NORMAN — Senior defensive end Frank Alexander knows what everyone's saying is the key to the Sooners making a run at a national title.
"On offense, we have a whole bunch of playmakers," Alexander said. "If we hold up our part of it, we know the offense will do their part."
OU's defense finished strong last season, playing a key role in a five-game winning streak that produced another Big 12 title and a long-awaited win in a BCS bowl.
But the defense struggled in two losses, faltering in the fourth quarter at Missouri and Texas A&M.
Uncharacteristically, the Sooners finished 53rd nationally in total defense, surrendering more than 360 yards a game.
In the bottom line category, OU allowed nearly 22 points a game.
Part of the subpar stats can be attributed to playing in the Big 12, a league stacked with wide-open offenses loaded with playmakers.
But coach Bob Stoops and defensive coordinator Brent Venables said the primary reason for defensive inconsistency was the Sooners relied on several young players.
Players who had never made a start combined for 80 starts at seven different positions last season.
This season, 13 defensive players have combined for 133 career starts.
"Usually when we give up a play we've busted (an assignment)," Stoops said. "I feel we'll be more consistent mentally, which will help us be better."
Venables used middle linebacker Tom Wort as an example why experience is invaluable.
"It doesn't take very much," Venables said. "You don't have to be out of position by 10 yards. If you're out of position by 12 inches, it's a big-time problem. The development Tom has had this year compared to last year is not even close. It's showing up. He's consistent."
Stoops said consistency is the primary reason he's confident the defense will be much improved.
Most view the defensive line as OU's biggest question mark. Not Stoops.
"I really believe our defensive line and our D-ends are going to be much better than they've been billed to be," Stoops said. "It's natural just because they're a year older, a year stronger in the weight room, a year more experienced on the field in technique. They've had a few good days already."
Alexander said the doubters only fuel motivation.
"Everybody's attitude is so positive this year," Alexander said. "You can feel it in the locker room. I feel good about this defense. I feel good about this team. When I think about this season, I get chills."
Despite Stoops and Alexander's optimism, the defensive line is where the Sooners appear to be most vulnerable.
The Sooners don't have a Tommie Harris or Gerald McCoy anchoring the middle. They don't have a preseason All-American defensive end charging off the corner.
"Some people ran the ball on us last year," said defensive tackle Stacy McGee. "But this year we'll be a lot better than people think because we have speed, we have strength and we're smarter. We're all playing with better technique."
Which gets back to experience.
"With all the different guys that played so much, we'll have fewer mistakes," Stoops said. "More than talent, I've always felt our smarter defenses are our better ones."