NORMAN — The revelation that junior linebacker Eric Striker is working at nickelback this spring was met with some confusion. Why experiment with one of the best pass rushers in the country, especially only a few months after he tormented Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron?
OU coach Bob Stoops sought to clarify this week, saying the move is designed to give Striker more opportunities to rush the passer. Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said Thursday that Striker is “probably one of the top-five athletes on our team when you look at the totality of running, jumping, covering, rushing.”
The nickelback position is still sometimes called “Royback,” referring to versatile superstar Roy Williams, who more than 12 years ago turned a fourth-quarter blitz in the Cotton Bowl into one of college football history’s most memorable plays. Since he left campus, OU has yearned for the next Roy Williams.
Have the Sooners potentially found him in Striker?
“There are a lot of similarities with Roy,” Mike Stoops said. “It’s a fair comparison. We obviously rushed Striker more than we ever rushed Roy, but they have that innate ability to find the football and make plays. That’s where their similarities lie.”
Senior-to-be Julian Wilson played nickelback last season, but he is sitting out this spring after an offseason shoulder surgery.
Striker and sophomore safety Ahmad Thomas are the two players working the most at nickelback this spring, and the biggest adjustment for Striker, he said, has been an increased responsibility in man-to-man coverage.
“I feel like I fit right in,” Striker said of the nickelback spot. “There’s nothing too hard. There’s nothing I can’t do. I can do it all. Repetition, that’ll be the best part of anything. If I keep getting reps, the better I get.”
Asked about Striker’s expanded role this spring, Bob Stoops denied that there was any substantial change to his responsibilities, expect that he’ll have more chances to rush the passer.
“Eric is 10 times the rusher that Julian Wilson is,” Bob Stoops said. “In our normal yardage, we probably rushed Julian twice as much as we did Eric.
“Now, we get in third down, Eric always rushed. That doesn't have to change. But first and second downs, it can be reversed. That's all we're saying. We're trying to give him more opportunities to do what he does the best.”
Striker’s blitzing played a critical role in two of Oklahoma’s biggest victories last year.
On the third play from scrimmage at Notre Dame, Striker blitzed Irish quarterback Tommy Rees, hit him from behind and forced an errant throw, resulting in an interception that Corey Nelson returned for a touchdown.
Then in the Sooners’ monumental Sugar Bowl upset of Alabama, Striker recorded three of Oklahoma’s seven sacks on McCarron.
Asked Thursday if the position switch is permanent or just experimental, Striker pleaded ignorance.
“Anything can happen,” Striker said. “It could be experiment, could be whatever. You’ll never know until the first game of the season, really, until I guess the fall, two-a-days.
“I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.”
One thing OU coaches know for sure, though, is that Striker will play a vital role on defense next season, regardless of what position he fills.
“There’s nothing the guy can’t do,” Mike Stoops said.