opposite. On the fly adjustments were common.

Ironing out the wrinkles that came with last season’s shift to a 3-4 defense is a spring priority.

“We’re so good at some things now that we can continue to tinker with different calls and how we want to do it,” OU defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said Thursday. “We continue to expand in little ways. We’re not going to change a whole bunch but I think we’ll add more to our package as we go along.”

The goal is to have OU’s best 11 players on the field regardless of what kind of offense it's facing. The task is not simple. A run through the Big 12 Conference means facing teams like Baylor, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, West Virginia and now TCU that will spread four receivers out and force you to cover them in space. Kansas State does the exact opposite and will use two tight ends and methodically beat on a defense for four quarters.

One unit has to defend both extremes and everything in between.

The switch to a 3-4 scheme was largely based on better covering spread offenses. Removing a defensive tackle and adding a linebacker puts more speed on the field.

But offenses always adjust. Stoops sees tight ends becoming more prominent in the Big 12 and everywhere else in college football.

Defensively, OU struggled against teams that used them last season. Notre Dame, Texas, Kansas and Alabama all used them. Both the Fighting Irish and Longhorns rushed for more than 200 yards against OU. Even a team like the Jayhawks, which won two games all season, had success running the ball on the Sooners.

“At times we weren’t as physical as we needed to be. To learn how to become more physical is really what we needed to do in games we didn’t play well against the run,” Stoops said. “There’s some schematics but I think a lot of it is just being more physical at the point of attack and learning how to play tight end sets. We never saw them two years ago. It was all four and five wides. Last year we saw a tight end 80 percent of the time … It’s a new evolution learning how to play some of this power run game in this defense.”

Can OU play against four receivers and with the same players as it does when a tight end and a fullback are both on the field?

Finding out is a spring goal.

It means certain players must play multiple positions. Someone like Eric Striker, who was a dominant pass rusher as weakside outside linebacker last season, must also be able to play on the strong side and lineup over and cover, at times, tight ends.

If he can't, he must come off the field against certain alignments.

OU returns nine of the 11 starters from the Sugar Bowl. They have a full year under their belts. Even their backups are capable of handling more situations.

“We’ve got a lot of different ways we can go with our personnel to fit the style of offense,” Stoops said. “I think that’s what’s different about our team this year, is learning how to use better personnel groupings better than we did a year ago.”