The Sooner defense can begin to get better right now and here's why
By Clay Horning | Senior Sports Columnist
Here’s what we’re not saying.
We’re not saying because Lincoln Riley decided the Sooner defense would be better without Mike Stoops that it necessarily will be. For any number of reasons, it may not be.
Here’s what we are saying.
We’re saying for any number of reasons it could be better, too, perhaps even dramatically better. And, because the first option stinks, not getting better at all or getting worse, who wants to read about those possibilities?
So let’s go with the other list.
Besides, though new can be scary, it’s also exciting and what we’re about to enter, beginning Saturday in Fort Worth and lasting the rest of the season, is bound to be exciting.
Honestly, watching OU fail to overcome itself defensively has become monotonous to the point of boring and the promise of something different should make every defensive series the rest of the season compelling.
So, how might it get better?
Here are five ways.
- Better tackling: Linebacker Curtis Bolton has already said this past week that the Sooners were going through the motions in practice when it came to tackling, yet that has changed.
Perhaps, fearing injury, practices simply weren’t that physical before. Perhaps, tired of their coordinator, the Sooner defense was not in the habit of going full speed. Also, maybe Stoops was all about positioning and had de-emphasized tackling himself.
Whatever, if they’re tackling better in practice, they might tackle better in games.
- Competition pays dividends: He didn’t make a big point of it, but Lincoln Riley said Monday, given new leadership, players might find themselves being evaluated differently.
Anyway, Stoops was playing the guys he felt should be on the field and now Ruffin McNeill will be doing the same. The personnel depth chart may always be fluid, as coaches will tell you, yet now it really should be. And that alone may wake up the Sooner defenders.
- Communication: Stoops himself, the week after being let go, made it clear he was struggling to connect to players in the same ways he had connected with them in his original stint in Norman.
Perhaps he’s always had just one gear when it came to challenging players to find their best selves. Perhaps he simply could not relate, though he tried, but he couldn’t pull it off. Perhaps a lot of things, but the man himself said it wasn’t happening, and perhaps it will happen under Ruffin McNeill.
By virtue of the greater comfort players may feel playing for a coordinator that “gets” them against the discomfort of playing for one that doesn’t, that alone could yield better play and, more than that, better consistency.
- Confidence: Confidence, or lack of it, flows from the top and it’s appeared clear for seasons that Stoops was facing an internal struggle with it.
Whether brought on by so many spread offenses, the way the game’s officiated or other issues like his inability to reach players, he appeared to coach cautiously and afraid. There is no way that internal struggle didn't extend to his players.
Now that he’s no longer, the Sooner defense ought to play with more confidence. Perhaps only slightly more initially, yet a little more is still a little more and it should get defenders into better positions more quickly and reacting, rather than thinking, once there.
- Stars shine brighter: Bolton and fellow linebacker Kenneth Murray are having big seasons, with 149 tackles and 11 for losses between them. Yet, if they’re feeling better under new defensive leadership, could they be in on more plays, make more stops for losses, creating turnovers?
Or could a player like Neville Gallimore, whose potential Stoops talked up all the time, begin to reach it more quickly now that Stoops is gone? Given that Gallimore has three tackles for losses and just one sack the length of the season, that would appear quite possible. It could be possible for others, too.
Sometimes we hear that OU can do a lot of things with schemes, with coaches, approaches, but the Sooner defense will never get much better until it gets much better players, yet that thinking is dumb on its face.
It may never be a top-five or top-10 defense without a whole lot better players, yet there’s nothing to keep it from being a top-25 or a top-50 defense, neither of which it is right now.
Given the last several seasons, a whole lot better players would have produced only slightly better results, because if the guy running the show is struggling to confidently reach his players, those players are going to reflect it in their play.
If Mike Stoops was the problem, and he might have been, the elimination of that problem should begin to pay now.
It’s a whole new ballgame.
On one side of the ball, at least.