The last two seasons it’s been no secret the Oklahoma Sooners have not lived up to their potential on the defensive side of the ball. After an excellent 2015 campaign in which the OU defense was ranked 5th in defensive efficiency, the standards and expectations for the program continued to rise. However 2016 and 2017 were very disappointing seasons on the defensive side of the football, as the Sooners finished well below the top 50 in defensive efficiency both seasons.
Rightfully so, Sooner fans nationwide want answers, and are fuming. 48 points should be enough to win a game they say, and I agree. Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops has understandably come under considerable fire in these last few seasons because of this, and while some criticism is warranted, the issues on the OU defense is not as simple as “Fire Mike Stoops” and everything gets better, and there are several reasons why.
Not about the play calling
First, when you turn on the tape from this season, the issue was very rarely scheme or play-call related. Sure, in every game, calls and decisions will be made that are incorrect on both sides, but it was not as if Mike Stoops simply had no understanding of the situations taking place in game. In fact, Oklahoma’s defense typically gained traction in games in the second half after adjustments; Kansas State, Texas Tech and the Oklahoma State games are a few examples of that.
In the Rose Bowl, often times players simply vacated their proper gap, which led to big runs, but the play was designed correctly to stop the play. You can see these examples several times through the season where OU defensive backs consistently lost every 50/50 ball they had while in good coverage. Coaching and play calling only get you so far, and in many instances the players have not held up to their end.
Injuries and dismissals
In the last two seasons, Oklahoma has had an unprecedented number of injuries and many to high-caliber recruits. The Sooners have had 10+ defensive players get injured both seasons. For any program, it’s difficult to win big when your best athletes aren’t available. Speaking of, from 2013-2016, Mike Stoops’ first recruiting class back, Oklahoma has brought in 17 defenders who were either 4 or 5-star prospects, and 13 of those prospects have either retired from football, been dismissed from the team or have missed significant time due to injury, suspension or even transfer. Remember highly-touted recruits like Parrish Cobb, Will Sunderland, Michiah Quick, and Hatari Byrd? Just a few examples of guys all gone from the team.
This makes it extraordinarily tough on a coaching staff, which has, in fairness, turned some 3-star talent into studs in recent years. Examples include Charles Walker (quit the team), Tay Evans (retired due to concussions), Obo Okoronkwo, Jordan Evans, and Jordan Thomas (though he really had a tough senior season).
Oklahoma has also relied heavily on young talent as well. There were games this season when the Sooners started four true freshmen, three true sophomores and a redshirt sophomore (TCU the first time). Many of these players show a ton of potential, but you can’t teach experience or maturity. In the Rose Bowl, true freshman MLB Kenneth Murray, on several occasions, did not fill his gap properly which led to big runs. Also, sophomore corner Parnell Motley used improper technique vs. a pass in the air and true freshman CB Tre Norwood made some of those same errors. I can keep going, but you get the point. The truth is very few teams could overcome some of the unexpected issues the Sooners have faced at a nearly unprecedented rate the past two seasons.
Coaching changes (tweaks)
This is not to say that Mike Stoops doesn’t deserve any blame at all. His uncertainty about running a three or four-man front has certainly hurt the Sooners on the defensive line, until these previous two recruiting classes. Of course, for Big 12 teams, being multiple is extremely important, but you must have the proper personnel to do it, and they haven’t had that consistently enough.
Another odd deal is that Mike Stoops, is coaching the linebackers, when he traditionally coaches the defensive backs. In the two seasons since he has discontinued coaching the defensive backs in place of linebackers, the pass defense has dropped from top 35 in three of four seasons to 80th or worse in the previous two seasons. Since leaving the defensive backs to Kerry Cooks, corners haven’t looked back for the ball. They also seem passive in 50/50 situations. What’s weird is that Stoops’ defensive backs are normally aggressive, in your face, and create turnovers, something the Sooners haven’t done well enough since Cooks took over the secondary.
With the new staff slot coming open due to NCAA rule, I would like to see Mike move to the secondary with Cooks, and for the Lincoln Riley to bring in a more suited linebacker coach to assist Tim Kish. Doing this would put two position coaches at every level of the defense, and that can be a huge advantage when you are in such an offensive minded league.
In conclusion, before you scream “Fire Mike Stoops!”, keep in mind you felt the same way about Coach Venables, who has gone on to have incredible success at Clemson. Mike Stoops is a capable coach whose resume speaks for itself. While he does deserve to take ownership for a lot of the defense’s shortcomings, context is important. When you are giving away a top 5 recruiting class worth of talent to transfers, injuries, retirements, and dismissals, it’s hard to succeed. I expect things to be much better in 2018.
But if they aren’t, Mike Stoops will certainly face scrutiny once again. Except next year, it will be more well deserved.