DALLAS — The return of Mike Stoops has been met with excitement and expectations of marked improvement for a defense — and, more specifically, a secondary — that collapsed in embarrassing 2011 losses.
If things are better, Stoops will be praised. If they're not, he'll likely be blamed.
But senior cornerback Demontre Hurst said Monday the attitude changed before Stoops arrived back in Norman.
For Hurst, it's the secondary that must improve itself by coming together and focusing to limit the mental mistakes that resulted in big plays and embarrassing losses.
“I feel like we have to bond together and have faith in each other, trust that person that he'll do what he's supposed to do,” Hurst said.
“We can't have mental mistakes. We've been trying to focus, focus, focus. That's the main thing I've been embracing all summer.”
In losses to Texas Tech and Baylor last season, the Sooner secondary surrendered 897 passing yards and eight touchdowns through the air. Players seemed out of position and, sometimes, just confused.
“I was embarrassed,” Hurst said of the secondary in those games. “I know I had a part in that. I think the whole defense was embarrassed.”
Sooners head coach Bob Stoops admits the defense didn't live up to the standards set by his past OU teams.
“In the past couple of years, for whatever reason — and we've really looked at it — our defense hasn't been quite as strong as what we've been used to,” Bob Stoops said. “Hopefully we can make fewer mental mistakes in some areas and be a little sharper in what we're doing to play more consistently and better defense.”
That only makes his reunion with Mike Stoops all the more exciting, considering the defensive prowess displayed when the Stoops brothers roamed the Sooner sideline together from 1999-2003.
Stoops left to become Arizona's head coach, a job he held until he was fired midway through the 2011 season.
“Our track record working together and competing together has been pretty positive,” Bob Stoops said. “I trust Mike's judgment on a lot of issues, and I'm sure it will be positive.”
In addition to being defensive coordinator, Mike Stoops is the secondary coach. Hurst said the biggest difference is simply the respect players have for him and his accomplishments.
“It's been different, just because it's Mike Stoops,” Hurst said. “He has that credibility; you want to respect him and buy into what he has to bring.
“He's showing us different things to try to get better. We're really going to go out there and try to embrace what he brings.”
Coaches can't work with players during the summer, but Hurst said that, through 7-on-7 drills and focusing on unit solidarity, things are better.
Cornerback Jamell Fleming, the secondary's leader a year ago, is now playing for the Arizona Cardinals. But several experienced players are back, including Aaron Colvin, Javon Harris and Tony Jefferson, who has moved into a more traditional safety role after playing his first two seasons closer to the line of scrimmage.
For Hurst, the offseason has also been about becoming a more vocal leader. He is embracing the role, but also admitted how difficult it's been.
“It's been a challenge for me to get every single person going, telling guys to do right and encouraging them,” Hurst said. “It's been a daily grind for me.
“Jamell wasn't vocal, but he led by example. I embraced that, but I'm also trying to be more vocal.”
In speaking on behalf of his teammates, Hurst seemed at ease. He spoke with candor and confidence, saying the 2012 defense has something to prove.
“I don't want to give up 500 yards a game,” Hurst said. “We know for a fact we're better than that. We can really be good if we play ball, bond together, have fun and just go out there and play Sooner football.”
The guidance of a new defensive coordinator, whose “tenacity” immediately stood out to Hurst, could provide another boost for the unit.
“I know what type of business man he is,” Hurst said. “My first impression was he's not here to play; he's here to get us ready.”