NORMAN — Oklahoma's overriding question this season: How much can Mike Stoops' return as defensive coordinator impact the defense?
Stoops is filling Brent Venables' former role. Venables left to run Clemson's defense.
Stoops isn't implementing major changes. Simplify has been the buzzword during media interview sessions.
“We're just trying to get our players in the right positions to be more efficient, more effective players,” Stoops said. “How much can we simplify things? That's hard to say. We're going to do what we have to do to be successful.”
Essentially starting at ground zero, Stoops is evaluating personnel and building a foundation during spring practices that will be on display during Saturday afternoon's spring game.
“It's getting everybody to knowing exactly what they're doing, not being confused out there,” said safety Javon Harris. “Knowing what everybody else is doing, that way you don't have to think as much. You can play. Everybody can ball.”
Defensive principles that date back to his first stint as defensive coordinator eight years ago will always be at the core of OU's defense.
But it's a new day. Speedy receivers pose daunting challenges.
“Our base defense hasn't changed from what it was a year ago,” Stoops said. “We'll get into some even fronts and odd fronts, try to keep the offense off balance as much as we can. But we can't give up being efficient with our players. We weren't as efficient as we needed to be a year ago.”
Giving the program a fresh set of eyes, Mike Stoops inherits a defense that was very good on occasion but victimized like no defense before in the Bob Stoops era.
OU's defense was dominant against Florida State, Texas and Kansas State but will be most remembered for three clunkers (Texas Tech, Baylor and Oklahoma State).
The Sooners were burned for a school record 616 yards against Baylor. They surrendered 572 to a Texas Tech team that didn't play in a bowl.
The bottom line stat: last year's OU defense ranks lowest in school history (376.2 yards a game).
Minimizing big plays has been an area of emphasis all spring.
“You have to have that mindset and attitude that nobody is getting behind you,” said free safety Tony Jefferson. “That's the mindset I have. It's a pretty simple concept; just don't let anyone get behind you ... deeper than the deepest man. I've been taught that since I was young.”
Players were taught that last year. Head-scratching breakdowns led to three conference losses for only the second time the past dozen years.
“Part of our responsibility is to get our players in position to do things they can do well,” Stoops said. “That's what we're trying to do, and find out what the strengths are of each particular player in this scheme.”
“Fresh start” has been the other catchphrase.
Before spring practices began, Stoops announced each player's slate was clean. Sure, he's seen films from a year ago. But his message was “That's in the past; let's see what you have right now.”
“A lot of teams go backwards when they get new coaches,” said defensive tackle Jamarkus McFarland. “But he's been here and he's done this. There will be no confusion. Everyone starts with the first step and you work your way up. You can't skip a couple of steps and expect to be good.”
Coach Bob Stoops said his brother has added “a few wrinkles,” but practices are closed. Why tip off opponents on the 2012 schedule?
“We need a little more discipline with some of the things we're doing but I'm not going to expound on it,” Bob Stoops said. “We're doing things how we always have.”
Mike Stoops will use six defensive backs more frequently, a chess move to combat offenses that line up four or five wide receivers. He's been pleased with the depth and overall play of the secondary, a position fans will monitor closely next season.
Improving the run defense will be addressed during two-a-days next fall. The D-line receives an incomplete grade this spring. Three nicked up defensive line starters (Casey Walker, David King and Stacy McGee) have played little.
Flexibility in the secondary and linebacker will allow defensive coaches opportunities to explore this summer. Devising pass rush/coverage units is the key for Big 12 defenses in a dynamic offensive league.
“We're trying to get our best players on the field,” Stoops said. “Ultimately what we're trying to distinguish is who are the best 11 or 12 or 13 players and take it from there.”
Mike Stoops estimates he's put in “50 to 60 percent” of the playbook. Only three practices remain, including the spring game.
Two-a-days is when the defense will really take shape.
“We wanted to build off something, start somewhere and build from there,” Stoops said. “That's what we attempted to do with these first 12 practices. We're implementing more of our defense next week but we'll (still) just have a small part of it in.
“We certainly have a lot to do to add to the package. But we have the basics of what we want to do, formations and how we want to move forward with our defense.”
OU SPRING GAME
When: 2 p.m., Saturday
Where: Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium, Norman
Tickets: $5 Tuesday, $10 Wednesday-Saturday. Tickets can be purchased online at SoonerSports.com or by calling (405) 325-2424. OU students, Sooner Kids Club members and children ages five and under are free.