What Mike Stoops is up to

(Bumped From Fan Posts)
As someone with a vested interest in the success of the Oklahoma football team I've been interested to understand what M. Stoops has in mind to "fix" the Oklahoma defense.

Earlier this offseason this board urged me to examine the 2011 play of Aaron Colvin, which I did, and I was surprised to find one of the league's better defensive backs hidden in a back 7 that was more commonly known for giving up big plays.

You all know the basics of what M. Stoops has been up to from his position changes and coachspeak. I've decided to help unpack his minimalistcomments and the media's misunderstanding of what they mean to understand how OU's defensive approach will change in 2012.

I figure you guys are probably more interested than my fellow Longhorn fans. At least until October.

Let's review the basic adjustments Stoops has made from what Venables was doing:

1). Moved star nickelback Tony Jefferson to Free Safety

2). Moved embattled Free Safety Javon Harris to Strong Safety

3). Moved embattled corner Gabe Lynn and Julian Wilson to nickelback

4). Settled emerging star Corey Nelson at weakside linebacker

5). Moved emerging star strong safety Aaron Colvin to cornerback

What does all that mean? Changing priorities? Mixed with these general position changes has been the news that Stoops is going to protect Harris from deep assignments, play corners at nickelback, and this has been interpreted by media commentators operating with understandings of football fashioned by league play 10 years ago as an announcement that Harris is going to play "up on the line like a classic strong safety."

That may be true against Texas when we roll out 2-back formations and try and run it down your throat but for the most part no one playing safety at Oklahoma is going to be aligned in the box next year.

This clinic by Mike Stoops while at Arizona is an excellent primer for how his approach has changed to match modern spread offenses, of which he saw plenty in the Pac 10. I'll parse it for you to understand how these affected positions will be utilized in the 2012 OU defense and understand what Stoops is going for in the secondary.

Let me start by pointing out that Venables starting using corners to man his strong safety position in 2009 after Nic Harris and Lendy Holmes graduated. This allowed, in theory, Oklahoma to use Stoops' version of Cover-3 that he's been using since he was at Kansas St. It's an aggressive pattern-matching coverage that basically becomes Cover-1 with a deep safety.

The problems were that Harris was that deep safety, and he wasn't very good at it, and also that manning up teams like Oklahoma State with only 1 deep safety is a very difficult thing to accomplish. OSU's first TD drive came because of a 70 yard (more or less) pass play on a crossing route to Cooper that was defended by Ibiloye. By moving Jefferson back to FS for that game, OU was left with Ibiloye trying to play catch-man coverage on OSU's slot receivers with only 1 deep safety to back him up.

With Jefferson and Harris manning the safety positions and NB, FCB, and BCB all manned by strong coverage guys it's possible that you could run a more effective version of the Stoops Cover-3, but I don't think that'll be Stoops' main coverage.

Instead, expect to see him keep both safeties back in either his Palms coverage (a self-correcting Cover-2/Quarters hybrid that you already use) or in Cover-2 Man.

Now, assuming a base defense in 4-3 with nickel personnel and palms coverage this is what your team looks like:

DL: Play your gaps, get to the QB.

Weakside linebacker: Extra man on the edge vs. the QB on option plays, carry receiver #2 to the Free Safety without letting him get up the seam unmolested, clean up vs. the run.

Corey Nelson should be fine here. He has the athleticism to stay on the field on every down (even if he wasn't a brilliant pass-rusher). The trick will be understanding how to fill the right gaps against the run. I'm sure he'll get there.

Middle Linebacker: Fill interior run gaps, defend receiver #3, play the edge against a 3x1 receiver formation.

Wort is a good fit here. You might like a more physical guy inside against the run but his pass coverage is strong and he's not a sieve up the middle. Plus he's a very capable blitzer and fast in pursuit.

Nickelback: Help fill the gaps against the run, play the edge, man up the slot receiver.

I don't know much about Gabe Lynn but Jefferson was perfect here. You need this guy to be able to fill inside against the run or play coverage against a slot receiver and not be embarrased in either assignment. Given the healthy amount of blitzes in your defense it'd be nice if he has some abilities there as well. If he can fill against the run I think there's some overlap in the skillset.

Strong Safety: Support player.

When you hear Stoops say that he'll avoid putting Harris in bad spots with deep coverage I think he's talking about Free Safety roles in this defense that involve run-support/deep responsibility dilemnas, or playing centerfield by his lonesome. You can't play safety in the Big 12 and not have deep coverage responsibilities.

But, Javon Harris will be able to play over the top of things and make plays coming downhill. If he's as intelligent about it, maybe he can mimic what Nic Harris offered.

Free Safety: Extra man against the run in spread formations, deep 1/2 safety, support.

There will be times when Jefferson is expected to fill inside against the run AND help over the top against an inside receiver. If you have someone awesome here they'll have opportunities to make plays all over the field in deep coverage or against the run but if you have someone with slow hips or weak understanding you can get in trouble in a hurry. Hence Harris' move.

Corners: These guys will have to play on islands down the sidelines at times, there's not really another way to do it against the spread passing game without leaving the middle of the field open to inside receivers or the running game. You need some really trustworthy corners. Hurst and Colvin should be amongst the top 3 or so in the conference.

To summarize: Stoops is trying to field a defense with underneath defenders that can match the athleticism and challenges that a spread passing/screen/running game presents and pair them with safeties that are more freed up to play downhill in support.

I think the base OU defense will be much more sound against spread offenses, which is the goal here. What could get you into trouble is if you cannot get a consistent pass-rush from your front 4 and have to overdo the blitzing. I'm betting Washington has a strong year but I'm curious if you get much push from King or the tackles, they strike me as more of a run-stuffing group.

Venables' 3-4 was really good for getting pressure and unleashing Nelson but I think Stoops will want to minimize how much this defense has to master in terms of run-fits and techniques in the front. Your blitzes will still be really strong, but you can only leave guys like Javon Harris back there alone so many times before something bad happens.

Worst of luck.

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