NORMAN — Oklahoma football enters another offseason clouded by questions stemming from a second straight season largely defined by subpar defense.
The blame has fallen on two coordinators — first Brent Venables, then Mike Stoops — lacking talent on the defensive line, too much schematic tinkering and a conference filled with fantastic quarterbacks directing spread offenses.
But one online report raised questions about the second-team All-America safety, considered one of Oklahoma's defensive leaders the past two seasons.
According to a controversial tidbit in a WalterFootball.com draft scouting report, OU coaches have told NFL scouts that former safety Tony Jefferson — who chose to skip his senior season and enter April's NFL Draft — had “horrible practice habits and a lack of work ethic in the weight room.”
A spokeswoman for Octagon Football, which represents Jefferson, declined The Oklahoman's request Wednesday for an interview.
Jefferson, though, unleashed a barrage of tweets Tuesday in response to the report.
“Also y'all be careful who y'all let pat you on the back,” read the final part of Jefferson's several- tweet response. “They could be patting you on ur back to find a soft spot, just to stab you in it!”
In response to an OU fan on Twitter, Jefferson said, “been a leader in the weightroom since I got there.”
To another Twitter user, he said, “Coaches hate me man. It's all good tho.”
Sooner coaches never once specifically criticized Jefferson's work ethic or commitment; to the contrary, Mike Stoops often praised Jefferson for playing most of last season on a badly sprained ankle.
For much of his sophomore season, Jefferson played with a sprained knee.
ESPN.com ranks Jefferson as the fifth-best safety prospect available in the 2013 draft. Last week on a conference call with reporters, ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr., said he expects Jefferson to be a second-round pick.
“I like the way he plays the game,” Kiper said. “He's got real good awareness. Real good instincts for the position. He's been a playmaker his whole career.”
Jefferson led the Sooners in tackles with 119, and intercepted two passes during his junior season. The Associated Press named him a second-team All-American.
Tuesday's report and Jefferson's response hardly represents the first public spat between Oklahoma's staff and NFL-bound former players; receiver Malcolm Kelly blasted OU's strength staff after running a subpar 40-yard dash at the 2008 pro day.
Two years later, strength coach Jerry Schmidt criticized first-round pick and former OU lineman Trent Williams in The Washington Post after the 2010 draft.
Jefferson's situation is different, though, because it involves private conversations never intended to be public. It's not in coaches' best interest to praise players they have legitimate concerns about; a program's reputation — and, consequently, their future draft prospects — are at stake, too.
Despite the uproar and possible hurt feelings, it seems unlikely the information in Tuesday's report alone would have a dramatic impact on where Jefferson is ultimately drafted. Even if his stock has suffered, he can reverse that some with a strong combine performance and impressive interviews with prospective teams.
The larger question looming from the report is whether or not one of Oklahoma's key defensive players and leaders was properly prepared.
Mike Stoops made what were probably the most critical public statements regarding Jefferson, saying the safety still struggled with “the finer things that make players great.”
“He does some things that really aggravate you, but he comes back and does so many good things,” Stoops said the week before Oklahoma's regular-season finale at TCU.
“He has a chance to be special, and getting him to understand the little things ... has always been my struggle with Tony.”