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The Oklahoma secondary needs to get aggressive again in 2017

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The Sooner DBs only picked off four passes in 2016, to win an improved Big 12 in 2017 is going to require more.

NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Auburn vs Oklahoma John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Oklahoma found themselves in a bad spot in 2016 with their secondary. Despite returning promising CB Jordan Thomas and bluechip cover safety Steven Parker, the secondary proved to have some holes and weak spots that led to a tough time corralling Big 12 offenses and low overall production.

The unit was porous until shoring things up late in the year and often relied on the offense to put them over against teams they should have dispatched with relative ease, such as TCU (gave up 46 points), Texas Tech (59 points), or Texas (40 points). For most of the year, a unit the Sooners have traditionally leaned on was actually a weak spot.

An aggressive secondary was the calling card of the early Stoops-era Sooners and they were well drilled on the art of reading tendencies and jumping expected routes. Then Mike Stoops left for the head coaching job at Arizona and their DB position has gone through a lot of ups and downs in the years since:

Some of those early INT numbers the Mike Stoops secondaries were snatching are unreal and completely uncommon today. For comparison’s sake, three of the secondaries with the stickiest fingers in 2016 were Washington (10 INTs from the starting DBs), Utah (15), and Ohio State (17). That kind of production was completely typical for those early 2000’s Oklahoma teams with one of the starting safeties typically at 5+ every year.

After Mike Stoops left those numbers dipped with some resurgence at the turn of the decade and a good deal of inconsistency since. In 2015 it looked like the aggressive, route-jumping Sooners were back with starting corners Jordan Thomas and Zach Sanchez snatching five and seven INTs respectively but then things went off the cliff in 2016 with Sanchez graduating and Thomas breaking up 17 passes but only hanging on to two.

Here’s how Oklahoma’s 2016 secondary shook out in comparison to the rest of the Big 12.

The 2016 Sooners were greatly helped by the play of inside-backer Jordan Evans, who was a converted HS safety, who brought a lot of range in coverage between the hash marks. His ability to help lock down the middle was huge for a Sooner team that was weak outside whichever hash mark wasn’t patrolled by Thomas. Weakness in two out of the three major zones of the field is impossible to overcome, particularly in the Big 12.

Overall they struggled to match the production of secondaries elsewhere in the league, such as the West Virginia unit keyed by Rasul Douglas or the more balanced K-State group that returns much of their firepower.

Evans is now moving on, leaving a considerable hole and a lot of questions in Norman about how effectively they’re going to match routes in the middle of the field, but the Sooners are in much stronger shape elsewhere with Thomas and Parker returning.

The dearth of INTs has been mostly attributable to the safeties.

For most teams, overall passing defense is often reflected in the INT totals from the starting safeties. Tight coverage underneath, pressure, and tipped passes are generally most easily exploited by the defenders that are playing over the top in deep zone.

The Sooners haven’t had a safety who’s done much while playing over the top since Gabe Lynn left after 2013 (4 INTs). Since then the safety tandems have been:

2014: Ahmad Thomas (1 INT) and Quentin Hayes (1 INT)

2015: Ahmad Thomas (3 INT) and Steven Parker (0 INT)

2016: Ahmad Thomas (0 INT) and Steven Parker (2 INT)

2014 is also the season when the Sooners started mixing in more 3-4 defenses with Eric Striker playing as a Sam LB in space in lieu of using a nickel DB in that role. Since then the strong safety position staffed by Hayes and Parker over that period has had a greater emphasis on playing man coverage over slot receivers, yet free safety Ahmad Thomas was free to play over the top all those years and produced only four INTs in three full seasons of work.

With the Sooners likely utilizing linebacker Caleb Kelly in a role similar to what Striker played in 2014 and 2015, the strong safety will probably once again be called upon to play down in man coverage regularly so that Kelly can rush the passer. That leaves the free safety replacing Ahmad Thomas as the guy who will be best positioned to capitalize from pressure and solid coverage underneath.

The Sooners should finally be in position to reclaim a spot as an aggressive, ball-hawking secondary in 2017.

The starting cornerback spot opposite Jordan Thomas was a revolving door for much of 2016 until freshman Jordan Parker (no relation to the safety) finally locked it down at the end of the season. Then spring ball produced yet another promising corner in sophomore-to-be Parnell Motley, who flashed in the Sooner spring game with Parker sitting out with an injury. The Sooners may be going from having one capable corner to having three.

At safety the Sooners are boosted not only by the return of Steven Parker (and arguably the departure of Ahmad Thomas), but by Kelly’s emergence in the Striker role which frees up nickel DB Will Johnson to potentially move to safety. Johnson came to Oklahoma from the JUCO ranks as a CB but moved inside to nickel and played the spring game at Parker’s strong safety position.

He has the coverage ability to play there and potentially free up Parker to focus on hawking passes from the free safety position. Another option is that the Sooners will turn to young Will Sunderland at that position, a gifted athlete who struggled with positioning in the spring game but that brings some physicality and an upgrade in range over the departing Thomas. How they sort these positions out could have an enormous impact on the 2017 season as they need a guy back there that can impact games with his ability to play the ball.

Pressure up front shouldn’t be an issue with DE/OLB Obo Okoronkwo back after a nine-sack 2016 season, Kelly joining the starting lineup, and disruptive DT Neville Gallimore settling into a starting role as a rising junior. Protecting the safeties, much less setting them up, could be an issue with Evans leaving and redshirt freshman Jon-Michael Terry the most likely candidate to replace him at inside-backer. Nevertheless, with a considerably improved CB rotation the Stoops’ brothers should be able to more easily afford to pack in extra help between the hash marks.

If a standard call from the Sooners sends their free safety deep and their strong safety down then there’s flexibility with OLBs Obo (J in the diagram below) and Kelly (S) to either rush the QB or help the Evans-less inside-backers lock down any routes between the hash marks:

However they sort this out, the Sooners are facing a really daunting slate of experienced QBs around the Big 12 in 2017 as well as a pre-conference trip to Ohio to face J.T. Barrett and the Buckeyes, so there’s not much margin for error. A 2017 Sooner secondary that has a 2016-type impact on games gets them beat, regularly. A return to the Mike Stoops standards of old allows Oklahoma to maintain their place at the top of the league.