NORMAN — Four years ago, Gabe Lynn weighed 185 pounds and was the most feared high school cornerback in the state.
Lynn's pass coverage was so respected that over the course of his senior season, wideouts he covered were targeted for less than 10 total passes.
The former Jenks standout, a four-star cornerback prospect in the recruiting class of 2009, can't believe how much has changed in just four years.
Lynn, entering his junior year at Oklahoma and weighing closer to 200 pounds, never imagined that he'd be asked to play as close to the line of scrimmage as he is, or that defenses at all levels of football would need fifth defensive backs as often as they do.
He also had to bounce back this offseason from one fateful game in which he wasn't avoided as a cornerback, but picked on.
Lynn enters Saturday's 2012 season opener at UTEP as Oklahoma's starter at nickelback. It's a position that has evolved in recent years from one used almost exclusively in passing downs to a spot so vital that it's now listed on OU's depth chart instead of strongside linebacker. Oklahoma released its first depth chart — designated an “unofficial” one — since spring practices Monday on the athletic department's website.
“These days, even in the NFL, you're starting to see that fifth DB come out there more,” Lynn said. “The game's really changed; I grew with the game, and I've got a new spot now.
“Four years, and the game's changed that much. Everybody has some sort of spread.”
The nickelback position is one that's been manned the last two years by Tony Jefferson, who emerged as a defensive standout as a true freshman but now, as a junior, has been moved into a more traditional free safety role.
“Instincts and speed,” Jefferson said when asked what it took to be successful at nickelback. “You've got to be able to keep up with slot receivers who are probably the fastest receivers on the field, and be able to have instincts to read pass and the run. And you've got to be able to tackle.”
The entire defense, but especially the secondary, continues to be questioned about its struggles in the Sooners' three 2011 losses.
“We were the laughingstock of college football, in terms of yards against us,” Jefferson said.
Enter Mike Stoops, Oklahoma's defensive coordinator from 1999-2003 who has returned to restore order in the Sooner secondary. Back in Stoops' first tenure at OU, he liked employing a five-man secondary. Even though it's still been regularly used since Mike Stoops left, it's hard to remember any OU depth chart released by the team that didn't include three linebacker positions.
“There are so many one-back teams, you're not gonna get a lot of two-back teams (and need) three linebackers out there,” said linebackers coach Tim Kish. “We understand that. People are spreading you out, and what that leads to is having to bring in a fifth DB.”
All three losses last season were a result of poor defensive performances, but a home loss to Texas Tech, the Sooners' first of the year, is still haunting to the then-sophomore Lynn, who was playing in place of injured senior Jamell Fleming.
On one three-play sequence, which came on the Red Raiders' first drive of the second half, he gave up a 40-yard pass, was called for a personal foul and then was responsible for a touchdown pass that put OU down 31-7.
Tech coach Tommy Tuberville admitted at July's Big 12 Media Days that his squad bullied Lynn because of his inexperience.
Lynn said fixing the mistakes that plagued him that October night is all about focusing on assignments — especially when tired.
“When you're tired, that's when your technique gets out of the way,” Lynn said. “Tech was running that no-huddle, so it was fast. You've just got to slow your head down, and you'll be in good shape.”
Coaches told Lynn during winter workouts that they wanted to move him to nickel, and he said he was always fine with the move — “Any way I can get on the field, that's what I want to do,” he said.
“He just seems like he's real active,” Kish said. “He's strong enough and thick enough that he can help us in the run game, and yet he can run well enough to stay with the skill guys. He's really fit that role pretty well.”
Coaches and teammates have universally praised Lynn for the progress he's made in his new role and for his continued confidence despite being constantly linked just with that Texas Tech loss.
But Lynn said he knows he'll have to continue answering for that night until he makes good on a second opportunity.
That opportunity comes Saturday in West Texas.
“That's the last game I really played in, so until I get past that, that's what it is,” Lynn said.