2008 Oklahoma Preview - Defense
Oklahoma SS Nic Harris
Oklahoma SS Nic Harris
Posted May 9, 2008

CollegeFootballNews.com 2008 Preview - Oklahoma Sooner Defense

Oklahoma Sooners

Preview 2008 - Defense

- 2008 CFN Oklahoma Preview | 2008 Oklahoma Offense
- 2008 Oklahoma Defense | 2008 Oklahoma Depth Chart
- 2007 CFN Oklahoma Preview | 2006 CFN Oklahoma Preview

What you need to know:
Last year's defense had several major concerns, but there wasn't much of a question that everything was going to be fine. That's not the case this year. This D has more than enough athletes and more than enough five-star talents to replace the former stars with new ones, but there are gaping holes to fill and some very, very big ifs. If LB Ryan Reynolds can stay healthy and take over in the middle for Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Curtis Lofton, and if corners Reggie Smith and Marcus Walker can be replaced, and if ultra-talented DT DeMarcus Granger is back after getting nailed on shoplifting charges, and if pass rushing demon Auston English is back to normal after suffering a broken ankle, and if several untested underclassmen and a few newcomers can play right away up to Sooner standards, then this might be among the Big 12's best defenses again.  

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Lendy Holmes, 73
Sacks: Auston English, 9.5
Interceptions: Lendy Holmes, 3

Star of the defense: Sophomore DT Gerald McCoy
Player who has to step up and become a star:
Sophomore CB Dominique Franks
Unsung star on the rise:
Sophomore DE Jeremy Beal
Best pro prospect: McCoy
Top three all-star candidates: 1) McCoy, 2) DE Auston English, 3) S Nic Harris
Strength of the defense: Defensive tackle, safety
Weakness of the defense:
Linebacker, proven depth anywhere

Defensive Line

Projected Starters
Is junior DeMarcus Granger going to be back in the defensive tackle mix? An All-Big 12 selection with NFL talent, the 6-3, 300-pounder had a good regular season making 34 tackles, 3.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss, and then he made the mellonhead move of getting arrested for shoplifting a jacket just before the Fiesta Bowl. He's still on the team, but he's certainly not a sure thing considering the off-the-field issues. On the field, he has all the measureables, the quickness and the strength to be the best OU defensive line prospect since Tommie Harris.

Sophomore Gerald McCoy was the Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year, and no matter what happens to Granger throughout the year, will be one of the team's top linemen. A superstar recruit,
the 6-4, 289-pound 2006 USA Today National Defensive Player of the Year made 19 tackles, two sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss, but his worth goes beyond stats. He has been tremendous in practices and terrific at occupying blockers in games to let everyone around him work, and now he should be the anchor of the front four.

All of a sudden, junior Auston English went from an afterthought who was supposed  to be part of the rotation, to one of the nation's best pass rushers coming up with 9.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss along with 38 tackles. More impressive is that he was able to come up with those numbers even though he missed the final three regular season games of the year after breaking his ankle against Texas A&M. The former high school running back was consistent and explosive, and he was able to come up big in the biggest games led by a huge performance in the first win over Missouri. At 6-3 and 257 pounds, he's big enough to handle himself against the run, but his real worth is as a regular in the backfield.

Somewhere in the end rotation will be Alan Davis, a 6-2, 253-pound senior who came from out of nowhere to make 23 tackles and 1.5 sacks in a part-time starting role. Originally a reserve end, he was moved to fullback as a sophomore before turning into a big help on the defensive side. He's an active player, but he has to use his safety-like speed to become a stronger pass rusher.

Projected Top Reserves: Is Jeremy Beal ready to be a full-time starter? The 6-4, 254-pound sophomore was a key reserve in the rotation over the first half of the season, and then he blew up late starting the final two games and making six tackles and a sack in the Big 12 Championship. Finishing with 21 tackles and a sack, he's just scratching the surface as a pass rusher and a disruptive force in the backfield.

The other starting defensive end job opposite English will be open for a while, but the hope will be for 6-5, 249-pound senior John Williams to be back healthy after getting knocked out for the year early on with a torn Achilles tendon. While he has yet to do much, even after starting the first three games of last year making seven tackles and a sack, he was growing into the role. On the plus side, he got a sixth year of eligibility after suffering a knee injury early in his career.

Part of the tackle rotation, while seeing a little time on the end, will be 6-2, 278-pound senior Cory Bennett, who started 12 times in 2006 and appeared to be on the verge of doing big things, but his playing time diminished as a junior starting twice and making 13 tackles. At his size he has the strength to play on the inside and enough quickness to do more as an end, but he needs to be more disruptive in the backfield.

Ready to take on a big role on the end is redshirt freshman Frank Alexander, a 6-5, 235-pound blur with freakish skills. Tremendously strong for his tall, lanky frame, he has the potential to be an all-around force with a little bit of time.
Watch Out For ... tackle to be an issue. While Granger will likely be a big part of the line, the legal issues could weigh just heavily enough to be a distraction. If he's not able to occupy one of the tackle spots, some serious depth will be needed next to McCoy.
Strength: End options. English is a sure-thing at one spot, but there are at least three other players ready to see steady, equal playing time. With redshirt freshmen like Alexander and Bumpus waiting to shine, there will be plenty of combination's used to get to the passer.
Weakness: Pressure. With all the newcomers in the linebacking corps and in the secondary, the line has to be special. While there's experience and depth, this might not be the type of be-all-end-all front four, in whatever combination the coaching staff comes up with, to win games by itself.
Outlook: This should be a very good line, as always, but can it be the scary-good group that owns opposing Big 12 offenses? It's possible if the tackle rotation gets set early and if Granger's legal issues are settled. Gerald McCoy is an All-American in waiting and end English will be a threat for double-digit sacks, so if the rest of the spots can be filled in around them, this will be yet another strong OU front wall.
Rating: 8


Projected Starters
So how will OU replace Curtis Lofton in the middle? Immensely talented and oft-injured Ryan Reynolds made 60 tackles, two sacks and eight tackles for loss, but he missed time with a neck injury after missing all of 2006 with an injured knee. The 6-1 and 237-pound junior got the call on the weakside after being considered early on for the spot in the middle, and now he'll likely take over in an attempt to replace Lofton's 156 stops and all-around playmaking ability. He has the speed and he has the toughness, but now he has to be able to stay healthy and put it all together for a full season.

If Reynolds stays in the middle, the time will be now for 6-3, 220-pound redshirt freshman Austin Box to take over on the weakside. The former high school quarterback has safety speed and loads of potential if he ends up in the middle at some point, but he's still going to be a work in progress after spending last year grooming for one of the outside jobs.

The strongside job will be open until opening day with 6-1, 210-pound junior Keenan Clayton likely getting the first look. A key special teamer and part time safety, he'll be moved to linebacker out of necessity after making 26 stops. He started twice as a freshman strong safety but didn't do enough against the pass. Now he needs to use his excellent speed to become a steady playmaker, but he has to prove he can hold up against the run.

Projected Top Reserves: Looking to take over a starting spot from day one is J.R. Bryant, a good JUCO transfer who brings much-needed size to the mix. At 6-3 and 230 pounds, and with good tackling ability, he's a natural for time on the strongside.

Battling with Bryant for one of the jobs will be Mike Balogun, a 6-2, 250-pound hitter who made 86 tackles for Lackawanna CC in Kansas last season. While he's mostly a run defender, he's expected to be a decent against the pass.
Watch Out For ... Bryant. This could be the least talented linebacking corps Bob Stoops has ever had to work with, but that doesn't necessarily count the newcomers. If Bryant is the player he's expected to be from the JUCO ranks, and if Reynolds can stay healthy, things should be fine.
Strength: Quickness. There are more than enough speedy players to turn loose, and on athleticism alone this group will produce some big plays. It might take a while, but the right combination could become fantastic once it's found. It just might take a while.
Weakness: Talent. The linebacking corps loses 247 tackles with Curtis Lofton and Lewis Baker gone, and now the corps is relying on Reynolds, who hasn't had any luck with injuries, to be a star to revolve the corps around. This is easily the team's biggest question mark going into the season.
Outlook: Last year's linebacking corps was long on talent and short on proven production, and then it turned into one of the team's major strengths. This year's situation is even more up in the air. With so many key personnel losses and so many newcomers needing to play big roles right away, this could be a problem. Reynolds has the talent to be a 100-tackle player if he can stay healthy, and while he'll find a spot somewhere in the lineup, the combination for the three spots will continue throughout the season with several players getting chances to grab a job. 
Rating: 7

Defensive Backs

Projected Starters
With several losses in the secondary, it's time for sophomore Dominique Franks to become a star. He saw a little bit of time as a reserve, and he got a start in the Fiesta Bowl with Reggie Smith hurt, but he was mostly a special teamer as a redshirt freshman finishing with five tackles. He has good size at 5-11 and 183 pounds, and he has the requisite speed and tremendous athleticism, but the pressure is on to be the next great OU corner. He has the talent to do it.

With Reggie Smith and Marcus Walker both gone,
Brian Jackson has a shot to step in an use his experience to be a steadying force on the outside. At a safety-sized 6-0 and 197 pounds, the junior, who was a key part of the rotation making 14 tackles and an interception, has to be more than a special teamer.

While the corners will be a problem, the safeties should be fine with Nic Harris and Lendy Holmes two of the team's better veteran defenders. Harris was an All-Big 12 performer who made 74 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and 9.5 tackles for loss, mostly at free safety, and now he'll take over D.J. Wolfe's spot at strong safety where he'll use his 6-3, 226-pound size to do more against the run. With his size and ability to play anywhere in the secondary, he has the potential to be the best OU defensive back pro prospect since Roy Williams, but this needs to be a standout senior year. It should be.

The 6-1, 196-pound Holmes has been a jack-of-all trades used as a reserve corner and a nickelback. After making 42 tackles and breaking up seven passes on the way to honorable mention All-Big 12 honors as a sophomore, he made 73 stops and three interceptions doing a little bit of everything. The former wide receiver has the speed to start at corner if needed, but he'll most likely move to free safety to allow Harris to make the move to strong safety.

Projected Top Reserves: 5-11, 176-pound sophomore Jonathan Nelson will get every chance to start right away, or at least be a big part of the rotation. He's a slight, thin player, but he can jump out of the stadium and has the skills to be a pure lockdown cover corner. He'll have to prove early on that he can make big plays when the ball is in the air.

Providing instant safety depth will be David Sims, a JUCO All-American who could be the team's fastest defensive back. A big hitter for his 5-11, 198-pound size, he made 70 tackles for Butte College in California and picked off six passes. A blur when he gets the ball in his hands, he could take his sub-4.4 speed and use it at free safety, corner or nickelback.

New to the mix will be Desmond Jackson, a speedy redshirt freshman free safety who has the potential to grow into a big-play defender. Very strong and very fast, the 5-11, 187-pounder will rotate where needed and could become a vital player in nickel and dime packages.

Watch Out For ... Sims. In a perfect world, Sims becomes an instant starter who owns a spot somewhere, preferably corner, even though he's a safety. OU has options to fill one corner spot with several different options, and can do worse than starting Franks on one side, but the ideal situation would be to put Holmes at safety, not corner, meaning a steady second option is needed.
Strength: Safety. Harris could be something special, and at the very least will be in for All-Big 12 honors. If Holmes is at free safety, the Sooners are set. If it's Sims or ackson, the secondary will still be fine.
Weakness: Corners. OU should eventually be good here, and Franks is going to be good, but losing Walker and Smith hurts. The corner depth needs time.
Outlook: Last year's secondary was a bit of a disappointment considering all the returning experience and talent. This year's group won't have nearly the same expectations, but it could be fine if the corner situation gets settled right away. Harris and Holmes are two good veterans to work around, and Franks will hold down one outside job, so now it's up to several players to fight it out for the other open corner spot. After allowing 228 yards per game and finishing 43rd in the nation in pass efficiency defense, there's still room for improvement.
Rating: 7.5

Special Teams

Projected Starters
Good luck replacing Garrett Hartley, who was only one of the nation's best placekickers for the last four years and hit 13 of 15 shots last season. Redshirt freshman Jimmy Stevens will get the first shot, and while he might not have the consistent blast Hartley had, he has the potential after setting the national high school record with 50 career field goals. Early on, he just has to prove he can hit inside 40 on a regular basis.

Senior punter Mike Knall is coming off a very nice year averaging 43.7 yards per punt after taking over the duties on a full-time basis. He has a very accurate leg putting nine of his 11 kicks inside the 20 as a sophomore, and six of his 24 kicks deep last year with a mere two touchbacks.

Top receiver Juaquin Iglesias is an elite kickoff returner averaging 28.5 yards per try, while RB DeMarco Murray averaged 29.3 yards per return with two touchdowns.

Dominique Franks
doesn't have to just replace Reggie Smith as the No. 1 corner, he also has to be a top punt returner after averaging 10.3 yards on 12 tries.
Watch Out For ... Knall. He didn't receive much in the way of Big 12 recognition, mostly because he split the duties with Michael Cohen, but he could be a weapon who helps the defense out early with his deep kicks.
Strength: Kickoff returns. OU led the nation in kickoff returns averaging 28.27 yards per try. Even if Murray isn't ready and if Iglesias spends all his time at receiver, there are several good prospects waiting in the wings.
Weakness: Punt returns. This hasn't been a major weak link, but it hasn't been anything special for the last few years. Smith just wasn't a dynamic punt returner. Franks could be an instant upgrade now that he has the full-time job.
Outlook: The punting will be great, the kickoff return team is among the best in America, and the coverage units are decent, but not as good as they probably should be. The key is the field goal kicking with Stevens and/or Matthew Moreland and/or Tress Way needing to replace all-timer Hartley, who hit 47 of 58 career field goals.
Rating: 7.5