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Texas-Oklahoma Football Preview: Sooner Defense

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The Sooner defense has shown some vulnerability this year, but they've done a pretty good job of keeping teams out of the end zone and, as Huckleberry's adjusted statistics suggest, are substantially better than their raw yardage and scoring statistics. The Sooner quick tempo offense doesn't just put pressure on the opponent's defense - they put pressure on their defense by lengthening games and increasing possessions. Let's dig into their personnel and performance and see what areas the Longhorns may be able to exploit.

Personnel

DL

The Sooner defensive front plays eight guys and they're pretty good about keeping fresh legs on the field. The DEs have been the bright spot of the unit with veteran Frank Alexander (2.5 sacks, 1 int) and explosive Ronnell Lewis (4 tfl leads team) playing at a high level throughout the year. Ronnell's 27 tackles actually leads the Sooner defense and that gives you some insight into the hybrid DE's motor and activity level. Keep your eyes on #56 when we're running the other way - he has a particular gift for running down plays from the backside. He's Sergio Kindle-ish in terms of bounciness and energy. Although Lewis is "undersized" at 245, he has man strength and zero problems holding the edge. Alexander is just a good all-around player who has seen it all. We'll also see some David King (270 pound run stopper) and RJ Washington (coveted recruit and gifted pass rusher who still hasn't put it all together).

In a straight up 3rd and 9 passing situation, our OTs are going to struggle with these guys.

The Sooner DTs are primarily used to shield the Sooner playmakers. Stacy McGee (6-2, 310) and Longhorn favorite Jamarkus McFiction (6-2, 295) are more than adequate and you'll see plenty of Casey Walker and some Torrea Peterson when they need a blow. I expect we'll have some trouble rooting them out or getting a push as they're good at submarining and keeping a low pad level, but they're not going to make plays from end to end either. None of these guys are Dusty Dvoracek, with or without a baseball bat, but they hold the LOS.

LB

Travis Lewis is back in form after Justin Chaisson gave him screwdriver acupuncture treatments and he's a legitimate All-America candidate. Extremely quick, plays bigger than he is, tremendous motor and instincts. His sidekick Tom Wort is a similarly constructed poor man's version and he's a really gifted natural run blitz guy. He has a good first step, can get small to exploit a gap, and explodes into the backfield. You can bury him straight up though. Tony Jefferson is their third LB (actually a nickel safety, to be fair) and he's a playmaker. He leads the team in interceptions and the Sooners utilize him in a number of ways as a blitzer and occasional spot shadow on a mobile QB, RB out of the backfield on 3rd and intermediate, or a TE.

This is the strength of the Sooner defense, primarily for the problems that their quickness and instincts pose to the offense, but that coin has two sides. They go 225-230-200 and they can get physically overwhelmed at the point of attack when their DL doesn't halt initial momentum. Like many teams in college and pro football the Sooners have opted for speed in their back 7 to eliminate coverage mismatches with TEs, RBs and inside receivers, but they've given up some physicality in exchange. Rocky Calmus and Torrance Marshall are nowhere to be found. Several teams have had success running the ball at OU (see 3.9 yards per carry adjusted stat which includes sacks), but that plan tends to go out of the window when you find yourself down 21-3 in the 2nd quarter.

DB

The Sooner CBs are better than their safeties. Jamell Fleming and DeMontre Hurst have played well for them (DeMontre is the wide corner) and the Sooners ask a lot of them when they commit to bringing the heat up front. The safeties are interesting contrasts - slim Aaron Colvin (6-0, 180) is a former corner and a good coverage guy and Javon Harris (5-10, 205) brings the wood but doesn't cover particularly well. He's just not that comfortable in space in the games I've watched. The Sooner secondary is aided quite a bit by the fact that they play in a de facto base nickel and they have solid corners, but the Tulsa and Florida State games revealed a few instances where their safety play wasn't quite where it needed to be.

OU safeties have bitten hard on run fakes since 1999 and Javon Harris is upholding that tradition. If we have any success running the ball, we have some specific game planning to punish his nosiness.

Overall

The Sooner defense has allowed some yardage between the 20s, but they're holding up in the red zone (15.2 ppg allowed) and they've faced some solid offenses. They bring pressure situationally, particularly when they're backed up or on a key down. Now that I've excused OU's defense on a number of fronts, I can't get past the fact that they're allowing 5.2 yards per play. They're allowing too many big plays and the 28 point, 500+ yard surrender to Missouri was worrisome for them. We don't have a RB that can match Missouri's HB Josey's pure explosiveness, but I have to think that game film made an impression on our staff.

The Sooner defense hasn't quite been the same post Mike Stoops, but they're clearly the best unit we've faced to date. Some thoughts on key match-ups:

1. Shipley/Davis vs. Fleming/Hurst. If we can't win some one-on-one battles here and get the OL and QB play to execute downfield, game over. Shipley is extraordinary, but he's physically a freshman and you can expect that OU will rough him up and let him feel their presence.

2. TEs. OU likes to run blitz their LBs to disrupt the running game before it starts, let their corners squat on short routes, and cover them with safeties over the top deep to prevent a big play. Although their base nickel is a direct attempt at dealing with a historical coverage issue in their Cover 2 concepts, there will be some opportunities for DJ Grant and he needs to play like he did against UCLA rather than the poor effort against Iowa State.

3. Sticking with the run. OU has a small back 7. If we can force honesty in the passing game, convert some 3rd downs to allow us to be a little stubborn on 1st and 2nd, play defense well enough to keep it close, and our special teams doesn't concede cheap scores or field position, we will make hay in the running game over four quarters of play. It won't be overwhelming them inside with base blocking - it'll be with misdirection and block down/kick out. A run threat at QB is enormously helpful in forcing OU's DEs to play honestly and for that reason I hope Ash has snaps early and often. The Sooner defense is built to play with a lead.

4. Harsin vs. Venables. This is a game where composure is crucial and elevated tunnel adrenaline and underclassmen at the skill positions means dropped balls, turnovers, and inexplicable gaffes. Youth always shows up in this sort of game. Harsin may have instances where we beat Oklahoma schematically, but we simply can't deliver. If that happens enough, this thing will get out of hand.

On the flip side, Oklahoma has benefitted for lengthy stretches in this series when they could force our offensive coordinator to behave in ways they wanted. The 2009 game plan was particularly telling for its putridity, but I can cite a half dozen other offenses. The Sooner staff just took en entire 13 year file called "Texas offense" (stored on a 3x5 note card) and threw it in the trash. It's Year Zero. We even self-scout now.

The Boise State bowl game stuff is way overdone (in fact, you'd be smart to throw it out altogether), but the key learning point is that Venables will find himself going against an OC who has a plan instead of a play sheet and, like all of us, he's not really sure all that entails.