Sooners secondary changes players, not system

Saturday, August 13th 2005, 5:32 pm
By: News On 6

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) _ Matt Leinart disassembled Oklahoma's secondary with a record-breaking performance in the Orange Bowl. The Sooners plan to rebuild it with an infusion of talent and a renewed focus on proper technique.

The Sooners gave up five Leinart touchdown passes during a 55-19 Orange Bowl defeat in January. The Southern California quarterback made it look easy at times, and afterward Oklahoma cornerback Marcus Walker said he was surprised at how accurate the Heisman Trophy winner proved to be.

Walker, a sophomore, is the only returning starter from the Orange Bowl secondary. He'll be joined this year by a crop of newcomers that includes converted linebacker, a former running back and the state's top high-school recruit.

The group also has a new coach in Bobby Jack Wright, who switched from defensive ends to the secondary after co-defensive coordinator Bo Pelini left for LSU.

What isn't changing is Oklahoma's defensive philosophy.

``The bottom line is I felt what we were in proved in a lot of games to be very successful,'' Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said ``In some games, we gave up some big plays, not so much because of the scheme.''

Instead, Stoops blames a lack of technique _ including the failure to stay deep enough and make plays on the ball _ for the Orange Bowl debacle. He also points out that the Sooners' five turnovers didn't help.

``It doesn't matter structurally if we line up in something different and we don't do those things, we're still going to give up big plays,'' Stoops said. ``It gets down to having a little more discipline on technique.''

Largely, it'll be up to a new group of defenders to improve Oklahoma's secondary. Lewis Baker dropped back to safety from linebacker in the spring, and D.J. Wolfe made the move from tailback to cornerback.

Walker figures to start at one corner, but there are several options on the other side. Senior Eric Bassey has the most experience, but he was unseated by Walker during his freshman season last year. Chijioke Onyenegecha came in as a highly touted junior college transfer last year, but has yet to develop into the player Oklahoma hoped for him to be.

Reggie Smith, a freshman from Edmond Santa Fe High School, has been used both at safety and at cornerback after arriving for fall practice.

``Reggie's a really talented guy,'' Stoops said. ``I've never been around a guy that's as natural at both positions. We're just trying to figure out what's best for he and the team. We'll see. We'll keep experimenting with him.

``I think it's safe to say that he's going to play. We've just got to figure out the best spot.''

Some of that will depend on which newcomers develop the quickest, and where Oklahoma is left needing help.

Safety Darien Williams, listed atop the Sooners' depth chart at free safety, said the other players don't mind the freshman jumping in and claiming such a prominent role.

``I think that makes us better,'' said Williams, who played safety in high school, then moved to cornerback at Oklahoma before returning to his original position. ``Reggie had been playing corner and he'd been doing pretty good. That just makes him a better athlete when he can be versatile. That's something I had to do. I think that just makes you a better player when you can do more than one thing.''

For Baker and Wolfe, the new positions are coming more naturally now after a spring of learning and making mistakes.

``I'm not out there thinking as much,'' Baker said. ``I can just line up and go full speed.''

Williams said the secondary is trying to become more aggressive, but also smarter. With more time practicing together, the defenders find it easier to work with one another.

``We're more comfortable, so that gives you a chance to be more aggressive,'' Williams said. ``With those safeties coming down, we're more aggressive because we trust in our secondary. We trust in what we're doing.''