NORMAN — Eric Striker came around the right edge, got a hand on Trevor Knight and would have attempted a beheading, if not for the blue jersey worn by the Sooner quarterback. QBs are off limits from friendly fire.
It was the second straight play Striker zipped around an OU tackle — Josiah St. John on the left, Derek Forniak on the right — to record a faux sack of Knight. Without the bounty of a hard hit, Striker was relegated to celebration. He turned to the fans above the west side of Owen Field and flamboyantly bowed.
Forgive Striker the chutzpah. The last time he was in front of a throng, it was open season on quarterbacks. Just ask Alabama’s AJ McCarron, a Sugar Bowl victim of Striker’s ferocious pass rush. This spring, it’s different. It’s Striker, no striking.
Good thing for the health of OU’s quarterbacks. Their performance, too. Knight looked shaky enough finding a groove with a patchwork offense Saturday without worrying about a stealth assault from Striker.
Knight’s 5-of-14 passing performance was a solid reminder that while his Sugar Bowl was sensational, he’s a two-hit wonder (Kansas State and Alabama) with not a ton of experience among fellow ballhandlers. And while rampant optimism flows through Soonerville, as it should, most of it stems from the defense. And players like Striker.
The Brothers Stoops are hard-pressed to contain their glee over what their 2014 defense could do.
Head coach Bob: “I feel great about it. I feel we’re just scratching the surface. With the entire summer to get stronger and build even more, we’ll be bigger, we’ll be more physical. So I’m really excited about it.”
Defensive coordinator Mike: “With the experience we were able to gain throughout last year, it’s a more confident group. It’s a very complete group of players that I think want more.”
Seems like not that long ago the Sooners were getting torched on a regular basis. West Virginia, OSU and Texas A&M in 2012. Baylor and Kansas State in 2013. But then came that Alabama game, where the youngish Sooners gave up lots of yards but wreaked havoc to the tune of five turnovers. Much of that courtesy of Striker, who had three sacks of McCarron and proved largely unblockable.
“Eric’s very disruptive,” Mike Stoops said. “You don’t want to overcoach him. Obviously, he has a scheme he’s trying to execute, but there’s stuff you can’t coach. Great football players, you shouldn’t have to coach every inch on the football field. Eric has great instincts.
“He’s not only a great football player, he has a great feel for the game. That’s what great players do. They have a great feel for the game. He knows when to take his shots. Hopefully they’re calculated. We don’t want to temper his energy and his ability to make big plays.”
This notion that OU is using Striker in pass coverage? That he’s playing some nickel back? Subterfuge. The Sooner staff is just trying to confuse opposing quarterbacks. They want to disguise from where Striker might blitz from his outside linebacker slot.
Striker twice this spring has smiled when asked how much time he’ll spend covering receivers. He knows what we know, and the Stoopses know it, too. Striker needs to be chasing quarterbacks.
“That’s what I do,” Striker said. “Y’all see that. That’s what I do.”
OU coaches have spent several years trying to find a way to pressure the Big 12’s spread-formation quarterbacks. They’re not going to let Striker float too far from that line of scrimmage. OU beat Alabama because the Sooners were able to harass McCarron. Pressuring quarterbacks is vital to the return of stingy defense.
“Strike’s one of those guys, you’re glad he’s on your side,” Knight said. “He’s a force to be reckoned with for sure.”
So cut Knight some slack. He was missing starting offensive tackles Tyrus Thompson and Daryl Williams and receiver Sterling Shepard, all OU tailbacks are greener than Augusta grass and Striker hadn’t played to a crowd in 100 days.
“Our pressure, it’s been hard for people to throw and sit back there,” Mike Stoops said. “Our front’s pretty good, our ability to rush the passer’s better than it’s ever been (in the last three years). This is a good group of defensive players he’s going against.”
Knight needed some time last season to develop. He’s still not experienced. Knight has started and finished only three college games. Despite the Sugar Bowl lightning strike, Knight might need more time to become big-time.
If so, he’s got a defense that can buy that time.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.