NORMAN — Four years ago during a Fiesta Bowl week practice, redshirting defensive end Frank Alexander was fielding punts with the agility of a wide receiver.
After Alexander sprinted back to flag down another punt along the sideline, one Sooner insider gushed Alexander would be “the next big thing” at Oklahoma.
Yet for all Alexander's natural gifts, that is yet to happen. After a promising sophomore campaign as a part-time starter, Alexander regressed in 2010 as a junior. A preseason ankle sprain caused him to miss the opener; however, even after returning, Alexander was almost a non-factor the first half of the season.
But there's still reason to believe Alexander may be on the verge of finally busting out into an all-conference caliber end.
After re-emerging in the starting lineup when OU installed the three-end, 50-front scheme the final week of the regular season, Alexander was a terror. In the Sooners' final three games, Alexander quietly racked up eight tackles for loss, three sacks and one forced fumble.
So far this spring, Alexander has continued to surge.
“Frank has had a good spring. Been a good leader and been really consistent,” said defensive coordinator Brent Venables. “He did come on at the end of the year, and started playing like he's capable of playing.
“Really, the sky is the limit for him. He's capable of another place, and we're hoping he can get there.”
With fellow starting end Ronnell Lewis still soaking in the intricacies of the position, and Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Jeremy Beal gone, the Sooners need Alexander to get there.
Talent has never been the issue. But small things like playing with too high a pad level have held Alexander back, ends coach Bobby Jack Wright points out.
“Frank's continuing to improve,” Wright said. “He's finally starting to kind of get the idea of how he's got to play.”
Replacing a player as prolific as Beal is impossible. But if Alexander can continue to ascend, the Sooners figure to be stout at end once again.
“I think he's looking forward to playing at a higher level than he did last year,” Venables said, “and I think that's going to help us a lot if he does.”
‘HYBRIDS' HAVE IMPROVED TEAM SPEED
One of the strengths of this OU defense clearly is its team speed at every position. But the Sooners didn't just stumble into this advantage fortuitously.
OU gradually has gotten faster by creating “hybrids.” In other words, transitioning corners into safeties, safeties into linebackers and linebackers into defensive ends.
Four defensive starters and a couple of top reserves are playing different positions than they did in high school.
In the last year, Lewis has switched from outside linebacker to end. Austin Box and Tony Jefferson, once prep safeties, are now linebackers. And this spring, cornerback Aaron Colvin has been moved to strong safety.
“I think we're very athletic across the board,” Venables said. “Inside to the safeties and the back, we can all run. Our ability to run definitely won't be an issue.”
VENABLES ENCOURAGED BY SAFETIES
The biggest question with the defense is how the Sooners will fare at safety, where multiyear starters Quinton Carter and Jonathan Nelson have graduated.
But so far this spring, Venables has been encouraged by the way this inexperienced group has performed.
“As of right now, we've really, overall, been pleased with positioning, tackling ability, coverage ability, understanding,” he said. “They're playing well.”
Colvin is manning strong safety, while sophomore Javon Harris is battling veteran Sam Proctor for the starting spot at free. Jefferson has also been rotating back at safety to add depth. Redshirt freshmen James Haynes and Quentin Hayes have also had moments, notably in last Thursday's mini-scrimmage.
“When you see the physicality from people coming from the back end to the backfield and the line of scrimmage, that shows their assuredness, their positioning, their understanding is good,” Venables said “They're not playing on their heels; they're playing downhill and in an aggressive manner because they trust the scheme and their keys.
“I think those are indications the maturation is taking place like we'd hoped and I think we'll have three or four guys back there that can really help us play winning football and play the way we're used to playing.”