NORMAN — Over the past nine months, record-setting offensive statistics and intense criticism have left Oklahoma defenders wounded.
These aren't injuries that prevent anyone from playing; on the contrary, playing is virtually the only way to cure a football player's hurt pride. The Sooner defense begins that healing process Saturday evening against Louisiana-Monroe on Owen Field in the 2013 season opener.
“I can see the guys' mentality,” said senior cornerback Aaron Colvin. “We hear a lot of the negative things that are going around. Sometimes we talk about it, sometimes we don't. But we all know the expectations for us.”
Oklahoma played relatively well defensively through its first eight games last season, but often looked completely overmatched against the high-powered spread attacks of Baylor, West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M, which averaged 43 points and 581.25 yards against the Sooners.
In many statistical categories, including yards and points per game allowed and takeaways, 2012 ranked as the worst defensive season in Oklahoma's Bob Stoops era.
The Sooners were 112th in the nation in tackles-for-loss per game, and recovered only three fumbles, the program's lowest number ever.
Expectations for the 2013 Sooner defense are low because of those facts, plus the seven starters Oklahoma must replace in key spots, particularly in the secondary and on the defensive line.
Senior linebacker Corey Nelson — who, along with Colvin, was named a team captain this week — asked reporters to excuse his language before describing the way OU's defensive linemen feel about the widespread, negative opinion many have of them.
“They get (ticked) off about it to hear that the D-line is iffy this year,” Nelson said. “It puts a fire up under those guys. They told me that. They've got something to prove this year more than anybody.”
Nelson added that he feels the same way about how the overall defense is publicly perceived.
For Nelson, 2013 is not only his last season of eligibility, but also the final opportunity to fulfill his extremely high potential and consistently become the player Stoops called “the best player out there on defense … In fact, it's not even close,” two springs ago.
Some of his lack of production last year wasn't his fault. Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops experimented with linebacker-less schemes to combat the late-season spread attacks OU faced.
“The linebackers are the quarterbacks of the defense,” Nelson said. “If it starts with us, it has to end with us. For (the public) to say that about the defense, it's kinda questioning the linebackers in general. It does light a fire up under me.”
The hurt pride wasn't just limited to OU defensive players, but also impacted coaches like Mike Stoops.
Last season was his first back as Oklahoma's defensive coordinator after an eight-year stint as head coach at Arizona.
Mike Stoops returned to a much different Big 12 Conference than he left in 2003, and in many ways wasn't prepared for the offenses he encountered.
After the Sooners' 50-49 win at West Virginia last November — when the Mountaineers racked up 778 total yards of offense, the most ever against Oklahoma — he could barely stand to look down at the stat sheet on the podium.
“I think we've all gotta take it personal,” Mike Stoops said of the way the public views his defense.
“We've been under siege, and rightfully so. … We're excited just to go out and play and compete. I think that will come out in our players throughout the course of this week. They're ready to get out and change that perception the best we can.”