NORMAN — One photograph captured Zack Sanchez’s back, the No. 15 on his white jersey blurred because Kansas State receiver Tyler Lockett was so far away — and so wide open — that the camera couldn’t keep both in focus.
The other photograph had a clear view of Sanchez. You could see his eyes locking on a point down field, his right arm cradling an intercepted football. And this time, Alabama players giving chase were the blurry ones in the picture.
But shown black-and-white printouts of those photos freeze-framing two vastly different moments from last season, Sanchez had the same reaction.
“Frustration,” the Oklahoma cornerback said.
On the first? That’s understandable.
But the second?
“I didn’t score,” Sanchez explained. “I was mad I didn’t score. My legs kind of gave out on me.”
Fair enough, though the rest of the Sooner Nation looks back on that play fondly. It was one of the many highlights that Sanchez had the final few games of last season. Frankly, as the Sooners conclude spring football on Saturday and point toward the fall, no one better embodies the big-play potential of this defense.
But Sanchez also embodies the work that remains.
In the final three games of last season — a good win at Kansas State, a great win at Oklahoma State and a shock-the-world win against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl — Sanchez intercepted two passes. The first was returned for a victory-sealing touchdown at K-State. The second was a near touchdown right before halftime against Alabama.
But as electric as those plays were, Sanchez still had serious struggles in those games. Lockett had six catches for 206 yards — 206 yards! — and three touchdowns — three touchdowns! — before halftime. While it wasn’t all Sanchez’s fault, Aaron Colvin had to limp out of the hospital ward to cool off Lockett in the second half.
Then against Alabama, Sanchez missed a couple tackles and struggled in coverage allowing the Crimson Tide to hit a couple big plays early on.
His boom-and-bust play mirrored the overall performance of the Sooner defense. In those three big wins to end the season, OU gave up a whopping 430.0 yards a game. K-State’s 372 yards wasn’t bad, considering how nuts Lockett went in the first half. OSU’s 402 yards wasn’t great, but Alabama’s 516 yards?
For as vaunted as the Alabama offense was last season, the only other games the Crimson Tide went over 500 yards were against Texas A&M, Kentucky and Arkansas. Last I checked, none of those squads are being lauded for their defensive prowess.
But OU is. Everyone is stoked about the Sooner defense, and I agree that there’s a lot to like. Nine starters returning. Stout defensive line. Speedy secondary. Still, much of the excitement is based on big plays.
Nothing wrong with big plays, especially when they win ballgames, but the real gold lies in consistency.
“That’s what playing really good defense is about,” Sooner defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said.
“I think all of us can be more consistent. If you look at our defense, at times every guy showed signs of playing great and other signs of not playing technique the way it needed to be plays.”
So, can the Sooners add consistency to their big-play potential next season?
It’s something Sanchez plans to do. Only a redshirt freshman last season, he was learning as he went, and he felt like he improved as the year progressed. But even with all the highlights he produced late in the year, he thinks more about the plays that he didn’t make. There are a couple every game.
“Those are the biggest things — just learning from those things and going into this year and making those plays,” Sanchez said. “Being that guys that makes the big play, not at the end of the game or when we need it but every single play.”
To that end, Sanchez has spent the offseason working on his footwork, which he felt needed to be better last season.
He has also committed to getting bigger, making it easier to fight through plays and blocks. He’s added 12 pounds to his 5-foot-11 frame since the end of last season, and he feels like he can be much more physical with receivers.
“He needs to continue to improve his fundamentals and techniques,” Stoops said. “But he’s a competitor.”
That’s why a picture of his interception against Alabama was as frustrating as the shot of Tyler Lockett about to haul in a wide-open touchdown. Sanchez wants to be the best in every situation, and he’s working to make that a reality next season.
If a bunch of other guys on this defense do likewise, look out. There will be frustration, but the Sooners won’t be feeling it. They’ll be doling it out.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.