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Oklahoma Sooners Football: The Sudden Emergence of Will Sunderland

As the defensive injuries piled up early in Dallas, some unfamiliar names stepped up to shine on the big stage, led by sophomore safety Will Sunderland.

NCAA Football: Texas at Oklahoma Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

During the preseason, I wrote about freshmen Parrish Cobb and Parnell Motley earning an early chance for playing time in a young but potentially deep Sooner secondary. While the former certainly got his shot and struggled through growing pains against quality out-of-conference competition, the expected depth in what was to be one of the strengths of the Oklahoma defense has taken quite the hit heading into mid-October. The injury suffered by Cobb against Ohio State opened the gates for a flood of defenders to follow, thereby complicating Mike Stoops’ life even further.

Starters Michiah Quick and Ahmad Thomas, as well as rotational safety/nickelback Kahlil Haughton, entered the Texas game hoping to make an impact against their archrivals but unfortunately were soon forced to make quick exits, thrusting sophomore Will Sunderland and freshmen Jordan Parker and Chanse Sylvie into the biggest moment of their college careers — stopping a high-octane Longhorn passing attack in the Red River Showdown. Despite surrendering a few deep plays downfield and 40 points on the afternoon, Sooner fans should be encouraged by the emergence of the youthful reinforcements in the defensive backfield.

For most of the game, OU was able to shut down the Texas offense, especially the run, but the secondary was tested play in and play out — including and especially future NFL draft pick Jordan Thomas. But plays made throughout the game by Sunderland and the freshmen were key to interrupting the second-half Longhorn momentum and gave the offense the boost needed to extend the lead. The talented Midwest City prospect couldn’t have picked a better time for his biggest play. After Joe Mixon’s baffling muffed punt and Texas subsequently threatening OU’s fragile eight-point lead, Sunderland pulled off an impressive and crucial third-quarter interception to set up a mammoth 93-yard, clock-eating drive that led to Samaje Perine’s second touchdown and powered Oklahoma to an ultimately insurmountable 15-point lead over their Red River rivals.

In his biggest moment so far, Sunderland’s big plays sparked some hefty praise from Mike Stoops, who told the OU Daily the game-changing interception evoked shades of another former defensive playmaker:

“It was a little bit reminiscent of Zach Sanchez’s interception against Tennessee,” Stoops said. “That was really the first thing I thought of. I thought that put us in a good position.”

While Sunderland’s pick on Shane Buechele might be a bit hyperbolic compared to Sanchez’s overtime grab in Knoxville last season, it may hint at a clutch gene to complement the young safety’s growing familiarity — and likely playing time — in OU’s defensive scheme. Dean Blevins, during Bob’s presser on Monday, echoed that some around the program expected Sunderland, who saw limited action as a freshman, to be a bigger part of the mix by now. But his performance against Texas suggests he may just be a late bloomer who found the right time to excel when the lights (or sunshine) are brightest. If he can keep the focus and preparation high regardless of the opponent, the young ball hawk could be a surprising key piece moving forward.

As Mike Stoops continues to look for playmakers to step up in the face of mounting injuries and thinning depth, Sunderland certainly possesses the size, versatility and athleticism to make plays all over the field, which he showed throughout last Saturday afternoon. Aside from picking off a quality quarterback, Sunderland also finished fourth on the team in tackles with eight against Texas, behind only seasoned linebackers Obo Okoronkwo, Jordan Evans and Emmanuel Beal. As Stephen Parker became the de facto leader at safety after co-captain Ahmad Thomas’ went down, Sunderland became the unit’s chief playmaker.

Sunderland wasn’t the only backup to make an impact last weekend in Dallas. Freshman safety Chanse Sylvie from Shreveport, Louisiana, also contributed when called on to step up for the missing Thomas and Haughton. And fellow freshman, cornerback Jordan Parker, a highly touted California product, flashed great potential and poise as well while filling in admirably for starter Michiah Quick. With the disheartening news that Quick could miss up to six weeks with a sprained MCL, the young Parker has emerged as a much-needed option opposite Jordan Thomas.

The recent push from Mike Stoops to dial up more blitzes and amp up the pass rush has undoubtedly helped the play and development of the secondary. While Kansas State likely won’t display the same downfield pyrotechnics like we saw from Texas in the Cotton Bowl, the upcoming game in Norman provides the youngsters with valuable playing time to build more confidence and comfort before being back under fire against air raiders Texas Tech, Baylor, West Virginia and Oklahoma State later in the season. Coach Stoops expects Ahmad Thomas to be back this Saturday, but gave no word yet on when we can expect to see Cobb or Haughton back on the field. If the Sooners are to navigate through and win the pass-happy Big 12, it will be due in some (possibly large) part to their young defensive backs continuing to deliver promising results and making a powerful impact in big moments.