NORMAN â€” Viewed as one of Oklahoma's biggest question marks on defense entering the football season, cornerback Jamell Fleming has played so well, he leads the nation in passes defended.
Fleming is tied for the Big 12 lead in interceptions (four), and he has nine pass breakups.
â€œFrom Day 1 when he got here, Jamell had the athleticism of an NFL guy,â€ said safety Jonathan Nelson. â€œFor him to come into his own, and have the kind of season he's having, he's come on in a big way. He's locking everything down.â€
Playing behind veterans Dom Franks and Brian Jackson, Fleming led the Sooners in special teams tackles as a redshirt freshman. He was second last season.
But when Fleming and Demontre Hurst both finally got their chance to start, they struggled at times in the season opener against Utah State.
â€œThat game, we were just a little bit nervous, especially the first time as a starter,â€ Fleming said. â€œWe knew we just had to do what we do in practice.â€
The one-game, knee jerk reaction from fans and media indicated that OU's new cornerbacks might be a weakness. Instead, they're now viewed as a strength, which is why defensive coordinator Brent Venables has blitzed more the past two games.
â€œJamell has played extremely well,â€ Venables said. â€œHe's very competitive and plays physical. He did a terrific job against (Jeff) Fuller the other night at A&M. He's progressed really, really well for us.â€
Having the defensive coordinator call blitzes is the ultimate compliment. Cornerbacks are usually forced to provide man-to-man coverage while linebackers blitz to pressure the quarterback.
â€œYou don't have any safety help or nobody behind you,â€ Fleming said. â€œBut I like that. Without having any pressure, you take stuff for granted. That makes you have confidence in yourself, knowing coaches have confidence in you and your teammates have confidence in you.â€
Coach Bob Stoops said consistent play from the cornerbacks has been one of the biggest positives on defense this season.
â€œJamell is playing really well,â€ Stoops said. â€œYou look at all the breakups, defending balls, playing confidently and playing against good people. It's been exciting for me to see him really enjoy the competition and confidence and attitude he's playing with.â€
Fleming, a junior from Arlington, Texas, leads the country in a category in which defensive backs are graded: 13 passes defended. He missed the Texas game with a sprained ankle but didn't miss a beat when he returned.
â€œWe always knew Jamell was one of the most athletic guys on the team,â€ said linebacker Travis Lewis. â€œHe just needed to get it mentally-wise. He's cleaned up his technique and is really playing well. Our corners are playing big-time for us. We just need the rest of us to follow along.â€
Fleming learned the hard way that there are no shortcuts to success. Because of academic issues, Fleming took 12 hours at Oklahoma City Community College in 2009, forcing him to miss spring workouts.
When he returned to the OU football program that summer, Fleming was more focused in every aspect.
â€œIt taught me to not take things for granted, that you need to work hard,â€ Fleming said. â€œI was so happy to be back.â€
Fleming applied that work ethic from the classroom to football, spending hours watching film.
â€œThat's done a lot for me. It gets me prepared,â€ Fleming said. â€œI watch how a player gets off the ball, the routes he runs, things like that, including what the quarterback is looking at.â€
OU's cornerback play is no longer viewed as a question mark.
â€œBetween Jamell and Demontre (Hurst), and Aaron Colvin coming along, those three guys are playing really well,â€ Venables said. â€œWith the throwing teams we'll see the next few weeks, it's good to have those guys playing at a high level.
â€œIf we can shore up a couple of other positions, we could play outstanding defense.â€