NORMAN — In three short weeks, Tom Wort feels exponentially better about Oklahoma's defense and his role in it.
The Sooners stuffed what had been a highly productive Texas offense Saturday, when Oklahoma routed its archrival 63-21 inside the Cotton Bowl. Individually, Wort played the best game so far of his junior season.
“We love the way he played Saturday,” said defensive coordinator Mike Stoops. “If we can get that out of him every time he steps on the field, we'll be in business.”
That was the problem through OU's first four games. Wort was badly struggling to adapt to a new scheme under Stoops, who replaced Brent Venables after he left OU for Clemson in January.
“Of course I've had my struggles this season,” Wort said. “I think anyone can see that. With the coaching change, and the system, it's been hard for me.
“But it doesn't mean I can't hustle to the football and hit. I can still play football. ... It was good to get that game in, and kind of feel like the old Tom.”
After Oklahoma's 24-19 home loss to Kansas State on Sept. 22, Wort was roundly criticized by fans and media for his perceived lack of involvement in the defense. But he was critical of himself, too, the next week. He badly whiffed on John Hubert's 9-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown run that put the game out of reach for the Sooners.
But while criticizing himself, Wort also called his teammates outs for lacking physicality in practice and “being nice” to the scout team.
Three weeks and two big-time defensive performances later, Wort said he no longer feels that way about practices.
“Practice has been exceptional the past three weeks,” Wort said. “Guys have just been physical, wrapping up a lot better ... and being a lot more locked in. It definitely showed this past weekend. The way we've been practicing is the way we've been playing, and we've gotta keep it up.”
The Texas game's stat sheet says Wort only recorded two tackles, with one forced fumble, Saturday. But under Stoops' tweaked system, linebackers are asked to man specific gaps in the offensive line, and push opposing players out to defensive backs.
“I've just had to adapt and do the best I can with the new system and new coaches,” Wort said.
Mike Stoops also asks his linebackers to play more against the pass than Wort ever has, so when he got beat a few times early in Oklahoma's win at Texas Tech, redshirt freshman Frank Shannon supplanted him and excelled.
“Frank's a great player,” Wort said. “We've got to play to guys' strengths.”
Stoops said: “We're gaining depth in our football team; good depth. Quality depth. If you've got a guy like Frank behind you, it's gonna motivate you to do a lot of good things. ... We wish we had a bunch of guys like that. Young, talented players that can push players.”
Among the biggest adjustments this season, though, for Wort has been life without Venables, who recruited Wort to Norman and became his position coach.
Venables and Wort developed a very close, personal relationship before Venables bowed out of Norman in January.
“Me and (linebackers coach Tim) Kish get along great,” Wort said. “Me and Coach (Mike) Stoops do, too.”
So it isn't a matter of Wort not getting along with the new coaches; it's more about missing Venables?
“A lot of stuff goes into it,” Wort responded. “You can sum it up like that.”
Mike Stoops understands players develop affection for particular coaches but said he and Kish are getting there with Wort.
“It takes time, and Tom's growing like all of us are, and starting to gain confidence and trust in the system,” Stoops said. “What he's done poorly on the football field up to this point, there's nothing he can't improve on. He knows that. We have a lot of confidence in him.”