Following an offseason full of highs, the Oklahoma Sooners will be riding a wave of momentum into spring practices.
But thanks to the efforts of defensive coordinator Mike Stoops, they’ll also enter as legitimate national title contenders.
Sure, the stellar play of Trevor Knight and the Oklahoma offense during the thrilling upset of Alabama, 45-31, in the Sugar Bowl seems to be dominating headlines as of late. However, everyone seems to forget just who carried the team when the offense couldn’t push the Sooner Schooner, let alone push the ball down the field.
To refresh the memory of those who’ve forgotten, it was the defense.
In just his second year since returning to Norman, Stoops helped the Oklahoma defense undergo something of a renaissance. After a disastrous 2012 campaign, the 52-year-old coordinator completely changed the defensive scheme, opting for a three-man front instead.
The change paid dividends, as the added speed and versatility resulted in significant improvements across the board.
|Oklahoma D Rankings in 2012 vs. 2013|
|Year||Scoring||Total Defense||3rd Down Defense||Sacks||TO Gained|
|2012||50 (25.5 PPG)||65 (399.5 YPG)||75 (41.6%)||69 (24.0)||104 (16)|
|2013||22 (22.1 PPG)||20 (350.2 YPG)||18 (33.7%)||29 (33.0)||35 (25)|
But as good as the defense was last season, it’s only poised to get better in 2014.
The Sooners return an impressive nine starters on that side of the ball, including the entire front seven. Leading tackler Frank Shannon (92.0 tackles) and sacks leader Eric Striker (6.5 sacks) headline that group.
Losing cornerback Aaron Colvin and ball-hawking safety Gabe Lynn will certainly hurt. However, Stoops made it a priority to tackle those needs during the recruiting period, personally securing the commitments of 4-star safety Steven Parker and 3-star cornerbacks Marcus Green and Tito Windham.
Parker is the prospect Stoops seems to be the most excited about.
"He's a guy we desperately needed at safety," he said of Parker, per ESPN’s Brandon Chatmon. "Because he’s a guy that brings a different element to the safety position that a lot of players just can’t just by his mobility, his skill level, his cover ability. We ask our safeties to do a lot of that and he fits perfectly into our system."
With the potential to see immediate playing time, Parker will only add to the youth of a relatively young defense—only two starters will be seniors—that will have Oklahoma competing for years to come.
But such a defensive turnaround shouldn’t come as a surprise to those around Norman.
In fact, Stoops led a similar resurgence during his first stint with the Sooners from 1999-2003. After finishing No. 39 in total defense his inaugural season, Stoops helped the unit improve to No. 8 in 2000. As you may recall, Oklahoma captured the program’s seventh national title that year.
Over Stoops’ final three seasons, the defense ranked No. 4, No. 10 and No. 3, respectively, in total defense.
Once he left in 2003, his absence was felt almost immediately. The Sooners dropped out of the top 10 the following year and only returned once during the next eight seasons, finishing No. 53 or worse three times.
Thankfully, those failures are in the past and the defense appears to be back on the upswing.
That’s a good thing, because going off the results of the last decade, a stifling defense seems to go hand in hand with national titles. Since 2003, only one national champion hasn’t ranked inside the top 10 in total defense.
And that squad—Auburn (2010)—needed every bit of Cam Newton’s incredible athleticism to accomplish the feat.
When Oklahoma unseated the the two-time defending champion Crimson Tide back in January, the team essentially killed two birds with one stone. Not only did the Sooners part ways with their habit of flopping in BCS bowl games, but the team also made a genuine case to be considered a viable threat to win next year's national title.
Some might call such talk foolish, half-baked or premature.
Then again, those were the same adjectives used to describe those who believed in 2000.